Rochdalefair; Dad was doing a show there with his pet food company, and he asked me if I’d like to come with a friend. I didn’t feel like doing anything; I felt so weak and spaced out all of the time and if I could allow myself, all I really wanted to do was sleep but sleep used up valuable calorie burning time, and anyway I had so much trouble sleeping that there’d be no point trying to nap during the day. So I tried to force myself to appear interested in taking part in things other teenagers my age loved doing: shopping for clothes, looking at boys, going to fairs; I thought it might be a step towards possibly being normal again. Maybe if I acted enough, it’d become real. I tried to do everything I used to do as a little girl, when I was carefree and spontaneous, and imagined myself being excited about going to a fair with a friend, the most natural thing in the world. I promised Mum I would have a burger for lunch, and plastered a grin on my face to try and kid her into thinking I was fine and able to have a good time. I put on my jogging pants that I’ve had since I was ten, and my bright red jumper. I would have been thrilled to fit into these trousers three months ago, but as I looked myself up and down in the mirror, one word came to mind: babyish. I looked pathetic, with my seemingly huge feet, scraggy hair and stupid bright clothes, which just seemed to highlight my dullness. The day hadn’t even begun but I already felt exhausted. I looked outside; rain. Cold, dark grey day.
What would I have done as a kid? Said I didn’t feel like going, stayed snug as a bug all day in the house, watching films and drawing cartoon strips, and had a thoroughly nice time. Maybe I would have gone swimming with Aisha and Vic without thinking about calories, and had a big juicy burger with melted cheese afterwards.
But I had programmed my day: I was going to the fair with Michelle, and I’d planned what time I was going to have my lunch, where I’d buy it from, how much I’d walk around afterwards, and exactly what time I was coming home. No question of spontaneously changing my mind at the last minute.
We went to collect Michelle before driving over to Rochdale, and I listened to her chattering away about school and people we used to go to junior school together with, but her words washed over me, seeming like a background noise as the familiar terror washed over me: calorie intake against calorie burning, basal metabolic rate, fat content, would I be able to bring myself to eat a burger for lunch? I kept dragging myself back to the conversation in the car; realising I hadn’t been listening to her and hating myself not listening to her; I’m sure she knew from the way I was so distracted, that I was miles away and couldn’t make myself care, no matter how hard I tried. We got to the fair and Michelle led me round the stalls; I wasn’t interested in anything – what was the point in buying anything? All I could think about was The Burger. I put on my best show, picking things up without seeing them just to act the part. We came to a tent where you could have your picture taken with a gigantic python.
Normally I knew I would be beside myself with glee in the presence of such a wonderful creepy-crawly as Mum called them, but even the sight of a huge snake couldn’t rouse my attention past mild interest. This place felt like Hell. It was cold, wet, grey, stank of frying onions and donuts which made my stomach twist and contract painfully (“Down boy!” I absurdly felt like shouting at the ravenous and hateful monster who lived in there, roaring to be fed), and was full of people who were oblivious to my anguish…why wouldn’t they be? I wondered if there was a scientific formula that meant they Had Fun and I didn’t; I wanted to ask them how they did it, what the point of it all was. Every smile I forced on cue made my face ache. At half past eleven I told Michelle I suddenly realised I was starving hungry (this was the earliest acceptable time I thought we could have lunch at; I’d been thinking about the dreaded moment all morning), and did she fancy a…hmm let’s see…a burger? She reluctantly agreed, and began to head for the hotdog stand where all the rancid frying smells were coming from. I panicked. I hadn’t prepared for this. These burgers weren’t of a standard size, they were unchartered territory; their teacakes were four times the size of Mc Donald’s burgers and who knows what they slathered carelessly on them: butter, mayonnaise…I felt faint with panic as Michelle joined the queue and I strained to get a look at the food sizzling on the hot griddles, and I think I might have actually turned white as I saw sausages, huge low quality fatty burgers frying next to bacon , the grease leaking out onto each other, spitting onto the onions frying next to them. There was a pile of baps ready split and buttered waiting to receive their fat laden fillings, each with a thick layer of butter already spread on. They made me think of dirty nappies; there was no way I was going to eat this poison. I turned to Michelle. “I don’t like the look of these burgers…it doesn’t look very hygienic here. Don’t you fancy a Mc Donald’s instead? I’m sure there’s one just over the road…” She looked doubtful. “Mc Donald’s burgers are small compared to these ones…” That’s exactly the point! I wanted to scream, but eventually she gave in and I said I was sure here was one nearby.
It took us nearly an hour to find the Mc Donald’s; without umbrellas, trudging through the pouring rain. Michelle said she was sick of walking around in the wet, that it was stupid, and that it made much more sense to get some food from one of the many hot dog stalls or kebab shops dotted around the streets, but I pretended not to hear her and carried on my desperate search: I had to have a Mc Donald’s burger. I’d done my research that morning in my calorie book that I keep under my bed and knew exactly what was in it. A plain burger with nothing on contains 249 calories and 7.5 grams of fat, and that’s what I was having. We finally found Mc Donald’s and I felt elated: there I was, an anorexic in Mc Donald’s, ordering food, showing the world I was fine, keeping my promise. I ordered my burger and a bottle of water (I didn’t drink diet coke as it had one calorie per litre, and in any case, it tasted sweet), and Michelle ordered a double cheeseburger (421 cals), large fries (400 cals), and large coke (220 cals). We went and sat in a corner of the busy restaurant, and I opened my burger box. I felt cheated. I had imagined it looking huge and juicy, but there it was, my burger that I’d been terrified of all morning, tiny, forlorn and shrivelled in its cardboard wrapping. I took a tiny bite out of it, trying not to look longingly at Michelle’s wickedly delicious looking fat filled feast. The burger was dry, and didn’t taste daring at all. Michelle said between mouthfuls, “You’re going to have to eat more than that if you want to put on weight; look what I’m eating and I don’t even want to gain weight! Do you want some of mine?” I jumped as though stung.
So that was lunch over and done with, and I left Mc Donald’s before the hideous temptation to buy everything on the menu got the better of me. The rest of the fair went by in a miserable blur; I just wanted the day to come to an end.
I’d persuaded Mum to let me cook dinner that night, as she thought it’d be “therapeutic” for me to cook something we would all eat as a family. I pored for hours over recipes, finally settling on “honey glazed chilli lime prawns with coriander, cherry tomatoes and pasta.” Sounded healthy, and I excitedly got all the ingredients together. In the article it said there were 630 calories per portion, but I bet I could get it down to 400. I switched the pasta to wholemeal, ditched the honey (it wasn’t essential after all) and olive oil (you could cook food just as well by poaching it). So instead of frying the garlic, prawns and tomatoes, I poached them. When Mum put her head round the kitchen door (spying on me) to “see how I was doing,” she said I needed to use a drizzle (horrible word, rhymed with grizzle. I also hated the words portion: porpoise; spread (as in butter): spreading thighs; meal: squeal and marge (as in margarine): lard or large) of olive oil. I snapped back that I had, and told her to get out of the kitchen. I was determined everyone should have exactly the right amount, so I counted out the prawns one by one, and then did the same with the pasta shells. As we sat down to our meal, Dad went to the kitchen to get some olive oil to pour on his, and Mum took some to, saying it was lovely, just a little dry for their liking. I loved having control over our food: I didn’t mind eating when I knew exactly what’s gone in the dish.
I spent the last remaining days of the holidays with my Mum. I couldn’t trust myself to be alone at home; as I knew I’d just go out and exercise all day, so I hung around her shop in town. I wandered round the streets looking at all the clothes I would buy when I was better and telling people I met that yes, I was ill, yes I accepted it and yes I was on the road to recovery before they could ask; whilst all the time wondering whether I believed in what I was saying. I walked up the high street, and went into a charity shop. I rooted through the moth bitten polyester shirts and came across a gorgeous bright purple crushed velvet dress, a size twelve. It was a real woman’s dress, with a plunging neckline and fitted waistline. I’d love to be the sort of girl who could wear a dress like this, and on impulse, I bought it for two pounds. I took it back to the shop to show Mum and she said, “Oh Catherine, what’s the point in buying clothes now when you’ve no idea what size you’re going to be?”
Well I’m not going to be more than a twelve that’s for sure! I wanted to be a perfect ten.