A suburb in western Melbourne, 1972

When I was a child, I possessed what my family laughingly referred to as “a full head of hair”. More accurately, it was an unruly, shapeless mop of wavy locks which, as time went on, was proving to be more than a match for my mother’s basic hairdressing skills. So, at the age of seven, a visit to my father’s barber was arranged for my first “real” haircut.

It was only a couple of blocks away from our house. However, for a boy entering a barber shop for the first time, it was a new world. The shop was a single, brightly lit room which smelt sweetly of aftershave and hair oil. The linoleum floor was strewn with hair clippings, and in the centre of the room stood an old barber’s chair. Clad in an immaculate white coat and armed with clippers and a comb, an olive-skinned barber with black slicked-back hair fussed around another man seated in the chair. As he went about his business, the barber talked non-stop, arms gesticulating expansively, scissors clipping incessantly. Above this riot of light and movement and sound, from somewhere on a crowded bench of hairdressing utensils, music was blaring from a small transistor radio. Between cutting, trimming, clipping, and talking, the barber also found the time to sing along to the radio in his thick Italian accent.

A row of mirrors lined the two side walls from end to end, giving the room a feeling of cavernous enormity. Above the mirrors hung a gallery of black and white photographs featuring men who may have been movie stars, all gazing seriously into the camera, heads tilted, fists clenched beneath jutting chins, each one sporting a similar hairstyle to the next. I wondered if my hair would look the same once it was cut. Turning away from the man whose face he was shaving, the older barber nodded a greeting of familiarity to my dad and indicated that we should sit at the end of a long bench seat. The garrulous barber chatted to the procession of customers filing up to the chair, pausing only to croon along to Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and other golden oldies. The entire spectacle was a performance, and the barber was the star of the show.

Finally, it was my turn. From underneath the bench, the barber produced a large wooden box and placed it on the chair. He beckoned me onto the chair, and I climbed up into place. He then placed his foot on a pedal, which he pumped furiously. The chair rose quickly and I nervously peered down at the disappearing floor. The barber tied a small white towel around my neck, perhaps a little too tightly. Next, he produced a white cape, shook it dramatically, and placed it over me. He seemed to take pleasure in placing my chin between his thumb and his forefinger and roughly jerking my head upward.

Just as he began clipping away at my locks, he suddenly stopped and announced that the song which had just commenced was his favourite. “When the moon hits your eye…” he sang, much to the mirth of the onlookers. Half-singing, half-talking, the barber constantly turned away from me, engaging in conversation with the line of awaiting men. The sounds of the snipping scissors and whirring electric clippers were hypnotising, and I felt myself drifting off.

A sharp sting to my ear and a loud intake of breath from the barber jolted me back into consciousness. I tried to raise my hand to my ear but succeeded only in smearing the cape red.

Up until this moment, my dad had not been a participant in the theatre, hiding behind a copy of the Australasian Post magazine. But when he saw the blood dripping from my ear onto the pristine white cape and the hair-laden floor, he made the stage his own. Jumping to his feet, like a matador he stripped the cape from me, and hauled me down from my perch on the chair. There was anger in his eyes. “Look what you have done, you butcher. You almost cut off his ear. Too busy yapping and singing!”

The barber and the row of onlookers seated on the bench were dumbstruck. Over the silence, the only sound at all was Dean Martin’s voice, crackling out from the radio: “…that’s am-o-re!” Vowing never again to