Richard James: Keep the change

Jul 2023 | Short story

Esme’s hair hung down almost to her collar, with a little less black colour every year. As time went on, her hair became more yellow-white. Esme still smoked as much as she could afford.

She went to the hairdresser every four weeks. Old people have thin hair, and sometimes not much at all. The hairdresser could have told her customers to come less often, but they would all have left her.

Sharon knew how to handle her clients.

So Esme started going to Sharon’s house. “Ooh,” she’d say as she arrived, “Turned out nice again.” Sharon didn’t get the joke, but she would always nod and smile. Then Esme would take off her coat and sit down in front of the mirror. She would snort and shake her head, then Sharon would begin.


Sharon always performed her part of the fiction with exact verisimilitude. She took her time to choose the right pair of scissors. She leaned in close to inspect the hair as though it was a complex cut demanding the utmost skill, which would then be checked by exacting critics. She measured the length and tidied the ends, correcting theoretical hairdo problems.

One afternoon Esme was fifteen minutes late. Sharon checked the time on her phone, stood still and considered what to do. Probably Esme would turn up any second. Sharon had no idea how Esme travelled to these appointments. Did she drive herself, or did someone drop her off? In a moment Sharon would ring and see what was going on. If she rang too soon it would look pushy. In any case, Esme would be flustered when she finally did arrive. She’d like a cup of tea. Sharon took a couple of minutes to run the tap, fill the jug, then flick the switch to boil the water.

In half an hour another customer would arrive. Now she really should call. Sharon heard the phone ring seven or eight times at the other end. Someone picked it up, and perhaps two seconds later they said, “Hullo?”

It sounded like Esme, though the voice was muffled and somehow blurry. “Hullo,” the voice said again.

“Yes,” said Sharon. “Is that you, Esme?”

“Yes. Who’s this?”

“It’s Sharon. Are you coming today?”

“Oh, sugar! Is that today? What’s the time?”

“It was meant to be twenty minutes ago.”

“Oh, look, I’m sorry. I’ll be there as quick as I can.”

Esme had hung up before Sharon could say yes that was OK, or no we’ll reschedule, or anything else at all. She wondered whether Esme was all right. Sharon could probably push the next appointment back a few minutes.

That was the first time. The appointments went all right for a while. But two months later Esme missed another one, then another and another. Soon Esme was missing more often than she was turning up.


It was the middle of winter. Sharon watched Esme get out of a taxi. The old lady walked four or five steps along the smooth, flat concrete drive towards Sharon’s front door. She halted, leaning forward, one hand held flat against the middle of her chest. Her head nodded up and down with each breath. Even from several metres away, Sharon could see Esme’s chest heaving. The taxi stayed parked in the gateway. The driver might be waiting for Esme to reach the house. Sharon couldn’t tell through the reflections on the windscreen.

She opened her front door as Esme started moving again. She didn’t know whether to step forward and help. As Sharon moved out on the porch, Esme shooed her back with a dismissive wave of her left hand. Then Esme stumbled on the bottom step and lurched forward, catching the handrail just in time. Sharon reached out, but Esme recovered and surged past her. Sharon only just managed to get out of her way.

Twenty minutes later, Sharon finished the cut. She held up the mirror so Esme could see the back. “I have a suggestion,” she said. “You don’t have to come on Mondays if you don’t want to. Thursdays I go to people’s houses. I could add you to my list.” She put the mirror down and used a soft brush to remove some loose hairs from Esme’s neck and collar.

“Oh,” said Esme. “Does that cost more?”

“No,” said Sharon. For most people she did charge five dollars extra for travelling time and petrol. But if Sharon said that to Esme, it might put her off. The other customers could subsidise Esme a bit, if that was what it took.

Esme did not reply. Sharon took away the neck cloth, brushed again, then handed Esme a warm, damp towel.

“Yes,” said Esme. “All right.”


Sharon went to Esme’s house every few weeks. She took her scissors and combs, shampoos and dyes, an unbreakable mirror, and a sheet for the floor. Every appointment happened when it was supposed to.

“Thank you,” said Esme, one day. “Is it all right if I pay cash?”

“Yes,” said Sharon. “It’s just the usual twenty-five.”

“Right,” said Esme. “Fetch me my handbag, will you? It’s over there on the mantelpiece.” Sharon walked over to the fireplace and retrieved the handbag, which sat between a smoke-blackened chiming clock and the framed photo of a Pope who had died about twenty years ago.

Esme drew out a single note and handed it to Sharon. “Keep the change, dear,” she said. Sharon stared at the note and said nothing. “I know,” said Esme. “It’s twice as much as I owe you. Take it. Buy yourself something nice.”

Sharon realised Esme must have mixed up the colours of the banknotes. Her own mother had got more and more colourblind over a period of years. Yellow was the last colour she could see, and eventually even that went. Now Sharon’s mother was totally blind. But she had started by confusing colours that were similar, like blue and purple. Ten-dollar bills are blue. Fifty-dollar ones are purple.

Sharon stared at the blue note. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you very much. That’s nice. See you next month?” Then she left.

Sharon would keep seeing Esme until one day she went into care, or something else happened. She wasn’t exactly waiting for Esme to die, but she did assume that sooner or later she would be going to a funeral.


It happened when a drunk driver crossed the centerline and his car struck Sharon’s head on. The collision was so violent that Sharon’s family chose a closed casket.

Everyone went to the funeral. As well as her family, Sharon’s customers were there. The service was short enough to be convenient, long enough to be respectful. Quotations and hymns were traditional. Sharon’s husband gave a moving eulogy. No-one outside the family had known he existed. But it was a nice service.

Afterwards, everyone went for a cup of tea. There were pastry savouries, asparagus rolls and scones. Esme stood with a couple of friends, holding a plate with two of everything.

“Jeepers,” said Mavis Allbright, “You got enough food there, Esme?”

“I’m trying to get my money back,” said Esme.

Mavis steered the conversation onto safer ground. “It’s a lovely spread,” she said.

“Well yes,” said Esme. “But Sharon could afford it. She knew which side her bread was buttered.”

“Oh, no,” said Mavis. “Don’t say that. Sharon was lovely.”

“Of course she was. But she did know how to look after herself. I remember one time I gave her an enormous tip. I thought maybe next time I might get a small discount. Never happened.”

“Well,” said Mavis. “I don’t know about that. She and I always got on well.”

Esme took another bite. She stared at her sandwich, wondering whether it was butter or marge. “Sharon never gave me a discount,” she said.

Richard James is mostly known as a songwriter who recorded on Flying Nun in the early 80s. These days he works as an English teacher in Invercargill Waihopai, and mainly writes prose. His work traverses difficult relationships, tricky people and how the Christchurch earthquakes affected neighbourhoods and people.

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