I've just got back from a weekend away with my boyfriend. I've had a cup of tea and some of the chocolate brownie we brought back with us from a friend's. I was just struck, as I still keep being, by how delightful the ‘normal life' that I'm returning to feels. The hour-to-hour practicalities of existence are so much easier - gentler, more forgiving - than they were when food had to wait till dawn, and sleep then till later still.
In the ten years that I was ill with anorexia, I wrote two substantial records of my experiences of it: after I'd finished my first degree, I spent a whole summer shut up in my bedroom at my mother's house, obsessively writing a dense 300,000-word autobiographical account of my life, using my diaries as the raw material. I went back as far as 1998, age sixteen: that was the point at which the story of the illness had its most obvious beginning. Then, two summers ago, I had an idea for a piece of fiction which would be based on the time I spent living on a narrowboat whilst writing my doctorate in Oxford. This, however, would be a story in which events would take a more fantastical turn than in real life.
The heroine of the novella ‘got better'; that is, she started to eat again - but in so doing her life seemed to lose its purpose. At the time, I couldn't see that there could be any way of getting through a whole day, let alone a whole life, if one didn't have the eating at the end of it all, to look forward to. The heroine's ending was ambiguous but basically bleak; it was nothing like my ‘ending' has been: a clichéd but thrilling new beginning.
A literary agent rejected the novella on the grounds that it was too alienating: how could anyone possibly empathise with a weird solitary girl who cut her lettuce up into very small pieces and who couldn't even concentrate when she was having a chat over coffee with someone because she'd be trying to judge precisely when and how quickly to sip her cappuccino, and calculating how she'd compensate for the calories later on? How could a reader feel empathy, let alone sympathy, with a fellow human being if this creature had nothing much of the liveliness and agreeableness that comes from having energy? What would make one carry on reading about the girl if there was little hint of a happy former life, nor even much of an attempt to tell the story of her illness with a proper neat beginning?
The unnamed girl of my novella was never quite me, but she was much more similar to me two years ago than she is to me now. I can't see her as an alien, though, despite my now being so much better: she's just taken to its logical conclusion the same fear that I see now in other people, in milder forms. Whether you sometimes check the calorie count on the back of packets, or worry when you've missed a gym session, or wish you could still get into the jeans you used to love, or buy low-fat yoghurt - whether you read up on nutritional theory or just panic vaguely when you've had too much ice cream for pudding - there is anxiety there, there is a sense of being slightly out of control. The anorexic sees these people and sees weakness, sees hypocrisy and the failure to act consistently: she or he, by contrast, takes this feeling of fear and decides to deal with it, and controls food, drink, and exercise more or less perfectly, and can then feel more or less contented, and safe. When anything at all goes ‘wrong', though, and ‘control' is forsaken for an instant, everything threatens instantly to crumble.
So, this is the beginning of the story I wrote about a girl who was forced to see through that illusory web of thread-like little mechanisms of control which had become her life:
‘The cat sat poised on the gunwale in the evening sun, her spare frame outlined black against the glinting gold water. She moved and miaowed at her owner's approach. The girl tied up her sleek black bicycle, lifted off a pannier full of books and another of food, passed between sentinel blueberry bushes on to the landing stage and down on to the boat, which moved gently, fenders squeaking, under her weight, her hands too full for a cursory stroke, cursing the clumsiness of digging out keys, finding the right one, unlocking the padlock, unbolting the bolts, sharing the narrow entrance with the cat, putting panniers on the sofa - the mess of it all. Her gaze glanced off the clock, her hand to the radio, eternal haste. A cleverly scripted conversation was already in full flow: she'd missed the first minute or two; always this daily pleasure she tried to make more special and ended up spoiling, through the haste of returning just in time, not quite in time.
She swapped black ankle boots for pink slippers, and wrapped a kimono-like dressing gown round herself. She got out her two favourite knives - the bread knife with the soft worn wooden handle, the steel knife with the most elegant lines. The chopping board in line with the edge of the hob. All the while her mind fixed half on the radio, the unfolding of the evening's fifteen-minute serialized farming dramas; half on all this, here. She fetched margarine and vegetables from the fridge, bread from the chaotically ordered cupboard, tightly wrapped in its own wrapper and an extra plastic bag that protected it from air and somehow negated its existence, neutralizing it for the 23½ hours of the day it sat in the cupboard not being eaten.
She began to make her food. She began always by weighing out the bread: 150g. How long had it taken for the amount to settle upon that figure - how many years since she had made that first crucial shift from just judging by eye - or by stomach, even: by appetite? - to curiously checking sometimes with the scales to see how much she tended to have? She remembered how she had looked up, once, in a little book of calorie-contents, how many bread was meant to contain; she had idly calculated how many she was getting. She no longer had slices of bread, either, but a varied array of slivers and fragments and one huge chunk, in a pattern on the blue-spiralled plate congealed now into necessity. Much the same thing had happened with the margarine: moving from spreading butter as one does, coating the bread in an unctuous, non-specific layer, to finding lower-fat spreads instead, and measuring the amount, to needing this very-lowest-fat variety, and not spreading it any more, but scraping it with minimal effect over all but one corner of the thick piece of bread, where she'd heap a huge lump of it, so as to make her last mouthful a dense fleetingly totally satisfying mouth-quite-full of starch and fat. And perfected with salt. Now she ground salt and pepper over the ‘buttered' bread, never able to try very hard to restrict the time she turned and turned the glass handle of the salt mill, covering the plate in whitish crystals; the pepper more a vestige of convention. She rushed outside, straining not to miss too much of the radio, to the herb pots on the landing stage, to pick half a dozen tall strands of chive to place on top as a final adornment. Then she boiled water in a pan for celery and cabbage, opening the door to let the scented steam out; hoping her neighbour wouldn't be there, either to disturb or to be disturbed. And as they cooked, the lettuce. Precise here-and-now lettuce-weighing; with mental images of farmyards permeating it, completing not intruding. She paid concerted but ever more automatic attention to the leaves she cut from the dense half iceberg-globe, part of the whole orchestration of other smooth movements: turning, turning the tap, filling a saucepan, cutting cabbage, lighting gas, spreading margarine, sprinkling dried herbs, rinsing hands, draining out water, positioning on plate, grinding pepper and salt, wiping the surface, standing back a minute, judging, checking, looking up: a gradually choreographed -
- Oh, Ebony, Ebony, for God's sake, what is it with you today? Will you please shut up, get out the way - you really can't be so desperately hungry you can't wait another few f***ing minutes till I'm finished with this, can you? You know you'll only be hungry too early in the morning if I feed you now - just 'cos I'm making my food now doesn't mean you need magically to start needing yours, does it? I don't start bawling as soon as I start getting hungry, do I? Haven't you ever heard of self-restraint?
There would be no peace now till the cat was fed. Sometimes the miaowing was soft and pitifully plaintive; sometimes - this evening - it was tinged with shrill mania. It came again and again until she too wanted to scream; did scream, swear:
- Oh, just shut the f*** up, Ebony. Can't you see I'm feeding you now - can't you just wait? Can't you just see you'll get it quicker if you just let me...
She suspended just above cat-head-height the remaining 1/6 of a tin of fishy jelly-encased meat, chopped up in the little white ceramic dish, sprinkled with brown fish-shaped biscuits, just for a moment till the cat stood up and begged for it, though ever more feebly these days; then she set the dish down on its plastic mat on the floor at the end of the work surface, by the matching white dish of water. The cat lowered her head and ate, ate, chewed too quickly, didn't look up. The girl hovered a minute watching her, marvelling at her. She wondered: wasn't Ebony really much much thinner these days, quite suddenly; angular where she had been lissome? But she was eating so much more - clamouring so much that she gave her often almost half a tin every day now instead of a third; why was she always hungry, why then ever thinner? She did throw up sometimes, but not often.
She shivered. She had closed the door again now; but she was always cold these days. And especially now that the nights were getting so swiftly so much shorter she dreaded the winter: the engulfing blackness that was the prospect of never being really warm again till spring. She pulled her dressing gown tighter over her jumper, retied the belt; she knew she herself had been getting thinner too; though not by eating more... She wondered: Ebony wasn't somehow - copying her, was she? Or somehow affected by her own actions so that she might - waste away in sympathy? No, that was stupid; that simple hungry unheeding eating - what did that have to do with any weird human habits. She might be warmer in her night things. Cosier, anyway, less constricted. White silk nightie and purple fur-collared cardigan replaced skinny jeans and jacket, and with thick socks and dressing gown back on she felt the deep relief of the soft looseness of these wrappings: the feel of them meant another part of the day truly over.
The food sat at the end of the kitchen counter, neat on the clean surface, put aside for later.