29th January 2017
Do as we say or you’ll die, they said. You don’t realise how ill you are. You have no choice.
They don’t scare me - I’m already petrified. Thing is, I can’t stop. Even if I wanted to, I just can’t.
I heard them say, She’s only doing it to get attention, and I wanted to scream, Do you think I’m doing this because I want to? I’m doing it because I HAVE NO CHOICE
But I can’t do what they say.
So - I’ll die.
11 o’clock Sunday 11th November 2016
Laura saw an unfamiliar sun shining through the grimy kitchen window as, on the radio, Big Ben struck the hour. Exactly one hundred years since the signing of the Armistice Treaty in 1918.
The end of that battle, Laura thought, but not this one. Leaning her hands on the scarred kitchen worktop, she eyed the abandoned cereal bowl, spoon still in it. The bowl was empty, but she checked the rubbish bin. Somewhere towards the bottom would be a mush of soggy muesli. Sure enough, there it was, hidden beneath egg shells and orange peel. She removed the washing bowl from the sink and, as she’d thought, were more oat flakes stuck in the drainer.
Big Ben’s chiming faded away and in the eerie two minute silence that followed, Laura heard a siren somewhere on the streets of London, followed by the traditional gun salute from Buckingham Palace. She sighed, looking round the cramped kitchen: a room just big enough for a cooker, a washing machine and small fridge. From where she stood she could see the table in the next room, with its three chairs, as if Chris might return at any moment.
Turning, she looked out of the rain spattered window, at the narrow street of old fishing cottages like hers, and the grassy area leading to St Budy harbour. The water could be glimpsed from the upstairs bathroom window, and sometimes she would lean out to see the sea, hear the seagulls cackle, smell the sharp tang of salt from the harbour.
From the radio came the sombre tones of an actor reading Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs…
Laura shut her eyes hearing the words, at the revulsion Owen told of watching his comrades dying from a gas attack in the trenches. She thought how unfair it was that Owen had died one week before Armistice. Listening to the closing lines, his dying declaration: that those words we were told - Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - are a lie. Dying for your country is not sweet or right. How could it ever be so?
Laura swiped away the tears sliding down her cheeks as she heard her daughter’s light tread coming down the stairs - knock-kneed, coughing like hags… The words ran through her head, echoing like footsteps.
Laura’s fifteen year old daughter stood in the doorway. Her fair hair hung lankly to her shoulders, a long fringe almost hid her large green eyes. Jess was dressed in jeans that were several sizes too big, and one of her father’s jumpers which was more like a dress, but it was woollen, and warm. Underneath, Laura suspected, Jess would have layers of thermal vests and warm shirts. Anything to try and keep that poor emaciated body warm.
'Hi Jess.' Laura forced a smile. 'Everything OK?'
She wouldn’t ask about the thrown away breakfast. Not now.
Jessica ventured into the room cautiously, twisting a piece of brittle hair round a white, knobbly finger. 'There’s this photography trip at the end of term.…'
Laura groaned inwardly. The one to Paris, of course. Jess had already told her about it. 'I’m sorry, darling, but I can’t afford it. Really I can’t.'
Tears sprang into Jess’s eyes. 'But Mum, everyone’s going. It’s a really important part of the syllabus, Mr Thompson said.' She gulped. 'Even Emma’s going.'
Emma. Jess’s only friend at her new school. Jess had trouble making friends now: had trouble with everything. Laura sighed. 'I’m so sorry, darling - but you know how tight money is now.' She looked at her daughter’s pale pleading face, wished she had the money to bring her this small happiness. Anything to make her better.
She thought of all those fruitless trips to the Surgery, to try and persuade Jess that she needed help. But maybe this could be the trigger Jess needed - a goal to take her mind off bloody food - or the lack of it. I could stick the cost on the only credit card that isn’t maxed out, Laura thought. She cleared her throat. 'How much is it?'
'£750.' Seeing her mother’s horrified face, Jess jumped in,' I know it’s a lot, but it really will be worth it. And I can put my savings in - I’ve got £150.'
Laura was reminded of the daughter she once was. The funny, kind, impulsive girl whom everyone loved, with loads of friends, who did well at school. The one who hugged her all the time. A smile was so rare nowadays.
'And I can get another holiday job,' she added. 'Please, Mum?'
Laura tried a smile. 'Look I’ll see what I can do - there’s a big exhibition coming up soon, so I’m going to have to do overtime over the next few weeks. That’ll help.'
Jess’s face lit up. 'Oh, Mum. Thanks so much.' She leant forward, gave her mother a careful hug.
Was she afraid that physical contact might mean that a wandering calorie might jump onto her? Feeling those sharp bones pressing into her, Laura shut her eyes, held her daughter tight.'That’s OK, darling.'
As Jess headed back upstairs, Laura remembered the first time she’d tried talking to her mother. It was before Jess had got so desperately thin, but Laura knew something was seriously wrong. Merryn had said, 'She’s just lost weight. Anyway, anorexia’s not life threatening, like cancer.'
'It is, Mum,' Laura had said. 'Mortality rates for anorexia are the same as for many cancers. But it’s much easier to get treatment for cancer, whereas Jess won’t even admit she needs help, let alone accept any treatment.'
In the meantime, it was like treading on broken glass, Laura thought. She looked round at the damp rooms that smelt of despair, where nothing worked properly and the roof that leaked when it rained.
She wanted her old life back, with a loving husband, no money worries, their lovely house overlooking the sea. Most of all, she wanted her daughter back. Bloody Chris. Why did he have to die?
Thanks to her father’s debts, Jess had been uprooted from everything and everyone she loved, to a poky cottage, a strange school that she hated, hardly any friends and no money to go on school trips. A stressed out, skint mother whom Jess wouldn’t even talk to.
Sitting down at the table, Laura thought back to when she was Jess’s age. When her father died, they hadn’t been hard up like she was now. They never had anything flash, but there was enough money for food, clothes - a car even - days out, trips to the cinema. Books. Laura’s beloved dog, Leo.
Life was much lower maintenance then of course - no mobile phones or computers. They never had school trips abroad. The furthest they ever went as a family was France, once, by ferry. But they were happy times, holidaying in Dorset, or camping in other parts of Cornwall. Laura was close to her parents - her Dad in particular. And of course, Ben was always around.
Laura looked out onto the grey narrow street. Ben Pedlar. She wasn’t sure whether to be delighted or terrified. But really, she told herself. All that was over years ago.
But the very fact that he was back here, now, when everything seemed so bleak, brought a glimmer of light. Of hope. It was irrational, for she wouldn’t ever trust him again, but there it was.
DIARY, JESSICA HOCKING
DO NOT READ THIS IS PRIVATE
21st November 2016
The only good thing about school is Photography Club. It feels like a bit of contact with Dad, cos of using his camera. Does missing someone so badly ever go away?
I’m desperate to go to Paris. We’re learning about Henri Cartier-Bresson and I think his photographs are so amazing. All in black and white and I read that he always tried to take his pictures when people weren’t looking, though having studied them, I’m not sure about that. But you can feel a sort of fun in his pictures which is cool. I wish I could take pictures like that.
And, of course, R is going on the Paris trip.…..
Don’t know what I’d do about food in Paris. Would Mr Thompson and the others watch us at meals and stuff?
My tummy feels so empty sometimes I wonder if it will touch my back. I mean, I know it can’t, but it makes me feel sort of clean inside. Eating makes me feel dirty, whereas feeling empty is a really good, pure feeling. When I think of all that food I used to put inside me, I feel sick. How revolting. Being fat must be the worst thing ever and I will never, ever, be fat. I’d rather die.
On good days, when I’ve lost weight, I feel as if I’m part of a kind of elite club. But I can’t compare notes with other people at school. I can’t even talk about it. There are these online forums but they’re a bit sick and really competitive. That scares me.
I feel so guilty whenever I eat anything now, I wish I could do without food altogether. Some days I feel so helpless, and I get so tired, when I’ve done all my exercises after tea, that I go upstairs and cry. I wish I could tell someone, but no one would understand.
St Budy, Cornwall
Laura sat on her single bed, looking at the collection of 18th birthday cards arranged on her desk, her bedside table, the table by the wardrobe - every available inch covered in them. The best was from Ben. He’d made it himself from an old print of the two of them together - she’d been fifteen - on a family day out. They were climbing Rough Tor, and she must have looked round as he shouted to her, when her dad took the photo. Their smiles lit up the greyness of the day - it rained, she remembered, but Ben’s parents had driven them all up to Twelve Men’s Moor for a picnic.
Laura smiled and reached up for her calendar, hooked it off the wall, striking another day off. Since leaving school in the summer and both getting good enough A level results to go to Exeter university, she and Ben had opted for a gap year, had taken part time jobs working with a shipwrights (Ben) and local cafe (Laura) to save money to go travelling.