Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 4 July 2009

Passing the time of day

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His shop was empty. There was no waiting. The barber delightedly welcomed me into his chair. Was I Iooking forward to the start of the new football season? Who did I support? Was it them over there? (He pointed with his head to the football stadium just across the road.) He was a Manchester United supporter, he said proudly, running the clippers up the sides of my head. Everybody at home in Mauritius supported the Red Devils: his brothers and sisters, his father, his grandfather, his uncles.

He was a chatterbox. I was glad: I hadn’t spoken to a soul all day. But on hearing he was a Manchester United supporter, I immediately lost confidence in his intelligence.

Conscious, perhaps, of his fall from grace he changed the subject and asked me how business was. He’d never known things this bad. But he counted himself lucky. At least he was still working. Some of his customers had lost their businesses and their homes. They’d come in and sit in his chair looking 10, 20 years older. One customer came in for a trim after an absence of several months and his hair had fallen out. He’d had a lovely head of hair, said the barber. Very thick on top. Bushy. Then here he was with this big shining bald patch. Stress, he said. It does strange things to people.

I emerged from Beau Locks with the most ludicrous haircut since I woke up in hospital with bits of broken windscreen in my scalp and a nurse shaved the front of my head to get at them more easily with the tweezers. The back and sides were shorn and the top was en bouffant. I looked like a Bedlington terrier.

I went to the café next door, bought a coffee at the counter and took it outside, where two tables and three chairs were set out on the pavement. The view was a busy main road, a bus stop, a melancholy queue, an ornate Victorian pub, a football stadium. The buses going past were standing room only. The local population, if the people walking past were anything to go by, was 60 per cent Asian, 30 per cent Afro-Caribbean, 10 per cent white British.

At the other table were two elderly white men: one Irish, one English. The Englishman was reading about MPs’ expenses in the Sun newspaper. His face was deathly white and he was wearing bedroom slippers. ‘What a f***ing shambles, Sean,’ said the Englishman, suddenly lowering his tabloid. The pages trembled in his hands. ‘Who do they think they represent, apart from themselves. Not one of them has ever done a day’s work in their life.’

With a 500-year-long ancestral memory of being held in contempt by English political elites, Sean wasn’t going to start getting unduly upset about similar matters now. Much better to sit back and enjoy the edifying spectacle of an Englishman’s surprise at finding himself disenfranchised. ‘Oh, it’s the end of the world for sure, Alf,’ he said happily.

Alf then read out the latest unemployment statistics. ‘It’s the kids I feel sorry for,’ he said. ‘What are kids supposed to do if there’s no work?’ Sean considered for a moment, but could offer nothing except sympathy and a covert wink in my direction. ‘I agree, Alf. It must be hugely demoralising for a young man to feel his country has no use for him or his talents.’

Two police cars and an ambulance, sirens blaring, converged at disorderly angles at the traffic lights 50 yards away. An ‘incident’ of some kind seemed to be in progress. We leaned forward in our seats. ‘What happened?’ said Alf. ‘A suicide, I expect,’ said Sean.

And then from the other direction came the unmistakeable noise of thousands of people celebrating in the streets. The voice of the crowd strengthened to a triumphant, masculine roar, like that of a football crowd. Fireworks exploded. Car horns blared. The explanation for the tumult was supplied by a man driving past beating out a tattoo on his horn and swirling the national flag of Pakistan out of the window. Clearly, Pakistan had just won the cricket 20–20 World Cup.

‘Well, it’s good to see that somebody’s feeling positive,’ said Sean, rising from his seat. ‘I expect you’ll be itching to get up there yourself, Alf, and join in with the celebrations. Cheerio now. I might see you tomorrow.’

Out of every other car now, someone was displaying a Pakistan national flag. I stood up, drained the last of my coffee, and walked away also. As I waited to cross the road I looked back. Alf was staring dejectedly between his knees at his slippers.