THE SOLDIER AND THE BARBER
In 1948 Billy boarded an ocean liner called The Georgic, which was owned by The Ministry of Transport and managed by The Cunard White Star Line. This old liner had been converted into a troop ship and was bound for ancient Egypt, filled with young National Service soldiers. As the great ship sailed from Liverpool Billy's thoughts wandered to previous British troops in their red tunics and white helmets embarking to fight legendary wars, such as the Sudan, Lord Kitchiner, The Four Feathers and all that traditional stuff. As far as he was concerned he was playing soldiers and was completely unaware of the serious problems brewing at the time between Israel and the surrounding countries including Egypt.
Back to reality. The shipís loud speaker, which reminded Billy of the offensive Irish Sergeant Major from Catterick Camp, announced that they were looking for a barber and interested parties with hair cutting experience should report to the manager of the hairdressing shop - the chance of making money was not lost on the young opportunist.
"How long have you been cutting hair?" the manager asked.
"About a year" Billy replied, and indeed he had experience with a pair of hand operated clippers, cleaning up the necks of a few soldiers who neglected to get a haircut prior to going on guard duty.
"The shop charges a shilling a haircut and you receive sixpence, payable at the end of the trip," the manager announced.
With business matters out of the way, the manager gave him a white coat and escorted to the other ranks shop, where he was introduced to the regular barber, who was an amiable young man employed by the shipping company.
The manager called one of the waiting customers to the spare barber chair, beckoning the novice to commence and stood back to observe. Nervously Billy looked down at the counter and spotted a familiar pair of hand-operated clippers, (Electric clippers had yet to be invented) He picked them up and proceeded to remove hair from the customerís neck, with the clippings going all over the place. The manager immediately intervened, placing a sheet around the customerís shoulders and stood back for the next show. The manager must have been satisfied, because within a few minutes he disappeared leaving the unsuspecting customers at the mercy of the self appointed barber. For the remainder of the day, Billy sheared the customers like sheep, with extra short back and sides for the NCOs. Billy's haircuts were so fast that his revenue exceeded those of the regular barber, which pleasing the manager and annoying his associate.
After work Billy pondered the situation and realised that if he didnít slow down the relationship with his colleague would be uncomfortable and if he was to further his hairdressing career, certain improvements were necessary. The next day as he was shearing the flock, Billy was slyly observing the other barber and in particular how he used the scissors in combination with the comb. Before long Billy was confident enough to try it and of course made his share of errors. These unfortunate customers also received extra short haircuts, as a result of erasing the mistakes. Barbers have to start somewhere!
One amusing tale involved a corporal who was one of Billy's first customers and after a number of errors; the poor man was left with very little hair on his head. The corporal didn't complain at the time and included a tip with his payment. Later in the transit camp in Egypt, Billy was called upon to do guard duty and was disturbed when discovering the guard commander was none other than the practically bald corporal. That evening, with the ex-barber hiding in a corner of the tent with his collar turned up to avoid being identified, the corporal removed his hat and entered into a conversation with someone about being scalped by the shipís barber. The other person sympathised and mentioned that he also received a horrible haircut on the ship. With visions of being lynched and hanging from a palm tree in the desert, the nervous one shrank considerable in size and prayed that he wouldnít be recognised without the barbers white coat.
Another incident involved a young soldier from Billy's hometown of Luton, who was also a victim, but in a different respect. In Billy's infinite wisdom, this mans hair was ideal and he reasoned that anything he did as a novice would only detract from its perfection. His beautifully manicured hair was not too long and Billy didnít understand why he came for a haircut. The man climbed into the chair and the sheet was wrapped around his shoulder in a professional manner.
"Just a trim," exclaimed the customer and the bewildered barber reached for the tools of his trade.
Making as much noise with the scissors as possible, Billy worked his way around the manís head, lifting hair with the comb and snipping away without cutting anything. Billy even used the clippers to remove imaginary hair from his neck and just to be on the safe side he produced a mirror, showing the customer his handy work. The man appeared to be pleased and left a tip. Years later in their hometown the man was talking to Billy's sister and remarked that as a soldier on a troop ship years before, he was a customer of her brother who was a barber and swore that he gave him a haircut, without cutting any hair. Billy's sister thought the story was hilarious and laughed out loud, much to the manís consternation.
At the end of the trip, the manager paid Billy eight pounds and together with tips equaled about seven weeks army pay. The manager was happy and suggested he look him up if he returned on the same ship. Billy arrived in Port Said a comparatively wealthy man.
PORT SAID - 1948
Copyright © Bill Hawksford.
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