By Alice Stride
There is a woman standing on the street. She has two arms, two legs, the correct number of fingers and toes, knees, elbows, eyes, ears, a nose, teeth and all the bits inbetween. She is looking in a shop window, and her face is full of melancholy.
I’ll say that she is plump, with coiffed blonde hair, and she wears good leather shoes and carries a designer handbag. Chanel? What about Hermès, a Birkin? Too expensive. Mulberry is the one: classic, British and stoic – quite like the lady herself. That’s what she thought when she handed over her credit card – this Mulberry bag reflects who I am. I think she wonders sometimes, though, if the tasteful brown leather really is her, for how can ‘tasteful brown leather’ tell her story, the story of –
Susan? Jane? No. Anna, Louise? No. What about Margaret? Maggie to her friends and family, Magpie to her husband because she likes a diamond ring or five. This is his only joke, which is why he says it at every single party they go to, and why he has the nickname ‘Boring Brian’.
As the years have passed, Margaret’s body has been taken over by aliens. She hacks the labels off her clothes and hides sausage rolls in the garage so Brian doesn’t see her eat them. Her marshmallow-blub unleashed her vanity on pricey accessories (she knows deep down that the Mulberry bag doesn’t ‘reflect’ her; she bought it because she is too piggish for pretty dresses). She swaddles herself with the comfort that she can carry her handbag, even though she is fat. Very, very fat – obese, actually – and she always wants to eat. Last week, when she was at her friend Julie’s, there was a packet of frozen peas on the table; she grabbed a handful and hurriedly threw them down her throat. She knew Julie wouldn’t say anything. She needs to lose a stone herself, though she’s not so enormous that she’s verging on diabetes like Maggie – I mean, Margaret. Their bi-weekly ritual (often tri-weekly) is to drink a bottle of red wine, a few gin and tonics, and discuss how to lose weight. They’ll have a takeaway curry to wash it all down, followed by a box of Milk Tray. “It’s all about discipline, but not denial,” says Julie through a mouthful of masala, and Margaret nods as she attacks her Bombay potatoes.
What sort of shop is Margaret looking into? A cake shop? Yes – she could be staring into the window of a lovely little patisserie, lusting over voluptuous meringues and mounds of soft buttercream and feeling her gargantuan thighs tingle as she wonders what the chocolate ganache will feel like as it lazily oozes into her gaping mouth, and as she stares she starts to sweat as she –
No. I’m not happy with that. We’ll write her off as the big fat blonde who puts too much in her mouth. Lazy, we’ll call her, lazyand disgusting and lacking in self-control. I do not think that’s right for Margaret; there is more to her than cake. We know that her face is full of melancholy as that is the fact we were given at the start, and this face does not match the face of perspiring cake-induced greed. What then, is the shop-window she peers into that makes her look so sad?
A clothes shop? Possibly – she may be mourning her once admired waist, now drowning under layers of greying putty flesh, and remembering how she and her husband used to fuck like beasts before he became boring and she started fucking food instead, swapping coital for chocolate and pretending to be asleep when his hand snaked across her burgeoning stomach.
Maybe if I wasn’t fat, she could muse, he wouldn’t have slept with his secretary.
A-ha! That’s it! Brian, tired of her ‘headaches’, has an affair, so Margaret gets fatter and fatter until she’s almost spherical. She eats because he cheats, the dirty little bastard. Really, it’s all about self-esteem. Poor hefty heifer Margaret needs to work on her self-esteem, that’s all. Just a simple bit of work on her self-esteem, we’ll say, smugly and gently and with the air of those in the know. We do wonder, though, how Brian managed to bed a 25 year-old as he’s so chronically dull. Then again, we’ll whisper over soya cappuccinos, he is wealthy.
In a few years time the 25 year-old gets bored and Brian realises the errors of his ways. Margaret drops a stone or two (she doesn’t keep it off for long), and they’ll resume an intermittent sex life. It won’t be passionate; Margaret usually feels like a big empty vessel into which Brian grunts his way to an orgasm that has all the eroticism of a dishcloth. But, she’s thrilled to once again be the chosen sperm-depository, so lies back and stays quiet. The marriage will continue in impassive fashion until he drops dead from a heart-attack at the age of 70. Margaret dies at 85, and is buried in an extra-large coffin. She is now figured out, and thus we can resume our thinner and more important lives. Occasionally, we’ll call to tell her that there is a simplyfantastic feature on ‘Building Confidence: The Way to a Better You’ in ‘Convenient Theories’ magazine – and she simply mustread it. It’ll be such a help, we say, as warmly as we can muster before dashing off to the gym.
We don’t know it all, though, and what we don’t know is this:
Margaret has been having a recurring dream that deeply disturbs her. She is embarrassed to talk about it, because everyone knows that listening to someone talk about their dreams makes you want to eat your own ear. She mentioned it once to Brian, and he turned up the television. It was Top Gear night, and “you know how I feel about Top Gear, Magpie.”
The dream is this:
Maggie is standing on a pebbled beach. The sea is slate-grey and the sky an insipid shade of pale pink, the pink of baby clothes for girls and cheap roséwine. She knows that she is in the presence of God, whatever that may be – but as something of a nihilist she doesn’t quite believe it. It’s a terribly odd sensation, to dream and to sense that God is there, but to know that you do not believe God and tell yourself so in the dream, so that you wake up muttering, “I do not believe in the existence of God”, to which your husband says, “ShutupgobacktosleepMagpie.”
She stands still for a long time, watching the sea slosh and the sky fade into darkness, and just when she thinks it’s time to go home she sees Carmel walking towards her across the water. The biblical overtones of this amuse her. She knows that the Christians are trying to get her on side.
Carmel is Maggie’s mother. She insisted Maggie call her that because ‘Mum’ made her feel old. As Carmel draws closer, Maggie remembers why she doesn’t believe, and says it to herself over and over: “I do not believe in the existence of God.”
If God existed, Maggie would not be having this dream. He wouldn’t have let Carmel die when Maggie was fourteen, ravaging her with a slow and terrible death, stewing her in that wrung-out body as the cancer wormed its way in. He wouldn’t have left Maggie with a father who didn’t notice when she ran off at 16 with a punk-rocker boyfriend (who subsequently ran off with a dancer and broke her heart). He wouldn’t have let her vanquish her dreams and marry a man with the charisma of a Tupperware box. And, He wouldn’t have let her get so fat. Maggie has, therefore, spent much of her life thinking, “Why me?”
This question is the narcissistic problem of evil. Maggie mistakes the ache of grief for the ache of hunger, and she fails to see that evil is everywhere and not just happening to her. The problem of evil is, really, why is there so much of it in this world? But Maggie does not think of this. Instead, she gorges on self-pity, along with cheese, bread and ice-cream. This is her greatest flaw.
The thing she hates most about the dream is that her mother is younger than her. Death kills the aging process, “the best thing about it”, Carmel said, pale and wan in hospital. “I’ll never have to know what I’ll look like at fifty.” The teenage Maggie didn’t understand what she meant. She does now, at fifty-two, especially as her mother is more beautiful than her. Maggie isn’t ugly, sure – but Carmel was exquisite, like a dark-haired Julie Christie. Nine-year old Maggie had once heard her say at a dinner party when she was hiding under the table, “My genes and Margaret’s father’s genes didn’t mesh well.”
Carmel did not want another child after Maggie because she couldn’t bear to get big again. She is ashamed of how her daughter looks now, and has told her so in the dream. Carmel had an affair with Maggie’s Latin teacher, the talk of the town until she got sick. Maggie’s father acted like the ‘mishap’, as he called it, had never happened. The Latin teacher came to the funeral, and Maggie saw them talking over soggy tuna sandwiches and noticed how her father’s face sagged, and suddenly realised that her mother was a bitch. She has forgiven her since then, but the thought had never gone away. It is an odd thing, to realise as a child that your parent is human. Maggie and I agree that they should be infallible until you’re at least 21. This is what she was thinking as she stared into the window of the beauty salon, gazing at the prices of facials and fake-tans and wondering if they would make her a better person.
Carmel moves across the shore until they are face to face, aged 52 and 40. Maggie waits for the harsh reproach, the reminder that “slim is a state of mind” and to “imagine what people must think of you as you wobble down the street.” Her words wake Maggie up in the morning filled with a hot red shame that sends her straight to the fridge for bacon and black-pudding.
This time, though, Carmel can see that her daughter is reaching the edge. It is her job to claw her back from the abyss. She knows this, despite the fact that she hasn’t a maternal bone in her size 6 body.
She takes Maggie’s hand in hers – and it feels so real that Maggie wants to scream, and says:
“Death is quite alright, Margaret.”
And then she turns, and walks gracefully into the sea, and now Maggie moves after her. Her heavy body feels as light as spun sugar, and she knows that when the sea closes over her she will be gone. This seems better to her than staying in the life she is in now, in which she is pitied by her friends, fucked by her unfeeling husband, loathed by herself and loved only by food. And, she thinks as the waves draw her in, it might so happen that God does exist, and she’d probably get to heaven, where all the food is calorie-free.
In the morning, Brian finds Maggie in the bath, submerged in tepid water. He pulls her out and sees a scar on her left breast that he had forgotten was there. She is weightless. He shakes as he wraps her in a towel and calls for help.
The cause of death is “accidental drowning”, because suicide is a dirty word and everyone agrees that Maggie had no reason whatsoever to take her own life. At the wake, soggy tuna sandwiches are served. The thin friends pick at the filling and discard the bread. Julie weeps over the scotch eggs and bakes extravagant chocolate cake for the occasion. “It’s what she would have wanted,” she sobs, and ends up eating most of it herself.
The secretary comes to pay her respects (though she never takes off her dark glasses). She’d seen her in town a few times, and noticed that despite her gigantic body she was quite an attractive woman, and wondered why she looked so sad. She comes because she’s still fond of dull-but-rich old Brian, and she knows that he loved his wife. He cried to her about Maggie’s sadness after they’d been to bed at her flat, and said he didn’t know how to make his Magpie smile anymore.