I had been ordered by the headmaster to get my hair cut before I could attend school in New Zealand…
“Huh?” I repeated. “Short what and what?”
"Short back and sides, young man," said he.
I didn’t like the sound of that.
“All students,” Mr Hamilton intoned, “without exception, will comply with the regulations regarding hair length. The regulation, young man, is short back and sides.”
He looked down at his work and waved me away, saying, “This discussion is ended. Report to me before assembly Monday morning. Be gone, boy.”
Next day I caught the bus into Avonmore to get a haircut. As I entered the little town’s only barbershop, a group of four boys about my age followed in behind me.
The barbershop had been empty until our arrival. Seeing me, the barber motioned that I was next, and the boys behind me seated themselves on a bench to wait their turns.
“Step up, if you please, sir,” said the barber with a smile.
“Well,” I shrugged. “Okay.”
I eased myself into the barber’s chair, saying, “Short back and sides, please.” Even with these few words, I could hear my American accent resounding within the mirrored barbershop. The boys on the bench, hearing me, perked up, and paid more attention.
“Which school?” asked the barber.
“Huh?” I answered. I was surprised by the barber’s question, and unsure if I had heard him right. Surprise and uncertainty, my usual state since arriving in New Zealand. I answered his question with a question. “What do you mean?”
“Which school are you attending?” he asked.
I heard stifled laughter from the boys on the bench. I could tell I was making a fool of myself. Gathering my courage, I asked, “Why do you need to know which school?”
[For my American readers, I will interpret the barber within these brackets.]
“Crikey, mate! [Jeepers, friend!]” exclaimed the barber. “For a minute I forgot you was from America! Strewth! [God’s truth!] Went on a little mental holiday, I did. Haha! That makes me a bit of a dag [a bit of a fool], don’t it, sir?”
It was known in the town that Jack and Rose from Manuka Farm had inherited an orphaned American boy, and the barber, hearing my accent, had put two and two together and come up with… me.
“I need to know which school,” he said, “in order to give you the correct haircut. Short means short, to some, and not so much to others.”
“Avonmore College,” I said.
A gasp went up from the boys on the bench. “Hammy!”
“Ah. Mister Hamilton, is it?” said the barber. “Then it’ll be short means short.”
“Don’t worry,” assured the barber. “You’ll be chuffed [pleased].”
“I’ll be what?”
“Chuffed, mate. Dead chuffed [very pleased]. You’ll see.”
He stood back and looked at my head with the air of an artiste. “Let’s take a squiz [look] at you, mate. Yes,” he said, “It ought to be easy enough… a plate of piss [a piece of cake]. No need for the collywobbles. [No need to be nervous.]
“The what?” I asked, but he had already begun to snip away at my hair, talking all the while.
“Avonmore College, eh?” said the barber. “Used to be an American Navy hospital, back in the war.” He raised his voice to include the audience of boys on the bench. “Did you know that, lads?” They looked as if they did know, and had heard it all a thousand times before, too. He turned back to me. “You being a Yank, I suppose you’d appreciate that, eh? Haha! Oh, don’t get me wrong, mate, I like yanks. Sure I do! Some folks finds them a bit dodgy [doubtful] maybe, a bit stroppy [excitable] sometimes, but not me. Why, I remember back in the army, they was always free with the smokes and good with the jokes!”
“What about their bleedin football?” asked one of the boys derisively. “Whataya call that?”
“They don’t play footie!” said another. “They play grid iron!”
“Now lads,” said the barber. “They can’t help it…”
They argued good-naturedly about football for a minute while I listened without comprehension. The barber was enjoying himself, I could see that. He was a likeable fellow, with a friendly way about him.
“Yes,” he continued, “back in them days we was even too knackered to rattle our dags! [too tired to move our backsides!] We was even too skint for the sparky [too poor to afford an electrician!] and just about buggered [done in]. Too bleedin right!” [Ain’t it the truth!]
“What? I’m bleeding?” I asked, but he didn’t hear.
“Yes, no time for wankers! [self-lovers!]” he exclaimed. “No place for pikers! [quitters!] No use for bludgers! [parasites!]”
“For who?” I asked.
“Pikers, mate! Nor wankers neither! Bunch of drongoes [fools], the lot of ‘em!”
He snipped away at my hair.
“Well, mate,” he asked. “What do you think of Godzone?”
“Guards what?” I answered.
“God’s Own,” he replied, speaking louder and more slowly. “New Zealand. God’s own country. What do you make of it so far?”
“Gee, uh,” I said. “I don’t know.”
“He don’t know,” mimicked one of the boys, and they laughed a little.
New Zealand? I really didn’t know. Everything was different. Why were even the simplest things, like turning on a light switch or the names of food or even understanding what people were talking about, so difficult now?
“Well, give it time, lad,” said the barber.
“Yeah,” I said quietly, not wanting anymore comments of mine to draw anymore comments from the bench.
“I came to Avonmore after the war,” the barber continued. “Married a kiwi sheila from the wop-wops [a New Zealand girl from the rural districts] and settled down in the bach on Whangaparoa [lived in a small house by the sea]. ’Course, it wasn’t all chilli bins [ice chests] and jandals [flip-flops, it wasn’t all a day at the beach]. No sir! But we got our A into G! [our Asses into Gear] We got stuck in! Went for the hard yakka [difficult work], and stayed off the dole [refused unemployment assistance], until it all come a-cropper! [until it all failed!]”
He paused a moment, as if to reflect. “Oh, well,” he added. “Here I am now, good as! [good as gold!] No time to pack a sad [feel sorry for one’s self], eh? Haha! It’s a good life if you don’t weaken.”
It’s a good life if you don’t weaken. Somehow the truth of this stood out like a bright diamond to my young soul, and has done ever since.
The barber switched from using scissors to electric clippers. With a load click they began to buzz.
“What part of the States are you from?” he asked over the buzzing.
One of the boys from the bench said something I couldn’t hear and they laughed again. I wished I could join in and have a laugh too. I hadn’t talked to any boys my age since arriving in New Zealand.
Before I could answer, the barber continued, “I’ve got a nephew in, ah, let me think… Tampa Bay.” He paused a moment to consider. “Yeah. Tampa Bay. Maybe you know him? Name’s Nick? Nick Botica? Big bloke, used to be a panel beater [straightener of automobile bodies]. Loves to knock ‘em back when he’s on the piss [enjoys a few beers when he has the opportunity]. But mind you, he won’t be laughed at, chafed at, or slung shit at! Haha! Not old Nick!”
“Sorry,” I replied. “I’m from Cali…”
“Never mind,” said the barber. “Not to worry. She’ll be right!”
“Shelby who?” I asked. I had been hearing this person’s name since the day I arrived in New Zealand. Shelby Wright? I didn’t even know if it was a boy’s name or a girl’s, yet it was on everyone’s lips. Shelby Wright!
With a click the clippers stopped buzzing and the laughter of the boys entered my consciousness.
What was so funny, I wondered?
The barber stepped back from his work and I glimpsed myself in the mirror.
It was me that was funny.
“Whaaa?” I gasped. I was stunned. All that remained of my hair was a tuft of whitish blonde, perched at the very top of my pale, shiny cranium. The rest was gone! No more Viva Las Vegas for me. My head looked rather like a small white dove was attempting to land on an overturned china bowl, flapping it’s wings for balance.
Only nowhere near as beautiful. Some things are too horrible and I had to look away.
Seeing this, the barber spoke.
“No need for the collywobbles, young sir,” he said. “Avonmore College. Mister Hamilton. Short means short, to some. There, there, sir, Shelby Wright!”