I can't believe the barbershop is still there. Canberra is a new city, constantly in a state of growth and change. You don't really expect anything to stay the same, really, and usually it doesn't. But sometimes this city can surprise you.
The barbershop was run by Mr O'Brien, and he had been in business there since the thirties. He used to cut our hair in the days when there were very few barbers, let alone hairdressers in business in Canberra. There were two parts to his shop: the front part, which sold sporting goods (fishing tackle, lawn bowls, cricket bats, footballs) and operated a collection depot for dry cleaning. Every two weeks, my mother would take my brothers in for a haircut, and would leave the dry cleaning at the front counter. Sometimes, she would buy us a packet of Wrigley's Juicyfruit PK Chewing Gum (in her book, these were mysteriously exempt from the category of "rubbish" to which she consigned most cheap sweets, including bubble gum).
Inside the back part of the barbershop was another world. It was a big room, with a row of shabby old seats along the back wall. The only window had bars on it, and looked straight on to the brick wall of the adjacent shop. The lights were always on, because hardly any daylight penetrated into the room. The fluorescent lights bounced off the shiny white enamel painted walls. There were piles of old magazines to read while you waited: "Post", and "People" and one I remember which had naked women in it: Mr O'Brien snatched it away when he saw me peeking at it. There was a big old bakelite radio on a shelf at the back of the shop, constantly tuned to a station which played the races nonstop all day. It was a room of men. Old men lounged in the chairs at the back of the shop, exchanging cryptic conversation about the footie with the other barbers in the shop.
My presence was a bit of an anomaly in the place, I realise now. Certainly, when the conversation got a bit fruity, Mr O'Brien would grunt, and jerk his head in my direction. I would watch fascinated, as the young apprentice stropped the cut-throat razor on the strap hanging off the back of the big leather and chrome chair, lather up the face of the reclining client, and scrape away, ever so cleanly at the rich white foam. It was a male ritual, fascinatingly arcane. I still like to watch a man lather his face with a badger hair brush and shave, staring fixedly into the mirror.
My brothers would have their hair cut so short at the back and sides that there was nothing more than a bluish shadow left. They sat on a board placed across the barber chair, swathed in a big white sheet, their heads tipped forward while the barber's clippers worked up the backs of their necks, and the man-type conversation hung in the air. Afterwards, the barber would unpin the sheet from round their necks, swing them to the ground and flick the hair stubble onto the floor, where it would be swept up by the apprentice and his wide, black broom.
Mr O'Brien's is in Manuka, a suburb which has become fashionable for shopping and for its restaurants and night life. Most of the other places I remember: the cakeshop which sold good apple pie, the Top Hat Cafe, Bevan's Delicatessen, have long since succumbed to the developer and have transformed themselves into boutiques and overpriced restaurants. Last year, however, my brother and I stood in front of O'Brien's and peered in at the window display, completely unchanged. The bowls sets, the fishing rods and reels, the huge jars full of fishing flies, were all still there. My brother told me that Mr O'Brien was still working there, although he must be in his late eighties by now. He said that he had gone in, and asked him whether he still remembered him. Mr O'Brien peered closely at him, and said he looked very familiar. My brother said nothing had changed in the barber shop either, except that the radio at the back of the shop had been replaced by a ghetto blaster.
It satisfies me, this resistant piece of local history: it moves me, too, that when everything around it is changing, this little shop has remained obstinately itself, as foreign amongst the sleek boutiques and pretentious restaurants as a small girl in that back room, spinning out her PKs for as long as possible, thumbing the limp magazines and listening to the illicit conversation of men.
Last weekend my daughter was hit by a flying paintbrush (true!) and it split open her scalp. I had to take her to the doctor, who told me that he wouldn't stitch the wound, because it was too jagged to stitch easily. He told me that had it not been so messy a cut, he would have employed a new method for closing wounds: instead of the intervention of a local anaesthetic and the needles and suturing required in the conventional procedure, the doctor used strands of hair on either side of the lip of the wound, bringing them together and tying them off, thereby pulling the edges of the wound together. When the wound heals sufficiently, the patient simply snips the knotted hair away.