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Move your head again and I\'ll cut you

“We don’t do cheap haircuts, we do good haircuts cheap”

Sounds like Bruce’s kind of establishment, even if at twenty bucks their cheap was $8 more than his last chop in Footscray and $16 more than the one prior to that.

That said, the Footscray chop was memorable only because it was carried out in a shop called Sexy Hair by a gloriously camp Vietnamese fellow who appeared to list among his idols David Niven (moustache), Morrisey (hair), 1986 Embassy World Snooker Champion Joe Johnson (shoes), Dermot O’Hare (turtleneck and trousers) and Liberace (flamboyance and shop decor: much shiny purple). I should point out Bruce was already through the door that advertised $12 cuts before noticing the above and was in need of comfort after the elderly Vietnamese chaps playing chess in a back street had refused to let him join in.

Cheap and nasty

If that cut was average at best, it was certainly a class apart from that handed out in Bangkok. Ask an idiot where to get a cheap haircut in Chinatown and some would say you’re asking for trouble. But, as Bruce trekked off down the dingy, litter-strewn alleyway adjacent to his hotel, he was not to be deterred, not even when the ageing woman appearing from the shadows, face pasty with a vat load of foundation, did turn out to be a prostitute (think the mystery woman in the brilliant Chungking Express).

How much?

No, even when the hairdressers turned out to be a sepia-tinted (through cigarette smoke rather than nostalgic longing) meeting room for a dozen of Chinatown’s elderly women, his determination to save a few baht was not diminished. In fact, a combination of the inability of anyone in the room to speak English (until they sent for reinforcements), the dubious quality of the job on the previous client, the lack of a sharp pair of scissors or any fittings for the clippers and raucous laughter from all present as the massacre of Bruce’s hair unfolded was still not enough to persuade him to leave.

Fifteen nervous, sweaty minutes later, he had not so much undergone a haircut, as a short course in alopecia. The old woman did at least redeem herself with a brief head and shoulder massage and the recently arrived interpreter was able to inform Bruce that the creepy looking lady who’d been moving ever closer thought he was “a handsome boy”.

Stepping back in time

Still, lesson not learnt, into St Kilda’s sole remaining barber shop he headed.

“Omph uurhh. Eeyah,” said the be-mulleted woman, her mouth stuffed full of partially-eaten toast. (Again, the mullet should have been a warning sign) Bruce moved in the direction her finger had indicated.

“No. Omph uurh aarh kuht. Oor eeyah,” she said, this time with meaning. He began to lower himself into a chair.

“No – gulp – Put your coat there. You’re over here,” she said, mastication complete. Confusion over, the cut began, a series of rapid hand movements and sharp prods of the scalp.

“You’ve got an interesting place here. I like the old furnishings,” Bruce ventured timidly.

Haircut, sir?

“That’s cos you’re in a barbers, not some bloody hairdressers. They don’t know how to cut hair anymore. These hairdressers just don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t teach people how to be barbers. I did my apprenticeship 30 years ago when I was 14. I’m 44 now…..”

Jeez. Should never have asked. It was a nice shop though, proper cut throat blades ‘n’ all. You could almost imagine you had stepped back in time. To the time of Sweeney Todd it turns out.

“If you move your head again, I will cut you!” she snapped. There was a smile on her face, but wasn’t there one on Michael Madsen’s too? Either way, it wasn’t a good time to have forgotten cash.

“It’s OK, I trust you,” she said, sending him off to the ATM. So much so she was waiting, fag in mouth, at the end of Acland Street by the time Bruce returned with his twenty. “Cheers love. See you again.”

And she will. Anything for a good haircut cheap.

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$300 well spent

It wasn’t even my first visit to the sweaty maze of barely concealed tourist traps that is Bangkok. Or my second. Or indeed third. Yet, back in the city for a fourth time to catch our flight to Melbourne, I somehow found myself being escorted into the tailor’s shop by an eager salesman.

 

The warning signs were plentiful: the row of haphazardly parked tuk-tuks lining the kerb, their drivers sharing cigarettes and knowing smiles safe in the knowledge they were in line for another cut; the rough tattoo, tattered cream sports jacket and hooded shifting eyes of my allocated salesman, Rupert; the misspelt declarations of the joint’s unsurpassed reputation and leading international clients. All of those, and the simple fact that no one in a tuk-tuk ever offers you something for nothing: just because something is a good deal, don’t assume you’re on the right side of the bargain.

 

So why was I there? Well, we’d just learnt our shipping was delayed so I did need a suit. More than that, however, it was because I trusted the grinning, moonfaced simpleton who had led us to our rooms at the splendid Shanghai Inn, in Chinatown. I should have known better, but he was working at a reputable hotel, rather than a cockroach-infested pit off the Khao San Road, so I surmised that surely he wouldn’t be associated with – be allowed to be associated with – any of the city’s multitude of scams. And he did smile a lot in a very simple way. Harmless, bless him.

 

Rupert’s sales pitch had started and already I was flicking through the photos of models in designer suits arranged in a plastic folder like the GCSE fashion project of a disinterested teen. The pile of different fabrics was piling up on the table in front of us and we’d taken up the offer of a free bottle of water (“I’m going to get something out of this,” I thought defiantly, pathetically).

 

“I can do you this suit, with the best quality, for 15,000 baht,” he said.

 

“That’s a lot of money. I’ve got a budget and £250 is way, way outside of it.”

 

“It’s not that much,” he said, picking up a calculator and punching in some numbers. “We use 65 baht for the exchange rate to British sterling.”

 

“I’m sure you do,” I said, “but that’s not the real rate, is it,” yet found myself warming to the monetary jousting that was underway. Now I was trying on different styles of jacket in front of a mirror.

 

“One side hangs lower than the other,” I said. There was no doubting that there was more than an inch of difference. I turned to Fran for her agreement, which was offered reluctantly.

 

“Some people have sloping shoulders so maybe this was made to a cut for someone with uneven shoulders,” the assistant suggested rather ridiculously.

 

“Wouldn’t you have thought it was better to have one that wasn’t like that for fittings?” I asked. “It gives me no confidence whatsoever in what you make here.”

 

If we had needed any further encouragement to walk away, this was it. But he was undeterred and started to take my measurements. The price was down to 6,500 baht, at a limit I had set myself when setting off from the hotel – and I did need a suit. I’d seen his order book too, as he tried to dazzle me with the United Nations of customers he had served. My eyes had focused straight on the prices people had paid. None had paid nearly as little as 6,500 baht. My Scottish heritage told me I was getting a bargain.

 

“I will get my tailors to make this overnight, you come back for your fitting tomorrow and I’ll deliver it to your hotel in the evening,” said Rupert. We were flying 48 hours later so this was possible.

 

“If I agree to this, I’m not paying until I’ve tried on the finished suit and am happy with it,” I told him.

 

“That is not possible, sir,” he said, the final word grating in the knowledge his outer show of respect was a facade; all he saw was a wallet. “We can’t take the suits off site until they’ve been paid for in full.”

 

“In that case, I’ll come back and try it before paying,” I said. “If the sides of the jacket are uneven, I’m not having it.”

 

Before we left, like an idiot, I paid a 2,000 baht deposit. And agreed to a second pair of trousers.

 

***

 

Thieving gits!

 

Forty eight hours later, and only three hours before we had to leave for the airport, I returned to collect the suit. The trousers had fitted perfectly the previous day and seemed sturdy enough so I had more confidence in Rupert and his friends when I arrived. We still had plenty to do before catching our taxi so the mood was slightly frantic, however.

 

I slipped on the jacket – fitted jacket, that is – and the right hand side sagged badly below the chest. It should have been sat snuggly, but had the appearance of a tea towel slung over my shoulder.

 

“What the hell do you call that?” I asked Rupert, as he patted it down and genuflected his way around me as if I were one of his Hindu gods in need of worship.

 

“It’s fine, sir. Really, it’s fine,” he said. “Once it has been dry-cleaned this will come out.”

 

“Once it’s been dry-cleaned?” I said in disbelief. “Since when has the first thing you do with a new suit been to have it dry-cleaned to make it fit? Dry-cleaning is not going to tighten up an inch and a half of slack material.”

 

He began pinching up the cloth and insisting it could be taken up. Then they would deliver it to the hotel in time for our taxi.

 

“I’m not paying for it in advance. How can I trust you to get it right this time?” I said. “You’ve given me no reason to believe you’ll get it right. I don’t care how good a deal it is supposed to be, you’ve still entered into a contract with me and so far you’ve not delivered. I don’t care if it’s five baht, 500 baht or 50,000 baht, I still expect you to deliver what you promised.”

 

I could feel myself swelling, an unfamiliar mix of anger and confidence propelled by the inner shame that I’d ever come to the tailor’s in the first place. He walked from the room and returned moments later with one of his younger assistants. The second man’s role was merely to stand there, arms folded. He was either meant to be a threat, or back up. It clearly wasn’t the first time he had been required to fulfill such a role while Rupert, whose eyes looked not so much fitful as murderous now, continued to pathetically preen.

 

“Look, I’ve lost the deposit already, so I’m not going to walk away with nothing,” I said. “If you think you can fix this in an hour, then do it. I’ve got stuff to do back at the hotel so I want you to pay for the taxi I’ve taken now and the one I’ll have to take again later and I’ll have to be happy with what you do in the next hour.”

 

Remarkably, I was. It had been more effort than I hoped, had resulted in a stand off, panic and a rush to the airport, but I left Thailand pleased at the outcome.

 

I also left the suit in the taxi from Tullamarine Airport to our serviced apartment never to be seen again.

 

I’m an idiot. On so many levels.

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