"If I was as big as her I'd kill myself," Mum says, pointing at a picture of Marilyn Monroe in her magazine.
I'm sitting at the kitchen table waiting for my toast to brown. If I don't watch it, it will burn. Mum always buys
lo-salt Danish bread that toasts really quickly, the kind that has more air in it than flour. On her new diet she's allowed two slices at breakfast, along with 1 ounce of Special K with skim milk.
"You'd tell me, wouldn't you? If I got that big?"
I look at her, I can see her bones through her clothes.
"Of course," I lie.
She watches me as I spread Gold Ultra Lite on my toast.
"Don't use so much, Carmen."
My name is Carmen because Mum likes to imagine that she's got Spanish blood in her. That and the fact that I bawled my eyes out, "like some bloody opera singer," for six months after I was born.
"You're unlucky," she says to me sometimes, looking
me up and down, assessing my already plump chest, my thick hips, my freckles. "You'll end up with a Mediterranean figure, like your nan. You'll always have to watch your weight."
At fourteen I already know this much about my own destiny. If she wanted me to be tall and skinny she should have given me a different name.
Mum has been on a diet ever since I can remember. She has more diet books than the town library. A whole shelf of them above the cooker. Diets for hips and thighs, for chests, for rapid weight loss, for toning, for shaping. Books by celebrities, doctors, sports stars, cranks. Diets that tell you to eat nothing but grapefruit, yogurt, skim milk, milkshakes, fish, cabbages, broad beans.
Don't snack! They all say that. Don't snack! Don't fill your mouth in between meals, chew gum, drink water, nibble carrots. No crisps, no chocolate, no cola, no chips, no calories.
Mum likes to think we do the same diets together. She loses but I stay the same, or sometimes I put on a few pounds. She can't understand it, she says I must be cursed with a slow metabolism. What she doesn't acknowledge is that I don't stick to them properly. That I eat fries and Big Macs. That I snack.
On the fridge there are lists of foods and weights and portions that change every day.
This week it's a Power Diet!™. The Power is You!
Today it says:
- One half grapefruit/1 oz. Special K
- Toast x 2
- Spread 1-2 teaspoon
- Carrots 7 oz. (washed)
- Power Shake™ (Vanilla)
- Dried-fruit mix (2 oz.)
These lists are stuck on with novelty magnets that have slogans like: Don't Do It! A Moment on Your Lips, Forever on Your Hips! She gets them mail order from a place in America.
The Power Diet™ comes complete with a month's supply of Power Shakes™, a handbook, and a box of recipe cards for lo-cal meals, most of them involving carrots and brown rice.
According to the box, NASA developed Power Shakes™ as meal replacements for astronauts. Inside the foil pouches is a thick, gloopy liquid, rich in vitamins and essential minerals, which you are supposed to dilute with water. Mum let me try one when the box arrived, DHL from California. Unlike the picture of a thick, frothing shake, it was thin
and watery and had a weird, metallic aftertaste. You're only supposed to have three a week as replacements; Mum has them for nearly every main meal.
She shuts her magazine and opens the Power Diet™ handbook. It is full of Positive Affirmations, slogans to make you "think and feel in a more powerful way."
"You are a beautiful person." She smiles. "There. Doesn't that make you feel better?"
Dad comes in looking tired, his clothes crumpled. Looks like he spent the night in the garage again.
"Slept with your computers, did you?" Mum says, raising an eyebrow at him. He's set up a workshop in the garage, because Mum won't let him bring his stuff into the house. "I can't deal with the mess, Brian. All those itty bitty bits of wire get stuck in the carpet and ruin my tights."
He grunts and opens the fridge. "Who's for fried eggs?"
"Yes, please," I say.
"Brian." Mum doesn't look up. "We're supposed to be on a diet. How is she ever going to learn if you keep giving her food?"
He doesn't say anything and lights the flame on the gas.
Dad ignores Mum's diets, mutters about them being whacko, nuts, that they only end up making her sick. "They don't make you look any better, Maria."
She moans about this, says it's not fair that she still has to buy his full-fat food while she's dieting. There are three separate shelves in the fridge. At the top, Mum's tubs: Tupperware full of carrot sticks and celery, boiled rice, slices of chicken with the skin removed, lemon wedges, grapefruit halves, cottage cheese, no-fat yogurt. My shelf
is supposed to be in the middle but Dad always mixes things up. He puts his leftover takeaway trays back on
my shelf next to all the Weight Watchers ready meals and lo-fat spreads. Mum ignores these little digs, muttering under her breath as she puts the butter back on the bottom shelf that he doesn't understand a thing about feeding a family.
He takes a box of extra-large free-range eggs from his shelf and asks me if I want my egg sunny-side up, over easy, or upside down.
"Over easy, partner," I say. It's our little joke; we like to pretend we're American.
"Do you have to fry them? I don't know how you can eat them like that, all that mucus." Dad cracks two eggs in his fist over the pan. The slimy insides drop into the hot fat and start spitting. "Brian, it's making me nauseous." He doesn't say anything, just carries on shifting the pan around over the flame.
When he puts my egg in front of me, the yolk all runny and soaking into my toast, she makes exaggerated puking noises. I turn away from her and eat it really quickly.
"Fried egg on toast, 300 calories. At least. You'll be on lettuce all week now, you know, Carmen," she says. "After all that fat."
Later, she complains that she can smell it on her clothes. "I stink like a chip shop," she says, giving herself an extra squirt of perfume. "It's disgusting."
My mother works in a clothes shop in town. Waltons for Women. An exclusive boutique where they sell clothes that cost more than most people's wages. Top designer labels like Gucci, Prada, Versace, Armani, Paul Smith. Mum got the job part-time when she was convalescing, switching to full-time last year.
Mrs. Walton who owns the shop is delighted, she says Mum has a real flair for the London fashions. Profits are up twenty-five percent in the two years since Mum's been working there. She even lets Mum do some of the buying now. This week she's got appointments in Birmingham and Leeds.
"The only way is up, baby," she says, zipping up her Louis Vuitton overnight case and patting herself on the thigh.
She's away in Birmingham and I will have a Big Mac for tea if Dad's "cooking," from the new McDonald's they built on the edge of the valley.
I am at home watching TV, eating a Movie Bag of tortilla chips bought on the way home from school, waiting for Dad to get back from work. The pretty blonde girl in the Australian soap kisses her new lover. I feel a pang. I've never had a boyfriend, not like Janice who's nearly gone all the way already.
My fingers have turned a violent orange from the cheese powder. I wipe them on my Adidas track pants, making greasy tiger stripes across my thighs. The bag is already empty; my mouth is shriveling from all the salt. I wonder what else there is in the house to eat. If only I didn't feel so hungry all the time.
He should be home by now. But he's probably forgotten that he's supposed to be looking after me tonight. I eat the box of snack fruit that Mum left in the cupboard: 12 ounces, a week's worth of dried sultanas and raisins.
Dad owns half of a computer business NorTech a name Mum says sounds like someone trying to bring up phlegm. He builds the computers from scratch to the customer's specifications, and his business partner, Moira, runs the shop in town, taking all the orders and selling peripherals like printers and software and Mickey Mouse mats and glow-in-the dark joysticks. Dad says that in the past few years, with the technological revolution and everything, business has never been so good.
Moira has a bigger house over in the next valley. Her husband, John, put money into the business when it started, and they have two sons, Adrian and Sam, who both go to private schools. Adrian, the eldest, is the same age as me.
When Mum got sick, Dad used to take me over there for sleepovers. Moira made proper teas, giant dishes of macaroni and cheese, lasagna, shepherd's pie. "Your dad has been under such a lot of strain," she said to me in her creamy voice, scooping a small mountain of pasta onto my plate. "Looking after you is the least I can do."
When Mum came back from hospital she banned me from going there. She said that Moira was nosy, interfering. "Everything's been getting far too cozy while I've been away."
I watch the news, a holiday program and half of another soap before I hear his key in the door.
"Hiya kid," is the first thing he says as he flops onto the sofa next to me. He has McDonald's bags in his hands.
"Did you get me a Big Mac?" I ask.
"Don't tell your mother," he says, winking.
My mother left a whole fridge of instructions and portions for me. Today's affirmation is: Don't put it off! Do it Now!
I'm supposed to be eating a lo-fat ready-made cheese and ham tagliatelle. A Weight Watchers special, under 400 calories and less than one percent fat. Instead, I'm letting the grease of a Big Mac slide down my chin. Dad doesn't look at me as he chews on his Fillet O' Fish. He plugs in the PlayStation, while he holds the burger in his mouth. He sits down, cross-legged in front of it like one of those brass Buddha statues they sell in Margy's Mystic Shop in town. He plays Wipeout. Always Wipeout or Colin McRae Rally. He likes fast driving games. The kind that move through landscapes at hundreds of miles an hour. He's better at it than me. But only because he never lets me have a go.
He's not my real dad, but Mum's been with him since I was three and I can't remember much before then, so I guess he is really, nearly, my dad. Mum won't let me talk about it. "Brian's your father and that's an end to it. You don't want to know about before. I'll tell you when you're twenty-one."
He scrunches up the greasy wrappers. "Make us a cuppa, love," he says.
"Did you get me any sweets?" I ask.
He reaches in his pocket and gives me a Mars Bar. It's warm where it's been close to his skin and when I open it, the chocolate has melted and stuck to the wrapper.
When I was younger, before Mum got sick, she used to dress me up and take me places. Ballet classes, acting classes, singing classes. The pictures of me that she keeps round the house are all of then, when I was nine and ten, Mummy's little fairy princess, with tiara, wings, and sparkly tights.
Dad said it was her diets that made her sick, but Mum says that she was depressed.
When she went to hospital Dad let me buy my own clothes. These days I'm into sportswear, trainers, track pants, hooded tops. Now Mum's better she moans about it.
"You've got all the things I never had," she says to me. "And you have to dress like a hairdresser. I thought girls wanted to be sophisticated these days." She tries to get me to buy the kind of things she would wear but everything she buys is the wrong size, the wrong shape, the wrong cut. "I think it's time you started wearing a bra," she said, when I couldn't get into the size ten T-shirt she bought me from Top Shop. "You should have told me."
She bought me a girlie purple one, but I don't wear it. I don't want to have tits.
In the morning he gives me a lift to school in his car. It's a yellow sports convertible with shiny wheels and black leather seats. He got it last year as a bonus. Mum just snorted when she saw it. "It's the color of a banana, Brian."
I ask him if he thinks Mum will get sick again.
He sighs. "If your mother says she's better I'm not going to contradict her."
She was in hospital for months. Dad said it was because she was throwing up her food instead of swallowing it, that she was crafty, untrustworthy. When she came out, Dad made her promise to eat properly, "for Carmen's sake, if not for mine."
As we pull up outside the gates I look to see if any of the town girls are watching. Everyone round here thinks my dad is a bit of a nerd, they call him Boffin, and Gateshead, because he looks like Bill Gates.
Even Janice calls him Gateshead. "Oh, come on, Carmen," she said, when I complained that she was being rude about my family. "So what if he's a nerd? No one else knows how to fix computers like him."
"Here." He gives me a KitKat. "Sweets for my sweet." He kisses me on the forehead.
His aftershave makes me sneeze.
"Sneeze three times, you'll get a letter," he says, his eyes scrunching up behind his glasses.
"Nothing, just something my mum used to say. Maybe it was a wish. Sneeze three times, you can make a wish." He winks at me. "See you later, kiddo."
As his car pulls away into the traffic, I think about Mum, away on her business trip. Don't let her get sick,I wish.
My best friend, Janice Ramsden, has just started going out with a boy in the sixth form and I've spent all morning listening to her swooning about him and hanging around waiting for her to finish kissing him during break.
Lunchtime, I'm on my own because they've gone downtown for the afternoon to snog in the park instead. She says she's going to do it with him soon; she's just waiting for his parents to go on holiday so they can use the double bed. I'm listening to the All Saints on my Walkman, eating sausage and chips, staring into space, not thinking. Mum would probably stop my dinner money if she knew. I'm supposed to buy salads and mineral water, a couple of apples and pears.
I know she's back before I see her suitcase in the hall. I can smell her perfume, Chanel No. 5, in the hallway. She's lying on the couch with a big black folder on her knees. She's doing sums with a calculator. When she sees me she snaps the folder shut."Hello, darling," she says. "How was school?"
"You're not supposed to be back till Friday," I say.
She wrinkles her nose. "You stink of chocolate." I back away from her.
"Janice got some."
"And you didn't buy any?"
I shake my head, but I can tell she doesn't believe me. Dad buys chicken pie and chips for his tea. He doesn't even bother with a plate, eating it in front of us straight out of the paper.
"Brian, please. We're eating."
I stir my Weight Watchers ratatouille that tastes too strongly of tinned tomatoes.
"Is that what you call it?" Dad mutters.
He hasn't even finished his chips when he bundles the papers into a ball and pushes them in the bin. "I've got work to do," he says, picking up his briefcase.
"Mind you remember it's still your turn to take Carmen to school in the morning." But the back door into the garage has already slammed. "That's the last we'll see of him, tonight," she says, biting her lip.
I go to my room and unpack my homework. Put the radio on my Walkman and flick through a magazine. I don't hear her coming in so that when she puts her hand on my shoulder, I nearly jump out of my skin.
"Doesn't look like homework to me," she says, pointing at my magazine as I fumble to get the earphones out of
She sits on my bed and lights a cigarette. She's bored, I can tell. She wants to talk about her trip.
"I saw your nan," she says, "when I was in Birmingham."
I was born in Birmingham; it's where Mum comes from. Usually she talks about it like it's a black hole, full of roads and factories. She told me once that when Queen Victoria went through it on the train she drew the curtains in her carriage so she didn't have to see the view.
"How come you didn't stay, then? I thought you were supposed to come back on Friday."
"Well," she pauses to drag on her cigarette "that's because I've got some news for you." She says "news" really slowly, blowing out smoke as she speaks.
"How would you feel if we were to move away from here, one day?"
"Move where?" Something's going on. "Why?"
She looks at her nails. "Well there's a possibility, just a tiny possibility, that I might get a job in Birmingham."
"Would Dad come with us?"
"I haven't discussed it with him yet. I wanted to talk to you first."
I shrug. "Sounds okay," I say. "If Dad comes with us."
She smashes her cigarette into the ashtray. "We don't need him, sweetheart," she says, quietly. "Not anymore."
When she's gone, I suck on the King Size Snickers that Dad gave me earlier. He slipped it into my schoolbag when she wasn't looking. I lick the chocolate off all the peanuts and crunch them slowly, one by one. I don't reckon we'll go to Birmingham. Mum's always full of mad schemes. Last year it was a holiday in the Caribbean. Dad even booked the tickets and everything. Then, suddenly, two weeks before, she got scared she was going to get a blood clot on the plane. She ripped up her passport and left it in bits in the kitchen.
When I've finished the Snickers, I post the wrapper down the gap between my headboard and the mattress. That's the trouble with snacking, it makes you sneaky.
Moira tells Mum that it's just a social visit. She brings some homemade shortbread, wrapped up in greaseproof paper, and Adrian, still in his sludgy-green school uniform.
Mum tries to look delighted, but I can tell from the shadow that passes across her eyes that she is terrified.
She keeps Moira on the doorstep. "Oh, you'll have to excuse me, the house is a complete mess. I was just cleaning up."
Moira is the kind of woman who sweeps into a room; who wears velvet wraps, long, expensive skirts, woollen winter coats; who doesn't take no for an answer. She sells loads of computers, especially to the kinds of women who want to seem as modern and "on the button" as Moira is herself. Dad calls her his secret weapon.
"I just wanted to see how you were getting along. Brian said you were much better." She smiles understandingly, taking a step closer toward the door. "It must have been so difficult for you."
Adrian stands behind her, drawing circles in the gravel with his trainers. He's got throbbing yellow zits on his forehead. I hide behind Mum and make faces at him.
Mum holds firm, even though Moira seems to tower over her. "I'm terribly sorry," she says, "I'm in the middle of cleaning." And she starts to shut the door.
When Moira has gone, Mum gets upset. She says it's just another tactic of Dad's, that he's spying on her. She throws the shortbread away without unwrapping it.
"I know I'm not confident like them," she says, screwing up her face. "I know that I'm a fraud."
"I'm back on form," she gasps, running into the house and bouncing a little on her feet. "I'm back on top."
It's early summer and school is just about to break up.
The Power Diet!™ is working. Mum says she's never felt so powerful in her life.
She's sweating, her face flushed. She drinks a glass of water and takes a few deep breaths. "Oh, that hill," she says. "It's a killer." She smiles at me. "You should come with me, do you good. Get a few pounds off you."
She puts Danny Rampling on the stereo and gets her cleaning things out. All the products she buys look like medicines, they all say With Bleach or Antibacterial. "Come on, Carmen," she says, shifting me off my seat. "Go and get changed and put your uniform in the wash. I want to clean this place up. It's unhygienic."
I sit in the lounge, do a few laps on Wipeout, get bored with it and switch to Colin McRae Rally instead. House music tsk-tsks under the drone of the Hoover.
"I've got a bone to pick with you." Her voice, too close, makes me jump. She switches off the PlayStation with her foot. "I found all this," she holds up a Morrison's bag, "under your bed."
She tips up the bag; wrappers skitter across the floor in a cascade of shimmering colors. Foil from KitKats, scrunched up Mars Bar wrappers, Snickers wrappers, empty Chocolate Button packets, Quality Street papers from Christmas, crisp packets folded into knob helmets like the boys at school make to flick at people, the purple Dairy Milk foil, the gold from Galaxy, a whole handful of greaseproof wrappers from penny chews, Crunchie, Twix Ice Cream, Toffee Crisp, Flake, M&M's, Fudge, even a Mars Easter egg box that I folded up so it would go through the gap.
I don't know where to look. "Dad gave me them," I say.
"Your bloody father." She blows air between her teeth, making a hissing noise. "Just because he gives them to you doesn't mean you have to eat them. No wonder you aren't losing anything. Dear God, girl, do you want to be fat and unhappy?"
"I'm not unhappy."
"Put your shoulders back then."
"But my room is private." My voice is starting to wobble. It comes out all pathetic and high-pitched; I stare into the snowstorm on the TV screen.
"Not until you pay your own rent it's not." She throws the plastic bag at me. "Pick them up," she says. "It's disgusting." She stalks out of the room. I gather the wrappers and stuff them back in the plastic bag. Some of them are really dusty. I can feel tears welling up behind my eyes, but I bite my lip. Don't cry, I think, don't cry.
copyright ©2002 by Julia Bell