Brussels based beautician works ten hours a day to take care of other people’s beauty. One day, her regular customer Mrs Sonata tells her that before taking care of others, we need to take care of ourselves – that’s the only way the world moves forward. Has the beautician ever thought about it? Hasn’t she always wanted to be extraordinary? To change people and the world? And what about her Egyptian colleague Jamila? Why haven’t they really spoken yet? By Ana Pessoa.
My last client today is Mrs Sonata and Mrs Sonata is never late. She comes from Latvia or Lithuania, I never know which, and talks a lot about Europe and the Europeans, jangling the bracelets on her wrists, and showing her teeth a lot when she laughs. Mrs Sonata often comes to my salon for waxing and gel nails, but today, as it happens, she’s not coming to do either, but for a facial, which is great for me because I’m not really in the mood for waxing Mrs Sonata’s groin or dealing with her tougher than tough cuticles. Besides, of all treatments I do, I much prefer the facials, because women don’t chatter when I’m touching their face and I like to work in silence. I have exactly ten minutes to go to the bathroom and prepare the room.
I’ve been working in this corner hairdressers for something like three years and I like what I do, even though the salon doesn’t have any windows and the bus stop is a long way away, which often means a walk in the rain. Rain in Brussels seems to walk the streets like people: it has body, a smell and a temperament. Jamila laughs when I say this about the rain in Brussels. Jamila was born in the desert, she’s Egyptian, so when I look at her, it’s like I’m seeing an ancient relic, a lost treasure from Solomon’s mines. Jamila works as a masseuse in the room next to mine and I like her, I like her hieroglyphic silence. I’d like to know Jamila better, but I don’t know where to start getting to know her, so we only talk about the rain in Brussels and about our clients.
I almost run to the bathroom because I can’t hold it anymore. As usual, there’s no toilet paper and I have to postpone my need to pee to get a new roll. I don’t know what kind of person can use the last piece of toilet paper and leave the bathroom, knowing full well they’re impinging on the peace of mind of others. Lately, whenever I flush the toilet, I remember an article I read about environmentally friendly houses. In Japan, there are lavatory cisterns that have a washbasin above them. When someone flushes the toilet, the water in the cistern first flows into the basin, which means that you can wash your hands with water that is then used for flushing. What an excellent idea for saving water. I often think about extraordinary people with extraordinary ideas. I imagine that they’re truly happy, truly fulfilled. I wish I could have a brilliant idea once in my lifetime, come up with something innovative that would change people and the world.
I look at myself in the mirror. My fringe is already too long, so I must ask Katrien to cut it before the day is out. Katrien owns the hairdressers, but I don’t work for Katrien, I’m independent. I must also do my fuzz and eyebrows urgently.
I prepare the room: I replace the towel on the table, turn on the steam machine and open the top drawer to check whether I need to open a new packet of gauze or tissues, check that I have enough facial foam, healing cream, exfoliating lotion. Suddenly, I stop what I’m doing because the phone rings. It’s a young girl with a mouthful of a name who doesn’t speak French. I recognise her immediately because of the unusual timbre of her voice. I switch to English. In Brussels there are people from all over the world, people from countries I’ve never heard of, speaking very strange languages such as Latvian and Lithuanian. Katrien, who is Belgian, complains more about Belgians than foreigners, because most of the French-speaking Belgians don’t speak Flemish, which is a national language. Fortunately I’m not Belgian, so Katrien doesn’t expect me to speak this impenetrable language. Maybe if we were all Egyptians, for example, we could communicate in hieroglyphs which, it appears, represent ideas rather than words. This may well turn out to be my brilliant idea, but I don’t have time to think about it right now.
Mrs Sonata has just come into the hairdressers, I can hear her voice and laughter over the exasperated dryers. I’ve never had the chance to tell Mrs Sonata that her name is a musical composition in Portuguese and that it adds something intriguing to her classic, scholarly air. Perhaps I’ll tell her today, at the end of the session.
Mrs Sonata greets me effusively, laughing loudly, and tells me that she spent her day working for me, that the European Union is working for me. This idea, that the European Union is working for me, seems as strange to me as an Egyptian pyramid, so I frown. No one has ever worked for me, including those colleagues of mine that don’t even change the toilet roll. Mrs Sonata has this talent for saying absurd and disturbing things. She gesticulates with conviction, telling me that, from now on, all independent workers in the EU are entitled to a maternity allowance, something that hadn’t happened before. Mrs Sonata is satisfied, truly satisfied, and assures me that the directive has been adopted, so now I can have children, I have the right to stop working for fourteen weeks to look after my children. Mrs Sonata smiles a fairy godmother smile, as if she’d made all my dreams come true, then lies down on the table. I think about it for a few moments. It’s the first time I’ve thought about having children. This is probably another extraordinary idea, but I won’t spend much time on it. Mrs Sonata stops talking when I touch her face.
People are very different when you see them upside down. I stand behind the cushion where Mrs Sonata lays her head. Her lips are now where her eyes should be, her eyes where her lips should be. She’s not exactly a beautiful woman, but she has an interesting face, long eyes that end in fine wrinkles that give her personality and consistency. If I had a way with words, that’s exactly what I’d tell Mrs. Sonata, that her wrinkles give her personality and consistency. I point the machine at Mrs Sonata’s face, and explain to her that the steam helps open the pores. Then I leave the room for a few minutes.
I find Jamila in our kitchen, where we have a microwave, a fridge and a small cupboard with mugs and cutlery. She’s in profile to me, a profile that could be made of stone, which could be etched on the pyramids of the Nile, so enigmatic, so precious. There’s an age-old silence between us, a silence that is a desert. I say something about Mrs Sonata and Jamila laughs. I drink a glass of water, then return to the room.
Mrs Sonata asks me if I like my job. This question is as surprising to me as an Egyptian mummy and I don’t know what to say. Mrs Sonata is always asking unexpected questions at unexpected times, and I never know where she’s going with them. I tell her that yes, I like my job, despite working ten hours a day and having varicose vein problems from standing forever on my feet. Mrs Sonata protests, and says that to take care of others, I should also take care of myself and I agree with her, because I should really take care of myself before taking care of other people. I open the top drawer, and take out two tissues. Then I move the lamp towards Mrs Sonata’s face. When my hands return to her face, Mrs Sonata is quiet again and closes her eyes. I begin to squeeze the blackheads she has on her nose and chin. She doesn’t complain. She still has a half-smile on her face, and she seems to me a truly happy and fulfilled woman. I wonder if Mrs Sonata is an extraordinary person, if she’s ever had an extraordinary idea and before I know it, I’m asking Mrs Sonata if she likes her job. She smiles and tells me that, like me, she cares more for others than herself, but that the world only moves forward if we learn to take care of ourselves too. Mrs Sonata complains, because I’ve just squeezed her nose too hard.
At the end of her treatment, Mrs Sonata leaves my room with the same fairy godmother smile and I don’t manage to tell her that her name is a musical composition in Portuguese, or even that her wrinkles give her personality and consistency. Jamila is no longer in the kitchen or in her room. I don’t know what a woman from the desert does in her spare time, if she goes to the movies, if she takes coffee with friends, if she cooks a full meal for the family, if she takes care of herself.
I leave the room and ask Katrien if she can cut my fringe. Katrien immediately says yes, she always says yes. She sprays my hair with her energetic hands and combs it with her fluorescent green comb. Now she leans over my forehead and is so close I can smell her minty breath. I close my eyes and the scissors pass right over my fringe. When I open my eyes, it actually seems like I can see better, because the fringe is no longer covering them. I tell Katrien that she should take care of herself like she takes care of others and Katrien looks at me very seriously, hieroglyphically, almost with emotion.
On my way to the bus stop, I think of Jamila, and her ancient profile. I decide that tomorrow I’ll get to know her better. That I’ll ask her an unexpected question. About the desert, about Egypt, about her. I speed up so as not to miss the bus. I’m in a hurry to get home. To take care of myself.
Translated from French to English by Isabel Alves.
This story is part of a series menac publishes in cooperation with the European Institute of Mediterranean (IEMed)
About the Author: Born in Lisbon in 1982, Ana Pessoa has lived and worked as a translator in Brussels since 2007. In her free time, she likes to read and write. She has published two novels for young adults in Portugal, Colombia and Brazil. They gained prizes and recognition by the critique in all three countries. Some of her short stories have been published in various collections. She has received several awards in Portugal and elsewhere. More about her work can be found on her page. Her book Supergiant was included in the White Ravens catalogue for 2015. White Ravens is an annual catalogue of 200 book recommendations from all over the world in the field of international children’s and youth literature. It is prepared by the International Youth Library in Munich.