Between the ages of one and five, I spent the weekdays at my grandparents’ public housing flat in Eunos Crescent.
There was a barber shop across the road called Bugs Bunny that grandma and grandpa would take me to once every few weeks. The place just smelled like talcum powder. Lots and lots of powder. I thought that must be the reason why most of my friends hated having their hair cut.
I didn’t really fancy Bugs Bunny. In fact, I hated carrots. But I enjoyed my haircuts.
Because the barber named Mr. Samy would always put up a show.
Near the end of every haircut, he would dip a small but stout brush into a cup of water before dabbing my sideburns with it. The experience was always somewhat unnerving. The water was always slightly cold. It always made my hair stand. It always made me cringe.
I hated that feeling. But I always told myself to bear with it because the performance was up next.
Mr. Samy would then swing the razor blade around like those villains from Hong Kong movies. He would do so exactly three times. The sound of the blade entering and exiting its sheath was like a drumroll indicating the imminent arrival of the pièce de résistance. I loved it. I lapped it all up.
His face bore no expression when he swept the blade across his palms. Left, right, left, right, left, left, right, right. It was always in this order. He would then plant the thumb of his left hand firmly onto the side of my head before the cool blade worked its way down. The noise of hair getting displaced sounded like trees growing, their branches slowly fanning out in all directions before the trunk suddenly shot toward the sky.
Mr. Samy never once bled from this outrageous feat. He reminded me of the triceratops, one of my favourite dinosaurs, which I learned from cartoons had incredibly tough skin. I wondered what type of skin I had.
One day, I decided to find out. While grandma was chatting with Mr. Samy, I got off the chair and sneakily opened the drawer in front of me. I turned around as I reached for the razor blade, checking to see if the two adults were looking. They weren’t. I remember grandma complaining about the new price of the haircut and how Mr. Samy just laughed.
I seized the opportunity and ran the cold blade down my palm, and it made me wonder if it was a magical blade that only Mr. Samy could wield. I watched with intrigue as the flesh parted and blood oozed out. It looked exactly like how the paste within my favourite red bean bun would flow out when I tore it in half.
By the time Mr. Samy and my grandma realised what had happened, the blood was already dripping onto the floor. One drop fell onto the pristine white school shoe on my left feet as the barber frantically stuck a wad of tissue paper over the wound. A dull ache echoed through my palm as he applied pressure. My grandma was now squatting on the pale green ceramic floor as she wiped the blood off the surface. When the bleeding stopped, Mr. Samy took a plaster out from the wooden cabinet at the back of shop and handed it to grandma.
Five minutes later, it was business as usual. Grandma stuck the huge plaster on my palm as I sucked on a grape-flavoured Hacks sweet that Mr. Samy had given me, probably in an attempt to prevent me from crying.
But I was never going to cry. I was jealous.
“Tell me, why do you not bleed?” I said.
“It’s a secret. You’ll understand when you’re older,” replied Mr. Samy.
The next day, I found grandpa outside the toilet in the kitchen, applying a layer of white paint to the stained school shoe. He patted my head as I stood beside him and took in the second hand smoke from his Dunhill Reds.
He was meticulous about the application of the white paint, rotating the shoe in every possible direction to ensure that every part was evenly coated. When he had used up the final drop of paint from the bottle, he carefully ran a shoelace through just two holes in each shoe and tied a knot with the two ends before hanging them on the laundry pole.
I wondered if a wind would blow the shoes twelve stories down. I wondered if the wet paint would drip and splatter on someone’s face, and how that someone might think he just got hit by bird poop. I giggled to myself.
“I heard from Mama you cut yourself with Mr. Samy’s razor last night,” he said, passing the empty bottle to me and pointing to the rubbish bin.
“Did it hurt?” said grandpa as he tapped the end of his cigarette into a tin can that used to contain luncheon meat.
“Just a little.”
“Well now you know not to do it again, right?”
I nodded. I looked at my palm. The plaster that was around it had already started to lose its grip. I cautiously peeled it off to see the wound. It tickled more than it hurt. Grandpa gently took my hand and examined the wound before sticking the plaster back on.
“Don’t take it off yet. Keep it covered. The plaster keeps bad things away,” he said.
I wanted to ask him what he meant exactly, but a sound from the living room interrupted my train of thought. I smiled and took off. The next episode of He-Man had started.
I loved that cartoon so much I always demanded for a new action figure whenever my parents brought me out during the weekends. The only one I didn’t get was Sheila.
Girls were just irritating. And she wore a snake over her head. I hated snakes and everything that resembled one. Lizards were gross too.
I would often act out scenes from the cartoon and pretend to be He-Man. My sword was a roll of cellophane paper and my uncle’s bolster would be Skeletor. I liked to pretend that I was losing the fight before yelling “By the power of Greyskull, I have the power!” and turning the tide of the battle.
Saying that line made me feel as if I was indestructible like He-Man, a hero that will never bleed.
And then it struck me, Mr. Samy was He-Man.
A few weeks later when it was time for my haircut again, I sprinted to the barbershop and left my grandpa trailing behind. I wanted to tell Mr. Samy that I didn’t need to grow that much older to discover his secret.
But Mr. Samy was not there. I wondered if he was out fighting Skeletor and saving the universe. Or was he on a date with Sheila? Why he would find her pretty was really beyond me.
I noticed that Grandpa looked distressed while talking to the other man in the shop, sighing and shaking his head every few seconds. He then carried me onto the barber chair.
“Mr. Yazid will cut your hair today, okay?” said Grandpa.
“But I only want Mr. Samy. Where is he?”
Grandpa and Mr. Yazid looked at me, then looked at each other.
“Something very bad has happened to Mr. Samy so he needs to see the doctor. I will cut your hair today, okay? I’ll make you very handsome,” said Mr. Yazid.
Dejected, I slunk back into my seat and let the barber do his work. There was no performance this time around. The water that he used to dab my sideburns felt icy cold and the blade he used felt coarse against my skin.
When grandpa was paying the barber, I opened the wooden cabinet at the back of the shop and grabbed a bunch of plasters. Before I left, I tugged at Mr. Yazid’s khaki pants and passed them to him.
“Oh. Thank you. But why do I need them?” said Mr. Yazid.
“It’s not for you. Can you give them to Mr. Samy? My grandfather said that plasters keep bad things away.”
I never saw Mr. Samy again.
I always thought He-Man could never be defeated.