‘Ah, hello there,’ said a voice from above her. ‘This is Madame’s, yes?’

Of course. It made sense. A customer would see the neon sign in front of the shop that announced that yes, this was indeed Madame’s, but would step inside and ask the question anyway. Why stop there? Why not make Isabel spell it out? 

Isabel kneaded the back of her neck for two more seconds and looked up, less to help, more to match the smell to its owner. Her hand flew to grip the end of the counter, and she managed to stay on her feet. The woman was bathed in an assault of different hues of pink, from her feathered hat to her cowl-neck blouse. Behind the shades of loud colour, she was small, her shoulders peeping over the counter. A piercing aroma of woods and fruity scents drifted from her.

‘Yes,’ Isabel said, wearing a smile she couldn’t feel. Then again, she’d stopped feeling her face a half-hour into her shift. ‘The one and only. May I help you with anything?’

‘Oh, you may help me with a lot of somethings, dear,’ she said, bouncing as she spoke. She clapped her tiny hands once. ‘I want to buy them all. Everything!’

‘Ooh, I like the sound of that.’ At this point the only thing Isabel would like the sound of was the clock striking eight so she could shut the shop and go home. That was still three long hours away. ‘Where would you want us to start?’ The woman fluttered her fingers, her eyebrows creased in concentration. Isabel resisted the urge to roll her eyes. ‘Let’s see,’ Isabel said, looking for a way to make this torture end quicker. ‘Who are you shopping for?’ 

‘Ah, yes!’ She clapped again, the thin lips she had abused in gaudy pink stretching into grinning arcs. ‘These are for my older sister! Amma Asantewaa!’

‘Ah, the great Amma Asantewaa,’ Isabel said, nodding. No, she did not know the unfortunate lady whose sister would no doubt force her into something pink. ‘What does she like?’

‘Everything.’ At once she moved to a section of the store. No, moved wasn’t quite right. She swept through the store, her arms caught in a dance as her lips moved to a symphony Isabel could not keep up with. ‘Ooh, perfume! Yes. I’d like three of these, please.’

Isabel stepped around the counter. Who would have known today would be this busy? Her shifts were always slow, yeah, but the slow that lulled her to sleep. This was the slow that made her claw at her eyes while she waited for the clock to do her some favours. And she was the only attendant available today. Her coworker had called in sick with a stomach bug. A thorough search through last night's social media posts had Isabel suspecting it was a hangover.

‘Excellent choices,’ Isabel said, catching up with the woman at the perfume aisle. She put the perfume boxes in her cart. ‘Anything else?’

‘Where are your clothes?’

‘Two aisles—’

The words were still leaving her mouth when the woman started walking off. She was a pink hurricane fighting the shop’s warm, subtle tones. Her shoes clacked against the marble floor. ‘She’s giving something away, you know,’ she said over her shoulder, while Isabel followed. ‘Amma.’

'Is she now?' Isabel considered herself a good actress. All her sarcasm was coming off as genuine interest. Otherwise Pink H was dense.

‘Yes.’ She stopped to look at the racks of men’s and women’s clothes. Then she got to work filling her hands, and the cart, with the first frocks she could find. ‘She calls it her most treasured possession. I’m thinking it’s her penthouse in Senchi. It’s worth millions!’

‘That’s why you’re buying her all this stuff?’

Pink H stopped manhandling a hanger to look at her, mouth open. Isabel gulped. Now she’d gone and done it. ‘Why, no, of course,’ she said, and Isabel gulped again, in relief this time. ‘She’s my sister. I love her.’ She cleared her throat. ‘If she gives me the treasure, then…’ Her right shoulder lifted in a helpless shrug. ‘It would be because she loves me too. Nothing to do with all this stuff I’m getting her.’

‘But it helps, doesn’t it?’

‘Pardon me?’

‘I said, should I wrap these up, or will there be more?’ Isabel smiled sweetly. ‘We've got shoes, too.’

It was another twenty minutes before Pink H left the shop, holding three large shopping bags stuffed with a myriad of smaller ones. Isabel collapsed unto the chair behind the counter. Eyes shut, she felt about for her cup of coffee, and groaned when her fingers closed around it. Surprise, surprise. It was cold now.

The bells jingled as the door swung open. She groaned again. ‘Did you forget something, ma’am?’ she said on autopilot, pulling herself to her feet.

‘Ma’am?’ There was a snort. ‘I’ve been told I look quite feminine, but to be outright called ma’am—this is a first.’

Isabel’s eyelids fluttered apart when the deep, gravelly voice of the speaker reached her. Her brows twisted before she could catch them. Whoever had called this one feminine had to be high on something, and it wasn’t truth. He was a mustachioed man, with wispy eyebrows and a crisp air. He wore an austere black coat, but the slice of gold on the hand he placed on the counter was proof that he knew a good deal about fine living.

‘My apologies, sir,’ she said, rubbing her left cheek to call some feeling back into it. ‘Welcome to Madame’s. How may I help you?’

His elbow joined his hand on the counter, and he leaned forward. ‘Say, is this the best shop in the city?’

Behind her smile, a bubble of laughter began and ended in her throat. Best shop in the city? Madame’s? Really? It wasn’t even the best shop within a half-mile radius. Yes, the staff got free coffee, but Isabel had complained a quarter-million times to Madame that she preferred lattes. The shop could even get one of those cool espresso machines. But here she was, forced to drink bitter, tepid coffee. 

‘This is it, the one,’ Isabel said, grinning wider, jabbing the wooden counter with one finger. ‘The best there is. Vogue did a feature on us once.’ Word, she was good at this acting thing. Hollywood was always looking for fresh blood, no?

He hummed. If he doubted her, he didn’t mention it. ‘You’re a woman, yes?’

She blinked. Of all the crazy questions of the day, this one was making the top five. ‘It… would appear that I am, yes,’ she said, nodding slowly, bracing herself for more.

‘Good.’ He fingered the collar of his shirt, also black, and coughed once into his left fist. ‘I… need to pick a gift. For a woman.’

‘Splendid,’ she said, then wondered if it was indeed, splendid. ‘What’s your relationship with this woman?’

‘The witch is my mother-in-law.’

‘I beg your pardon?’ Oh, she’d heard him clear the first time. The sadist in her just wanted to hear it again.

‘She’s my mother-in-law,’ he said, coughing again. She pouted. He wasn’t as good an actor as her. Maybe he’d do hemorrhoid commercials while she appeared on Broadway. He had the troubled look down pat.

‘Right. What kind of things does she like?’

‘Who cares? I mean,’ he went on quickly, tapping the counter, ‘nice things, I’m sure. She likes covering herself in jewelry.’

‘Jewelry, good. We can start there.’

‘Start? You mean we have to do more?’

‘Not necessarily.’ She bit back a laugh at his terrified expression. ‘You know, it’s sweet of you to do this for your mother-in-law. Not a lot of people would.’

‘Oh, please.’ He waved a hand in her face, the hint of a smile pushing one side of his moustache up. ‘I’m only doing this because of that fancy giveaway she’s holding in two days at her birthday dinner. Otherwise why would a reasonable man like me buy that Amma Asantewaa anything?’

Isabel’s lower lip dropped. ‘Amma Asantewaa?’

‘Mm-hmm.’ He brushed off a speck that wasn’t even on his lapel. ‘You know her?’

She shook her head. ‘Just... saw her name somewhere today.’ She turned around to face the jewelry cabinet. The glistening pieces were visible through the glass doors. ‘A necklace, perhaps?’

‘Yes, fine.’

Isabel picked out a thin gold chain with an emerald encrusted pendant, and lay it on the counter before him. ‘This beauty here is only four hundred—’

‘Four hundred?’ His head jutted forward. ‘For a chain?

Four hundred and fifty, actually. ‘It is one hundred percent gold, sir.’

‘Then can you give me one that’s one hundred percent silver? Or ten percent gold?’ She wasn’t sure if his moustache shuddered now from shock or fury. ‘The woman owns a diamond mine, anyway. What use is a chain to her, two thousand percent gold or what not?’

She battled the urge to massage her temple. ‘Would you like us to get a different gift, then, since—’

‘No. We’ve come this far. Let’s finish it.’

He left five minutes later with a lackluster silk necklace. She didn’t care. He had tipped her.

When the bells chimed again, Isabel picked up her cup. ‘One second,’ she said, to the surprised couple now standing at the counter, one of her fingers in the air. She stuck her lips to the rim and tipped the cup, wincing when the cold, bitter brew touched her tongue. She set it back down hard, with all the ceremony of someone who had just downed a tequila shot. ‘Welcome to Madame’s, yadda yadda, how may I help you?’

The man looked around him, grimacing. ‘This is Madame’s?’ he asked, pinching his beard. ‘This really is Madame’s?’

Really? Hadn't she just said that, in her elaborate welcome address? ‘Uh—’

‘It’s quite bland, isn’t it?’ the woman said, patting the top of her afro.

Isabel swallowed another mouthful of coffee. ‘We like to think of it as warm and inviting.’

His survey of the shop complete, the man fixed questioning eyes on her. ‘And it isn’t an art shop?’

Her lips parted in surprise. They were doing that a lot today. ‘We… are working on adding that extension,’ she said, nodding. ‘It isn’t complete. Yet.’ Or started. At all.

‘Well… we could still try,’ the woman said, with a dainty raise of her left shoulder. ‘Right, honey?’

‘I suppose. We are here now.’ As if someone had flipped a switch, the man's disapproving stare dissolved into the eager face of an excited puppy. ‘So.’ He rubbed his palms together, his lips pulled in a grin. ‘You’ve got any paintbrushes?’

They did. Unfortunately. ‘Which kind do you want?’

The woman’s head tilted as her lips parted in shock. Isabel felt good seeing someone else in that position. ‘There are kinds?’

‘Absolutely,’ Isabel said, although whether different kinds of paintbrushes existed, she did not know. Her knowledge of brushes was limited to the one she stuck in her mouth and those she applied blush with. ‘Why do you want them, though? Are you two artists?’ she asked, skimming their wardrobe of sweaters and heavy beaded necklaces.

‘Oh, no,’ the man said, shaking his head. ‘We’re buying them as a gift.’

‘Let me guess.’ Isabel put her right elbow on the counter, and sipped coffee with the help of her other hand. ‘Amma Asantewaa.’

‘Yes!’ both squealed. ‘How did you know?’

‘Lucky guess.’ She sipped more coffee. She should have put in more sugar. Or just thrown it all away.

‘We heard she likes painting, you see,’ said the man, trembling with palpable excitement now. ‘So we thought, why not buy her something to help with that? Because she’s giving away a priced possession at her next birthday party. Between us,’ he said, his left thumb waving between him and the woman, ‘we think it’s her racehorse collection.’

‘Racehorse collection.’ What didn’t that Amma Asantewaa have? ‘And you believe getting her paintbrushes will give you full access to her racehorse collection.’

‘Indeed,’ said the woman, her teeth bared in a blinding smile. ‘How good are our chances? Think we can get it?’

The left end of Isabel’s lips curved up in a crescent. ‘Get in line.’ 

December 14, 2019 02:58

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Whitney Trang
17:47 Dec 18, 2019

Interesting story! I liked it and want to hear more about Amma Asantewaa. She sounds like quite the character.


Debbie Rae
19:37 Dec 18, 2019

I know right! Thanks!


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Juliet Tullett
21:40 Jul 03, 2021

This has a very satisfying structure. I enjoyed it and want to know more about Amma Asantewaa.


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