Benjamin was eating anchovies on the top deck of the Clapham omnibus when he’d seen Sherwood’s face plastered across a billboard. Of course, he knew Sherwood worked in show business, but having no TV and no interest in cinema, never imagined he was actually a star.
Benjamin tried to move from the window, but Sherwood’s ’s eyes pinned him to his seat, and when he saw the film – Sweeney Todd: A Shave Too Close – he immediately lost his appetite
Snow was falling the morning Sherwood, shadowed by two simpering acolytes, first stepped into Benjamin’s salon. Despite the hour, all three appeared drunk and Benjamin watched in bewilderment as they gamboled before him like nascent crane flies. He hated them instantly; They talked around him and beneath their gaze, his shop and all it contained – the spotless towels and scrubbed floors; the soft, silk lilies in the window — seemed immediately diminished.
Although Benjamin pleaded for order, the three — finding a mop handle and a pot of shaving cream – proceeded to improvise a skit so abhorrent, the memory of it disrupted Benjamin’s sleep for months. It was only when Benjamin threatened them with genuine tears, they finally ceded and took their seats.
With a click of his fingers, Sherwood instructed Benjamin to shave his cohorts first. On hearing this, his cohorts suffered such violent paroxysms of gratitude, Sherwood lost his temper and, leaping to his feet, grabbed their noses and twisted hard until they shut up.
Except for the sound of snivelling, the salon fell silent.
Once Benjamin set to work, he relaxed a little and began to whistle quietly. He paid no attention to Sherwood, assuming he would sit patiently and wait his turn. He was wrong. A moment later and without warning, Sherwood turned his chair and in a booming voice, began to appraise and arraign every aspect of Benjamin’s workmanship. Too terrified to confront Sherwood, it wasn’t until later, after his epiphany on the bus, he understood why: Sherwood believed his current role, and all the pretending and dressing up it entailed, had in some inscrutable way, bestowed upon him an unimpeachable expertise in barbering.
As he settled up, Sherwood stroked his chin and declared his shave, the closest in London. He pledged to return and although Benjamin welcomed it, truthfully he would rather have locked up than serve them again. Later, however, after learning of Sherwood’s fame, he was relieved his pragmatism had interceded: once word of Sherwood’s patronage spread, the customers rolled in and profits soared.
In the following weeks, when not directing Benjamin’s hand, Sherwood would talk of past exploits; embellishing his tales with every lascivious detail but not a single name. Initially, Benjamin had interpreted these omissions as tact, but as Sherwood revealed more of himself, his opinion changed: Neither Sherwood nor his anecdotes were ennobled by these discretions, instead they exposed the mind of a benighted man; the type of man who scattered pain and misery and maintained a causal connection to his past — not so he might sleep, eat and conduct his business with clear eyes – but out of sheer indolence.
The last time Sherwood visited Benjamin’s salon, he arrived alone and in some disorder: his face appeared to have suffered a rolling boil and his trench coat — torn at the sleeve — reeked of the midnight places Benjamin considered no better than abattoirs.
Today, he offered no advice.
After a long silence, Sherwood asked if Benjamin believed in God.
“Of course, Mr. Sherwood.”
“If someone was to collate every atrocity perpetrated in this city on just one night, I guarantee, before you reached the end of page one, you wouldn’t anymore.”
“I very much doubt th…”
Sherwood dropped his head and moaned long and low.
Benjamin became consumed with rage: he could withstand the attacks on his professionalism, but to question his faith?
“Your presence is a pestilence,” he mouthed and with a deft flick of his wrist, sliced a lump of flesh from the apex of Sherwood’s Adam’s apple. It dropped to the floor like a clove of garlic.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Screamed Sherwood and tearing the towel from his neck, pressed it hard against the wound.
“Sorry, sorry I’ll get a bandage,” said Benjamin and disappeared through a beaded curtain.
When he returned, all that remained of Sherwood was the blood on the towel curled in his empty seat.
Picking it up, Benjamin squeezed the livid stain in his fist, then lifting his trembling fingers in his mouth, sucked and slobbered on them like he’d just devoured a full rack of Mrs Henderson’s stickiest ribs.
When he’d finished, he dropped the towel into a zip-lock bag and walked to the window. Benjamin knew he would see Sherwood again soon and noticing the soft, silk lilies, decided that it was perhaps time to buy real ones.
GJ Hart currently lives and works in Brixton, London and has had stories published in The Jersey Devil Press, The Harpoon Review, 99 Pine Street, The Jellyfish Review, Foliate Oak, The Eunoia Review and others. He can be found arguing with himself over @gj_hart.