Black Country fiction: Gooseflesh, by Michael Jarvie

In memoriam Kassamali Moledina and Amirali Moledina

One of those familiar poles, with alternating bands of red and white, can be found outside the barber’s shop on the Soho Road in Handsworth. Its semiotic significance has always been eclipsed by the remarkable optical illusion of upward movement of the helicoidal stripes, which in reality are only travelling about the axis.

In the display window I can see an array of items arranged on glass shelves: aftershave lotion, coconut hair oil, shampoo bottles; cans of hairspray, disposable razors, a pack of shaving brushes; a chromium-plated mirror, packets of contraceptives, black nylon combs.

I come here about once a month. The barber pronounces ‘hair cut’ as ‘air cut’. Tufts of what appear to be steel wool frame his tonsure. Once I’m settled in the chair he covers me with a white nylon sheet and puts a black yoke over my shoulders before he sets to work.

The vibrating diaphragm inside the transistor radio emits a comforting babble, but the drone of the electric clippers never fails to annoy me − a swarm of wasps buzzing in my ears. I prefer it when he uses the scissors instead. Throughout the procedure he manipulates my head up and down as though arranging a tableau vivant.

After he has stropped the blade of the cutthroat on a leather strap the barber scrapes away the hairs on the back of my neck with a surgeon’s precision. Then he holds up a mirror behind my head, moving it adroitly from side to side as he awaits my nod of approval. Finally, he unshrouds me and hands me a paper tissue. Soon I’m outside again, screwing up my eyes against the lacerating brightness of a September afternoon.

Hours later I’m standing at the gate in Westminster Road, when it happens. About to turn right, I experience the strangest sensation; the gooseflesh that creeps over my skin is a manifestation of the uncanny rupturing the fabric of reality.

My body swings me definitively to the left, the direction Dante takes with Virgil down through the circles of hell. I turn into Putney Road, still puzzled by this message from the primordial part of my brain.

It’s just after seven o’clock on a Monday evening and I’ve been out of work for more than two years. The miners — that heavy brigade of the working class — have already been eviscerated. No haruspex is required to examine their smoking entrails. They have returned to their underground burrows while they are still able to do so. They remind me of the enslaved Nibelungs in Wagner’s Das Rheingold, except Alberich is no longer a whip-wielding dwarf. He’s become a woman with a bouffant hairstyle who is taking elocution lessons to deepen her hectoring voice.

I stroll back home with two cans of Kestrel lager and a packet of Refreshers jostling together in the bottom of my carrier bag. As I walk, I try to work out what has just happened. Later, I wonder if it was a premonition. At such a distance my hearing certainly wasn’t acute enough to pick up the sound of breaking glass, nor was my sense of smell sufficiently sensitive to the smoke molecules rising in the air less than half a mile away.

When I reach my shitty bedsit with its threadbare settee, Erika typewriter and MFI desk, the radio crackles menacingly like a forest fire. There’s the clanging of fire engines and police cars in the distance. Despite the sense of incipient danger, I feel an urge to go back out into the evening. But to do what exactly?

I remain beside the window as darkness falls. Like the radio, my body is tuned into vibrations of discontent and violence, though I remain completely unaware of the tragic events about to destroy two innocent lives.



Michael Jarvie was born in Darlington, County Durham, in 1958. He read English Language and Literature at Birmingham City University and graduated with a 2:1 in 1983. After completing his studies he lived in Birmingham for a further five years. In 2015 he obtained a Masters Degree in Creative Writing (with Distinction)from Teesside University. He is the author of a collection of twelve stories entitled The Prison and a novel, Black Art.

Banner image: Birmingham Mail