"Excuse me," the man said, "where are the books on Vedic thought?"
Carly, at the library's issuing counter, shot him half a glance. She saw grey hair, probably a greying brain, nothing of interest. "Ask at the enquiry desk over there," she said, pointing vaguely to her left, where her superiors sat looking helpful and interested, ferreting out facts, checking books and databases. They'd know what Vedic thought was.
Carly yawned. Quite why she'd trained to become a library assistant was now beyond her, especially on Monday mornings. At the time it had seemed something useful. It was safe, not too taxing. She liked reading, and order. She'd been told at school she had neat handwriting. It made some kind of sense.
But oh, the boredom of it. The hours of sitting on her bony backside in this concrete bunker in the heart of London, blankly serving the clientele -- office workers, pensioners, students, the homeless sheltering from the rain -- passing the magic pen over barcodes, saying "There's a thirty pence fine on this one"! Or, worst of all, shelving. The curse of shelving! It was their first chore of the day; that and straightening, aligning the books so their spines matched, at least for a few minutes before the public arrived. She liked a neat row of books as much as anyone, but wasn't it fruitless? What was the name of that Greek mythical chap who spent eternity pushing a rock up a hill only to see the rock roll down and the process start all over again? Sisyphus, that was it. Well that was her life, at the age of 24.
The only good thing about shelving and straightening was the gossiping. The girls - Abby, Donna, Ellen, Jenna, Lorna, Ruth, Zuleika, an alphabet soup -- would chat about the night before: what they did, where they went, troubles with boyfriends. Not that Carly had anything to report. She was reasonably pretty, medium height, slim (all the library girls were slim), with ash blonde hair sometimes tied in a ponytail tuft, sometimes cascading down to her neck. But there were no boyfriends. No meaningful company at home either, not even a cat that clawed furniture: just a rented flat in the suburbs shared with the unprepossessing Natalie -- two small bedrooms, a sitting room with a portable TV, an empty fridge. Food never interested her, as her figure showed: breasts no bigger than door-knobs, hips that scarcely existed, slender limbs. 119 pounds of skin and bone, usually draped in drab colours: pale green, grey. Behind her back they called her the Mouse.
But today, as Carly sat at the front desk, she had something positive to think about. America. Marriage had whisked her sister Sandra off to Chicago two years before, and she had booked her ticket for a visit. She'd wanted to go before, but there was a fear of flying to conquer. So much water to fly over. So far to fall. No, no, she couldn't. But Sandra kept nagging. Resistance worn down, Carly had finally said yes.
Borrowers lined up to take out their books - Elvis biographies, light fiction, out-of-date computer manuals. Carly never caught their eye. She was busy imagining graceful skyscrapers, fridges big enough to live in, police sirens screaming: images from the movies and TV, the only America she knew.
"Apparently you don't have any books on Vedic thought." It was that man again, on his way out, empty-handed. He was smiling.
"Oh," Carly said. She couldn't have cared less.
On board her nerves became agitated and her spirits plummeted. So many couples, families, business people bristling with purpose. And here she was, alone, with only platitudes from family and people she never cared about to send her on her way. Her ice-cold father, on the phone, had mumbled "Bon voyage". Her mother had advised caution crossing roads. "Have a good time!" library colleagues had said, showing no enthusiasm. "I'll try," she'd replied, the voice flat, as it usually was.
Even when embarking on an adventure Carly seemed disconnected from life. Something had died in her: curiosity, a sense of fun, squeezed out by parents who only excelled at instilling guilt and sabotaging self-confidence. Over time shyness had become withdrawal, nervousness timidity. On the plane she sat fingering the in-flight magazine, finding fault with the page numbering, looking with an outsider's gaze at the adverts featuring bodies far more bronzed and attractive, she felt, than hers. The main meal she actually enjoyed; it was bland, small, just the right size. The movies she couldn't be bothered with.
Sandra met her at the airport; the elder sister with the get up and go, who got up and did the adult things, like getting married, moving continents, finding freelance work in publishing. They hugged. Carly noticed that she had put on weight; she found it somehow unsettling.
"Is that all your luggage?" Sandra said, jowl flickering round her face, looking at Carly's battered suitcase.
"I'm only here for two weeks."
They went quickly. Sandra took time off to take her sister round the obvious sites, the art galleries, Sears Tower, Lincoln Park Zoo. But Carly was happy enough aimlessly walking downtown. "Everything's so big," she kept on saying. The buildings. The cars. The fridges: Sandra, as she expected, had a whopper. And the food portions; Carly had to tiptoe around menus, choosing what she hoped were the tiniest, most calorie-free meals.
And the coffee shops! In London Carly was never inclined to go into them. But here a sit-down and a drink seemed the perfect pick-me-up after a slog round the museums.
"What's this?" Carly said, sipping a dark drink in a tall glass topped off with cream. Sandra had whisked her off to an old-fashioned place, the Cherry Tree Restaurant, and had insisted on ordering.
"You don't know the taste?"
"I never have anything like this. Dad would call it "surplus to requirements"."
"You really don't know? My God, Carly, it's chocolate."
She stretched back into childhood memories. She saw the dining table, and the family eating in silence. She saw the Christmas chocolate box, the usual gift from their Auntie Delia, and her father launching into a sermon on tooth decay. "It's been so long," she murmured.
"You've got to start living, Carly. The problem is you let our parents stifle you."
"You had self-confidence. You weren't the baby of the family. And you could swim." Another memory returned. She saw herself, spindly and twelve, being held in her father's grip at the local swimming pool. There was the water, turquoise with chemicals; the dolphins curling on the wall tiles; the municipal crest with its Latin motto. "Enough of the rubber ring," her father was shouting. She was kicking her legs, splashing up a storm. He was going to dump her into the water, she knew. She was going to slip through his fingers into her grave.
"Some apple pie would go nicely with that hot chocolate!" It was their Cherry Tree waitress, hovering with a smile.
"No, I better not."
"Oh come on," cried Sandra, "you don't need to watch your weight. You're not a model. You could do with gaining a few pounds."
Carly, snapped out of her reverie and blushed. She was embarrassed enough by her body as it was; but the thought of her breasts, her waist, her limbs and face fattening up was too much to contemplate. "Oh I don't think so," she said, trying to avoid her sister's eyes. One chubby face in the family was enough.
It was colder in Chicago than Carly had expected, and she soon realised she needed more fuel than salads and carrot soups. "You need to go native!" Sandra kept saying. One day Carly ventured into the avant-garde and ordered a Royal Canadian Mounted Burger. She felt, she said, like she'd eaten a horseshoe. Sandra also coaxed her into fruit pies, pecan pies, served with vanilla ice cream. And often at some corner of the day, chocolate.
"Why don't you marry an American and move here! What's keeping you in London?" It was a suggestion Sandra kept making. Carly would always shift uncomfortably, only too aware of her barren life: a dull job, a poky place to live, social contacts bordering on zero.
"I couldn't do that," she said. "Besides, who'd marry me? No-one even likes me." They were back at the Cherry Tree. She looked about to cry.
"Carly!" -- Sandra held her hand gently -- "I don't say this to hurt you, but -- you don't let people like you. People need a way in. So often you've got the drawbridge down. You're closed for business. Open yourself up!"
Carly stirred her chocolate drink with the spoon. "Oh I don't know," she said, half-heartedly. "I've just got no experience with men, with 'business'."
"Any desserts today? Apple pie?" said the waitress.
"Yes please," said Carly suddenly.
"I suppose you found it all rather strange," her mother drawled on the phone. "Did you watch out crossing the roads? Easy to forget they drive on the wrong side."
"It's the other side, mother, it's not necessarily wrong. Yes, I took care." She was tired, dead tired; overnight flight, the long haul from the airport, and now the dreaded phone call home.
"Did the suitcase hold out? How was Sandra?"
"Blooming. She's gained a bit of --"
"Oops, can't talk any more. Got to go to church. I'm sure your father would like a word, but he's up a ladder painting the kitchen ceiling."
Carly was left holding the receiver, wondering where love went. For a minute she sat fingering the phone, looking at the dingy wallpaper the landlord wouldn't allow them to change, at the ugly table lamp with the raffia shade, the carpet coffee stain shaped like Australia. She tried to blot out the bedroom sounds of Natalie's rock music, thumping, grinding. And then she looked at the day ahead: Monday, work day, back to the library, running a pen over bar codes. "Oh well," she sighed to herself. "At least I've been away."
"I've had a good time," she announced as she hung up her jacket in the staff locker. She thought she'd better chip in first, in case no-one noticed her return.
"That's good," said Ruth, a brunette beanpole, the closest she had to a friend at work. "You've been shopping, I see." Underneath her loose grey cardigan, Carly was wearing an orange sweatshirt, an impulse buy at the airport. "I LOVE CHICAGO," the lettering said, right across her chest. "It's a little different. Not your usual style."
Oh God, Carly thought, confidence sinking. That means it looks awful.
"What did you do in Chicago?" Jenna poked in, bright and malicious, face like a shrimp. "Go to any libraries, did you?"
She tried to think of a smart answer, but her imagination failed. "I did things, went to places, restaurants, museums, the zoo..."
The chief librarian, Mr Tregaskin, swept through with his clipboard. Gossip over. Time to work. Carly looked at the day's rota. One hour checking databases. Two hours checking incoming books. Drudgery.
She sat in the library's back offices, scrolling down the computer screen, books piled neatly by her side. Ordinarily Carly faded into the scenery, hair and cardigans hard to spot among filing cabinets and the fluorescent lights' glare. Today she stood out. The sweatshirt helped; but there was something else, a spark of electricity that made colleagues take notice. Hair worn down, she even looked faintly seraphic.
"Carly's a bit perkier than usual," Ruth said, sharing her lunchtime with Jenna and an egg and watercress sandwich. "And she's actually wearing a bright colour."
Jenna made a grimace. "Underneath her cardigan, Ruth, not on top."
"It's a start, isn't it? And do you think she's gained a few pounds?"
"Can't say I've noticed. I don't look too closely at the Mouse."
"Maybe it's my imagination. I just thought she'd filled out a bit in the face."
"To put on weight, Carly would have to enjoy her food. It's hard to think of her enjoying anything. Anyway, who cares?"
"You really don't like her, do you?"
Jenna drained her black coffee and shrugged. "What's there to like? She never talks, and when she does she sounds like a zombie. Coming for a smoke?"
Lunchtime brought a rush of borrowers. Carly sat at the front desk, checking the books in and out. Ordinarily her eyes scarcely strayed from the date stamp; today they managed at least half a glance at the book titles and customers. Pensioners with hospital romances, one book indistinguishable from the other: "Nurse Cartwright's Big Night", "Heartglow in Ward 7b". "25 Ways to Boost Your Confidence" ("Maybe," she thought, "I should borrow that"), "Sleeping Rough in Tunisia". But who was returning "I'll Take Vanilla: A Social History of Ice Cream"?
It was a vaguely familiar face. Then the penny dropped. Vedic thought. He seemed shy. And not old at all; his hair, she realised, only had a little patch of grey, a premature burst around one ear. Kind of cute, in a way. "Thank you, that's fine," she said routinely, only to find him staring intently, a little longer than politeness allowed. As soon as their eyes met he turned away, awkward, embarrassed.
"What on earth was he staring at?" Carly wondered. "Do I have a smudge?" She checked her face in her hand mirror during lunch. She could see nothing.
It was a long day. She still felt jet-lagged. And her bones ached. Cooped up in a plane, and now sitting at work. She needed exercise. More than that, she needed a soak in a bath. In Chicago Sandra could only offer a shower: brisk and efficient, but not the place to linger. And besides, Carly had kept thinking of "Psycho".
Before catching her bus home, Carly roamed the supermarket shelves, looking for a bath lotion. Nothing too fragrant or sexy, she thought: just enough silky bubbles to refresh. "Evening Primrose" seemed the answer. Also some food shopping: spaghetti, tomato sauce, enough for a quick meal. Spotting chocolate bars by the tills, she scooped up a couple. "Might come in handy," she thought.
Her bath was not enormous: with a pea-sized bathroom how could it be? But it was long enough for her to lie reasonably flat, the knees slightly bent. She stayed still for ten minutes, limbs and torso poking through the bubbles, and let the memories of her holiday play in her head. Then she eased herself up, soap in hand. Progressing downwards from her shoulders, past her arms, her breasts, onto her stomach, a thought gradually took hold.
Her body felt different. Instead of rib bones and hard surfaces, she now felt a little layer of fat, covering her stomach like a winter blanket. Just below her navel, she could pucker up the flesh in her fingers. She could do the same to the sides of her waist. It was very odd, like feeling the body of a different person. Curiosity mounting, she advanced to her thighs. No change there at least; slim and contained as ever, weren't they? Weren't they? She hesitated. No: on reflection they too seemed a fraction fleshier. Nervous now, soap discarded, she returned to her breasts, holding them in her hands. Still the same door knobs. But did they have this little bounce before? Door knobs don't bounce.
She had put on some weight, that was obvious. She recognised why; a body used to the minimum intake doesn't suddenly start feasting without something happening. Towards the end of her stay in America she thought her jeans felt tighter than usual around her waist, but had let the thought go. Was this how it had started with Sandra: the hand on the body, feeling the tummy's cushion of fat, seeing the pounds sitting there, winking?
How much had she gained? Three pounds? Ten pounds? There was no way to tell. They had no bathroom scales at the flat. Before stepping out of the bath, she gave her tummy a little rub, fingers gliding over the skin. Was it the fat that made it feel so soft, or the "Evening Primrose" bubbles, or both? She felt perplexed and vulnerable. She was afraid of change, and her body had changed. Something forbidden had taken place. Towelling herself down, she cursed their lack of a full-length mirror to check her physique, but felt vaguely reassured. Her frame was still slim; a few extra pounds here and there surely wouldn't make much difference?
By the time she had dried her hair and dressed, Natalie had returned from her law offices -- she answered the phone and shuffled papers around -- and was fussing about in the kitchen.
"What's this?" Natalie said sharply, finding the chocolate bars on the kitchen table. They might as well have been rock samples from Mars.
Carly felt herself colouring. "I got them for work. Shall we have a little pasta?"
"That's fine. It's been a pig of a day." Natalie kicked off her boots. "The phones rang like crazy. I lost an entire file of correspondence. And nobody noticed my new suit."
And as the spaghetti cooked on the stove, the question Carly was afraid to ask finally emerged. "Natalie -- do you think I've put on weight?"
"Not that I can see." She looked again. "Why, do you think you have?"
"Just wondering. I was eating a bit more on holiday, that's all."
"Back to the normal routine now, though."
"That's right." Carly stirred the spaghetti in the saucepan. She felt relieved. It wasn't noticeable.
"You know," she said, "there's even a dedicated shelf mark for books about cooking for buffet cars on trains. It's 641.577. And the next number in line - get this - is for books about canteen cooking and mass feeding in emergencies."
The girls looked at her in astonishment. They were doing their morning straightening in the food and cookery section, and Carly was actually talking. And talking.
"What number is that?" Zuleika said, warily.
"641.577. We don't have any books on it, though. There's also a separate number for cooking molluscs."
"Carly, you're not actually talking an interest in your job, are you?" Jenna looked threatening, as though this were something forbidden. "Have you taken the classification catalogue to bed?"
"It's a good read. Kind of funny."
"Funny??" They squawked in unison.
"You sound like chickens," glowered Mr Tregaskin, inopportunely passing by. "This isn't a farmyard."
"Sorry, Mr Tregaskin." Back to the shelves. 641.821, casserole dishes. 641.822, pasta. 641.823, stews. 641.824, preserves and candies.
It was true. Carly was taking more of an interest: the better option, it seemed to her, than stewing in boredom all day. In the weeks since Chicago she'd kept thinking about what Sandra had said about not letting people like her. She'd made conscious efforts to pull down the drawbridge and be more positive. She had picked up a booklet about evening classes. Everything from ballroom and Latin dancing to "Slightly Beyond Beginners' Spanish". Too late to enrol for the autumn, she knew, but perhaps in the new year? She could learn a language. Or do art appreciation. Or appreciating something. Chocolate, for instance.
She was also trying to be friendlier. Instead of constantly shading her eyes she began to look at the people she talked to. She suggested going to lunch with Ruth -- "Lunch?" Ruth had shrieked, "real food?" -- or having a drink after work. It wasn't easy; she didn't want to force herself upon anyone. At the same time she felt fed up being more or less alone, fed up of evenings of bouncing around, her only company the self-centred Natalie or a worthy novel she felt she should read, like "Long-Lasting Stains" by Aretha Dubois.
She'd grown fed up, too, of opening the fridge and finding nothing. Just like her life, she decided. So now she came back from shopping with vegetables never cooked before, with ready-made meat pies thick with crust -- not haute cuisine, but convenient and comforting. And once a week, maybe an apple pie; best, she found, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
She remembered another conversation with Sandra. "It's so hard to meet people," Carly had told her. "But you work in a library. You deal with people all the time." That had produced a grunt. "They're not people. They're borrowers. They take books out on -- oh, I don't know, boat building, the history of monastic thought. Some of them wear dirty raincoats. These are not people you go out with." She'd said it and believed it, and it came to mind one more time as she sat greeting borrowers with a modest smile.
A familiar face loomed above her. She took in the name on his membership card. Mark Riley. Unremarkable, she thought. Just like her own, Caroline Adams. Once more she had the sensation of a gaze being held longer than necessary. She returned to the book he was taking out, taking a second to note the title. Not Vedic thought, not vanilla ice cream. "Self-Esteem and the Fridge: Women Talk". What was a man doing taking out a book like that?
"It's for my sister," he said suddenly.
"That's alright. It's a free country," she found herself saying. Good God, she was having a conversation with him.
He seemed about to say something else, but backed off. Then as he picked up his book he looked at her again. He was right; it hadn't been his imagination. She had definitely filled out in the face, rounded out around the chin, gathered just enough fat in the cheeks to form a slight crease as she smiled. Dare he prolong the look to glance at her waist? He shouldn't, he knew, it was rude; but he felt compelled to. Disappointment was in store; a cardigan covered all evidence, if indeed there were any to see. Even so, he went away happy. One of the library's slenderest girls, someone he found modestly attractive, had actually put on a little weight.
"That guy," Carly thought to herself after he left, "has some weird reading tastes." In her library training she'd been told never to make an issue of the books people took out. Even if someone returned "How to Dismember Your Mother-in-Law in Ten Easy Stages" you were not supposed to comment. Except if it came back sprayed with blood. Then you could levy a fine for damages.
At this point Mark couldn't remember how his fascination with weight gain began. Was it the sensory pleasure he'd felt as a child from the loving body of his mother, the delight in having some fat to cuddle? Maybe a psychologist could tell him; but that would involve talking about it, bringing his passion into the open. And that he had been unable to do; fifteen years into adulthood and he was still bottling things up, observing fat beauty from a distance, his only real outlet masturbation. He'd heard all the rumours at school -- it would make you go blind, or your hair would fall out. Now he was 30 and still he persisted, if not so often, face down on the bed, sometimes lying in the bath, spinning some fantasy or bringing to mind the latest eye candy seen around town.
Initially there'd been Rachel at school, a sporty type, lightning on the tennis court. Then in her senior year hormones or appetite had kicked in; breasts and tummy filled out her gym clothes, the chin eventually doubling. Other guys at school had made tart comments about her game and figure going to pot; but to Mark the whole process was beautiful and exciting. Slim girls getting chubby: that's what got his juices flowing.
After Rachel he saw beauty everywhere, in the softening tummies of girls at his business schools, in the tender shake of the jowls as a young woman ran to catch a bus, in the "before" photos of diet articles in women's magazines. None of this fat was for touching, or knowing; shyness and guilt locked Mark within himself, with no close friends, no person to touch except the goddesses in his head. At times it seemed they were his only company.
He was now working in IT, a trouble shooter, servicing banks, lawyers and other businesses usually on short-term contracts. Was he a computer nerd? He worried about that: he could speedily straighten out most software glitches, but the messy business of personal relations he found unfathomable. How do you get close to people? How do you get the confidence to display yourself without fear, without covering up, or shaking with nerves? He didn't know.
So he took his pleasures furtively. Over time he saw business acquaintances fill out through holidays, marriage, whatever -- his current favourite was an Indian girl, a bank cashier, settling into chubbiness after several years on the brink. On particularly desperate days he would take esoteric delight in peering into the photos on people's identity badges, seeking evidence of a thinner face from the one in front of him. Then guilt would creep up: not so much guilt at finding sensual delights away from the mainstream, but guilt at treating people as objects, placed on earth for his amusement. He knew enough about relationships to know that it wasn't looks that counted deep down; it was what lay within, the personality, the heart, the soul. If you loved, you loved the whole person, fat or thin. Mark hadn't reached that point yet.
As winter dug in, Mark found it hard to shake from his mind the image of her sitting at the library desk, the face slightly and beautifully fattened. He wanted to see more, of course; he wanted to see if any further pounds would arrive to fill out the cheeks. But he wanted to know more too. He didn't even know Carly's name. Dare he possibly ask? Could he throw in chatty comments about the weather, or Christmas holiday plans? Someone without inhibitions might plunge in without a murmur. For Mark that was not possible. Voyeurs, by definition, don't talk to their prey; they look, they dream, and move on.
He began to make his library visits at the end of the afternoon, when experience told him Carly would be on desk duty. He got to know her wardrobe, and despaired of the cardigans that he hoped might be hiding a little something extra round the waist. Her face grew to be almost as familiar as his own as he scrutinised it through snatched glances, and when eventually he saw the chin begin to double slightly as she inclined her head his heart skipped a beat. Trouble was, the more the pounds settled in, the more she became an object for admiration, and the more difficult conversation became.
He decided to let the books do the talking. He scoured the shelves for the most outrageous titles, to stir her interest and open the channels of communication. One day in December he found a book called "Lynching as a Community Pastime". How could he pass that up? So it joined the pile already containing " "Liza, Lay Off the Crepes Suzette!": Liza Minnelli's Weight Diary", the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, and "Taking Care of Small Mammals".
Carly couldn't help herself. "You have eclectic tastes," she said. "I guess," he mumbled, trying to avoid her gaze.
"Bye!" she said to his departing back.
"Bye," he said, half turning round, mad at himself for not following through.
Carly pondered. "He's not taking those books out just to make me take notice, is he? If so, it's not working." But it was. When he returned "Taking Care of Small Mammals", just before Christmas, she threw away professional decorum.
"You didn't have this one long."
"Er no, no. The mammals weren't small enough."
"Do you keep mammals then?"
He looked down at his boots. What should he say next?
"I just like to read about them." She smiled without comment. As she turned to put the book on a trolley a jowl formed briefly. Oh God, a jowl, Mark thought. "Happy Christmas!" she said.
"And to you." His heart shook, but he plucked up enough courage to continue. "Are you going away anywhere?"
"To my parents in Loughborough, for a few days."
"You wouldn't want to know. In the middle of England, very boring."
"Well have a nice time." That was an imaginative thing to say, he thought.
Suddenly he wanted to end the conversation. "Oh, my folks are away. I'll just be here."
"Well, have a nice time!" That was an imaginative thing to say, she thought.
As he turned to go, he found his voice uttering words he thought he'd never hear. "I'm Mark, by the way. What's your name?"
"Carly," she said. "It's Carly."
"Teas, coffees, light refreshments!" The girl with the trolley trundled down the aisle, steering past outstretched legs and the luggage crammed between seats. After several years spending Christmas in London, ostensibly seeing friends she hadn't got, Carly had forgotten how jammed the trains could be. As soon as she stepped into the carriage she wished she hadn't succumbed to the urge to bite the bullet and visit her parents. People, suitcases, festive wrapping paper poking out; bustle and excitement everywhere. Except around Carly.
The countryside was flat and grey. She was struggling to finish Aretha Dubois' "Long-Lasting Stains". "Hardly had Bradley left the tenement," she read, "than the sky flared into copper -". Her eyes glazed over. Hardly had Bradley left the tenement than? What kind of writing was this? She snapped the book shut, fed up with Bradley, and cast an eye over the trolley sandwiches, pale and old, life sucked out of them by their cellophane wrappers. She chose hers by colour, thin chicken meat peeking through brown granary bread, a flash of tomato, bits of lettuce more virile than most. And a coffee. Black. She needed it black.
She took a bite and winced. They charge money for this? As she bit on, the Adams living room loomed in her inner eye. She saw the cards hung from pieces of twine looped across the walls, the images dull and religious, the messages perfunctory. She saw the table set for Christmas dinner, every knife, fork and serviette in its place, the small servings of turkey, the buttered potatoes, the carrots never cooked long enough. She saw her father, brow permanently furrowed, the sharp little nose. And there was her mother, eyes chilly, wearing her superiority like a scarf. Carly stiffened. "Come on," she said to herself, "you can get through this."
And there, soon enough, her mother stood, presiding over the turkey as though she had farmed the bird herself. "So good you could join us this year. We're only missing Sandra now."
"How was she? She sent a card -- ". Her father gestured toward the angels and robins above the fireplace.
Carly did her spiel. "She's blooming. She's seems happy at home, and happy with her work. She's put on a bit of weight."
As soon as the words were out, she wanted to retract them. She felt eyes scrutinising her, putting her own body on the scales. "But it suits her," she added quickly. "She wants to have a baby, she said."
"That'll be very nice. Vegetables, Carly?"
Carly spooned them onto her plate, wondering how much other food was in the house. She hoped there was plenty of Christmas pudding.
After the meal, they sat in the lounge. This was the talking time, the time Carly hated.
"So how's your life in London, Caroline?" Carly groaned; her father had got going. "We don't hear much about your social life. Do you have particular friends? Anyone close?" She felt a pit opening beneath her.
"I have a social life. I have friends."
Her father worried at the topic like a dog with a bone. "What are their names? We'd just like to have a picture of how you spend your spare time."
"Let me alone," she shrieked inside. "I know you're my parents, but do you have to be the Spanish Inquisition too?" But out of her mouth came different words: the names of Natalie, her flatmate, suddenly upgraded into a bosom pal, and a few of the friendlier people at work. She went to movies, she said (she didn't). She ate out at restaurants (she ate, yes, but only at home).
"Do you go with men friends or women friends? Is there a man we should know about?" Now her mother was in on the act.
Carly saw a lecture coming if she admitted there was no-one at all. "Yes. Well, things are in their early stages."
"Be careful, dear. Men can be brutes. Does he have a name?"
She should have known this was coming. Her brain fuzzed over. She couldn't think. Then, plucking the name from her memory bank, she said "Mark. Mark Riley."
"What's his occupation?"
Carly felt herself tumbling down a tunnel, with no exit in sight. She scrambled for something plausible. She remembered his books. "Mammals, he takes care of mammals. Small mammals."
"Works in a zoo?"
"That's it, mother, he works in a zoo. London Zoo."
"How did you meet? In the zoo?"
"Yes. We met in the restaurant at London Zoo." What am I saying, Carly thought? "We were both having crepes suzette".
"Mother doesn't like crepes suzette, do you? She thinks they're too French." Mother nodded, and thought with a shiver of the uncovered legs at the Folies Bergere. "Does he have good manners?" she said, without much hope.
As Carly thought about what to say, she saw before her Mark's lingering looks and his odd, shy retreats whenever their eyes met.
"Yes," she said, "they're impeccable."
In the evening, as usual, there was the family party at uncle Simon's. Glasses of dessert wine or, for the faint of heart, orange juice. Usually on these occasions she had nothing to say. This time she had the American trip to lean on: the skyscrapers, the big fridges, Sandra happy. She missed out the weight bit. The aunts and uncles seemed moderately interested.
"Ah, Hugh," said her uncle, sidling up to her father and casting a glance at Carly attacking a banana cake at the buffet table. "Good to see Caroline at one of these things." Then his voice dropped. "She looks like she's put on a little weight."
"We've noticed that. She keeps asking if we have any more food. We haven't, of course."
"Of course not."
On the other side of the room Simon's wife complimented Carly's mother on her necklace, and then moved on. "I haven't seen Caroline for a few years. Not quite so thin as she was."
"She has filled out a little. America played its part, I suppose." She started to whisper. "She met her new male friend in a restaurant."
"Oh." This was shocking news.
"A zoo restaurant." This was even worse.
Carly, meanwhile, had padded over the camel-hair rugs, up the stairs, towards what her parents called "the facilities". Beyond the necessity to relieve herself, she needed the retreat of a private space. She was running the gauntlet and wanted time out. Sitting crouched, head trying to empty, her eyes spotted the bathroom scales under the sink. They looked old, covered in dusty pink fluff. They looked dangerous too, for unless they were broken they would tell her how much she now weighed.
Dare she find out? It had been weirdly exciting to eat and gain weight -- over the weeks she had watched in wonder as her girth increased and her tummy fattened. But once the numbers were known, would the spell vanish? She feared it would; she could already tell her tummy was starting to edge out into a bulge. Somebody soon was going to notice and say something. And besides, it felt intrusive, indecent almost, to stand on somebody else's scales in somebody else's house. What if someone barged in?
"Oh let's go for it," she thought. Making sure the door was locked -- no use weighing her heavy blouse, her sweater, her socks -- she stripped. Feeling foolish and cold, she pulled out the scales and blew off the dust. Twiddling a button brought the needle to zero. "OK," she said, trying to remember where it stood before. She thought it was eight stone seven, 119 pounds. Now she was peering at 130 pounds. Nine stone five.
"I've put on eleven pounds. My God."
She pushed her fingers into the flesh just beginning to mount up on her lower belly, hoping it felt firm. It felt squishy. She fingered her breasts, rounder she felt sure, and getting in need of support. Would that salmon cardigan her mother gave her as a present actually fit?
Tucking her blouse back under her slacks, she began to feel herself subtly different from the person who had entered the bathroom ten minutes before. Then, if pressed, she'd have identified herself as a slender person carrying a little, secret extra weight that did no-one any harm. Now she wondered if she hadn't moved onto a different level. Where her weight could be a problem. Where it became visible. She wasn't yet chubby, she knew that, certainly not fat, but was she getting the softened, out-of-condition body, say, of a sedentary young office worker over-partial to a little fast food? Carly didn't know what to feel. This was new territory.
Slipping back downstairs, Carly suddenly noticed the fake reindeer head, decorated with holly, perched above the mantelpiece. "Really, these people have strange tastes." Nerves and hunger drew her back to the buffet table, where the remaining banana cake beckoned. "No," she thought to herself, "better not".
The evening passed. So did the ride back in her parents' car. Within an hour she was safe, comparatively, under the blankets in her old bedroom, nightgown snug around her, the cold winter night kept at bay.
Christmas at home hasn't changed, she thought. So much ritual, so little feeling. She cursed herself for getting trapped in boy friend talk. "Why did I come up with that reader at the library with the bizarre books? The next time they ask, I'll have to tell them the relationship's over." She thought back to other inquisitions in the past: her father twisting in the knife over some childhood failing; the homework not done; the period bleeding that had stained the sheets. Or the swimming lesson: the fingers again, ready to let her slip into a watery grave.
She thought too about the weight she'd been gaining. She placed her hands on her tummy, a little heavy from her uncle's buffet. "It's definitely bigger," she mused, "it's getting as round as the earth." She felt its rise and fall as she breathed, a natural rhythm, like day following night, spring following winter. Slipping one hand under her nightgown she tipped a finger into her belly-button, sunk a little into her flesh, then began stroking the surrounding skin, pressing inwards, feeling the fat's comfort and love.
"Maybe," she thought, "eleven pounds isn't so bad. Maybe it wasn't eleven pounds anyway."
Her hand moved horizontally to her hips, and followed the curve of her body down to her thighs, around to her bottom. Some of the weight had gone here too, she now realised; once there was bone, now there was a cushion, a velvet cushion. "Maybe the scales were wrong. Maybe I always weighed more than I thought. I don't want to give myself a complex." She took a deep breath, feeling her breasts press against the nightgown and bedding; the moment left her oddly aroused, as though someone was in bed with her. She liked her fat, she suddenly realised. It was comforting. It was company.
She curled under the bedclothes. Her breathing slipped into a slower rhythm, each breath more extended than the one before. Before long she was fast asleep. Before long it was morning.
For Mark this was not the best of times. Since November he had been on site at the publishing conglomerate Hamish International, sitting in an aquamarine glass tower, battling with his colleagues' problems with Windows XP. "Their toolbars just get smaller and smaller!" was one regular moan. "Don't you just hate Microsoft?" With the toolbars he could offer speedy help customizing the screens. Other problems proved more intractable; and everyone expected answers within ten seconds.
He felt harried and alone, and his solitary life - a nice rented flat for one, no friends you could really call friends - allowed little room for frustrations to escape. He loathed getting the new year's diary: so many days lying ahead, so little to write in. Work engagements, yes; but evenings? Forget them. Sending and receiving Christmas cards too was always a melancholy business. "Let's meet up in the new year," he or a past college friend would write. But they wouldn't, neither party summoning enough will power to move beyond vague intention. In his most depressed moments he would feel his isolation as a heavy weight pressing down, imprisoning him. Other people lead lives, he'd muse; I have just the shadow of a life.
Even his little local amusements brought him no joy. Lingering round the copying machines at work he overheard no-one talking guiltily about putting on pounds over the holiday, nor did he see any visual evidence. Everyone in Hamish International, damn it, seemed to be holding steady. Maybe his beautiful Indian bank cashier had grown a little rounder. But this was probably wishful thinking: he was prone, he knew, to a lot of this, along with doubts, guilt, embarrassments, and the feeling that by hungering for fat he was doing or thinking something wrong.
Whenever disappointment struck - a diet instituted, perhaps, or some admired office plumper leaving for another job - he would try to rationalise his hurt. Just as well, he'd say to himself. Voyeurism isn't honourable. How can I ever make real contact with people if all I see is the flesh outside? And besides, much of the time I make mountains with straw. I think I see fat when it's only a trick of the light, bulky clothing, or a period bloat, there for a week and then gone. Give it up, Mark, you're better off studying computer manuals.
For days, for weeks, he might ease off. But it never lasted. All it took was a tweak of a jowl, or the sudden flash of a soft midriff, for his spirits to rise and his eyes to stare with wonder and delight. If his actions followed his desires, he would have reached out respectfully and stroked these beauties, or at least asked them how much they weighed. But he knew that was the way to a slap on the face or, even worse, court proceedings. So he simply looked and dreamed. More frustration.
And another thing. Where was that nice quiet library girl who had put on a few pounds? Carly, that was the name. In the weeks after Christmas he kept going to the library at the usual time, but she was never visible. He only caught sight of her once at a distance, through a door, carrying heavy volumes; he would have needed binoculars or an X-ray machine to see anything useful. Besides, Mark consoled himself, she's probably gone on a diet.
"What's this?" said Natalie, pulling another item out of Carly's supermarket bag. It was Saturday morning, and frosty.
"Porridge oats. For breakfast. This will warm us up."
"And this?" She dragged out another box, holding it disdainfully at a distance.
"It's called a cake mix, Natalie. I thought I might learn how to use it. Something to do at the weekend."
"But cake, Carly. Why do you want to be eating cake?"
"Why not?" she said.
It was one answer, though it scarcely got to the bottom of the desires that had made her set about the new year eating more than before. She could have mentioned winter and the need to ward off colds - it was already mid February, and, unusual for her, she hadn't suffered one sniffle. But to give a full answer, she would have to talk about deeper things: about opening up, learning to say yes rather than no, stamping out guilt, accepting pleasure. She'd need to talk about that cold night in Loughborough, the warmth of her bed, and that magical sense that the fat layered around her body was a friend, lover even, holding her in a sweet embrace. She knew since then that the flesh on her tummy had been mounting - she saw it every time she undressed, felt it each time she zipped up her jeans. But she remained sanguine. If she gained a few more pounds, well, they would just join the ones she already had. Not much to worry about. No-one, after all, had made any comments. So she cut a long story short. She said "Why not?"
Natalie turned on her squawk. "Why not? Because cake's fattening, you dope!" She watched as Carly reached up to place the supplies on the kitchen shelves, tummy swell clearly visible, breasts rubbing tight against her cardigan. "You do know, don't you, that you've been putting on weight?"
Carly's heart skipped a beat. She felt wobbly, as though she were standing on one leg. She'd known, deep down, this was going to come - she'd been surprised her parents hadn't said anything - but it still hurt more than expected. "I put on some weight in America, I know..." She hadn't meant to sound so apologetic.
"That was six months ago. You've put on weight since then, Carly. I can tell you're fatter in the face, and you're starting to get a tummy."
She looked down, embarrassed. "I suppose. A bit."
"This is a bit?" Natalie prodded a finger into the bulge at Carly's waist.
Carly wasn't amused. "Do you mind? I don't go poking around your body."
Natalie gave an icy smile. "Of course you don't. I have nothing to poke." She saw her flatmate's frown and realised she'd better make some kind of apology. "Oh, it's none of my business. If you're happy putting on weight, fine."
"You're right. It's none of your business."
Silently, Carly put away the rest of the supplies - the castor sugar for making the cakes, the silly crisps, the apple pie with a puff pastry top. She couldn't wait to get to her bedroom, shut out Natalie and sit with the thoughts that swirled around her; the memories of parental finger-waggings, so many of those, or the casual remarks of others that had wounded like a knife. "You have a watery personality," she'd been told by a teacher: whatever that meant, she'd known it wasn't good. And here she was, burning from being hauled over the coals by Ms. Self-Absorbed and Abrasive.
But before that, the bathroom. She needed to look in the mirror. Face? She was fatter in the face? That she hadn't realised, though since the fat seemed to be creeping in everywhere else she supposed she shouldn't have been surprised. But your face you take for granted. You give it a glance as you comb your hair, but you never really look.
So she looked. It had softened and filled out, that was obvious now. There was less definition; the cheeks had plumped up. She ran a finger under her jaw, expecting the customary hollow space, but only finding a little more fat, stored for a potential double-chin. She looked, she thought, like an out-of-focus picture of herself. She didn't look awful, exactly, but still - to find this fat wrapped around the only part of the body that everybody sees underlined the magnitude of what had happened. She looked different. She had changed.
"I should diet," she muttered. Then her mind churned some more. "No," she thought, "that's a reflex action. If I want to eat something because I'm hungry or it tastes good, why shouldn't I? Maybe I'm meant to look a little chubby." And then she glanced down at her waist, her tummy, and her jeans. "If this continues pretty soon I won't be able to button these up. Oh, why is all the weight going there?"
After staring long at her bedroom walls she eventually reached a compromise. She would not try to diet particularly, but she would try not to gain any more. She would watch her weight. Buy bathroom scales. She would just be like so many others she saw around town: a young woman with a little tummy. Reaching into the fridge later, she fetched out the new fruit cake, stroked it, whispered "Another time, friend", and put it back.
"You're not hung over, are you?" Ruth said on Monday as the girls started tidying the fiction, always the section with the heaviest use. Aaron, Abel, Ackroyd, Adam, Adam, Adamson. "You look a bit glum." Once upon a time Carly always looked glum; now at least it was the exception. Hair in a tuft, face paler than usual, she was standing forlorn, all too aware that the clothes she had grabbed from her wardrobe - blue denim jeans, yellow blouse -- were meant for someone thinner.
"No, I didn't have a very good weekend."
"I'm sorry." Pause. Conversation moved to other things: Jenna's night with a club DJ (disastrous), Ellen's house-hunting (disastrous), whether it was worth buying the DVD Special Edition of "The Exorcist" (the answer was no). Carly kept quiet, straightening the books, reaching up to the top shelf, bending down to the bottom. MacAlan, MacAllan, McBain, McCabe, Macauley, McCaffrey, McGraw.
"My DJ," Jenna said, "hadn't washed in a week. He reeked. And he had rings everywhere."
Ruth was interested, but her mind was elsewhere. She spotted Carly's waist. She saw the tummy; she saw the way her undershirt and blouse rode up as Carly stretched, revealing the midriff fat circling her waist. She also noticed, on closer inspection, that the top button of her jeans was undone.
"The belly?" said Ellen. "I love them in the belly-button."
"Not his belly. His toes. He had rings in his toes."
"Rings like doughnuts?" Carly said suddenly. She sounded wistful.
Jenna looked quizzical. "How could they be like doughnuts?"
Defeated, Carly returned to her books. "I'd better shut up." Yallop, Yan, Yevtushenko, Yorke, Yoshima.
Before they left the morning chores, Ruth put her hand on Carly's arm and led her into Poetry. There they'd be undisturbed.
"You seen in an odd mood today." No, no, Carly insisted, she was OK, just tired.
Then came those words again. "I hope you don't mind me saying this, but - we've all noticed you've been putting on some weight." Carly kept her eyes lowered; her old habit. "It's not like you're fat, Carly, far from it, don't think that. But you're getting a little - a little chubby."
"I know I've put a bit on. I felt I was underweight." That, she thought, was a good line of defence. At some level it was also true. She found talking easier this time. No freezing up and going into a huff, as she had with Natalie. "Maybe," she said, raising her gaze, "I have gone a bit wild with the eating. Some of my clothes no longer fit. But it's under control now."
"That's good. I wouldn't want you to get like a balloon. I hope you don't mind me mentioning it." The hand on the arm again. The voice gentle. This was acceptable, Carly decided.
"It's alright," she said. After that separate duties called: fitting polythene jackets on new acquisitions, de-accessing worn books for an upcoming sale, answering the renewals hotline. Carly drifted through the morning, trying to feel more contentment inside her than was there and pulling her blouse down as much as possible.
And then, at 3pm, the front desk. "The Beverly Hills Diet Book". A shiver ran through her when that was presented. It was ten weeks overdue. Does it take that long to diet? Ten weeks without chocolate bars? A craving started; there was one in her handbag. After that she twiddled her thumbs. Business was slow. The mid-afternoon lull.
"The History of Marmalade Manufacture in Great Britain". Carly looked up immediately and panicked. It was him. Her imaginary boyfriend. Mark what's-his-name. In the last couple of months she'd tried to forget his existence, but there he was, back from the dead, raising up her silly Christmas charade.
She managed a polite hello. She was sure she looked guilty, red as a beetroot; she certainly felt it.
"Hello." His voice was cramped, his gestures nervous, the eyes open wide. She had gained more weight, he could tell immediately. And not only in the face. Heavier in the chest, certainly bulkier round the middle. She was so beautiful.
"Hello," he repeated. He couldn't move; he was transfixed. He'd quite expected Carly to shrivel; instead she'd spent the winter blossoming. And this, he sensed, was no light dusting of fat, easily acquired, easily lost; she was moving now onto a different level, where the fat with luck would take permanent hold, reshape the body, and give it the curves and tenderness he adored.
Carly cautiously attempted conversation. "Haven't seen you in a while." Then her embarrassment and his penetrating gaze made her fumble. The book dropped to the floor. "Oh!" she said, blushing again, bending to pick it up. "Oh," Mark murmured as he saw a flash of her midriff fat, soft as honey, oozing over the top of her jeans.
"Is this interesting, then? The history of marmalade manufacture?"
Mark felt his throat being strangled, but got out a reply. "Interesting in bits."
"Rather like marmalade, then. That has bits. Thick-cut, anyway." What was she doing chattering away? It was nerves, she decided.
Mark was panting inside. Oh God, he thought, she's talking about food. I want to know her. I want to touch her. I want at least to ask her out for a drink. But I can't, I can't. As he smiled blankly, not knowing what to say next, he realised the top button of her jeans, just visible underneath her blouse, was not done up.
"Bye!" Carly said briskly, putting "Marmalade" on the trolley behind her. Transaction done. Conversation over. She wished she hadn't felt so awkward and dropped the book. She wished above all she hadn't told people he was her boyfriend.
Back at his office, Mark put a note in his diary. "Library. After three." Same day, next week. He'd be there, he had to be. The bit was now between his teeth. It's not good to stare, he knew that. Undressing people with his eyes. But oh, the new beauty of that face, rounded a little more under the chin, and the rounder breasts, and that midriff! He had to see more, know more. Why was she putting on this weight? Where were the calories coming from? How did she feel? How did her body feel? If only voyeurs could penetrate beyond what they saw, into people's minds.
For the rest of the afternoon, Carly entered new catalogue entries under Mr Tregaskin's beady eyes. Having a sedentary job doesn't help, she thought. I must look fatter to everyone, even Mr Tregaskin.
"You do know, don't you, Carly, that library employees get a big reduction at the health club across the street?" Mr Tregaskin was looking over her shoulder. "I myself, as you know, ride a bicycle to work." Hard to forget: there was the bike stored in his office, bright yellow jacket draped over, mask to keep out street pollution stored in a dedicated desk drawer. He was always bragging about it. "Exercise, Carly, is very important."
"Yes, Mr Tregaskin."
By the time she came home, she had bought some bathroom scales, grey, plastic, old-fashioned enough to still have a needle to point out the damage. She'd feared Natalie might already be back, waiting to pounce with a tart remark. But the coast was clear. She would keep the scales hidden in her bedroom. No point in advertising things.
After locking her door Carly stripped down with the ravenous speed of a kid tearing into a Christmas present. Then she stood in contemplation, hands brushing over her breasts towards her tummy, jutting outwards, soft and pliant, and the increased padding around her hips. "This," she thought, "is as big as I'm going to get. Not a pound more."
She crossed her fingers, and stepped onto the scales. 139 pounds. Nine stone thirteen. Could this be right? Inside of five months, she had put on 20 pounds. She'd always weighed around eight and a half stone, light a bird's feather, and had considered weighing nine stone to be a fate worse than death. Now, in the blink of an eye, she had fattened up, zoomed through almost all of nine stone and was nearly ten. This had to stop. She sat on the bed's edge, and dug a finger into the little roll of fat riding on top of the curve of her tummy. "Hello, fat," she said, wistfully. "Hello and goodbye."
Next week, same time, same place. Mark came primed. Carly was at the front desk. He edged the conversation along, asked how she was. She said she was fine: not true, she was feeling low, missing her afternoon chocolate. He asked if she had any holiday planned. Not yet; might see her sister in America, she went last year. The wheels in Mark's brain started spinning; maybe that was where the gain started. The following week, he was back again, and he tried a joke. "We mustn't keep meeting like this. People will talk!" She chuckled politely, and then involuntarily yawned, the jaw movement briefly gathering the flesh into a double chin. "Oh," Mark said, enthralled.
The next week, they chatted about why celebrity autobiographies had such terrible titles. He was taking out a genre classic, "I Swore I'd Never Go Out Without My Trousers", by the veteran British disc jockey Pete Murray.
"Maybe if "War and Peace" had a title like that more people would read it," Carly said, sitting back on her stool, crossed arms resting on her tummy: despite efforts, she was finding it hard to lose any serious weight. She looked especially beautiful that day, Mark thought. Could he risk it? He took the plunge.
"You wouldn't be free for a drink one night after work, would you?"
For a moment that jolted Carly, though as she tossed the proposal around she grew less surprised. All those looks he'd been giving her: they must mean something, some kind of interest. He seemed clean and safe. Her social life wasn't exactly crowded. And it would be useful to know more about him; if she was going to tell her parents their phantom relationship was over, why not lie with a few facts behind her?
"OK. I don't see why not."
They met. They met again, in the same wine bar around the corner. And again. Always two glasses of the house red. She found him odd, buttoned up, not unpleasant, but difficult to pigeonhole: if he were a library book, she thought, she wouldn't know where to shelve him. Why did he shy away so much if her eyes suddenly caught his? And this thing with food: what's with that? He was always pressing pretzels upon her, or suggesting baguettes smeared with mayonnaise. Still, he was company of a sort. And he was clean.
Mark imagined he was having the time of his life. He was furthering a relationship with a plumper. He was sitting next to her, inches away. He wished he could lead her on to talk about food, but she never seemed to follow his signposts. She had more personality than he figured, though nothing to get you excited. The excitement was in her body, in the way her cheekbones had disappeared, in the visible swell of her tummy, in the body's intimation that greater opulence, much greater opulence, might with luck be a few years away.
For their third encounter - neither thought of them as dates - Mark stuck his neck out. "Meal," he said, abruptly. "I'd like to take you out for a meal. My treat." She declined politely, but was open to other offers. She made one herself: "We could see a film perhaps, on Sunday afternoon". That felt safe enough.
They saw John Travolta in "Swordfish", at a multiplex not far from Carly's flat. Mark realised a movie had been the wrong choice. Yes, he felt a thrill sitting next to his goddess, but in the dark he couldn't see what really mattered: the tummy, the breasts, the tantalising hint of a double chin. Carly thought it was a bad choice for different reasons. She hated the film.
Partly to compensate, she suggested they return to her flat. "Just for coffee," she remarked pointedly. Mark's heart beat faster. He was moving in on his prey, he felt; he was going to penetrate her lair. Surely this time she'd talk about food, maybe even about putting on weight.
On the way up to the second floor, Carly apologised for the building's poor state. "It's the landlord's job to decorate, and he's just not interested. So much replastering needs to be done. Look at that bulge!" Mark almost stopped breathing. Then it clicked. She was referring to the walls.
They took off their coats. The first thing Mark noticed was her faded blue jeans, full round the bottom and full round the front.
"It'll be instant."
"That's fine." She could have invited him to swallow arsenic and he'd have accepted. All his focus was on her body, watching it move, noting how the tummy's concave swell balanced the bottom's convex curve, wondering if underneath her blouse the jeans' top button was undone again, seeking the slide area under her chin where the flesh kept doubling for a second or two before sinking back into a chubby blur. Following her into the kitchen - he immediately noted the biscuit packet on top of the fridge - he positioned himself so that he could see her in profile. As she reached for the coffee - he hated instant -- her blouse rose, and there again was that midriff fat, a ring of heaven. Good, he thought, this is going to be good.
But then he started to feel sick inside; sick at himself and his behaviour. Here is Carly being nice, he ruminated, trusting me, welcoming me into her private life, into her flat, which can't by the look of it get many visitors; and here am I treating her purely as an object, a toy. I'm abusing her, taking her for a ride. She's offering friendship for friendship's sake. I'm using it to gaze at her tummy. Suddenly he felt small, and dirty.
They sat at the table, mugs in hand. Mark did his best to drink the rancid brew. Trying now to avoid obvious stares he kept glancing around. Such barren little kitchen, he thought. A few plates and cups neatly stacked, a cookery book with an ominous title: "Low Calorie Heaven". On the fridge door, nothing but a single photo. He spotted Carly, looking thinner; a family photo, he guessed. His coffee sips grew smaller and smaller.
And then she said, "But what am I doing? I'm forgetting the cake." From the fridge she fetched a slab of fruit cake, dark and heavy, rich in cherries, currants, and calories. "Try some of this." She placed a thick slice in front of Mark.
"Aren't you going to have some?" An innocent remark, he thought. Anyone would have said it.
"Better not," she said. "I'm having difficulties fitting into my clothes as it is."
She immediately looked uneasy. Mark felt himself blush. How should he react? Unwittingly or not, Carly had opened the door. The golden subject beckoned. At the same time, she appeared so vulnerable that it stopped Mark's heart. And the image the words conjured up -- Carly's softened body struggling against slacks, underwear, blouses, the jeans and blouse she was now wearing -- was too graphic for Mark to handle. She may have opened a door, but he couldn't go through it. Not even an inch.
He let out an embarrassed "Oh!", then changed the subject. He talked about shows and exhibits in town, trying to engage with Carly as the sweet, lively person he was beginning to see was somewhere inside her. But another quadrant of the brain was occupied elsewhere, thinking of the remarks he might have said -- "I've noticed you've put on a little weight," say, "but it looks really good". He thought above all about her own awareness, the physical reality of carrying more fat than before, sensing the body pressing against clothes that used to have room to spare. The notion aroused him, but Mark also found himself feeling tender towards her as she and her body passed through a period of change. It can't be easy for her, he thought.
It was all too tumultuous. The cake eaten, he wanted to escape. He'd leave her be; he'd ogled enough.
As Mark said his thanks at the door, Carly took a deep breath and stretched, pushing out her breasts, resting her hands gently on her hips, fingertips touching, almost stroking, the little tummy packed tightly into her jeans. He tried to avert his eyes. "See you again!" she said, smiling.
"He's nice but odd," Carly thought as she began washing the plate and cups. "Oh God," Mark thought as he scuttled downstairs, "what am I getting into?"
Hope the enclosed reaches you before your birthday. If it's late, I'm sorry; I've been busier than usual recently.
What's been happening? Well Christmas in Loughborough was as you might expect. Nothing changes, though there was a fake reindeer head on Uncle Simon's mantelpiece that seemed to be new. Mum and dad were the same as ever; you know what I mean.
Couple of changes in my life, though. You were right, I needed a shake-up. One thing is I'm "seeing someone" - is that the right phrase? He's a borrower at the library called Mark. I thought he was weird at first as he kept coming up to me with bizarre books, like "Hang-Gliding for the over 90s". Even when I know him a bit he still seems weird. It's as though he's always about to tell me something but is afraid to. Just my luck if he's trying to tell me he's married. We don't "do" anything. No business. Just talk, go to movies, or eat. I don't know where it's going particularly, and I'm so inexperienced that I don't know if I'm reading his signs right, or if he's reading mine, or if either of us are giving out signs at all. It's all such a muddle. He works in information technology, and has funny things to say about Windows XP.
Another unexpected thing's happened, which you may discover if I make my return trip (if I have the money). I've actually been gaining some weight! America started it off, I know - what was the name of that café we kept going to? But I've been eating more since then as well, and the results are starting to show. I'm not Marlon Brando fat, but I've put on - ahem - 20 pounds and lost my 29 inch waist. I've gone up around the breasts too, and I've had to give in and wear a bra. Just my luck that I only meet someone I like when I get fatter. I've seen him staring at my tummy, so he obviously doesn't approve. I don't know if I do or not. Some days I quite like the more womanly me. Other days the old guilt comes racing back, and I just feel miserable and out of condition. I've dieted a bit recently, partly for Mark's sake, but the pounds seem to be creeping back. You know what I'm going through, I suppose.
Do you know about dad and his broken leg? He fell off a ladder painting the outside of the house at Easter. You know how he is, insisting he can do everything. I was summoned up the other weekend to admire his fortitude and his plaster cast. I felt like writing on it "Idiot. Next time, hire a professional." Both of them told me in tut-tut voices that I had got fatter, which was not news to me. But I stood my ground for once, and made it seemed like I'd made a conscious decision to put on weight. In a way, that's true. I don't think they understood that argument. But at least it shut them up.
Tell me your news! How is Chicago in the spring? Are you working on any interesting manuscripts? Have you discovered the Great American Novel? My life in London seems humdrum by comparison, but at least this year I feel a bit more sure of myself, I have a new friend, and I know where to get Baskin-Robbins ice cream.
"Good God. It says here that Liv Tyler has put on 28 pounds since finishing "The Lord of the Rings"!"
Mark's ears perked up. He was sorting out a software snaggle in Hamish International's accounts department. With the data bank frozen and nothing to type, the girls were leafing through a supermarket tabloid. "Is there a picture?" "Oooh, getting chubby!" "But not fat, is she? She's lucky she's got the height for it." "She'd better watch herself, though. She can't act for peanuts."
Deep in the depths of Windows XP, Mark was desperate to pull himself out, join the chorus, and, best of all, see the photo.
"You know," he said, eyes still fixed on the accursed screen, "she once appeared in a little film called "Heavy"."
"Well that was prophetic. How are you doing, Mark? If you don't fix this glitz, I can't process your salary payment."
"Coming along." He sighed. Maybe he could see the Liv Tyler thing later. Or maybe not. Perhaps it was best if he practised self-denial. Over the summer, in Carly's honour, he'd been trying to soft-pedal his obsession, and turn what had become second nature into his third or fourth. Masturbation fantasies had been curbed. For a while, to avoid the stimulation of eye candy, he'd walked in the streets with head lowered, but had to give it up after bumping into too many people. On public transport, rather than casting sly glances at the nearest pretty chubster he read the summer's best-selling comic book - "101 Things I Hate about AOL". He saw Carly regularly now, he figured; he felt warm towards her as a person; surely he no longer needed to undress other people with his eyes?
But it was hard. The weather didn't help. The summer was unusually warm. People cast off clothing. Out came the rounded arms, the midriff bulges, the jeans that clearly fitted less well than the year before. The tourist army were here too, the students, the girls from Japan, excited by the world's wonders, newly softened by fast food. And Carly herself only had to bring out her double chin or unconsciously pat her tummy for good intentions to die. He'd stop listening, lose his train of thought. She would become his plaything once more.
"That's done!" he said.
"Fixed it?" He nodded. "Damn. Now we'll have to return to work."
He cleared his throat. "You haven't finished with that magazine, have you?"
The girls gave him a look.
She'd done her sums. There was not enough money in the bank for another trip to the States, not yet. Her wages were static, and she seemed to be spending more than before. Food needed buying. Dining out sometimes with Mark. And she needed new clothes. She'd grown tired of her usual drab colours; she didn't feel so drab anymore, so why should she look it? And besides, few of her old clothes now fitted. In one way she liked to be squeezed tight into her jeans and slacks; the bulge on her tummy made her feel sexy, and gave her body a centre of gravity it never had before. But wasn't there something embarrassing about being unable to fix the clasps or always having to wear blouses loose? Trouble was, there was also embarrassment in buying bigger clothes. It seemed an admission that there was no going back, that the fat was permanent. Such a waste of money too. She hated the thought of discarding good clothes only because she couldn't fit into them. Putting on weight: it was a complex business.
Thomas. Thomson. Thompson. Tolhurst. Tolkein. Tomalty. Tomlinson. They were back in children's fiction. Carly had a coloured ribbon in her hair, and she was in a chatty mood. "You don't see Lord of the Rings on the shelves now, do you? It's that movie. My friend Mark is eager to go this weekend, but I said I don't think so, I'm allergic to elves."
All the girls pricked up their ears. Jenna bored into her like a corkscrew. "You have a friend? A boyfriend?"
"Sort of. Why, is it so impossible?"
"You just haven't mentioned anyone before." Jenna shot a glance at Carly's burgeoning waist. Were these love pounds, then?
"He's a borrower at the library, actually."
But she turned coy. She felt she'd be teased, or criticised. Too soon, she thought, to reveal his identity. "Have you got anything planed for the weekend, Jenna? Seeing your DJ?"
She snorted. "He's history."
"Ah," Carly said, kindly. She thought of her own weekend coming up. Mark was due for Sunday lunch. She had taken out a book on casseroles and stews; she was going to cook. Sharing the day with someone, sharing a meal: these were still exciting novelties. Would Mark too one day be history? Would something derail their friendship? Jenna's comment made her think. Maybe one of them would go too far too fast and frighten off the other. Or maybe their charms would just fade away. Maybe he'd tell her she'd put on too much weight. She worried seriously about that. Perhaps she had.
Sunday arrived. She was cooking up chunks of lamb simmering in herbs and white wine. It was warm in the kitchen, and warm outside, and she was wearing her I LOVE CHICAGO t-shirt, fetched in a rash moment from the depths of a drawer. It no longer really fitted; her breast expansion had forced the shirt to cling, crease, and ride up, baring her midriff dancing with fat. Passing through with her black coffee, Natalie gave a withering glance. "That should say I LOVE FOOD, shouldn't it?"
"You can join us if you like, as long as you behave." It was a safe offer to make; Carly knew she'd say no.
"I'm off to a wine bar, and then I'm going to a Dark Doom gig," she growled. "You've got so much heavier, you know."
"My business, Natalie, my business." She returned to the casserole. This wasn't a day she needed reminding. Earlier she had stood on the scales, and discovered that she now weighed 145 pounds. All her efforts to diet had only resulted in another handful of pounds arriving, widening her hips, pushing her tummy further out, turning the bottom a little pear-shaped. Feeling her body in the bath, or as she dressed, she no longer felt nurtured and safe. Where was the pleasure, she now thought, in squeezing her midriff fat into a two-inch roll? She was beginning to feel heavy and uncomfortable.
Before Mark arrived, she stripped off the Chicago t-shirt and dropped it on the wardrobe floor, where the other clothes she had outgrown sulked in the shadows. On went a peach-coloured short-sleeved blouse, worn loose, top button undone to accommodate her breasts.
"She's starting to get really buxom!" Mark thought as he stepped through the door into a light kiss. This was not a good start. Who was he friends with, the breasts or Carly?
Wine loosened tongues. Mark grew increasingly relaxed, and Carly did a reasonable job of lifting her sagging spirits. Indeed, she felt sufficiently at ease to raise the topic she usually preferred to sweep under the carpet.
"You're not taking many potatoes," Mark had said. His old habit, looking for openings.
"I'm trying to cut down on food. I've been putting on too much weight. You must have noticed." The tone was matter-of-fact. She felt among friends.
Finally the door had been flung open. Mark stumbled through it, stammering, as he sometimes did under stress. His head spun; he felt himself shivering. "A b-b-bit. I think you look great."
"You haven't seen me naked, Mark. I've really fattened up."
"Oh." Into his mind came the image of Carly, beautiful but aghast, standing on bathroom scales, breasts and belly shimmering in the sun. Dare he spill out his feelings in words, put his cards on the table? Honesty, he knew, was the best policy. But playing safe was a good policy too.
"I'm sure the fat's beautiful. This lamb is great!" Limping words. But enough to get him off and running, onto another topic. "Isn't the foot and mouth crisis awful?" - the disease was currently raging through British farms.
"Awful," she said. "This lamb's from Belgium."
"Ah, Belgium. Odd country. You don't know where it starts, or where it finishes." And on they went to other small countries, geography, travel, travel writers, why elves are creepy. By the time coffee came, Mark felt equilibrium restored. Observing her blue eyes, her sandy blonde hair, the smiles lighting up her face, he fell effortlessly under spell. The wry humour. The air of vulnerability, overlaid with the fighting spirit of someone trying to take charge of her life for the first time. Carly, he knew now, was far more than her body.
"I have to go," he said. He had tedious stuff to attend to: some neglected housework, a report to write.
She stood up and stretched. "OK." Time for the goodbye hug. By now this had become Mark's regular habit, partly because of genuine affection, partly because in the early summer he had discovered this was a legitimate way for his hands to bask, if only briefly, in the band of fat padding her middle. Clutching her waist, he wanted to sink right in, to transfer himself into her body, feeling and living with the fat not for a second but every minute of the day.
He'd been trying over the past weeks to vary the gesture into a glide down the arms, or a shoulder hug, something more natural, less intrusive. She's a person, he kept telling himself, not a toy. But today he couldn't help it. Exhilarated by the meal, the wine, and her admission of gaining "too much" weight - how he loved that implication that some weight gain was therefore acceptable - he dug in his hands further and longer than he ever dared before. His fingers slipped under Carly's blouse, onto the soft flesh itself. It was heaven. Definitely heaven.
"What do you think you're doing?" She had pulled herself away. Her eyes had turned cold, her voice hard.
"It's just a hug."
"You're feeling me. You're deliberately feeling me."
"We always hug." He could feel his breath drying up, and the ground beneath him giving way. He was reddening, too, he knew it.
"Not like this. You're trying to feel my midriff, aren't you?"
"Of course not. I wouldn't do that." He hated what he was saying.
"You were squeezing it." Then a light bulb was switched on; she had finally pieced things together. She took a further step back and stared at him as if for the first time. "You get off on my fat, don't you? You come here and give me lingering looks. You're always trying to talk about food. Trying to touch me. Is this all this friendship has been about?"
"No, no, I promise." He caught her eyes, two daggers drawn, and crumbled. "Alright, yes, at the start. Just at the start." In for a penny, in for a pound. No point in hiding it now. "I'm attracted to women who are gaining weight. I can't explain. It's just a fact." He was feeling queasy. "Can I sit down for a second?"
"No, Mark, it's time to leave." Her voice grew shriller. "You made friends with me just because you wanted someone to ogle? Do you know how that makes me feel? You've used me!"
"But I love you." He was pleading, the voice almost on its knees.
"I don't think you know what love is. Is it love to treat someone like a toy? No, Mark, it isn't. I let you into my life, which is rare for me, very rare, and the only attraction for you is that I'm putting on weight? That really boosts my self-confidence."
Mark recovered some wind. "It's not the only attraction, Carly. I'm really fond of you. All of you. And I think you're beautiful."
But Carly had had enough. "Just go, Mark. And take your hands with you."
"I -- "
She banged the door shut.
Mark sat staring at his laptop and the landscape beyond, the computer books on the shelves, the pile of washing -- underwear, shirts, the basic things -- awaiting ironing. But he couldn't focus. He felt wretched. Repeatedly he'd tried to phone. No-one had picked up, nor was the answering machine on. He was phoning into a black hole, with only his thoughts to fill it. He kept replaying the scene in his mind, imagining the different things he could have said. If only he'd been honest before. If only he'd kept his hands to himself. If only, if only. Now he seemed to have put everything in peril, taken an axe to a friendship he'd worked so hard to cultivate. "I'm a fool," he said, "I could kick myself."
So he did. He inflicted a swift boot on the left shin. The pain made him yelp, but it helped clear his mind. A letter. He had to write a letter. If Carly was going to shut him out on the phone, he would have to get her attention another way. But how would he find the words to pin down feelings that he didn't himself properly understand?
"Dear Carly," he wrote. That was the easy part, though it felt strange writing long- hand with a biro; the computer screen, he felt, wasn't the place to compose this piece of correspondence. "Dear Carly…". He longed to pull down a help screen, or consult a manual. "Dear Carly…."
The blank paper stared back. "I am so, so sorry," he began. "I have been thoughtless and selfish." God, this was hard to write. He screwed up the paper and launched a fresh sheet.
"Dear Carly. I am really sorry about this afternoon. I know I have hurt you, and I wish I could wipe out that moment and forget it happened. I've been thoughtless and selfish…"
He stopped again. This was really hard. He was like some baby animal, nurtured for so long in a dark burrow, venturing outside for the first time and being blinded by the sun.
When Natalie returned Carly was sitting in front of the television, eyes glazed, corners of the mouth wilting.
"Bad afternoon. I've got a headache. I'm going to bed." And she shuffled off to lie under the sheets. She had thought earlier about taking a bath, letting the water wipe away the feeling of Mark's hands invading her, dirtying her. But that would have meant facing her body. It might have meant remembering the times when her own hands had clutched, caressed, and experienced pleasure. And to remember that would be too confusing. Where would her indignation go?
The headache persisted. She dragged herself to work next day, and sat sullen at the front desk, afraid of raising her eyes in case she saw Mark. No doubt his tail would be between his legs; but she wasn't prepared to see him yet. She shivered inside when a hand placed before her "A Guide to the Fruit Trees of Ethiopia"; but the borrower was someone else. Colleagues asked if there was anything wrong; she seemed quieter than usual. "No -- well yes," she said, but she didn't expand. When a crisis arose at lunchtime -- Mr Tregaskin had injured himself falling off his bike - Carly was glad. The spotlight, at least, had shifted elsewhere.
Still the headache. It was starting to pound. Stress, she supposed. Plus she had scarcely eaten. Back home, she peered into the fridge, and saw doughnuts and whipped cream beckoning. She took out two carrots. If the headache wasn't better on Tuesday, she decided, she would go to the doctor.
She was there at 8.45am. She wasn't sure quite what the doctor would do; give her pills, hold her hand, something adult and reassuring. Her face fell as she was seen instead by the surgery nurse, name of Amy, as young as herself, horribly healthy if roly-poly: what was that Yiddish term Sandra had told her about, starts with z, ends in a -tig? Carly couldn't remember.
"I have this pounding headache," she said. When did it start? On one side rather than the other? Under stress? What's your life style? So many questions.
"I had a row with my boyfriend," Carly explained. She was amazed; she'd said the word boyfriend.
Amy checked the personal details in her file. Date of birth. Height. Weight. Weight. Carly began to panic. "Do you know your weight? Eight stone four?"
"I've, erm, I've put on a bit since then."
"Do you know how much?"
She cleared her throat nervously. "About 25 pounds." She sounded like a sheep, afraid of her own shadow.
"That's OK, you're not overweight."
Carly looked incredulous. "I'm not?"
"I'm not overweight?"
"No! You used to be almost underweight. Now you're what the official charts call normal. You'd have to gain another six pounds or so before any doctor would even think of calling you overweight. Don't get a complex!"
Amy wrote out a prescription. "Just lay off chocolate. Very bad for migraines. Take these pills to help the headache subside. Which it will."
It seemed all Carly could say.
Later, at the library, work went faster than usual. A smile hung around her lips; she looked at her customers, joined in chit-chatting with the other girls as they straightened History. For half an hour she sat at the enquiry desk, emergency relief for Mr Tregaskin, at home nursing bruises and a sprained ankle.
"Do you have the magazine "Total Carp" ?" an elderly gent said, head bent, pale green raincoat despite the heat.
" "Total Crap" ?" Carly sang out loudly, "I don't think we'd take a magazine like that."
" "Total Carp". It's a fishing magazine."
She laughed. At four o'clock, she ate two bars of chocolate. By five-thirty the headache had lifted.
Outside the flat she found a bouquet. They were from Mark, with a note attached. "I am so so sorry," it read. Was that a water stain, or were they tears? Inside there was the day's post: two letters for her, the electricity bill, a mailing from Natalie's health club. After putting the flowers in a vase she poured herself a tonic water, stretched on the sofa, unbuttoned the top button of her jeans, and read.
"Dear Carly - Thanks for your great letter and card. My birthday was fairly uneventful, but I enclose a photo of the best part -- my birthday cake, and me eating it! Life's fairly hectic here at the moment: I'm proofing the new Aretha Dubois, "O Misery, O My Sister", five hundred pages long! Got to finish it by Friday." -- Oh misery, Carly thought, oh my sister!
"Your life seems to have perked up. A man friend, that's great! I hope something comes of that. What do you mean by weird exactly? It's very tantalising. He's not a white slave merchant, is he, or into bondage? I think it's great that you've put on weight. You really were too skinny, sister. Though I would say that, wouldn't I? I can sympathise with your mood swings. At the moment my lovely husband Mike is putting pressure on me to diet, but I keep telling him I'm comfortable with my new body, and I'm sure after a while you will be too. We're only doing what comes naturally, and what's natural can't be wrong, can it?"
Can it? Carly put the letter aside, eased a hand under her jeans, and began probing the flesh on her tummy. It felt soft as butter, warm as toast. "Hello fat," she whispered, "welcome back." Then, sighing, she ripped open the second letter. "Here goes," she said.
"Dear Carly -- " it began.
Should she phone him that night, or let him stew longer? She'd been hurt, and she felt bruised still. He should have come clean months before, not spent so much time stringing her along. But poor boy, she thought, he'd been only been acting on instinct, and who was she to deny the sensuous thrill of a body beginning to carry more flesh? But he had to be honest with her and stop playing games. No more covert groping. No surreptitious glances.
"It's Carly," she said; he'd been on his knees cleaning the bath - anything to help block out the heaviness in his heart. "I got your letter, and your flowers."
"I'm so sorry. I've been really thoughtless. I do care for you, please believe me, all of you, every bit." The words tumbled out, water bursting through flood-gates. "I was just so accustomed to living inside myself that I don't…"
"It's OK, Mark, I read your letter."
"I shouldn't have been so underhand. I could kick myself."
"I'm sure you have been kicking yourself. But don't keep on doing it. Why don't you --"
"But I can't deny my preferences. I don't know if you can understand, but you really look lovely with some extra weight. You're really blossoming, Carly."
"Is that what's happening?" she said lightly.
"You're not mad at me?"
"I was very mad. But not now. Do you want to come over and talk?"
He felt wary. "But I'm cleaning the bath."
"Mark, don't run from your feelings. What's more important, the bath or our relationship?"
Half an hour later she was back on her sofa. Sitting a safe twelve inches away, Mark felt like a child, small and inadequate. "I really don't know much about sex," she was saying, "but isn't it better if it's not conducted inside your head?"
He found her directness unnerving. Where had she found this new confidence? Had she bought it at the supermarket, along with the raisin doughnuts, the bourbon creams, the meat balls with red cabbage for two?
"Of course it is, but I suppose I felt my feelings were so peculiar that I'd be slapped down if I made them public." He shot her half a glance. He was making them public now. Come on, where's the slap?
But Carly looked reassuring. "They're not that peculiar. Now my figure's a bit fuller I've had some sensuous feelings myself. Do you want a bourbon cream?"
He reached for one mechanically. They were far from his favourite nibble.
"How did this feeling start with you? Have you had it long?"
Her voice was kind, but he felt raw and exposed. Bringing his secret to light after so many years, it felt as though he was having the skin flayed off his body. He took a deep breath. "Since adolescence. A long time." He wished it didn't sound as though he were talking about a disease. He mentioned Rachel, the tennis girl, and his awakening delight in softness and curves. Then he panicked and tried to step back. "It's an aesthetic thing, partly. We all have our preferences. Tall, thin, blonde, brunette. Apparently some men adore women with moles."
"Cats or dogs I can understand. But moles?"
"You know what I mean." How he could he once have thought, he mused, that Carly had no personality? Still anxious for safety, he turned his question around. "Don't you have preferences?"
"Yes. I like men who try to be honest." That hit home; he felt speared. "Men who admit that it's also an erotic thing. Partly."
He blushed and fumbled. He looked straight into her face, tender, encouraging, and felt himself so in love with this person that if his eyes pinpointed any one feature he worried she would disappear. "It's arousing, yes."
"Your little fellow gets aroused?" She meant to be humorous, but he felt needled.
"When he doesn't feel in the dock, on trial. A beautiful woman who gets rounder and softer; it's a sexy thing. A man doing the same doesn't hold the same thrill for me, though it's still something to admire. I told you all that, didn't I, in the letter?"
"Don't worry, Mark, I don't think it's kinky. Stop torturing yourself. I'm not a schoolteacher about to reprimand you, or a judge about to send you to prison."
Mark shifted on the sofa, settling an inch or so further away. "That's good."
"I just want you to be honest. Do you have limits? Weight limits? Can anyone get too fat for you?"
"Get too fat?" Panicked, Mark pushed a hand through his hair. How could he be having this conversation? It was either a nightmare or a dream come true; he wasn't sure which. What should he say? The photo gallery in his brain threw up the images of acquaintances who had put weight on, then taken the weight off. He thought of Kate Winslet and her awful diet, and other celebrities who bloomed too briefly. "Not in my experience. But it's possible. Depends on individual cases." That was a wriggly answer, he thought.
"What about me?" She sounded in earnest. "Have I put on too much?"
Cautiously he did what he'd been trying not to, looking her squarely in the face, sizing her up from tip to toe. He looked at the fat packed onto her face, the well-softened waist, the breasts ready to roar out of her blouse. "No, you haven't. Not to me."
She looked relieved. "Thank you. And age? Do you find fat elderly people attractive?"
Another open wound. He winced. "That's not a comfortable thought. Who finds elderly people of any size attractive? It's not their fault. But it's good if they have fat reserves, isn't it?"
Mischief leaped into her eyes. "And inanimate objects? How do you stand on those?"
"What - what do you mean?"
"Do you like a round pillar box, say, better than a thin lamp post?"
"This is silly."
She moved closer and patted his knee. He got down to thinking. He imagined himself walking down a street. It was broad daylight. He didn't have a letter to post. But which would he be more pleased to see? "The pillar box. It's - it's cuddlier." He knew it sounded bizarre.
"You'd like to cuddle and squeeze pillar boxes?"
"Yes. No! You know what I mean."
She rested her head on his shoulder. "You're the weirdest person I've ever met," she said, smiling broadly. "You're the only person I've ever met."
He laughed nervously. "Me too."
"You've never worked at London Zoo, have you?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Enter!" Carly said with a flourish, lying spread-eagled, face turned to one side on the pillow, the chin doubled, her round naked body visibly glowing even in the bedroom's half light, the legs bent slightly, one side of her belly puckering into folds, thighs and orifice awaiting a visitor, awaiting delight.
"You didn't give me time to do my knock!" Mark sounded peeved.
"Sorry," she said, the usual crease crossing her plump cheeks as she grinned. Propping himself up on the bed with one hand, Mark reached for the bedside table with the other, cleared away the alarm clock and her little squeezy rubber cat, and rapped on the wood. Knock, knock, knock. This was a game they played, night after night, ever since Mark had moved in six months before.
It had seemed the obvious thing to do. Natalie had left abruptly: she'd had a rise, she wanted more space, and besides, she'd said, all the food Carly had around the place had made her put on five pounds. Goodbye Natalie and good riddance: a constant irritant, the stone in the shoe you could never shake out. And hello Mark: Mark the boyfriend, that was official now, the one who'd arrived with boxes of his computer manuals and "The History of the V-Necked Pullover", but had left behind his newspaper cuttings about pop stars and actresses putting on weight, aids to pleasure he no longer used or needed.
He'd moved in a few weeks before Christmas, walking on air, exultant at the thought that possibly, just possibly, he might have cemented enough of a bond, a genuine bond of hearts and minds, for their relationship to work. He loved fat as much as ever: that never changed. But he felt far less need to seek it out in the bodies of those he didn't know. Britney Spears' midriff? Jennifer Lopez's rear? They exited his dreams. Fat was all around him now, part of his beloved, part of every pat and hug, stroke and caress. In a smaller way fat was also part of himself: after half a year of shared meals he had now acquired some fat of his own, filling out his tighter trousers, rippling into small rolls as he sat in the bath.
When she'd ventured up to Loughborough to visit her parents over the New Year, Mark had come with her. He found them less fierce than he'd expected. They found Carly fatter; she found them older, frailer. There was dust on surfaces, crumbs on the carpet, small coins not picked up. Her father, apparently, had been having more falls. Something was wrong with his sense of balance; he was going to have tests.
"Time marches on," her mother had said, sad and resigned, "and people change." She had then asked Mark about the zoo. "The what?" he'd cried. "Do the animals get Christmas presents?" He'd turned to Carly for help.
Carly took over: he'd left the zoo, the mammls weren't small enough, he was now in information technology. Baffled looks from the parents. "That must have been a fast learning curve," her mother had said, looking at Carly's waistline.
"Enter!" Carly cried, exultant. And now, in the bedroom, as night settled in and the world shut down, it was time for love. But before the penetration, the exploration: the caressing hands, roaming over Carly's expansive terrain, from the cheeks down to the bountiful thighs. In the months since Christmas, Carly had finally let go the brake, happy to see where her appetite would take her. "What's natural can't be wrong, can it?" Sandra's words in her letter had lodged in her head. The grey years of denial were over. This was her life, she told herself, the only life she was going to have. Why shrivel it up and toss it away?
Even so, as she'd watched her waist outgrow more jeans and her midriff loosen into flab she'd still found herself wondering what exactly was going on. She was assuaging hunger; yes, that was obvious. Stomach capacity had grown, tastebuds newly titivated: she needed to eat more food to feel full. But another notion had struck her. She wasn't just feeding her stomach; she was also feeding her fat. She was the mother, the fat was her child. And every mother wanted her child to grow. Why else would she stand on the scales, see the needle reach 167 -- she was now actually heavier than Sandra -- and urge the needle to go just a little bit higher? Why else would she keep patting her belly, or be hypnotised in the bath, slowly moving her hands around, wondering if she would ever stop feeling the fat and land on a bone? Not that she wanted to: when she held the flesh between her fingers - inches of fat, without bone, without muscle - it was as though she was airborne, walking on clouds.
She'd acclimatised herself to the practical consequences. Clothing, for one. Some tightness was acceptable, even pleasurable; but she couldn't continually parade herself in shirts stretched to breaking point or slacks gamely tied with a safety-pin. 35" slacks had now replaced the 32s she'd graduated to during the summer. Sandra had passed on a tip: buy them with Velcro round the waist.
She had also learned to brush off any comments at work about her figure. "Look, I used to be slim, now I'm not slim. Just accept it, OK?" Most of her colleagues did. She'd even managed a riposte of sorts to Mr Tregaskin, who thought it amusing to remind her of the shelf marks for books about dieting and keeping fit. "Exercise can be dangerous, Mr Tregaskin. Didn't you fall off your bike?"
"Enter!" Carly cried again. She rolled herself over, settling the face upon its double chin, taking a deep breath that for a moment thrust her breasts even further out into the world. The breath exhaled, her tummy reasserted itself, and Mark's fingers were in position, his hand rising as the fat swelled up -- so warm, so yielding, inches deep, floating free in the magic space between the bottom of the rib cage and her hip bone.
Her hip bone. Once upon a time that was easily found. Now Mark had to excavate, digging through the billowing flesh. But tonight he was too tired to go searching. All the computers at Hamish International had crashed, and panic had spread like a bush fire. He'd been screamed at, as though it were his fault. The day before, there'd been a virus problem. "Photo of me naked," the message had said; so the idiots clicked it open and the virus entered, worming its way into the corporate address books, chewing up data. After days like these he would crawl back to their flat exhausted, love his beloved, and enter heaven.
"Tired?" said Carly, as he yawned.
"'Fraid so. You do know I love you, don't you?"
"I know. Me too. Here, use my thighs as a pillow." He rested his head just below her lower belly. She began stroking his head. "I've been thinking," she said. "I'm getting fed up with the library. It's time for something new. I was wondering if I could work in America. Do what Sandra does, or something else. You could easily get work there, couldn't you? Hire yourself out to Microsoft and cure their ills. What do you think?" She twisted a finger into his hair.
"Mark?" She raised herself up and looked down beyond her breasts, over her tummy, towards her lover's head. No reply.
"Mark," she said, "I think I've put on some more weight. I think I'm now --" -- and she whispered mischievously, close to his ear - "210 pounds."
Mark's breathing slowed and thickened. He was fast asleep, peaceful, safe and adoring. Fat. Carly. Carly. Fat. Company at last.
Copyright Swordfish, 2002
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