- Published: 20 October 2020
- ISBN: 9780143793601
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 336
- RRP: $19.99
Island on the Edge of the World
“Voila!” Charlie spun the chair around and smiled into the mirror as she stood behind Meg. She could see her client’s mouth turn down a little at the corners as the woman struggled to unsnap the leopard-skin-patterned cape draped across her torso. Charlie quickly turned the chair back toward herself. “It makes you look ten years younger. Maybe even twelve.” She brushed stray hairs off Meg’s shoulders and, not wanting to compound the doubt, guided her away from the mirror, following the number one rule that every smart hairdresser swore by: Never, ever let the client see their reflection without the cape, or all they’ll see is fat.
“I don’t know.” Meg twisted her head around for another look. “Do you think it makes me look—”
“Trust me. Everyone’s going to love it.” Charlie helped her out of the cape and into her green quilted jacket.
A silvery voice drifted across the Bea’s Hive salon. “You look magnificent, Meg.” Charlie turned to see her grandmother seated in her favorite spot—the 1970s-era Naugahyde dryer chair that was stuffed into a corner, its translucent hood tilted back in permanent repose against the wall. She shot the old woman a look, knowing full well that her grandmother couldn’t see the layering she’d added to Meg’s usual severe bob. She could only hope that Meg would simply accept her grandmother’s compliment and forget about just how blind Bea had become.
Charlie swiped Meg’s credit card through the machine and scrounged around for a working pen among the dozens jammed into the chipped Wedgwood teapot next to the old cash register.
“Oh, did you raise your prices? I don’t believe that’s what you used to charge me, Bea,” Meg snorted as she scrawled her signature across the slip of paper.
“I’d be happy to do your hair for you next time if you want, Meg,” Charlie’s grandmother said without looking up from her crocheting, the orange scarf she was making for Charlie now measuring at least twelve feet long. “Just hope you won’t mind looking like a half-eaten hedgehog,” she added, under her breath.
Charlie bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. “Would you care for the receipt?”
After the brass shopkeeper’s bell mounted on top of the salon door sounded Meg’s exit, Charlie turned her attention to the client in the second chair, a tall woman whose scalp sprouted a garden of little foil packets.
“Jeez, how do you put up with people like that?” the woman said as the screen door banged shut.
“Oh,” Charlie sighed, “Meg’s all right, Sonja. You know how some people can be—never satisfied with anything, no matter what. We do this dance every time she comes in.”
“Meg’s all right,” Bea echoed. “Just cheap. We all used to call her the Queen of the Alligators, her arms being so short she can never seem to reach her pockets to get out a tip.”
After checking to make sure Sonja’s color had taken, Charlie began to unwrap each lock of hair as if it were a precious square of artisanal chocolate.
“Do you want to know what I heard?” Sonja asked into the mirror.
Charlie paused, fighting an overwhelming urge to say no. Although listening to her clients talk—in fact, getting them to talk—was part of the fine art of being a hairdresser, sometimes it became just too much. Already that day she’d heard about two cheating husbands, one thieving housekeeper, and a scandal involving a city councilman. It all seemed so petty and, frankly, boring to her.
“A friend of a friend saw Meg’s son at the rehab facility up in Monterey,” Sonja continued. “You know, the one who caused that accident last year over at Ocean and Junipero?”
Charlie simply nodded. Often she wished she could un-hear the things she’d been told. It was sometimes hard keeping straight what you were and weren’t supposed to know about the person in the chair, and even when you could, it could be challenging to deal with a client about whom you knew way too much. Sometimes she had to fight the urge to tell them to just shut up about their First World problems, and to share with them some of the real problems she’d witnessed growing up in a world so unlike the one they knew.
Charlie was finding Carmel-by-the-Sea to be a real hotbed for drama queens and small-town gossip. And being a hairdresser put her at the epicenter of it all. Of course, she couldn’t help but feel sympathy for her clients and their problems, but what was she supposed to do about it? There was only so far lending an ear could go. She had read somewhere that psychiatrists suffered the highest rate of work-related stress of any occupation. Hairdressers, she thought, must come in a close second.
Her grandmother, Bea, had been born and bred in Carmel, and she loved it here. She was in her element hanging out with the artists and poets, the dreamers and drifters. The old woman was even at home among the wealthy of the town, many of whom still sought her out for those talents she possessed that had nothing whatsoever to do with hairdressing.
But Charlie, who had spent the past year helping out at her grandmother’s salon, Bea’s Hive, knew it was not for her. She hadn’t lived here since she was five, when her mother had plucked her out of kindergarten and whisked her away to help her new stepfather bring the word of the Lord to the deepest corners of the Amazon rainforest—whether the people of the Amazon rainforest wanted it or not. When a teenage Charlie first arrived, alone, back on the doorstep of Bea’s Hive, it was only to use Carmel as a hopping-off point, a place to crash temporarily, do her laundry and get her bearings before heading off to another semester at another school, another promising-sounding job in another city, another trial run in another country, and other attempts at finding a life for herself. She never intended to settle here. Apart from some ancient memories of Bea reading her bedtime stories and letting her lick cake batter off a spoon, Charlie felt no connection to this place. Nor to any place, for that matter. Her years as a third-culture kid living in a world that was not her own had left her with a rootlessness and restlessness that traveled around with her like extra baggage.
“Well,” Sonja continued, “I know one thing. If it were me, I’d have kicked that kid out of the house a long time ago.”
Charlie pointed Sonja toward the shampoo bowl.
“I’m sure you would have, Sonja,” Bea chimed in. “The way you’re dealing with your own son getting booted out of the community college over that cheating thing is proof of that.”
Charlie watched the flush rise from Sonja’s neck to her cheeks. She doubted the woman had shared that tidbit with Bea, and Charlie was well aware of how uncomfortable her grandmother’s psychic abilities could make people feel—as though someone was reading their personal journal without their permission.
Of course, Charlie also knew plenty of things about her clients without them telling her. She could tell who’d had a facelift by the way their skin was folded into those little tucks behind the ears. Or who had a new boy toy, obvious from a sudden desire to cover their gray hairs. But her grandmother, well, she knew way, way more.
Once washed and towel-dried, Sonja plopped herself back down in the swivel chair for a blowout, sweeping the wet bangs off her face as she leaned in toward the gilt-framed mirror. “Why can’t you give me color like yours, Charlie? And those curls!”
“Only Mother Nature can bless a person with hair like Charlie’s,” Bea said. “Chestnut Filly, I’d call it, if it were something that could be put in a bottle. Can I get you some coffee, Sonja?”
“Maybe Sonja would prefer some cucumber water, Bibi,” Charlie said, using the name Bea had taught her to use when she first began to talk. She watched in the mirror as her grandmother stood and turned to the ring-stained mahogany night-stand, where the old percolator rested beside the new water dispenser Charlie had insisted upon in an attempt to bring the salon into the twenty-first century.
“Water? Nobody wants water with vegetables in it, honey.” Charlie’s grandmother ran her spotted hands over the mismatched row of mugs, stopping at the one that would now proclaim Sonja—not Bea, not Charlie—to be the World’s Best Hairdresser. She filled it to the brim without spilling a drop.
Charlie had just taken the cup from Bea and handed it to Sonja when the bell—which her grandmother swore “renewed the energy of the room” whenever someone entered or exited through the door—tinkled again. Charlie turned to see one of her regulars entering. “Oh shit, did we have an appointment?”
“Elaine, is that you?” Bea asked. “Elaine’s here to see me, Charlie.” The old woman pushed the purple frames of her thick, round glasses up onto the bridge of her nose, and began crossing the cluttered salon with the confidence of someone who’d walked those floors her entire life. Charlie managed, just in time, to wheel aside the plastic cart she’d snuck into the salon one day while her grandmother was napping. She’d been desperate for a proper spot to organize her tools amid the remnants of Bea’s days behind the chair—the wig stands, the rollers, the ancient styling books. Charlie was not allowed to change a thing in the salon. Despite her attempts, she’d failed to convince her grandmother to part with any of the so-called treasures she’d accumulated over the years.
The room, with its trinkets and knickknacks, crystals and beads, felt claustrophobic to Charlie, who personally preferred to travel light. To Bea, everything told a story. The snow globe collection occupying the towel shelf? Gifts from her clients’ travels. The pile of books blocking the window? A revolving lending library that spoke volumes about the tastes of her customers. The dingy white walls were jam-packed with photos of Bea and half the town’s population—photos Bea could no longer see, yet refused to take down for a much-needed paint job. And the art! Carmel seemed to have more painters than residents, and none of them worth the paper they dribbled on, in Charlie’s opinion at least.
Charlie let out a sigh as the two women disappeared through the door that led from the salon into the rest of the house. “Sorry for my grandmother’s rudeness. She sometimes seems to lack a filter.”
“Bea? Please.” Sonja dismissed the apology with a wave of the hand. “She’s a hoot. Honestly? I think she’s got quite a gift. And I’m not the only one who thinks that.”
Charlie’s stepfather had always claimed that Bea was a witch. And he meant that literally, not in the bellyaching way that most sons-in-law toss the term around. Bea was doing the work of the devil, according to his beliefs—the same beliefs he twisted into a permanent wedge he drove straight between Charlie’s mom and her own mother. As a child far away from home, Charlie had always been confused by his pronouncements and accusations, her own image of Bea as a fun-loving fairy godmother remaining vivid in her mind. Now, at twenty-seven years old, she knew better than to believe anything that man said.
The blow-dryer started up with a purr. As Charlie twirled and pulled the brush through Sonja’s damp hair, her mind went back to the conversation she’d had with Bea over coffee that morning, as they prepared for the first client to arrive.
“Charlie,” her grandmother had said, “I’ve had a dream.”
Charlie rolled her eyes. She waited as Bea pulled her wavy gray hair away from her face, holding it in one blue-veined hand as she deftly wrapped a pink scarf around her forehead with the other. She finished it off with a fancy knot, tucked the edges into place, and continued.
“It was as if I were there. Right there in Haiti, with your mother.”
“Huh.” Charlie did not like thinking about her mother. She’d had word, secondhand, that her parents had been reassigned to Haiti, but knew little more than that. Her grandmother had been bringing up her mother’s name a lot lately, as if dangling a piece of bait in front of Charlie’s face. So far she’d managed not to bite.
“So what did you dream?” She placed a hand on Bea’s arm, suddenly feeling a bit guilty for ignoring her grandmother’s need to talk.
“It was strange, Charlie. She looked anxious, and worried.”
“Well, who wouldn’t be, living with a man like that?” “That’s not what I’m talking about. It was something more, something deeper, maybe something physical.”
“You know how dicey those places can be. She’ll be fine. She’s used to that.”
Bea shook her head. “I’m telling you, Charlie.”
“So then what?”
“Then I woke up. I don’t know. Maybe something’s not right.” “I’m sure she’s fine, Bibi.” Charlie stood and gathered an armful of clean towels, still warm from the dryer. “It was only a dream. We all have dreams.”
“Do you dream, Charlie?”
“Sometimes.” Charlie had always kept her nightmares to herself, sparing her grandmother from the darker visions of what her life in the jungle had become.
“You should listen to your dreams.”
“My dreams are just dreams.” Charlie deposited the towels into her grandmother’s lap to be folded.
“How do you know?”
“I just know.”
Bea’s bony fingers worked their magic, turning the pile of terrycloth into a tower of tidy little squares within minutes.
“You know, Charlie,” she said once she was done, “I think you take after me more than you probably care to admit.”
“Seriously? You mean I’m nosy and cranky and stubborn?” Charlie knew exactly what her grandmother meant, but that didn’t mean it was true. “Bibi, I’m about as far from being psychic as I am from being an astronaut.”
“Ha ha. Not funny. I’m serious. You are like me. We’re not like other people.”
Charlie had to laugh. She never felt as though she was like other people. She’d been a fish out of water for practically her entire life: at first in the jungle—before she learned to blend in like a chameleon, eventually becoming more Amazon than California—then later, after her exile back to the States, when the stress of trying to pass as just another normal, everyday American college kid took its toll. Life after that, spent couch-surfing and house-sitting, continent-hopping and driving cross-country back and forth like a criminal on the run, didn’t allow Charlie enough time to fit in anywhere. And she definitely had nothing in common with anyone here in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
“So maybe we’re not,” Charlie said. “But I think it’s best that you stick to your talents, and I’ll stick to mine.”
“Suit yourself. But I’m telling you, something’s going on down there in Haiti.”
Charlie turned her back on the old woman and busied herself cleaning the combs. “I don’t want to hear it. If she wanted our help that badly, she would have found a way to let us know.”
“You know how controlling that man is. You think he’d let her even get near a phone without him listening in?”
“So what do you want me to do about it?” Charlie turned around to face her grandmother, her hands coming to rest on her hips.
Bea swept her arm through the air as if swatting a fly, the heavy bangles stacked on her wrist clattering like a train on the tracks. “Never mind. What do I know? I’m just a silly old woman who only sees in her sleep. You go about your business. From now on I’ll just keep my dreams to myself.” She paused, then added: “Even if it means something terrible might happen.”
“Cut it out, Bibi. I know what you’re doing, and it’s not going to work. Not this time.” Charlie went to the door and flipped the sign around from Closed to Open.
“I’m not listening.”
“But let me just say—”
“If there’s one—”
“Enough, Bibi, I am not going to Haiti!”
“Nope. Sorry. Not gonna do it.” Charlie unfastened the two snaps at the back of Amina’s neck and waved the black cape to one side like a matador.
It was the sounds that first got her attention, the cries and screams loud enough to break through the howling wind and pummelling rain.
He opened the new bag of coffee beans and inhaled, relishing the toasted aroma that his favourite brand of arabica gave off.
Her baby’s fingers look like small furled leaves and Louise lifts them to her lips to kiss.
Carra Finlay stood under the clothesline and watched in dismay as all her dreams blew away in the wind.
Discarded medical equipment litters the floor: surgical tools blistered with rust, broken bottles, jars, the scratched spine of an old invalid chair.