This morning Sarah starts a new diet. Comes into the office kitchen with a large cardboard box.
'I can have three of these ready meal drinks and two treats a day,' she says, taking the day's packets from the box and lining them up on the counter as if they're surgical instruments. She makes a big production out of it and throws her stash of crisps and Kit-Kats in the bin.
I ignore her and reach for my coffee. It's my fourth cup today and it's only just turned 9.30.
'My sister-in-law tried it and she lost 10lbs in a week.'
Sarah's obsessed with her weight. She's a bulimic. I followed her into the toilets once and heard her puking.
The coffee's cold. I lean over and pour it into the sink. My breast brushes her arm. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her grimace.
It's my day for the lunch round. We're a small department. There's a rota and we take turns to gather money and lunch orders. The management encourages it. Creates a sense of community apparently. We used to make an effort - chitchat about obscure sandwich fillings, food hates and tips on the best cafes and sandwich shops as we sat together on our lunch break. Nowadays it's a list pinned up in the office kitchen, money handed over mid telephone call, and later, lunch eaten silently at our desks heads bent behind the flimsy partitions as if they were parapets. Lately, some people have started to bring their own lunch and the sour potent odour of cuppa soups and yesterday's pasta begin wafting through the office as early as 11am. It makes me feel nauseas.
Marks and Spencer is bedlam. By the time I get there, most of the more exciting sandwiches have gone and rejected wraps and over priced fruit salads lie exhausted on the shelves. I take a selection and head for the queue. As usual, only three of the possible eight cashiers are available, and the end of the line reaches the children's clothing department. I finger a Winnie the Pooh baby-grow while I wait, trailing my finger around the soft, appliquéd honey pot. I think of Maureen from Human Resources who last month left for her extended maternity leave in a shower of baby-pink gifts and a halo of Disney balloons. She is thirty-three, only three years younger than me, and settled, with her semi, her Volvo, her man and the beginnings of 2.4 children. I feel something scrape the back of my heels and turn around to see a small, older woman with a trolley full of ready meals and cream cakes. She's staring straight ahead.
'Excuse me,' I say and wait. She looks right through me. I turn away and inch forward.
The queue has just started to move when the man in front steps back suddenly and bangs violently into my stomach. He gives me a look over his shoulder before continuing his conversation with a young, thin blonde woman who I realise has just jumped the queue. I'm outraged.
I tap him on the shoulder. His back tenses, he says something to the blonde who giggles and then turns around slowly.
He's young. Sharp suit and aftershave, hair gelled to the follicles. A city-boy.
'You just bumped into me.'
He looks me up and down as if trying to find the right words.
He turns on his heel, and that's when I hear him say it out loud.
The blonde laughs.
Sarah's been on the diet at least two weeks when she
makes the announcement.
'Somebody's nicking my diet drinks.'
She's standing in the middle of the office floor, casting accusing glances around the room. Someone makes a sarcastic quip and she storms into the toilets.
I look at my freshly drained mug and place it carefully in my drawer.
It's nearly summer by the time they notice. It's small things at first 'Have you done something new with your hair?' 'You're looking well.' 'Lovely lipstick.' I receive their offerings demurely.
It's Sarah who realises.
'You've lost weight.' She says the words as if they were glass in her mouth. I beam at her, as if she's just hit the jackpot.
I'm power walking to work one day when I see her, ten feet tall. She stops me dead with her dark, recently tousled hair, and almond eyes. With the tip of her index finger sex-kittenishly in her mouth, she's leaning over a freshly whipped bowl of chocolate cream icing. Below her plunging neckline the words 'Domestic Goddess' are printed in bold red verdana. The bus begins to carry her away just as I finish writing down the television times. I resolve to learn to programme the video and stride purposefully to work.
I don't do lunch anymore. I use the time to hunt down ingredients for recipes I learn the night before. I clear out the old packets of lentils and rice, and the unused spice box Mum gave me just before Dad died, the powders making a chaotic mandala in the bin. I replace them with vanilla pods, nutmeg and orange zest. Stack the shelves with plain, self raising, fine rye and zero-zero flour. I take my efforts in to work. Leave them in the kitchen and tell everyone to help themselves. Even Sarah can't resist.
By Autumn the novelty has worn off. There are complaints about the food being a health hazard.
'Some of us have allergies you know,' sniffs Sarah. As I reach over to take my cake tin, I tell her she looks different.
She brightens, 'Really?'
'Yeah,' I say stepping to one side, 'Have you put on a few pounds?'
Sarah's not the only one. A group of them start to go to weight watchers every Tuesday after work. I've seen them coming out of the Church Hall lighting cigarettes and heading straight into the pub across the road.
Nothing fits anymore. It's time for a complete new look. I've been cutting pictures from fashion magazines for months and know exactly what I want. I take the day off to shop. I've been waiting ten minutes for the bus into town when I feel a pang of hunger. I'm still being good so I decide to go to the greengrocer opposite. It's a small shop but full of fruit and vegetables from around the world. It reminds me of the Indian shop I'd go to with Mum when I was little. While she was busy squeezing the fruit and sizing up the vegetables, I'd go and watch the old Pakistani men chopping up lamb in the halal section. Completely fascinated, until the smell became overpowering and I'd go back to Mum. But she'd be deep in conversation. Her voice high and animated, the Punjabi tumbling out as if she hadn't spoken in months. Later, she would cook the vegetables silently, and then place them on the table, nudging me with her elbow. 'Go on, eat.'
I'm not sure what I fancy. I look at the apples, take a Braeburn in my hand and hold it for a second, considering it's weight.
'Are you having that?' A rude voice interrupts.
I put the apple back and walk out of the shop. As I cross the road I tell myself that it's going to take much more than an apple to fill me up.
When I see him again, I'm prepared. I've re-applied lipstick, tousled my hair, and undone a button. I approach the queue and drop the sandwich I'm holding at my feet. As I start to bend down I hear him say, 'Allow me'. I flash him a smile. He stoops down. I smell the same pungent aftershave and notice that he has dandruff and that the hair-gel has stuck the flakes to his crown. I thank him and he makes room for me in the queue. By the time we reach the cashier I've agreed to meet him for a drink.
He says he finds me intriguing. I keep it light and play hard to get. By the end of the month I'm seeing him two or three times a week. We go to bars, cinemas, concerts - and I always insist on dinner. He says I'm a 'classy chick.' I pick the finest restaurants and order rich, extravagant dishes for him. I love to watch him eat. He's beginning to get a taste for it. I invite him to my place for dinner.
He arrives early, with wine and supermarket flowers. As I greet him I notice that he's changed his aftershave. It's sickly sweet and quickly settles over my studio flat. I sit him on the sofa with bottle, corkscrew and glasses. I light incense and switch on the CD player, let the sandalwood and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan re-orientate the room. 'Dinners almost ready,' I tell him as I go through into the kitchen area. I check the lamb in the oven, the sweet aroma of cinnamon and coriander wafts out. I'm trying a Middle Eastern recipe, a casserole. As I spoon the rice into the serving dish, I watch him drinking wine and looking around the sitting room. He picks up a photograph.
'Is that your Mum? He asks pointing at a figure. 'She's…what do they call it? 'Big boned', that's it.'
I glance at the picture. It's one of me and my Uncle Sunny in Pakistan, I'm dressed in an orange shalwar kameez. I love that picture, you can see the mountain peaks in the distance.
'No,' I say watching his face carefully, 'That's me.'
His bottom lip drops slightly and he looks at the picture again.
'You must've really loved your food then,' he grins sheepishly.
I take the knife and start to chop the chives.
'Hey can you do the things that chefs do with their knives?' He gestures a small, swift chopping motion.
I oblige, although the chives are already fine, and sprinkle them over the rice as a garnish.
We sit at my small kitchen table. The candle is close to his face, but he doesn't notice.
I inhale the aroma of the food I've set before us.
'Did you know that in Pakistan they fatten their lambs with wild herbs, so that they taste sweet when cooked?' I ask as I pour the red wine.
'Yeah?' he says without interest.
Something in the kitchen glints and catches my eye. My freshly sharpened knives shine in the candlelight. I lean over and place a large serving on his plate.
'Go on…,' I say licking my lips, 'Eat.'
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