Yuh opened Patented Highest Quality Aesthetics ten years ago with money from cleaning houses. In those ten years yuh had earned and kept many loyal customers. One a them, maybe the most loyal, was a white lady, Mrs. Culverhouse, Helen, who drove down to your neighbourhood and parked her fancy cars—first a red BMW convertible, then a green Jaguar in the shop’s ten years—out front of PHQA. The man them from the barbershop would come out and walk around the car. Young men on their way past would walk slowly, getting eyes full but too proud to stop and admire.
Long before PHQA, since a few weeks after yuh arrived here, yuh’d cleaned Mr. and Mrs. Culverhouse’s home in the country. A bungalow spread out over the top of a hill at the heart of a lovely yard. Yuh loved driving down the long lane, the trees reaching out fi your car as yuh drove slowly past, the gravel crunching and popping under your tires, a sound yuh found peaceful but that put fear in yuh, fear fi the undercarriage of your Civic, fear of what Desmond would say. Your light-skinned husband with the dark heart, Rest In Peace not that he deserves it. Yuh just do not want him haunting yuh more than he already does.
The Culverhouse’s bungalow was filled with dove pictures and dove sculptures, even dove salt and pepper shakers. One day Mrs. Helen explained that Culverhouse was an old English word fi dovecote, the place people keep their doves. Though there was one room in the basement, Mrs. Helen’s office, that was filled with rabbits and she said that it was because her maiden name was Warrener and growing up she’d always been told that a Warrener was someone who kept a rabbit warren, but that her father had misunderstood and that you keep a rabbit hutch, not a warren and the name Warrener was more properly a game keeper, but weren’t the rabbits cute?
Earlier this week, yuh got a call. The woman on the phone sounded like Mrs. Helen despite her bent up, unsteady voice. She told yuh that, “My mother, my mom, Hel—”
Yuh waited fi her to go on, but the whine of agony told yuh what Mrs. Helen’s daughter—yuh guessed Jennifer—was about to say.
Jennifer took a deep breath through her nostrils and it reminded yuh so much of Mrs. Helen that yuh started crying right there in the front window reception desk of Patented High Quality Aesthetics. Jennifer said, “Your friend, Helen Culverhouse she’s—”
It meant a lot that she said, Your friend, that she understood enough to know that the two of yuh were friends.
Eventually Jennifer could say, “She’s dead, my mom is dead.”
Yuh thanked her fi telling yuh.
“Pardon,” she said.
“Thank yuh,” yuh enunciated as clearly as your grief and your accent allowed, “fi letting me know,” yuh added.
The funeral was in two days time and there would be a visitation. “Would you consider doing, we would like you to do mom’s nails. We’d pay you, of course.”
Yuh looked at your appointment book. Yuh looked at Sharon working on that young girl’s nails, her mother waiting patiently fi yuh in the next chair, looking away from yuh out of embarrassment at or maybe respect fi the tracks of your tears. Yuh closed your eyes and imagined asking Selah, your daughter, to take a day from classes tomorrow to work in the shop. She would understand and one day would not make or break her midwifery studies, but she was still sensitive to any request to miss school because when she was a youth yuh and Desmond had so often required her help looking after her younger brothers.
“Mrs. Gordon?” Jennifer said.
“Me sorry, Dear. Yes, of course me do it.”
“How much would you like? Money.”
“Thirty dollars is the normal fee fi manicures,” yuh said. Yuh considered doing it fi free, sat with your mouth open fi a few seconds trying to coax the offer out, but Toronto rents were changing and the shop needed some updating and, wait, where were yuh going to have to drive to? “Where a Mrs. Helen?” yuh asked.
“What? I’m sorry.”
“Where is Mrs. Helen?”
“Oh. Right. Sorry.” Jennifer explained to yuh where the funeral home was. Yuh wrote the address and directions down on an old page in the appointment book. She gave yuh the name of the funeral home’s director and yuh wrote that down, too.
“So thirty dollars, then,” Jennifer asked.
“That’s fine,” yuh said.
Yuh forgot to ask why Mrs. Helen died.
The woman whose nails yuh were working on wanted to talk to yuh, to boast about her beautiful daughter being spoiled by Sharon in the next chair over, and yuh knew from the pauses when to say, Oh, and, Yes?, and, Wow, but honestly yuh were only hearing sound and occasional words and phrases like honour roll and scholarship and special treat. Sharon, bless her, was asking questions to cover up fi your distraction.
What was the conversation like when they decided to get the black lady mother loved so to come out fi do her nails and was Mr. Culverhouse part of the decision? When yuh pictured the girls, yuh pictured photos at least ten year’s old, photos in frames yuh’d dusted every month. Never had yuh found the courage, or the desire really, to go to the birthday parties Helen always invited yuh and your family to. Yuh’d known Mr. Culverhouse because he had been in advertising and sometimes he worked from home, was working from home when yuh’d brought ideas fi the sign fi the shop to Mrs. Helen fi her to look over. Helen was enthusiastic at first, but something in Mr. Culverhouse’s face was saying, No, no, no, all wrong and Helen seen it too and she chased Mr. away back to his home office. She told yuh that she’d talk to him later, but that she thought Patented High Quality Aesthetics Copyright was redundant and to maybe lose Copyright. The whole time, though, yuh were nervously doodling, a little left to right loop dropping down then coming back up level with the starting point. Helen saw it and said, That’s it. What’s that? That’s beautiful. Yuh told Helen how yuh’d done it fi as long as yuh could remember, that when yuh were a girl and yuh finished your school work yuh would fill up notebook page after notebook page with this loop and think about whatever yuh needed to think about to keep yourself from talking and upsetting your teachers. She said to put it on the sign. “It’s so free. So simple, but so free. Like a signature.” Yuh had a signature, of course and yuh thought she was calling yuh uneducated. So yuh wrote her a long thank you letter fi her help with the store sign and mailed it off and yuh thought even the Queen would have been impressed by your diction and grammar and it’s true yuh could write, can write beautiful, proper English. Yuh signed your full name on that letter and when Mrs. Helen Culverhouse came down to PHQA that first time she said to yuh, “I had no idea what a lovely name you have, Mrs. Prudence Honor Cerene Stephenson Duncan,” then added, “The sign is fabulous,” because even though she vexed yuh with that comment about yuh not having no signature, yuh loved that down dropping and up swinging loop so yuh’d had it put on the end of the sign like yuh had doodled even on that. She asked if yuh would put the loop on one of her nails. “With sparkles, please.” Yuh did it fi the first time on Mrs. Helen Culverhouse and so it did become your signature because no nail, not even the longest artificial nail, would fit Prudence Honor Cerene Stephenson Duncan. Even just PHCSD was too long to fit on someone’s pinky finger. Of course yuh no sign everyone’s hand, but some people yuh offered it to and some people asked yuh fi do it. When Mrs. Helen come the next time, she ask fi it again, but she said, laughing, “Doug hates it.” Doug was Mr. Culverhouse.
After Sharon and yuh finished the proud mother and her high-achieving daughter’s nails, Sharon asked yuh what was the matter and yuh managed not to cry as yuh told her Mrs. Helen died. Sharon touched your arm and shoulder like that might help. Yuh thanked her and called Selah to arrange fi her to take your appointments tomorrow. Selah had met Mrs. Helen a number of times over the years and terms Mrs. Helen sometimes used, like “you people” or “your people” or even “new Canadians,” bothered Selah. Yuh admired your daughter fi that, but told her yuh cyaan judge Mrs. Helen too harsh fi the limits of what she knows and that includes what she knows and doesn’t know to say. When yuh explained to Selah why yuh had to miss the day, when yuh explained that Mrs. Helen died, Selah just said, “I’m sorry Mum. I know how much you two loved each other.” You had to go to the bathroom to cry, her words touched yuh so.
Yuh slept well and woke happy that yuh hadn’t dreamed.
To reach the funeral home was easy. Take the highway to East Beach View Lane, turn right and go until you see Morton’s Funeral Centre, Willowwood Chapel. Yuh parked Desmond’s Lincoln—yuh still thought of it as Desmond’s car—in the back lot and yuh actually felt disappointed that it was paved and there were no stones to go popping off the wheels and pinging against the under parts of the car. Yuh remember that when Desmond died, it was Mrs. Helen convince you to tek the Lincoln and give the Civic to Selah. Yuh felt like a queen driving the Lincoln the first time, though yuh felt like yuh needed to apologize to Desmond before yuh turn the key in the ignition. Not no more. Yuh treat that car so fine, yuh sometimes feel like Desmond just was taking care of it fi yuh.
The doors to Morton’s were locked. Yuh checked your watch, then looked in the windows fi business hours. Yuh saw an intercom with a little black button. Yuh pressed it and a woman with a grey skirt and matching jacket came waving and stocking-footed from some back room. She called, “Sorry, sorry, coming, coming.” She was the granddaughter of the Mr. Morton who opened the funeral home, but you didn’t catch her name.
Mrs. Helen was in a workroom off a narrow hallway. There was a framed picture of her on a table beside an open black briefcase filled with makeup. Yuh looked there first because yuh weren’t ready to see your friend. “Take your time,” the granddaughter said. “My father will be with you in a minute.” There was a free metal cart which yuh assumed was left there fi yuh. Yuh put your bag down on it, a purse yuh once or twice used to take nail stuff to a friend’s house. Quickly, yuh looked towards Helen Culverhouse. They’d done a nice job of making her look like her lovely self. A fine, adjustable, rolling stool was sitting up by her face, her head, her shoulders. Yuh grabbed the stool by its ergonomic backrest and rolled it away from there. Yuh shivered like yuh were cold.
The chair and table were on Helen’s left so you brought them around her feet. Yuh always started on a person’s right hand. Helen asked yuh once if there was a reason fi that. “Me never noticed me did it,” yuh told her. Since then yuh’d come up with a few explanations, but, “Just because,” was the truest one. Yuh nearly said something to Helen about it before yuh remembered she was dead.
Yuh jumped when yuh heard a voice, “I see you’ve made yourself at home, Mrs. Gordon.” The tall man half smiled at you. “Apologies. I didn’t mean to startle you.” His hair was blond and white, the colours all mixed up and warring like in an old-time battle with swords or cutlass where yuh have to come face to face with your enemy.
“That’s alright, me hope. That I made myself at home?”
“I’m finished,” he said. “She’s all yours.”
“Thanks,” yuh said before yuh had a chance to really hear what he was saying.
He held out his hand. It was cold and soft. “My name is Andrew Morton. My father started this business fifty years ago. It’s our anniversary year.”
“Business is always good.”
Yuh smiled, trying to be a good guest.
He bent his head forward and raised his eyebrows. A practiced gesture. Then, with his hand open towards Helen he asked, “Is this your first time?”
Yuh were too shook by how easily he switched into sympathy to take in his question.
“Mrs. Gordon? Have you worked with a . . . a corpse before?”
“Don’t worry about hurting her. She can’t feel anything.”
“I understand you were friends?”
“That’s my understanding, too.”
He laughed too loud then put his hand on your upper arm. “That was funny, Mrs. Gordon. Do you have instructions?”
“Me spoke with her daughter, but,” yuh paused, then shook your head.
He pulled a pile of neatly folded notes out of his left pocket and opened a few before he found the right one. “Let’s see. Mr. Culverhouse says, ‘Do what she liked. Subdued colour. No loop, please.’”
Yuh nodded. “Thank you Mr. Morton.”
He touched your arm again. “Call me Andrew.”
“Is an hour enough time?”
“Oh.” He reached inside his coat and pulled out a narrow envelope. “This is for you.”
He was gone before yuh thought to ask how Mrs. Helen died.
Yuh opened the envelope and saw a fifty-dollar bill inside. Quietly yuh went to your purse and found a twenty-dollar bill, but when yuh took the fifty out, yuh saw the note. “Keep the change. —Doug.” Yuh set it all down—the $50, your $20, Doug’s note—on the cart’s metal top.
Helen’s right hand was folded awkwardly, her pinky tucked up under her ring finger. It wasn’t cold, objectively. Yuh were trying to stay objective. The hand was room temperature. And it felt heavier now. Of course as yuh arranged her hand and fingers she wasn’t helping yuh work against gravity like she normally would.
Her outfit was made of a lovely material, but it was a heavy blue. Navy. Yuh’d never seen her in anything so dark and it seemed to team up with the rich brown she died her hair in an attempt to overwhelm her face. “Who picked this outfit?” Yuh asked her. “Maybe it was one of your favourites, Mrs. Helen. How me know?” Yuh opened your bag. The nail polish bottles rattled around as you ran your hands through them. It was too loud. Plus, it was hard to see the colours, despite the bright bank of lights overhead. Yuh set the bottles out one by one along the edge of the cart. “What we have here?” Yuh picked up a fluorescent orange. It leapt out against the blue of the suit. Yuh giggled. “What Doug say to that funeral director? Keep the colour subdued? Yuh think this one subdued enough Mrs. Helen? No, me no think so neither.” Yuh turned back to your row of bottles. “A nice red, maybe? Leaning towards orange.” Yuh picked it and placed it next to the fabric. “Me think so.”
Yuh massaged and moisturized her hand. It was once the cream was on that yuh worried that it might not take the same way it used to. “Me know yuh like this Mrs. Helen, but me hope we don’t need wipe the lotion off before me leave.” It was while yuh filed her nails that yuh asked, “So, what happened to yuh? Yuh not old enough fi this.” Yuh remembered her fight with breast cancer, but assumed she would have told yuh if it come back. “Me not think to ask someone yet. Yuh look good, though, so me no think yuh were hit by no car.” Yuh laughed. “Yuh too young fi this, Mrs. Helen.” Yuh worked quietly fi a while.
It was while yuh were painting the nails on her left hand, when yuh were nearly done, that yuh said to her, “Yuh remember we used to talk about Desmond, my husband, he haunts me. Not in no poltergeist way. He not what we call back home a duppy. A spirit. A ghost. He haunts my mind, though.” Yuh wiped at your eyes. “Me a miss our chats, Mrs. Helen. Helen. Me know yuh prefer just Helen.” Yuh finished the last nail. “Maybe yuh can fit me into your haunting schedule? Even once a month, like regular? Or once a week like when me used to clean your house?” Yuh put the red nail polish in the bag. Yuh started to clear the other bottles off the tray, but got distracted by the money yuh had left there.
Before you put the fifty in your wallet, yuh found a pen in your purse and wrote on the bottom of Doug’s note, “Please find your twenty dollars change in this envelope. —Prudence.” Yuh added your loop after your name and it made yuh laugh. “What you think of that, Helen?” Yuh laughed again.
Yuh looked at the remaining bottles of polish. The neon orange was still there. “This a beautiful, fi true Mrs. Helen. I know yuh agree.” Yuh laughed again and wondered if someone heard you would they think yuh sound like some villain in a Hollywood movie. “A final touch.” Yuh put the loop on the pinky of her left hand. “My signature, Helen. Yuh be sure to tell anyone yuh meet from now on where yuh got your nails done.” Yuh held her hand and blew on the nail. Then yuh just held her hand. When yuh were sure the nails were dry, you tucked the pinky with your signature under her ring finger. “I hope you can keep a secret, Helen.” Yuh finished packing up, then stood there holding your things.
When you finally decided to do it, yuh put your bags down on the chair and leaned over your friend. “Thank yuh,” yuh told her. “Me love yuh, Mrs. Helen.” Yuh kissed her cheek, then examined it carefully. “Me think yuh make-up still okay. And me no leave no lipstick mark.”
Yuh touched her hand one last time before yuh gathered your things and headed fi the door, reminding yourself to ask someone why she died.
Toronto, Feb. 2016
Emoji Sequence: Renata Janiszewska, artist and educator
Story: Lee Sheppard
Note: I am not a Jamaican or a Jamaican-Canadian woman. I was inspired by the books Lionheart Gal; Life Stories of Jamaican Women by Sistren with Honor Ford-Smith and A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Also kicking around in my brain somewhere is the work of d’bi young, Afua Cooper and the play Da Kink in my Hair by Trey Anthony.