Chapter 2: Angie
‘Andy’s got a personal trainer,’ I said to Katy, phone held awkwardly under my ear as I flicked through my wardrobe. I smiled as she squawked down the phone.
‘Yeah I know! Ridiculous isn’t it? Man of his age. I told him – I know a midlife crisis when I see it, he’ll be buying a dickmobile before you know it.’ I held the phone away from my ear as Katy’s laughter exploded into a smoker’s cough which sounded like she was about to hack up her lungs. Aha! There it was my biggest, thickest jumper. I’d bought it years ago so it was all bobbly and stretched as big as a tent. Knitted out of thick, plaited wool it had a satisfying heft in my hand. Now, where were my boots?
‘So what’s brought all this on?’ Katy was saying down the phone. The click of a lighter signalled another fag being lit. She blew noisily down the phone and I could hear her shushing one of her many dogs. Katy was mad for her dogs, treated them better than her kids. I’d once gone round to visit and she was lying beside her biggest dog, Star, cooing away and combing its belly hair like it was a new born child.
‘He’s gone a bit mad since turning fifty,’ I said.
‘Ah my Dan had the same thing, but wiv him it was that obsession with researching his family background. Don’t bother! I said, they’ll all be scavengers and thieves! Cost a bloody fortune that did, what a waste of time, most exciting thing he discovered was he had a French great-great- grandma, and what did he do? Wanted to start learning French, kept buying cheese…’
Katy wittered on and I found myself tuning out – I’d heard the story of Dan’s obsession with France a million times and I was running late. Where were my big boots? As Katy chattered away I pulled out the junk at the bottom of the cupboard: a tangle of shoes, dresses that had fallen off their hangers, and an old vanity case of my mother’s. Jonathan’s box was right at the back and I had it in my hands before I recognised what it was.
It took me a minute to realise Katy’s diatribe had run out of steam and there was silence on the end of the line. ‘Angie? Angie? You there? Shut UP Gizmo!’
‘Sorry, Kat, I was in a daydream. Look I’ve got to go – see you up there, yeah?’ I ended the call and sat back on my heels, running my fingers over the box. I knew exactly what was inside; I didn’t need to open it. I stroked the ribbon and put it right at the back of the top shelf, pulling some cases in front of it.
Shit, I was going to be late. I was already wearing my biggest jeans so pulled the jumper over the top. Thankfully it was so enormous I could get away without wearing a bra, so with a sigh I unhooked the bastard thing, slid it out of the sleeves and threw it on the bed, letting the girls free. Oh the relief. A quick check in the mirror showed they hadn’t dropped too obviously low (helped by the fact they were propped on the shelf of my belly) so, shoving my feet into the boots I left the flat, slamming the door behind me. A clinking noise reminded me to nag Andy again about screwing the bolts back on properly, they kept falling off. I checked my watch, he wouldn’t be back for a while. I tried to remember what it was today – a spin class? Maybe it was kick boxing today. I shuddered at the thought of all that sweaty exertion. I simply could not see the appeal, but he was mad for it.
As I puffed my way into the village, I thought about Andy. We hadn’t had dinner together for ages – he would chuck his gym bag in the car and then shoot off straight after work. He didn’t seem to like sitting down to eat at the table any more, he would just perch on the setee nibbling away on a nut bar like a fat squirrel. Thought not so fat any more, I thought. It was quite alarming to see how skinny he was becoming. He made me feel even more like an elephant.
I sighed as I retrieved a slightly warm and bent Mars bar from my pocket. Andy and I had both loved our food and I used to enjoy cooking him big, proper meals: Roasts, sausage and mash, fish and chips on Friday… And puddings! Lovely puddings with treacle and custard, he used to adore them. And who cared if we got more and more tubby? We loved each other, didn’t we? What was the point in getting all skinny and fit if you’d already found your one?
I started nibbling on the chocolate around the edge of the bar. Yum. Well, all that indulgent eating had stopped sharpish after he turned fifty last year. He’d asked for a bike for his present – I didn’t even know he could ride one! We’d been together since we were teenagers and I don’t think I’d ever seen him on a bike. And you should see the clothes he bought to go with it! Awful, dungaree type things made of Lycra. He’d looked absolutely ridiculous when he first tried them on, I had to leave the room and go into the kitchen so he wouldn’t see me snorting with laughter. Imagine a middle-aged bean bag squeezed into a tiny pair of green and yellow tights, and you’ll get the picture.
I never thought he’d stick with it but here we are, over a year later and he’s still exercising like mad and twitching with revulsion whenever he sees a carbohydrate. All this discipline and body worship made me go the other way. I’d started eating more than I ever had because I couldn’t break the habit of eating for two, so I kept on cooking large meals. More often than not, Andy doesn’t get back until late so I end up scoffing the lot myself. His disapproval is so wearing I am driven to smuggling junk food in and hiding it in the airing cupboard. I’ve probably put on all the weight he’s lost, and I certainly wasn’t skinny to start with.
I miss the camaraderie we used to have as we shared takeaways in front of the telly, arguing over which box set to watch (I like romantic comedies, he likes science fiction and documentaries.) We ordered so often from the nearby Chinese takeaway we didn’t even have to say what we wanted, we always had the same thing. And it included a whole host of carbs. Mmmm, the thought of lemon chicken and egg fried rice made my mouth water.
For some reason Andy’s health kick, which showed no sign of waning, got me obsessed with eating badly. Because I knew he disapproved it made me want to eat even more, and I found myself craving really rotten stuff – not just big roast dinners – but Krispy Kreme doughnuts, family sized chocolate bars, and giant, grab bag sized salted crisps. It had to stop. It really did, because last week was the final straw. I couldn’t fit into any of my clothes.
None of them. Literally, not one thing fitted me. Even my trusty leggings, so stretched by their vain attempt to cover my arse and bulging calves, were rendered completely see through – there was no way I was going to wear them out of the house and end up on some awful internet gallery of fat fools in transparent leggings.. The only thing I could get into (and they were a bit tighter than I would have liked) was a giant pair of old jeans I’d bought in a size 22 by mistake and never sent back, and my ratty old jumper.
I couldn’t afford to buy a whole new wardrobe, also there was no way I was going to buy anything in a size bigger than an 18. I’d felt like this for ages and I didn’t like to admit that I must have been ‘plus size’ for a while as it was now years since I bought any clothes from the high street.
No. It would be cheaper to go to Weight Watchers. I’ve been going on and off since I was about 18 – when I got married – but I hadn’t been for a decade. It did annoy me a bit that we never seemed to have any money. Andy was the only plumber in the village and I often had to turn people away because he was so busy. I did his accounts, so I knew money was coming in, but I never saw sign of it. It must all be going on protein bars and new tracksuits, I thought. I had asked Gary at work if I could do a few more hours cleaning at the school, the overtime rates were good, but he didn’t have anything.
I would have to lose some weight quick otherwise I would be condemned to this jumpers and jeans outfit forever, I thought. My stomach was tight and full. I’d made sure I’d had a lovely big lunch at the school that afternoon, and the night before I’d ordered an Indian before forgetting Andy was on his diet, so had it all. A lovely last supper before I was back on the points, or the reds and greens, whatever was the latest programme on offer.
I could see the church before me as I wound my way down the street. It was a gorgeous evening with the moon rising just behind the steeple, picking out the big house up the top. I still couldn’t get my head around the fact it was only four o’ bloody clock. I hated winter. I gave a scream as a great white fluffy sheep of a thing suddenly bounded out at me from the alley, making me jump out of my skin. I nearly choked on the last mouthful of chocolate.
‘Sorry, Angie my dear! She’s a bit over excited.’ It was the Doc with Dolly, his bonkers labradoodle. Like a kid, I found myself crumpling up the Mars wrapper and shoving it in my pocket. I saw him clock the move and he lifted his eyebrow. I could taste the chocolate cloying around my lips but daren’t draw his attention by licking them.
‘Evening, Doc!’ I said cheerfully, wondering if I could get away with a casual wipe with my sleeve.
‘What’s that you got there, Angie?’ he said, leaning forward. ‘Now what have I said to you about cutting back on the sweets and cakes? With your family history you know you have to be careful – especially at your age.’
Especially at my age, damn cheek. He was only about five or so years older than me, his Dad had been our family doctor too – we knew each other well.
‘Blimey Doc, you make me sound a hundred years old, besides, it’s my last Mars bar, I’m off to a meeting now.’
‘Ah! You’re joining Maeve’s Weight Watcher’s group. That’s wonderful new. Well done you.’ He looked delighted.
Maeve was the Doc’s wife. Going to Weight Watchers used to be a real pain as you had to drive into the big town, there were no meetings any closer. Hearing from Laurie Gray in the shop that Maeve was running classes in the village hall was great news. ‘No excuses now!’ Andy had said, offering to pay for my first month’s fees.
‘Well I’d better get Dolly off before she does something beastly on the pavement. Good luck, Angie!’ He disappeared up the path towards the woods, looking jaunty in his red toff trousers. Dolly, his labradoodle nudged me when she went past and I admired her dopey, laughing face and gave her shoulder a quick pat. She was Maeve’s dog really, she loved her to bits but the Doc always said Dolly was the bane of his life. Poor Doc. Andy always took the piss out of him but I liked him. He was a nice bloke and had always been kind, especially when Dad died.
I spotted Katy outside the village hall well before she saw me, mostly because she was wearing the most gigantic, neon pink, puffa jacket. It was probably visible from space. She was standing under a lamppost, wreathed in cigarette smoke. As I approached she chucked it on the floor and ground it out, she knew I hated smoking.
‘You working, darling?’ I said, ‘’ow much?’
She grinned and adopted a cheesecake pose, hand on hip and lips pouted. When I came out of the shadows and into the light, she looked me up and down and burst into laughter.
‘Angie what the hell have you got on?’ She poked my shoulder; I was wearing my Dad’s old pea coat over my ‘don’t need a bra’ jumper. ‘You look like the Michelin man! No, scrap that, you look like a woolly mammoth.’ Her hoots of laughter made all the women sneaking into the village hall turn and stare.
‘Shut up, woman!’ I hissed. ‘Anyway, you can talk. You look like a sodding marshmallow on legs.’
Katy kept prodding me. ‘Seriously, Angie, what are you wearing?’
We walked with relief into the warm, well-lighted village hall and lined up at the desk to sign in.
‘It’s the first weigh in day,’ I whispered, ‘you know the drill. I want to be as heavy as possible when I weigh in and then the next week I really cheer myself up with all the weight I have lost.’
‘So next week you’ll be in short and a T-Shirt?’ Katy said, shaking her head, ‘in November?’
‘And flip flops,’ I said, searching my bag for my money. ‘I’ve had two giant meals and haven’t had a poo for two days; I should be good and bulked up.’
Laurie Gray, grim faced as ever, looked incongruous at the table littered with brightly coloured pamphlets and recipe books. She was presiding over the index box of cards like that dog at the gates of hell. I noticed she had a good nose at the weights recorded as she handed over the membership forms. A life size cardboard cut-out of Maeve’s ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs stood either side of her like cheerful body guards.
‘Fuck’s sake,’ muttered Katy, looking at Maeve’s picture. ‘Look at that, she’s only lost a stone and a half, that’s about the weight of my left leg. She wasn’t at all fat before. And what’s up with Laurie?’
I shrugged, ‘isn’t that just Laurie? The hardest working shopkeeper in the village?’ Katy snorted with laugher and Laurie shot us an evil look. I nudged Katy. ‘Ssh! She’ll hear us!’ I said, pinching my lips to stop a giggle.
We made our way across the room, nabbing the seats at the back like the old hands we were, greeting familiar faces. There was great excitement in the village about this new class and it was pretty packed. All of them were women except for John, who worked up at the hospital. He was enormous – in every sense of the word – he must be near on six and a half feet and he took up about three chairs. I hated it when men came to Weight Watchers; they always lost about two stone in the first week because the pounds seemed to drop off them and all they had to do was spend a few days off the beer. It seemed to be much harder to shift it if you were female. He was genial enough, though, and we exchanged smiles. I used to see him a lot when I was visiting Dad.
I was out of breath with all this walking and sat down with a big sigh, I could feel the seat creaking underneath me. A woman in a purple jumper, probably a few years younger than me, drew her handbag away as if I was going to steal it. I didn’t recognise her. I gave a big, friendly grin.
‘You don’t need to be here!’ I exclaimed, giving her a nudge, ‘you’re only tiny!’ I reckoned she was a shade under ten stone.
‘Yes, well, better to come when you’ve only got a little bit of weight to lose rather than leaving it and then finding out you’re five stone overweight,’ she said, giving me a pointed look.
‘Very sensible,’ I said, ‘Wish I’d thought of that – ha ha!’ I gave a laugh but it died away when I saw she had turned her back to me and was watching Maeve with exaggerated interest. .
‘Skinny bitch,’ Katy whispered in my ear. I chuckled, but as we sat and listened to Maeve introducing the programme, extolling how well it had worked for her, I shifted uncomfortably on my chair. It was hurtful, but what that woman had said was right.
‘Do you know what, Katy?’ I said in an undertone, ‘I’ve been coming to Weight Watchers for over twenty five years and I’m fatter than I’ve ever been.’
‘Me too, love,’ she said with a laugh. ‘Me too!’
The thing was, Katy was overweight, sure, she and I have worked for years together and we’d been on diets the whole time. The difference being she’s put on about a stone or two, I’d turned into an hump backed whale.
It didn’t help that I had no confidence with clothes. I used to be really into fashion when I was a fit size 12 with eye-catching knockers and hanks of thick, curly hair. OK, I wasn’t looking my best tonight, but seeing Katy, curves cling-film wrapped in tight, neon-bright jeans and little tops – bulges proudly bursting out all over the place – chatting merrily away to her neighbour flicking her long, heavily dyed black, extensions about, I thought she looked great. Mutton, yes, and a little bit raddled, way too much eyeliner circled her dark eyes in a fake baked face, but she looked interesting. She looked as if she took care of herself, took pride in her appearance. She sparked with colour and life. Men would see an older woman who’d eat them alive but would be a tiger in the sack. I felt like a boring, fat, colourless, country mouse next to her. Katy was always going on about Dan pouncing on her for a shag round the back of the pub, or dragging her into the woods for some afternoon delight.
I couldn’t remember the last time Andy and I had sex like that. We didn’t even kiss any more. It was even more difficult recently as I worried I’d squash him, or swallow him up into my marshmallow flesh – would he ever be found again? I could see my reflection in the long windows along the side of the hall. A giant round dark body with a moon of a face balanced on top. I looked pale, tired, and, worst of all – old. Fifty was about to hit me like a sledgehammer. I hadn’t really stopped stuffing my face since I turned 49. Staring into the darkness of the window, I watched my reflection as I pulled up the skin of my face to mimic a face lift. Bettter. But when I let go and my jowls swung back down, my heart sank along with them.
‘What are you doing, you silly cow?’ Katy asked.
‘Seeing if I should get a face lift.’
‘Ooh you should! There’s a new clinic opened in town, it’s attached to ‘Cut Above’, you know, Jean’s place. ‘It’s where I got my lips done.’ She gave a pout and I shuddered at the memory. Katy had spent a good three months looking like Dan had been pulling on her mouth with his plunger last summer. Her lips came into the room before she did.
‘No thanks,’ I said hastily. ‘Oh, here we go. Time to weigh in.’
I had ignored the meeting; I had been to so many I knew it better than the instructors did. Eat less, exercise more, points, blah blah. As usual, the last hour had been dominated by women talking about food. What they had eaten, what they wished they hadn’t eaten, what they wanted to eat, and what they were allowed to eat.
Four or five women of varying sizes, including purple-jumper-skinny bitch were in front of us. A tray on the side was filling up with earrings, necklaces, scarves and coats as they got as light as they could before stepping on the scales. There had nearly been a riot at a meeting I went to a few years back when they introduced the rule you had to get weighed with your shoes on. That’s where the straw flip flops came in. They were only a couple of ounces. I know. I weighed mine.
Katy disappeared behind the screen. I could see the top of her head as she stepped onto the scales – her big bush of hair waggled around like a muppet on a stage.
‘There’s no fucking WAY I’m fifteen and a half stone,’ she said, roaring at poor Maeve. ‘Your scales must be wrong; I was just under 12 on my ones this morning.’
There was silence in the hall. Katy’s temper was legendary, and I saw the women exchanging looks. I held my breath, I wouldn’t put it past Katto start kicking the scales into smithereens, it wouldn’t be the first time she has destroyed something in a fit of temper. Thankfully, Maeve seemed to calm her down and she stalked out of the hall with a handful of leaflets signalling to me she’d meet me outside, she was going for a cigarette.
Then it was my turn. Maeve gave me a big smile as I approached.
‘So lovely to see you Angie, I know Michael will be very pleased you’re here.’ She looked a little puzzled, ‘do you want to take off your coat? You look awfully hot!’
‘No I’m fine! Honestly!’ I took my time. It has been three years since I last weighed in. I hadn’t weighed myself at home, despite Andy’s nagging. I was definitely heavier than Kat, but then she was about six foot and I was only five and a half. Maybe sixteen stone? Sixteen and a bit? Although I think that’s what I was last time I went and I’d definitely put on since then. I stepped up, hearing the give of the dial beneath my boots. My stomach lurched uncomfortably. I squeezed my eyes shut. Maybe seventeen? Please let it not be more than seventeen.
‘Twenty one stone and three pounds!’ Maeve said brightly. She bent her head and scribbled the figures into my new card.
My head reeled.
My brain couldn’t make sense of the figures.
That couldn’t be right. The numbers made no sense. How had that happened?
I barely heard Maeve’s soothing words as she waffled on about taking it one day at a time, and how the points diet was the best yet. She was a bit of a busy body but a kind hearted one. She was always bustling about the village in her knee length skirt and little jumpers. Maeve was the sort of woman who wore low-heeled shoes with odd little gold metal tassels on the front. I was envious of her thick red hair which was lovely and curly, like mine used to be about a hundred years ago, but she wore it rammed it back under a hideous Alice band for some reason, emphasising her rather beaky little nose.
I focused on her weird shoes until my eyes went funny, trying to think about anything except how much I weighed. I was failing. My brain tried to calculate how long it would take me to get it off. I wanted to be about nine stone, that’s 12 stone to get rid of, 12 x 14, 2 llbs a week… I felt sick. It would take about a million years.
I walked out of the hall in a daze, clutching my card to my chest. I would burn it before I got home; there was no way I was letting Andy see how much I weighed.
Katy was waiting for me, ‘so, come one, what’s the damage?’
Wordlessly I held out my card.
‘Fuck me!’ she said, ‘And I thought I was bad.’
‘Thanks, Kat!’ I yelped, I wanted to sound like I was joking but she could hear the tears in my voice.
‘Aw Angie, don’t worry about it, you’ll get it off,’ she reached round me and gave me a hug. ‘Besides, I reckon ten stone of that is this fucking horrible jumper.’ She prodded me again. ‘Knock the carbs on the head, don’t wear that jumper,’ she looked down at my feet, ‘or those boots, and next time you’ll have lost loads. It’ll fall off you.’
I felt a bit more cheerful, she was right. If I stuck to it I’m sure I’d drop it pretty quickly, and I was wearing a lot of heavy clothes. I started to walk back up the hill out of the village.
‘Oi! Where are you going?’ Katasked.
‘Back home?’ I replied, ‘where else?’
‘Don’t be stupid, it’s weigh day, everything you eat today doesn’t count. Chinese? Just a quick one?’
I laughed. ‘Really?’
‘Yes, come on, the Golden Bowl is calling our names, can you hear it?’
She looked so funny standing there, her head cocked, her make up all mad. I couldn’t help laughing. At six foot tall she stuck out like a sore thumb and I loved that she did absolutely nothing to hide her height. Katy was the sort of woman who would read articles entitled ‘things to never wear over 40’ and see them as a positive challenge. She would study them carefully and then go out and buy every pair of skinny jeans, short skirts, and cleavage revealing tops the fashion editors had dictated were unsuitable for a 15 stone, six foot tall 49 year old women.
‘Listen! Chicken chow mein…’ she whispered, holding her hand to her ear, ‘prawn crackers… crispy beef stir fry…’ she licked her lips. ‘Come on, it would be rude not to.’
Looping her arm through mine she dragged me down the street. She had got me salivating and we started to bolt down the street, giggling as we knocked each other out of the way.
Luckily the Golden Bowl was open, so after putting in our order we waited outside in the cool night air while Katy smoked, blowing the stink ostentatiously away from me and waving her hand to disperse it.
I looked around the village. This bit of it was so pretty, all those little houses in rows, tucked up together and leaning at funny angles. So much nicer than our estate up the road which was a featureless square of cheap flats provided by the council. The only colour to be found was in the graffiti on the walls and the faded blue stripes marking each front door. In the village the buildings were all old, beautifully weathered and cosy. Many had chimneys puffing out fragrant wood smoke. My mum and dad had owned one of these cottages but by the time Andy and I were looking to buy they cost over £250,000. I regretted again my stupidity in not doing more to stop us losing the house when Dad died.
I sighed and watched a young lad, hood up and hands in his pockets, slouching up the street. Looked like the Doc’s son. He looked miserable. Where was he off to? I thought. I’d heard some funny rumour about him recently; he’d dropped out of university and had got himself into a bit of trouble. I kept watch as he disappeared into the alley by the church. It pointed its steeple up towards the hills and my eye was drawn past it towards the big house that had frowned down over the village for centuries. It was completely dark except for one light in the top window, which shone out across the valley. I squinted. I could just make out a figure in the lighted rectangle.
‘Look!’ I whispered to Katy, ‘there’s a light up there.’
She shivered, ‘gives me the creeps that house. Don’t know how she can live up there all on her own. Funny old woman she is.’
‘Do you know her?’
‘Nah, not really, just seen her wandering around the village. She looks about a thousand years old. Dan always said she was some kind of witch, his dad remembers her, and his dad before him. Said she’s looked exactly the same for fifty years.’
I rubbed my arms, they felt cold, even with layers and layers of wool. ‘Andy goes up there quite a bit, says it’s amazing inside. Full of all sorts of stuff.’ I peered through the darkness to make out the shape of the house. ‘It looks massive. I’d love to see what it looks like inside.’
‘Probably haunted,’ Katy said dismissively. ‘Come on, let’s get our food. Looks like it’s ready. I’m starving!’
I took one last look at the house. Even when I was a kid it fascinated me. Something about the figure in the window made me curious. Was that the old lady? I felt like it was watching me. I wanted to wave but felt silly. When was the last time I had seen her? I thought. She was a tiny little thing, skinny, and bent almost double – it looked like her spine had twisted and fallen in on itself –but she could be terribly fierce. We were all scared of her as kids and stayed well clear of her place in the woods.
I used to see her a lot when I still lived with Dad. She would pass by the house bang on seven in the morning on her way to the local shop. It was run by Laurie’s mother-in-law then. She’d always be beautifully dressed, the old lady, a proper full length coat over a tweedy sort of suit. My mum would stop and have a chat with her when she could, but I used to hate it when she did as the old lady’s eyes would scan me up and down as they were talking. They were strange eyes, a sort of electric green that looked odd in her leathery, wrinkled, walnut of a face.
Katy swung out from the Chinese holding a big brown bag stained with blotches of grease. Steam billowed from it and she was stuffing what looked like a third prawn cracker in her gob.
‘I couldn’t wait any longer. What are you dolly daydreaming about, anyway?’ she said, spraying white crumbs.
‘I was just thinking about that old lady, hasn’t she got any family at all?’
Katy shook her head and passed me a prawn cracker. ‘Nah, she’s always been on her own as far as I know. The only people I see visit her are the Doc and his wife, I think they are quite close. She keeps herself to herself, don’t she. God only knows how old she is. She’s lived here as long as any of us can remember.’ She gave a sudden cackle. ‘Do you remember when Jane and Davey snuck up there to have a look when we was kids? Ran out screaming!’
‘Oh my God! I’d forgotten about that,’ I said, ‘didn’t they say they got chased out by the leaves or something? I can’t believe that was forty years ago. Blimey. How old is she?’
‘God knows. Come on, I’m freezing my tits off.’ Katy said, clasping the takeaway to her like a hot water bottle. ‘Let’s go back to mine and get rid of this lot. I’m starving. Diet starts tomorrow!