Written by J. P. Cross
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One grey Monday morning in November, I'm travelling by my usual train to Birmingham, where I earn my living. I'm looking at the rubbish deposited at regular intervals, along the track-side and thinking my own depressing Monday morning thoughts, when a stout middle-aged man, his chins wobbling, flops down breathlessly beside me. He is wearing a loud sports jacket and a benign expression; he reaches forward and places a parcel at his feet, his eyes giving me a quick inspection in the process. He has talkative type written all over him.
He leans back, smiles pleasantly and says. 'Nearly missed it,'
I manage a half smile and mentally bring down the drawbridge, intending a speedy return to my brown study, where, in my own melancholy way, I'm quite contented.
He pauses long enough to get his breath back. Then. 'You regular?' he says.
Now I can assure you that I'm accustomed to meeting all types on this journey. Some of them are reserved, some are flamboyant, some are sane, and some shouldn't be allowed out alone, but nobody, no matter how strange, has ever discussed my bowel movements so I assume he's referring to my presence on the train. His eyes bore into mine expectantly, forcing me to answer.
'Unfortunately, yes.' I try to spice my reply with a little contempt.
I'm wasting my time. The irony misses it's mark, He is now staring straight ahead and I conclude that he hasn't even heard me because he is metaphorically busy "setting out his stall". I turn back to the window in the vain hope that I might be wrong.
'This is just a one off for me. Car wouldn't start." He says.
I turn my head toward him again, as I get ready to switch to half listening mode, thinking. "Here we go".
'Travel all over the country I do, cars a must in my job. What do you do then?'
The emphasis is on the "you", and again he gives me the expectant gimlet stare.
'I work for the RSPCA.' I mumble. I do hate telling strangers my business, but I needn't have worried because that was that's the last thing I have chance to say all the way to New Street. He is speaking for both of us.
'Ha,' he starts off wistfully, 'very rewarding work that, eh? Doing your bit for our dumb friends? I love animals myself, always have. I give generously to a number of charities but I make a special effort for the RSPCA collections. I was brought up that way. My old man, "Lord rest his soul", always taught us, "Tis better to give than to receive", and in my experience he was right you know? "Cast your bread upon the waters", eh? It's never done me any harm.'
Once again I open my mouth to reply, but my attempted input is surplus to requirements.
'I've always been the same, and if everybody was like me the world would be a better place to live in, I'll tell you.' He nods his head a few times as if agreeing with himself, before pressing on.
'I'll let you in on a little secret,' He looks around as if to see if he is being overheard then says sotto voice. 'I'm performing a public service right now, as it happens.' He raises his eyebrows slightly: nods his head and his face assumes a caring expression.
I try politely to look impressed for his sake. Thinking "sanctimonious Pratt"
'You'll never guess what's in that box,' he points to the shoebox-sized brown paper parcel at his feet turns, and whispers from the corner of his mouth.
'Eighty thousand Quid in there friend, believe it or not.'
I try to look suitably staggered, but not staggered enough apparently, for no longer whispering he says.
'You don't believe me do you, eh?' He stares at me again.
'Oh no, I've met one of the mentally challenged,' I think to myself with dread, my eyes searching for the Guard. I try to say I do believe him, but my throat is suddenly too dry to speak.
'I'll explain,' he says. His stall is set out now, and he's in business. This is his unusual story.
* * *
'I've always hated going to the barbers. He starts off. There are lots of reasons for this, some going back to when I was a kid. I think the main reason though, is the waiting. Whenever I pop my head in the door of my nearest scalporium there are usually, at least half-a-dozen, bored looking blokes ensconced on the hard plastic chairs, staring vacantly at the wall as if prepared for a long stay. Now! With me one bloke waiting is ok, two dodgy, but three or more and I'm off , I decide to leave it for another day, and return to the world of the living.
I've always had this thing about queues see. I can't stand queuing at any time. Do you know? Without a word of a lie. I'll travel five miles out of my way to avoid a queue of traffic. I try to convince myself that it might clear in five minutes, but its no use, I simply can't wait to find out. I'm off down a side road or heading in the opposite direction prepared to go via, Timbuktu or the even the Kyber Pass, if necessary, its all the same to me chum, as long as I'm on the move.
Shops and superstores affect me in the same way. If there are
longish queues at the checkouts in one town, I'll move on to the
next town, rather than wait. Sometimes I travel miles out of my
way. It's barmy, I know, but that's the way I'm made see, I'm
not recommending it or even defending it. I've always been the
same. I can't change I've tried. My wife goes crazy about it sometimes,
which is understandable, I suppose.' He eased his ample behind
into a more comfortable position before continuing.
'Anyway. On the very rare occasion I've forced myself to wait at my local emporium, as they call em nowadays, I've sat there bored out of my mind, looking at the wall, the posters advertising hair restorer. Pipes, combs, and the usual barbers shop merchandise which, as a pastime is riveting compared to reading the local Newsletter or the much handled old copies of Motorcar or Home and Garden magazine, which are spread about the place and all of which are months out of date. You ask me, why don't I take my own newspaper, a crossword, or a book. He didn't bother to look at, me but answered his own question, always go on spec. See. Spur of the moment like. It depends how many are waiting as I've already explained.
Anyhow, let's say you've done the waiting. There's still the physical discomfort and the mental strain to come. For example, there's the irritation of having hair clippings fall down the back your shirt collar, and work their way down your back, although this isn't quite so bad as it used to be, as nowadays they stuff a piece of tissue round the inside of your collar, which does prevent some of the itchiness at least, don't you think?
At this point in his story I feel I should explain the reasons why I didn't answer any of his questions. Well! First. I could tell they where just rhetorical, as he didn't bother to look at me anymore. Second. He didn't give me time, and third he was so carried away with his own account that, if I had answered, he would probably have been totally surprised, and said. Who are you? Or words to that effect. You know what I'm trying to say; you've met em.
Right, having cleared that up, back to his story.
He continued to gaze into the distance and went on.
'Then there's that other business, you know, despite giving precisely the same instructions each time the results still vary considerably between short and very short. I'm ashamed to admit though that when the mirror is held behind my head, just like all the other sheep, I keep my true thoughts to myself, smile politely, nod and say "fine, yes fine," impatient to be released from my shroud and escape for another two or three months.
This last one gets me every time though. When I'm handed my change, I always feel that they look at me challengingly. As if to say, "your not going to take it are you? You ungrateful bugger. After I've asked about your Holidays, shared my views on the Football League, and the state of the Country, just like a friend? How mean can you get? You should be ashamed."
Now, I'm always determined to win this battle of wills, and I never give a tip on principle. After all, who else gets tips nowadays for just doing his job, and not to competently at that, but, despite being convinced I'm right, I'm still uncomfortable about the encounter each time and relieved when I'm out of the Shop.
Once I'm home, and have run the gauntlet of the usual inanities such as. "Scalped again". "You look like a convict". " When are you going back to have it finished"? "How much did he pay you"? Etc, from my nearest and dearest. I head straight for the bathroom to shower away the irritating bits, wash my hair, and try to arrange it in a style, which will make me look less of a Berk. I'm sure most men would understand, and empathise with me on the matter. Its all too much angst, you see?'
I opened my mouth here, to dutifully empathise, but there was no need he pressed on regardless.
'To overcome this pet hate of mine, I usually try to kill two birds with one stone. When I'm out and about on business and my hair is starting to grow over my shirt collar once more, you know, like an out of work Parson's, as they used say, or was it a musician? Anyway. If I happen to pass a barber's shop that has a vacant chair, I'm in there like a shot.' He points his finger toward his ample form. 'Now, I've got what I once heard described as an Hotel Face, in other words some times complete strangers start talking to me, convinced they've known me for ages.' He smiled and shook his head. 'Once a man in a pub mistook me for the bloke, who was at that time, the England goalkeeper, and asked for my autograph, or rather his, I should say. This bloke wouldn't accept my explanation. We nearly came to blows, He called me a stuck up bugger and a big head, and then he started on my parentage. Phew. I signed in the end just to get rid of him. He chuckled.
Anyway, yesterday, after a good deal of effort on my part, I'd finally managed to gain a meeting with the MD of a company based in Wolverhampton which promised to be a very lucrative prospect. My appointment was for four-o-clock, but as it was only just after three when I arrived, I had some time to spare. On the way, as luck would have it, I had happened to spot the old striped pole amongst a row of shops, so I went back to try my luck. There was an empty parking space in front of the shop, and when I looked through the shop window, I was quite chuffed to find, that all the chairs were vacant. "Marvellous", I thought. I pushed the door open, and was barely inside when a man came in through a rear entrance. He said 'Hello Garry. I'm glad your early, I've been waiting to go out mate, The wife's just been taken to hospital, she's started two weeks early. I must dash. He went over to the door I'd just entered and bolted it. 'Right!' Don't want any interruptions do we?
I tried to object, 'I'm not Gar...'
He wasn't listening. He went out through the rear, and a minute later before I had time think, came back and shoved that parcel into my hands. 'Eighty Thou. In there,' he said, in twenties, 'ask Chalky if they can supply more next time.' With that, he unbolted the street door again, and despite my attempts to protest, bundled me out of the shop saying. " I'm sorry I haven't got time to chat, I'll call you later Gaz. Bye". He quickly shut the door: bolted it, and disappeared through the rear of the shop without a backward glance.
All in all it took about Fifteen Seconds. As soon as my wits returned I started banging on the door. The only response I got, was the sound of a car engine starting up, at the back of the shops. Then the car emerged out of a side road, driven by the barber; it paused briefly at the slow sign, turned right, and then shot away down the main road like a bat out of hell.
I was at a total loss. Surely the man wouldn't be paying for anything legitimate in this manner. Was I mixed up with a gang of crooks and the money was some kind of pay off? I stood there with the parcel in my hands for five or ten minutes trying to decide what best to do. The predominant thought in my mind was to go to the police, but that would mean missing my hard won appointment, I then reasoned, there was no immediate panic. First, I knew the address of the shop, it wouldn't be going anywhere, and second, the barber, I assumed, really was going to see his wife, so he would be otherwise engaged for a while. On the other hand. I thought. "Say if they discover the money had gone to the wrong person, decide the game's up, and do a bunk"?
Eventually, I went and sat in the car for a while to decide my next move. In no time another car screeched to a stop behind me, and two men got out obviously in a hurry. They dashed up to the shop and started frantically rapping on the door. Apart from the fact he constantly kept darting glances in all directions the one man looked quite ordinary: a bit like me in fact, but the other one was built like a tank. He stood at least six feet six inches tall, his head was shaved, and he had at least six earrings in each ear: his thick neck was tattooed with Swastika's, and he looked distinctly and utterly mean. I didn't relish the idea of mixing with these two so I casually drove away; left them to it, and went to meet my prospective client. When I got to his office, I locked the parcel in the boot of the car, as if it would go away if I ignored it.
When I arrived home that evening, the first thing I did was tell my wife what had happened. It was one big mistake. She went Ape.
It was entirely my fault for being impatient, going to strange barbers, I should have gone straight to the police with the parcel, and not brought it home, her nerves wouldn't stand it. etc.etc.etc. I phoned the police and it took me half an hour trying to explain who I was and what had happened. So at the finish I said I'd call round this morni...' suddenly he jerked his head round and peered at the platform to his left. Hang on a minute.' We were just pulling into New Street station. When he turned back to face me he looked scared. 'I'm sure I just saw that big character I told you about,' he pointed, 'somewhere there on the platform. He could have seen me drive away from the shop and followed me. Bloody hell. If I'm carrying that parcel it will be a dead give-away. Look, do the honours chum please; he's never seen you, so you'll be safe enough. I've got to go.' In a flash he's out of his seat and standing ahead of the crush by the door, peering this way and that, up and down the platform, he's left his parcel on the floor. I slide from my seat and make towards him, but I've taken three steps before the door opens and he's away. The last I see of him, he's disappearing through the station exit, completely unmolested.
* * *
"Well. What shall I do?" I think to myself. "I can just walk away and say nothing, but then I'll never know if he was telling me the truth or not. Or I can pick up the parcel". I argue with myself for a minute or so, but curiosity finally wins. I badly want to see what the parcel contains and so without further ado, I go back my seat: pick up the parcel, and ten minutes later, I've arrived safely at the Office with it tucked under my arm. Only stopping to remove my overcoat, I collect a pair of scissors from my desk; take them together with the parcel to the toilet, and lock myself in a cubicle. Seated on the toilet lid I examine the surface of the brown wrapping paper. Sure enough, written in biro by my talkative companion, I assume, is a name and Bushbury address. Even then I still have difficulty taking the whole thing seriously and, not considering for a minute that the contents are dangerous, I proceed to cut the string with the scissors. I fully expect to find a few stones or a brick inside to give it weight with a note saying. Congratulations! You have been taken in by a member of the Practical Jokers Club of Great Britain, or something similar, but when I take hold of the outer wrapping and fold it back, I'm astounded. Gobsmacked.
The package really is filled with twenty-pound bank notes;
I nearly fall down the loo. He must have been telling the truth
after all. "Ah. Hang on though", it might be counterfeit?"
I decide to reserve judgment until I have checked. After transferring
one of the notes to my wallet, I reseal the parcel: return to
the office, and put in the deep draw of my desk. During the morning
I pop out to the nearest bank with the twenty-pound note and have
it checked. I tell them I think it looks suspicious. They give
it the once over and it's the real Mcoy alright. Anyway, to cut
a long story short. I take the parcel home with me and after a
lot of deliberation, I conclude that the money is obviously an
illegal payoff. Therefore, legally the money belongs to nobody,
as it had been earned illegally, so to speak, and as its totally
random recipient, it can never be traced to me. A quotation by
somebody called W. S. I once read on one of those quote a day
calendars springs to mind. "There's a Tide in the affairs
of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune ". Etc.
What I should do is obvious. I ring the police anonymously giving
them the name and address written on the parcel and telling them
that I have bought some counterweight goods from there; I omit
to mention the money. I give a generous donation to the RSPCA'
and resign a week later, with a plan for making use of the rest
of the money. The resulting court case is reported some time later
on the national news, The police apparently raid the shop after
a tip off and find a small fortune in contraband stored in the
back, the gang to which the barber belongs, are all convicted
and sent down for selling counterfeit good's as the genuine article.
Watches, cameras, designer clothes. You name it, they sell it.
They may still be locked away for all I care.
Me? I never look back. I start in a small way with one shop, which the money pays for, and in five years I have a chain of them. You might have seen one in your town. They're called "THE BARBERS". Easy to remember, nothing fancy. No gimmicks. What is the secret of my success? You ask. Why, please the customer of course. For example. For the same price you pay anywhere else, I provide an appointment system, just ring us up or call and fix a convenient time, no waiting in the shop for more than five minutes, guaranteed.
Hairs down the back? Not in my shop, we use miniature vacuum cleaners to make sure they're all removed.
Furthermore, all members of my staff are trained to be conservative with the clippers. You don't leave my shops looking like a convict, unless you want to of course. My customers are more likely to ask us to make it a bit shorter when they are shown the back
Oh, and we take photographs of our regular customers styles, so we can repeat the same cut each time
Finally all my shops have notices in plain view saying, "NO TIPPING ALLOWED". It goes like a bomb everybody loves it. I'm opening two more shops next month.
I have one regret though, So far I'm unable to show my appreciation, to the man who was my much-maligned companion on that fateful train journey. I cherish the hope that one day, he will show up at one of my shops when I'm around, and I can at the very least, guarantee him free haircuts for life. After all. "One good turn", they say', "Deserves another".
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