8 1/2 Stone - an extract
I'm a sponge
8 1/2 Stone - an extract
I'm a sponge
I have one last try to thin myself manually. Months ago, Izzy had sent me an email asking whether I wanted to do the Camberwell 10k with her in aid of Cancer Research. I said yes, after first asking whether or not it was hilly, thinking if I increased from a puffy crawl to a walk to a brisk walk to a jog in increments of five steps a day I’d be ready by then. Problem is, I forgot all about it.
And then, yesterday, she warned me it’s tomorrow. Oh Jesus Christ. I have no idea where my trainers are. Or my sports bra. Or my black leggings. Oh, there they are, at the bottom of the laundry basket. Oh dear, they still have a pair of knickers attached from when I last peeled them off after an ill-fated egg and spoon.
I meet her at the start, just near the green. There are far more women than men milling around in jazzy leggings and tight crop tops, sucking on water bottles like lambs on the teat. I haven’t brought any water as I hadn’t planned on putting on that much speed; also I may hail a taxi halfway round. I have a sweatshirt knotted round my middle, to hide various parts of my anatomy I don’t want people watching jogging up and down. I know it’s supposed to be a fun run, but I don’t want to encourage quite that level of hilarity.
While Izzy fetches our numbers, I watch everyone getting ready, chatting, having their calves massaged. The women are all shapes, ages and sizes, when I had thought everyone would resemble Dame Kelly Holmes. It’s quite a touching scene, really, so strangely moving that I feel a bit tearful. Every single woman is trying to improve herself. They are all doing their best. For a man, probably. Never mind the gender pay gap, upskirting, the glass ceiling and the loudly ticking biological clock. My belief is the way men and women prepare for dates is the biggest obstacle (oh dear God, there won’t be jumps, will there? This isn’t like the cross-country run at Brentwood High, is it, when I refused the water jump, like a donkey faced with Becher’s Brook at the Grand National?) we face in the fight for equality.
Take Izzy, who has a hot date planned for tomorrow night: she has had her roots retouched, has read the man’s latest book so she can chat to him about it, measured the distance between her house and his chosen venue using a little wheelie thing to see if it’s doable in heels, changed her sheets, bought a new dress and underwear and now she is about to huff and puff over the course of six miles while holding onto her breasts (‘Too expensive to risk too much movement’) to make up for the fact she will doubtless have to eat dinner with him so he doesn’t think her high-maintenance and odd.
Men, on the other hand, are not here to impress women. They are here to beat other men, or themselves, given the number of times they glance at their Apple watches and press little buttons. They are not getting fit or trying to lose weight for us.
We set off. It’s fine. This is easy! I don’t know why people make so much fuss! I think from now on I will go for a run at 6 a.m. every day before coming back home for a green smoothie! Who needs an expensive operation when I can run for free! Izzy is clasping onto both breasts. I tell her she should be more worried about her face dropping, which is apparently what happens if women run too much; maybe there is some sort of sling she can wear on her head.
‘Don’t make me laugh,’ she says. ‘I will wet myself. Anyway, it’s not my face I’m worried about, it’s my arse!’ As she, as well as the entire entry, is now in front of me, I take a good look at it. It is perfectly spherical. Exactly the right size, whatever the right size is. She is worried about getting an ‘African bum’, as she calls it, just like her mum’s.
I’m a bit hot now. I know my face is fluorescent pink, I can just feel it. I wonder how much further. I wish I had brought water. I have to unwrap the sweatshirt and carry it in a small bundle. I have just been overtaken by two army cadets, who are walking. There are snails who are faster than me. There are straggled lines of onlookers, clapping, cheering us on. When I run (who am I kidding? When I shuffle) past them, one woman says, ‘Are you alright, love?’
‘Yes,’ I hiss, not wanting to waste oxygen. ‘Bit of a tight Achilles.’
A small boy actually laughs.
I give up. I stop and lean my hands on my knees. I spy an M&S in the distance, shimmering like a mirage. I wonder if I can just pop in there, get a bottle of water. Lucozade. A sausage roll. An Uber electric bike. My nipples are sore.
I do complete the fun run, though it wasn’t fun, and more of a walk really. I am dripping with sweat. As I near the end, the clapping and cheering spurs me on a bit, so I do cross the finish line and take delivery of my T-shirt and medal to prove I did it. But I cannot imagine ever doing it again. Izzy is waiting, camera poised to take a photo. She hands me a bottle of water. I look for somewhere to sit down. I really want an ice cream. This is too hard. This will take years.
The next day, I get a text. ‘Hi, Pamela. Thank you for completing the Camberwell 10k run. Your position is 2,250th, your personal time is 02.23.25, your gun time is 02.23.36. Please send monies raised to ...’
I’m given the details of a bank account. Oh dear. I was so busy navel-gazing – literally – I forgot to raise any money!
And so it is that I am all alone in the small, pristine hospital room. I’m sat on the bed, in a gown that is rather worryingly open at the back; I can actually feel the Gulf Stream. I’ve had nothing to eat since last night, so am starving. I had to break it to Neps I was having surgery, as I think he might have noticed my absence for at least a week, if not two. I lied about how much it was going to cost: told him it was a freebie. Once I wake up tomorrow, the plan is for him to come and collect me in a taxi so I can recuperate at home and be fed pineapple juice (helps reduce swelling holistically) via a straw. I’ve been told I won’t be able to drive, or lift anything, or sneeze, or put things in washing machines for four weeks. It will be like a little holiday, surely?
And here’s the thing. Neps wasn’t even that concerned when I gravely broke the news to him. He didn’t try to talk me out of it. He didn’t say, well, you don’t need surgery, you are lovely just as you are. He merely wondered if I could possibly line up a week’s worth of packed lunches for the twins in the fridge and could he borrow my phone charger.
And here’s another thing: he didn’t even bring me here. I had to take an Uber. ‘It’s not as if you’re ill,’ he said. ‘This is your choice. Don’t rope me into your self-obsessed paranoia.’
Charming. I could have said, well, it’s not my choice when it came to who my parents were. It’s not my choice that we happened to have twins, which was as much your fault as mine. (Everyone assumes we used IVF, and a turkey baster, but that is absolutely not the case. It turns out twins run in his family, something he had failed to point out before he impregnated me; if I’d known, I’d have beaten him off with a wooden spoon.) It is not my choice to be this unhappy, this abnormal. At least I am trying to do something about the way I look and about my health. Get promoted, perhaps. And do something about my ability to be a good wife to him. To make him happy and proud. And aroused.
There is a soft knock on the door. Ooh, drugs.
It turns out to be a young man, sent by the surgeon’s PR, who is going to take before and after photos. This isthe price I have to pay for getting such a huge discount. The photos will be posted on the surgeon’s website, along with my diary of my surgery. I’d glossed over the fact this was happening, hoping, as I usually do, that everyone would forget about it and it would never, ever happen. But no. Here he is. A bearded hipster in combat gear. I feel moved to ask, ‘Where’s the war?’
‘So,’ he says, ‘I think I met your husband once, at a party.’
‘Oh, really?’ I can tell he is not in the least bit interested in me and that his true ambition in life is to photograph Bella Hadid naked. He hasn’t even learned my name. ‘Do you want to take the photo now?’ I ask him, hoping that then he will go.
‘No rush. Maybe I could order something to drink?’ ‘It’s not a hotel.’
‘No, but it is private, isn’t it?’
It turns out he needs a photo of my Before Stomach, front, side and back, with me just wearing my pants. ‘I can cut your head off,’ he says helpfully. He will return in a couple of months to take the After Stomach; if the desired effect isn’t good enough, he says, failing to be very encouraging at all, he can ‘always airbrush’ me.
Just as I am taking my robe off and sliding from the table, like lava down Mount Etna, Jasmine enters. The weather changes when Jasmine enters a room: the sun shines, birds sing, flower buds unfurl, salmon leap, meerkats sit up straight. The photographer perks up. Jasmine immediately susses the situation and tells him, Hattie Jacques-fashion, ‘You will have to be quick! We are going to take the lift down to the operating
‘I’ll come with you,’ he says.
I am pretty fed up, to be honest, always being the least attractive person in the room. Other people are never scared of you, or interested in you, when you are fat. At a meeting, because you are deemed the least attractive person in the room – despite the bald men, the buck-toothed, cross-eyed women with boils on their noses and nervous tics – you are always the one dispatched to fetch an easel or lattes. You are never a threat when it comes to snaring men, a great job, the best deckchair: people assume you will simply go straight through and land on the floor. In a weird way, I think this is why I’ve succeeded, a little bit, at being a PR. Forced to be backstage at a fashion show to make sure everything runs smoothly and no one overdoses, the models and stylists don’t see me as a rival, or as someone they need to impress, so they confide in me and tell me things. I’m just furniture, or a sponge. I’m big, so I must be cuddly. I’m big, so I can’t possibly have an ego, or feelings. Even when I’m the one having a dangerous procedure, even though I’m the reason the stupid trendy man is here on a Saturday probably earning double time, now the pretty nurse has arrived I’m suddenly just a squashy armchair in the corner of the room.
We are in the lift, we strange threesome. I can sense the photographer is enjoying being so close to Jasmine. I wonder what it feels like, being her. I wonder if she sails through life, given her green eyes, her black hair, her tiny waist and non-existent breasts. What problems could you possibly have if you look like that? No one would care what you wore, or where you lived, or what you drove, or how intelligent you were. They would just gaze at you. You wouldn’t even have to say anything. You would never have to pay for anything, I’m positive of that. You would never have to demand anything, stamp your feet, cheep like a parrot. It would all just come to you, as easy as a flower welcoming a hungry drone.
As we descend to the basement I suddenly notice, much to my extreme horror, that my bare arse is being reflected in the shiny walls of the lift behind me. A huge, flat moon of chubbiness above two stubby thighs. I gasp, shocked, ashamed, until I realise no one else is looking at the wall. Only me. Bearded Hipster and Gorgeous Nurse only have eyes for each other. As I gaze at the image, I realise I’d been so fixated on my stomach and the flap I had forgotten what disaster was going on out back. And I begin to wonder where the plastic surgery will end: will I become the Forth Bridge, or a magi- cian trying to keep plates afloat on top of sticks: fixing one bit, then hurrying onto the next before everything smashes to the floor? As I look at my arse, reflected in the lift, I can’t help but smile at the irony of the likes of Kim Kardashian being held up as a bigger role model. Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé are no nearer to what I resemble naked than Kate Moss or Karlie Kloss. The only time I have ever seen some- one who remotely looks like me naked in the media was when Alexander McQueen’s Spring/Summer 2001 Voss show was reviewed, and in order to disentangle his inspiration, magazines were forced to reproduce the shocking and hideous photograph by Joel-Peter Witkin: an obese woman, her face concealed by an antiquated oxygen mask, imprisoned in an asylum. Which pretty much sums me up.
Jasmine is now staring at me, making sure I’m okay. I give her a watery smile.
Finally, we emerge (I attempt to go last, because of the exposed-to-the-elements arse, but unfortunately Jasmine ushers me to go first; I end up creeping sideways like a giant crab) and I am shown into the operating theatre’s anteroom. I clamber onto yet another table covered in paper and all the rustling as I heave my bulk suddenly reminds me incongruously of Mum’s cakes: little stiff collars of greaseproof or a disc stuck to the bottom or a nest in a biscuit tin. And I realise all that food wasn’t worth it now I’ve had to sit with a bare arse in an operating theatre. How much joy was in each bite, really, before it turned to regret and guilt? How much washing-up was there to do afterwards, as well as supermarket shopping, and lugging, and sit-ups, and the treadmill, and trying to jog up Primrose Hill before being towed by a passing – and, as it turned out, stoic and patient – yellow Lab.
I notice a list of patients on the wall. The name, procedure and then a tick by the side; no deaths so far. Phew. Always a plus. I am last on the list, after three men, each of whom has had liposuction. So, it is not just women who suffer from cellulite and self-doubt, after all. Men just hide it better. Who’d have thought.
I lie back and a needle is placed in my arm by someone who tells me he is the anaesthetist: I can see crinkly kind eyes above a green surgical mask. I expected judgement, but there is none. I am asked to count backwards from 50. More bleeding homework. It was bad enough reading all my post-op instructions. I reach 47 and then it is over. I know no more. I can no longer hear the camera whirring and clicking. I slip into oblivion. When I wake, I will be thin. I will be reborn. My life will start.