The guy I will come to call hedge-head sits upright in the barber's chair [an office swivel chair downgraded to be a barber-shop chair, by pulling out some of its stuffing and tearing away some of its cover fabric so it hangs, then running dirt and sprinkling left-over hair strands all over it. Or maybe just an old office chair]. When I come in, it looks like he is staring into the one of the mirrors directly opposite him [there are mirrors all around one side of the room, attached to the wall]. Then I come closer and see: his eyes are closed. He is barely breathing, his chest riiiiisiiiiing and faaaalliiiiing slooooowly, his hands resting on his lap, as if he is asleep sitting up. And over him the barber hovers with a pair of small scissors, snipping away at his hair. His hair is trimmed at the edges, strictly and with great economy, like a hedge attended to by a master gardener who has retired and is working on this last hedge as his masterpiece, the one all gardeners in the future will remember him by. Look at most people's heads and it is immediately evident that the head is the one in charge, the hair knows it is expendable and largely unimportant in the greater scheme of things, compared to the head. But not his hair: it is thick and dark, and occupies a larger space (and probably has greater mass) than the head - imagine Marge Simpson, minus the frivolousness; imagine an afro, minus the ethereality. This head knows its value, knows its owner would abandon his head without a second thought if he had to choose between it and his hair. And the barber knows it too, coming in on a certain section, bending low over the head, eyes squinted tight in concentration, assaying each single hair under his scissors, as he works out just which particular one of them is going to get the cut. Then he decides, and with a delicate movement of his hand a surgeon-in-training would kill to have, he reaches forward and - snip! - cuts it off. It falls away from the head, the circling ceiling fans overhead catching it and drifting it away, away, playing with it until they lose interest and turn in the other direction, and it falls to the floor. Then he lift the scissors again, to above head height, retreating, taking his head back again so he can get the big picture, and decide which area to trim next.
I watch all this whilst I'm running an impatient finger up and down the arm of the chair in which I sit, behind them. They both ignore me, barber and hedge-head, one concentrating so hard he probably didn't see me come in, the other with eyes closed, hands on laps, still breathing realllllly sloooowllllyyyy, like the African Buddha. The second barber has his own customer - an old man who lives on my street - that he is attending to. This man has simpler needs - he is dressed in a formal shirt and tie, here after work, wanting his usual haircut and shave. He and the barber know each other, you can tell by the way they talk politics whilst he cuts his hair, both completely comfortable and not reduced to the usual sneaky, almost panicked glances and would-be-lifesaving, of-course-I-support-the-Party platitudes strangers on the streets here clench onto with both hands on the rare occasion when they are forced into a political conversation. The barber is Sierra Leonean, I can tell from his language and his accent, and they speak creole. The old man knows his creole well - he seems to have spent some time in Sierra Leone, at some point. I imagine a situation in which he (the old man) was a barber in Sierra Leone, when he was younger. Perhaps the barber, a child then, would be taken to the old man's barbershop in Freetown every Saturday by his Mum, to have his hair cut. The young child (the future barber) would cry and cling to his Mum, and the old man would offer him a sweet and with a patient gentleness convince him into getting into a chair. Then, whilst the future barber's mother went to get the groceries, the old man would cut the future barber's hair, and then let him play with his scissors whilst he waited for his Mum to come back (this, in turn would lead to the barber developing an early love of playing with scissors, which fact did not lead to a certain cliched accident, but in fact led to the barber's current vocation and lifelong love of hair, especially the cutting of it). And then, when the war happened, the old man at last had to pack up and come back home. Years later, the future barber, now a young man wishing to finally leave home and make his way in the world, hears his friends talking about coming to Gambia, and has a sudden inexplicable (to him - we know it is driven by the kindness he received from someone from that country as a child) urge to move here. He saves up and bids his mother farewell and takes the next flight out. About six months later, his barbershop now doing very well, the old man is coming home from work (he, too, has done very well for himself, securing a government job and a good wife) when he spots the (once-future) barber standing at his shop door, looking out with a smile on his face he (the old man) would recognize anywhere. "Me picken - na you", he says, crossing the road and hugging the barber with tears in his eyes. They embrace and spend hours talking and catching up, and from then on he cuts his hair here every week, filling happy and fulfilled and generally alive and in love with the world and complete, whenever he sits in one of the barbershop's chairs and airs his views to the amicable, deferring barber.
The first barber is still working on hedge-head guy's case, even though the hair on his head does not seem to be getting any less. I've been sitting here for hours! OK maybe it only feels like hours, but still. I consider asking him when he'll finish. How would I do it though? Should I tap him on the back? Clear my throat? Raise my hand and leave it up there until I am asked to speak? In the end I do nothing - the ritual they are involved in, the first barber and hedge-head guy, feels ancient and almost religious, there is something about it which repels interruption from even the rudest and most thoughtless person. I sit and watch them and think sadly that this is something I will never have, never experience: this raw, animal connection with a barber, one who will spend hours working on my hair, leveling it and picking out stray hairs, smoothing it every couple of cuts, all the while a look of rapt adulation and worship on his face, as if he is living his dream. For one thing I just don't have enough hair - my hair grows to a certain height and then stops, even when (as during a particular period in high school when afros where in vogue) I apply liberal amounts of shampoo and other hair products and comb it every morning in front of a mirror. And even when it does grow, it never has the cohesiveness that hedge-head guy's has, the agreement, the understanding between the separate hairs, the collusion, the... democracy. Instead it looks natted and raaga, like an afterthought that you didn't even think about very hard before you discarded it.
A third barber comes in. He's smaller than the other two, and fair, a Peul. He goes to the back of the shop where there is a large black cassette player, and puts a cassette in. He presses Play, and all sounds in the shop are drowned out by: country love songs. The singer has a Texan drawl, and he belts out lines like "And you caint evah evah layt go o' ma loav" with great energy, over a guitar. The second barber is shaving his old man's chin now - they are both silent. There is a white lotion in a jar he stops every now and then to apply to the old man's raised chin, before applying his razor again. I have hopes - perhaps the third barber, the Peul who just came in, can fix me up. I sit up, throwing significant glances in his direction as he rummages through a drawer (maybe he's looking for a third electric shaver to use on my head). But he closes the drawers one after the other without removing a thing. Then he goes to stand in the corner of the shop, directly opposite the mirrors and, strumming an invisible guitar mounted somewhere around his lower stomach, he converts into the Texan country singer right before my eyes. "...you caint evah lea'me, you caint evah break ma hart.." he mimes along, moving his mouth and making faces. Everyone else in the shop ignores him: the old man paying great attention to the electric razor making sweeps parallel to his throat, the second barber hard at work; the first barber and hedge-head guy (eyes closed) still caught up in their Zen/Barber moment. So only I sit there looking at him with mouth wide open, fascinated. He pretends I'm not watching, energetically strumming on the guitar like only a person who has never strummed on a guitar thinks it's done, pumping his hips, making painful faces as he sings "ma loav", until he has worked up quite a sweat.
Finally the song ends, and he opens his eyes and looks at me, grinning. "Dangaa Cut?", he asks me, and I am trying to come up with something suitably sarcastic to reply, when I see something move to my side. I turn around and hedge-head guy has finally opened his yes, his barber has taken a step back from him, and he (hedge-head) is looking into the mirror. But this is not a look of vanity - this is the kind of look we would give our lives in mirrors, if we could watch them and see how much of them was left us to live. He takes it slowwwwllly - like his breathing - looking at it from the front, from the back, from each side, bringing his hands up so they hover just a milimeter away - but not quite touching the hair - and using them to measure the straightness of the hair. You can feel the anticipation in the shop as everyone awaits his verdict - even the second barber has stopped shaving, and together with the old man they are looking at hedge-head guy, as he decides. Then finally he turns to the first barber, and smiles, an approving smile, a you-can-come-into-Heaven-now smile, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Dusting off the stray hair on his clothes, he brings out a black leather wallet and pays the barber [who looks happy, like an artist who knows he has done a job well and true to his art]. As he leaves I look at his hair and jokes run through my head. Like: Q:"How do you know Musa (let's pretend he's called Musa) has been to the barber shop?". A: "He still has all his hair". Or: Q:"what did Musa put in his last will and testament?" A:"To my hair I leave...everything".
I sit down in hedge-guy's vacated chair, feeling inferior - I can imagine the barber's sinking feeling as he looks at my hair, which is such a small fraction of hedge-guy's that it can't even be written down as a number. He must feel like a Nobel-prize-winning writer who now has to go back to writing advertising copy for a toilet-paper company. I lower my head, trying not to meet his eyes in the mirror. "You want cut?", he asks me, standing over me. Why *do* they ask? Is it like a legal thing maybe, where they can't cut my hair without asking me first, in case I sue them later? Why else would I spend an hour sitting in here waiting, otherwise? I start filling the bitter-sarcasm-gun to fire, reminding myself to include something about "wasted time" and "customer service". Then I remember hedge-guy and his humility even despite how gifted he was in the hair department, and I bite back my sarcastic reply and nod my head. Another country song is about to start up - the tape has just finished turning to the other side in the player. The old man is done - he gets up and leaves, shaking each barber's hand before paying. I lean back and the barber wraps a cloth around my neck. Then as he reaches forward to start cutting, there is a "wwweeeewww" from the player, and the lights go off.
"I'm sorry", the second barber (who went out to check) comes in and tells me, showing me the empty container and pointing at their generator, "but we ran out of fuel. Unless you want to wait whilst we run to the station and collect more....".
I look outside. It is getting dark - there are less cars, and more people. I think of hedge-guy and the old man both home now, hedge-guy standing in front of the mirror with a tapeline to give his hair one last measuring before he sleeps. I'm hungry. I want to go home.
"No", I say, "never mind - I'll come again".