Sunday, May 17, 2009

6flashbacks : Tipping the Balance

With three gulps the éclair was gone, smears of cream on the fingers licked with guilty greed. "One little treat," she told herself. "You've done very well, it's not a lie, it's a congratulations."

Carol had every reason to be happy. Another commendation from SlimmersUnited - "Where Looking Good Is Just The Start!" - had clearly ruffled some feathers amongst the gang. Margaret's characteristically terse congratulations had a particularly forced sincerity, something Carol always took to be the continuing reaction to her daughter coming out as a vegan lesbian during a live radio phone-in. The stress associated with roasting so many vegetables clearly takes its toll if the continued appearance of larger coats never taken off could be used as a guide. Harriet no longer offered valid opinions following three consecutive weeks of being found stuffing Kinder Bueno in her handbag.

"Oh, I tell you, it's not easy. They've opened a new sandwich place near mine, oh it's all I can do to stop myself running in demanding they pour mayonnaise down my throat!" Simmering polite laughter, awkward silences, crunch of Mini Cheddars. Carol had always been the centre of attention at SlimmersUnited, not something she had planned initially, but so much in her life appeared to run counter to sense and reason who was she to stop for contemplation. Every new day gives another treat, she considered, emptying the packet of salt and vinegar crisps into her mouth on the walk home.

----

Through the mirror she stared. A tatty blazer but retro was in now, they say, so she could get away with...The seams of the top needed some more unpicking but if she could...It was not deception...a little white lie, maybe, keeping up the appearances, not exactly going to be wearing harem pants like Margaret attempted...Just breathe in a little and...If there's no queue I can buy some chips and still get to the pub on time. Oh, they don't understand, commended week after week, but keeping this up is just too hard....

----

Kenneth had a reputation for being ignorant and naive. Maybe there really had been a time-limit on their marriage, or his love for Carol, something like a clock ticking which both could hear but denied. Every party to which they were invited had the same routine; "I'm the other half," he muttered like a tired straight man of a comedy duo. "Oh I'd say you're more than half, love!" Carol giggled, kissing his hand, "Oh he's a love, knows his place. I love these little nibbles, is there a recipe I could borrow..."

Ignorance developed into a stagnant bliss. Kenneth would not see the freezer stocked and empty every other day, although Carol was not good enough initially to hide every packet of food and ready meal she had eaten while he was away. When the night came during which Kenneth remained in the living room staring at the television's flickering light while his wife sat around the kitchen table emptying a plastic-tub filled with profiterole, the position could have been designed from a two-act play. Walking into the darker period of their marriage was easy, they had found, it was as though enough movement from fate and fortune had been clearing the way for years. Carol's father was called Kenneth, she had often wondered if there had been a fold in the fabric of fate which tripped her while she walked through an otherwise unremarkable youth.

"And I call it puppy fat...." They laughed, embraced. She had never been the centre of attention, the girl everyone wanted to talk to at parties or dances. Kenneth said it himself; he was dependable, and they would live in a nice house he would buy and they would eat well and they would just be a happy normal couple. Carol smiled as she took another sip of wine, whispered to the waiter that her main course should be a more generous plate. The review of this place really was spot-on, wouldn't you say? They were not wrong about this sauce, it is very rich. Just the little treat we needed, I would say. Mmm, here's to little treats.

----

I think...I have had too much.....I'd say, you were wolfing down that plate before. Oh do shut up, Margaret, just shut up.

----

Through the mirror Carol stared back at the child behind the eyes, the smiles held in the lines, a flock of crow's feet. Her father did the best he could. His form appeared in smoke and fractured light, the proud man who had lived with his mother looking after every minute of his life; who had assumed married life would mean exchanging one mothering figure for another. He had no way of knowing how to cope with family life on his own, how to live without an older woman checking each and every movement. He did the best he could. Carol could see him so clearly now, smell the distinct pipe-smoke aroma of the living room, his eyes as red then as they had been when the doctor whispered in his ear.

That's how Carol remembered it. How did her mother die? When was she told? She remembers ice cream and sand between her toes and a windmill toy made with fluttering shiny paper on a plastic wheel. Can I have another ice cream?

----

SlimmersUnited were hitting the town. "The Gang" stumbled into The Gleam with schoolgirl giggles and uncivilised calls to the bar. "Hey look at him, ooh he could be my son!" Margaret always did this on nights out, the monthly prizes for good work from the little girls. Carol was keeping away from the cocktails as best she could. She had stuffed her face a little too much on the way in, now anything more than she could handle could knock her sideways. It would be too obvious. There had been talk of takeaways and curry houses; oh the horror of it.

"I have to say, you are looking very well today, Carol. It's a tribute to your hard work, it really is."
"Oh sometimes I treat myself a little....."
"It's not that I can tell with what you're wearing..."

Carol bit her lip. The chocolate muffins were a treat for the pounds she had lost that week. It was a night around town, so that justified the two bottles of wine. She had to break a ten-pound note so chocolate bars were always useful. She was not being deceptive, she was not lying. She was losing pounds every so often, what she did behind closed doors was her own business.

"Oh my word, look at him! You wouldn't say no to breakfast, eh, Margaret?"
"Depends on how easy it is to say no to breakfast now, I'd say. Not so sure about him, Carol, love, his head is too small for the rest of his body."

----

Maybe all men really are the same. Needy, dependent. Without a woman in their lives we'd have crowds of men collapsing through malnutrition. She licked her fingers, the chocolate cake recipe was perfection itself. Every man was won over by it. Foolproof.

She had to leave her home eventually, that much was obvious albeit unwritten, unspoken. Her father died of a broken heart, and she had no option but to move in with the quiet, romantic man who had given her the chance to escape. Falling back on old habits, Carol reacted to the fading heat in the marriage in the same way her younger self had reacted to losing her mother. Full focus in the kitchen, the comfort of food without the guilt of awkward silences, suspicion, early nights. Kenneth the lonely widower had morphed, easily, into Kenneth the silent partner. At least her father always cleared his plate. "I'll clean these and then, well, there's a film on later, maybe?" Her husband's food piled on her own plate, picked off with her fingers, filling her stomach and heart.

----

Oh my God! Carol? Is that really you, oh my, look at you!
Ah! It's been ages, how the Heck are you?
Oh you know, you know, oh my! You're looking really well!
Divorce diet, you could say. And leaving
SlimmersUnited seems to have helped more than I thought!
Aww, yeah, I heard you'd left, oh but look! It's still keeping off you, eh?
If anyone can do it!

Carol stared through the mirror. The night out had made up her mind. She stared at her make-believe, pretend-to-be body, filled every night and worked off in a day of fasting and stupid behaviour the day before each SlimmersUnite meeting, and hated every inch of it. The girls tottering about in knitting-needle heels did not make her any less proud of being a woman, and the likes of Margaret did not force her further back into her wardrobe. Her father could not stop her binging; nobody could. He was not enough a man to speak out, and her luck put her together with a husband with exactly the same affliction. The night out had made up her mind. She stared at the kebabs and pizzas in plastic trays, dozens of younger clubbers barging around her as though she could not be seen. She just wanted to be herself. Nobody could be natural working up to weekly weigh-ins like prized cattle.

Her father was not to blame. He could barely cook. She had to make do, the woman of the house now. Woman of the house ever since. It made the lifetime of stupid behaviour and virtual slavery to food all the more ridiculous. She did not need to lie to anyone anymore, little or large lies, little or large shape.

The night out sorted everything out in her mind. She stared through the mirror, at the face of her younger self, saw the ice-cream and the fluttering shiny plastic windmill and her father's face and saw it all make sense. She would take taxi home, through the neon-strips and takeaways, to return home, for sleep. Confidence would never return in full, too many years for that. Pride can be repaired. Weight can be controlled. As she walked towards the taxi rank she winked at the young man eating chips from a plastic tray; she thought about taking one but as the tray was offered her she shook her head. "Oh no, there's mayonnaise on it. I don't like mayonnaise".