Years ago I came across a strange item in a local newspaper: a well-known hairdresser, or hair designer as they are often called, trimmed a client’s long hair against her will. The item disturbed me because of the violence it involved, but I quickly forgot about it, maybe because the brief description didn’t really offer me a glimpse into the characters’ world. However, Lars Saabye Christensen, the master of small moments – those moments in which the truly great emotions are expressed – took in “The Envious Hairdresser” a situation from that seemingly trivial world of relationships between hairdressers and their clients, and built a touching drama about loneliness, guilt and envy.
Bent’s character is typical of Saabye Christensen’s writing: a lonely country boy living in the big city and working so hard he finds it difficult to establish social relationships; a person of routine who always walks the same route for fear of change. At the same time, Frank the hairdresser, seems to be a character out of a piece by the Norwegian master, Knut Hamsun, who populated his books with eccentric characters who are not always aware of what they are doing and provoke a combination of identification and scorn in the reader. And in the background, the author’s beloved Oslo, the provincial town where he grew up which transformed before his very eyes into a yuppie hub of fashionable hairdresser salons. The estrangement, which he laments over in almost all the short stories and novels he has written about Oslo, is the price Norway has paid for the legendarily black gold that has made it so rich.
Translated by: Nils Torvald Østerbø
For many years, Bent had had his hair cut by Frank, in Frank’s Salon. From the age of 29, when he settled down in this part of the city, he had gone there, the last Friday every other month. Each visit took about an hour, although his head was easily cared for, and didn’t get more difficult to handle as time went by either, rather the opposite. Now Bent was almost 44 years old, and if he counted over, he would find that he had spent close to a hundred hours in Frank’s barber chair. Yet he couldn’t remember that they had ever talked about anything, apart from a few statements about the weather forecast when it turned out completely wrong, an important sports event, or a politician who had crossed the line in one direction or other. Not even his hair did they talk about much, because Frank knew how Bent wanted it, from the first Friday he entered the salon, almost fifteen years ago: Bent hung his jacket on the stand at the door, found his place in the chair, got jacked up a couple of notches, got the cape and the slightly stiff paper collar on, felt Frank’s soft fingers on his temples and let him begin, without either of them saying a word. Because Frank liked to work in silence, which Bent appreciated; maybe that’s why he always came back here in the end, because he didn’t have to chat and say things he’d regret, something about his job, for instance; because he didn’t have to answer questions about this and that and be called to account for things, and at the same time be able to watch himself in the old, dull mirror that was so civil to his face, and hear the rapid clicks of the scissors around his head, the quiet buzz of the electric razor on the nape of his neck and finally the laugh of the soft brush down his neck. This was the hairdresser’s language. This was the only, the lasting conversation of the salon: the dialect of the hair.
After all these years they knew little, or nothing, about each other. It was maybe for the best.
Bent lived alone, in two rooms and a kitchen, three floors above a convenience store that was open all day and night. Sometimes he went down there, at midnight when he couldn’t sleep, bought four doughnuts from the girl who usually worked there, Susie was her name, it said so on her name tag, and rented a video, with Mia Farrow. But it rarely helped. The films were neither sleep-inducing nor exciting enough. Instead he started putting on weight, slowly he swelled out and most of his clothes got tight around him. Bent was a porter at the National Hospital. He had never been away from work.
Standing by his living room window, he could look down at the hair salon. Often Frank stayed there until late in the evening. He swept the hair off the floor and carried it into the backroom, he washed the combs in blue water, rinsed the razors, sorted the old weeklies that everyone had read long ago, or wrote small signs that he would hang on the door the next day: Seniors half price. Sometimes Frank would just sit in the chair for hours, inactive, almost like he was asleep. Then Bent didn’t want to watch anymore. He went to the kitchen and sat there instead, drinking coffee. But he’d really like to see Frank cutting his own hair.
Frank was a lean and careful man in his mid-fifties. He had taken over the salon from his father, a one-time Oslo champion of his craft, who retired while still on top and died just three weeks later. But the prize cup still stood in a glass case next to the mirrors. And the son, Frank, had held his ground all these years, while new salons, with names like Hairport, Agaton Sax and Spaghetti, popped up on every street corner and virtually invaded this part of town. But Frank had survived, thanks to a small, but loyal circle of customers, which mainly consisted of middle-aged men with few demands about the ingenuity of their hair-dos. These were men who limited themselves to saying, if they said anything at all, the usual, short at the ears, or maybe they, when the summer holidays were approaching, on a good day would dare form a whole sentence: I think we’ll do it extra thoroughly this time, Frank. Then Frank said, with his slightly offended, but at the same time haughty voice, which few people quite managed to get used to, but which they accepted anyway, since they would rather avoid going anywhere else with their delicate forelocks and receding hairlines: I know, I know. Please take a seat. After all, the whole of their common language could be expressed in one word, trim, the verb of their lives.
So the years had passed and so it went, no sudden turns, no disasters, no rejoicing. There were a few speed bumps in life and time was a blue comb full of hairs every morning. They got older, but hardly noticed it themselves. They chose their mirrors with care, they chose Frank’s mirror. The only changes they felt were the changes in the city they lived in. They could wake up to a new snack bar anytime, and before they went to bed there was yet another advertising sign shining its green, staccato letters above the tram stop, not to mention the new hairdressers’ with the modern names, moving in where there had previously been a grocery shop, an ironmongery and a draper’s. It confused them, they lay awake and homeless, even in their dreams, but they could also feel a sudden jolt of happiness, like a laughter in their heads, at these changes, because it suddenly struck them, and with great force, that they themselves were the only fixed point in their lives.
And when the alarm clocks ring they get up at once, they’ve been sleeping enough as it is, and maybe they’ll rinse their combs of hairs, because it happens that some of them comb their hair in their sleep.
They never saw each other, except in the door of Frank’s Salon.
It was the last Friday of November, in Frank’s month. Everything was wet and yellow, and any time now the rain could turn to snow. Bent was on his way home, walking in the broad, shiny high street that leads from the centre of town to his neighbourhood. It had been a tiring day at work, not more than usual as regards trips to the fridge, but one of the new ones, a young student, was sick in the corridor, straight into the wall, and collapsed in tears. They were wheeling a child. Bent was fed up with all these subs coming and going, this wasn’t the way it should be, it wasn’t right. But he didn’t tell him off, he tried to comfort him instead and said it gets easier, sooner or later. And he himself had once bent over and vomited. It takes time getting used to the number tag around the white foot of a child.
Bent was waiting for the green light now, at the crossing next to the tram stop. He wanted to get to the other side. He wanted to find shelter. The rain turned to sleet, heavy against his shoulders and arms. Then he was surprised to see that he cast a shadow, a clear shadow slanting into the street. He turned around and was blinded by the big, white light from Spaghetti, the newest of the hair salons in the area. And suddenly Bent changed his mind, he went there instead, to Spaghetti. Afterwards he couldn’t explain why he had done it. He just did it. He guided his steps somewhere new. He could have resorted to one of those truthful lies, that it had been a tiring day at work, that he was out of balance, at least not quite composed, for who can in all honesty get used to a number tag fastened to the right foot of a child and the cold draught when a memory like that is sealed? But that wasn’t why Bent now could see that water dripped from his jacket, that it poured down on the tiled floor which looked like a giant chessboard, that a puddle spread around his shoes during the few seconds he had been standing inside the salon. There he was, a man from the sleet, in the glare of Spaghetti. The smells were different, saturated, filled with an alien heaviness, like on a voyage, almost. Bent brushed his hand quickly across his forehead and looked around. There were both women and men here, sitting in no particular order on common chairs, in front of tall mirrors he couldn’t recognise. He heard music, a monotonous, pounding rhythm, which made him think of the generator in the hospital basement and sleepless nights. It was like he suddenly woke up. He couldn’t stay here. He had to get out again, he had to run away, this was a mistake, he was on his way somewhere else, he had to leave. The light changed out there, Bent saw the green light behind grey stripes of sleet, like a sick flame at the bottom of a dead TV screen after the film, for instance with Mia Farrow, was long finished. He was going now. He was on his way already. Then a young man, a boy, really, in chequered trousers, like the floor almost, came over to him.
– Hi, what’s your name?
– Bent, said Bent.
– You’ve got an appointment?
– No. Sorry. I’m going now. Sorry.
The boy took measure of him, slowly, looked at the puddle around his shoes for a long time, and stopped at his hairline, with a smile.
– We could manage to squeeze you in after all, Bent. Lots of cancellations, you know. The weather. Nasty weather to be out in. No?
– I can wait till another day. I’m sorry.
The boy took his arm.
– No reason to apologise. Just take a seat, please. It’ll be all right.
The boy helped him off with his jacket, and Bent was placed in a chair, a completely normal chair, in front of the mirror that he could barely stand making eye contact with. On each side of him sat ladies, or girls actually, school girls, so scandalously young, getting their hair ready for the weekend. This doesn’t look like a hair salon, Bent thought, this looks like a theatre, backstage. Hair got extended, hair got burnt, hair got dyed, everything was done to hair except cutting it. Bent clasped his hands and closed his eyes, and an old fear erupted inside him, like he’d felt it the first day in the city, it was in June, when he got off the train at Østbanen station, after travelling for two days, and stood there, alone, on the platform, in another world, with a brown suitcase, everything he owned, and the huge weight of expectations in his other hand, the shadow he couldn’t escape; not to mention his first shift, when he had got himself a summer job at the National Hospital, he stood gasping on all fours outside the cold room, the piss in his pants, the shit, the sick, and the laughter in the cafeteria afterwards, he won’t last long, they said, a week, tops. But Bent lasted the longest of them all. He came to the city to study at the Banking Academy, but remained at the hospital instead, in the depths, in the catacombs and the cool room. Bent was the substitute who stayed. He lived in a central bedsit, sold the textbooks in a second-hand shop and had a short way to work. Later he moved to the flat above the convenience store and started getting his hair cut at Frank’s. He never went back home.
The boy put a black cape around Bent, placed himself behind him and raised Bent’s head, just barely.
– Is it a long time since you went to the hairdresser’s?
– No, I cut…
The boy interrupted him.
– To the hairdresser’s, I mean. Is it a long time since you went to the hairdresser’s?
– Two months. How come?
– Nothing, really. I just wondered, you know. How do you want it, Bent?
Now there was no way back. Now it had begun already. He looked at himself in the mirror. He had become fatter than he thought. He had to stop watching the Mia Farrow films.
– Ordinary, repeated the hairdresser. Ordinary?
The other hairdressers looked over at them, the customers too, the school girls, were they laughing? No, Bent couldn’t see the girls laughing, they just glanced at them before they met their own eyes again and talked to each other with the mirrors as middlemen.
– Yes, said Bent. Like I wear it now, just a little shorter, maybe.
This much he had never said to Frank, and this sudden thought of Frank made him anxious, almost shocked. Frank waited in his salon now, had already begun checking his watch, because it was past four thirty, while Bent was sitting here, under strange hands. What am I doing? he thought. What have I done. The boy’s fingers pressed at his temples.
– I’m afraid we’ll have to keep the head a little still. So I can work undisturbed.
The boy remained standing behind him, lost in thought, apparently, while he let a finger glide through Bent’s wet hair.
– That does sound extremely boring, he finally said. Ordinary, I mean.
And then Bent said something he would never have believed himself capable of saying:
– Do whatever you like.
The boy raised his hand and pointed in the air as if he at first couldn’t quite understand what he had heard. Then he smiled and clicked his fingers loudly.
– This you won’t regret, Bent!
The boy pressed his ears inwards and scrutinised him thoroughly.
– Do you want to keep the muttonchops or not?
Bent glanced at the mirror. That was where they did the talking.
– The muttonchops?
– The sideburns, Bent. Do you want to keep the sideburns or not?
The boy let go of his ears again. He probably still thought he hadn’t heard him right.
– Do whatever you like, repeated Bent.
It didn’t take as long as at Frank’s, but he had to pay twice as much. The boy even gave him his business card, he’d like a follow-up, as he put it, and a shampoo sample. When Bent came out it felt almost like having a new head. The light changed to red. The sleet continued. He grabbed a taxi at the next intersection and drove straight home. He had to tie his laces when they passed Frank’s Salon. He couldn’t bear being seen now. Fortunately, the driver didn’t say anything, but he looked at him in the mirror once in a while. Bent paid and hurried into the convenience store, put milk, bread and half a chicken in the basket and carried it to the counter.
Susie stared at him while ringing up the sale.
– You look really cool, she said.
Bent scratched his forehead.
– You think so?
– I wouldn’t have said it otherwise, would I?
– No. Maybe not.
Susie gave him the bag of groceries, and stared openly at him once more, not in his eyes, but a little higher.
– Maybe? I said I think you look cool. Much cooler than before.
– Yeah, thanks. Thanks a lot.
Bent went to the door. Then Susie called after him. He turned towards her. She suddenly said nothing. Bent got nervous.
– What is it?
– The films. You forgot to hand them back.
– I’ll bring them.
Susie took a toffee from the bowl on the counter and put it in her mouth.
– Not that it bothers me. No one else asks for them anyway. But it does get expensive.
– Don’t worry about that.
– I don’t worry at all. Are they funny?
Bent shrugged his shoulders.
– You won’t fall asleep, at least.
– Sounds incredibly exciting.
And for the second time that day Bent said something he wouldn’t have believed he was able to say.
– We can watch them together some evening. If you want to, I mean.
Susie leant against the counter and sucked the toffee slowly. He could hear it all the way to where he was standing.
– Well, why not? As long as they’re not boring.
Bent got himself over to his entrance, no mail, just a leaflet with Christmas offers from the butcher’s. He took the elevator to the third floor. A neighbour struggled to push something into the rubbish chute. She glanced at him, made way and continued what she was doing. Something smelled rotten there, fish, or maybe a tin of cat food. Bent let himself in, put the grocery bag in the kitchen and went to the bathroom. There he remained standing, for a long time, in the semi-darkness, in front of the mirror. The pipes rustled, the guts of the block, the rumblings of Friday. His face seemed smaller, narrower. Now I have to lose weight, he thought. The rest of my body is out of proportion to my face. No more doughnuts at night. He put his hand on his head, smooth, it felt like that, all smooth. He smelled his fingers, it reminded him of something he couldn’t quite remember, a present he never unpacked, fruit maybe. He washed his hands and put the small bottle of shampoo in the medicine cabinet.
Then he tiptoed through the flat, switched off the light and peeped between the curtains. He couldn’t see anyone down there, in Frank’s Salon. The window was dark. No hand-written poster hung on the door, with discounts for the seniors of the area. Bent got restless. He ate the chicken cold, had to pull off the stiff, tough skin and throw it away. Things like that would lie around and stink if you didn’t pay attention, the bones too, the thin chicken bones, the breast bone. The mustard jar was empty, he rinsed it in boiling water and scraped off the label. He watched the evening news, but couldn’t remember what he had seen, not even what the weather would be like, or who the weather presenter was. The videos were stacked up next to the TV. He sorted them so that the film he liked best, or thought she, Susie from the store, would like best, if they had the same taste, lay on top, in case she took him at his word and came. He went to the bathroom again, pressed his ears to his head, then his face looked even thinner. Much cooler than before, she said. He drew the comb through his hair, backwards, it felt heavy, like pushing your hand with fingers spread through water. He checked the comb afterwards, in brighter light. He couldn’t see anything. Then he ambled to the kitchen and made coffee. The work rota hung on the fridge, he was on the morning shift tomorrow at eight. Bent didn’t mind taking the weekend shifts that the subs did everything they could to avoid, even if it meant some extra pay for them. Weekends were nice, weekends were usually peaceful for some reason, as if Death only worked from Monday to Friday, as if Death had office hours and a wage agreement. The Angels’ Shift, they called the weekends. He put the hairdresser’s business card in the basket with all the fliers and leaflets and took the kettle off the cooker.
Then the phone rang.
He dropped the kettle and ran to the living room. No one rang here. He waited. It kept ringing. He grabbed the receiver.
– Bent? Are you ill?
It was Frank.
Bent had to sit down. He changed his grip on the receiver and drew his breath as quiet as he could.
– Ill? No, I’m not ill.
Now he’d said it. Now that lie was unusable already.
– You didn’t come, said Frank.
– Got held up at work. Had to do an extra shift.
– I waited for a long time, Bent.
– Sorry. Really. I should’ve let you know.
– Why don’t you come now instead?
– Now? What do you mean?
– That you can come now. I’m here.
Bent stretched towards the window, as far as the cord reached, and looked out. There was a blue light in Frank’s Salon. He could see Frank sitting in the barber chair in the middle with his back to the window and a cordless phone to his ear. He wore the white jacket with all the combs and a gleaming pair of scissors in the breast pocket. He made a sudden move, and the chair swivelled slowly. Bent let go of the curtains and pulled himself back. He could hear Frank laughing quietly.
– I didn’t think you were home, he said. It’s so dark in your flat.
– I haven’t got around to turning on the lights yet.
It got completely quiet again.
– Are you coming?
– Can’t I come next month instead? Friday next month, maybe.
Bent heard Frank’s heavy breathing and something crashing to the floor. He didn’t dare check what it was.
– Next month? December?
– Yes. The last Friday in December. Is that possible?
Frank laughed again, a strange laugh, as if something was stuck in his throat.
– That’s not possible, I’m afraid.
– Why not?
– Why not? Why can’t you come now? I’m here.
– I’m exhausted.
– Are you sure you’re not ill?
– I’m just exhausted. Work. We had a dead child today. Two children.
Bent heard himself say this. He slumped onto the chair. For the third time today, he thought, his own words had taken him by surprise. Two things he didn’t think he would ever say and one thing he shouldn’t have said. He wanted to go back on it. He wanted to retract it. Only the substitutes talked about the dead.
– I’m tired, he repeated. This weather.
– You can come tomorrow.
– Saturday? But you’re closed.
– I’ll be open for you.
Bent collapsed on the chair.
– I’m working tomorrow too. Double shift.
– You don’t say. Is it that busy these days?
– I don’t know when I’ll be home. It’s always busy.
Frank was quiet for a long time.
– I’ll be here anyway, he finally said. Just to let you know.
Frank hung up. Bent remained in the chair with the receiver in his hand, then he carefully put it back in place, as if afraid of waking someone up. He didn’t dare go to the window. He didn’t dare turn on the light. He went to the bathroom instead, undressed and showered, washed his hair, not with the new shampoo, which he left in the cupboard, but with the old soap he’d used for ages, he scrubbed his scalp, hard, as hard as he could, he shivered under the thin, uneven stream of water, which had become too small for his body, like a projector that can’t illuminate the whole person, just certain parts at a time, the hands, the belly, the shoulders, the knees. He saw the water dragging stripes of hair in a black circle down the drain.
Later, Bent tried to watch the film at the bottom of the stack, but he couldn’t follow the action. There were too many characters and he didn’t understand who did what and why they did it. He gave up after fifteen minutes, checked that the hotplate was off, that the door was locked, and went to bed. He couldn’t sleep. He knew it. The sheet slid under him. The strange smell from his own head was even stronger now, as if it had spread all over his body when he showered. It was like lying somewhere else, in another bed, in a hotel room where someone had just got up and left his fat shadow like a hollow in the mattress. The sounds from the street were distinct: shouting, music, engines, something smashed, a bottle or a window. Then everything went silent, almost, it never got completely silent.
And Bent woke up with a start. It had rung. It rang again. He rushed to the phone. It was past midnight. He stretched out his hand. It didn’t stop ringing. He took it.
– Bent Samuelsen? said a voice, a man.
It wasn’t Frank, it was someone else, a strange voice. Just someone calling the wrong number, Bent thought, drunken gibberish. But it couldn’t be a mistake, someone had just said his name, his full name. Someone was dead now, his father, probably his father, and someone was ringing Bent to tell him, the vicar, the district sheriff, a neighbour, doubtless the neighbour in the white villa behind the boathouses, where they used to play on the beach.
– Yes, said Bent, almost impatient. Yes?
– We’re disappointed in you.
– We’re disappointed in you, Bent.
– Who is this talking?
– We have a mutual friend. Short at the ears.
And Bent understood, it was one of Frank’s customers, it had to be one of Frank’s customers, someone he might have met on his way out or in, held the door open for, nodded to, said hello to, but never exchanged a word with. Bent struggled to the window, the Salon was dark, just the faint, blue light above the mirror, as in a big, empty aquarium.
– What do you want? whispered Bent.
– What do you want? That’s the question.
Suddenly Bent felt himself getting furious. He couldn’t stand still. Something rose inside him, an anger, a violent anger. That hadn’t happened for a long time. It felt good, almost. He could have smashed something.
– You woke me up! he shouted.
– You didn’t answer my question.
– And you didn’t answer mine! What do you want from me?
He heard breathing on the other end, somewhere else in the same city, in the same area, maybe on the same street. Something fell, a glass, a cup, something spilling.
– Are you scared now? the stranger asked.
– Scared? What do you mean?
A weak, thin laugh came first.
– Do you really think you look cool now? Huh? Cooler than us?
Bent didn’t answer. His feet were cold. There was a draught along the floor, from the entrance. A siren floated through the city, an ambulance, people beating each other to death around closing time, maybe. A dog barking in a flat above or below him.
– Bastard, said Bent. Bloody bastard!
He heard a click in the receiver, a whistling noise, as if the telephone grid had intercepted the siren and spread it in all directions. Then the voice returned.
– We must take care of Frank. That’s all I have to say. We must take care of Frank.
The connection broke off. Bent let go of the receiver, it barely reached the floor. He let it hang like that. He kicked it. The receiver hit the wall. Feeling agitated he went to the kitchen, I can’t sleep now, he thought, I can’t sleep now anyhow, he rummaged through the pantry, the fridge, but I managed to say it, bastard, bloody bastard, he could have used stronger words, he could have done so, words he had almost forgotten, he wasn’t tongue-tied if a swear word was needed. He spat in the sink. Then he finally found what he was looking for, in the back of the bread bin, a doughnut. He sat down at the kitchen table, ate it slowly. The doughnut was hard and dry. It didn’t matter. He ate it, and it dissolved in his mouth like thick dust. He drank a glass of water, it tasted like mustard, and went to bed.
And he lay there, alert and afraid, only now afraid, he felt it like a heavy sinker in his guts, the flip side of his agitation and rage: anxiety. He had broken out. He had betrayed them, this circle of silent men, which he had belonged to himself. Frank’s loyal customers. He had made them seem ridiculous, this Friday in November, and he had done it on a whim, without a plan, without a purpose, he had made fools of them. Bent tore at his duvet. He was burning. He pressed his face to the pillow. Then sleep came after all, he dreamt something about Susie, she waited for him while he rewound all the films, but the tapes never stopped winding, they slid around in the cassettes, he dreamt about the shells on the beach which they named after farm animals, cow, sheep, goat, the mussel was a cow, the cat was blue and he dreamt about the black eye of the drain sucking in hair and hide, sleep was a chain of visions rusted stuck to a new morning.
Bent woke up in a different light. Surprised, he got up, in a different light. He put on his dressing gown and went to the window, looked out: Winter. He would like to see it, the exact moment when sleet turned to snow, from grey to white, from heaviness to lightness. But he hadn’t even seen the rain become sleet, although he was standing in the middle of it and could feel the weight of wet coldness. Now he could see footprints leading along the pavement, from Frank’s Salon, crossing the street at the convenience store. Someone had already been there. Bent spun around. The receiver hang above the floor, still swaying a little, like a slow pendulum. It was seven thirty. He put the receiver in place, picked it up again at once. He had the dialling tone. He called the National Hospital and said he was sick, he couldn’t come, he was sick, in his stomach, further notice tomorrow, he was sick, contagious, probably contagious. He hung up quickly. He remained standing, as if waiting for them to call back immediately and expose him. Now he had done it. Now he couldn’t call and say he felt well already and double the lie with half a truth. Why couldn’t there be something called a white truth? It was his first time away from work. The dead would have to accept waiting a little longer today. The dead were in a minority. The dead didn’t have a say in the matter.
He put the coffee on and cut a slice of bread. He wasn’t hungry and left it lying. He swept the breadcrumbs off the table, put the knife in the drawer. The winter blinded him. The whiteness pressed itself inside everywhere, snow, eroded light, he went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Yes, he really had to lose weight, last night’s doughnut was the final one. His proportions were all wrong, he was a big Å with too small a circle over it, just a dot. He had to become an i, it was time to become an ordinary i that slept at night and didn’t eat doughnuts. He pulled his fingers through his hair. It wasn’t smooth now but dry, dry and stiff. He looked at his hands, specks of dust fell from them.
Then the bell rang. Someone rang at Bent Samuelsen’s door. That hadn’t happened for a long time, and then it was Jehova’s Witnesses. He rushed to the entrance, stopped. What if it was Susie? And him in a horrid robe and barefoot, hardly out of bed, on the first day of winter? That would be a sight. He couldn’t but open. Bent opened the door. It wasn’t Susie. It was Frank. Frank stood there with two full carrier bags from the convenience store, staring at him.
– Aren’t you going to ask me in?
Bent stepped aside and let him past. Frank put the bags on the floor, took off his shoes and coat and turned to him. Frank stared at Bent’s forehead with an almost imperceptible smile.
– You can be honest with me, Bent.
– Yes? What do you mean?
– Haven’t we known one another for a long time?
Bent didn’t answer. The door closed shut. Frank’s eyes were everywhere. Frank’s eyes were on him.
– Haven’t we? Known one another for a long time?
– Yes, said Bent.
– Fifteen years. Isn’t it fifteen years?
– I think so. Fifteen years.
Frank came closer. Frank could almost touch him.
– But you are sick. Why didn’t you tell me you were sick?
– I’m not sick.
– I just called your work. They said you weren’t there. They said you were sick.
Bent felt cold and afraid, even more afraid.
– You called the hospital? Why did you call the hospital?
– I’m worried about you, Bent.
Frank lifted the bags and smiled again.
– I bought you something to nibble. Shall I put it in the kitchen?
Bent inhaled slowly.
– Yes. The kitchen. Please do.
Frank took a step backwards and stared at him again, shook his head for a long time, so that there could be no doubt.
– You really look unwell. That’s for sure.
– It’s nothing to be concerned about.
– And I thought you were just skiving off.
Frank laughed suddenly and loudly. Bent looked another way, agitated.
– I never skive off.
– Many people skive. Many people do.
Frank whistled a tune from an old TV series while going to the kitchen. There he put the milk and the spreads in the fridge, the bread in the bread bin and finally dropped a big paper bag on the table, smiling.
Bent stood in the doorway.
– Doughnuts, said Frank.
Bent said nothing.
– You like doughnuts, I’ve heard. Well?
Bent nodded. Frank took a doughnut out of the bag and gave it to him. It was all fresh and warm, but still it grew in his mouth, like a fungus. Bent swallowed and swallowed. Frank’s gaze was around him all the time. Frank’s eyes didn’t let go of him.
– Won’t you show me the rest of the flat?
They went back to the living room. Frank brushed his finger along the book shelf, looked at a photo of Bent’s parents, taken the day before he left home, picked up some weeklies that lay strewn on the floor by the TV.
– Can I take these ones, Bent?
– Sure you’ve read them?
– Yes. I’ve read them.
– Quite sure? I don’t want them if you’re not finished with them.
– I am finished with them. Please take them.
Frank put the weeklies in one of the empty bags.
– In the old days the Salon subscribed to Allers, Hjemmet and Aftenposten. Can’t do that anymore.
Frank sighed and went to the window, looking between the curtains.
– Nice view, he said. Fun to see my Salon from up here. From the top down.
Frank remained standing there, with his back to Bent, silent, like a thin shadow against all the whiteness. The curtains billowed slowly on both sides of him. I’m going now, thought Bent. I will go and leave him behind here, and I won’t come back until he’s gone.
Frank started talking, softly.
– Sometimes my father let me be with him in the salon. When I was a kid. When a haircut cost three kroner and everyone wanted Brylcreem and Cheseline. I sat on a stool in the corner and wasn’t allowed to say a word. Dad couldn’t bear being disturbed while working. But one day I fell asleep. I fell asleep and fell right off the stool. Dad jumped so that he cut half an earlobe off the customer. The blood flowed. My God, how much blood there was. But the customer did come back. The next month he was back in the chair and his ear had healed. Have you ever had any reason to complain about me, Bent?
– Have you ever been dissatisfied with the manner in which I carry out my work?
– Never. Never, Frank.
Frank turned to Bent, the whole of him stooped.
– I can’t handle it much longer now.
– What do you mean?
– The years don’t make us younger, exactly. Soon we will be pensioners all of us and get half price. I guess it’s time to call it quits while I’m on top.
– You don’t mean that? said Bent.
– Don’t I? I’ve got three chairs, but only ever use one of them. You might as well all come home to me and then I will cut your hair in the kitchen in turns.
– The pensioners can pay full price, said Bent. Like everyone else.
Suddenly Frank laughed and slapped himself on the forehead.
– Here I am, bothering you with my small problems. As if you didn’t have enough on your mind.
Bent got worried. Frank kept staring at him.
– How much do I owe you? asked Bent. For the groceries.
– Don’t worry about that now. I think you want to go to bed. Get well. Would you like me to make you some tea?
– That’s not necessary.
– All right. Just wondered.
– Thanks, mumbled Bent. Thanks a lot.
Frank went over to the TV and began putting the Mia Farrow videos in the empty carrier bag together with the weeklies. Bent was close to stopping him from doing it.
– I’ve paid for them, said Frank. It costs a fortune in hire if you just let them lie around like this, you know.
And Bent let him do it. He saw that Frank put the videos, one by one, in the bag and carried them to the entrance. There he put on his coat and shoes, and when he straightened himself, he stared at Bent again, gave him this look that loomed over him.
– Please come when it suits you. I’ll be there anyway.
Frank opened the door, hesitated, as if he was about to change his mind and return.
– That’s all I wanted to say, he said. Hope you feel better soon.
Frank left. Bent hurried to the window, and after a while he saw Frank enter the convenience store. When he emerged he had only the weeklies in his hand, he went diagonally across the street and let himself into the Salon. There he turned on the ceiling light, disappeared for a few minutes, probably to the backroom, then he was there again, in the white jacket, with his father’s gold badge on the lapel. He sat down in the barber chair, in the middle, swivelled it and sat staring up towards Bent’s window.
Bent let go of the curtains and backed away. He remained standing like this, immobile, until he felt cold. It had never seemed so quiet before, the snow was a silencer. He tiptoed to the kitchen, ate the doughnuts, as slowly as he could. But he couldn’t calm down. He tore up the business card from Spaghetti and threw it in the bin. He could already feel the rotten whiff of the chicken remains. He slammed shut the door of the cupboard and got terrified by his own noise. He had to go to the window. Down there, Frank sat staring up at him. Bent couldn’t endure it anymore. He got dressed, took the elevator down, the white light assaulted his eyes as he came out, he had to rest his face in his hands for a few seconds. Then he ran across the street and entered Frank’s Salon.
Frank straightened up, adjusted his jacket, smiled.
– I knew you’d come, he said.
– Yes. I came after all.
– You’re not cold, Bent?
– No, I feel better now. Shall we begin?
– There’s something I want to show you first.
Bent followed Frank to the backroom. A row of black bin bags, all of them full, stood lined up along the wall. And different dates were written on the sacks, all the way back to 1974, Bent saw.
– My life’s work, said Frank silently.
Bent didn’t quite understand what Frank meant. He felt like leaving.
– What is it?
– Well, I couldn’t just throw it away, could I?
Frank turned one of the bags over and emptied it on the floor. Hair. It was hair, a storm of hair whirling around before it slowly subsided.
– 1982, said Frank. Do you recognise yours?
He waded into the hairs, picked up a few wisps and inspected them.
– Here we have it, I think.
Frank looked over at Bent.
– You’ve become a little greyer since then. But otherwise you hold up well.
Frank laughed, clapped his hands and a cloud of hairs formed around him.
– Oh well, I guess we should get started.
They went back to the Salon again. Bent sat down in the middle chair. Frank jacked it up a couple of notches, put the cape on Bent and crammed the paper collar in place. Then he moved behind Bent, took the scissors out of the breast pocket, clicked them rapidly in the air, and remained standing like this, gleaming scissors in hand, as if absorbed in thoughts of something. Then he put the scissors in his pocket and fetched the electric razor. Bent closed his eyes and heard the buzz, close to his ear, quite close. He felt the tug at the nape of his neck, the blades that tore his skin slightly. Frank bent his head forwards, then he shoved the razor, slowly and steadily, through the hair, all the way to the forehead.
Bent opened his eyes wide and looked at himself in the mirror, in the old, dull mirror that erased more than it showed, and he could see his scalp, the thin, dented cranium came into view, the fragile, white membrane around what was him. Frank put his hand there, on his naked head, while the razor buzzed in his other hand.
Bent suddenly felt nauseous. He wriggled in the chair. He wanted to get up. But Frank held him down.
– Are we friends now? asked Frank.
*The story ״The Envious Hairdresser״ has been published with the support of NORLA, Norwegian Literature Abroad.
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