It was the end of the day as I swept the hair from the floor. It had been a slow afternoon and I’d seen my last customer over an hour before. Since then I’d been sitting, drinking tea and gazing at the door, wondering if I would ever have a full shop again.
Then the little bell at the top of the door tinkled. I looked up, expectantly. And dropped my cup.
I recognised the man at the door instantly. How could I not? His picture was on every poster pasted to every wall. I even had one in the shop. I dared not… I took a step backwards.
The Dictator’s Assistant pushed my door wide and stepped inside. Behind him the Dictator himself shuffled in, small and hunched, looking down. There were men outside with weapons, looking out onto the street.
I coughed, because I was nervous. “Excellency!” I said, trying to sound pleased.
The Assistant sniffed the air and looked past me, over my shoulder. The Dictator sat down in the first of my two barber’s stools, still looking fixedly at the floor.
Then the Assistant spoke. “You will cut His Excellency’s hair.” He sat down in the other seat. I opened my mouth to speak, but the Assistant silenced me with a look and a slight movement of his hand. “No razors. Show me your pockets.”
I turned them out, glancing over to the counter where I kept my razors. The Assistant walked over and took them. I suppressed my curse and wondered if I dared ask for them back when this was over. They were expensive razors, difficult to replace in these troubled times.
I coughed again and reached for my scissors. Normally I would ask how the customer wanted his hair, whether he wanted it styled or just trimmed. Where he wanted his parting, whether he wanted his eyebrows shaped. But I dared not ask.
“Would you like tea?” I said instead. The Assistant looked at me as if seeing me for the first time and curled that famous, cruel lip of his.
So I started cutting, slowly, nervously at first. Then more confidently. This was just another man, I told myself, despite the considerable evidence to the contrary. I proceeded in silence, broken only by the harsh rasping of the Dictator’s breath.
“This old fool is making me nervous,” said the Dictator, in English. Fitting, I thought, that he should speak the language of our traditional oppressors. I guess he thought I’d be too ignorant to understand it.
The Assistant laughed. “Well if you hadn’t shot the camp barber we wouldn’t have to be here at all.”
“He cut me.”
The Assistant laughed again. “That’s what barbers do. They’re all incompetent imbeciles. You should have let one of the men cut it.”
I was astounded the Assistant could be allowed to speak this way to His Excellency. I supposed I knew less about politics than I thought.
“They all hate me. I can’t trust men who hate me.”
“They love you, Excellency. We all do.”
I couldn’t make out whether the Assistant was mocking him. It seemed unlikely, but no more unlikely than seeing the Dictator here, in my shop.
“You think they’ll stay with me? When the time comes?”
The Assistant considered his fingernails. “They’ve followed you this far, haven’t they? They’re loyal, mostly.”
“It’s easy to be loyal when you’re winning.”
I cut in silence. The Dictator seemed to be considering his response. I took a chance and angled his head to one side, so I could reach more easily for the hair behind his left ear. The Assistant looked up.
“I’ve been cutting hair for a very long time, sir,” I said, in our language. ”You will have to trust me to know what I’m doing.” The Assistant seemed satisfied with this, and slumped down into his seat. I knew what would happen if I let my trembling fingers slip a little. As usual, I trusted fear to keep me safe.
The Assistant switched back to English. “We have to make a stand here.”
The Dictator looked up and I stepped back. “No stand. We’ll be trapped.”
The Assistant waved dismissively. “This place is easily defensible. Solid cliff walls behind us, only one way into the valley. A natural fortress.”
The Dictator looked miserable. I realised I’d stopped cutting and hurriedly restarted. I could not afford to let the Dictator think I understood what he was saying. I was astounded. For the Dictator to be talking about stands meant the war was going badly. It was obvious, really, otherwise he wouldn’t be here, and the nightly shelling wouldn’t be getting closer. But I’d chosen to believe what I was told, because that was the safest thing to do. And besides, the war had gone on for so long that I’d begun to think conflict was normal, in the way a full shop had once been.
“There’s an escape route?”
“Of course,” said the assistant.
“There’s a tunnel, through the mountains. Behind the sawmill at the north end of town. Nobody knows about it.”
“You seem to.”
“It’s been hidden for generations. The Christians…”
I’d never heard of such a tunnel. But this town had been under siege before, and somehow food kept arriving. The Christians had had their secrets.
“Where does it come out?”
The Assistant lowered his voice, but I could still hear him. I recognised the spot he described.
“We set up our camp there, then.” And for the first time the Dictator smiled. He turned to me and addressed me directly.
“You are finished.” It wasn’t a question. I stepped back and nodded.
“Thank you,” the Dictator said and smiled again. I masked my surprise. The Assistant opened the door for him and they both left.
I continued sweeping, less weary now, as I worked out the best way to let the rebels know about the secret passage, and where it emerged.
Mark Bilsborough writes Science Fiction and other things from a windswept hillside in England. He dreams of sunshine and warm beaches.