"Maud will check at the undertaker's to see if he has any ready-made coffins." Madam dusted her hands on her apron and surveyed the white-wrapped corpse with a grim expression.
I stood in a corner, twisting my hat in my hands and wondering how she could accept death with such a square jaw. I didn't even know the boy -- had only seen him fall -- and I felt like I had lost a friend. "I'll go with her."
Madam raised her eyebrows but didn't argue. The stolid Maud with her pug nose and decided limp wrapped a shawl over her head and stumbled out the door ahead of me.
The streets were narrow, and the homes and businesses leaned precariously over us, as if ready any minute to tumble in and obliterate the street. Snow blanketed everything, heaping in mounds over unidentifiable objects. More flakes continued to fall, dusting my shoulders and Maud's shawl with white.
Feeling that some conversation was necessary, I cleared my throat. "A sad demise," I commented soberly.
She blinked at me. "W'at mice, sir?"
I shook my head. "Not mice. Demise was the word." I searched my mind for a simpler explanation. "I only meant to say that I am sorry the boy fell."
"Lawsy!" Maud opened her eyes wide. "I don't be eddycated like them uppity folks."
I tried a new thread of conversation. "Have you been a resident at Madam's for long?"
She scowled. "I don't make no dents. That was Clara. I take good care of all Madam's things."
I gave up on conversation. Clearly Maud was not up to it.
Turning a street corner, I got my first view of the undertaker's. It was a sober little shop with bold black lettering over the door. Through a window, I caught sight of several coffins and a statue of an angel.
Maud pounded on the door until a plump little woman with a sour expression opened it.
"He's away on a call." She barely cracked the door wide enough to talk to us.
"F'how long?" Maud demanded.
The woman shrugged, implying that she didn't care.
Maud sighed. "We'll wait." She cast a worried glance behind her. "I 'ope they cook my rolls."
The woman shrugged again and started to close the door.
"Mind if we wait inside?" I spoke quickly.
She hesitated, looking from Maud's rags to my quality suit. Then she backed away, leaving the door open to us. Apparently my fine clothes won her respect.
"Don't touch anything, child," she snapped at Maud as we entered the front room of the shop. I closed the door behind us as the plump woman disappeared into a back room. Maud sat down on the edge of a coffin, and I followed suit.
It was a rather morbid place to be, especially considering our purpose. I was silent, wrapped up in my own thoughts. One must have nerves of steel to work in an undertaker's. But then, it seemed that everybody in this neighborhood had nerves of steel. It was a far cry from my life of culture and art and eternal politeness.
I glanced around me, looking at the comforts of death. There were two small coffins -- just the boy's size. One was black and the other was wood. Which would we choose, I wondered. Probably whichever was cheaper.
And the statues were out of the question. I'd be surprised if the boy even got a decent tombstone. My eyes wandered over the statues -- all of them were angels. One had a very peaceful expression, with her hands outstretched over the ground beneath her like a benediction. I liked that one.
Another was an image of the saddest looking angel I had ever seen. Stone tears lay on her stone cheeks. I wrinkled my nose. Who would want a crying statue sitting over them for the next hundred years?
But Maud was fascinated with it. I heard a sigh escape her and looked around to see her staring up at the crying angel as if she were an art-lover losing herself in Mona Lisa's smile.
I hadn't seen that look on her face before. But for this brief moment in time she was not thinking about cooking rolls and changing dirty diapers. Watching her was like watching the sun try to peek through the clouds.
"I'd want this un...if I could 'ave it." She pursed her lips and puckered her eyebrows in a wistful expression.
It caught me off-guard.
She lifted her eyes to meet mine. "It's 'eavenly. To think that one o' them fine sort was sad w'en I died." Her voice lowered to a reverent whisper. "To think that somebody cried over me." She shook her head as if she couldn't believe her own words. "Over ME."