The Barber of 26 Broad Street
By Lupine

(Dedicated to the spell-check and grammar-check facilities of Microsoft Word™, who between them have created their own new Balance of Terror…)

Karen was a hairdresser, and she was perfectly happy with this state of affairs. Admittedly, she was bright enough to be something ‘better’, as people put it. She’d even started a degree in Archaeology and Comparative-Species Anthropology before she’d changed course; left university in fact, and gone on to study a hairstyling. She worked hard, passed all the necessary exams, spent a year’s apprenticeship on a shop floor and finally become qualified to cut fur for a living. Some people might call her a fool for giving up her chance at a really high flying job like that. Indeed, the money would probably have been at least a little better had she stuck with Plan A. But she hadn’t. Karen had made the amazing discovery- quite early on in life, luckily- that she didn’t want to keep her mind perpetually challenged and sharpened by grinding it against the sides of a hard academic profession, as seemed expected on her. She was perfectly happy instead to pick up whatever knowledge was lying around and was useful to her, earn a decent living without working too hard, and use the proceeds to enjoy herself for the rest of the time- the whole point of life, it seemed to her. Besides, she found that she actually quite liked people. And cutting fur. It was a fun job, with the bonus of absolutely no pressure.

So it was that the slender lioness worked in one of the branches of the ‘BarberShop and Grooming Group’. Emphasis on ‘barber’- they only cut males’ fur, and she was perfectly happy with that too. The other ‘girls’ (i.e. all the staff) were comfortable with it as well, and the clientele certainly weren’t complaining. Her blonde-brown hair hung in a svelte bob down to her shoulders, framing her quite delicate nose and mouth, and set off her green eyes nicely. Karen was no heart-stopper, but looking at her definitely made you smile, most usually because she was smiling. Despite her best efforts, she found that most of the descriptions directed at her included danger words like ‘cute’ and ‘cheery’. But then, you couldn’t really have everything, and she got a lot out of life. Currently she was wearing the uniform black knee-length skirt and open-necked white blouse of her trade, but with her own personality over the top. Her loose black waistcoat was decorated in sequin peacock patterns and she wore an even looser tie (something encouraged by company policy for no adequately explored reason), carelessly knotted at her throat, which had bright, bold designs picked out in turquoises and yellows.

The Barbers on Broad Street was pretty much constantly busy whilst open, with some times slower than others but with almost always at least one customer being groomed. The staff worked on an easily informal system based solely on everyone knowing their job and doing it when it seemed appropriate, with little need for communication or convoluted and suffocating bureaucratic structures. The shop itself was a charming place in the traditional barber’s style: wood panelled exterior, barber’s pole, with large windows letting loads of light inside. They illuminated the waiting area at the front of the shop just inside the door, with big, comfy leather benches around the two side walls and to either side of the door. There were magazines to read on a couple of little tables and a TV played MTV videos. Then up a step into the main part of the shop, separated from the waiting area by a waist-high balustrade on either side, with the TV over it in the right hand corner, leaving a broad gangway for access. The floor consisted of polished wooden boards throughout, and so easy to sweep clean of cuttings. Two rows of four barber’s chairs ran down either side of the shop, creating eight little identical workstations, with a large mirror on the wall, a basin sunk into the continuous mahogany unit below it and a shower head attachment on the wall to the right of the mirror. All the tools of the trade were laid out around the basin and in the cubby-holes of the unit, although most people had a pair of scissors that they preferred to use even if they swapped workplace. Karen kept hers in her breast pocket. The walls were a warm, almost Mediterranean yellow, further illuminated by bright ceiling spotlights. The till was at the very back of the shop, only 25 metres or so from it to the door in total, and about 10 from wall to wall across. Beyond that there was a set of saloon doors into the staff area.

It also had a reputation for good service, if a little pricey: £9.90 for a simple haircut was nothing to sneeze at. Of course, they offered a full range of different treatments, from the sublime to the frankly frivolous, but a majority of the males merely wanted their fur cut short as quickly and with as little fuss as possible, so it was that which made the money. The most frequent sentence Karen heard coming up from that chair was ‘Just a trim, please.’ She had just finished one such client, a quite striking, square-muzzled wolf with a touch of lighter grey appearing at the temples of his dark coat. Shorten and tidy up the head-fur all over, take it off the ears and trim it smoothly into the fur of his lower neck and shoulders. Perfectly satisfied, he gave her a grateful smile, a ‘thank you’ and a £10 note. Wishing her a good day, he pocketed his change and strode out into the sunshine. Sweeping up the hairy debris with practised strokes of the long handled broom, Karen then walked to the front, past co-workers shearing other customers, and cheerfully enquired ‘Next?’ Her eyes swept over the vacant seats, and she reminded herself to actually look before asking that. The two females and one male present shook their heads, all waiting for other clients to finish rather than waiting to fork over £9.90.

Fortunately, at that moment Karen was saved from embarrassment by the door opening with a tinkle to admit a paying customer. He wandered in and made to sit down, but seeing her smiling at him expectantly he straightened himself awkwardly in the very act of sitting and resumed vertical. He put two large shopping bags down in the corner and came forwards, obviously pleased at not having to wait. To her mild interest Karen saw that he was a fellow lion, after noting that his unruly mop of hair definitely needed attention. It was a rich brown colour, with faint natural tints of terracotta visible in it, but it was scruffy looking and ragged, its length defeating attempts by the brush to tame it. It hadn’t been cut in some time. The lion stepped up onto the shop floor, and revealed himself to be quite a bit taller than Karen by scraping 6 feet in height, his broad muzzle level with the top of her head. His body fur was honey-toned in the shadows and gold in the light. The unkempt mop sat atop a clean blue shirt open at the neck, with dark jeans, trainers and a belt, all of which demonstrated a trim profile which tapered to the waist. Smiling politely, he seated himself into the chair offered and had the traditional black tarpaulin draped across his front. Bright and businesslike, Karen put the securing mat over his flat, broad-ish shoulders whilst she asked:
“What would you like done, then?” The lion gave a slightly apologetic shrug.
“Just a trim please.”
“Righty-o.” Karen’s smile twitched at the private joke, but she knew her job. Picking up her comb and scissors she lightly parted the fur where it wanted to fall. “Like this?” He nodded. “Off the ears?” Another nod. She smoothed her paw down the side professionally. “Just scissors, no razor?” Again mute agreement: males always seemed tongue-tied when asking for what they wanted. With some internal prompting he made himself add,
“And tapered into the neck, please.” It was obviously an effort.
“No problem.” Picking up the black spritzer bottle, she wetted the hair with quick sprays of clean water and downward sweeps of the comb, until it lay flat against his head, ruckling around and over his ears and dangling halfway down his neck. It had a very slight wave when wet, she noticed. She lifted a lock with comb and palm of her hand, smoothing it up into a row of fine spikes. She marked a length with her fingers, the top bristles waving above them like long grass in the wind, and looked into the mirror “Like this?” The lion frowned a moment in indecision, showing a lot more personality and intelligence in that gesture than he had previously.
“A bit shorter, please.”
“Like this?” Her fingers slipped down a notch. He made a slight grunt of approval, head pinned by her grasp. The scissors schnicked across it deftly and, that line established, Karen immediately pulled up another layer and settled into the cut.

When her fingers were once again doing most of the thinking, she took occasional glances in the mirror, taking more notice of her customer’s appearance. She guessed him to be late twenties- slightly older than her. The broad muzzle was set in proportion to his head, which was also quite squarely built. His cheekbones were sturdy, and his thick eyebrows matched his hair. He obviously trimmed back the fur on his chin himself: Karen idly noted the odd bristle that had avoided the scissors. Not bad, but she could do a better job of it, she decided. He had nice eyes, though: tawny brown set not too far apart, quite large and honest and open.

Now things were progressing smoothly- trimmings were showering down around the chair- Karen devoted more of her attention to conversation. She always achieved this by the simplest manner possible: her mouth voiced whatever she was thinking about.
“Are you going out anywhere nice this evening?” The lion smiled ruefully.
“No: I’m afraid it’s going to be a quiet night in. Just me and the telly.”
“Oh well, those evenings are nice, too.” His eyes glanced at hers in the mirror and he smiled.
“How about you?” Karen was going out with some of her friends to a bar one of them knew, and she was looking forward to it. As she tilted the lion’s head to one side to begin clearing hair from around the ear, he thought that sounded nice, and he hoped that she enjoyed herself. She hoped she did too, especially as there was a dance floor. She liked dancing. She finished cutting to length on that side and switched briefly to the motorised razor to just neaten the edge up. The tickly buzz of the device made the lion grin, even as she adjusted his head to the other side and set to work on that. They fell into an amiable silence after that, occasionally passing comment about something that was happening around them. Karen chatted very briefly with Susannah as she left to have her statutory break, ordering a chicken sandwich from the nearby shop for herself, and said a hello to an old friend, the mate of another customer, as she stood beside the chair and told Sandy what he wanted. The lion’s eyes mainly stayed fixed on the basin in front of him or looking blindly into the mirror. They occasionally drifted over to the manager, who was having a loud conversation (he was always loud) with another customer, but soon flicked away with disinterest. Karen re-wetted a patch of hair and finished trimming the back, getting the grading nice and even into the yellow-ochre of his neck. Checking that everything looked neat and orderly herself, she held up a smaller mirror to let him see the back of his own head. He smiled warmly in approval.
“That looks great, thank you.” Smiling, Karen put the mirror down and pulled the mat off, dusting his neck with talc as she did so. It raised a small cloud of powder and fine cut hairs, amidst which she peeled the cover off his front, deftly angling all the loose clumps of hair onto the floor and not him with a practised flick. He stood and accepted the tissue she held out for him. He scrubbed the back of his neck and brushed absently at his newly clipped hair with a paw. It was a little shorter than Karen herself preferred on a male but it looked quite nice. And it had been cut well, she thought with a touch professional pride.

The till came up with £9.90 and his eyebrows climbed.
“Ow.” Karen shrugged- the price was prominently displayed, although thinking about it he might not have had time to read the notice boards propped up around the place. He handed over a tenner, smiling sheepishly. “I’ll have to remember that: I’ve never used this place before.” She returned an agreeable smile.
“Well, I hope you aren’t put off by the price.”
“Oh no,” he grinned, “you’ve done a very nice job. I’ll definitely come back.” He approvingly glanced sideways into a mirror again before she presented him with his 10p change.
“Thank you. Have a nice day.”
“You too. And a nice evening!” He grinned again amiably and walked out, picking up his shopping as he went. Karen smiled to herself: not many clients remembered past ‘Are you going out this evening?’ Then she did another brief sweep with the broom and called out “Next?” It was only an hour until her break, and four until she went home.

The lion did some additional shopping after visiting the barbers, procuring a third bag in the process. Then he went home, carrying the loaded bags with him. They were all full of food: crammed full in fact, the weak plastic handles stretching and attenuating into thin, paw-cutting cheese-wires under the weight. The lion quickened his pace as he reached his front door, gratefully anticipating the cessation of pain. He dumped the bags on the work surface of the kitchen, opening the top button on his shirt in relief. Then he grabbed a 2-litre bottle of full-cream milk out of one bag and proceeded to guzzle the contents. Most males learn to do this trick- perhaps in some way trying to prove just how masculine they are. They usually stop after the first few mouthfuls, defeated either by the volume, the cold, or lack of air. This male just kept on going, tipping back further and further as the level dropped spasmodically, huge bubbles of air ‘glooping’ up to the surface as he went. His throat bulged and squeezed rhythmically, his eyes shut and cheeks swollen with milk. He physically leaned backwards when neither bottle nor head would go any further, shoulders banging lightly on the front of the fridge apparently without his notice as he continued drinking propped up in this manner. The sheer quantity of milk started to make his flat stomach visibly swell beneath the shirt, and there was still about a pint left in the bottle. The only potential sign of realisation was a grunt, during which an extra large bubble floated up to the boiling- and steadily sinking- surface of the milk. His throat seemed to stretch further as he stolidly worked through the last bit of the bottle, fighting the growing pressure inside him. The open neck of his shirt filled out each gulp with a solid piston of liquid. His toes curled upwards and he let out a second grunt, more of a drawn out groan. A thin trickle of milk escaped the seal of his muzzle around the neck of the bottle and trickled down his chin, pricking its way through the coarse fur until it began to pool and drip slowly from the end. The level of the milk in the bottle- reaching the final plastic curve- suddenly shot down through the neck and then vanished with a drain-like gurgle. The lion fumbled the bottle away from him, numb fingers almost dropping it on the floor. He leaned back further, pressing his back against the fridge as he breathed hard, almost panting, eyes still screwed shut. A protracted belch of escaping air rumbled uninvited in his throat. It tasted creamy.
“Groo…” One paw stole down and rubbed over the now much tighter surface of his shirt, making it slosh from side to side with unaccustomed heaviness. Recalled to his senses somewhat, the lion blearily peered down at himself. The outline of his stomach was clearly visible through the stretching fabric of the shirt. Apparently fully satisfied by this, the lion chuckled in a slightly dazed fashion and patted it. He wobbled. Sluggishly, he continued unpacking the rest of the shopping. Despite the straining condition of his stomach, he still seemed determined to eat a good portion of what he’d bought there and then. Eventually, with stomach even more distended, used packaging littering the worktop and carrying big bowls of crisps, cheese and dip, the lion half staggered, half stumbled into the living room where the space and comfort of the sofa beckoned the full feline. The old plastic bags had been carelessly tossed into another bag jammed full of the same. It looked as if this wasn’t the first time the lion had done this.

* * *

It was several weeks later, and the barber’s was packed full. It was also Thursday afternoon, the most unlikely time for a rush of business. Karen had vaguely begun to worry that she’d missed news of a nit epidemic, but in the end reconciled herself to the fact that it was just one of those highly improbable coincidences where everyone had chosen now to come and have the trim they’d been putting off for ages. It was just bad luck that they had one less barber working a shift on Thursdays. She’d been cutting fur for about 3 hours straight, and the manager was having to demean himself by actually working the shop rather than doing paperwork. Fortunately, she’d been able to keep her good temper throughout. Seeing him discomfited like this helped somewhat.

Fortunately, cutting fur isn’t particularly taxing mentally, so Karen was able to keep a general idea of what was going on around the shop, and to pull back from the inescapable tedium of incessant trimming. She vaguely noticed that people peered in the windows to stare in dismay at the crowd awaiting shearing, before traipsing off to find something else to do. A few actually took the bolder step of coming in and reserving their place at the back of the queue. She could see their eyes flicking over the assembled life, enumerating, trying to judge whether a particular individual was here on business, in which case delaying their own haircut, or just waiting for someone else, and hence not a problem. Most people seem very nervous when in a queue of this kind. There’s a definite pack mentality: they’re afraid of both having their place in it usurped and of accidentally stealing someone else’s place, whom would naturally complain and cause embarrassment. Not Karen’s problem though: she just had to call next and watch them fight it out amongst themselves. Her mischievous side sometimes found the results hilarious. Everyone was being as good as the proverbial today though, so things were flowing smoothly.

It was during a snatched 30 seconds breather that Karen took the chance to looks slightly closer at the waiting clientele. She smiled cheerfully at regulars, rolling her eyes in mute sympathy and encouragement for them to stick it out. Their turn was bound to come sooner or later. Other figures on the benches were vaguely familiar, ringing the odd bell between her ears: possibly they came only infrequently, or she hadn’t been the one cutting. Some were just blank figures. Then there were the ones who stood out for various reasons. A very dark bull (curly hair like that was a nightmare to be dreaded and hard to forget) and (a surprise novelty) a zebra. Almost certainly going through a fashion crisis over stripes. Possibly the lion sitting next to him staring in a bored manner at MTV and the boards pricing their services wasn’t helping. Her next client, now at the top of the queue, was an old favourite of hers, though, and she grinned happily in welcome as he stepped up. ‘The old devil’, as she’d mentally nicknamed him, was always a riot to chat and giggle with. He was one of those who had chosen to grow old disgracefully for all that he’d retired from the army a full and respectable major.

It was about 45 minutes and three heads later that it turned out to be the lion’s turn when she called. Trinny, by grace of being 20 seconds slower, got the neurotic zebra. Hard luck. The lion stepped up, smiling happily.
“Hello.” The familiarity in his voice strongly suggested she should know him, which alone was enough to jog her own brief memory from over a month back.
“Hello.” She responded in kind, letting the customer set the tone. She was slightly surprised that she hadn’t recognised him whilst he was waiting. Recognition was far easier between members of the same species, even if they looked alike to anything else. But, well, she’d cut a lot of fur between now and then, several lions amongst them. She was 80% certain she accurately remembered the episode, but it hadn’t been anything that stuck in the mind, and her recollection of it seemed to be slightly off: the lion walking past her and easily slipping into the barber’s chair didn’t quite match up with that in her head. Oh well, it didn’t matter in the slightest…

Switching back into full business mode, she got out the plastic cape and smiled at him.
“So, what would you like?”
“Umm… just shorten it up all over, please.” He seemed to make his decision there and then, rather than having rehearsed the lines whilst waiting. “But not too short.” He amended. Oh well, nothing exciting for Karen this time around, but at least it was going to be quite enjoyable: she knew, when given ‘open’ briefs like this, how to produce nice results. Already planning out what, where and when she was going to do, she draped him in the cape when it finally dawned what seemed different. It was seeing him back in the familiar setting of the mirror that jogged the thought loose. She was remembering him thinner than he actually was; the face was plumper than in memory, his chin a little less defined. He was less tapered in real life, too, with early signs of a stomach visible beneath the plain shirt before it was covered in black plastic. He also hadn’t trimmed his muzzle in a day or so, leading to a faintly longer, darker fuzz on his chin and around his neck. That’s what came from gender stereotyping, of course: not every young male was a ‘Mr. Predator 2003’. She was absurdly glad she’d got that cleared up, however trivial it was- it could have nagged at her for ages. The eyes in the mirror were how she remembered them though, if set in slightly broader features.
“You’ve got very glossy hair.” She remarked approvingly as she wetted it, fully conversational again. Most males had big problems keeping it in good condition. It seemed to cause the lion some private amusement. He smiled boyishly as the damp hair spilled around his features, cheeks dimpling, and those eyes sparkled.
“I’ve… been drinking a lot of milk.”
“That would do it.” She smiled with him in the mirror, drawing up a flat line of said glossiness. A brief affirmative to her suggested cutting length, and she adjusted his head to the appropriate angle. “Just hold still, please…”

Karen enjoyed working on him, exerting herself a little for the fun of it and attempting to finesse the result. Just because fur cutting wasn’t the most challenging job in the world didn’t mean she couldn’t take pride in a particularly good cut. The lion was also quite good at paying attention and working out which way she wanted his head to move. That kind of thing made Karen’s job a surprising amount easier. Increasingly though, she kept her eye on events in the chair behind her: Trinny was finding the zebra difficult, and even with her elegant and glacially unflappable composure the tortoiseshell cat was starting to show signs of testiness. He seemed to keep on changing his mind halfway through whatever she was doing, and was now requesting (as predicted) that something be done about his stripes. Most hairdressers can put up with almost any amount of nonsense and ‘fine tuning’ by the customer, but the continuous U-turns, and now a complete change in the working set-up, effectively starting again from a messy, half-done job, were beginning to find limits to Trinny’s highly elastic tether. Her amazing smile was still in place, unbelievably, but it now held a feral edge, and her eyes were beginning to indicate a certain desire to solve the problem by shaving the guy down to the skin. Fortunately their manager, who’d just finished a client of his own, came to her aid. He casually sat on the unit on that side, just in the corner of the zebra’s vision, and began chatting quite normally to Trinny. The presence of authority seemed to calm the zebra down a little more, and the banter gave Trinny an outlet for sarcastic comments, aimed harmlessly at her boss who, as the only male member of a staff of about seven, had long ago become impervious to such things. It had taken him even less time to give up trying to stop them being sarky to him.
“I think I’ll leave the stripes as they are for now, actually,” the zebra announced with great deliberation. Fortunately Trinny hadn’t made the necessary changes yet, mainly for this reason.
“Well, if you’re sure…” she commented in an off-handed way, and earned herself a discreet warning look, which the zebra missed entirely. To avoid doing something unprofessional Karen glanced down at her own client, who was trying not to grin as hard as she was. Looking at each other only made it worse. The zebra, utterly oblivious, nodded.
“I think I’d look better with my mane blonde...”

With mirrors on both opposing walls, it was incredibly hard for Karen to deliberately avoid seeing Trinny’s face.

They finally shut the shop at 5:30, having to turn out a few disappointed customers. But closing time was closing time, and there was no chance of extending their hours this evening. Quite understandably, Trinny was allowed to forgo cleaning up and left immediately, in search of a long hot coffee and a way to wind down. Karen got the job of giving the floor a more thorough clean than it received during the day. This involved sweeping around with the broom again, this time making sure to go in all the corners and edges, and piling the ownerless hair in the middle of the floor. She cleaned this up by means of bringing the vacuum cleaner out from the back, plugging it in and pointing the nozzle at the heap. However, this always left bits that had been missed, on top of all the minute bits of hair that lodged in the cracks between the floorboards (the only downside to an otherwise perfect surface for cleaning up). So to do the job properly also involved a brief foray around the shop with the hoover, followed by the dustpan and brush if she were feeling unusually diligent. She wasn’t. After having restored the vacuum to its home out back, she set about folding the capes neatly for the night, cleaning the equipment properly and pouring the spent disinfectant away. Her manager sat on the side and watched her, doing nothing to help.
“You know, we really need to improve our advertising.” Karen glanced up briefly.
“To get more money, of course.” Karen bent her head over the job again.
“You can’t seriously tell me in the face of today’s little lot that we aren’t making enough.”
“No, but they all just wanted simple haircuts. £9:90 each. Barely any of them have anything else.” ‘Anything else’ was at least twice as expensive, including hair washing, dying, styling, additional beard and moustache trimming (‘real barbering’), a complete fur coat cut, wash and conditioning or all of the above combined into one ruinous package. “We’d make a lot more if they did, but they all just want to Cut n’ Go. We need to make them more aware of the options. Hell, we need to encourage them to be vainer.” Karen looked up at the manager and suppressed a smile. Clad in a white short-sleeved shirt and specially tailored dark trousers, he was a blue-and-gold macaw who through idiosyncrasies and whimsies beyond his control was named Angel. (It should be mentioned that he deeply resented the fact.) Parrots were notorious for their magnificent plumage and their obsessive diligence in maintaining it. Despite all that, though, Angel still always appeared to be badly rumpled, large staring eyes adding to the slightly manic impression of a terminal coffee addict. Also, having feathers rather than fur meant he would never, ever have a haircut. Karen found it amusing.
“Even if we could control their minds, we’d get through a lot less customers in a day.” she pointed out. “We might even make less than we do now.” Angel shook his head, making the feathers fluff out.
“The extra money would more than cover it. Beside, we can just get more people working.”
“Like you, you mean?” Karen grinned as the back of her neck received a piercing avian glare.
“Maybe you could do more shifts…”
“And exceed my time quota per week?” She gave him a sweet, innocent smile. “We’d need extra staff, and they’d cost even more.” She brushed past him, finally done, and headed into the back room to fetch her coat.
“It could work.” He insisted, sounding stubborn. She smiled in a conciliatory fashion.
“Well, I’m not fussed. Do whatever you think is best; after all, you’re in charge, not us.” She smiled and headed for the door, adding in a sickeningly sweet tone. “Night-night Angel.” She was treated to the sight of his irritated scowl as she left.

* * *

Karen saw the lion in the shop again about a month later, pretty much a confirmed regular customer now. That morning she had been exempted from cutting hair, despite it being busy once again, to put together a new in-house advertising sign in the back the shop. She didn’t mind: she could already imagine telling her dumbfounded friends ‘You never know what you’ll end up doing in barbering’.
“Are you really sure we need to advertise when they’re already in the shop?” she asked again jokingly. In a bad mood, Angel refused find levity in the comment. He merely ruffled his feathers and clicked that very large and pointy beak instead
“Just do it, Karen.”

‘It’ consisted of a blackboard three feet by four, with the BarberShop Group logo and phone number at the top: a black and white relief of several furs awaiting a cut. Surprisingly, Angel had left Karen to come up with something, rather than merely handing her a diagram to copy up. The only instruction concerning the design was:
“Something fancy: make them take notice.” She set to work with a pack of different coloured chalks. She got slightly carried away. It took her an hour and a half, but she was well pleased with the results. She leaned back on her haunches, dusted her paws off and smiled in a rising cloud of chalk dust. The effect wasn’t riveting, but it was attractive- much like Karen herself. Around the edge she’d drawn a border of foamy suds in whites, yellows and blues, along with a few bubbles. Inside that was the bright and ornate heading ‘Services’ picked out in reds and oranges, underneath which was a list of the shops more specialised ‘products’ in plain, easy to read white. Along with those were the chalked images of a pair of scissors, a long grooming comb and (for nothing more than to satisfy her sense of fun) a full champagne flute with an overturned red high heeled shoe in front of it, copied laboriously from her own. You couldn’t get more classy than that, in her opinion. After a long hard look, Angel declared that he liked it: Karen couldn’t decide whether to be pleased or mildly annoyed. Anyway, she fixed the chalk with one of the shop’s own brand hairsprays (whatever else you might say about it, it worked for this), and took it out into the shop proper. Struggling a little, she carried the cumbersome thing down to the waiting area, and propped it up against the balustrade under the interested eyes of the 7 or so patiently waiting creatures. She stepped back to admire it, turned it 180° to get it the right way up and stepped back again. Then she went behind, fastened the top to a strut with a length of wire, cleaned the chalk out of her fur and got ready to do work for which she would be paid. The sign they got free. The waiting animals inspected the sign, and then as one they turned and fixed on Karen’s shoes. She grinned to herself. She would have loved to know what they were thinking.

It was now only a short while later, two haircuts in (about 11:30). Karen looked up whilst sweeping away the debris left by the last client, and saw the lion step through the door. She almost fell over the broom. She recognised him this time, but that only made the differences that more noticeable. He had put on some serious weight. The lion was wearing a casual red check shirt, through which clearly bulged a fair sized paunch. More unfair-sized, if brutal truth were told: the large, pear shaped belly pressed and sagged against the material, hanging out over the button on his jeans in a distinct bulge. His sides also swelled out above the confines of the waistband, which she suspected was elasticated. It made his lower body look vaguely out of proportion, as if he were wearing legs a size too small. The reasonably snug jeans didn’t help, especially since his rump had grown, too, adding to the disproportion. The tightly clinging shirt made him look smooth-skinned which, along with the colour, contrived to make him look even fatter. Doing a slightly shocked double take over him she noticed the dent where the fabric sucked into his bellybutton. As he moved, the check pattern bounced and twisted to follow the motion of the stomach inside. Thankfully, he hadn’t noticed her as he’d come in, straight away looking for a vacant space and making to sit in it. She watched him sit down; the red check ball settled heavily in his lap, spilling forwards even further, and the sides of the shirt ruckled in meaty bulges as his torso was supported from underneath. The dent of his navel changed shape, squashing flat. His head started to rise to look around him, and Karen hurriedly turned and got back to work, avoiding looking back for now. Luckily she wasn’t near the front of the shop. She was feeling mightily confused about the reaction now running around her head, which was: “Wow…”

She realised that she was ready for the next customer, and delaying any more would draw puzzled attention if not from them then from the other girls. Thinking professional thoughts, she went to the front and enquired ‘Next?’ It was the turn of a black sheep who’d let his hair get too long and tangled for an amateur to do it: the long brown coat he was wearing suggested that the rest of his fleece was already long gone. He was entirely unfamiliar to her. She was quickly drawn into the problem of first untangling the woolly mass without messing it up entirely, then getting it into an appropriate style. She also had to contend with matching it to those huge, curly, untrimmed horns (something which she couldn’t correct: he needed to see a specialist about those). The ram also turned out to be chatty and entertaining. Her brief surge of nerves evaporated, and she was entirely herself again. It took her over 30 minutes to sort the ram out, but when she finished it was to his complete satisfaction and gratitude: he’d been worried that he would have to have a grade 2 all over this season. The next customer was easier yet just as friendly and nice to work with, and time swam by as it often did. In fact it came as a surprise to her when she called
“Next.” and the portly lion rose heavily to his feet in response. But by now Karen was settled enough to shove her earlier astonishment firmly to the side.
“It’s a free country: he’s perfectly entitled to have put on weight.” She told herself reproachfully as he lumbered adroitly into the chair with a ‘hello’ smile. “It’s a perfectly normal thing to happen. For Gods sakes don’t stare, girl: he’s probably sensitive.”

British people have an amazing capacity to ignore things about people if they suspect noticing might offend them. With her mind thus cleared as she draped him in the cape, she immediately noticed what normally would have blared at her like a foghorn. He was wearing his hair differently now it was long, pushing it back down his neck. However, it kept flopping forwards into his eyes. She couldn’t help the smile.
“I take it you’d like to lose the fringe then?” He grinned and nodded.
“It’s starting to drive me crazy.”
“Well, we can fix it.” She pulled it back with her hand. “Would you like it short all over to match?”
“Hmm…” it was a highly non-committal sound, and he stared in the mirror for quite some time. Any plans he had made previously seemed to be suspended in the face of his wide reflection. Finally he gave up. “I don’t know. Somehow I don’t think short would look too good, but I don’t normally wear my hair long unless I haven’t had it cut in ages. And then it just winds me up. What do you think?”

It was Karen’s turn to study the face in the mirror intently. She quickly came to the conclusion that he was right: short wouldn’t look very good. The neck within the shirt collar had grown rounder since it had last been in the chair, now leaving little gap between where it ended and where the shirt began. Her eyes also picked up that the shoulders seemed a little plumper too. His features had got far chubbier too: the muzzle appeared smaller and shorter in comparison with his cheeks, and his face looked a good deal rounder in general. Short hair would make it look fatter still. She also noticed that he was apparently trying to grow a beard, although it was in early, wispy stages as yet. On impulse, she put her hand under his chin and tilted his head. Her fingers incidentally confirmed a definite element of adiposity there: the bulge of a second chin pressed against them, less noticeable with the darker fuzz on it. All in all, he wore much more the classic ‘mane’ than before, and it went better with his, ahem… ‘expanded’ features. Getting rid of the hair would ruin the effect, and he’d need to shave.
“How about…” she began thoughtfully, slowly drawing his hair backwards, “…like this?” Using her fist, she bunched his hair at the back into a short ponytail. It left it obvious enough to frame his face, but out of the way and not straggling everywhere. The lion looked dubious, slowly turning his head this way and that to get a better look. Slowly, though, the look transmuted into a small smile as the style grew on him.
“Yeah.” He said eventually, nodding. “Like that, please!” He beamed at her.
“Not a problem…”

This was more just a general statement than an accurate declaration of fact. Getting long hair to look right is actually harder than with short hair. You’d imagine it to be the other way around, but with short hair you can see exactly how you’re progressing, what needs adjusting and you’ve usually got a lot more material to waste. Longer hair can be worn either ‘down’ or ‘up’. If being worn up, any minor errors will be hidden, but you have the more complicated problem of getting the different regions of hair to be tied up to correct lengths so that they’re equal when bundled together. Otherwise you get a whole lot of spikes and tufts. In addition, you mustn’t go too short or you won’t be able to tie it up anyway. A quick fix is to get the hair in the correct style and then chop it all to the same length, but again that leaves problems when you let it down. What if you pull up different hair the next time you tie it back? Karen spent 15 minutes firstly establishing what length looked best and how long he wanted it, wetting the hair thoroughly. She trimmed the front so that it wouldn’t look bizarre with the rest tied back (the front wasn’t long enough to incorporate into the tail, and he was adamant that it go), but not short enough to look odd in conjunction with the rest of the longer hair. Then she set to work on the back and sides. The crown, closest to where he’d pull the tail, needed to be the shortest part, gradually getting longer and longer as you spiralled out from that point. Fortunately, he wanted the tail kept quite short, and there weren’t huge amounts of hair that needed to be spliced into it. The rest required trimming and evening up, the split ends weeded out and the shape generally nestled around his neck and ears. When the tail was let down the slightly longer hair wouldn’t show, and putting it up pulled the hair back, making it appear short from the front. A pretty elegant solution: in both senses of the word. The result was far better than when Karen had just pulled a handful backwards. The rest of his hair now had that healthy, freshly cut gloss to it, when the dry and damaged outer layer has been removed. She considered asking (in line with Angel’s desired ‘extra service’ policy) if he wanted his beard trimming as well, but Karen had never liked pushing services at people. Giving him a new style was different: he’d asked for her opinion and then gone with her suggestion. She hadn’t pushed him into it or, failing all else, tied him down and cut it like that. And it turned out that his choice had paid off. The whole thing had taken another half an hour on top of that first 15 minutes, but Karen felt that it was time very well spent. She was damn’ satisfied with how it had come out, and now it was finished the lion was overjoyed: he couldn’t stop grinning. That particular expression suited the haircut and his rounded features very nicely, and Karen couldn’t stop herself from smiling in return. And now that it had been cut like that once, doing it again later would be easier, because there’d still be some of the style left to work from.

When he had left, Karen looked at her watch to discover that it was around time for her break (the only ‘real’ time apart from closing which Karen used during the working day: she ran more on the number of cuts she’d done), which was at 1:30 today. Sweeping the reddish-brown debris away from around the chair, she headed into the back to get her coat. Angel was there, doing some shorthand paperwork, on the back of an envelope by the looks of it. Accounts and supplies tended to work like that: they never knew from one day to the next how much of something they were actually going to use. Angel had a good memory and a quick brain for that kind of thing, plus as a bird he was irresistibly drawn to paper (although he had to make sure he didn’t absently shred anything important). He looked up from it as she came in. It’s quite hard to leer with a beak, but Angel had perfected the art.
“New boyfriend?” Karen was a little taken aback.
“Where?” She looked around in vague hope. Angel’s grin became a grimace.
“No! That last customer of yours. You spent a long time on that ‘trim’.” Another of Angel’s hobbies: matching clients to staff. He usually based them on how long it took to cut their hair, and he declared Karen’s average for what was headed under ‘trim’ was 20 minutes, even though he knew it was a hopelessly variable and flawed system. But he got bored easily, like all parrots.
“It wasn’t just a trim. It was actual cutting this time.”
“Aren’t they all?” His grin was back again. “Why not, eh? He’s a lion, like you.” Karen laughed.
“Angel, that’s like me saying any bird is the same. It’s like you going out with an eagle or a… a budgie.”
“Hey!” he pretended affront. “It’s totally different: he’s the same species.”
“So? There are a lot of lions about. You can’t expect me to be in love with ALL of them. I have a few standards, sometimes.” Angel shrugged, and his grin became more humorous.
“Besides, I’ll have you know I’ve met plenty of lovely budgies. And Cathy is the best looking sparrow I’ve seen in a long time!” His face fixed in a vacant grin. “Phworr!” Karen went to lunch laughing.

Friday night finally rolled around; Karen had gone out on the town with a group of friends, all girls. It was now 11, and the night was still young. They had ended up at a bar, Maxwell’s, that also sported a dance floor. The entire club was upstairs and quite small, with the bar along the entirety of one of the longest walls, opposite to the stairs. The walls were plastered with old posters and glowing neon Budweiser signs. The room was split lengthways, the bar higher than the dance floor, which was between it and the stairs, and for the most part separate through use of a shoulder height wooden panel between them. Beyond this on the bar side were a couple of booths, along with free standing tables scattered outside the dance floor. The floor was plastic tiles underfoot, and jammed full. So was the rest of the bar. Elbowroom was at a premium. The air was steaming hot and half opaque from smoke and mingled, sweaty scents, with bright lights flashing down amongst it from the ceiling, and the throbbing music and noise was approaching the painful level. It wasn’t particularly nice, but that wasn’t the point. It was fun. The girls had found themselves a table, got drinks from the bar, left them with their coats and bags, and had been dancing ever since, pausing only to check their table was still there, have a drink or, if their glass was empty, buy a new one. No one in the bar was dancing very well, but again that wasn’t the point. The girls danced together in a kind of circle, which provided them the most space for doing their thing amidst the crushing throng of creatures all trying to do the same. The music was a mix of cheese, pop and R n’ B; terrible songs which nevertheless you knew the words to, and could sing along with (or at least go ‘la’). That proportion of the bar on the dance floor did. Loudly.

Karen’s brain was happily dissolving in a cocktail of Smirnoff Ice, Sangria and an unidentified pink drink tasting of strawberry milkshake that one of her friends had bought her (in return she’d got her something blue and sticky with an umbrella and two sparklers in it). The world inside the bar was beginning to separate out into whirls of colour, loud pulsing sound and her left and right legs. At that moment the DJ played ‘Buttercup’ and the din rose to almost intolerable levels as 75 off-key voices joined in at full blast. It was still too early in the night for them to get away with playing the ‘Macarena’. The girls danced, drank, danced in pairs, drank, drank in doubles, danced, danced in groups, drank in groups, drank and danced some more. They were beginning to lose count of what they were meant to do next. They giggled at each other’s antics, bought each other drinks and ogled any good looking males in the room, promptly dropping them with disgust if they showed visible symptoms of a girlfriend. The fact that several of them had boyfriends of their own didn’t count. This kind of thing was happening all over the bar, where the population was roughly 50:50 males and females, pretty much all eyeing the other up. Karen, although she kept quiet about it, increasingly found her eyes straying to the heavier-set males around the room. She had to admit she liked what she saw. For one thing, she found a lot more to them than the thinner guys, all of it usually quite visible beneath deliberately loose clothing that had nevertheless stuck to them in the sweat and heat. They danced just as badly as everyone else, including her, and were having just as good a time. Their size seemed to create a space around them in proportion, so those around them wouldn’t collide: momentum exaggerated their body motion and made it hard for them to stop. Mind you, they didn’t seem to care. Even in her convivial state she refrained from pointing them out to the other girls, whom she was pretty certain wouldn’t understand. Everyone they’d ogled so far had been wide shouldered with barrel chests and narrow waists; definitely not a waste of time, Karen agreed (she’d even pointed out a few hunks herself earlier on in the evening) but… just not as attractive, somehow. Maybe it was pheromones… she chuckled: maybe it was the alcohol. But maybe there was something genuinely odd about her- it finally dawned on Karen that she was drunk, so therefore she should stop thinking that instant and just enjoy the ride. She felt herself grinning as she whirled around in time to the music, currently ‘I Will Survive’. Hell, what was normal anyway? She felt normal, if utterly sloshed. It was everyone else who was missing out, not her. It was at that point that they began to play the Macarena, and the crowd roared. The rest of the bar staggered to the dance floor in one huge enthusiastic slosh. There was no hope for any of them.

* * *

They’d installed a coffee machine. Not for the benefit of the staff, of course (although if the staff wanted they could pay and get one too): for the customers. They set it on a table in the waiting area, right up against the balustrade next to Karen’s sign. You paid 40p (correct change please) and selected your preference. You could have coffee, tea, black coffee with sugar, white coffee with sugar, white coffee without sugar, Cappuccino, Espresso, Latte, Earl Grey tea (milk and sugar a possibility), China tea, mint tea, raspberry tea or hot chocolate for the adventurous. Trying to press the right button on the flaming thing was a nightmare. In return you got a small plastic cupful of something hot. To go along with that was one of the American-style gum machines, where you put money in, turn the tab and a fixed scoop of the contents is dropped into the collecting slot. They’d filled it with malteasers. Both machines were very popular, even if it did result in plastic cups and crushed chocolate all over the place and a new bin discreetly being supplied. Unfortunately, they only got a percentage of the profits as they were renting the machines, so they still had to do some haircutting. But it was nice to be able to get a drink and malteasers whilst you worked. They were now having to restock the thing twice a day.

Karen was once again working her shift, on a Tuesday this time. She was currently working in one of the chairs near the front, trimming the head and muzzle of a Yorkshire terrier: one of the quite rare occasions she actually worked on a muzzle. She had done that first, as it was the more exacting work: those males with beards and moustaches are much fussier about them than their actual hair. Now she was working around his ears. It was coming up to her break at 12:30, and she was looking forward to it. She was going out to get lunch, and she was hungry. The malteaser machine, she firmly told herself, was evil: having tried on her last shift to subsist solely on malteasers and coffee, she had found herself that night sick to the stomach, unable to get to sleep and almost poorer than if she’d dined at a restaurant. After an experience like that you quickly develop a taste for savoury food and mineral water. It was a lovely sunny day outside, if a bit blustery, and it would be nice to be outside for a while. Whilst she worked, she kept glancing outside at the tempting sunshine. She’d probably get one more cut in after this…

She was mildly distracted as something large and grey moved across the view outside, blotting out the sunshine shining on her. The something stopped at the door, opened it and came in. It was the lion. Definitely the lion. More lion than had a reasonable right to be in any one place. Karen stared for a split second, and then guiltily tried not to. It was an effort: he drew everyone’s gaze just as large objects attract gravity. He probably had some of that and all.

He… was… huge! Clad in a meant-to-be-baggy, all-covering grey tracksuit (which unfortunately was more like a wetsuit), it looked as though he’d been eating solidly since she’d last seen him. It wasn’t so much his stomach- that had definitely grown substantially heavier, sagging out like a giant balloon full of crème caramel, but the rest of him appeared to have developed a complex about being out of proportion and so had tried to redress the balance. It had seriously overcompensated. A constricting line all around his equator marked where the waistband of the tracksuit bottoms were hoiked up around his gut. Against this pressed the rotund bulges of his massive, flabby sides. His chest, which had previously escaped additional adipose, had surged out to stretch the tracksuit top, spilling across the top of his belly and rolling down to his sides to meld into the other rolls accumulating beneath his arms. His back was as broad as a table or an armchair, but added not so much width as depth to him. It was actually quite hard to describe his body shape. He was almost exactly what your mind conjured up to define ‘shapeless’. Perhaps the closest would be to imagine a gigantic person-sized sack of potatoes, and stick it in a tracksuit. Hell, his stomach looked reasonably small in comparison to the rest of him. His arms also looked short, the effect accentuated by their chubby girth, folds and bulges clearly visible in the faithless outfit he wore. His legs weren’t tree-trunks, more a pair of fighting walruses or seals, and fat ones at that. His rear was just as large as his front, filling out the seat of the trousers to their limit. His tail poked out at the waistband, although perhaps ‘porked out’ would be more accurate. Atop this megalith his fat face panted heavily, sweat pouring down him. Large patches of darker grey stained the tracksuit at different points.

Briefly filling up the doorway, the lion lumbered in and looked for a place to sit down. The other few waiting customers watched him, trying hard to appear as though they weren’t. So did Karen. Each step made practically every bit of him bounce and wobble bodily. His stomach swung and rolled from side to side, squishing, compressing and stretching. The spare tyres around his middle squashed and expanded pneumatically, quivering as they piled one on top of the other. His bottom rolled and twisted as his legs pumped up and down, almost bouncing along. He found a space on a bench wide enough to accommodate himself and made to sit down. His legs bent, extra rolls bunching up around the joints and his sides. His belly swung forwards, its front pushing almost beyond his knees as he sank down. He grunted as his centre of gravity finally swung back beyond his base and his bottom dropped to the seat with a small thump. Then he sat there, still panting. He was fat; he was gigantic; he was… magnificent.

From that point, Karen couldn’t help but keep one eye on her job and one on the lion so close by, even as the attentions of the customers turned elsewhere. Apart from his incredible bulk, his beard had grown more too, merging fully and thickly at the far edges into his long hair. It nearly made a proper mane now, and almost certainly obscured at least one additional chin. He still had his hair pulled back in a tail, she was pleased to see- males have a distressing tendency when presented with something new to rapidly revert to type and cling onto it like grim death. Hence all of the older, greying males who were going thin on top and yet still sported such ponytails. The lion’s still looked perfectly acceptable, but was definitely going ragged at the ends, whilst the rest of his hair needed trimming back.

He was still puffing and panting, sprawling against the seat’s padded back. It looked as though he’d been jogging heavily. Of course, it also looked as though it was too late for that to do any good, and anything he did from now on he would do heavily. Then, under Karen’s astonished gaze, he went one stage further. From under his right armpit, where it had been nestling, he produced a package. It was quite a large, deep rectangle, but due to the expansive nature of his arm and side it had been lost amongst the folds. Now it was looking slightly squashed but he opened it up eagerly anyway. It was a pack of doughnuts! Each of the six sticky round balls of dough was slightly larger than the palm of his paw, and almost certainly contained jam or something similar. The dough ball on the seat tore into the first ravenously, removing over half of it in one greedy bite. His cheeks bulged and icing sugar coated his lips. The rest of it followed in two slightly smaller mouthfuls. The lion seemed to relax somewhat after it, his breath returning. Karen felt slightly dazed. Who, when going out jogging to lose weight, carries a pack of six large donuts around to eat on the trip? Someone who’d lost the will to resist, obviously. He was eating the rest of them now! He didn’t seem to eat particularly quickly, but they vanished fast. Karen counted only about two instants when his muzzle wasn’t full from start to finish. From a creamy stain that briefly smeared his muzzle at one point, she guessed that they had contained vanilla custard.

Snack over, the lion struggled up and very conscientiously dropped the packaging into the bin. Then he noticed the two machines, and his eyes lit up. He headed over to investigate, already reaching into one of the pockets in his tracksuit. Within two minutes, he was back in his capacious seat, nursing a cup of hot chocolate and munching on his second pawful of malteasers! He ate almost automatically, his attention seemingly fixated by one of the advertising boards. Once the malteasers were gone, the hot chocolate’s days were most definitely numbered. He leaned forward towards the board, belly spilling between his legs. Those rotund features bore an expression of distinct interest as he apparently absorbed the information the board had to impart.

Karen had finished cutting the terrier’s hair, to which he gave his utmost approval. At the till, the taciturn canine gave her a wordless smile and left. Glancing over the few waiting customers, Karen rapidly calculated. If she were to cut one more creature’s hair and was quick about it, she’d almost certainly be ready when it was the lion’s turn. She began sweeping up in a nearly hasty manner, scooting the loose fur out of the way and flapping the cape out like a bed-sheet.
“My,” Angel’s chuckle came from just behind her, making her jump slightly, “that’s nearly a new land speed record. Get me a bagel from the shop, will you? My usual.”
“What?” Karen didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.
“Please get me my usual bagel for lunch, from the sandwich shop as you go by.” Angel repeated. Then, when Karen still looked bemused, added in that special voice reserved for the hard-of-thinking, “When you go past it whilst on your lunch break, which is now, as you doubtless knew from the way you were hurrying.” The lioness blinked at her watch in disbelief. 12:28. Of all the…
“Oh no, it’s ok, Angel.” She put on a cheerful smile. “I’m happy to keep working for a bit. Suddenly got a whole new burst of vim. I’ll swap breaks with Sandy, and she can have lunch now. I’ll eat later.” Sandy, looking up at the mention of her name, blinked in surprise but smiled gratefully at the offer.
“Oh no you won’t.” Angel put in. “If we start mucking up the rota we won’t know where we are. And I thought you were saying just a while ago how you couldn’t wait to get out in the sunshine?” He began to grin. Karen felt her smile turning hunted as she mentally reclassified his sense of humour from ‘sardonic’ to ‘warped and evil’. It was manager’s syndrome: if you wanted to do something they instinctively bung a spanner in the works, then happily watch you wriggle.
“Well, yes I did, but look, I’m perfectly happy to-”
“You’re on your break Karen. Go and get your lunch whilst there’s still time. And mine, too.” And that was that. She rolled her eyes and suppressed a resigned sigh as she walked off, heading for the back room and her coat. Awkward bird. She wouldn’t put it past him to have made an inspired guess as to why she wanted to stay and was doing this out of mischief. Sandy could have got his bloody sandwich for him, or he could have got it himself. It wasn’t like he did anything useful around here…

As she walked out of the back room pulling her coat on, Karen got an unpleasant surprise. The lion was hauling himself upright to be served already. She realised that a couple of the girls had finished clients whilst she was having words with Angel, and now Sarah, a slim, pretty little otter, was ready to take the customer at the top of the queue. It was pure blind probability, but she still earned herself a long, nasty and painful death sentence. Karen was almost at the door when she noticed the immense double dent that the lion’s buttocks had put in the leather of the seat cushion, each about as wide of both of Karen’s thighs put together. It looked like a double meteor crater, ripples in the seat around them resembling the beginnings of tsunami. They only served to prove how massive his bottom truly was. She resisted the strong urge to attempt to smooth the dents out- very odd behaviour. She glanced back into the shop in time to see Sarah get a close up view of that bottom as it swung down into the proffered seat. The chair sank and creaked alarmingly as it took the strain. The lion’s wrecking-ball belly bowed out against the arms of the chair, the sides of his tracksuit creasing and rippling as they overlapped both above and below. Karen left hurriedly with the diminutive Sarah looking wide-eyed and slightly overawed.

* * *

It was at about 4 o’clock the next day that the BarberShop’s phone rang out back. Angel, who was also out back doing some paperwork, picked the handset out of its cradle and hooked it under his beak.
“Hello, this is the BarberShop, 26 Broad Street. Can I help you?”
“Yes, please.” The voice was a pleasant baritone: a potential customer. There was a pause, as if the voice was slightly reluctant to go on. “I was in your shop yesterday. Umm…you might remember…?”
“I’m afraid I don’t. Well, not in this particular case, sir.” He was busy, and despite firmly believing in ‘The customer is always right’, he hoped despite a sinking heart that the voice would nevertheless soon get to the bloody point. This wasn’t a regular: he knew a lot of them by name, and they him. Oh well: this guy was in yesterday?
“Do you have a complaint to make? If so, I’d be more than happy to take the details.”
“Oh no, no. Uhh… it was about lunchtime: half-twelve-ish?” Angel suppressed a despairing sigh.
“No, I’m sorry: still doesn’t ring a bell.”
“I was served by your otter employee. Quite small and slim…”
“Sarah. Yes, but I’m afraid I can’t remember everyone’s hair she cut yesterday.” Safely out of earshot, Angel’s talons drummed on the carpet. The voice took on a slightly desperate tone.
“Uhhh… I had my mane trimmed and put up in a tail again- it was suggested by another of your employees on my previous visit…”
“A pony-tail?” Well, Angel could remember a detail like that, but it wasn’t much help on its own. The presence at the other end of the line winced, obviously misliking that particular term for his individual and undoubtedly masculine hairstyle. And he’d been in before? What kind of description was that? Angel frowned in frustration, irritated despite himself at both his memory and the customer’s coyness. Why the hell wouldn’t he just give name, age and species? That would help a bit. At his prolonged and unhelpful silence, the voice plunged on frantically.
“You were in the shop, chatting to someone as I was served, I can’t remember who, down by that new coffee machine. I was wearing a light grey tracksuit and-”

Light suddenly dawned.
“Oh!” Angel crowed triumphantly without thinking, leaning back in his chair. “The fat guy!” In retrospect, he needn’t sound quite so exultant. There was a long, long silence from the other side of the conversation, and finally the voice said flatly, in a much more frigid tone:
“Yes. ‘The fat guy’.” Ah… Noting the phone’s decidedly uncomfortable drop in temperature, Angel hastily sat up, ruffled his feathers and tried to make himself as accommodating as possible.
“Ummm… and what can I do for you, sir?” The glacial tone took a very long time to thaw.
“Whilst I was waiting, I saw a sign advertising the different ‘services’ that you offer. The sign with the… the…” the voice fumbled for an adequate adjective, “…lady’s… shoe on it.” Angel inwardly cursed Karen: that shoe was starting to become infamous.
“Yes, Sir?”
“One of the things advertised was ‘ full fur conditioning’…” Angel nodded to himself. Yes, full or partial, the works or just the once over, whatever the customer asked for. Price by negotiation, please enquire, but definitely expensive- the implication suddenly sank in, and the macaw felt his mind start to boggle.
“I-I’m terribly sorry sir, could you please repeat that last bit for me please? I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch it.”
“I said, ‘and it asked to ‘enquire’ about the price’. I’m enquiring. Could you give me a quote?” Angel frantically tried to think straight, wanting to strangle himself for that inadvertent slip about this valued client’s… unfortunate… figure. ‘Statuesque’, he berated himself angrily, ‘solidly built’, ‘imposing’. Not- I repeat NOT…

“Just one moment sir… well… er… it all depends on how much and what you want done: I’m afraid about £50 at least or a bit more for an all-over service, sir, very expensive I know, practically skinning you alive, aha, but extremely high quality, I can assure you. Almost anything you want, short of actual sensual massage in a Jacuzzi, I mean…” Angel was babbling slightly, winding up for the full sales pitch, his parrots’ instinctive urge to repeat kicking in. But the voice managed to get the boot in first.
“I see… and… how does it work?”
“I’m sorry sir?”
“I mean… do I just turn up and ask for it to be done on the spot, or do I have to make an appointment or what?”
“Well… sir… we don’t really have sufficient facilities to do that kind of thing actually in the shop, you see.” Angel was by now chewing intently on his pencil (another avian trait). Now he definitely didn’t want to lose this customer: the very few that enquired usually hung up at the mere mention of the price. Could this actually be a sale? “We realise that, for that kind of treatment, most clients would prefer to have a greater element of privacy. Our normal practice is to make an appointment for a member of staff to call around to the client’s home, whenever suits you best, at your complete convenience of course, sir. We bring everything, except the sink- do you have a bathroom, sir? That would normally be where we would work, if of course that’s ok with you, sir-”
“Oh, I see.” There was a long, knife-edged pause, and then the voice finally took the plunge. “Could I make a booking, please?”
Angel bit through his pencil. His mind clicked its heels and shouted ‘whoopee!’
“Yes sir. J-just a moment.” The writing end of the pencil was history. He nibbled the back half until it had a point. “Can I take a surname…?”

He hung up a couple of minutes later and stood, hands shaking a little. He had a list of alternative times, an address and an estimate. He had also needlessly explained a few more details, unwilling to let his pitch go to waste. The guy could still change his mind, even now. All he needed was someone to do this special job- a weekend or when she wasn’t working would be preferable…
“Hello Angel!” He turned to see Karen stepping through the saloon doors. “That was a long phone call.”
“Yes.” He waved the piece of paper, a madcap, jubilant grin spreading across his beak. “There’s actually someone who wants a full wash, trim and brush up, from head to toe.” Karen raised her eyebrows.
“Someone’s feeling flush.”
“Yes.” So was Angel. “Now I just have to look to see which of you girls is down on the rota to do it, and then see if they can.”
“Oh, don’t bother,” Karen put in with a smile, walking up in front of him. “I’ll volunteer, if you like.”
“Oh no,” Angel said distractedly, hunting amongst the clutter for the rota file, “I wouldn’t put you to that trouble. Ah, here we go: it’s Julie’s turn.” He flipped to another rota. “Let’s see, she has shifts on-”
“Let me rephrase that,” Karen said evenly, having been ready to walk into the room as the phone was first snatched off it’s cradle. “I’ll volunteer if you like, or I’ll wring your scrawny chicken neck.”

Angel stopped and looked up very slowly, eyes widening, into Karen’s toothy feline smile. Unfortunately, the only think he could think to say was: ‘cluck?’ He dropped the rota file, which fell into the bin.
“S-sure thing. Which of these could you possibly make?” He handed over the sheet of paper.

The next day, a BarberShop Group appointment card dropped through the lion’s letterbox naming a date and time.

* * *

The closest available time was the evening of Friday week- fortunately Karen hadn’t had anything planned anyway, and now she was being paid overtime for it. She’d had to look at a map, but she’d found the street easily enough, outside the town centre but still urban and within quite easy walking distance of the shops. Living in the countryside herself, she drove slowly down the street and finally parked outside a modest wooden front door in a long line of doors of a terraced house. It didn’t look like a bad place: some petty individuals in the row had had their property repainted in different colours to the standard white (to the extent that some drainpipes had a dividing line) which rather spoiled the effect, but even then they looked like quite nice, roomy homes. Most terraced houses were like an inverse Tardis- you couldn’t believe that so small a space could be built on so big a plot of land. Somewhere in the architects’ department was a device that obviously defied all known laws of physics.

It was still quite light outside, although the automatic lights along the row had now switched on, bathing everything in yellow light. She was 5 minutes late. Hauling her ‘bag of tricks’ from the boot, Karen trotted up the couple of steps to the front door of no. 13 and rang the bell. It took a while to be answered, during which Karen had the inevitable soul-wracking uncertainty over whether she’d got the place/time/date of the appointment wrong. She’d triple-checked, but it was just one of those things that always happens when someone finds a closed door without an answer. Finally, though, there was the sound of footsteps on the other side of the door before it swung inwards.

And there stood the lion… still eating. Whether he’d got hungry during the short delay or if eating was just his ground state of being Karen couldn’t say, but the large sandwich was welded to both his paw and his muzzle. He was also still clad in that tracksuit (hopefully clean: males had the distressing inability to judge when their personal odour was acquiring solid form) although maybe it was a little tighter than before. It looked like he’d been out on another unproductive run. There was a very brief moment of blankness before he took in the barbers’ uniform. Then his eyes widened a little and he smiled in further recognition, but he had to wait a bit to swallow his mouthful before saying,
“Hi!” He seemed genuinely pleased to see that it was her who was keeping the appointment.
“Hello.” Karen smiled winningly. The lion stepped back and ushered her inside past him. It was a bit of a squeeze in the broad hall for Karen, her bulky bag to get past the rotund lion, but Karen refused to let on the fact. The hall was more of an archway anyhow, almost immediately giving onto an open plan living room. The house was roomy, if with few rooms to be room in. The living room was the width of the whole house, with stairs in one corner leading up to the second floor, whilst the ground floor travelled back through a door into presumably the kitchen. The living room contained a fair old amount of clutter including old clothes, magazines, newspapers, empty glasses and wrappers lying about on all the flat surfaces under the ‘if it’s out of my way don’t move it’ system of filing. Beneath this was a big comfy sofa (almost completely clear apart from a TV book and a remote), an armchair, a coffee table and a TV. It all very strongly implied ‘bachelor’. Karen’s nose picked up a strong similarity in scent between the room and him, but it was mainly the smell of ownership, which a lived-in room acquires, plus a hint of discarded socks.

Oblivious to all this, the lion smiled a little sheepishly and asked,
“Do you prefer to work in the bathroom?” Karen nodded,
“Yes, but the kitchen can be used in an emergency. Do you have a shower or a tub?”
“Both.” His smile widened a bit as he led the way. Karen expected to be led up the stairs, but instead followed him through to the kitchen, eyes watching his bulk quiver with every step. Oh, he did look so very heavy from the back. The rolls of padding on his legs bunched and rippled as he moved, catching the material of the Tracksuit in thick folds and creases before smoothing out again. She did glance at her surroundings though, out of curiosity. It quickly became clear, as though she needed any more evidence than his figure, that the lion’s life revolved around the kitchen. It was big and clean, suggesting that the surfaces were regularly used. The bin looked full of old packaging, and there were a lot of empty plastic bottles beside it on the lino floor. There was also a bag of plastic bags in the corner, along with others that hadn’t made it. She recognised quite a lot of large takeaway bags, as well as those from the supermarket. Cupboards adorned most of 3 walls, illuminated by ceiling lights now that the blinds were drawn on the large windows. In the centre of the floor sat a table, which could seat 5 easily. It had accumulated general clutter, but there was a large cleared space on it, presumably by frequent meals- Karen stamped on her thinking and ordered herself to be professional about this whole situation. Regretfully.

The lion led her around the table to a door in the back of the room. On the unpadded floor Karen discovered that he’d blown away the myth of felines being light on their feet: his footfalls thumped loudly as they coped with all the weight bearing down through them. His chunky thighs forced his legs apart, giving him a slight waddle whilst they still rubbed lovingly up against each other through the tracksuit. Beyond the door Karen found something slightly original: a downstairs bathroom, and a nice one at that. An ocean-blue toilet and sink sat in one corner, with a matching large bath and shower attachment. Where not protected by splash-proof tiles, the walls were painted a colour so pale as to almost be white but which suggested hazy sunshine on a glacier, and the floor between them was covered in big textured, cream tiles occasionally interspersed with examples in warm blues and greens. There was a cupboard under the recessed sink, and a mirror in the alcove above it. There was another waist high unit to put things on, plus a wicker chair under which were scooted a set of scales. Closing the door created a very comfortable and cosy little world all of its own. In the confined space the lion looked even bigger, and he seemed slightly embarrassed now it actually came to someone else being here.

“So,” Karen said brightly, putting her Dorothy bag down on the side, “what would you like done?” The lion’s discomfort grew, as the time of reckoning came upon him.
“I’m having some… problems with my fur. It’s… well…” he scratched his head distractedly as he sought for inspiration, and finally just gave a kind of helpless shrug. “I guess it’s best if you see for yourself.” Turning away from her, he began to struggle out of the top. As he wrestled, hampered by his size, Karen saw that he wasn’t wearing anything underneath it. Inches of butter-yellow and butter-soft torso were exposed jerkily at a time, until finally he yanked his head out of the neck hole. And there he stood in all his huge, overweight glory. His back was as broad as a barn stuffed to the brim with corn. Little bulges peeped out from under his lowered arms, pushed there by the pressure. Beneath them his sides followed a shallow s-shape, very slightly bowing in before bulging out again even more fatly, gravity tugging his mass into a pear shape. His sides rolled and swelled a couple of inches over the waistband, melding back in when they reached the top of his bottom, which bulged outwards beyond the limit of his dorsal side. A thick crease ran down the midline of his spine, supplanted near the top by antagonising curved ripples of lard around his shoulder blades. His hair hid his neck. Adjusting the trousers, he turned to face her. His body overwhelmed the waistband, which had slipped down with relief during his exertions. A great fat rubber ball of a front sagged over the top, hardly any distinction between his bulging belly, overburdened sides and burgeoning chest. He was one gigantic golden fuzzy pear, punctuated by the deep horizontal slit of his bellybutton. His arms and legs were relegated to plump extensions at his sides and underneath the main bulk, shoulders and hips pushed back, whilst his muzzle was vanishing into the undergrowth of his chins and cheeks. He seemed to fill the room. Karen most certainly wouldn’t count this as a problem.

The lion blushed, painfully conscious of his size. He twisted around and indicated the fur between his shoulder blades, also providing a good view of his bulk distorting and rolling, pulling the waistband down even lower. Stepping closer, Karen took a good look at both.
“Ohhh…” now she could see what he was talking about, although she was a little distracted. Whereas his mane was thick, glossy and healthy, the fur here was unusually thick and stiff looking. Nerving herself, she lightly ran a paw over that bulging surface for the first time. The lion quivered slightly beneath the novel touch, but that was all. “Maybe it would be easier if you sat down…?” The lion nodded, pulled the chair to the middle of the room and sat. It was quite a complicated process involving a kind of concertina of his torso, belly flopping forwards. The chair creaked heavily beneath his weight, and his body sagged over his legs. Karen stood behind and he submitted himself to the examination. Encouraged, Karen carefully explored. She discovered that the fur was heavy and greasy, matting easily when disturbed. She checked the fur on one of his bulging arms for comparison. The fur was far more free-flowing, but was dry and crisper than it should have been. That familiar sight set wheels turning.
“When did you last shower?”
“A couple of hours ago.” His cheeks reddened a little as he explained, almost guiltily. “I’d been out on a run.”
“Did you use a lot of shampoo?” The lion blinked a little at the question, but replied,
“Kind of a lot: it seemed to help...” He pointed out the bottle, a big commercial brand ‘for greasy fur’. Karen nodded to herself.
“Do you wash a lot?”
“Quite a lot.” The cheeks resumed their rosy tinge. “More since this started,” he admitted.

It was those damn health promotions, Karen thought to herself. Like those adverts for keeping your ears clean to prevent earwax. Earwax was necessary! If you ream your ears out too often and too hard you could get an infection: Karen knew that personally because she’d caught one like this. People were encouraged to wash far too often, especially if their fur was greasy. That was all well and good, she applauded him for frequent washing to try and keep himself clean, but it stripped all of the oils out of his fur, and it didn’t get time to replace them. But that didn’t explain this… she ran her paw over his back again, finding other patches of thick, greasy fur: his neck under his hair, down the small of his back.
“Is it like this anywhere else?” He nodded uncomfortably, and Karen found out that there were patches running down his legs, especially his thighs and knees, and even a little on the underside of his podgy arms, although those were merely healthy fur. “When did it start?”
“I guess I noticed it about 5 weeks back, but it only started getting pretty bad a fortnight ago.”
“And you wash the same all over?”
“Uh-huh…” the lion trailed off, and on instinct Karen just waited. Finally, fat cheeks burning red, he mumbled, “Well… I kind of… can’t reach round to some places any more…”

In the silence that followed, Karen stood back a little. That novel problem actually solved everything. Being so… big… the lion’s skin was exporting a whole load of extra grease and oils because of the surplus availability and production capability inside him. His hair was long enough to spread it out, making it look absolutely stunning and healthy, but his fur was too short to cope with it all: it got tangled together, the hairs practically sticking to one another. It was like dreadlocks: they often weren’t washed, the grease merely building up until some kind of equilibrium was reached. But the lion didn’t want dreadlocks, and he most certainly didn’t want his fur in that condition. His skin was quite greasy too, which wasn’t particularly healthy. So he’d begun to expunge the grease, but because of his size was going too far on the places he could wash easily, and where the overweight feline couldn’t reach the grease just carried on building up.

Put unkindly, he had quite literally become a grease-ball. And he knew it! She glanced forwards over his shoulder into the mirror, and saw his guilty, humiliated expression. Too fat to wash all over. A giant greasy oversized lardbally tub.

Karen ignored this and instead gave him an encouraging grin.
“Well, not a problem to fix. Not a problem at all.” The lion blinked and looked up. She smiled, and went over to her bag, planning already. Rummaging around, she pulled out a specially formulated hairdresser’s shampoo, which was very effective at degreasing without actually destroying hair, which is what most drastic-measure shampoos specialise in. She displayed this to the lion, explaining the problem as tactfully as she could, without any reference to the cause as though his was just naturally a badly greasy skin. Which was true, now, anyway.
“The trick is,” she explained cheerfully, leaning over his round shoulder, “wash frequently, but don’t use shampoo on your fur every time! That’ll get a lot of the grease out but still leave enough to keep it healthy. Then, every 3rd or 4th wash, use some of this, or even just a milder shampoo to help keep the levels down. And conditioner would probably help too, afterwards. Just follow the instructions on the bottle. As for cleaning up your problem right now…” she grinned to herself as the lion blinked again at the miraculous prospect of a quick fix, “If you like, I can clean up these patches for you.” She thought for a few moments. “And if I trimmed your fur shorter, it’d be a lot harder for it to get in such a state. And it’ll get rid of a lot of the fur already damaged.” The lion looked up at her with a truly grateful expression. Karen was strongly reminded of an old, overstuffed lion soft-toy that she’d had as a very little cub. It had had exactly that same look. A girl could lose her heart to a look like that, especially on those chubby features. At this angle, she could distinctly see the additional bulge of a big double chin beneath that mane. She smiled back, and he finally found his voice again.

There were a few complications. Starting with his top half, Karen needed to find a way of wetting the offending fur and sluicing the suds off. As she didn’t want to spray water all over the bathroom, and because he was a bit large to get over the sink, the best they could come up with was to have the lion lean over the bath, paws gripping the far side. To keep his tracksuit bottoms safe from any unforeseen run off, she wrapped the largest towel in the bathroom around his middle. Unfortunately, she discovered that it didn’t go all the way around. In the end the lion solved it by tucking the free ends into the waistband at the front. Leaning over, his belly hung down low, filling the gap between his back and the bath, even slapping against the edge of it. From the occasional muffled noise he couldn’t stifle, Karen guessed that warm tummy and cold porcelain didn’t mix. Karen picked up her current bottle of shampoo, then remembered something slightly unfortunate. It was her turn to blush.
“Umm… I have to point out that we charge for this shampoo by the bottle…” It was quite a small bottle, and quite a big price tag. On hearing it, the lion, broad back flat with wide backside stuck out, craned his chubby head around to look first at her, the bottle, down at himself and then the bottle again. After a few moments of silence, he finally gave in and started laughing. His huge stomach jiggled as he rumbled:
“Do you think I could open up a running tab?”

Karen used the shower to dispense water, taking the head off the wall and turning on. The lion squeaked and she quickly diverted the icy spray away.
“Sorry…” Letting it run first until it got up to temperature, she then put it back on the lion’s back. The tousled fur soaked through, and water ran down his barrel-like sides in warm trickles through it until finally dripping into the bath as they reached his lowest point. It also slipped along his back and trickled around his neck amongst the long tangle of hair. The lion gave a faint rumble of pleasure at the cascade of water drumming on his back. She hadn’t realised he was that sensitive. When wet enough, she let the shower running in the bottom of the bath, and began to lather in shampoo at strategic points. She pointed out to him how much she was using at a time, and how much he should be using. She rubbed it in thoroughly, down to the skin, working through each patch of greasy fur on it’s own, then using the shower to sweep the suds down off his sides. The lion set his legs apart to try and keep his balance, but the rubbing still made his belly bounce and wobble. It didn’t help that he was apparently ticklish, and she had to keep telling him to stop wriggling. It was like trying to bath a cub, but magnified. She herself had to keep herself on a tight leash: she only leaned over from his side to apply the shampoo, passing up an excuse to lean up and press against that immense rump which he was sticking in the air like that. It didn’t stop her from admiring it, though. Once she had cleaned up the patches- some of them needing a second wash they were so bad- she turned off the water and pulled the towel up to begin drying his back. She rubbed briskly, making his body quiver once more with the force of the rubbing and with mirth. Then the lion backed up, towel still around him, and shuffled backwards until he sat down on the chair again, which gave another despairing creak. Noting the drenched state of his stomach, Karen pulled the towel around and set to rubbing to dry it. She was stunned by the incredible reservoir of softness she discovered: a bottomless layer of fat that squished, wobbled and rolled about under her paws. His belly bounced heavily under her paws, its shape flowing and bunching as she rubbed. The lion wriggled all the more despite his efforts, but slowly his eyes took on a slightly glazed look, and his body stilled. His arms went limp, and what might just have been a sigh, or merely a whistle of breath, came out of him. He seemed to like that.

Next came the actual trimming. She started on his hair, feeling a certain proprietorial jealousy that someone else had cut it. Much to her chagrin, after five minutes she had to conclude that Sarah had done an exemplary job, and she couldn’t do a thing to improve it. He had left his hair a little longer yet again to match his expanding physique. He now pretty much had a full, proper mane, the hair under his chin only a little shorter and more unkempt than that on top. She switched to his body fur, using the handheld spritzer, comb and scissors. It wasn’t like cutting a head of hair: the fur was just short enough to be impossible to grab properly, so the best method was to work lightly, using the comb against the grain to push the fur up and then trim it like that. Also, with this beautifully plumped out guy, his body was far more sensitive than his scalp, and even shuffling on his bottom produced ripples that took a long time to die away. It was quite slow going, but Karen wasn’t in any rush. Hell, she was enjoying herself! She started on his back, and quite quickly fell into her old habit of chatting. Naturally, she chatted about the first thing that came into her head.

“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Hmm? Oh, no.” The lion broke out of the comfortable daze he’d fallen into. He shook his head (another ripple) and smiled ruefully. “Afraid not.”
“That’s a shame.” Karen wetted more of his fur, working on his shoulder blades. “She could have helped keep your fur in good condition.” The lion chuckled.
“How about you?”
“Me neither, and that’s even more of a shame.” The lion laughed out loud at that one. Then he looked down pensively at his expansive girth and hefted it slightly, his paws squeezing up rolls on its sides. The rueful grin appeared again. “I guess I’m a little big for most tastes. But I don’t see why girls couldn’t share me: about two and a half of them to one of me seems right.” Karen chuckled a little, and then:
“How much do you weigh?” in most circumstances at best that would be impolite, but there was no malice in the question, just curiosity. The lion told her, dreading the response.
“523 lbs., this morning.”
“This morning?” She chuckled at the dead accuracy. “Is it likely to have changed?” It was the lion’s turn to laugh quietly.
“I’m a growing boy!” He looked back down at his stomach with vague melancholy. “Girls just don’t seem to want so much boyfriend.” Karen impishly moved lower down, deliberately grasping a large pawful of flesh which bulged up into a roll of fur and flab. She knew that if she’d wanted to, she could have squeezed up a far bigger roll. The lion’s eyes widened, and he made a faint exclamation of surprise. He did nothing to stop her though; he was half stunned by the pleasant tickly feeling of the comb through his fur and by the pleasurable feeling of being pinched gently like that. She began trimming the fur on that ripe, bulging side.
“Now that is a shame.” She smiled to herself. “I think it looks nice on you.”

Still chatting easily, she behaved herself after that, steadily working across his back as he sat forward in the protesting chair. He was very nice to chat to, open and friendly. She’d learned a lot about him so far, and him about her reciprocally. She found that she genuinely enjoyed the conversation.
“You know,” she said at one point, about halfway down, voice slightly muffled by distance and the lion bulk occluding her, “I still don’t actually know your first name. I mean, I’ve cut your hair three times and now half of your body fur, too: we’re practically going steady.” The lion smiled, even though she couldn’t see it.
“It’s Raef, Karen.” That brought her head up pretty sharply, and he grinned. “I saw it on your name-badge when you came in,” he explained before she could ask. Karen found herself grinning back, and narrowed her eyes in mock suspicion.
“Raef, eh? You need watching,” she declared as she ducked down again to continue trimming. She meant it in both senses. This close, she could feel heat radiating off his exposed, bulbous form. She hadn’t realised just how warm he would be. After all, didn’t everyone have the same temperature? Apparently not: he was like a furnace! And with the warmth his scent invaded her nostrils. She discovered that he smelled very pleasant, but couldn’t shake the feeling that it was different than when she’d first smelt him back in the barber’s without really noticing, but then it could be the surroundings. But it still nagged at her as she progressed lower and lower, the back getting progressively broader and rounder. As the back of the chair became more and more obstructive she had to get closer in to work. Squinting to see what hairs needed shortening, she leaned closer and wetted a patch of fur pretty much in the centre of his back. It was slightly perfumed, and took her right back to the shop. She suddenly realised that his scent was different, and felt a big, silly grin plaster itself on her muzzle. She hadn’t thought it possible, but this lard-tub lion even smelled fatter than he had. It was getting really hard to resist temptations like this, now.

She shortened his back and sides in a respectable time. Then, moving around to his front, she was confronted by the bulging, creased acreage of his belly. Looking up like this, it dawned on her that she had set herself up for quite the marathon task- she’d been working for about an hour in total already. And where should she start? A slightly awkward hiatus ensued. Finally, she asked:
“Should I-?”
“Should I-?” She blinked at the echo then realised that Raef had spoken at exactly the same time. They looked at each other, and then both grinned.
“Jinx.” The obese lion chuckled and without a word carefully hauled himself upright, presenting her with the smooth, bulging surface to work on. That would do. She very carefully set to work. By now she’d already worked out the most efficient and non-ticklish method of cutting fur on such a round lion. She’d also learned a hell of a lot about him, in more ways than one: the contours of his body shape were starting to be familiar, as was the way he moved and what kind of jokes he liked. It must be because of his size, the nature of the job and her sheer proximity: she hadn’t felt quite this… intimate… with someone, ever. Including three quite serious boyfriends, and never through just cutting their fur. Mind you, she’d never had to ask anyone to hold their stomach up whilst she cut the fur on its underside before…

She stepped back 30 minutes later, standing on a fine carpet of golden fuzz. That would have to be swept up before she left. The well and truly trimmed Raef smiled and ran his paws experimentally over his bulk, smoothing the fur back down. She’d tidied up his arms as well for good measure. There wasn’t much difference but it would help keep his fur in good ‘trim’. Her eyes lowered to his still tracksuit-clad lower limbs, and wondered if he was wearing anything beneath that. He caught the look, and his blush returned.
“That’s… probably enough for now.” He picked up his tracksuit top and started to put it back on.
“I think you’re right…” Karen stifled a yawn. She’d finally met her match- there was just too much of Raef to trim all at once. He grinned.
“Thank you. I really appreciate it.”
“Oh no: it’s my job. Don’t worry about it.” She smiled all the same. But it looked like it was time to tidy up and then go. There was a slight pause, and Raef asked:
“Am I going to want to hear how much all this cost?” Karen totted up in her head, and told him. He winced slightly, but went for his chequebook. On impulse, Karen said,
“And I’ll throw in a free offer, if you like.”
“Mm?” he looked up at her in surprise. She put in a dramatic pause, spinning out his suspense, and then said:
“Your beard: you really need to be taught how to do it properly.” Raef burst out laughing, and slowly sat back down in the abused chair.
“I’m all yours.”

* * *

To Karen’s vague annoyance, she had to work that Saturday. But since she’d had Thursday off, it was just one of those things. Not many people came in on a Saturday- the prices went up- so she wasn’t exactly busy. Instead she found herself daydreaming, and she felt as though she hadn’t had enough sleep. She felt better than she had after her last girls’ Night Out, at least, but it had been quite a lot of work last night, and it was catching up with her now. And, at her subconscious level at least, she knew that it had been more than just work. Which probably explained what she kept daydreaming about. Any guesses?

She was out back when the tinkling bell signified there was a customer. The other two girls working already had clients. She headed out there. To her surprise, Raef was standing in the waiting area, so obviously well groomed that there was no chance he was in for a haircut. He was still dressed in that old tracksuit, though, and if possible he looked even larger than he had yesterday.

He was carrying a large bunch of roses.

Catching sight of her, he stepped up and walked over. The floorboards creaked under his weight and rolling gait. He smiled warmly.
“I just wanted to say ‘thank you’ more tangibly.” He handed the slightly shocked lioness the flowers. Each was a deep, pure, valentine red, and almost intoxicatingly fragrant. They looked like pure romance. She looked up to see his expression become slightly more embarrassed. They had an audience. “And I also wanted to-”

“Karen.” She blinked and turned to Angel, with a horrible lurching, yawning feeling in the pit of your stomach that you get as you pass from dreaming to waking without realising why everything’s changed. She had the horrible, unstoppable feeling that she’d been asleep with her eyes open.
“Yes?” Not fair! Why did she have to…?

She didn’t want to hear what he had to say. She looked down instead, to discover that she was still holding the roses.

“Take your break early.” Angel theatrically put his head in his wings and shook it. He heard the floor creak as the large lion made his way across to the door, then heard the bell go as the door shut. He kept his wings in place, to hide the fact that he was grinning.

They ended up standing in a small, empty alleyway a few moments’ walk from the door. Karen hadn’t brought her coat, and it was unusually blustery and cold. She held the flowers close. Raef didn’t seem to notice the temperature. In fact, he might have been sweating. She lightly tugged at the tracksuit top, smiling.
“Are you sewn into this thing?” He chuckled, blushing, then leant forward and said conspiratorially,
“It’s all I’ve got left that will fit me…”

“Karen,” he began as the laughter died away, his face becoming more uncomfortable, “I… well… you see… I… damn.” he stopped, looked up at the sky, and took a deep breath. He looked down again with an almost forlorn smile. “Would you mind having two and a half boyfriends?”

Karen reached up, took his round face in her paws, and kissed him. And kept on kissing. Her arms dropped around him, still holding the flowers, and squeezed with all her might. She only let up 3 minutes later, when she really did need to breathe. By the mindless grin on his face Raef probably didn’t notice or care at that moment, although oxygen starvation might account for it. She tenderly wrapped her arms around his widest point and laid her head on his chest. She dug her paws in and squeezed huge juicy rolls of flesh, standing Raef up on his toes.
“Not a bit…” she giggled, and he squeezed her in return. Her body pressed against his and partially sank. She’d never imagined that he would feel like this to hold: solid and soft all at the same time, spilling around her. They stayed like that for quite a while. Hugged like that by the great, fat lion, Karen warmed up pretty quickly. His body warmth and scent engulfed her like a security blanket. Karen felt as though she’d never face a cold night as long as he was there. She nuzzled at him playfully, and said in a slightly muffled voice:
“It’s a good job you asked me….”
“I know…” Raef’s voice was equally happy.
“No! You clown…” She grinned and snuggled tighter, pressing harder against his belly, which distorted around her. Raef swayed backwards, then smiled shyly and pressed against her.
“Oh? Why then?”
“Now you’ll get your other half trimmed for free!” She laid her hands on that enormous behind- her enormous behind- and squeezed. Raef growled in delight, and to her delight nibbled playfully at her in response.
“Since you mention it, will you help me keep my fur in good condition?” He blushed slightly then, and pulled away, serious again. “Does… all this matter to you?” He indicated his stomach. He blushed even more deeply, and admitted, “At this rate I could end up even fatter than I am now…” Karen’s mind almost boggled at the thought. She hugged him tight, silencing him. She squeezed and kneaded his back, enjoying the feeling of there being just so much lion to love. She smiled at the deep, happy noises she elicited from him, and felt him hold his muzzle against her shoulder. The girls could keep their hunks- they’d waste away. Hers could only get bigger…
“Of course I will. And I love how big you are, sweetheart.” She squeezed again and chuckled dreamily. “My very own Forth Bridge…”
“Mmm?” He sounded pleased but confused. “I’m made of iron and rusty?”
“Close…” they both grinned. “By the time I condition down to your very bottom I’ll have to start work at the top again.” Raef guffawed and held her close, burying her muzzle in his mane, and subsided into ecstatic rumbling once again.

A different rumble cut in, interrupting the happy moment. Raef blinked, and said sheepishly,
“Seeing as you’re on your lunch break, could I buy you lunch?” Karen looked down at his stomach, from whence that hungry rumble had originated. He had the grace to blush. “And I’m a little hungry, too…” He saw her expression, and grinned sheepishly. “Alright, I’m always hungry.” For some reason that set her heart singing. She kissed him again, then threaded one of the roses into his mane above his ear.
“Tell you what. Why don’t I buy you lunch?”

Hugged into his rotund side as they headed down the street, she idly wondered how big he’d be by the time he needed his next haircut.