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The Barber of Murrumbeena.

June 26, 2009

Today, the term barber, is outdated somewhat.  People attend Salons.  The barber was exclusively a male domain.  The ubiquitous striped pole, still seen in Bangkok, as a marking point, a universal almost, that the shop is a place for one to be shaved and shorn.  All Melbourne suburbs had their barber shop, more than one sometimes.

It was a regular outing with my mother.  I never went alone.  She would sit and watch while my young head tended to by Mr Rennie.  He was a slight man, small in stature, bespectacled and rather unkempt, his white coat covering his dull attire.  It was there that I learnt the meaning of cow lick, referring to a condition that made parting of the hair almost impossible.  So I alwas had what was called a ‘crew cut’.  The American equivalent of a ‘buzz cut’.

This outing, for whatever reason, seemed to take place on a Friday afternoon.  His shop was in the middle of the shopping centre beside the train line into the city.  He always addressed my mother as ‘Mrs’ and in turn I called him “Mr”.  First names were never used, only in reference to myself. He had several teeth missing and a cheeky grin on his face.  I liked him and he always was gentle with his scissors.

He and his wife lived behind the shop.  Sometimes she would appear briefly from behind a door which I had no idea led to where or what.  It was of little interest to me.  I was there to have my hair cut.  However I remember he and my mother would chat away, idle chat I suspect.  But it soon became evident to me that he had a bit of a ‘crush’ on my mother.  She was much younger than he and an attractive woman.  She was well known in our parish as the woman with the elegant hats.  Each Sunday at Mass she would don a fashionable, yet inexpensive frock, and then matched it with one of her many hats.  Little did she know, that when she was out, I would have a wonderful time wearing these millenary triumphs.  I would parade in front of her dressing  table mirror where she sat and applied make up.  I was most fascinated at the way she did her lipstick.  Various hues of red, no pinks for Mother.

Mr Rennie’s name was Bill.  And Bill was a tippler.  He liked a beer.  After a few months I came to notice this strange odor coming from his breath. He was probably at it from early morning till it came time to close the shop.  When we arrived for the hair ritual he was probably unsteady.  My mother knew.  I heard she and my father discussing Mr Rennie and how it would be better to get to the shop early in the afternoon before he was too far gone and might leave my head looking like an embarrasing attempt by some inept suburban barber.  There was never any malice.  My mother herself enjoyed more than one glass of the brown liquid.  She was in no position to sit in judgement.

As the friendship between the Barber and the Mother developed he suggested that, after cutting my hair, the two of them might enjoy a glass or two together.  So their afternoon tipple became an integral part of the visit.  They would sit at the back of the shop, chatting and laughing, his wife conspicous by her absence.  She was far more advanced than her husband in the tippling stakes.  Today she would be labelled an alcholic.  What happened in their relationship was unkown to both my mother and myself.  She was always Mrs Rennie, the wife of the Barber of Murrumbeena.

After a few years he asked my mother if I could be an errand boy for which he would pay me.  It involved, I was later to learn, riding my bike to a nearby suburb where there was a printer.  I had to pick up a brown paper parcel once a week, the contents a mystery.  I cant remember what I was paid for this task, but I think it was a nominal amount.

It was finally revealed that I was picking up Betting Slips.  This was a totally illegal act in the State where I lived.  Not only was Mr Rennie the local barber but also he was an SP Bookmaker.  At that time people bet on the horses outside hotels and other places, avoiding any arm of the law.  Of course years later there emerged shops which were known as TABS…one could legally go in and place a bet on horses that were racing that day.  They have since become an Australian Icon with the same high profile as RSL Clubs.  It was a money making concern for State Governments who benefitted from the proceeds of the betting.

I can still evoke the smells of that seedy little barber’s shop which of course no longer exists.  Those days, with late afternoon light coming through the door, the smell of the beer, served in small glasses which were called ‘ponies’, were synonymous with my pre teen years. It often struck me as strange that my parents, who knew what was going on, never forbad me from involvement in this middle aged man’s  addiction to horse racing and the illegal nature of what he was doing.

I now go to a Barber’s shop here in Bangkok.  There is no smell of beer, no illegal betting, well not that I know of.  Rather than pictures of calendar girls that were compulsory in an all male environment in the Melbourne of the 50’s, I now sit and am surrounded by Buddha images, plenty of bikes but no bamboo.

I guess the barber shop was a social outing for my mother as well as a chance for her to have a tipple in the absence of my father.  There was nothing secretive about it.  My mother would relate the days events openly to my father with a great sense of humor.

Had I grown up in Seville, I wonder if I would have encountered such a barber.  I doubt it.

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