Winters had overstayed their welcome, and summer, aware that it was late to the party, had rushed on with twice its usual vigour. The sultry air had stripped trees of their leaves. A new covering was due, and Ranjit, in a bid to follow suit, visited his barber for a regular haircut. But routine chores and events hardly ever enfold in a regular fashion for him.
He was met with welcome smiles and greetings, for he had visited the salon every other month for a few years. While it was a regular haircut for him, it was a much more important visit to the barber for a small boy: his first. His puckered face spoke at length about the horrors that invaded his mind. His cause wasn’t helped by his father, who was interested in everyone inside the establishment except the fruit of his loins.
The father, nibbling on his cigarette, signalled to the head stylist and proprietor to look after the boy for a bit. The boy, who couldn’t be more than seven, watched his father leave him stranded. The head stylist received a call on his phone and gestured to Ranjit to look after the boy for a bit. He was up and away before Ranjit could blink or exhale. His arm and body rose in protest when the owner walked out the gate. Ranjit could only slump back in his chair in resignation. But then his eyes met the horrified toddler’s, and he knew he couldn’t just ignore their beseeching. School had a long way to go in teaching him to hold back on his tears. His eyes were moistening like the orifice of a leaky faucet.
Ranjit could only manage a nervous smile when he felt a tiny pair of hands clutch his love handles while putting the boy down on his seat of judgement. Lack of customers and the glum, morbid surroundings highlighted the chair with sinister interest. The duo looked up at the barber, who had just finished inserting a new blade in his razor. The way he smiled on testing its sharpness with his fingers sent the first drops of tears rolling down the kid’s chubby, dark cheeks. Ranjit clicked his tongue at the barber’s lack of tact. The barber only shrugged and grinned in apology.
“I saw this movie last night about a singing demon barber and couldn’t resist myself,” he said, introducing dialogue in the silent setting. Ranjit didn’t mind the introduction of voice, but the meaning behind those words unsettled him. He also knew that Shakib, the razor-wielding barber, had a penchant for melodrama, as well as total disregard for his customers’ safety. It was the trait that had earned him the name ‘The Butcher’. Ranjit could testify to the validity of the nomenclature. He rubbed his nape as memories of the times he was ‘grazed with grace’, as the beautician had termed it, flushed in his mind.
Ranjit gulped uneasily and tried diverting the boy’s mind. When Shakib moved up behind the chair, the boy ducked and hid his face in his hands.
“Ah, get his neck!” said the other stylist. Ranjit glared at him, and he conceded his poor choice of words. The boy’s snivelling was audible now, and Ranjit, in a bid to allay his fears, snuck his hand inside the boy’s small apron. He thought that making his hand appear out of nowhere and making funny shapes would lighten up the boy.
He was, of course, quite wrong.
The boy, surprised by a ghost hand, jerked his head back and felt a cold metallic surface cut through it.
“Katana!” yelled Shakib hysterically as he pulled the blade back. It was impossible to tell whether it was out of dread or for dramatic effect. The boy screamed with all his might, prompting his father to drop his cigarette in shock and rush back in. He huffed and puffed as he eyed everyone and connected the dots, continuing the silent charade.
“Smoking kills,” said Shakib with a grave face.