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The Amateur Barber

By Joe Corrie
Read by Marilyn Wright

You can listen to a Real Audio file of this story here (1.5Mb)

Joe Corrieís mither wes a Gallowa wumman, an he myndit at whan he wes a laddie eíen gin the war a want o siller in the houss at the skuil holidays, his train fare frae Fife ti Newton Stewart coud aye be fund. Monie year later in the nineteen forties an fifties he skreived an ouklie sketch for The Galloway Gazette an a walin o thaim wes furthset frae Newton Stewart as a buikie cried The Flittin and other Galloway Sketches. We ir vogie ti reprent ane o thir tales here.

Corrie thocht that at its hert the Gallovidian speik wes "the sweetest in the whole of Scotland."

When Walter Wamphrey, the undertaker, knocked on my door the ither nicht and asked me if Iíd gie his hair a trim I wasna ower keen to do the job, no that I havena got the necessary skill for I was born wi the natural gift o barberin, but Walter is a dapper wee dandy and fancies himsel a lot; and havin to tak his hat off sae aften in the course o his professional duties - weel, it was a job for a barber withoot specs, the steady hand o youth, and the help o electricity.

But it was the monthly holiday in the toon, and he was due that nicht to deliver a sang-lecture in Kirkinner, to the Rural. I tried to hide my astonishment when he tellt me that, for Walter has a pipe like a tinwhistle. Hooever, that was nane o my business; if Rurals must be entertained by all and sundry thatís their am look-oot.

"Just a wee groom up, Mr Lowrie," says he, "to freshen me up a bit, and keep the eíen o the ladies on me. He! He! He!" I made the excuse that my een werena what they were; that we only had the paraffin lamp, and that I hadna had much practice o late, but he said he had absolute faith in my reputation. So I asked him in, and put him in the kitchen til I got my shearin appliances.

Maggie turned as white as a sheet when I tellt her. She has the superstition that when an undertaker enters a hoose itís the sign o some tragic disaster to follow. And although Iím no a superstitious man I had a wee feelin that Walter had broucht a breath o impendin trouble wi him.

When I got into the kitchen Walter was in front o the lookin-gless admirin himsel and twirlin his waxed moustache which, I noticed, had been gettin a course o intensive cultivation since the last time Iíd seen him. He had gotten it into classical form, aboot three inches on each side, and perfectly balanced.

But Walter thoucht it was a wee bit ragged, and a fraction o an inch ower lang, which was inclined to cause a wee blemish on his guid looks, and he asked me if Iíd reduce it by a fraction on baith sides. I just tellt him to sit doon, put twa towels roond him, then shut the kitchen door, for Maggie kens far better hoo to cut hair than I dae. I polished my specs, then worked the shears a bit to exercise my fingers and let the patient see that I had the professional touch, and decided to dae the moustache first. So I got in front o him, planted my feet firmly on the flair, decided to dae the richt hand side first, took a lang breath, bent doon, and clipped. Then I did the same again and performed the operation on the ither side. But when I wiped the steam o the ordeal frae my specs I discovered that I had taen mair off the left than I had done off the richt, so I had anither snip at the richt, but when I looked again I saw that I had taen mair off there than I should, so ower I went to the ither side. And, hang me, if the same thing didna happen.

But I couldna spend the hale nicht on a moustache so I just said, "Weel, thatís that, Walter, and noo Iíll get doon to your held." He thanked me very graciously. And when I started to run the comb through his hair he started to sing - havin a wee bit practice, he said, before the lecture. Noo, thereís nae man in a barberís chair should tra-la-lee! especially when he canna; itís no just annoyin, itís painfully distractin, and if thereís onything that caas for silent concentration itís barberin. But the customer is always richt, and I couldna complain. So I got haud o the clippers and ran them three inches up the back o his held. It was only then I noticed that I hadna put on the guard which gie ye the guarantee that youíll no tak ower much off, and there I was lookin at three inches by twa o bare skin.

"Your clippers are gaun fine and easy, Mr Lowrie," says he. "A man canna dae an artistic job wi bad tools," says I. ĎThatís what I aye think when Iím makin a coffin," says he, "even although itís only seen for a brief period on this earth." His mention o coffins reminded me o Maggieís superstition aboot undertakers, and I was beginnin to realise there was something in it. It was wi a tremblin hand that I put the guard on the clippers, makin the excuse that my specs were steamin, but, tra-la-lee! he was quite comfortable. I had a closer scrutiny o the damage I had done and I saw that it was gaun to caa for aa my ingenuity to rectify it, for yince hair has been cut off thereís nae method known to science - yet - that can put it back on again. Thereís aye the boot-blackin method, of coorse, but itís no permanent, and quite unsuitable in the case o a dandy undertaker. But I thoucht Iíd be safer to dispense wi the clippers, and work carefully wi the shears. I did a lot o extra clip-clip-clippin withoot cuttin ony hair to convey the impression that I kent my job, but it was to gie me time to think, but the damage I had done was gaun to be very difficult o solution.

But Walter thoucht I was gettin on fine and asked me if I minded him havin a wee rehearsal o his comm lecture. I said it would be a pleasure to me. So while I manoeuvred up and doon, and roon aboot the bald patch, he talked aboot the beauties o Scottish sang, when they were properly sung, as he would sing them in the coorse o his lecture, tra-la-lee!

But my confidence had gone completely, and the mair I clipped the mair I realised that the damage I had done was beyond repair. So while he went through his lecture I manipulated on the top o his heid. Walter has a heid like an egg, and naturally the shears are inclined to cut mair off the top, and that means that youíve got to cut mair than ye intended off the sides. So there I was again wi anither problem. By this time he was lookin mair like a piebald than an undertaker, but he was busy wi "Corn Rigs are Bonnie, 0," and seem himsel much admired by the ladies o the Rural.

I was in twa minds whether to finish and call it a day, as the young yins say, or start aa ower again, when Maggie came ben wi Walterís wife. Noo, Walterís wife is a tremendous wumman, six feet if sheís an inch, and built in proportion - she plays golf to keep herself fit, and she speaks very polite. "Walter, darling," she says, "itís time we were going to the bus." Then she said to me, "Is the operation nearly over, Mr Lowrie?" I said it was, and divested him o the towels. But when Walter got to his feet his wife cam oot wi a scream that dirled the dish covers on the dresser. "My goodness!" she yelled, "he has ruined your heid for life."

Walter jumped to his feet and ran his hand doon the back o his heid. Then he looked at me and said, "Deliberate sabotage," whatever that means. Then his wife saw his moustache and screamed again. Walter went to the lookin-gless and staggered. "Sir," he shouted at me, "I will sue you for damages!"

Then Maggie asked me if I was gettin paid for the job. "No," says I, anither labour o love." So Maggie just tellt Walter that it was a proper hair-cut for the kind o face he had. Then ye should hae heard Walterís wife; roarin at Maggie in washin-hoose Scotch, caa-in her for this and that, and shakin her kneive in her face. And when she stopped to tak a breath Maggie set aboot her, shakin twa kneives. Then they baith yelled at each ither gaun back for generations and talkin aboot sheep-stealin, and Wigtown jile, and folk lucky no to be hanged. Oh, a terrible rakin up on baith sides. While Walter stood lookin at his face in the lookin-gless, and the tears runnin doon baith cheeks and splashin on his spats.

The last I saw o Walter was him bein puíd frae the room and trailin on the taes o his fancy shoon. Maggie followed them to get the last words. Ye see, Mrs Wamphreyís faither used to gaun roon the toon wi a cuddy and cairt sellin herrin. And Maggie couldna let her off wi that. And as I put the clippers back in their box I could hear Maggie shoutin, "Caller herrin, three a penny!"

You can listen to a Real Audio file of this story here (1.5Mb)

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