Standing in her underwear, Esme Esmerelda hated how she looked. How time had added on layers and layers of fat. How child after child had turned her curvy figure into something rounder. How ex-husband after ex-husband had caused her hair to become shorter and greyer, despite how much she tried to dye it. Now she was living alone with her children having long left home. She picked up a photo of herself when she was in her twenties. How she longed for those days again. But she was pushing sixty now. Was there any point? She sighed again, pulled on her uniform and left for work.
Another work day sitting behind a supermarket till. Scanning barcodes, asking for loyalty cards, making smalltalk with people she couldn’t care less about, people she’d never see again. Their faces would blur into one, their voices became noise, the words would become stale in her throat. And then Esme saw her. She was fat like Esme, but she carried it better. A fur coat accompanied high heels and a beret. Her face was plump and lathered with make-up. Foundation was caked onto her chubby cheeks.
“Hello, how are you?” Esme asked.
“I’m very well, thank you. And yourself?” She replied in a sing-song voice.
Esme scratched her head. “Yeah, not too bad.” She continued scanning the items.
The woman chuckled and peered at Esme’s namebadge. “You don’t sound too sure about that, Esme Esmerelda.”
Esme shrugged. “Just one of those days, you know? Do you have a clubcard?”
“I don’t, but I do have one of these. Call me.” She held out what looked like a business card.
Esme examined it:
To help those who have given up
Those with life left in them
who want to change
Tel: 07432 112431
“Madame K…is this some kind of joke?” Esme’s head snapped up, but Madame K had disappeared, along with her shopping. In her place was the exact amount of money required. Esme’s eyes widened and she showed the card to the next customer: a bald man in a suit and red tie.
“Am I going mad? Did that just happen?”
“Obviously, some nutter’s on the loose,” he replied, “she knew you though, or seemed to, anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, she called you Esme, which she obviously read from your namebadge. But how did she know your surname was Esmerelda?”
“I have no idea, but you’re right. She’s just a nutter…anyway, do you have a club card?”
And the day wore on, the faces continued fading in and out, but Esme still remembered Madame K. What did the K stand for? Where had she gone? And, where had she come from? Thinking about it now, she remembered seeing the bald man in the queue and the other customers, but Madame K had appeared out of nowhere. At the end of her shift, Esme approached the security guard, a muscular black man called Terry. His head was shaven and his brown eyes were friendly, but watchful.
“Was your shift okay today, Esme?” He bellowed out.
“I had an odd customer today. I was wondering if you spotted her.” She told him all about Madame K.
“That is a weird story, but I don’t remember seeing this Madame K woman.”
“You must have done. She´s not easy to miss.”
“I know, but I’m telling you that I didn’t see her. I see everyone who walks through these doors and I did not see her.”
“So what? You’re saying I’m a liar? She gave me her card. Look.”
Terry raised his hands. “I wasn’t saying that at all. Maybe I missed her. Do you want to come review the security footage with me?”
Esme nodded and Terry called over a colleague. Then he led her into the security office and together they began reviewing the CCTV. Firstly, they looked at the footage from the front doors from about an hour before Esme had met Madame K. The footage was a grainy, black and white, so Esme had to lean into the screen to make anything out. But despite the bad quality, she was confident that she would see Madame K. How could you miss somebody like that? But she wasn’t there. She rewound the tape again and again, but she wasn’t in the footage.
“Are you sure these tapes haven’t been tampered with, Terry?”
Terry sighed. “Why would anybody do that?”
“Why would she know my name? This whole situation doesn’t make sense.”
“Esme, I want to help you, but it’s late. I want to go home to my family.”
“Can I check the footage from my till? And then from the front doors at the time which she left?”
Terry shook his head and began fast-forwarding. Esme leant in close and scanned the footage. She could see the customer before Madame K and the bald man after her. But Madame K wasn’t there. Where was she? She had to be there. Esme hit the rewind button, but she still didn’t see her. The footage didn’t jump or flicker…Madame K just wasn’t there. And as Esme looked through the last of the footage, she realised with a sinking heart, that Madame K hadn’t been recorded there either. Esme sighed. Terry was right. What happened was crazy, but she wasn’t going to find any answers here. It was time to go home.
Esme walked into her kitchen and poured herself a glass of wine. In one corner was a smoothie machine that she had hardly used. She opened the fridge and took out a ready meal. She knew it was bursting with saturated fats and salts and she would be better off diving into her vegetarian recipebook. But she couldn’t be bothered. She was already fat. What difference would it make? After dinner, she undressed and stared at herself in the mirror. Loathing her body, her double chin. And she hated how she had never done anything about it. She had always meant to, she had the best intentions – the veggie cookbook and smoothie-maker were evidence of that, but she had never followed through. She then thought back to Madame K and rooted through her clothes until she found the business card:
To help those who have given up
Those with life left in them
who want to change
Tel: 07432 112431
Could Madame K help her? It was a ridiculous idea. She was probably some kind of con-artist or maybe just a nutcase and the security footage must have glitched. Madame K couldn’t help her. Why was she even pursuing this notion? Yet Madame K had known her name. How? Was this all part of a massive joke? Esme was tired of asking questions and not knowing the answers. She dialled in the number and pressed ‘call.’ It was late, she didn’t expect an answer, but she instantly heard somebody’s voice. It was a woman. Madame K.
“Esme Esmerelda. How can I help you?” She sung out.
“How did you know it was me? Look, just stop your silly games now. I want you to explain everything. How you knew my name, what today was all about. I want to know everything.”
“You have many questions, my dear child. Questions that cannot be answered over the phone.”
“Drop the act and tell me how you know so much about me.”
“I’ve been watching you for a long time, Esme Esmerelda. Tomorrow we can speak more and I will reveal everything.”
“I need to do some shopping tomorrow, but I could meet you afterwards for a coffee.”
“Very well, my dear Esme Esmerelda. We can meet in the Costa Coffee opposite the supermarket where you work. Would 2PM work for you?”
“You had better have some answers for me, Madame K.”
Esme made certain she arrived in Costa with plenty of time to spare. She sat facing the door so that she could see Madame K enter the shop. Esme’s shopping was gathered around her feet. In a half-hearted attempt to have a healthy diet, she had bought lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. She knew she had countermanded this by buying a Frappucino with extra-cream and a big slice of Red Velvet Cake. Hell, her diet could wait. She needed answers now. She looked at her watch and saw the time change from 13:59 to 14:00. Then she looked up and Madame K was standing over her.
“That’s not possible. I was looking down for a second. How did you appear out of nowhere?”
“May I sit here, my child?” Without waiting for an answer, she sat down, “now that we’re all comfortable, how can I help you my child?”
Esme looked around her. Everybody else seemed oblivious to this high-heeled, fur-coated woman. “You could start by telling me how you knew my name.”
“I know all about you. I’ve always known about you.”
Esme slammed down her coffee cup with such force that everyone turned to look at her. “Would you stop with all your crap and tell me the truth?”
Madame K hadn’t been offended by the outburst. “I appear to people like you, people-“
“Appear? By magic, hmm?”
“People who want to change, but have lost any willpower to do so. People who need help.”
“So what? You’re a fairy godmother? A genie? You’re going to grant me 3 wishes?”
“There have been others like you. Those who have struggled to believe.”
“This is impossible to believe. You knew my name. You appeared out of nowhere. You’re not on the CCTV.”
“I am only here to help you. To help you help yourself.”
A smile crept across Esme’s face, which soon erupted into a fit of giggles. “You’re going to help me? With what? What do I need help with?”
“Isn’t it obvious? You have a bag of fresh fruits and vegetables, yet you’re eating cake. You have a vegetarian receipe book which is gathering dust, a smoothie machine that you never use.”
Esme leapt up, pushing her chair back. It scraped across the wooden floor. “How the hell do you know about that?”
“Is everything okay here?” A barista asked.
“We are absolutely fine, my darling. Absolutely fine,” Madame K smiled back, “sit down, my child. Please let me help you.”
“I don’t like what you’re implying. You’re saying I’m fat, aren’t you? I need to lose weight? That’s it, isn’t it?”
Madame K put her hand on Esme’s arm. “I am merely voicing your own thoughts.”
“Well, here’s a thought for you. You’re fat as well. Huge. You could lose some weight yourself.”
If Madame K was offended by this, she didn’t show it. “It is entirely your choice if you want my help. others have refused it before and they have regretted it.”
“Is that a threat, Madame K?”
“It is your choice, my dear Esme Esmerelda. You can do as you please.”
“Then I choose to leave now. You’re a freak. Stay the hell away from me.” Clutching onto her bags, Esme began manouevring out of the cafe. She then heard a muttering behind her and gasped, as she felt a stabbing pain in her leg.
“Are you okay?” The barista asked.
“I’m fine. It’s just-” Esme turned around and saw that Madame K had vanished, “did you see where that – you know what? I don’t care, I’m going home.”
Esme slumped down in the train seat. Her shopping bags were around her feet and on the seat next to her. She was furious with herself. How could she have thought that Madame K could give her any answers? She hadn’t even told her what the K had stood for. And the bloody cheek of the woman…saying that she needed to lose weight. What business was it of hers? Esme had never asked for her help. And her leg was killing her. Just a short ride and she would be fine. Tomorrow she would be fine. She would start her new healthy lifestyle. Tomorrow.
Esme was woken up by a buzzing. Where was it coming from? She saw three teenagers sitting opposite her: two girls and a boy. The two girls were speaking in a different language, while the boy was looking on. Then the girls began screaming and pointing at Esme’s bag. She looked down and saw a massive fly rubbing its hands together. The train pulled into the next station and the girls ran off, with the boy following rolling his eyes. Esme chuckled and brushed the fly away. She fell asleep again.
She jerked awake to see a bunch of children in the seats in front of her pointing and giggling at her bag. She looked down and saw a spider crawling from her bag. She checked her fruits and vegetables thinking they had expired, but they were fine. Where had the spider come from? She flicked it away and stared out the window. Why was it taking her so long to get home? It never took this long. She yawned. Why was she so tired? And her leg was aching. She thought this was bizarre, but she’d be home soon. It’d all be okay. And without wanting to, she fell asleep again.
It was a stabbing pain in her leg that woke her up this time. Blinding hot-needles sticking her muscle. She seethed and looked around, but nobody was taking any notice of her.
“Can anybody help me?” Esme asked, but there was no response.
“Hello, I’m right here. My leg hurts.” But nobody answered her.
She shook her head. Everybody was so rude. Wincing, she listened to the train announcement and through the static, she heard she was still nowhere near her station. Why was it taking so long? She looked around and noticed that somebody had left a crutch. Since her leg was still hurting, she could use it to walk home and then return it to the station later, if she ever made it home. Then she heard a buzzing and became aware of everybody pointing at her. No. Not at her. Her bag. She looked down and her eyes widened as she saw the biggest wasp that she had ever seen. Yellow and black was crawling over her bag. She watched it crawl, knowing that it wouldn’t sting her, if she didn’t provoke it. But everybody was still pointing and staring at her. Maybe they were secretly pointing and laughing at her. But why? And then she realised.
“What? You’ve never seen a fat woman before?”
But nobody answered. They kept on staring as if they could see her but, she wasn’t quite registering.
“Jerks.” She muttered, before turning back to the window and then she shrieked as she saw her reflection. it wasn’t her. it couldn’t be her. Her hair wasn’t that grey, her face wasn’t that wrinkled. She checked her make-up mirror, which confirmed her fears. This was crazy. What was going on? And then the train pulled into the next station and the doors opened.
Esme heard the clinking of the high heels on the train floor, before Madame K sat down opposite her. Except it didn’t look like her. She was still wearing the fur coat and the beret, but she was far skinnier now. Her face had lost its plumpness and she no longer had a double chin. It didn’t make sense.
“How are you today, Esme Esmerelda?” Her voice was still high-pitched.
“You! What have you done to me? my hair is grey, my leg is killing me and there are all these bugs flying around me. What have you done? You witch.”
“I only ever meant to help you, Esme. But you refused my help. More than that, you said some cruel things to me. And so I curse you. Your hair will remain grey. You will always walk with a crutch. You will find it impossible to lose weight. And your fruits and vegetables will rot before you have a chance to eat them. They’ll be rotten like your heart. You wanted to change, but you have never made any initiative to do so. And you have refused all offers of help. You wanted to change. I’m ensuring that you stay like this forever. Goodbye, Esme Esmerelda.”
“Forever, what do you-” And then Esme blinked and Madame K had vanished. She looked out the window and couldn’t see her at all. And then the train pulled into her station.
She stood up and gasped as her leg flared up. Grabbing her shopping, she hobbled off the train. When she reached home, she checked her fruits and vegetables and saw that they had indeed rotten. She threw them away and put her next ready-meal in the microwave, before limping up to her bedroom. She took her clothes off and stared at herself in the mirror. God, she hated how she looked. Her flabby tummy and her now, completely grey hair. She would stay like this forever. No. She would not.
To hell with Madame K. Esme would change. She would prove Madame K wrong. Starting from tomorrow, she would buy hair dye. Starting from tomorrow, she would start eating healthily. Starting from tomorrow, she would start losing weight. Starting from tomorrow, she would start her new life. It would all start tomorrow, she told herself. Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow. And then her microwave dinged. Tomorrow could wait.
This was a weird story. It is based partially a true story: on the train one day, I, my girlfriend and her sisters were sitting opposite an elderly woman with a crutch and a shopping bag that attracted insect after insect. My girlfriend said that I should write a story about it, so I thought up a backstory to this woman. I’m not entirely sure if this story works, but I did enjoy writing it. It was a strange, but fun foray into horror/magic realism. I was partially thinking of Sophie and the Wicked Witch of the West in Howl’s Moving Castle.