Short story by Michael Botur
‘So the future of the haircutting business in this shithole of a country is cut throat shaves. Got that?’
The troops sharpen their razors on little oilstones while Salt gives his speech. ‘Pretty-arse rich-arse white boy High Street hipster motherfuckers love themselves a cut throat shave. And you can charge thirty bucks a shave if I tell the council your arse is good enough for a certificate.’
Salt stands on a chair to get above the audience of prospects. They’re prospecting to be barbers by day plus a lot of them are prospecting to get patched up by night. They only listen to original gangsta dudes that’ve got more scars and more tats, gangstas like Salt the head barber.
‘Three words,’ Salt is yelling at them, ‘GUARD. YOUR. TOOLS, fools. You do NOT want your clippers to go walkabouts before next Saturday. Else you won’t be doing a demo shave in the practical and that’s you fucked for life. No certificate means no money, motherfuckers.’ This Saturday’s assessment is worth 51% credit. Fuck it up and Salt will fuck YOU up.
Salt licks the curly ends of this anchor-style moustache. ‘BEEP. You listening?’
Nineteen caps and beanies and hoods turn to gawk at Beep with his face pressed against the window, saying laters to his bae, who’s outside with the pram.
‘Sorry, boss.’ Beep turns away from his baby mama, clears his throat, pushes a long streak of blue fringe from his forehead back towards his ears. ‘You were saying, um… guard ya tools. My tools is SUSSED.’ Beep pats the pouch of his hoodie. Beneath the Mangu Kaha Aotearoa Pros Pect rocker letters they made him stitch onto his thin leather vest, Beep has his haircutting tools. Beep is strapped. There’s an entire little pocket dedicated to his razor.
‘Guess you’re not a retard after all,’ Mung says from the opposite corner of the barbershop.
‘FUCK YOU, MONGREL.’ Beep tries to push through the blues and reds and yellows and even some purple Gs but the boys hold him back. Beep’s Filipino body is one of the smallest there. He can’t get through the heavier boys. ‘YOU WANNA THROW DOWN, CUNT?’
‘Yous twos can roll around together after course finishes,’ Salt bellows, and everyone stops to listen to the boss. ‘Wait ya patience. Listen, the government won’t pay for your black arses to come back here again if you don’t pass the practical. There’s a drug test after, as well.’
‘Who’s got some piss I can buy?’ Beep goes. A few boys chuckle.
‘One of you has to act the customer, the other one’s the barber, if you want me to sign you off. Saturday, remember, 10am till two. You’ll be role-playing in pairs.’ Salt points towards the big dude in red with the moustache. ‘Mungrel: you know what a pair is? It’s one plus one.’
Mung looks at his boots, six feet and three inches below his eyes. ‘I knew that,’ he mutters. Each word booms like a kick drum.
‘And before yous all ask,’ Salt continues, ‘No you don’t get to choose your pairs. In the real world you might have all sortsa cunts you don’t like coming into your shop for a cut throat shave and a snip. You gotta get along with ya customers. Else you’re not gettin paid, are ya.’ Salt comes down off the chair and hands out scraps of paper. ‘I know yous’ve all got Sharpies. Just write ya name down on the bit of paper, chuck it in the hat and I’ll pair yous up randoms.’
Salt’s reeking motorcycle helmet comes around and all the Bulldogs and Beez put their names in. Salt pulls out the names in pairs. As each pair of names is called, the boys dismiss who they’ve been matched up with with a ‘Pssh,’ spitting on the floor, but the pairs of gangstas trade phone numbers anyway so that they can cooperate and practice together during the week. For seven days only, purples and yellows, greens and blacks, 88s and 18s will enjoy a truce.
The last two pieces of paper to be matched up have both have their edges torn into frills. ‘Last two loverboys is Mungrel and BeePee,’ Salt goes, waggling the two pieces of paper. ‘Guess they each thought it’d be a good idea to rip the edges for some bloody reason. Yous two are made for each other. Mungrel: reckon you can use a cutthroat razor on your boy over here?’
‘I got a razor for you after class, cunt,’ Beep squeaks, ‘Throw down in Myers Park.’
‘Go and train, motherfuckers. You’re on study leave till next Saturday.’ Salt claps his thick hands. It sounds like a firecracker exploding. ‘That’s us.’
His sisters are waiting in a Mob car by the dumpsters behind Barber Training School but Mung dodges them, cycles the long way up to K Road, over the Grafton Bridge and pumps his mountain bike way out east to GI. He’s got some boys to see. It’s a risky ride since he won’t wear a helmet ’cause he likes the wind in his beard. You’ve gotta have alright beard grooming these days, else the punters won’t trust you to do their hair for ’em.
Cars zip by dangerously close to Mung’s bike. His sisters’ voices screech in his ears as he thinks about them. His sisters’ favourite thing in the world is smashing cunts. Their second favourite thing is hearing stories about cunts getting smashed. When he makes it onto the final stretch of road, he slows, turns down the street where the boys’ve painted all the power poles red. Two hangarounds who sit on top of cars outside The Pad are all good to help a brother out. They look up to him, since Mung’s an official prospect, meaning he’s one rung up from them. Mung and the hangarounds bike down to the train station, vault the turnstiles at Britomart and barge their way up Queen Street.
Beep has gathered six squeegee bandits who’ve been washing windscreens where Queen meets K Road. They’ve spent the day competing with a Santa Claus for coins. They tell Santa they’ll be back soon to reclaim their territory. You better be gone, Santa.
They assemble on the playground in Myers Park. Mung and his two boys are both a head taller than the little windscreen-scrubbing hoodrats but still, it’s seven of Beep’s blues against three reds. Them crazy blue street kids will jump aboard any fight if it gets them a free meal in the cells.
All of Beep’s boys have got on blue bandanas and blue socks pulled up to their knees. When Mung and his red boys are 20 metres away, the Blues swing down off the jungle gym and start kicking bark chips.
‘Hwaaach-toop,’ Beep begins, his face twisted to one side, spitting before and after he speaks, ‘You had yourself a smart mouth in class today. Hwach-toop.’
‘Smash him!’ one of Beep’s kids squeals, jabbing the stiff plastic handle of a squeegee at the Mongrels. ‘SuWOOP.’
Mung folds his arms, braces his legs, fills his chest with air. ‘Just came to say, you open a razor on me, I’ma open one on you.’
‘So you’re pussying out of the assessment?’
Mung sucks a yolk of snot out of his brain, spits on the path. ‘I never said that,’ he goes, and gets his walk on.
Shardonnay and the pram track down Beep having a smoke with some boys on this real fancy sculpture in Parnell that they’ve got all to themselves. The boys are real amazed that Beep’s gonna be a actual entrepreneur with his own shop and his own sign. They give him the most epic handshakes and tell him he’s lucky he’s got an Out from thug life. They can’t wait for some mean-as haircuts, either.
You da man, they keep telling him, and Beep’s starting to believe it until the pram comes across the paving stones and Shard pulls out Beep’s baby and makes Beep give it a cuddle, like in front of his boys and everything. Lucky there’s no honeys to see this.
‘How was class, babe?’
‘Same as ever,’ Beep goes, trying to avoid eye contact with his baby mama, ‘There’s this cut throat shave, like, simulation they get you to do. Then that’s it. Course completed. Job time.’ Beep takes the baby back and notices the red strawberries embroidered on Shaquille’s tiny pants and hears a couple of his bros snigger. ‘Listen, don’t let him wear this shit when you’re out in public, a’ight? Better dead than red, remember?’
‘Oh – sorry, bae. I thought the strawbs were more of a violet colour th – ’
‘THEY’RE FUCKIN RED. Get rid of ’em.’
‘But you passed the course, BP? Omigawd bae, congratulations! And just before Christmas! Omigawd!’ She kisses each of his cheeks, unlocks her phone and starts to update her Facebook status.
Beep snatches the phone out of her hands and looks both ways to see how his boys are reacting. ‘Snot that easy. Practical test is Saturday.’
‘Sall good if you don’t pass. My mum can give us ten bucks a week, she said.’
‘Who said I ain’t gonna pass?’
‘Well… I talked to D’lorean and her bae’s, like, in this 88’s garage right now and stuff. They’re practising their shaves on each other. Even though they’re different cliques.’
‘Practising bein homos, probly.’
‘But I mean who else you gonna do a simulation on, bae? Yourself?’
Beep scoffs, puts Shaquille back down in the pram so he can put his hands inside his pouch one more time and check his tools are there. Cordless clippers? Check. Stainless steel scissors? Hell yeah. Comb, spray bottle, little tube of oil for the clippers. Essential oil for a epic-classy shave. And a little leather pouch with a cut throat razor to shave the oily hairs away from the jaw of the customer. He wonders if when he slits Mung’s throat the blood will fully spurt, like in the movies. That Mongrel motherfucker rooted Shardonnay last year. Shard reckons it was non-essential, which is like a fancy term for rape. Beep reckons that’s bullshit, reckons Shard was up for it and Mung didn’t really do nothin wrong, but you don’t say pussy-arse forgive-y shit like that out loud.
Shaquille eventually fucks off. The sun gets tired and slithers down the sky. Since it’s Friday night the youngsters take Beep into town, opening his drinks, pressing the bus’s Emergency Stop for him outside Wendy’s where they buy him chicken tenders with sweet ‘n sour sauce. They roll smokes for him and light them in his lips. The first scraps break out on the pavement outside McDonald’s around 7. They follow this drunk-arse skank to a party in this apartment that’s got all these international students in it and score a bottle of Jim Beam and borrow some cellphones from people that don’t deserve them as much. They hit the street again, bottle some cunt outside this karaoke bar who won’t give Beep a smoke. People shouldn’t go around looking happier than you. It’s aggravating.
The night starts to feel like it’s over by about nine and they sit in the Burger King entranceway. People don’t dare step over them. They buy one small drink, get a dozen refills to pass around the six of them. They keep coming up with fresh, respectful questions about Beep’s ticket out of thug life. ‘What sorta training do you have to do to pass the final test?’ the boys ask Beep, but they don’t stick around to hear the answer ’cause a fight’s broken out and the boys are stomping that Santa Claus who wouldn’t share his box of coins. That Santa should not’ve worn red.
Saturday, Mung drinks Cody’s and sips on his pipe in a patchmember’s bare concrete garage decorated with red paisley flags and Nazi flags and Holden flags and bulldog flags, watching UFC. The one bit of entertainment is when a prospect gets king-hit because someone saw a bit of his boxer shorts sticking out and the boxers were blue. It’s all pretty boring. His sisters should be here, not him. His sisters are the ones who dragged him into the whole thug life thing.
Sunday is church with his kids then stopping at the playground on the way home so the kids can play on the roundabout then watching wrestling for six hours on the couch until the day darkens, sometimes watching upside down on his head just to mix it up a bit. Mung hates Sundays – hates all days, actually –until he has a smoke. Then he watches Transformers movies all night, four in a row till the baby starts crying and he realises his eyes are dry and itchy as fuck. God damn crack makes a man forget to blink.
Monday there’s no course, Salt said they’re just supposed to be practising shaves with their partners. Mung has a smoke and watches WorldStar fights on YouTube and that’s pretty much the whole day. Contacting BeePee to do haircut practice is out of the question. Speaking to that little prick about anything is out of the question.
The pairs of boys lie on the hard lino floor of the barbershop to work on their assessment books, resting their elbows on their backpacks. They crawl through a written assessment, trying not to ask Salt for help. He yells at you if you ask for help. For Mung the concept of lying on his belly at the mercy of a Yoza is unthinkable. Lying down’s a good way to get a kick in the head. At The Pad, people kick and slap each other all the time, just to keep a man on his toes.
Beep and Mung lose 15 minutes trying to decide where to set up their two-man study session. Beep says they may as well just stand for the whole lesson.
Mung’s about to say something staunch when he hears a thump on the glass door. It’s his sisters, holding a pipe up and pointing at the clock, like Are you gonna come for a smoke or are you too good for us?
Beep sees Mung staring and looking frightened.
‘And I thought the Mongrel Mob was hard-as,’ Beep goes, elbowing Mung. ‘That’s a tonnes deadlier mob out there.’
A deep chuckle comes out of Mung’s mouth before he can stop it. That’s gotta be the first cross-colour joke ever. ‘They want me to get teardropped,’ Mung sighs.
‘Shit, son,’ Beep says to the larger man. ‘I reckon I should be the one doin the razoring on you on Saturday. Y’all ain’t killin me to getcha teardrop.’
Mung shakes his head. ‘If I do a contract hit, it’ll be a epic lag and my sisters? They’ll get the hell promotion. Probly all of them’ll get protection for life.’ Then Mung puts a ciggy in his mouth just because it’s what you do when you snap back to reality. ‘Anyway, Saturday: You’re sayin you don’t trust me with a blade on you?’
‘Nah man. I don’t. Look at you: you’re shaking.’
‘It’s, what, Wednesday? We can’t smoke for the rest of the week. Member how that drug test is the Monday after? Gotta stay clean for five days. Oi –listen – let’s just say I do trust you. Don’t even dream of givin me a ugly haircut.’ Mung glances in a mirror, checks that his moustache is perfect.
‘Bad haircut’s the least of your worries, G.’ Beep takes out his razor and plays with it, flipping it open, making a spear of sunlight glint. ‘What if I just so happened to slip?’
Salt pushes two KBz aside and steps on someone’s workbook as he wades through the carpet of gangstas. ‘Practice go alright?’
‘I’s waiting for this little hood rat to text me but he didn’t,’ Mung says, slumping against a wall as if Beep is exhausting him. ‘He’s the one letting our team down.’
‘Pssht. I’m gonna let my dick down in your mouth, Mungrel.’
‘Now, now, you’ll have your chance to completely fuck this up on Saturday.’ Salt winks. ‘So which of you bumboys is gonna be in front and which is gonna be behind?’
‘Mung loves doin it from behind.’
‘Yeah I fucked your MISSUS from behind. That’s why your baby came out retarded.’
Beep holds his razor wide and Mung prepares to mash his thick head into Beep’s nose. They stop as they feel something cold and thin on their throats.
‘I been running this course for 12 years, boys,’ Salt goes, holding the blades steady. ‘There’s 10 jobs out there and 20 niggas in here. You wanna make it 18, fine by me.’
Next Saturday comes. The demonstration pairs go alright. Salt tells everyone it’ll take two days to work out their total grades and he’ll get in touch mid-week, so long as they all show up for the piss test.
Mung and Beep are the last pair in the chair. Every clique is watching, including this one dude from this Somalian crew that no one’s ever heard of. Mung, who makes the chair creak as he lowers his body into it, is the only Doggy here and Beep’s the only Yoza. This is one of the only times in the last 10 years either of them have worn anything other than their colours. Salt has put Beep in a white barber coat, buttoned up at the neck, with a fuckin name tag that says Felipe, and Mung is shrouded with a black plastic sheet to keep the hair off him. The boys can’t avoid making eye contact in the mirror.
Salt stands to one side with an iPad to write notes and marks on. Behind him, outside the glass, is a tribe of squeegee bandits decorated blue. Beside them are three girls wearing black track pants and red hoodies with red caps, hissing.
‘What, um, what music would you like, sir?’ Beep goes, fixing a disposable band around sir’s pink sunburned neck.
‘I don’t like none o’ that Doggystyle 1993 shit,’ Mung goes, looking hard into the mirror. Beep catches his stare as he adjusts his speaker. ‘You got any Game?’
Beep shakes his head. ‘I don’t keep red music on my phone.’
‘BOYS. HURRY IT UP.’ Salt is writing note on his iPad. Probably bad grades.
‘Use mine,’ Mung goes, and Beep plugs Mung’s phone in. It’s heavy and warm where it’s been resting against the man’s heart.
Mung’s head twitches as Beep puts the right attachment on the clippers and gives them a test-buzz.
‘What kinda haircut you want today, uh, sir?’
‘Number one all over, please.’
Beep touches Mung’s centimetre-long hair and Mung flinches and the clippers hit skin and Mung gasps. ‘FUCK!’
Salt lowers the iPad. ‘Something wrong?’
‘I bit my tongue,’ Mung lies, his eyes flickering, neck shuddering. ‘You’re doin fine bro. Make it ha-happen.’
‘He didn’t cut you?’ Salt goes, suspicious.
‘Nah, man. S’all good.’
Outside, someone is slapping someone else’s arms down. There’s the sound of a woman thumping her own chest and grunting. There’s gonna be a ruckus.
Under his black cloak, Mung’s fingers are madly gripping the armrests. Crack’s addictive-as, yo. The man needs his medicine bad. Mung’s sisters are shielding their eyes with their fingers, peering in. The squeegee bandits are having a sword fight with their mops and brushes and sparring and practising roundhouse kicks and headbutts. Someone’s gonna get dropped any moment now and Beep and Mung are expected to be there, even mid-shave. You don’t show up to a rumble, you can lose your status.
Beep carves off tufts of hair and the tiny, spiky fluff drizzles down in front of Mung’s eyes.
‘Shave’s next. No chin-hairs – just throat. Yo, Salt – how we doin on points?’
Salt checks his iPad. ‘You spelled ‘hair’ wrong but you passed all the shit so far. Shave’s real hard work, though. On you go, son. On you go.’
Beep rummages for his cut throat razor, hears a crunch and sees one of his boys slither down the glass. Mung’s sisters – big, heavy-gutted chicks with dreadlocks – are bracing their arms against the glass as they stomp the boy’s head with thick black safety boots. Someone whacks a sister in the head with a Wet Floor sign and she goes down. Someone shouts ‘World Star!’
Beep won’t look away from the mirror. In the mirror is his professional future self. He lathers up his fingers and rubs oil on Mung’s neckful of tats. Here’s your chance, G. Take him out. Earn ya teardrop.
Beep takes a deep breath, fetches the oilstone, sharpens his razor with two firm strokes on the oilstone.
‘FORGET THAT MALARKEY OUT THERE,’ Salt yells, as there is another thud against the window and someone’s skull thunks on the floor, ‘That ain’t your life any more. The fuckin battle’s in here.’
But Beep knows that already. This battle’s about to see some results. He tilts Mung’s head back, exposes the neck, steadies his blade and aims for Mung’s throat.