I haven’t ironed an article of clothing for over four years now. I haven’t made a bed or hoovered the floor and I didn’t discover where the petrol cap on my car was for at least six months.
All this sounds great, doesn’t it? I mean, who wouldn’t want someone to do all their ironing for them? But, alas, as human beings an insurmountable problem lies within us – we like to do stuff. After two or three years of doing nothing in the home it suddenly dawned on me one day that I was starting to get slightly bored. I began doing the washing and hanging it out. I loaded the dishwasher and switched it on. I started filling the car with petrol. Ironing, however, is still a chore that I can happily delegate to someone else.
I live on a large compound in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia where a mixture of Indian and Bangladeshi workers employed as gardeners, drivers, admin assistants, security services or houseboys carry out a variety menial tasks in order to make the residents lives more bearable.
The compound has a men’s hairdressing salon and the first barber that was employed there was from India. According to an apocryphal tale he was originally a gardener from another compound and was selected for the position above other, more qualified people, due to his ability to cut grass in a proficient manner. To call him a hairdresser would be a gross misrepresentation of the term and even describing him as a barber would be stretching it. After a couple of weeks and a few bad haircuts he was given the nickname that would stick with him until he left – Cochise.
His prices were cheap – 15 Riyals (about £2.50) for a haircut – and I suppose that’s why people used him. The majority of the men on the compound are single (or of single status) and looking sharp is probably not a priority, especially as going on the pull in the local town of Al-Khobar is out of the question. T-shirts and shorts or cargo pants are generally the fashion here, although there is an element of men who look strangely out of place. Time has effectively stood still for these people and if I look carefully I can usually tell which decade they arrived here. Stepping into any one of the areas of refreshment on the compound can sometimes be like stepping back in time and I have ceased to be surprised when I see a group of men in a corner somewhere who look like they’re just off out to a Spandau Ballet reunion party.
When Cochise was cutting hair you saw a lot of bad haircuts. The more sensible men had their hair cropped or their heads shaved, but there was (and still is) small band of brothers that look like the last thing they watched on telly in the UK was Lovejoy.
As for me – I like to look good, although my wife would dispute me on that. When we first met in 1996 I was still wearing light jackets with the sleeves rolled up, pastel coloured T-shirts and deck shoes with no socks. I’d been in between girlfriends for quite some time and had not realised that they had stopped making Miami Vice some years earlier. She made me buy an entire new wardrobe, informing me in no uncertain terms that although she did really like me she most definitely did not want to be seen out with someone dressed like Crockett or Tubbs.
I’ve always had a fine head of hair, although it’s now going a bit grey and is receding slightly. When I have it cut I like to have it short and spiky on the top with a number 4 on the back and sides. This is me clinging onto the rebellious plastic punk I used to be in my twenties – because I was in the RAF and dying your hair was against regulations, before I went to a gig I used to colour it with cochineal because I could wash it out the next day.
My normal hairdresser, an Egyptian called Amon had closed up shop and moved to new premises. Unfortunately I had no idea where he had moved to and so in desperation to shed myself of increasingly wild looking hair, I made the mistake of visiting Cochise.
He was a strange looking man with jutting teeth, bulging cheeks and a protruding chin. He had a habit, like many men from the sub-continent, of clearing his throat and snorting whilst furnishing his client with one of his famously bad haircuts. I been to India and seen first hand how the men there hawk up great gobs of mucus from the back of their throats, which they then spit out onto any dry piece of roadside. It’s like a national pastime. My family and I were staying in a five star hotel in Kolkata when I pointed out the sign on the reception desk when we were checking in. It read: PLEASE REFRAIN FROM SPITTING ON THE PREMISES.
Cochise did the hawking up thing but he didn’t spit, which begs the question “Where did that mucus go?” I can only assume that he either swallowed it or he stored it up in a special recess in his cheeks so that he could spit it out later. For all I knew he could have been spitting it out into the clear, unlabelled plastic bottles (of which he had many on a shelf beneath the mirror) and using it as hair gel.
His salon was sparse; one wall featured a couple of photographic portraits of impossibly handsome men with pristine hair styles that were way beyond his capability. There was a chair and a small round table in the corner where you could sit and flick through his collection of incredibly dull motorcycle magazines.
After clearing his throat and emptying the snot from one of his nostrils into the sink he pointed to the chair in front of the mirror and I sat down.
He threw a blue cover over me and secured it tightly around my neck. “Yes?” he asked.
“I’d like it short and spiky on the top with a number four on the back and sides, please.”
Now, what you asked Cochise for and what he actually gave you were almost always two completely different things. “Short and spiky on the top with a number four on the back and sides” was roughly translated (in his head) as “make a complete fucking mess of my hair and smile like a twat while you’re doing it.”
After he had made me look like the boy in the film Kes he asked me if I would like him to put some gel through my hair. I looked fearfully at the shelf below the mirror with its terrifying rows of unlabelled clear plastic bottles full of undetermined glutinous fluids.
“No thanks,” I said.