Emma Teasdale had been ill for some time and on a cool evening in early June, alone and peacefully, she died.
Those who gathered at lunchtime to set the world to rights at The Leek and Lily, the local pub, were saddened to hear of the retired schoolteacher’s passing and remembered their long-ago school days with the reflective kind of nostalgia that is the gentle gift of time.
But one person, hearing of Emma’s death, knew there was something to be done that only she could do.
Pulling on an ice-blue cardigan, Penny Brannigan turned the door sign to closed, pulled the Happy Hands Nail Care shop door shut behind her, strode purposefully down Station Road, and turned left into Market Square.
A few minutes later, mildly out of breath, she arrived at the sedate façade of Wightman and Sons, the town’s undertakers for more than a century. She paused for a moment to take in the familiar shop window that had been carefully draped in faded green velvet, framing a stiff arrangement of dried, dusty flowers.
Then, bringing her focus back to the purpose of her mission, she pushed the door open. As the overhead bell tinkled, Philip Wightman emerged from the back room, wiping his hands on a small yellow-and-white-striped towel.
Tall and slightly stooped, with thinning white hair, Philip was impeccably dressed in a sober black jacket and striped trousers. He smiled when he saw who it was and was just about to greet his visitor when Penny spoke.
“Philip, I’ve come about Emma Teasdale,” she burst out. “To get right to the point, I’d like to do Emma’s nails before she goes. Emma would have wanted me to do this for her. She always liked her manicure, Emma did, and was most particular about it. I’ll use her favourite colour, Altar Ego. It’s a light pink laced with lavender and it will be just right for the occasion.”
With a sympathetic smile, Philip asked Penny to take a seat.
“Hello to you, too, Penny. How are you, then? Holding up all right? No time for the pleasantries anymore?”
Penny started to apologize, but he shook his head dismissively.
He thought for a moment as he carefully finished drying his hands and then nodded his agreement.
“Well, now, I think you’re right. Miss Teasdale would have liked that very much,” he said. “Why don’t you come back tomorrow morning, after eleven, say, and bring your kit with you. We’ll have Emma, ah, Miss Teasdale ready for you then. I’ll stay with you while you do it, if you like.
“The visitation will start at two tomorrow, so that should give you enough time.” He paused and looked at her sympathetically. “And you’re quite sure you want to do this?”
Penny nodded. “I am, Philip, but thank you for your concern. I’ve never done a manicure before on someone who is . . . who has . . .” Her voice trailed off, and Philip supplied the word she couldn’t bring herself to say.
Penny thanked him, turned to go, and more slowly than she had come, made her way back along the narrow street to the small manicure shop she had opened more than twenty years ago.
The day, which had started out fine, was now threatening to rain. Low, dark clouds scudded across the sky, and the wind was picking up. Empty cups, plastic bags, and bits of paper blew along the street, washing up against the curb.
As she reached her shop, she paused for a moment to enjoy its unique setting. Hers was the third of three businesses in an old stone building; the premises beside hers had been empty for some time and a photographer had recently opened a studio in the third space. The charm of her shop lay in the small stream that ran merrily alongside it, bouncing over slippery, smooth stones to create the soothing yet energizing sound of rushing water. A curved wrought iron set of stairs led from the narrow pavement to her small flat on the first floor. She rarely used the stairs, though, because it was usually faster and more convenient to access the flat through the interior stairs tucked behind a discreet door at the rear of her shop. And, as she had learned the hard, bumpy way one rainy morning, the narrow steps could be very slippery when wet.
She unlocked the shop door and stepped inside, thinking as she often did when she turned the door sign from closed to open, how fortunate she was to be able to earn her living, small though it was, doing something she was good at, and which other people seemed to value.
Her manicure salon was clean, tidy, and well laid out. Bottles of nail polish, ranging from rosy pinks to vivid reds, and deep burgundies and browns through to vanilla creams and pearly whites were neatly arranged beside the small worktable where women, girls, and even the occasional man, always a tourist, sat to soak their nails, have their cuticles trimmed, and then their nails shaped, polished, and painted.
Penny prided herself on being able to suggest the perfect colour for any woman, any occasion. A job interview? You want to look professional, so why not try Japanese Rose Garden. A first date? Wow him with Big Apple Red. Over fifty? Steer clear of deep, dramatic colours and opt for something that flatters aging hands. Sonora Sunset would be just the thing for you.
As she thought of Emma, she smiled. Emma, who had never married, was in her seventies but her favourite colour, Altar Ego, was from the bridal collection.
Drawn together despite the differences in their ages and backgrounds, the relationship between the two women had grown steadily over the years into a close, affectionate bond. Penny adored Emma as the loving, kindly aunt she had always wished she’d had and knew that Emma returned her affection.
Although Penny didn’t love music the way Emma did, she willingly accompanied her to the odd concert or recital, and Emma, in turn, went with Penny to visit art galleries or touring exhibits, once as far away as Manchester.
As Emma grew older, and the illness began to take its toll, Penny did everything she could to make her elderly friend comfortable while they both struggled in their own ways to come to terms with the inevitable. And now, the day Penny had been dreading, with its devastating news, had finally come.
Like Emma, Penny had come to Llanelen from another place. As a Canadian backpacker in her twenties, she had arrived in the village by chance on her way to Betws-y-Coed and stopped for lunch. She had found her way into St. Elen’s churchyard where she sat, legs outstretched in front of her as she munched an apple and admired the brilliance of the green fields in the middle distance as they rose to meet the craggy purple hills above them. For the first time she realized the significance of the phrase “breathtaking view.” She was staggered by the depth and vibrancy of the velvety green fields that rose all around her, sloping higher, up and away, until they blended into the purples and greys of the trees on the hills above. And in the foreground, adding dimension, sound and movement, was the sparkling River Conwy. After a few minutes, she decided to capture the awesome grandeur around her and reached into her backpack for a small sketching tablet and pencil. While she worked, head bent and oblivious to time, the light began to change. As the sun slipped lower in the sky, the light brightened and intensified into that magic hour that announced the coming of dusk. Glancing at her watch, she decided it was too late to make it to Betws-y-Coed; she would try to find a place to stop for the night. In the town square she approached a smartly dressed mature woman in a light green spring coat carrying an old-fashioned wicker shopping basket and asked if she could recommend an inexpensive B&B. Although the woman was clearly in a hurry to get to the shops before they closed, she took the time to suggest in an educated English accent a place that might do. The next morning Penny bumped into the woman, this time wearing a head scarf and carrying a couple of schoolbooks. Recognizing her, the woman greeted her warmly and asked if her accommodations had been all right. The woman, of course, had been Emma. Penny spent a second night at the B&B and on the third day, had gratefully accepted Emma’s kind offer to stop for a couple of nights in her spare room. The sketch Penny had made that first afternoon, now a small, framed watercolour, had been given pride of place for almost thirty years in Emma’s cozy sitting room.
Such a simple meeting, Penny thought, as her eyes filled with tears. She doubted that many people today would extend such kindness to a stranger.
At first, Penny had worked what ever jobs she could, the way you do when you’re young and your future stretches out endlessly before you—waiting tables in the dining room of the Red Dragon Hotel and chopping vegetables in the kitchen of the old people’s home. One day, she offered to give an el der ly resident a manicure as a birthday treat and as the other ladies gathered around to watch and then admire the result, they asked if they could have one, too, and offered to pay. Soon she was doing manicures at the residence every Saturday. Word got around, and before long she was booking appointments. Within six months, she had opened her own nail salon on a little side street and was living in the small rented flat above it.
She had kept her Canadian accent and over time the villagers had come to regard her affectionately as one of them, even if she did talk a bit funny. Now, in her early fifties, and older than Emma had been when they met, her hair was still an eye-catching, vibrant red that she wore tucked behind her ears. Her figure was not quite as trim as it used to be, but the comfortable casual clothes that had become her signature style hid those extra few pounds that inevitably find their way onto middle-aged waistlines. She liked tan or black trousers, worn with a neatly pressed white blouse and V-neck jumper or cardigan, always in soft colours like beige, white, pale pink, or ice blue, which, she had read in a fashion magazine, complement an over-forty face.
Settled and mostly content, she thought her life had turned out reasonably well.
The rector, who had called at Emma’s request to finalize the arrangements for her funeral, had found her body in a small upstairs bedroom of Jonquil Cottage. On the bedside table, under an old-fashioned glass paperweight in which delicate purple flowers hung suspended for all time, he had found the meticulous notes she had made in preparation for their meeting.
“That was so like her,” Rev. Thomas Evans said to his wife, Bronwyn, later that morning in the rectory’s sunny kitchen, as he gently placed the two handwritten pages on the table. “She always thought of everything right down to the smallest detail and kept everything in her life so tidy and well organized. We could all learn a lesson from her.”
He smiled affectionately at his wife, slipped off his jacket, and hung it casually on the back of a chair.
A short, slightly overweight man in his early fifties, Rev. Evans had managed to hang on to some of the good looks left over from his youth, although his jawline had slackened noticeably, and his bushy sideburns were definitely dated. His wife was a practical, down-to-earth woman with fading blond hair streaked with grey worn in the serviceable pageboy style that she’d had since she was a girl. Her comfortable clothes with their too-long skirts hung loosely on her small frame, and if her parishioners thought her wardrobe as outdated as her husband’s whiskers, she took no notice. With her warm, compassionate nature and unfailing knack of saying the right thing, she was well suited to her role as the rector’s wife—one she had filled for almost thirty years. She’d grown up in the village and considered herself fortunate to have spent many happy years of married life in the comfortable stone rectory that adjoined St. Elen’s churchyard.
In the matter of Emma’s funeral, as in most things, she agreed with her husband.
“I’m glad we know the music Emma chose,” she said, gesturing in the general direction of the documents on the table. “She loved music so much, and having just the right hymns would have been so important to her. We’ll make sure she gets the service she wanted.” And, she thought as she paused to admire Emma’s old-fashioned penmanship, perhaps we can add an extra special touch of our own, as a fitting tribute to the quiet Englishwoman who gave us so much over the years.
The small Welsh market town of Llanelen, nestled in the heart of the Conwy Valley, had welcomed Emma many years earlier, and for decades she had taught generations of children in the village school. While the children were actually in her classroom—fidgeting or gazing wistfully out the window at the lush green hills that encircled the town—they thought she was strict, humourless, and much too English; but when they got out into the world, running a sheep farming operation in the valley, working in offices as far away as Cardiff, forging successful careers in prestigious professions or even serving in Parliament, they remembered her with gratitude and respect, not only for teaching them many of the things they needed to know to be successful in their chosen careers but for encouraging them to aspire to those careers in the first place.
“I’d better put the kettle on,” Bronwyn said as she walked over to the sink, adding over her shoulder, “you’ll have a busy few days coming up.” As the sound of running water filled the kitchen, the rector nodded absently and reached for his pocket diary. Opening it to the current week, he nodded again. “Yes,” he agreed, “it is going to be busy. I’ve got the Gruffydd wedding on the Saturday at four. I think the funeral had better wait until the Monday. It just gets too crowded, and a lot of brides don’t like the idea of getting married on the same day we’ve had a funeral in the church. They think the atmosphere isn’t right, but how they can tell is beyond me. Too much leftover doom and gloom hanging over everyone, they say. Still, half the time it’s the same crowd that goes to both and who wants to go to a funeral in the morning and a wedding in the afternoon? I certainly don’t, and the last time I looked, neither one can start without me.”
The rector pointed at the sturdy brown teapot that sat warming on the counter. “And will there be biscuits with that?” he asked hopefully.
Sliding a few chocolate digestives onto a plate, his wife shook her head, sighed, and then turned around to face her husband.
“The Gruffydd wedding! Emyr could have had anyone—anyone!—but he takes up with her. Now, I know I’m not supposed to think or talk like that—being judgmental they call it these days—but I’m only saying what’s true and what everyone knows. That Meg Wynne Thompson’s a right little madam, and she’ll make his life a merry hell. In this day and age, I don’t know why he would think he has to marry her.” And then, after a moment’s reflection, she added, “That didn’t come out quite the way I meant it. I haven’t heard any talk of her being pregnant or anything like that, so I’m sure that’s not . . .”
Her voice trailed off as she gave the tea a brisk stir, slapped on the lid, placed the teapot and biscuits on the table with a bit more emphasis than usual, and then sat down opposite her husband. As a comfortable silence descended on them, the rector reached for a biscuit with one hand, then fumbled in his jacket pocket for his pen with the other. There was much to do, and he needed to make a few notes.
A few moments later Bronwyn took a delicate sip of her tea and looked at him. “Listen, Thomas,” she said. “I’ve had an idea. It’s about the funeral. See what you think about this.”
Like the rector, Penny was thinking about the Gruffydd wedding, because she, too, had a role to play. The bridal party had booked appointments for Friday afternoon weeks ago, but the bride had decided to have her nails done on the morning of her wedding, so Penny, carefully disguising her reluctance, had agreed to take Meg Wynne Thompson on the Saturday at nine.
Penny always advised members of the bridal party to come in for a pre-wedding manicure a couple of weeks before the big day to choose and coordinate their colours and then to get their nails done the day before the wedding. There were always too many things to do, and too little time to do them, on a wedding morning.
Fortunately, Meg Wynne hadn’t wanted a pedicure, as many brides did, so their feet would look their sexy best in strappy sandals, and because of the timing, Penny hadn’t dared suggest one.
Glancing at her watch, she decided there would be just enough time for one of those sandwiches from the Spar that she loved—prawn mayonnaise this time—and a cup of tea before her afternoon clients began to arrive.
First would be Evelyn Lloyd, coming in for her regular Thursday afternoon appointment. Like many of Penny’s regulars, Mrs. Lloyd regarded a professional manicure as a bit of pampering richly deserved after a lifetime of hard work and, since she had given up smoking, a little treat she could easily afford, although every now and then she would suggest to Penny that her over-sixty clients really ought to get a senior’s discount.
Penny laid out her work tray, turned the shop sign, closed the door, and headed upstairs for lunch.
Excerpted from The Cold Light of Mourning by Elizabeth J. Duncan.
Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth J. Duncan.
Published in 2009 by St. Martin’s Paperbacks.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.