I had never been a one barber guy until I met Bobby. That was when I first moved to Surulere. It had been two years, and in that period, no other barber had touched my hair. It was Bobby or nothing. Before then, getting a haircut or shave had always been about convenience. Sometimes, I would recline at my desk at work and run my fingers along the sides of my face. I would get irritated by the straggly beards, and decide to get a shave on my way home. Other times, I would be out somewhere, spot a barber’s shop and decide I might as well get my hair cut. My hair clipper was always in the backseat of the car.
Meeting Bobby was fortuitous. I was on my way home from work one evening when I realized I hadn’t made enough copies of some court processes that I had to file early the next morning. I needed to find somewhere I could make extra copies that evening. I began to drive slowly when I turned into Ajao Street, hopeful that there would be somewhere to make photocopies in the shacks that lined the road. I parked my car on the other side and darted across the road. I walked slowly, parallel to the road, keeping an eye out for those “make your photocopy here” signs. I could see a store that sold stationery, another that sold bootlegged DVDs, but nothing that looked like what I was looking for.
I decided to ask someone. There was a man standing in the doorway of a shop to my right, his back to me.
“Excuse me,” I said, tapping him on the shoulder.
He turned around. He was about my height, slim and light complexioned. He had jet black hair, neatly styled into waves and a full, lustrous beard.
“Please do you know if there is any business center around here?” I asked. “I need to make some photocopies.”
“Ah, sure,” he said. “Let me show you.”
I followed him to a tin roofed shack, a few metres away. I stooped to peer inside. In the dim light, I could make out a young girl seated on a stool, slumped over a copier, asleep.
“Hello!” I called out loudly. “I want to make some photocopies”.
The girl rose up groggily from the stool, rubbing her eyes.
I turned to the man beside me. “Thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome,” he replied with a smile, and then very quickly added: “Sir, that’s my barbing saloon there.” He pointed to the shack where he had been standing when I first saw him. “Anytime you need a fine haircut, I’m here for you.”
“No wahala,” I muttered, beginning to turn back.
“My name is Bobby,” he said, stretching out his hand.
I hesitated, wondering what the formality was all about.
“Nice to meet you,” I finally said, grasping his hand.
Bobby didn’t seem to mind that I didn’t introduce myself.
“Nice to meet you sir,” he replied, flashing a smile.
Bobby’s place wasn’t far from my house, so I decided, the following week, I might as well try him out. I didn’t expect him to recognize me, but the exuberant way he welcomed me immediately quashed my doubts.
I was struck by his dressing. He was wearing a slim pair of corduroy pants and a button down collar checked shirt, neatly tucked in. His shoes were once white sneakers. His red nerd glasses finished off the distinctive look. Although none of what he wore looked expensive, I could tell that deliberate effort had gone into his appearance.
The barber’s shop was small – its dimensions no more than 10 feet on either side. It was sparsely furnished: two barber’s chairs equally spaced apart in front of a rectangular mirror on the wall; and underneath the mirror, nailed into the wall, a wooden slab that served as a makeshift shelf. Bobby shared the shop with another barber – a much older Yoruba man he called Baba.
Bobby was very meticulous in the way he went about cutting my hair. First, with an elaborate sweep, he spread the barber’s cape over me and then deftly fastened it around my neck. Then he arranged my haircutting kit – hair brush, duster, combs and aftershave – carefully on the shelf, like a surgeon arranging his tools. He spent almost a minute sterilizing the clipper, even though it was mine. I found it all slightly irritating. But I was impressed with the cleanness of the shave when he was done.
I was also impressed by his English. It was near faultless. He never used a wrong tense or pronounced a word wrongly. I asked him once how much education he had, and immediately regretted asking the question. He launched into a nearly 10 minute long account of his life: how he was born in Benin in the early 80s to a single mother who sold bread on the streets; how she had slaved away to see him and his siblings through school; how he had written “JAMB” 5 years in a row since leaving secondary school, and failed each time; how he had started “this barber work” as a means of earning a living whilst he saved up for the cost of the application forms as well as private tutoring; and how it remained his dream to be a university graduate someday. He wouldn’t have stopped, if not that there was no hair left to cut.
After that encounter, I knew Bobby would take a mile if I gave him an inch. So I deliberately avoided conversation. As soon as he began talking, I would bring out my mobile phone and bury myself in my Twitter and Facebook feeds. I showed no interest in anything he said; grunting monosyllables in reply to his pointed questions. He seemed to figure out that I wasn’t interested in making conversation, and his chitchat dwindled as the weeks went by. I came in, usually after giving him a call first to check that he was around and there were no other customers waiting; got a haircut and a shave in 10, 15 minutes; paid him; he thanked me and I left. It was extremely efficient.
Bobby was also a salesman; there was nothing he didn’t try to sell to me. This week, it was a leather clipper satchel bag, the next week it was some revolutionary shaving bumps lotion. I bought most of what he pressed on me; it was hard to resist his insistence. It wasn’t until I saw on Konga the same clipper he had sold me a few weeks back for half the price he had sold it to me that I realized he had been shafting me.
I was upset about it and challenged him the next time we saw. He protested and swore he hadn’t cheated me. That the clipper he had sold me was an original and that his gain on it was a mere thousand Naira. But he had a sheepish look about him and kept apologizing. I calmed down and sat down to get my hair cut. At least he didn’t give me shaving bumps, I said to myself.
I first met Bobby’s girlfriend a few months after I started using him. He didn’t have to introduce her; I knew, from the way she strutted around, and the deliberate way he acted around her, who she was. I also knew from the minute I set my eyes on her that I didn’t like her and that she was the wrong choice for Bobby.
I don’t know if my dislike had to do with her appearance – heavy makeup; fake eyelashes; blonde-dyed hair; lots of bling-bling. She couldn’t have been older than 17 or 18 and it wasn’t even 9 in the morning. Or maybe it had to do with the fact that she came into the barber’s shop and didn’t greet a single person – not even Baba. Bobby asked that I excuse him and took her to a corner. In the mirror, I saw him bring out a wad of money and press it into her palm. I shook my head in pity. I was certain this fake, snotty girl would only be a liability to a young, hardworking man struggling to better his life. But it was none of my business, so I reached for my mobile phone on the shelf.
I arrived at the barber’s shop one wet Sunday evening, and was surprised to find a guy I didn’t know standing over Bobby’s barber’s chair. I stopped in my tracks.
“Bros, you need haircut?” the strange man asked.
“Where is Bobby?” I asked.
“Bobby?” he repeated, a confused look on his face. “I don’t know who is Bobby”.
Baba wasn’t around to ask; he didn’t work on Sundays.
“Bros, try me. I dey barb correct.”
But I was no longer listening to him. I whipped out my phone, and soon had one of Bobby’s weird highlife caller tunes blaring in my ears. I had his number on my speed dial.
“Hello sir,” I heard Bobby chirp.
“Where are you? I’m at your shop.”
“Ah. I’ve left that place sir. I now have my own shop. Give me 5 minutes; I’m coming to get you.”
I stood at the entrance, my clipper bag swinging in one hand, waiting for him. The new guy must have figured out that it was no use, and was now seated on the barber’s chair that used to be Bobby’s, quietly observing me. I stepped out of the shop as soon as I spotted Bobby’s yellow smiling face bobbing along as he jogged across the road towards me.
“Good evening sir,” he said, immediately collecting the clipper bag from me as was his habit. “I’ve left this place o. I now have my own barbing saloon.” His face was flushed, whether from excitement or breathlessness, I couldn’t tell.
I asked him where this new place was and whether I needed to take my car. There was no need to take the car, he told me. It was nearby and besides the road was bad.
“So you moved to a new place and didn’t think you should let me know,” I said, as we crossed to the other side of the road.
“Ah, no o,” Bobby protested. “I Whatsapped you. You didn’t get my WhatsApp?”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know whether to be amused or irritated that he felt it was okay to send me a message on WhatsApp instead of calling.
We soon turned into a side street. It was riddled with puddles. I treaded carefully to avoid flecks of mud splashing on the bottoms of my pants. We passed some kids making a racket as they played football in the yard in front of a house. Their hands and feet were encrusted with mud. We kept going. I was getting irritated. Maybe I should just have allowed the new guy cut my hair. We came upon a refuse dump that gave off a terrible stench. I plugged my nostrils with my thumb and index finger as we went past. I had never been to this part of Surulere before; I didn’t even know it existed. I was just about to ask where the hell we were going when we arrived at a wooden stall. Bobby stopped in front of it, turned towards me and announced with a smile: “Welcome to my barbing saloon sir.”
His new place was about half the size of the old one. It was like a box. In one corner was a wooden chair, facing a small mirror. In the opposite corner was another chair, and behind it a hairdryer and wash basin. Did he also plan on having a hair saloon for women in here, inside this shithole that could barely take two people? I couldn’t believe it.
I sat down without saying a word, staring at my angry reflection in the mirror whilst Bobby got my things out of the clipper bag. The chair wasn’t high enough – all I could see in the mirror were my head and shoulders. Why would he leave the old place for this? As far as I was concerned, this wasn’t progress. It was like an oven inside the stall. It had no window and there was little the lone fan mounted on the wall could do. Bobby wiped the sweat from my head intermittently, with my face towel, apologizing profusely as he did. Although I was seething inside, I still didn’t say anything. I just wanted him to be done so that I could get out of there.
When he was done, I didn’t wait for the customary brush down before stepping outside. He joined me shortly and handed my clipper bag to me. I gave him the five hundred Naira note I had removed from my wallet whilst waiting.
“Here’s my complimentary card sir”, he said handing me a card in return.
The edges of the card weren’t evenly cut, and its cardboard was of an inferior quality. Splashed in bright gold lettering were the words “Bobby Super Barbing Saloon”; the ink of the letter “n” in “saloon” smudged.
I looked up from the card to find Bobby looking intently at me, a glint of pride in his eyes. I knew the proper thing to do was to congratulate him. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I nodded, brought out my wallet from my back trouser pocket and carefully tucked the card into one of the slots.
I don’t know what it was that made me stick with Bobby after he got his own place. But I was back there the following weekend, and the one after that. The things I hated most about the new place were having to park my car some way off and finish the rest of the journey by foot because sections of the road were in very bad condition and the cramped, airless inside of the barber’s shop.
He shared the stall with a hairdresser called Ada. I found out that that they had pooled resources together to acquire and furnish the stall, and also shared the costs of fueling and maintaining the generator. The generator couldn’t power the clipper and hairdryer at the same time, so whenever there was no power and they both had customers, someone had to wait for a few minutes for the other person to be done. Each time, Bobby would plead with Ada that he was almost done and that she should give him a few minutes. She usually agreed, grudgingly.
Bobby told me about how opening his own barber shop was the best decision he had ever made. Back at his former place, he had to remit as much as half of his daily earnings to the owner of shop. Now he was making enough money to be able to save some.
“That’s if your babe doesn’t collect everything from you,” I quipped, unable to help myself.
Bobby doubled over and roared with laughter. He looked both surprised and delighted that I would make such a joke.
“Sir,” he began, when he finally stopped laughing, “But you understand these things. You know your boy has to represent.”
“No problem then,” I replied. “Give her all your money and be drinking garri.”
Bobby laughed again, a hearty laughter that seemed to come from the inside of his belly.
“Sir, I can’t lie,” he said, in a quieter tone. “I love that girl.”
I didn’t say anything else after that, and he cut the rest of my hair in silence.
Bobby practically lived in the barber’s shop. I was surprised when I called him at past 9 pm on a weekday and he said he was still at work and I could come over. He was as bright and chirpy as ever when I arrived. As he took my things out of the clipper bag, several voices outside chorused “Bobby Super!” He acknowledged their cheers with a raised fist. Apparently, that was now his nickname in the neighbourhood. I caught a glimpse of his grin in the mirror. I was genuinely glad for him.
Bobby had just started with my hair, one Saturday morning, about a month after he opened his barber shop, when his girlfriend appeared in the doorway. There was something ominous about her manner.
Bobby immediately leaned closer to me and whispered, “Please sir, can you excuse me for one minute?”
I nodded. He switched off the clipper, set it down and quickly stepped outside. They stood facing each other, in hushed conversation. I decided to check what was happening on Twitter. I looked up from my phone a few minutes later. They were still talking.
“Guy, hurry up abeg,” I snapped. Did he think I had all day?
Bobby hurried back inside.
“Sorry sir.” Then to Ada: “Please help me give her a chair to sit on.”
Ada carried the other chair outside. Bobby’s girlfriend sat on it, waiting for him to finish. I wasn’t in a hurry though. I deliberately asked Bobby to go over this and trim that; I wanted to keep her waiting for as long as I could. As I stepped out of the stall, I glared at her with disdain. She glared back at me, fearlessly.
The following weekend, I noticed something odd about Bobby – a distracted air about him, like he had something on his mind.
“Is everything okay?” I asked him, as I retrieved money from my wallet to pay him.
“Yes sir,” he replied, forcing a smile.
“Are you sure?” I pressed.
“Yes sir; no problem sir,” he said, this time with a more convincing smile.
“Where’s Bobby?” I asked Ada, as I stepped inside the barber’s shop. “I’ve been trying to call him, but his phone is switched off.”
“Haa,” Ada cried, “They’ve arrested Bobby o.”
“What do you mean? Who arrested him?”
I listened in silence as Ada narrated how Bobby had gotten his girlfriend pregnant and procured an abortion for her at a backstreet hospital. The abortion had gone awry and almost resulted in her death. Her dad, an Assistant Superintendent of Police, was livid and had gotten Bobby arrested and locked up at Area C. According to Ada, he had been in detention for almost a week. I asked her what efforts had been made to get him out on bail. She said his roommate and some friends had been to the police station, and were asked to bring N500,000. The policemen claimed most of the money was to offset the medical expenses of Bobby’s girlfriend, who was still under admission at the General Hospital. The demand had been negotiated down to N100,000, but amongst themselves Bobby’s friends had only been able to raise a fraction of it.
“What about his family?” I asked.
“He no get family for Lagos,” Ada replied.
I shook my head. I had been so right that that bitch was only going to get him into trouble.
“This is serious,” I muttered, folding my arms over my chest.
Ada and I stood looking at each other in silence. Although she hadn’t said anything about whether I could help, I could tell from the expectant look on her face what she was thinking. But there was no way I was getting involved in this. I didn’t even have to think about it. This wasn’t my problem, and I wasn’t going to make it mine.
It was a good thing too that I had always kept conversation with Bobby to the minimum – I would probably have been the first person he would have called after his arrest if he knew I was a lawyer. Then I would have been forced to go to the police station, and argue with the policemen that bail was free until I was hoarse. Eventually, we would have come to a compromise. Then I’d have had to fork out maybe N50,000 of my own money to “settle” the policemen and then chase after Bobby for reimbursement for the next two years.
“Well, they have to release him eventually,” I said, breaking the silence. “They can’t keep him locked up forever.”
My parting words to Ada, as I turned around to leave were: “I would check back next week.”
I suspected that something was wrong, when I saw, from a distance, a group of people huddled in front of the barber’s shop. Then I realized that the barber’s shop wasn’t open – I could see the giant padlock on the barricade across the door. What the hell was going on?
When I got to closer, I saw that everyone wore long, mournful faces. One of the women was in tears. She looked familiar – yes, it was the tailor from down the road that sometimes came around the barber’s shop to chat with Ada.
“My God,” I heard one of the women cry, “they just wasted that boy’s life.”
I didn’t have to ask who she was talking about. Bobby was dead. The circumstances of his death were unclear. One version of the story was that he had been tortured whilst in police detention and bled to death from internal injuries. The police maintained he had suffered an asthmatic attack in the middle of the night, had been rushed to a nearby hospital, but was dead on arrival. No one believed their story. Someone talked about how Bobby had tried to persuade his girlfriend to keep the baby. But his girlfriend, Aoise – who had only just finished secondary school – had said her father would kill her.
Later that night, as I lay in bed thinking, I reached for my phone on the bedside table. I opened WhatsApp and navigated to my chats. My heartbeat quickened as I scrolled down. Would I find a message from Bobby informing me of his arrest and pleading for help? There was one message from him, but it was sent several months back. I had never opened it. It read: “Gud evening sir. Just 2 inform u i now have my own barbing saloon located at Banjoko Street behind Celestial Church. Thanks for ur patronage. Bobby”.
© Olutola Bella June 2015
Post script: We’ve been thinking for sometime about what to do with this blog, what else we could talk about, without losing our identity. Since we enjoy telling stories, we’ve decided to add short fiction to the offering on bellanchi. We hope you enjoyed this story and would be glad if you shared it with your friends.