“I want you to know how proud I am of you Melissa,” I said, sitting opposite her at the table.
“Thank you,” she replied haltingly.
“Really,” I said. “You’ve come so far and your dedication has been phenomenal. It’s helped me so much; seeing you stick to your path. Lots of times I felt I couldn’t go on with all my training and beauty treatments, but seeing you doggedly stick to your own path has reminded me time and again that it can be done. With absolute dedication it is possible to change. You’re the person I look to when my will is weak. You’re…” I fixed her eyes in mine. “You’re my inspiration.”
I smiled at Dahlia. She squirmed under my benevolent gaze, uncomfortable with the praise.
To look at her it was impossible to believe there was a confident beautiful model hidden under the rolls of fat, the dowdy clothes and hair, and the thick glasses. She had changed so much. She had bloated into something almost disgusting.
Was she as fat as I had once been already?
No. Not quite. Not yet. But she wasn’t far off and her former self was simply gone.
“I thought we’d do something different on your visit today,” I said. “Normally we tell one another stories about our old lives but this time I want to hear more about your new life.”
“My life… now? At the hotel?” she asked haltingly.
“Yes. I want to hear the latest on your new man; the cook.” I smiled, hoping it didn’t sound like I was making fun of her.
She shrugged. “He’s…”
She shrugged again, obviously reluctant to go into it.
“Doesn’t he treat you well?”
“Does he take you out?”
She became pensive. “No. Not really. Mostly we… If we meet up then… we just…”
She blushed redly, lowering her head.
I longed to see them together. From the description she’d given me I could only imagine his hackneyed, scrawny looks: his bulging eyes, his big hands, his skinny wrists and greasy hair. What a couple they would make: the fat four-eyed butterball and her slimy foreign suitor! I could just imagine the sight they’d be, walking arm in arm through the streets!
I really had to try hard not to laugh out loud.
“And how much English does he speak?” I asked.
“Some.” She left it at that.
“Do you talk much?”
“What do you talk about?”
She didn’t make eye contact, blushing ever brighter. She knew exactly how low she had fallen. She didn’t want to admit it to me or to herself.
But that wasn’t good enough for me and I wanted to flex the muscles of how much power I had over her. How would she react if I pushed a little?
“I don’t like being ignored really Melissa,” I said, my voice harder. “I’m showing an interest in you and your new boyfriend. Don’t beat around the bush. I want to know what he’s like.”
She sat up straight: alarmed, guilty, shocked, afraid… unconsciously subservient. “Sorry Miss Western. He’s…” She swallowed. “He doesn’t treat me very well really. He doesn’t take me out at all. We drink together sometimes, while he watches TV. He mainly just… He just wants to have sex. He isn’t interested in me or my life.”
I smiled. “Sounds ideal in some ways. No strings. And you wouldn’t want to fall in love – not with that husband of yours waiting at home.”
She flushed. “No. No. You’re right.”
I narrowed my eyes.
It was at moments like these that I couldn’t be sure how far she was gone; how much further I could push. I wished I could ask her outright but I was afraid that would break the spell.
I’d mentioned “her husband” back in England and she had played along. Fine. That meant she was willing to pretend she was the real Melissa as long as she was here. But did that show any inclination to return to Nockton Vale and continue the charade? Not necessarily.
We’re running out of time.
Saying that, she’d implied that she was still on course only for our original plan: a total swap but only lasting a few months; only continuing while we were abroad.
The trouble was I liked to fantasise about it being more than that – and we were obviously deeper into this crazy game than maybe anyone had ever gone before – but signals though there were, I had no guarantee of anything longer term. I was starting to worry she was going to turn up one day soon and say it was time to change back.
I felt ill at the thought of it: of going back to England and having to fit back into my life as a cleaner; to go back to Robert. I was too used to the wealth and pleasure now. I could never go back. I would die if I had to.
I would kill myself.
I looked back at her. I’d been gazing off out the window. “Yes?”
“Are you alright? You looked… unwell.”
I put on a smile. “I’m fine,” I said. “Fine. Just thinking about things.”
A long pause fell between us. “About the future?” she asked tentatively.
All expression fell from my face. “Yes. About the future.”
We looked at one another.
“I sometimes think about that too,” she said. “But…” She tilted her face forward and looked at her crumpled hands on the table. I waited for her to go on. “I’m not really ready to think about it yet. You know?”
I nodded as kindly as I could manage.
“It… hurts still… to think about it.”
I nodded again and reached my hand across the table.
Hesitantly, she extended her hand too and I took it.
“All play aside…” I said. “You should always remember that I’m your friend. Above all else.”
She looked at me with moisture rimming her eyes and inside me the part of myself that wasn’t heartless, that hadn’t really meant to say those words except as a way of manipulating her, felt a warm stirring that surprised me. It actually disturbed me because I didn’t want to feel that way toward her. I was still angry at the way I had been made to feel all my life, by her and her ilk. It didn’t matter that she had never treated me badly directly. She had made me feel inferior simply by being pretty, slim and wealthy, and by paying my wages.
“We’re doing this for you,” I said, “this thing we’re doing; this swap. We’re doing it because you needed it.”
She nodded, wiping her eye. “I still need it I think.”
“I know. I know,” I said. I squeezed her hand. “And we can go on doing it as long as you want. Okay? As long as you want.”
She nodded, putting on a brave smile. “I’m sorry that I’m so pathetic.”
“Not at all,” I said reassuringly. Then I grinned. “And don’t worry. It suits your new persona perfectly.”