This weekend I've been staying at my father's house in Bristol. We've just come back from a country walk and he's finishing off a beef stew for a Sunday afternoon meal before my boyfriend and I drive back home to Oxford. All weekend I've been struck by comparisons between now and a year ago, or five or ten. The simple loveliness of eating wonderful food (my father's something of a gastronome), drinking excellent wines, and talking and laughing all the while, has contrasted with the complications of previous times spent here .
The room my boyfriend and I have been sleeping in was my bedroom for a while, in my mid-teenage years. It was the room in which I sat crying and nauseous one Sunday evening in January 1999 as my father brought up a plate of boiled egg and veggie sausage and sat with me, trying to cajole me into eating; a Milky Way bar, too, which I ate and then felt deadly sick. I was sixteen. People at school had been alerted and I'd had to go to see the welfare woman for a ‘quiet word'. Background battles over food with my parents had at that time escalated into open warfare, and I felt their desire to save me from myself as the bitterest form of enmity.
In a diary entry from the middle of that January, I wrote: ‘I had two boiled eggs and a piece of bread for dinner, up here in my room - and then T. [my father] had to come and give me a Milky Bar, didn't he? Why does he do this to me?' And a few days later: ‘this morning was awful. T. screaming at me, telling me what a selfish bitch I am, how beastly I'm being to everyone, how he's not going to let me kill myself, he'll force me to eat if I carry on trying, if I keep behaving like this he'll chuck me out - I think he almost means it, too. So I cried a lot and then went downstairs looking like death... I feel awful, I know all that T. said is true, I am turning into a selfish bitch. I have to fight against it'.
There were horrible paradoxes that I only half saw: the accusations born of scared and worried love, the threats of throwing me out and thereby forcing me to live. I saw, mainly, that my father wanted me gone but not dead - I couldn't recognise that he wanted rid not of me but of the thing consuming me. For a while he became little more than a more or less satanic extension of the calories he came carrying. Where the cult of the Milky Way came from I'm not sure; I think it being little and light was meant to make it innocuous. But it turned into the fearful sly goblin of chocolate bars: ‘I have to spend my whole life eating, it feels like - and eating is what I hate most. I burst into tears of nausea biting into an apple earlier. And T. keeps forcing me to eat Milky Ways and he's about to bring me sausages. I can't bear it, I want to die. I don't want to think, talk, have any contact with, food, ever again'.
But no - already, then, it wasn't food itself I was set against, it was food on other people's terms. Trying to make me eat, they'd made food into foul-tasting medicine, but it still had the maddening fore- and aftertastes of what I could have made it, if I'd been allowed to have it on my own terms: ‘That's why I'm killing myself, I suppose. I've talked to S. [my mother] and T. a bit this evening - managed to eat two Quorn sausages and a Milky Way for dinner. The smell of food in this house is repulsive'.
Everything seemed to get more serious imperceptibly yet very quickly, till food affected all my interactions with my parents: ‘been a pretty crap day but I've managed again to eat two Milky Ways - but S. went out and got me a whole bag of chocolate and cake and stuff - it makes me squeamish just looking at it. It's all been put in a big forbidding tin now - I'm terrified of it'. There was nothing they could do but pounce on evidence of any glimpse of willingness to eat, replace the two bars eaten with twenty just in case I might possibly eat them. It was as if the grossest neglect of their parental duty would have been failing to provide - even though it's the excess of food all around that makes anorexia so easy to make glamorous and mythical.
My parents had separated when I was eleven, and my brother and I spent half the week with each of them. It was always much less routine-filled and orderly at my father's house, and I often dreaded the lack of predictability. One Thursday we arrived and I complained to my diary: ‘there's no Mars Bars here, no Snickers, no real parmesan, no bananas - T. doesn't care that I have these things I can eat'. I suppose I had a short list of possible foods, and assumed that everyone should know this, and make them available. This was the awful selfishness that my co-operation in their desire to see me better brought about. Perversely, I reproached them for forcing me to eat, but also for failing to provide the right things for me to eat: I'd opened my mouth to the medicine, so I should have the right to choose the flavour.
That was shortly before my seventeenth birthday, and now, ten-and-a-half years later, I've eaten roast beef and fruit crumble with my father, eaten a proper English fried breakfast and cereal, and had not a single chocolate bar or banana or boiled egg, or anything at all on my own, furtively. Before, I used to dread him inviting people round, would rage at the noise they made and the amount they drank, and hate the smell of food cooking for them that found its way up even through my resolutely closed bedroom door. I realize only now how much dread was part of life.
This time, in the kitchen, I showed my boyfriend the scales I'd used to weigh out muesli I kept in the back of a cupboard, and had been furious with my then boyfriend for finding, once, and eating some of: one in a long series of incidents that made any relationship untenable. I went up to bed with him this time thinking of the occasions, even quite recently, when I'd had to sit with the others while they ate, sipping wine perhaps, but longing for them to finish and go to bed so that I could begin my intricate sequence of drinks and of food preparations. How the stairs used to creak as I crept up and down with over-filled mugs of tea and coffee, and plates of boiled vegetables, to eat on my bed. How the floorboards creaked in the morning, too, when I'd had only a few hours' sleep and the others were getting up again. How I resented that, but felt my resentment to be mixed with guilt and sadness.
The greatest thing is how I can now chat and talk and laugh and just sit with my father. All those previous events ruined our relationship. He tried, at first, to make me get better, see sense, start eating again. As this failed, we drifted apart in a fog of mutual incomprehension and anger. Now just sharing the simplest things in life - though so beautifully done, by him, from the blue-shelled eggs to the red burgundy - makes the past not matter much any more. We can do things together now - my father says it's like having someone who disappeared long ago suddenly return, or something precious which was broken now mended. And it feels the same to me.