Illustration by Julia Plath
Content Warning: Themes/ Images of Disordered Eating
Mary’s stomach growled all through the funeral. After the service she drove straight to a McDonald’s and ordered two Big Tastys with bacon, two portions of large fries, a box of chicken nuggets, and a large Pepsi. And then, in order to make it seem that she was ordering for more than just herself, she ordered a second Pepsi. It was her right. After all, it was her boyfriend who had died. On the floor of their remarkably expensive kitchen, fitted with an Aga cooker and beautiful granite dining table, it was her boyfriend who had writhed, gagging and contorted, before giving out completely.
That was in the spring, and by early summer she still found herself buying food for two. She would cook for two and eat it all. Cooking was not the right word. Cameron had been the cook. Mary could only overcook and undercook. She was unable to retain measurements and conversions. She boiled when she should have simmered. She often found herself looking blankly around at the various appliances Cameron had left behind—at the curry station and bread maker, the popcorn machine and the three-tier steamer—as though they might tell her what to do.
But she had been happy to sit on the kitchen step while Cameron cooked. He would bring her teaspoon samples of sauces, fillings and mixtures, as if her judgement was that of a ruthless monarch. When she smiled and called it delicious he would clasp his hands together and offer thanks to the ceiling. And it was always delicious.
Now that he was dead, she bought tins and oven meals he wouldn’t have allowed in the kitchen. This is what he used to say at the supermarket, when she tried to place such items in the trolley: “Not in my kitchen.” So often did he say it, and so much did it amuse her, that whenever he did or said anything she found disagreeable—whenever she found him urinating with the door open, or yawning without covering his mouth, or reaching for one of his awful ‘70s records—she would say it too: “Not in my kitchen.”
But now he was dead and she could eat what she wanted. She moved into a smaller flat where she ate canned spaghetti for breakfast and cereal for dinner. She ate when she wanted to, and sometimes when she didn’t. Her appetite had no respect for conventional mealtimes. It required a constant vigilance for which she didn’t have the effort. Often she got up in the night to eat a chocolate bar or a pastry she had bought during the day. It confused her, because she had always guessed you would eat less, not more, when you were desperate, when you were grieving, when you were desperately grieving. It was not the hunger of one who has not recently eaten, because the eating was so constant that she had always recently eaten. Beyond her understanding, she could eat an entire tub of potato salad during an advert break, and often did. Neither was it the hunger of someone craving comfort, because since Cameron had died she knew she could never again experience comfort. And it could not be the hunger of the carefree and happy, because she could not be carefree, could not be happy, now that Cameron was dead.
By the end of summer she had gained enough weight that she could take hold of herself with both hands—her belly, her sides, under her chin—clutch the flesh and pull it away from her body, let it go and watch it quiver. She would do this in private whenever she could, first out of fascination, then through habit, and finally as an activity on which she depended, one which she could stop only when the skin became tender and raw.
For many years before Cameron’s death she would have described herself as curvy, but her weight gain until that point had been a protracted campaign, a pound-by-pound siege of the lean form she’d known in her teens. In comparison her current situation was relentless warfare. It consisted of midnight ambushes from crisps and varied dips, dawn raids of the fridge for delicatessen meat, evening skirmishes against slices and then loaves of bread loaded with honey or jam.
Food packaging piled up. To avoid judgement she took her bin bags across the street in the early hours, depositing them in the bins of strangers. Soon after returning home from one of these expeditions there was a frantic knocking at her door. She opened it to a neighbour she sometimes saw pulling her children down the street. She was clutching Mary’s bin bag.
“I watched you,” she said. “You thought nobody could see, but I was waiting behind the blinds. I know this neighbourhood. I have three children. What will you say for yourself? Will you apologise?” She shook the bulging bin bag. “I have a good mind to empty this all over your floor, leave you with quite a mess. Watch you pick your rubbish off the floor. My little ones watching, too. It would set quite the example. I’ve seen some things around here. I’ve been attacked on this very street. I had to defend myself with a set of car keys.”
One morning in October she woke to find someone had posted a message through the letterbox. It said: “HOW DID YOUR BOYFRIEND DIE, U EAT HIM?” She sat by the window until noon. Whenever a car slowed on the street below she would press her nose to the glass in case it was Cameron, here to collect her at last.
She now needed only to angle her head downwards by the slightest degree for her chin to disappear among smooth rolls of neck fat. She was receiving looks in the street and had begun muttering apologies to people who sat next to her on the bus. Sometimes when alone she muttered too.
At the supermarket she found people unconsciously veering their trolleys around her when they passed. The supermarket in general had become more intimidating. Mentally she divided the shop into the “safe” aisles, containing ready meals and snacks, which she hoarded, and those containing “ingredients”: oils and sauces, beans and pulses, herbs and spices that could not by themselves constitute a meal, which needed imagination and energy and skill to form into something acceptable. It was not long before she avoided the supermarket altogether and began ordering online.
She tried a weight loss group, which met in a room of her local leisure centre. Before entering the first meeting she ate six breakfast bars to ease her anxiety. Then she went inside, where the group sat in a circle. Although it was a sunny day, the blinds were shut. They were hidden away here. Some were massive, some not. Some leaned forward, apparently believing that proximity to the group leader might improve their chances. Others reclined as though they wanted no part of it, but couldn’t quite pull away completely. In the artificial light, each looked exhausted.
“It’s the autumn,” said one woman. “Things dying. It bothers me in a big way. Something existential. I eat more. A lot more.”
“I scare my children,” said a man with a rusty beard. “When they see me coming out the bathroom in a towel, they run away.”
“I sweat all the time,” said a young man, hardly twenty. “I eat meat all the time and I always have meat sweats. I wish I ate less meat.”
When Mary’s turn came, she said, “I just get so hungry.”
Then began the taking of weights. Each in attendance stepped into a curtained cubicle for a brief meeting with the group leader, an elderly woman in large glasses whose skin hung loose around her cheekbones and elbows.
“What you’re going through? Each of us has gone through the same. Myself included. Do you want to know how bad it got? I used to eat butter out of the dish. I did it with a spoon. Do you know the feeling of butter between your fingers? It was like that feeling, but under the skin. I overcame it though. I’m not saying it was easy. It involved a lot of dedication and a lot of planning. I want you to take this exercise book and next week I want to see your personal weight loss plan. It takes less time than you would imagine. You can do it with the television on.”
At home she read through her exercise book. On the cover a group of cartoon fruit and vegetables spoke in chorus: “Overweight? Your wait is over.” She applied a post-it note to the recipes that appealed to her. On a colourful graph she placed a small dot at her current weight. She found testimonies of those whose lives and marriages had been saved by the programme, and also a page listing non-scale victories. A non-scale victory was any weight-related progress not directly related to the number on the scale. Perhaps you received a compliment from a stranger, you could once again comfortably cross your legs, or you were now able to move your wedding ring from your pinkie to the finger where it belonged. Or perhaps you simply woke up one morning to a greater sense of wellbeing.
On a page headed “My Weight and I,” she was asked to describe in the frankest terms how she regarded her weight. She quickly filled the page with sentiments she felt were appropriate and of which her group leader would approve. “I am ready for the challenge. I am ready to change. Regularly I look at photographs of my slimmer younger self and cry.” And it was not wholly untrue. Regularly she looked at old photographs, and she did cry. On the television, a young man described an out-of-body experience he had undergone while in surgery: “All of a sudden, I felt an enormous weight lift from me.”
Later that night she ordered a Feast for Four from the nearby Indian takeaway. She did not use cutlery. Her hands felt thick with grease the rest of the evening, though she scrubbed them with soap and scalding water. She hauled herself into the empty bath and waited it out, listening to the noises of her digestion, which sounded like feet pulling free from deep mud. She did not attend another meeting.
Online she discovered a community of men keen, even desperate, to feed a woman like her. Some were very particular about what they wished to feed her. Clotted cream. A favourite childhood cereal. A rotisserie chicken. Others were less specific.
She responded to some of their messages. On the whole, they seemed sweet, slightly baffled, and shy of their desires. Some had been alone for a long time. Others were married. One November Sunday, Mary visited a web developer called Craig who lived on the far side of town. He left her in his living room while he reheated a Chinese takeaway. Listening to the slam of the microwave door and the clatter of cutlery and plates, she decided that if she never saw Cameron again but knew he was always just in the next room, that would be enough.
Finally Craig brought through the food on a tray and set it on the coffee table. He laid a napkin over her chest. There was only one spoon and only one plate. Mary’s heart wrestled in her chest so violently she worried it would come unstuck.
When the meal was over he cleaned her up then spent a while in the bathroom. She could understand such behaviour. At a birthday party long ago, the father of a childhood friend had found her in the kitchen, where she had been hiding from the other children. He had dipped a finger into a bowl of whipped cream and asked her to lick it off. It had made her feel better, and she had since persuaded several boyfriends to let her do similar things. She had known it was Cameron she loved and had been waiting for the night he had asked her to eat strips of ham from his bare chest.
She looked at Craig’s ceiling and took rapid shallow breaths. She felt the strain on her stomach lining stronger than ever before. She imagined it like a bin bag ready to split, spilling its pollution. That was what she was made of now.
When Craig returned he sat on the other sofa and placed his hands on his knees.
“My doctor says I am in a pre-diabetic state,” he said. “If I go any further down the road I am on, I will become fully diabetic. At first I told myself I have bad blood. But it isn’t my blood. It’s me. I’ve done my body no favours. You have to wonder what the body thinks. I’m sure it’s got a question or two.” He removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. Mary closed her eyes as some matter or gas shifted horribly within her.
“That’s enough now,” she said. “Quiet now.”
In this state, it was all she could manage.
She did not enjoy the winter. In her future relationships, this winter was the final detail of her life she would reveal. She became increasingly irritable. Although she found a seasonal position in a shop selling greetings cards and gift wrap, she was cautioned and finally fired after losing her temper with customers and staff. Several times she walked into her living room certain that Cameron was crouching on top of the chest of drawers. He was coiled, ready to pounce. In a recurring dream he trimmed the fat from her and threw it in the fire. The smell followed her several hours after waking.
Crossing the high street one afternoon, she heard a dog barking. As it grew louder she cast around, suddenly frightened it was coming at her. When she couldn’t spot it she began to feel where it was.
Car horns were blasting, drivers and pedestrians were screaming at her. Of course they were: she had a dog trapped in her lower stomach. Why had nobody told her before? She could feel it writhing and kicking. Its paws scrabbled at her stomach walls, drawing blood. It snuffled and slobbered at the openings of her tracts.
She made it to the other side of the road. Strangers approached to catch her. She pushed them away and began undoing the buttons of her shirt, but collapsed before she could manage them all. A black paw forced its way through her belly button, then another. With little effort they parted the skin so that the creature’s head could push through. The animal heaved its way out, a large black Labrador glistening with stomach acid. Children gasped and approached to pet it. Their parents pulled them back but did not themselves step back. They watched speechless. It shook itself off, retched onto the pavement and resumed barking. The children screamed with delight. Mary lay on her back, empty. The dog padded over and licked her face, grew bored and loped off along the street. She wanted to call after it but could not summon the energy, and besides, she didn’t know its name.
In the hospital she ate very little. The idea of chewing and swallowing matter of any kind made her gag. Her dreams were of a revolving shapeless mass of grey meat.
She began a gentle but regular exercise regime. Loose skin slowly gathered around her bones, useless and deflated. It chafed and bled, so that she had to carry tissues. In time, though, this would disappear. When it did, she realised that all through this last long year she had clutched the hope that one day the weight would fall away to leave behind an irreducible version of herself: white-hot with fury, and tiny enough that she could be stored in a pocket. She was bemused to discover no such thing. There was no sense of relief, of having conquered something. There was no sense that her body was any longer a place where she might locate herself at all.
She spoke with the nurses, who talked mostly of themselves, problems with their marriages and children.
“Aren’t we supposed to be talking about me?” Mary asked more than once, before realising that in discussing their problems, she had spent an hour distracted from her own. She guessed it must be part of their training.
She met a woman who had convinced herself that every day was her birthday, so every day for several months she had baked and eaten a large iced cake. She began each day insulted that nobody in the hospital had remembered her birthday.
Another patient was in the habit of saying, “It’s like the food goes in through my mouth and ends up in China.”
Another maintained his problems stemmed from the time when, as a boy, he had been dared to eat his sister’s hamster.
In turn, Mary told of how her boyfriend of seven years had choked to death on the stone of a cherry she had fed him. She told them how confused he had looked at first, when it must have dawned on him he was now choking to death.
She joked that her first reaction had been offence: how rude of him to choke on a cherry she had given him! Some of the patients laughed at this. Others simply stared. When she admitted that her initial reaction had actually been to sit wide-eyed, unable to speak his name or conjure any movement in her hands and feet, she began to cry so heavily that she was taken to a quiet room where she was left alone. The crying was so violent and constant that she felt the ache in her muscles for several days afterwards, whether she was calmly knitting in one of the common rooms or lying as still as possible in her bed. It was at the same time dull and piercing, like you might feel if you had overexerted your body during exercise or had just been beaten to within an inch of your life.