Minor Keys No. 4

The barber stepped forward nonchalantly, his attendant following with a tray of combs, razors, scissors, brushes, oils and hot water. Kamil sat while a towel was placed around his shoulders. The man was quick and sure. His face moved round Kamil’s, close enough for him to see the coarse skin filled to smoothness with stiff cream and smell the unguents that had been massaged into the cheeks. Following the cutting and shaving, similar fragrant oils were applied to him.
We are at a point in the ‘framing’ narrative in Azimuth where Kamil the historian has been revealed as only 41 and Princess Sabiya pretends to be perturbed that he might have base sexual fantasies about her. She has seen him thus far as a decade older and more like a grandfather. In her coquettish way she decides to spruce him up. Hence the barber in the extract above.
Who is this barber and why has he appeared in the narrative? Part of my novelist’s brain seems to have been working autonomously on the backcloth to the main stories in Azimuth. Many readers have loved the visual nature of the book and being transported to a recognisable yet alien world and, I suppose, it is through a minor character like the barber that so much is said about court life in a few literary daubs.
Unlike the physician the barber is the latest in a long line of his profession in the court. His name in the language of the day meant ‘son of my father the barber’. Even when just able to wield a pair of scissors, a comb and a shaving razor he was given coconuts to shave, shredded linen balls to cut and a donkey’s mane to groom. Living within the grounds of the outer walls of the palace meant that he was privileged to a degree. Despite his homosexual certainties he followed the dictates of his blood and produced enough sons to ensure that one, at least, extended the barber line. His wife took lovers from among other similar professions in the royal household as was the accepted way. As he grew older, the barber maintained his sexual interest in boys about to become men. Built in to his behaviour, a sort of genetic engineering, was the capacity to be silent in the company of royals, obsequious in body language but rarely in word. He was proud of his skills and though much disliked in the main by his aristocratic masters he was indispensable to their vanities. And this is how he lived and died, never challenging those above him, autocratic to those below, enjoying young flesh while secretly loathing the ageing skins upon which he mainly worked.

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