There was a can of vegetable soup in the cupboard: individual size. I found the opener and dug it into the top, lifting it higher with each turn of the handle. Some of the stuff inside smeared on my knuckle. It felt slimy, unpleasant. Inside the can the surface was kind of flattened jelly, dark red with bits of green and yellow poking through. Watery stuff like plasma started seeping up the sides of the viscous block. It didn’t look like food at all. I slid one finger into it to the depth of a nail. The top creased and some of the pink fluid slopped up and over the jagged lip of the can. It was sickening but pleasantly so. Like a little kid playing with mud. The next thing I knew, I’d pushed my hand right inside the can. The semi-solid mush seethed and slumped over the sides and onto the worktop as my nails tipped the bottom and the torn rim scored the skin. I had to withdraw carefully. Soup stung into the cuts so I used my other hand and scooped as much of the mess as I could and cradled it across the room, red soup and blood dripping onto the lino. There, my cupped hands over the sink, I split my fingers and let the puree slither, spattering unevenly onto the white porcelain. I was learning something as I stared at what I was doing; the most obvious thing yet it had never dawned on me till I stood here, bug-eyed at the sink, congealing soup up to my wrists. I didn’t need to eat.
I didn’t need to eat.
The cakes come, transformed from the oven. The scent of them cooling on the wire rack makes me feel weak. When they stop steaming I can wrap them in silver foil because they are gifts, and put them away in the cupboard. They make me feel secure in there: ready for other people to eat and me to ignore. A strength. That gives me a lift.
Ellen is always having a spot of lunch/ supper/ a little something when I call. She thinks food is medicine. Marianne sent a picture of herself already fattening on hamburgers and rootbeer and Ellen cried because she looked peaky. Ellen’s cat is gargantuan. It frightens dogs. For Ellen, food is love. We stand in the hall of this big house on the hill, me with my terrible timing and Ellen with her need to feed. The house is full of the smell of cooking.
Ellen stands there in the doorway.
I’m just having a spot of lunch, will you join me? She says, her eyes searching for clues.
Lovely, I say. I’m starving.
It isn’t a joke.
We eat baked potatoes with butter
Farmhouse bread with butter
Chocolate cake with extra cream
Shortbread and coffee
Afterwards I sit on Ellen’s posh cream velour sofa with another coffee, stomach boggling with calories. Ellen smiles like a split melon under the lilac rinse while the pain gets worse.
You don’t think the pattern’s too young for me?
No, it’s lovely. Lovely colour.
I couldn’t care less about the bloody wool but I keep going, drinking more coffee, trying to sit still. It’s important to keep drinking so the next part’s easier. We do knitting, prices, the nights are fair drawing in and letters from Marianne. When I think I’m going to explode with fluid, I get up and go to the toilet.
I know exactly what to do.
I learned this about a month ago when Sam came, just before he went to college. We went out on his bike and then to Sean’s. The whole family were downstairs and he was baking at almost midnight. The house full of the smell of hot dough and the kids up at the table with crayons. It was like something out of the Waltons. Sean brought tea and a tray with seven of the fresh rolls, butter, chocolate biscuits. I could have said it was too late for me to eat or I get indigestion at this time of night – any one of a number of plausible things from the repertoire. But I didn’t. I was watching Sean break one of the rolls with his hands, the crust shearing along the top and sides, flaking onto the tablecover. He held half out in one palm.
Take it, he nodded at the butter. Take it.
It was still warm. I ate four of the rolls and three biscuits before I knew what I was doing. When Sam took me home I shambled through farewells thinking what to do about the tightness in my chest: I barely waved. The minute the bike was out of sight I rushed like hell inside straight upstairs to the mirror to check my face for signs of swelling. What’s more, I could see them. I turned the taps to full pressure and checked again. There was only one thing to do.
I swallowed my hand up to the wrist.
The first time was kind of messy. Now I’m better.
I go into Ellen’s bathroom and throw up silently for ten minutes.
Every girl has her emergency measures. This just happens to be mine.
Christmas is coming.
Two senior girls arrive with an invitation, a ticket to the school dance. Their cheeks are flawless, eyes round and white. I smile till my mouth frays, catch sight of myself in the glass panel over their shoulders and keep tight control of my breathing. When they go away I get hysterical. There is worse to come. I race downstairs with my purse clanking for chocolate and biscuits, driven by need I can’t control. Chocolate and biscuits will not take it away but they are sweet and blot out everything but my mouth. For a while. I eat as many biscuits as I have the money for and throw up in the space of fourteen minutes. Soundlessly.