After my best friend disappeared, my counselor asked me to describe her.
In the early afternoon heat, the glass window in front of me was faintly stained with my reflection. Set against my ghosted image, the window revealed to me the world outside: old, red London buses crammed with strangers who idled away their journeys staring out of foggy glass; still more strangers on foot who bustled their way around the city, their images, moving shadows in department store windows; a lone dove perched on high observing all.
My moment’s inattention drew my counselor’s interest. She looked up from her notebook, caught me eye, enquired,“Did your best friend have a name or distinguishing features?”
“Thin,” I replied. “Thin.”
“Tell me,” my counselor said, “how did you and your best friend meet?”
An early spring morning, 1987. I’m 14 years old. The sun is a shard cut between grey stratocumuli. Frost pricks earth and air. As the first lesson of the school day is physical education, I change into my sports uniform. When I run onto the field, a girl from remedial class, Billie Harper points at me and brays, “Fat features!”
Like many caught on the cusp of puberty, I carry puppy-fat on my jowls and cheeks. It’s towards this commonplace misfortune that Billie directs her cruel intent. Other girls, huddled in gossip, glance in my direction before they turn back to their chitchat. They could joined in. They could cackle and finger-point and sneer. But they choose not to. Perhaps they’re tired, bored or simply aware that Billie’s jibe is weak; after all, it carries little of the bile and barb pre-pubescent children traditionally throw at each other, such as Dumb, Weirdo…
And yet; and yet…
My best friend, hidden perhaps behind a slight-trunked poplar nearby, witnesses the slur, feels the jag of pain I experience because of it and knows she can offer me her secret companionship and solace.
The day after Billie’s taunt, my best friend arrives on my doorstep. Only I am at home, cooking a meal of boiled potatoes, tinned carrots, and fish fingers for my absent family. There’s something about the kitchen, its’ steam, fire, and stricture, and about the abandonment of my chore. Father asleep upstairs. Mother working all day as an assistant in a family-owned home decorating shop. My 12-year-old sister, Sarah supposedly playing Cabbage Patch Kids at her friend’ s house (though, later it will transpire that she and her friend are smoking, experimenting with make-up, and pouring over posters of Wet Wet Wet’s Marti Pellow). Yes, there’s something about all this which makes me invite my best friend to move in.
It’s strange how my best friend travels so light. No suitcases. No clothing. No possessions whatsoever. Like an angel, she is, I see, abstinence personified.
Each day thereafter, my best friend and I walk to school together, sit side-by-side in class and then trek home. We communicate all the time. Our favourite topic is food.
“100 grams of apple has 47.5 calories,” I tell her. “That’s as much as ten grams of Edam.”
She knows, of course. She’s an authority on how many calories every item of food possesses. So, at lunchtimes, while we walk around the yard, me nibbling on a wafer of cheese or morsel of apple, we recount how little we’ve eaten and take pride in discovering who has consumed the least amount of food. Naturally, my best friend always wins this contest. But increasingly, I run her close.
On Sundays, while our neighbours attend church, Mother washes, scrubs and brushes our carpetless tenement. As she works, a chicken roasts in the oven and The Carpenters’spin upon the stereo. Close to You, Now and Then, A Kind of Hush, Passage: Mother owns them all. Sometimes, as Karen Carpenter’s sombre voice undercuts her brother’s cheery lyrics and piano, Mother, on knees before the black grate,pauses over ashes accrued from a week’s worth of blazes, then bursts into tears.
Father keeps different habits from us. Every morning, his face haggard, his eyes bagged, and a dust of metal upon him, he arrives home from turning a lathe, the endless rotation of machinery through darkness, just as Mother leaves for her job, and Sarah, my best friend and I head for school.
This routine shapes others. When my best friend and I return from school, piles of books, reams of homework and Sarah in tow, I’m laden down with the knowledge that I must prepare Father’s lunchbox and flask of tea, reline his shoes with cardboard, make dinner for the family, and then raise Father from his slumber. Later, the dishes washed, Mother comes home to a dinner warming hard in the oven. As I pour through revision texts, my parents sit silently over a pot of tea, the television simmering with news of election rivalry, factory closures, and increased unemployment.
There’s another routine. It begins once Father’s car lights disappear from view. Mother sprawls on the sofa cradling a quarter-pound of rock candy and cries. Always there’s mention of her 13 siblings, her jobless father gambling away the housekeeping, her jaundiced mother working four jobs to support the brood, Mother’s top marks in school exams, her removal from education at 15 years of age to keep house for her younger brothers and sisters, her escape by marrying Father, my arrival too soon, and my sister’s birth two years later, the only child Mother planned.
All these routines make the house dusty. School clothes and overalls go unwashed. So, with my best friend’s silent approval, I start to stay up long after Mother retires for the night to read a new Mills & Boon. I polish furniture. I wash and iron clothes. At first I expect Mother–or Father even–to notice how the coffee table shines and their clothes smell fresh, and to praise me. But they carry on as before.
It’s my parents’ blindness which gives my best friend and I our next brilliant idea. Having made the best I can from a tin of marrowfat peas, a packet of dehydrated mashed potatoes, and slices of liver, I serve the meal to my family, then slip away to my room. There my best friend and I delight in the fact that no one notices my absence.
All the time, anger, searing and volatile, inhabits our house.
It arrives at unexpected moments. Like the time I’m washing the dishes and Sarah is drying them. To remove the condensation from the kitchen, Sarah opens a window. A gust of wind catches the glass, swings it wide and smashes it. Her wooden-soled Dr. Scholl sandal in hand, Mother tears into the room shouting at me. Again and again, the sandal lands upon my back and arms.
When Mother’s screaming and sandal stop, my teary-eyed sister confesses, “I broke the window.”
Mother points to me and roars, “She’s the eldest. She should have stopped you from breaking it.”
Later, in my bedroom, I select school clothes that will hide the bruising.
A month later, as winter hardens and the late afternoons coalesce into darkness, Mother returns home early from work. She looks me over as if encountering a stranger. She switches off the television and demands that we sit at the dining table to eat our meal.
While I scramble to make a meal prepared for three mouths stretch across four plates, Sarah polishes and sets the table. When I bring out the food, Mother settles at the head of the table, her eyes stern upon me. We sit in silence, my best friend quiet and un-catered for, Sarah and Mother consuming the meal, and I moving a fork around my plate. Soon Mother is out of her seat. Her plate upends. Her knife and fork fly towards me. And words, hard, loud words rain down.
“You bloody idiot! How dare you shame me in front of my friends…”
Suddenly I am water. My calm, composed skin, the one which presents a smart, diligent child to my family and teachers breaks. Ripples, born of an energy I’m too young to name (but years later will come to know as “emotion”) rise and retreat in me. They build. They fall. They build. Until tears and sobs stream from me, and I run to my room. In my wake, Sarah and my best friend look on.
A glance. That’s all it took to unravel me.
The events that expose my lie unfold once Father rises from his slumber and Mother starts to yell.
It’s her workmate, Mavis who is responsible. She bumped into my best friend and I on our way to school that morning. She peered into me while asking me how I was. Then she bustled into the decorating store, and demanded to know of Mother, “What’s wrong with your daughter?”
Of course Mother was her usual defensive self. “What do you mean? There’s nothing wrong with her.”
“She’s a skeleton,” Mavis observed. “Is she ill?”
The next morning Father returns from work looking unusually drawn. He escorts me to Doctor Longbotham. As we perch in the waiting room, Father drags on a smoke. The burning silence between us makes me feel sick.
Eventually Doctor Longbotham calls us into his consulting room. The place is cold and, except for a snatch of an old railway bridge traversed occasionally by a train clattering out of town, affords little perspective. At the Doctor’s prompting, Father delivers clipped sentences about the humiliation which I have heaped on the family and which has brought us to the medical centre. Doctor Longbotham asks if there are any reasons why I haven’t been eating.
Father stares ahead as if the question doesn’t concern him.
Too many words clog my throat; I feel as though I’m drowning.
Eventually I reply, “No.”
I’m ordered onto the scales. My height is checked. Addressing the notes in front of him, the Doctor says, “Go home and eat. Come back in a month’s time. By then I expect you to put on weight.”
At home, Father retires to sleep, and I’m given back to school books, the expectant kitchen and the grimy furniture.
I attempt to eat. Food, huge plates of it, are given to me and Mother, her Dr. Scholl sandal in hand, orders me to eat it or face punishment.
A few weeks later, I return to Doctor Longbotham. To the news that I’m heavier, my mortified parents tell everyone they know that I’m better.
I never see Doctor Longbotham again.
Meanwhile unrelenting household duties, academic and familial expectations to come on top in my forthcoming exams, the expectation to be the first person in my family to attend university, Father’s night-shifts, Mother’s rejection of housework, and the regular incidents of violence continue to synchronize my existence as customarily as the rotations of the Earth and Moon. And I, consuming food in front of my parents at dinner time, start to vomit and, once more, deny myself breakfast and lunch.
The day I receive my exam results, my best friend begins to slip away. Thin as she is, her body becomes a poem subject to erasure.
Now that my place at varsity is confirmed, the true value of my achievements–escape–nourishes me; and I start to eat, without self-loathing or vomiting.
It was only later, once I settled in a big city, began my studies and starved all communication with my family that I sat down with a counselor to discuss my best friend and my years as an anorectic. Each time I spoke a story opened up before me: a postmodern plot; a small town setting; a young protagonist raised by impoverished, violent, poorly educated parents; her ghost-like buddy, corporeal in spite of her slenderness.
Those were the years my best friend returned during my sleep. The house I grew up in was a hall of mirrors. Glass enlarged, extended and squashed my body. There was also a two-way mirror which briefly revealed the shadow of my best friend on its’ other side, a fragment of light distilling our essences just as the past often reflects the present, especially in memory, especially in song. Then the light was extinguished, and I was separated from my best friend, my other self by such frail darkness I awoke.
Siobhan Harvey is the author of Cloudboy (Otago University Press, 2014) and, as co-editor, Essential New Zealand Poems (Penguin Random House NZ, 2014). She is a Lecturer at The Centre for Creative Writing, Auckland University of Technology. Recently her work has appeared in Asian Literary Review (HK), Griffith Review (Aus), Segue (US), Sobotka (US), Stand (UK) and Structo (UK), as well as the anthology Leaving the Red Zone: Poems about the Christchurch Earthquake. She was runner-up in the 2015 and 2014 New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competitions, as well as winner of New Zealand’s richest prize for poetry, 2013 Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry. The Poetry Archive (UK) holds a ‘Poet’s Page’ devoted to her work.