The hands seem big for his slight body and are wonderfully constructed with segmented muscle flexing between harder, slender bone and sinew, soft blood vessels crossing just beneath the smooth brown sheen of skin. From a bottle inconveniently placed a pace and a half away he part-fills these hands with something fragrant, rubs them together over my head and massages my scalp with symmetrical power, standing behind me, leaning in, and carefully regarding his efforts and my reactions in the mirror. The pressure through the tips of his fingers has found the optimal measure of moistening force upon the dry skin and hair, just the right side of pain. I close my eyes briefly, an extended blink, and he takes the pace and a half and repeats. He is young and sincere and I fleetingly regret not being homosexual.
I spotted the barber’s shop pressed hard behind a thin strip of pavement lining the busy road when were on our way to an encounter with the protected Barbary apes. Entering the shop felt like climbing to safety from the full-spate flow of one-way traffic and I made an appointment for three hours later and plunged back into the street, to continue the fight upstream towards the cable car.
Hazily I see him reach for the scissors beside my spectacles on the shelf beneath the mirror and he begins the process of thinning the parts of my hair that are not already too thin – the bits around the back where I fantasise about growing an artist’s pony tail and maybe will one day. Sporadically we try to chat as he gently pushes my head forward and bluntly snips, but we give up, in mute accord that we have failed to identify a language in which we both have sufficient fluency. I wonder how those blunt scissors work, somehow selectively dulled to eliminate one hair in three.
In the cable car up the Rock the attendant flirted with the pretty girl despite the glum presence of her boyfriend at her side. This doomed couple, a lone un-chat-uppable Chinese girl and the two of us were the only clients and we smiled at the attendant’s chirpy estuary-English warnings about the thieving apes. As the car ascended the views quickly opened up and all of Gibraltar Bay was there before us, skirted on our side with pricey new tax-planners’ apartment buildings and on the other with the cranes and chimneys of the industrial Spanish port of Algeceiras. Somewhere beneath the sparkling blue water between is the new artificial reef, I thought, as we rattled past the half-way point. ‘If you want’, said the attendant, winking at the pretty girl, ‘you can come this far on foot and I’ll pick you up on the way back down.’ The boyfriend gazed gloomily through the window, perhaps hoping for a gun-boat.
He has switched scissors now and his quick brown foxy fingers jump over the lazy dog of my head as he snips away rapidly reducing the hair in neat minute decrements. Feeling sluggish and lumpen as he lightly dances around the barber’s chair I tense the muscles in my abdomen and, gripping the firm padding of the arms of the chair, flex my biceps in an immobile mini work-out. I stop as soon as I realise that they might not be imperceptible, these gown-shrouded rhythmic muscular contractions, but maybe too late.
There was a sudden scrunch of snatched paper as we clambered from the cable car up the metal stairs amongst the tawdry coffee and gift shops. “Wow, you were quick!” said Mrs C to the deft perched ape which stared defiantly back as it removed the Danish pastry, discarded the paper M&S bag with a litter lout’s insolence and slowly tore off a chunk. Its brazen eyes never left us as it chewed: Get over it. I’m a protected species.
He puts the electric trimmer away and stands square behind me marking, with a long index finger on each side, the point where the hair ends and the strangely white skin begins. He checks for symmetry in the mirror and I make out there a certain dissatisfaction. He reaches for the cut-throat razor which he flourishes with an awkward back-handed grasp and I feel the cold wet metal catch on something which resists briefly before yielding. Newly-trimmed stubble, I reason, and give him my trust as he moves the blade round to the back of my neck which, stretched taut by the forward tilt of my head, must surely offer a temptation, hopefully hypothetical.
We made it to the fortified highest point and looked out from the Rock at the mountains of Morocco to the South, the Mediterranean to the East and the Atlantic Ocean beyond the Straights to the West. To the North lay Spain and from our privileged vantage point it was easy to understand why the Spanish covet this piece of prime real-estate so. We tried for the half-way cable car pick-up option but couldn’t see it and hurried down on foot all the way. To the waiting barber.