If pressed, Mrs Adamson would have said it was because you could always
be sure of a smile when you walked through the door. Not even in a café
or diner were you guaranteed of that; you never knew if the waitstaff
might be in an off mood. But there, she claimed, a kindly air of
intimacy enveloped you as soon as the threshold was crossed. As a matter
of fact, it all spoke of quiet warmth, a soft focus on the customer as
if they were briefly the centre of the world. Though it was but a larva
in her unconscious, Mrs Adamson felt this way because she knew that the
rest of the world had ceased to recognise her without some sort of
calling card of intention.
She liked everything about them. The homogenous but cozy decor: deep
pile carpets that must have been replaced quite often, so as to maintain
a dignified muffled footfall; thick draperies whose runners seemed
tailor-made to be drawn back and forth in the purest silence; the
distance between reception rooms that allowed a quiet stream of
conversation to flow; the scattered crystal dishes containing soft
pastel mints or sweets in flavours like honey, comforting to both the
eye and mouth. Her sole criticism was that the latter tended to be
cellophane wrapped, which produced a crackle however quietly one tried
to remove them that disturbed the stillness.
The proprietors, usually the sons of the sons of the original owner,
were impeccably suited in respectful blues and greys. It’s a persistent
myth, she thought to herself as she sipped her tea, that they wear
black. A remnant from the old days of mourning. She never found this to
be so. Once she dared to ask, posing the question timidly, as a kind of
— I would have really expected someone in your position to wear black.
He looked pleased, as if no one had asked before (for no one had,
although everyone wondered).
— No, we feel (he spoke fraternally for everyone in his profession)
that it is too obvious. We like to be unobtrusive, and so dark colours
are favoured, but never black—unless it is at the specific behest of
Once the polite condolences were dispensed, she liked to settle down to
her favourite questions. She had an insatiable curiosity for what kinds
of things were allowed as accompaniment, and what could be accommodated.
They liked this too; it was the closest to gossip that they would allow
themselves to indulge: revealing, but not too much, and so maintained
their professionalism while breaking slightly free of the monotony of
the administration of the deceased. She would query about fishing rods
and books, small statuary and bottles of scent. She heard stories about
musical instruments, not too intrusive so as to fit without special
modification, but there had been a family who insisted that a
cherished tuba should accompany their dearly beloved. She marvelled out
loud at their capacity for accommodation.
— We aim to fulfil the wishes of both parties, he said humbly.
After a pause and a chuckle to himself, he added:
— From the times of the great pharaohs and even before, humankind
has longed for the idea of an afterlife. It is not for us at
___________ to say if there is one or not, but at any rate,
we ensure that loved ones are well-equipped if it is the case.
Mrs Adamson never tired of these enjoyable tête-à-têtes. She remembered
never to stay too long, but also to ask every practical question besides
the one that was her reason for coming. As long as it takes to drink the
cup of coffee they offer, she would remind herself as she sat in the
plush chair across from the old oak desk (it was always old oak) and
straightened her skirt.
She kept notes of these visits. Over the years she must have filled two
dozen at least of the two-dollar (when she started they were much less)
small ruled notebooks covered in oxblood imitation leather that you
could buy in any drugstore. Date, name of establishment, proprietor,
costs, special mentions. There had only been a handful of places that
did not care to humour her favourite question beyond a “no” or an
insistence on a specific item or inventory so they could estimate the
cost before going further. For those, she had carefully drawn an even
red pen line through the establishment’s name.
Yes, it had been near to a good thirty years or so. A hobby, some might
call it, but she saw it as something more. You were getting to know
folks in a way that was different to chatting at the market or even a
cup with the neighbour. Some of the nicest people, she would say, spend
their days tending to the things that we call the darkest, yet no one
tends to them. She liked to collect their opinions and answers,
comparing them to each other as well as to her own. How is it we go
through life never asking ourselves in what way we would like to move
along to the next, she thought. And here they are, doing just that kind
service, and it’s just a shame no one stops to ask them about it.
She never travelled very far. Anywhere that one of the numerous bus
routes to the nearby counties covered was enough. There were always
multiple establishments in any town, however small. Once the thought
popped into Mrs Adamson’s mind unbidden: and they say that other thing
is the oldest profession, but surely it has always been this. She would
go to the library in advance, ask for that town’s phone book and make a
list, carefully noting addresses. Then one day she would put on her
second-best dress and hat—adding a veil for a sense of sombre
purpose—and walk to the bus depot. It was a regular day out: she made
sure to stop in at a café or diner for a slice of pie and a cup of tea.
Perhaps she would buy some flowers or produce if she saw an especially
cheerful-looking shopfront. Then she would ride the bus back, and at
home, sit in front of the fire and write up her notes.
The waitress hovered over her with a maternal air, despite being
— I don't believe I've seen you here before.
Mrs Adamson nodded with pleasure.
— I'm new in town. Just a little appointment.
The waitress beamed as if she were the sole welcoming committee.
— Well, it's a beautiful little place. Let me get you another cup of
tea. On the house.
As she bustled off, Mrs Adamson looked out of the spotless plate-glass
window at the usual scenes of passers-by shopping and talking and going
to and fro with the kind of aimless determination you see in every town
or city. She played a game with herself sometimes, where she would pick
people out of the crowd and think of what they might like best to take
with them on that long unknown journey: an heirloom cameo, model trains,
a case of butterflies. Then she picked up the imitation-leather notebook
on the table and began turning its pages. She murmured to herself
slowly, rolling each word over in her mouth and savouring it:
— Wilson's Funeral Home. 5414 North Street. Thomas J. Wilson III,
A steaming cup was placed at her elbow.
She sipped and read with quiet satisfaction as the sun shone.