Fiction: The Rattle of the Chain-Linked Fence

By Dan Richardson

I take in the aroma of shampoo and human hair as I ease myself down in the chair. The faux leather squeaks beneath me, I smooth down my trousers and look at him in the mirror. He bustles around, sorting through hair products and unsheathing combs and scissors from his belt. His movements are staccato, tense. Hairdryers, shampoos and gels are slammed down onto the table next to me with a force that tells me this won’t be a normal haircut.
“Just the usual, thanks,” I say, into the silence, trying to gloss over his inexplicable anger.
He stops, then leans on the back of my chair and fixes my reflection with a hard stare. “The usual?” he repeats.
“Just the usual. What you do normally.”
“I’m aware what ‘usual’ means,” he says, pinning my eyes down with his.
“No, of course. I meant -”
“What is ‘the usual’, then?” he asks, putting sarcastic air quotes around the words. “I mean, I must cut the hair of ten people per day. How often do you come in here?”
“I’m not sure,” I say, somewhat thrown off balance. I had never been interrogated in a mirror before, by my hairdresser, as he wielded a lethal-looking pair of scissors. I look at my hair in the reflection, trying to measure its growth. “Maybe… once every couple of months.”
“Right. So, for every time your hair is cut, I have – let’s see – about four hundred customers. And you ask me for ‘the usual’?”
“But I -”
“I guess, though, it depends on your point of view. Do you think you come in here a lot? Would you count every couple of months as a regular thing?” he asks, now brandishing a comb like a sword.
“I do.”
He didn’t reply. I have called his bluff, I think. I have extracted myself from this strange conversation. My answer hangs in the air as he turns and brings the cape swooshing through the air to land perfectly over my body. It covers every part of me from the neck down, trapping my arms under the folds of fabric. Behind my neck, he fastens the velcro with what I think is unnecessary vigour.
There is silence for a few seconds as he begins with the comb and the scissors. My muscles relax as clumps of hair cascade over the cape and the floor.
“So, you think this is a regular thing.”
Oh, god. “Yeah.”
“Regular enough that you can ask for the ‘usual’.”
“I do,” I say. I have the ominous feeling I am being chased down a conversational alley. I’m pursued by dark figures with sweeping flashlights and baying dogs, and the alley will end at a chain-linked fence.
He nodded and didn’t say anything again, apparently deep in thought. The spray bottle comes out now and a veil of misty water settles over my head and face.
“Now that I know that, I’m even more surprised about what happened in the supermarket the other night,” he says, in between spraying, his eyes fixed carefully on my scalp. In my mind’s eye, my hands find the fence and I rattle it uselessly.
“What?” I screw up my eyes against the misty water.
“The other night. In the supermarket. You ignored me.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did.” His voice had a serene quality to it, as if in the pursuit of an inescapable prey. “You walked right past me. You avoided my eye, then completely ignored me when I spoke to you.”
“I’m not sure - I think that might have been someone else -”
“We were both in the fruit and veg aisle. I was feeling the avocados. You had a shopping basket containing muesli, brown bread and milk. Do we need to go to the supermarket and check the CCTV?” he asks, his eyes fixing onto mine in the mirror again.
I try and pretend this has all been a joke, and laugh. “Yes. No, I mean, that sounds about right. Did I miss you, did I? Long day, you know. Sorry.”
“What I’m confused about, is how – according to you – we know each other so well, well enough for you to have a ‘usual’, yet you can walk straight past me in the supermarket.”
I turn and put my back to the fence, flashlights blinding me.
“Look, I didn’t see you. I’m sorry. That is my mistake. The supermarket gets so busy, right?” I say, with a smile.
He doesn’t meet my eye and the spraying continues relentlessly. The misty haze becomes so thick that a little river collects in my chest and runs down my stomach to drip onto the floor.
“It was busy,” he repeats, like an unbelieving police officer interviewing a suspect. “Did anyone else call out to you? Because I called out. I said, ‘hello’.”
“No,” I said, wincing as the spray was cast aside and the combing begins again with enthusiasm.
“Right. I see.”
There was a long pause, where the only sound I could hear was the squeak of his shoes, and the scrape of the comb’s teeth against my scalp. I wince.
“Look,” I say, in a tone meant to draw a line under this conversation. “I didn’t see you. Maybe I was too tired from work, maybe I was in my own world. Obviously, I wouldn’t ignore you on purpose.”
The relentless gouging of my scalp pauses. “So it was an accident? You didn’t mean to ignore me?”
“You would never do that on purpose, to a friend like me.”
“So you think we’re friends? I mean, I’ve been cutting your hair for a while. A few years, maybe?”
I try and climb, the wire of the fence cutting into my fingers, feet scrabbling for a hold.
“Yeah, sure.”
The clip-clip-clip of scissors fills the silence, and great tufts of hair floats onto my chest.
“What’s my name?”
The question comes in a gap in the clipping, his words expanding in the silence. There is nothing I can say. The whole shop is silent, other customers and staff aren’t even pretending not to look at us anymore. He seems content to stare at me in the mirror, the scissors a few inches from my throat. There is nothing I wanted to do more than jump up and run from the place, never to return. But the cape lies on me like a weight, I can’t move. Seconds pass. I find I couldn’t make eye contact with him, and instead stared at the corner of the mirror.
He makes a sound, somewhere in between a snigger and a scoff, and goes back to my hair. “Typical,” he says, relishing each syllable, pausing in the cutting of my hair to jab the scissors at my reflection, before swooping on my scalp with gusto. “Ty-pi-cal. You come in here for years. You greet me like an old friend but when it comes down to it you can’t be bothered to remember my name, and you ignore me in the supermarket because of course you don’t want to mix with people like me if you’re not paying me, to you I am nothing more than the guy with the scissors and the idea that I might be a whole person with dreams and feelings pales into insignificance, so you walk past me without looking so you don’t have to admit to your fancy friends that you might know someone like me.”
The crescendo that accompanies this speech ends in the longest silence so far. It stretches from one corner of the shop to the other. He seethes, attacking my hair as if it had been the one to insult him, breathing hard, shaking his head and muttering under his breath.
“I like it a bit shorter at the back, actually,” I said.
The scissors slam down on the table with a smack. “It’s Stephen, by the way. My name is Stephen. Not that you asked, or cared. I don’t know why I bother, not when you are ignoring me in the supermarket. And then you go and lie about it! I don’t know why I bother, I really don’t.”
“Alright!” I say, in a burst that makes him falter in his head-shaking. “I saw. In the supermarket, I did. But I had a really long day, I was exhausted, I just wanted to get my shopping and get out of there, and I was too tired for small talk. That’s not the kind of thing I do normally, I definitely don’t think I’m better than you. I’m sorry, okay? Next time that happens, I will be pleased to stop and get to know you better.”
We stare at each other in the mirror for a few moments, then he gives a grudging nod. “Okay. Thanks for saying that.” The scissors begin again, more clumps of hair float down on me. “I know I might seem a bit touchy, but it matters to me, you know?”
“Yeah. No, I get that. Of course.”
“So we’re friends now, right?”
“Definitely, absolutely.”
“If you saw me in the supermarket now, you’d stop. Call out my name, come over for a chat. Right? Because we’re friends. You know my name now, I told you, like thirty seconds ago.”
My breath catches in my throat. Grimy walls rise up on either side of me. The barking of ravenous dogs fills my ears.
“Right. No doubt about it. You know, I think I like my hair as it is, so -”
“What’s my name?” he says softly, the cold of the scissors resting against my vulnerable scalp.
The rattle of the chain-linked fence echoes all around me.

Dan Richardson has previously been published in The Broken City, Antonym Magazine, Apple in the Dark, Corner Bar Magazine and Typeslash Review. He has studied creative writing at Strathclyde University and lives on the Isle of Arran with his wife and dog.