Clean Him Up, We Drop Him Off at Boarding School Tomorrow
“Let’s see if we can get Andrew a haircut today,” my father had suggested that morning, while we were getting ready. My Christmas present that year, a complete surprise to me, had been a new suitcase. And a plane ticket to London, England. My elder brother had not been trusted, necessarily, to be home on his own while we vacationed, but nor did our parents trust taking him to a foreign country. Our parents had signed him up for a school ski trip, with lots of chaperones.
I hated to admit it, but it was fantastic having my parents to myself for a few days. We did all the usual tourist trap stuff- Buckingham Palace changing of the guards, a day trip to Stonehenge while we froze half to death, the Tower of London, the British Museum. The flight back was scheduled for two days later. “And maybe you can pick what we do today,” he added. So, when we walked into a London neighbourhood barber shop, I was a little surprised. My dad had a preferred barber back in Calgary, a German immigrant who was an expert at wielding a set of clippers over me, keeping my hair tight and neat, too short for a comb and buzzed clean at the back and sides. Why wouldn’t we just pop in to see Gunter before I returned to school? I figured our schedule was probably not going to cooperate with my father’s preference to keep me buzzed close and clean. I hadn’t given it a second thought until the barber eyed my finger-length hair and asked my father what he was thinking. “Clean him up,” Dad replied. “We drop him off at boarding school tomorrow.”
I looked up at my dad, all the while being guided to a high-backed black leather chair. “That’s why we’re here?” I squeaked. My dad nodded, looking a bit embarrassed that they had kept it from me. “Andrew will be attending a new school in a few days. Let’s make a good first impression,” he added, letting the barber know that he preferred me to be clipped with a one-sixteenth blade on top, and tapered down to a one-thirty-two at the back and sides, down further to a clean-cut nape and at least a clipper width clean above the ears. “And your boy sits for that, does he?” as a cape was wrapped around my shoulders, tissue around my neck. Gunter was always gentle and kind while he shaved. This was a pretty firm hand on my shoulder. “Yes, Andrew is well-behaved,” Dad replied. “Did I do something wrong?” I asked Dad, as the London barber grabbed a wide clipper and got to work. “Not at all,” Dad replied, the first path of shavings falling down. “You said once that you wished you could go to a school where nobody knew Kevin.”
I exhaled, while another pass of the clipper sent shavings flying down the cape. “I was thinking more like another school in Calgary,” I admitted. “Are you and Mom mad at me? Is that why you’re sending me away?” I couldn’t help but feel that I had done something wrong and was being punished for it. I watched more shavings roll down the cape, falling from my shoulders as gravity took over and the weight of cuttings started to pile up. It never felt like I had much length until I saw cuttings and calculated about half an inch. Dad sat down in the chair next to me and explained that he and Mom had noticed that my teachers always either judged me for being Kevin’s brother, or they assumed they didn’t need to teach me because things would always come easy to me because of Dad’s money. Either way, I wasn’t being challenged enough. “But why England?” I asked, as the barber guided my head sideways so he could start to plow away at the sides. I felt the blades, warm now after shaving the top of my head. They were plunked firmly against the side of head and quickly pulled back, from temple to ear, leaving clean skin behind. A second pass ensured no strays had been left behind. Gunter usually gave me a clipper width, but his clippers were about an inch and a half wide. This London barber’s clippers were at least two inches.
Dad sighed. “We looked in Canada. Every place your mother called for information, the first thing they asked when she gave her name was if it was Fitzgerald like Fitzgerald Oil.” Of course. No matter where I went, Dad’s name went with me. Or Kevin’s. “We’re too late to send you to Switzerland or Germany, we’ve never taught you enough languages. So that left England or the States.” I could understand why they wanted England, but a name like Fitzgerald wouldn’t exactly be a welcome name here. Now it really was up to me to prove myself.
It made sense. I sat in silence as the back of my head was shaved clean, then the other side. I wished I’d known, because Gunter could have given me a farewell haircut, instead of this strange barber who seemed determine to make it hurt for some reason. “If we’d told you, your last few weeks of school would have been miserable,” Dad added, rubbing the top of my head. “Every time Bryce or Simon or your teacher did something annoying, you’d remind yourself you wouldn’t have to deal with it for much longer. But every day would take forever to finish. When you said goodbye to your friends at Christmas, it would have been sad for you.” It wouldn’t have. I had no friends at school. Bryce, who hated me, and had to put up with me because his parents and mine were friends. Simon, who still hadn’t looked me in the eye. A teacher who was embarrassed to have led a lynch mob against me and a principal who was embarrassed that my mother had to shame him into admitting his mistake. Nobody at my new school cared that my father in Canada owned a small oil company. Their fathers ran bigger ones. They were the children of people with titles. Some were the children of second marriages or mistresses. I found a home at boarding school, because nobody there cared who my father or brother were. Most of the students were kids who weren’t at Eton, they were the forgotten second children like me.
When I arrived, the teacher who was tasked with taking me to my dorm and showing me around scowled when he saw my extremely short hair. “We prefer finger-length,” he informed me. “This isn’t military school.” It took me weeks to get used to such a “sloppy” length. The first time I walked into the barbershop for a trim, I was disappointed when my hair was sprayed wet and cut with scissors over comb. I actually found myself missing home, missing the efficiency and precision of Gunter’s clippercuts.
Clean Him Up, We Drop Him Off at Boarding School Tomorrow