Once upon a time, there was a marketing assistant named Natasha. She was a pretty thing, with wide blue eyes and blonde hair that curled just so. Very slight she was too, with the slender, willowy build of a ballerina – something she worked hard to maintain.
Natasha worked in a gleaming office filled with ambitious young professionals, each one trendier and more beautiful than the last. They all hailed from the city, naturally, while Natasha was a country girl herself, a fact that never made its way past her fine, dry lips.
Each day when the lunch hour came around, Natasha would politely decline her colleagues' invitations to join them, and take herself off for forty five minutes. This soon became the norm, and eventually the lunch invitations petered out.
When asked where she went on her lunch hour, Natasha would speak fondly of a small café in another part of the business district. Her achingly fashionable co-workers, who favoured restaurants that served fusion cuisine or were owned by celebrities, never felt the desire to venture out to this seemingly delightful bistro themselves.
“What's it called?” One of them asked her once.
Natasha looked upwards for a moment, as if struggling to remember, then answered:
Jessie's Café was, of course, fictitious. A name plucked from nowhere. When Natasha slipped out of the office at noon each day, she simply went for a long walk around the district, hoping to burn off the calories from the porridge her mother damn near forced down her throat every morning. Needless, stony weight that she could feel pulling her down all morning.
“You'll eat your breakfast if it kills me,” her mother would say each morning through gritted teeth. “We're not going down that old road.” Her mother had moved down to live with Natasha some time last year, and showed no sign of leaving, despite Natasha's claims that she no longer needed her help, much appreciated as it may be.
And so every day Natasha would leave her own flat with a packed lunch, fist clenched around the brown paper bag like an angry schoolgirl. The bag would be nowhere on her person by the time she reached work. Lunchtime was a perfect opportunity for exercise, one which she never let go to waste. And if she appeared to be getting gradually thinner while her fellow workers began to strain in their lithe, fashionable clothes as a result of fine dining and comfortable office chairs... well, nobody said anything.
One morning, Natasha's mother encouraged her to eat a particularly hearty breakfast. As soon as she arrived at the office, early as usual, she rushed to the ladies room and gingerly placed her index and middle fingers in her mouth. The delicacy with which she made herself ill was, in her mind, most polite and ladylike.
The morning dragged on. Natasha was not her usual efficient self; she could not focus, found her computer screen blurring before her normally flawless eyes. The smell of coffee would waft through the office occasionally, making her nauseous, along with the occasional stink of cigarettes which followed the small number of smokers back into the building.
“Natasha?” She looked up and saw Will from Accounts standing over her. That in itself might have looked imposing, had it not been Will from Accounts, with his gangly build and tendency to shift from one foot to another. He reminded her of a clock, if all the cogs happened to be triangles.
“Hi Will,” she said, not realising until that moment how sore her throat was. “What can I do for you?”
“I was just wondering,” he said, sounding as if he were short of breath himself, “whether you might fancy lunch at that small café you're always going on about.”
Yes I would, Natasha thought. I would like that very much. She imagined sitting across a table from Will, reaching forward to draw that floppy fringe of his out of his eyes. It isn't the first time she has had such a notion.
“I can't,” she told him. “Another time, maybe.” Her mother would have been shocked at her poor manners. Will nodded, shrugged, smiled, and walked away before Natasha could think of anything else to say. She busied herself with replying to emails for the rest of the morning, typing away so quickly that her fingertips began to ache. Natasha ignored this discomfort. She was very good at it.
She felt slightly light-headed as she rose from her desk at lunchtime. Her usual walking route circled several blocks, but Natasha barely made it a few streets before her legs gave way beneath her. She threw her hands out to break her fall, scuffing them painfully on the footpath.
She tried to stand, but simply fell down again, knees useless. She couldn't muster up the tiniest ounce of strength, could barely even keep her eyes open. Men in suits walked right past her, couriers zoomed by on their bikes without even looking. An impeccably dressed woman in fuck-me heels stepped over Natasha, too busy fiddling with her umbrella to notice the young woman lying prone on the pavement. Natasha thought it odd now, that this had been her plan – for people not to notice.
“Here,” somebody said in her ear. “Let me help you up.” Natasha felt a firm, secure grip around her waist, and she felt herself being raised to her feet. Her good Samaritan was a woman with mad flowing dark hair and eye-shadow to match. She had a figure, and general aura, that could be described as both maternal and voluptuous at the same time.
“Why don't you step in here for a moment,” she said, directing her through a red-painted doorway, into a small coffee shop. “Just until you come back to yourself.”
Natasha nodded in assent; she hadn't the will to do much else. She seated herself at a small round table with a colourful tablecloth and tea light. Her rescuer brought over a cup of tea and advised her to drink it all.
“Plenty of sugar,” she said, as if this were a given. “You've clearly had some sort of shock.” She disappeared again behind the counter, re-materialising a moment later carrying an ornate-looking pastry on a plate with a napkin.
“Pain au chocolat,” she said, again with that air of authority, as if French baked goods were the widely known remedy for a fainting spell.
“No thank you,” Natasha said instantly, creature of habit that she was. “I'm feeling much better now.”
“No you're not,” the woman said, and proceeded to raise the chocolatine to Natasha's mouth. Unsure of how to refuse any more politely, Natasha took a tiny, reluctant bite. She hated pastry; found it dry and stodgy.
In an instant her mind was changed. This pain au chocolat was light, sweet, delicious. She took another less hesitant bite, and smiled as a heady glow came over her. The woman continued to feed her the pastry, until the entire thing was gone. Then she gestured the cup in front of Natasha; she took a sip, then a gulp, and then drained the entire thing, rolling her tongue over her teeth, enjoying the sensation for what felt like the first time.
“Good?” The lady asked. Natasha nodded, mouth wide – it took her a second to remember the word for smile. The pretend version she'd perfected over time felt like it should have a stretched, papery word of its own.
“I feel much better,” she said, truthfully this time. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure,” her hostess smiled back at her. “Now, I imagine you'd best be on your way.”
Natasha glanced down at her watch – somehow, almost an hour had passed. Lunch was very nearly over.
“Yes,” she replied. “Must run.”
“Run? Don't go overboard,” the lady said, chuckling. “A gentle amble should do the trick.”
Natasha thanked her again, and the lady walked her out.
“Look after yourself, precious,” she told her, in a softer rendition of her mother's tone of voice. “Or you'll be answering to Jessie.” And with a final warm grin, she vanished back indoors.
Natasha took a few steps away from the café, and was about to cross the road, when something entered her newly refreshed mind.
“Jessie,” she breathed. A name plucked from nowhere.
She turned back to the café. And found herself staring at a laundrette.
Impossible, she thought. Just impossible.
“I'm crazy,” she said out loud. A passer-by gave her an odd look, as if to confirm that this very well could be the case. Natasha found herself smiling at them anyway.
She licked her lips. They were sweet.