‘Bonne Femme’ was first published in issue 9 of Firewords Magazine in December 2017. My story was paired with work from illustrator Cat Finnie, whose brilliant visuals really captured the sinister tone of the story.
Sunday 1 April 1923
I’m sorry it’s taken until now to write you; between settling in, my training and the first Sunday shift, it has been hard to keep track of time.
Everyone has been lovely for the most part, from the kitchen staff to the maids, though I’m yet to meet the renowned Lord Denmore in person. And Kendlemyre Hall is simply spectacular – I still can’t believe I get to live and work on an estate that has been here for hundreds of years.
My room isn’t anything special, of course; the staff quarters are a plain affair, nothing like the splendour of the rest of the hall. But Mol, oh how I wish you could see it all the same! I have my own little desk, topped with embossed green leather and a banker’s lamp, a sizable bed (far comfier than our own) and a private bathroom, complete with a tub. I’d expected shared bathrooms; a bath of my own is absolute bliss.
The previous occupant still feels present, though, not least because she left the room in something of a state. I asked after her with the head of house, a dour man named Spencer; he wouldn’t reveal if she was fired or left of her own volition, but it’s plain to see that she was a messy sort. She even left some of her belongings behind; a tattered red nightgown and a copy of the King James, neatly pencilled notes written throughout it. Spencer told me to throw them away, but you know me and hoarding – they are safely tucked away in the top drawer where I found them.
Her smell has lingered too; a bitter berry odour coats the room. I must open the windows, give it a good airing.
The first shift was daunting. Waiting on for the Sunday dinner is the whole reason I’ve been taken on, after all, and the other girls gossiped about the myriad mistakes of waitresses past prior to the start of service. I settled in quickly once the performance began, though, and by the end of dinner I had built up a good rapport with the others. You’d love Grace, she’s a lightning wit.
The only negative was having to serve the marvellous feast to such self-indulgent, well-to-do men. The way they stuffed their faces, Mol, it was hideous – although the meal itself was anything but; it looked delicious, particularly the meat. What I wouldn’t give for a taste! We don’t get to try any; we are but common serfs. But I shouldn’t complain; we are well fed, and on weekdays we are even encouraged to make use of the extensive grounds as if they were our own. ‘Roam free,’ Spencer said whilst showing me around, ‘Lord Denmore insists his employees spend plenty of time out-of-doors.’
I still can’t help feeling a little envious of that room of spoilt, overweight men, though.
In all, it has been a good start – but the one thing I can’t possibly replace here is you. Whilst this job will provide welcome remuneration, our reunion in six weeks’ time can’t come soon enough, my darling.
How are the cats? I miss them already – tell them that, will you?
Sunday 8 April 1923
‘You’re nothing but a piece of meat to them, understand?’ Those were Spencer’s exact words to me this afternoon, that self-important arsehole. I don’t care if he’s head of house, King of England or the bloody Pope, that’s no way to talk to your staff. I’m growing to hate that man.
I’m not even sure what I did to make it necessary to lambast me in such a fashion – and in front of the rest of the waiting staff, no less.
It came after serving the usual Sunday dinner. I was clearing the plates from the table; Denmore and his gluttonous associates were already nursing the requisite brandy and were surely but moments from filling the room with intoxicating cigar smoke. ‘This here is a pretty one, Denny,’ one of the men said, motioning to me. ‘We should have her one of these days, eh? How do you feel about that, my lovely? I bet you’d love to join us for dinner, yes?’
The man was foul, and already quite drunk. But our training was clear; never argue with Lord Denmore’s guests. ‘But of course, sir,’ I said, curtseying for reasons I still cannot fathom. The man laughed and slapped my behind, sending me out of the room with a handful of plates and gritted teeth. I later asked Spencer what I was to do in such a situation, but received little in the way of clarification. To suggest that I was worthy of joining such esteemed company was the wrong answer, it seems.
I thought of you then, or more specifically how you would have responded if placed in my shoes. I know you would have told Spencer where to shove his job; if only I were so bold, so brave!
But my time here is going well, all things considered. Spencer is but a servant here too, after all, and I shouldn’t get too hung up about his quirks; I’ve witnessed him chastising several of my colleagues, so at least I can assume I’m not being targeted for specific abuse. Gracie and another girl whose name escapes me (perpetually smells of rosemary and thyme) both have it just as bad.
Besides, I did get one l thing over on Spencer today – I snuck the tiniest of bites from the roast! It was at the end of service, whilst everyone else was busy clearing away. I was so very hungry, and the roast smelt so very delicious. We were a little short-handed (a large girl named Susan missed the service; I’m told she was sick), and I was fortunate enough to find myself alone with a slice of cold meat.
Can you blame me, really?
Oh, Molly, it was glorious! Succulent, moist, flavoursome. Perfect really, my compliments to the chef! A bird of some sort, albeit one I’m unaccustomed to (guinea fowl, perhaps?), stuffed with wild berries that permeated the meat with their flavour.
Imagining how infuriated such an act would leave Spencer made it taste all the more delicious.
Thinking of it now makes me hungry again, even though full of supper and ready for sleep.
Missing you, as always.
Sunday 15 April 1923
I’ve just realised – I’m yet to receive a reply from you to my previous letters! I do hope the fault lies with the mailroom here rather than you, my dearest. I suppose it has only been, what? Three weeks? It feels a lot longer than that, doesn’t it? Do write back.
I’ve been reading Clara’s King James. Not the bible itself; I know how that would make you feel. I’m reading her annotations. I’d assumed that they would relate to the text, but on closer inspection it’s clear that they refer to Kendlemyre and its inhabitants. The script is neat but bordering on nonsensical; all paranoid ramblings, the woman was clearly wrong in the head. My predecessor and I do have one thing in common, though; a taste for sneaking the odd morsel on Sunday afternoons. She was quite studious in keeping notes each week of the mini-meals she helped herself to. ‘Tender’, ‘rich,’ and even ‘young and fresh’; presumably spring lamb was on the menu that day.
I managed to sneak some more meat for myself earlier. Beef, I believe. Quite exquisite. Herby. I’d eat more if I could, even though I seem to be putting on a fair bit of weight. I must get out around the grounds more; I don’t want to be flabby come our reunion!
Sunday 22 April 1923
These men are the very worst of us. They drink and smoke and eat, eat, eat; they don’t care for we lesser beings. The way they gorge themselves on meat and dripping, it makes me sick to watch.
So why can’t I stop craving what they have? Why can’t I be happy knowing I have you and the cats and our wonderful life together?
Why can’t I stop eating?
Sunday 29(?) April 1923
Three girls have failed to turn up for their shifts now with no explanation tendered. I accompanied Gracie to ask Spencer where they were, seeing as we were short to begin with. All he said was that a new group of girls would ‘relieve us’ soon.
I wouldn’t worry were it not for Clara’s notes. The more I read, the more desperate she sounds. She writes of wanting to escape, of her colleagues disappearing one by one. She writes of the meat, how it sickened her to think of it, how she was losing herself more and more with every bite. How she was getting fat. Reading it makes me tremble.
Worse still, it makes me hungry.
Gracie hasn’t heard from her husband. She’d not even realised until I asked; she tried to laugh it off but soon started sobbing. She can’t remember his face, Mol.
I try to picture you now and my heart aches.
Neither of us can say what day it is with certainty; we searched the grounds together for a calendar, a clock, anything that might help us ascertain the date, but Kendlemyre seems devoid of the passage of time.
I’m scared, Mol.
I realise that you probably aren’t receiving my letters. I feel I must keep writing, though. I must keep hope.
How long has it been, Mol? I look back through my diary, count the weeks. It has only been a week since my last letter, or so my notes claim. Can that be true? It feels longer, like time itself has stretched around the opulent charade we play out each Sunday. What of the days in between? When did I lose them? I recall little outside of the confines of my Sabbath schedule.
And I’m fat, Mol. I fear you’d scarcely recognise me were you to lay eyes on me, something I grow increasingly certain will never happen again. So very fat, I repulse myself…and yet I’m still so very, very hungry. I sneak more and more of the meat; I find myself salivating in its presence.
We are down to the bare bones, now.
I miss you, Molly. My mind screams at me to run, to sneak out in the dead of night. To find a way back to you, my love.
But something inside is holding me in place, I can feel it in my gut. My stomach refuses to budge.
It demands more and I am but a slave to its will.
I’m a piece of meat, Mol. A piece of meat.
Denmore and his cronies don’t even try to hide it from me now. ‘You have to cultivate the envy, the hate, that unique under-the-thumbness that these service types have in spades,’ he declared during service today (or was it another day entirely?) ‘That’s where life’s flavour lies, you see. That’s what makes for the best eats.’
Gracie is gone. I’m the only one left. Excluding Spencer, that is, who is out ‘recruiting’.
My time is short.
All through service I imagined running through the door, wondered if they would chase me, give me a head start. I can’t, though. I want what they have. I need it.
‘Are all of yours free-range, Denny? I’ve been keeping mine caged, but by god man, the succulence you’ve managed to cultivate is something else…’ They look at me with hungry eyes, sizing me up, slapping my behind, grabbing at me with flabby hands. Imagining.
Gracie was lovely, for what it’s worth. Smelt of tangerine and chocolate. I hated myself more and more with every stolen bite.
Know that I loved you, Molly.