Staring at the barber pole outside the shop, Ahmad debated if he should enter. He considered the possibility that his presence would not be welcomed but it had been years. Figuring it was finally or never, Ahmad mustered the courage to walk in.
The familiar ringing of the bell coincided with the opening of the door. Ahmad could see the man he was looking for, knees bent, face turned away in concentration as he snipped the hair of a young Chinese man who clearly looked as though he had somewhere better to be.
“Just a moment, I’m finishing up here.” Uncle Siva’s voice was still the same then, albeit a little tired. Ahmad did not know what he was expecting. He had changed so much and to be back here was like walking into the time capsule of his past.
While waiting, Ahmad took the opportunity to glance around the barbershop. The air was thick with the musty smell of mothballs. He was glad to see the ’90s-styled interior and brick walls still remained in the shop.
The room was just as he remembered it; every square-foot was filled with jokes and movie posters, random newspaper clippings and the comic section which were already turning yellow, vintage gear collected and donated by loyal customers, and male-modelled haircuts. Other photos also dotted the walls such as those of local football stars like Fandi Ahmad. While Ahmad remembered the flimsy plastic chairs he used to sit on as a child, there was now a metal park bench flanked on a wall for those waiting their turn.
Ahmad glanced back at the old man, still preoccupied with his customer. As he snipped away, lashes of stray hair in various shades of black and silver tumbled onto the floor. Ahmad practically grew up here. He still remembered the cacophony of intermingled languages as the regular customers of the barbershop often spoke in Malay, Tamil or Mandarin to Uncle Siva, who managed to build a close rapport with them as he worked on their hair six days a week, every week for nearly 20 years and counting.
Uncle Siva’s expertise was mostly self-taught. His beloved tools were the simple metal scissors, straight razor and manual clipper which he kept alongside his brushes and blades in a small trolley he often carted around.
That day did not seem like a busy day but he remembered that the shop used to be full of regular customers, most of whom were elderly men, waiting patiently for their haircuts. Ahmad was an easily distracted child and even the magazines and comics Uncle Siva had specially bought for him would not hold his attention for very long. He had taken to watching the men in the shop as a means of entertaining himself.
There was a man who always quietly read a newspaper that he had brought to the shop, then leave it behind for the customers after him. Then there were others who were chattier and would speak passionately to Uncle Siva about the rising costs of food and living. It was also common for the customers to share snippets of their life with Uncle Siva. Grievances regarding home, work and children. Uncle Siva listened raptly to their stories, interjecting once in a while to ask questions or provide sage advice. Mostly, he was a good listener.
On rare occasions, only the snipping sounds of scissors and clippers filled the shop. During these times, Uncle Siva would turn on the FM radio that broadcasted old Tamil songs he would sing along to under his breath.
“Okay, I’m done why don’t you take a seat o- Ahmad? Is that you?”
Ahmad faced the old Indian man whom he realised he was towering over, taking a moment to examine his face. He had expected Uncle Siva to be old, having just celebrated his thirtieth birthday himself, but he was not prepared for this.
“Hello, Uncle Siva.”
“My boy! It is you! It’s been what, eight years since I’ve last seen you.” He walked over and leaned in for a hug, his hand clasping firmly on Ahmad’s shoulder. Ahmad returned the gesture with equal fervour.
A cough broke them out of their reverie.
“This reunion is nice and all but can I pay now?”
They had almost forgotten that they had company. The young Chinese Man handed over a ten dollar note, muttering something along the lines of “keep the change”, and promptly left the shop.
“Kids nowadays very rude ah. Don’t respect their elders anymore.”
Uncle Siva picked up an old broom resting in the corner of the room and began sweeping the hairs on the floor. Ahmad, not knowing what to do with himself, was content to let Uncle Siva pick up the conversation.
“I heard that you got married.”
“Yeah, I’m married now. Got a little boy. Another one on the way.”
Ahmad could see the misty eyes of the barber but he kept silent. It was a lot to take in. Uncle Siva stopped sweeping and looked at Ahmad.
“I see. I heard that he’s sick now. That’s why you came back, right?”
“Yeah, the doctors said…it’s not good.” Ahmad’s relationship with his father had always been – he had to think of a word to say – fraught at most. But even then, his father’s rapidly deteriorating health distressed him.
“I tried to visit him, you know? When I got the news. Your mother let me in but as soon as he saw me, he went crazy!” Uncle Siva let out a coarse laugh. “Started screaming bloody murder,” he waved his arms frantically in imitation.
They shared a small smile. They knew his father’s personality all too well. That man could really hold a grudge. But for how long? Wasn’t the certainty of impending death enough to bury the past?
“I have to go. I just came to say hi. It was nice seeing you, Uncle Siva. I’m…I’m glad you’re still around.” Uncle Siva gave him a firm pat on the back with a promise to visit again before Ahmad walked out of the shop, the all-too familiar bell still ringing in his head.
Ahmad waited patiently in line for his order of iced Milo and teh tarik at the coffeeshop. It was his daily after-school ritual to buy the drinks for himself and Uncle Siva. The old man loved his teh tarik and he considered it payment for the hours he allowed Ahmad to stay at his barbershop.
“Did you hear? There’s a fight at Uncle Siva’s!”
“Wah! Where you hear one? You want to see or not?”
“Yah, yah, let’s go!”
Ahmad perked up his ears. Drinks forgotten, he made his way to the barbershop. From outside, he could make out two figures through the see-through glass of the shop. People were starting to gather.
“Isn’t that Hamid?”
Ahmad pressed his face closer to the glass and cusped his hands around his eyes as though he was looking through a pair of binoculars. Sure enough, he recognised the broad shoulders of his father, looking imposing and tense. Ahmad tried to make out what his father was saying but his words were muffled. All Ahmad could see was the face of Uncle Siva facing his father, with brows drawn together and lips curled in a snarl.
Debating temporarily before deciding, Ahmad opened the door and winced at the clanging sound of the bell that accompanied the action. His father and Uncle Siva stopped their argument but continued staring menacingly at each other.
Distracted by the commotion, Ahmad had initially thought the shop to be empty. He now realised there were others in the shop congregated in a corner, ready to intervene should the need arise.
Uncle Samad, someone Ahmad regularly talked to when he spent his afternoons at Uncle Siva’s shop, stepped towards Ahmad. “Ahmad, go home. You don’t need to see this.” Ahmad made no move to leave and instead, looked at his father.
“What’s going on?”
His father ignored his question but moved towards him. He reached for Ahmad’s wrist and tried to lead him out the door. Just as he was about to leave, Uncle Siva spoke, “Don’t come anymore. You are not welcome here.”
Ahmad struggled out of his father’s grasp to look at the man.
“You too, Ahmad.”
“But-” Ahmad started sputtering but his father’s firm grip was bordering on painful and he was pulled away from the shop, away from the stunned silence of the audience around them.
When they were finally alone in the lift of their flat, his father let go of his wrist which had started to hurt. Rubbing gently at it, Ahmad was still trying to process what had happened.
“That man! Thinks he can tell me what to do about my own child. I’m his father. I can do whatever I want. Who does that bastard think he is?”
Ahmad could only listen as his father muttered angrily to himself. He wanted to press further, ask what was going on, but he knew the consequences of angering his father when he was in one of those moods. He still had the welts to prove it. At least it was during the day and his father wasn’t drunk. Yet.
The ding of the lift signalled that they were close to home. As his father stepped out, he stopped muttering and looked Ahmad squarely in the eye.
“I don’t want you going to that shop anymore, do you hear me?”
Ahmad thought about Uncle Siva. Sweet, kind Uncle Siva who welcomed him every day after school and did not mind when Ahmad completed his homework at the shop. Uncle Siva who bought him comics and left them in the shop after Ahmad mentioned that he was a fan of Iron Man. Uncle Siva who denied that he bought them for Ahmad when his customers were mostly old men. Uncle Siva who had been his friend and confidante since his father brought him to the barbershop for his first haircut as a little boy.
Ahmad did not want to follow his father’s orders, but he nodded with tears threatening to spill from his eyes.
“If I see or hear about you going anywhere near that shop, I will make you regret it. Do. You. Understand?” He grabbed Ahmad by the shirt and shook him as he said those words, his question coming across as more of a statement or a threat.
“What’s that commotion? Hamid, what are you doing?” Ahmad breathed a sigh of relief as he heard his mother’s voice.
“Stay out of this, Salmah.”
His father let go of his shirt and stormed off into the house, brushing roughly against his mother who had rushed out to help her son. Ahmad could only cry in the comfort of his mother’s embrace.
Bracing himself, Ahmad knocked on the door of his parents’ bedroom while trying to balance a bowl of porridge precariously on a tray. His mother had left him a note saying that she had to leave to collect something, leaving Ahmad with the task of bringing lunch and medicine to his father.
When he entered the room, the curtains were partially drawn with some sunlight filtering through. The room was just as he had remembered it – uncluttered. The bedside table was covered in an assortment of medication his father was on.
His father laid silent on the bed. Was he asleep? Ahmad stepped closer to make sure. His eyes were open, but he appeared deep in thought, oblivious to Ahmad’s presence. Ahmad took the opportunity to take a good look at him. It had been eight years since he had left. Facing his father for the first time since then, he did not quite know how to feel.
He stood staring at the wizened face, adorned with wrinkles. But the most pronounced detail was the skin that had drooped on the left side of his face. A burst artery. Stroke. That was what the doctors had said.
His father’s left arm was curled up against his side, essentially paralysed. Ahmad could see how much both his left arm and leg had atrophied after months of disuse. Ahmad had been informed of his father’s condition, but seeing it for the first time almost made him feel sorry for the man.
“Abah…” It was not much but his father turned his head slightly towards the sound, blinking owlishly at his son.
“Abah.” He tried again. “I brought you your lunch.” He lifted the tray just a little to show his father the bowl of porridge.
Silence. Ahmad was used to his father being silent but this situation unnerved him. Recalling his conversation with Uncle Siva earlier, Ahmad was determined to set things right.
“I met Uncle Siva just now. He said you didn’t let him visit you?” Ahmad took a scoop of the porridge and blew gently at it before placing it on his father’s lip, urging it open. The old man turned his face away.
“Don’t be stubborn. You have to eat.” Ahmad let out a sigh. “You have to make things right with Uncle Siva also. He still cares about you, you know.”
His father used his working arm to push the bowl Ahmad was holding, causing it to crash onto the ground. Ahmad looked at the shattered pieces of glass and globs of porridge on the floor.
“Why are you so stubborn, hah?! Even now, even on your death bed, you still don’t want to forgive him?” Ahmad could not believe that he had felt sympathy for the withered man laying before him. “You keep pushing everybody away when all they are trying to do is help you!”
“He should’ve…” His voice was soft and mostly slurred, but Ahmad moved closer to understand what his father was saying. “He should’ve minded his own business.”
“All this anger, all this unnecessary suffering you’ve put yourself and everyone else around you-” Ahmad seethed at those words, “through, has been eating away at you. It’s like acid that burns through the vessel it is kept in, more than anything it is poured on. Trust me, okay?” He had learnt it because of him.
When his father did not respond, Ahmad gripped his father, struggling a little under the weight. His father moaned and thrashed about but even as he did so, the left side of his body was too paralysed to move. Treading carefully to avoid the mess on the floor, he picked his father up – the old man still thrashing about as much as he could – before seating him on the wheelchair in the corner of the room.
The bell clanged as Ahmad pushed the door open.
“Ahmad! I know I asked you to visit again but I never thought it would be so soon!”
Ahmad did not reply. He was a man on a mission. Keeping the door open, he went out and returned with his father, struggling a little to lift the wheelchair over the step.
“Well…” Uncle Siva’s eyebrows were raised. “This is a surprise.”
“Uncle Siva, my father…he…” Ahmad did not think ahead. “…he needs a haircut.”
“Well, alright then.” Uncle Siva walked over to the cart where he kept his barber materials and dragged it over to where Ahmad and his father were. He unfolded a plastic cape and draped it over Ahmad’s father who tried to push the offending material away from his body.
“Hamid, your hair is really long. It’s been a while, right?” Uncle Siva lifted a matted lock of hair off his head. It was greasy and clumped together. “Just let me do this for you, okay?”
His father sat, not making a sound, having no energy left to argue. Finally, he gave a little nod. He used his right hand to scratch at his head and then at the straggly hair growing around his chin. Uncle Siva watched his movements, understanding immediately what the man wanted. He reached for his clippers and pushed the other man’s head downwards, going through the unruly mess. Hair began to pile up on the man’s shoulders.
“I hate the new electric razors. I prefer them old school, you know.”
Hamid harrumphed in reply, making Uncle Siva laugh out loud. The sound surprised the both of them.
“Glad we can finally agree on something.”
Ahmad, satisfied with the exchange, picked up a comic before settling down on the bench.
They had a lot of catching up to do.
Writer, occasional traveller, and lurker of designer cafes. True to the English major spirit, my sustenance includes literature texts and copious amounts of tea.