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The Fat Woman's Joke
By Fay Weldon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1967 Fay Weldon
All rights reserved.
What Esther wells liked about Earls Court was that she didn't know anyone who lived there. The legs which passed the bars of her basement window, day and night, belonged to nobody she had ever seen or would ever have to see again. Between four and six every morning the street would empty, and then the silence would disturb her, and she would wake, and get up, and make herself a cup of cocoa and eat a piece of chocolate cake, icing first. There is nothing, she would think, more delicious or reassuring than the icing of bought chocolate cake, eaten in the silence and privacy of the night.
During the day she would read science fiction novels. In the evenings she watched television. And she ate, and ate, and drank, and ate.
She ate frozen chips and peas and hamburgers, and sliced bread with bought jam and fishpaste, and baked beans and instant puddings, and tinned porridge and tinned suet pudding, and cakes and biscuits from packets. She drank sweet coffee, sweet tea, sweet cocoa and sweet sherry.
This is the only proper holiday, she thought, that I have had for years, and then she thought, but this is not a holiday, this is my life until I die: and then she would eat a biscuit, or make a piece of toast, and melt some ready sliced cheese on top of it, remembering vaguely that the act of cooking had been almost as absorbing as the act of eating.
The flat was dark and damp, as was only right and fitting, and the furniture was nailed to the floor in case some passing tenant saw fit to sell or burn it. Esther, in fact, found it pleasant to have her whereabouts controlled by a dozen nails. The less freedom of choice she had the better. She had not felt so secure since she spent her days in a pram.
She lived in this manner for several weeks. From time to time she would put on an old black coat over her old black dress and go to Smith's for more science fiction paperbacks, and to the supermarket for more food. When the cupboards were full of food she felt pleased. When her stocks ran low she became uneasy.
Phyllis was the last of Esther's circle to seek her out. She came tripping prettily down the steps one afternoon; thirty-one and finely boned, beautifully dressed in a red tiny-flowered trouser suit with hat to match—neat, sexy and rich; invincibly lively and invincibly stupid.
She dusted off the seat of the armchair before she sat down. She took off her hat and laid it on the table. She stared sadly at Esther with her round silly eyes; Esther kept her own lowered, and sliced a round of hot buttered toast into fingers. When drops of butter fell on to her black dress she rubbed them in with her hand.
"Oh Esther," said Phyllis, "why didn't you tell me? If I had known you'd needed help, I would have been here at once. If you'd left your address—"
"I don't need help. What sort of help should I need!"
"Going off like that without a word to anyone. I thought we were supposed to be friends? Now what are friends for if not for help at times like these?"
"Times like what?" Butter ran down Esther's chin. She salvaged it with her tongue.
"It took me weeks finding you, and you know how busy I am. I tried to make Alan tell me where you were but he just wouldn't, and your lawyer didn't know a thing, and your mother was fantastically evasive, and in the end I ran into Peter and he told me. Do you think that girlfriend of his is suitable? I mean, really suitable? She treats him like dirt. He's too young to know how to cope. I wish you'd stop eating, Esther, you'll be like a balloon."
Esther surveyed her plump hands and wrists and laughed. It was a grimy flat, and the butter mingled with the dirt round her nails.
"Are you sure you wouldn't like some toast, Phyllis? Toast is one of the triumphs of our civilization. It must be made with very fresh bread, thickly cut; then toasted very quickly and buttered at once, so the butter is half-melted. Unsalted butter, of course; you sprinkle it with salt afterwards. Sea salt, preferably."
Esther found to her surprise she was crying. She wiped her face with the back of her hand, smearing a streak of oily grime across her cheek, where the white fat lay thickly larded beneath the skin.
"No, thank you. No toast."
"And that lovely boy Peter. He needs you at this crisis of his life. If ever a boy needed his mother, it's Peter at this moment. And what about poor Alan? It breaks my heart to see all this senseless misery. I don't understand any of it. Your lovely marriage, all in ruins."
"Marriage is too strong an institution for me," said Esther. "It is altogether too heavy and powerful." And indeed at that moment she felt her marriage to be a single steady crushing weight, on top of which bore down the entire human edifice of city and state, learning and religion, commerce and law, pomp, passion and reproduction. Beneath this mighty structure the little needles of this feeling which flickered between Alan and her were dreadful in their implication. When she challenged her husband, she challenged the universe.
"What an odd thing to say. Marriage to me is a source of strength, not a weight upon me. I'm sure that's how one ought to look at it. And you are going back to Alan, aren't you? Please say you are."
"No. This is my home now. I like it. Nothing happens here. I know what to expect from one day to the next. I can control everything, and I can eat. I like eating. Were I attracted to men, or indeed attractive to them, I would perhaps find a similar pleasure in some form of sexual activity. But as it is, I just eat. When you eat, you get fat, and that's all. There are no complications. But husbands, children—no, Phyllis, I am sorry. I am not strong enough for them."
"You are behaving so oddly. Have you seen a doctor? I know this divine man in Wimpole Street. He's done marvels for me."
"I wish you would have something to eat, Phyllis. It makes me nervous, to see you just sitting there, not eating, staring, understanding only about a quarter of what I say."
"No. I have to watch my figure."
"I suppose you really do believe that your happiness is consequent upon your size? That an inch or two one way or the other would make you truly loved? Equating prettiness with sexuality, and sexuality with happiness? It is a very debased view of femininity you take, Phyllis. It would be excusable in a sixteen year old—if my nose was a different shape, if my bosom was larger, if my freckles were gone, then the whole world would be different. But in a woman of your age it is vulgar."
"I am sorry, but I see it differently. It is just commonsense to make the most of oneself. In any case, everything is different for you. You don't seem to have to follow the rules. You are enormous, but it doesn't seem to matter. To be frank, you are an appalling sight at this very moment, and it does matter—but I have known you look quite ravishing. I think Gerry always rather fancied you. And I will say this for him, he has good taste. Otherwise the humiliation would be unendurable. Yet it's odd; they are always women of a totally different type from me. Why do you think that is?"
Esther rose from her chair, her flesh unfolding beneath the loose fabric of her dress. She crossed to the cupboard and presently selected a tin of condensed mushroom soup which she opened, poured into a saucepan, and heated on the stove. Phyllis talked to her friend's broad back like a hummingbird chirping away at a rhinoceros.
"I don't mind about Gerry's fancies, really. It's a very small part of marriage, isn't it? If there's anything I've learned in my life it's that one comes to terms with this kind of thing in the end."
"I come to terms with nothing."
"Besides, it's probably just all talk with him. They do say that the men who talk most, do least."
"They'll say anything to comfort themselves."
"Oh." Phyllis looked depressed. "Esther, I don't understand what went wrong between you and Alan, so suddenly. Why are you living down here in this horrible place? And why did you leave, not him? I don't believe he turned you out. He's such a good man. He's not impetuous, like Gerry. You always seemed so right for each other, so settled and content. He never even talked about other women, not when you were in the room, anyway. Sometimes after I'd been with you both I'd go home and just cry because Gerry and I could never be close like you two. The only time Gerry and I are ever close is when we're in bed, and even then I don't enjoy it. It just seems the most important thing in the world. Can you understand that? And now that you two have split up, it just seems like the end of the world to me. Everything has suddenly become frightening. Esther, you've made me afraid."
"You are right to feel afraid. Are you sure you don't want some of this soup? It is very good—although perhaps a little salty. That's the trouble with condensed soups. You have to choose between having them too weak or too salty."
"Why am I right to feel afraid, Esther? What is there to be afraid of? I think and think but I can't make it out. You make me feel all kinds of things are going on underneath which I don't understand. It can't be Gerry, because I know he'll never leave me. He'll just go on having sordid affairs with sordid women, but they mean nothing to him. He tells me so, all the time. He's a hot-blooded man, you see, so it's understandable. It's just something a woman like me has to learn to put up with. And in a way, I suppose it has its advantages. He couldn't blame me if I did look round for my amusements, could he?"
"He would, though."
"Well it wouldn't be reasonable of him—of course he's not a very reasonable person. That's why I love him. If only I could find an attractive man, I'd have a lovely passionate affair with him. But there aren't any attractive men left. Why do you think that is? Esther, you haven't answered my question. Why do you think I am right to feel afraid?"
"Because you are growing old. Because you have a vision of loneliness, and it is a terrible moment when you realize that your future is not green pastures, but the glue factory. We are all separate people, and we are all alone. It is a ridiculous thing to say that no man is an island. We are all islands. You can die, and Gerry won't. Gerry can die, and you won't. Your lives will just go on, separate as they have always been. There are no end of things you can be afraid of, if you put your mind to it. Do have some soup. If I emptied a tin of cream in, it might improve matters. And a little tomato sauce would cover up the tinny taste."
"You say the most terrible things and then you expect me to eat."
"Of course. You can't put off being useless and old and unwanted forever. Soon, little Phyllis, you will stop painting your toenails. Already I suspect you no longer wear your best panties to parties. It will all be over for you as it is for me, and love and motherhood and romance will be no more than dreams remembered, and rather bad dreams at that. Your real life will begin as mine has now. This is what it's like. Food. Drink. Sleep. Books. They are all drugs. None are as effective as sex, but they are calmer and safer. Nuts?"
"Nuts? Who? Oh—I see."
Esther was offering Phyllis a bowl of nuts.
"Nuts are lovely," said Esther. "Your teeth go through the middle, and they're white and pure and clean inside, and slightly salty and dirty and sexy outside. They make your mouth just a little sore, so you have to take another mouthful to find out if they really do or not."
"Esther, if you eat so much you will make yourself ill. You've gone completely to pieces. You must make an effort to pull yourself together. You will have to go on a diet again. You and Alan were on a diet just before all this started. I never thought you'd go through with it, but you did, and I respect you for it. But now you've undone all the good you did."
Esther looked at Phyllis with distaste. "Oh, go away!" She loomed over Phyllis, dirty-nailed, dirty-faced, brilliant-eyed and dangerous. "Go away! I didn't want you to come here, asking questions, nagging. I came here to have some peace. I don't want to see anyone. What do you want from me?"
"I want to help you."
"Don't be so bloody stupid. Help me? You're like a mad old woman battering at the prison gates when the hanging's due. All you really want is just to be in there watching. There's nothing here to watch. Just a fat woman eating. That's all. You can see them in any café, any day. They're all around."
"You are very upset, Esther," said Phyllis doggedly. "I'm your friend. I'm very hurt you didn't turn to me when you were in trouble."
Esther beat her head with her hand.
"That's what I mean! 'I'm very hurt!'" Her voice, normally soft, rose to a shriek. "I can't stand it. What am I supposed to do now? Comfort your stupid little worries? What do you think it all is—some kind of game? This is our life, and it's the only one we're ever going to get, and it's a desperate business, and you come bleating to me about your being hurt because I, being near to death and madness, don't come bleating to you—with—oh, he treats me so badly, oh, you know what he said, you know what he did—as if talking can make things different. Phyllis, will you please, for your own sake, go away and leave me alone?"
Esther gave up.
"Then I will tell you all about it. And when you have drunk your fill of miseries, perhaps then you will feel satisfied and go away. I warn you, it will not be pleasant. You will become upset and angry. It is a story of patterns but no endings, meanings but no answers, and jokes where it would be nice if no jokes were. There has never been a tale quite like this before, and that in itself is hard to endure. Are you sitting comfortably?"
"Yes," said Phyllis, putting her hands neatly together in her lap.
"Then I'll begin."CHAPTER 2
Up in Hampstead, in an attic flat, two other women were talking. There was Susan, who was 24, and Brenda, who was 22. It was Susan's flat, and Brenda was staying in the absence of Susan's boyfriend. Just now Susan was painting a picture of Brenda: these days when she came home from the office she would put on a dun-colored smock and take up her brush at once. She said it gave her life meaning.
Susan was tall, and slim to the point of gauntness. She had straight very thick hair, enigmatic slanty green eyes, high cheekbones, a bold nose and an intelligent expression. From time to time, as she worked, she would see herself in the mirror behind Brenda, and would like what she saw.
"It's a pity," she said to Brenda, "that your legs are so heavy. Otherwise you'd stop the traffic in the streets."
Brenda had long legs and they were, in truth, fairly massive around the thighs. But seen sideways on she was almost as slim as Susan herself. She had a round face and an innocent look. She thought Susan lived a wild, fascinating, exciting life.
"What can I do about my legs!"
"Don't wear trousers," said Susan.
"But trousers are no bother."
"You're supposed to bother. You've got to bother if you're a woman. Otherwise you might as well be a man."
"It's not fair. I didn't ask to be born with legs like pillars."
"I daresay they are good for child-bearing."
"Can I look?" Brenda lived in hope that one day Susan would paint a flattering portrait of her. Susan never did.
The telephone rang.
"You'd better answer it," said Susan. "If it's Alan I'm not at home. I've gone away for a month to the country."
It wasn't Alan, but a wrong number.
"Perhaps you should ring him," ventured Brenda, "then you wouldn't be so edgy."
"I'm not edgy," said Susan. "I am upset. So we're all upset. Loving is upsetting. That's the point of it."
"What about his wife? Is she upset?"
"I don't think she feels very much at all. Like fish feel no pain when you catch them. From what Alan says, her emotional extremities are primitive."
"If I went out with a married man I'd feel awful," said Brenda.
"I'd worry about his wife."
"You are very different from me. You are fundamentally on the side of wives, and families. I don't like wives, on principle. I like to feel that any husband would prefer me to his wife. Wives are a dull, dreadful, boring, possessive lot by virtue of their state. I am all for sexual free enterprise. Let the best woman win."
"If you were married," said Brenda, "you would not talk like that."
"If I was married," said Susan, "which heaven forbid, I would make sure I outshone every other woman in the world. I wouldn't let myself go."
"Alan didn't seem your type at all."
"I don't have a type. You are very vulgar sometimes. You know nothing about sex or art or anything."
"I don't know why you always want to paint me, then. You seem to have such a low opinion of me. It is very tiring."
Excerpted from The Fat Woman's Joke by Fay Weldon. Copyright © 1967 Fay Weldon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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