You noticed the cheekbones first. High in the face. Prominent. Not to enough to give her the models living skeleton look -- Viviennes weight was strictly average, along with her build -- but enough to give the face definition and character. Then perhaps you noticed the lively brown eyes, intelligence shining out of them, or the short auburn hair. Or the accent perhaps. American, was it? No, Canadian, clipped and piquant, with a gentle lilt.
In her late 20s, she had recently joined the staff at the Westminster Public Library in London. Everyone liked her: a fresh face at last in a building over-stacked with worthy souls working towards retirement. She had opinions, and if you encouraged her out they would flow, in a left-inclined political direction. She was always vexed about the sins of the world, social inequalities, the struggles of the dispossessed, immigrant groups or single mothers. It made a bright change from talking about the binding for a new run of periodicals.
She had poise, too, and decorum, and good manners. Nothing slovenly about her figure, either. She went to the local health club once a week, streaking round the track and treading away on the Stairmaster, trim in her black lycra. For years her weight had scarcely budged from around 126 pounds. Her firm breasts were small, edging towards medium; a male student during her days at London University had once called them pert, which Vivienne did not appreciate. Her tummy swelled slightly with water retention during her periods, but otherwise stayed taut and flat, as undemonstrative as her bottom. Hips? Slightly wider than some other women her weight, perhaps, but that was because of her build, nothing else.
Vivienne offered an attractive package. But you had to be of a certain fibre to become intimate and join the friends she had found on the barricades. There was Kyra, an old friend from Canada, now working in London too. There was Claudia, a French girl, encountered in a local group affiliated to the Socialist Workers' Party. To be Vivienne's friend you had to be prepared to listen to her analyse and ponder. A working knowledge of Marxist intellectuals helped too. And a willingness to ditch life's basic pleasures for what she considered higher things. Students at college had found this out. Faced with a choice between the latest James Bond extravaganza and a lecture on childbirth methods in Samoa, Vivienne would always pick childbirth. Her suitors dwindled.
Not that having children herself seemed a possibility. Sex and close relationships joined food, fun and relaxation as something kept at arm's length. "You care so much about other people's lives," her mother had told her once, "but you don't take very good care of your own". At the time, as a student, Vivienne had not realised what she was on about. Even now, older and supposedly wiser, she was too busy with her new job and the intellectual whirl inside her head to notice the hole in her heart.
Colleagues at the library had rushed to take her on "getting to know you" lunches. She didn't eat lunch. But, always polite, she would have a coffee, perhaps a sandwich. The conversation was often dry: one of her superiors, John, could not be shifted from talking about modifications to the library's classification system. In others she struck more of a spark: Richard, Tony, Arlene.
And Roy. He was not on the staff, but he used the library regularly for research. To many he seemed terminally shy, but Vivienne detected a lively mind buried within. Roy, for his part, noticed the cheekbones, the sparkle, the whole works, and tried to open up in her presence. One day, Vivienne found him poring over a book about the films of Shirley Temple.
"Isn't this wonderful?" He was consulting the book for factual details about the 30s child star, but it was the illustrations that kept him crouched on the floor, transfixed by the pictures of childhood's lost innocence and the well-rounded face of a girl obviously no stranger to chocolate cake.
Vivienne had her own viewpoint. "It looks fascinating, yes. But think how warped that child was, leading such a pampered life in the Great Depression. Here she is looking so well-fed when so many were tramping the breadlines."
"But that's Hollywood escapism. That's why she was popular!"
Roy was tickled by Vivienne's unique slant and wanted to talk more. Could this be the day he would finally find the courage to say the words that seemed so difficult for him, so easy for everybody else?
He found himself saying them. "You're not free for lunch, are you?"
"I don't really eat lunch," she said, "but I could have a coffee with you. I'm free at 1.30. Now I'll let you get back to worshipping at Shirley's temple."
"Why does everyone expect me to eat lunch?" Vivienne thought as she returned to her tasks. She'd never eaten lunch. Oh, occasionally a yoghurt or a salad, but nothing that came on a plate, nothing that involved a metal knife and fork. Her appetite was healthy enough, but she had long years of practise in restraining it. To her it seemed such an indulgence to eat at mid-day. It used money that she didn't have. It was unnecessary for her body's functioning. And she certainly didn't want to get fat. No woman did; no women Vivienne knew at least. All her women friends were slender. Some could be called spindly. Out of all the stirring conversations they'd had none of them had ever been about food.
At the Fox and Grape pub where Vivienne and Roy went, Vivienne's eye spied another library assistant, Roma, tucking into a serious plateful of shepherd's pie. Vivienne looked concerned. She had silently watched Roma over the last six months gain a fair bit of weight; she had watched her waist gradually thicken, her tummy start to bulge, and chubbiness creep over her pretty face. Poor woman, Vivienne thought. To let herself go like that! She used to be quite slim, and now she's chubbier than Shirley Temple.
Roy's voice cut through Vivienne's reverie. "You sure you won't have anything to eat?"
"No, no. I'm not really hungry. This coffee will be fine. I'm at the age when a woman's metabolism can slow down, and can really push the weight up if you're not careful. It's been happening to some at the library." She mentioned no names. She was Canadian. She was polite.
Roy didn't quite know what to say. He wanted to ask for more details -- he appreciated women who fattened up a little -- but was too tongue-tied to press the point. The talk moved on to generalities, each others' work, holiday plans: safe enough topics. All in all Roy thought lunch went well. Vivienne found it pleasant enough; Roy was sweet, but, oh, so shy. As they gathered their belongings to leave, Roma squeezed past Roy's chair, heavy breasts stretching her pink t-shirt, round smiling face briefly framed by a new double chin.
"Hello, Viv!" she said cheerfully, working her way through the lunchtime crush.
"Roma, hello!" Inside her head Vivienne was positioning Roma on the bathroom scales. "Poor woman," she thought, "she must feel awful."
And then she met Paul.
Their paths crossed at a dinner at Claudia's place. He was tall, with blue eyes and sandy hair. And he was French. An old friend of Claudia's, he was attending classes at the London School of Economics before taking up a job in Lyon as a community relations officer. Vivienne took in his appearance, but what really riveted her, she convinced herself, was his mind. Immigrant workers in Paris. The Algerian problem. He knew so much; his opinions were so sharp. She was in love, she decided, with his brain, and over the rice and lentils (Claudia was going through a vegetarian phase) she decided that her prince had come.
Phone numbers were exchanged. They met for drinks after work. They attended lectures, and sat in uncomfortable seats at the Lux Cinema, watching documentaries from Poland. And along the way they ate.
Paul took his food almost as seriously as politics. Neither his size nor his appetite was huge, but he wanted the morsels that reached his mouth to be just so. He was French, after all. Vivienne took to visiting him at the flat where he was staying in the dreary south London suburbs: from unprepossessing corner shops he somehow summoned the necessary ingredients for dishes worthy of a Cordon Bleu chef. He'd done courses, he told Vivienne, and had worked on and off as a cook. It was a good sideline, and he liked the irony of using money earned in rich people's restaurants to fund the battles for social justice.
Vivienne, used to Claudia's rice and lentils, or her own snatched meals hurriedly assembled after work, found Paul's perfectionism about food unusual, even suspect. To her food was fuel, nothing more. But when he put such effort into creating his chicken à l'orange, it was impolite not to eat most of it. Not that Viv paid that much attention to the delicacies spooned with reverence onto the chipped dinner plates, obviously bought at a charity shop. It was the conversation that mattered.
"Brecht's poems are so cold and clear, aren't they?" Vivienne said one night, spreading butter thickly onto the garlic bread.
"In language, yes." Paul's lilting French accent entranced her ears. His English was good -- just as well, for Vivienne could only hobble along with French half-remembered from high school. Vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation: everything was a struggle. "But in ideology don't you find him -- what shall I say? -- somewhat soft? In the post-war years in the German Democratic Republic it was good to stay a distance away from the official line of the party. Those communists were such creeps!" He had picked up the word somewhere in London, and kept on using it. "But in Hitler's Germany -- "
"But don't you think that even there -- ". Vivienne's mind was suddenly distracted by the taste of the chicken speared into her mouth. "Gosh, this chicken is good. What was I saying? Yes, don't you think Brecht's whole strength comes from his status as a balladeer of the people, not the party?"
"A balladeer?" Paul stretched out the last syllable as though it were chewing gum. "What is a balladeer?"
"A maker of songs. Isn't there a German word, "Liedmacher"?" A forkful of honey-coated potato interrupted her. "I'm sure my pronunciation is terrible, but --". Without thinking she helped herself to another potato.
"I admit," said Paul, "no-one is better than Brecht in his understanding of the capitalist -- the capitalist -- ". He ransacked his mind for a suitably horrid word: "...the capitalist beast!"
"The capitalist beast!" Vivienne laughed.
Brecht was followed by the poetry of Lorca and the agony of the Spanish Civil War. Chicken was followed by a mixed salad with vinaigrette, a cheese platter, coffee, Gauloises, and chocolate cake soaked in rum.
The dinners continued. Soon, Vivienne found herself staying over, living half the time with Paul, half the time in her own small rented flat in north London. The months mounted up. Without realising it, the two had formed a relationship; so much so that when Paul was due to return to Lyon, Vivienne realised that she didn't want to lose him.
Pretty soon she had big news to tell friends and colleagues. She was going to leave her job. She was going to move to Lyon, and try this thing called love. She thought she was wise enough, she said, to be sceptical about the existence of a perfect partner, but she had to admit that Paul was the closest to perfection she had ever met. Things might not work out, but it was worth the try. Her job here wasn't that marvellous, she said, nothing worth clinging to.
Claudia thought her very brave. Kyra thought her foolhardy, and told her so. "But what will you do there? It will be hard finding employment, with your poor French."
"In that case, I will just live with him and be his love, as the poet Andrew Marvell says."
"Marvellous for Marvell, Vivienne, but what about the girl? She was probably bored stiff."
Vivienne could not be budged. Her mind was made up.
She was surprised how many people at the library wanted to have farewell lunches with her. After all, she had not been there much more than eighteen months. But she was touched, and put no-one off with a warning about just having a coffee and a sandwich. She had lunch, proper three-course affairs, stretching into the mid-afternoon.
"Everyone's being so nice to me," she said to Roy in their booth in the Flying Hussar, tucked awayin a Soho street. Their friendship had flourished in a quiet way. "This is my third lunch this week.". Roy spotted a small swell on Vivienne's tummy, not noticeable before. He also realised she was looking a little rounder in the face. Was Vivienne, the woman who seemed to shrink from all indulgence, actually starting to put on weight?
He was also struck by the number of times that food now entered her conversation. She told him what she'd eaten the day before. She told him what Paul was going to prepare that night. He was dying to mention that he thought she looked a few pounds heavier, prettier too, but could not bring himself to utter a word. Vivienne herself never raised the topic; she was too busy attacking her Hungarian goulash, laying out plans, and hoping that one day Roy would come to Lyon for a visit.
"Hello, Vivienne! When are you leaving?" It was Roma's voice. She was standing in the aisle, en route to the ladies room, loking slightly plumper than before.
"The end of next week. Maybe we could have lunch? What a nice girl she is," Vivienne added after Roma left.
There was so much to get used to in Lyon. A new country. A new town. A new flat. A different language. And Paul's stimulating presence night after night. Sharing his bed was no hardship either. During the day, Vivienne had many things lined up to keep her busy. She would read and think: she had come with a stack of books about politics, literature and philosophy. She would improve her language skills. Correct that: she would acquire some language skills. There would definitely be no time to be bored.
The reality was a little different. True, she read and thought and listened to French language tapes. But there seemed so many domestic errands to run, supplies to buy for the barely furnished flat. And food: Paul would write out a shopping list for whatever his gastronomic wonders required. He was very meticulous.
"But I don't know what the food is called. I mean, what on earth is the French for cauliflower?"
"'Choufleur', Vivienne. But I never eat it. It is too boring. Too white and boring. This will be very good for your French. You will learn the colloquial uses, talking in shops. And in the evening, during our meal, we will speak nothing but French. How about that?"
"Excellent," Vivienne said in a wavering tone that suggested it wasn't.
But she knew the food shopping was necessary. So she gritted her teeth, consulted the dictionary, and sallied forth to the local supermarket, the fishmonger, the greengrocer. And yes, the patisserie. There was one opposite the supermarket, with bread, cakes and pastries glistening in the window. Many of the desserts they had in the evenings came from its shelves: Paul, who insisted on cooking himself, had no time in the week to prepare any at home. Vivienne sometimes supplemented the shopping list with purchases of her own: croissants and pastries filled with jams, delicious cream or chocolate cakes. They were easier to shop for than meat or vegetables. She didn't have to worry about whether they were ripe. Even their French names seemed to roll off the tongue.
And alone in the flat during the afternoon she needed something to nibble on as she pored over her French exercises. Sometimes, tired of that exertion, she would sit back on the sofa and improve her French by watching Paul's portable television, plateful of cake by her side. Game shows, soap operas, gardening programmes: anything that would help her grapple with the language. Old movies, too: Vivienne liked those, except one called 'Boucles d'Or', which turned out to be an American movie starring Shirley Temple. She switched it off immediately.
Sometimes she took her language tapes into the bath, shook in the 'Body Paradise' oil that she liked to use, and sunk herself into the perfumed foam. It was during these baths that she started to notice that she was unmistakably gaining weight. In London, she had guessed she had gained a pound or two -- there'd been a little surplus fat on her tummy, and a tight feeling round the waistband of some of her slacks. But now, as she soaped herself down, she realised how much fat had been building up around her middle in the weeks since she'd moved to France. As she explored her midriff, she felt her new softness. She prodded herself, squeezed herself. Her fingers glided over her tummy, the skin silky to the touch from the foam and soap. God, was she getting turned on by this? Impossible, she thought. Looking more closely, she noticed the fat surrounding her navel, which once lay on her tummy flat as a button but now seemed pushed a little way inside by the accumulation of flesh. When she sat up she saw how her midriff creased into several small rolls, bearing down on her thighs.
Her thighs, too, were obviously heavier: so it wasn't just shrinkage, then, that was making some jeans a tight fit. And her breasts? She weighed them in her hands, just as she now hefted melons at the greengrocers, under Paul's instructions, to gauge their ripeness. Were her breasts ripe? A little riper, yes. That would tie in with that pinched feeling she was starting to get at the back of her bras.
She knew, of course, why she had been gaining. It was because of Paul. It was because of this food. It was because of love. She didn't approve of her extra pounds; she had always tended to be patronising towards women in the gaining mode. But at the moment Vivienne declined to be worried: there were more important things to concern her, she decided, than some extra padding on her tum. She checked to see if Paul had any bathroom scales -- she found some, dusty, propped up under the kitchen kink -- but decided not to bring them out. This wasn't going to be an issue. If she stepped up the amount of exercise she took, and reduced her afternoon nibbles, she probably wasn't going to gain any more.
By the end of six weeks, however, she realised her extra pounds were something more than a temporary phenomenon. Her tummy bulge had grown to the point that it was beginning to stop her zipping some slacks all the way up. She began to wear her blouses lose, not tucked inside her waistband. The weather was hot, she reasoned. It was more comfortable that way. But she couldn't deceive herself like that for long. With reluctance, she realised she had better pull out the bathroom scales and learn the worst.
After her long morning bath, she towelled and patted herself dry, lingering over her hips and the little belly starting to swell out from under her breasts. Dusting off the scales, she perched on them gingerly, and looked past her breasts (bigger now, she was sure) down to her feet, wondering where the bouncing needle was going to rest. Not at 126 pounds, that was certain. She blinked. The scales read 142. She had put on 16 pounds. She was over ten stone. For the first time in her life she felt massive. She felt embarrassed. She felt fat.
"I wonder if Paul has spotted any of this?" she thought. She decided she would mention it. She needed some feedback beyond her own thoughts.
That night, as they settled down to salmon smeared with a heavy cream sauce, Vivienne loosened the zipper on her slacks to give her stomach more room to breathe.
"I don't know if you've noticed," she began guardedly, "but I've been putting on a little weight since we've moved here". She rubbed a hand over her tummy, and felt every new pound.
"Je veux que tu parle Francais!"
"Oh Paul, I don't want to speak French right now. Why do you make everything a lesson for me?"
"Tu as un peu engraissé, oui!"
"Paul!" Vivienne adopted a chiding tone, but was relieved that he seemed unconcerned enough about her weight to make a game of the matter.
"I've noticed have grown a little rounder, yes. You have not been used to so much eating, I suppose. But it doesn't worry me. You carry the weight very well."
"I'm not sure about that" -- Vivienne recalled how she felt on the scales -- "but it's a relief anyway. I do enjoy all this food, and I must admit I'm not in the mood to diet."
"This ends the discussion, then. Now can we speak French?"
"Oui, mon amour!" Vivienne smiled coquettishly, settling down to the salmon. Paul suddenly saw how her cheeks had filled out, blurring the cheekbones.
That evening, for the first time in weeks, Vivienne felt playful in bed and ready for sex. Paul too seemed interested. Often they spent their time in bed reading: a little light Roland Barthes perhaps, or Agatha Christie translated into French. But their conversation over the salmon seemed to have released the brake on their sexual appetites. Now that Paul had voiced his approval, or at least acquiescence, Vivienne felt more reconciled to her current shape. She felt a sensual thrill, new and strange, as he roved over her contours, stroked the little flesh heap on her tummy, kissed the nipples on her breasts (now more like melons than ever), and rode her soft body into the golden sunset. Switching positions, she then rode his.
After getting used to the domestic routine, and acquiring some mastery in shopkeepers' French, Vivienne found her days began to slip by. She shopped for supplies. She read her books. She studied. At the weekend, she and Paul explored the countryside, and enjoyed each others' company. Paul still tried to keep mealtimes reserved for speaking in French, but his resistance weakened. He loved the intellectual cut and thrust as much as Vivienne, and that was difficult for her in French.
By now Vivienne had a definite midriff roll round her waist that hung over the top of her slacks and loomed out beneath the tight summer t-shirts that seemed to creep ever higher up her developing chest. She had bought two bras in a larger size, which made things more comfortable, but even with these bulges of fat were forming around their sides. She realised she was still gaining, but felt little need to take any action, even when the bathroom scales showed she had added a further eight pounds and was now a substantial 150, edging towards eleven stone.
She mused about this. It must, she thought, be in part because she was away from prying eyes. This was happening in France, among people who scarcely knew her, least of all her previous weight and body measurements. It felt safe. There were no recriminations. But what would happen when she went back to London to see her friends, which she was due to do in two weeks' time? She couldn't shrink back to 126 pounds just like that.
She would warn them in advance, she decided. She would write to them and slip in some line about putting on weight. And she would tell them she was happy. The last thing she wanted was having Kyra cackle "I told you so!" or Claudia bombard her with suffering looks. So she sat at the kitchen table, with two apricot croissants by her side aching to be consumed, and wrote brief letters and postcards.
How should she phrase it? "I have gained a bit of weight," she wrote Kyra, " -- strange considering how vigilant I've always been over health and food..." The die was cast.
Everyone said she looked well. That was the word that kept coming up. Kyra said she looked well. Claudia said she looked well. Richard at the library said she looked very well. Vivienne was pleased but also a little suspicious: were they using 'well' as a euphemism for 'fat'?
When she arrived at Kyra's flat, where she was staying, she had certainly felt her friend's gimlet eyes weighing her up in her mind, clocking the sudden bulge at the tummy, the heavier breasts, the roundness in the face, the hips and bottom that were making more and more of her clothes a squeeze to get into.
"How much have you gained?" Kyra asked, voice etched in awe, ten minutes after Vivienne had come through the door.
"25 pounds." She tried to be matter-of-fact.
"That's a lot. But you look so well!"
Knowing Kyra, Vivienne realised that wouldn't be the end of it. As she was assembling ingredients for their evening meal -- Claudia would be coming a bit later -- she started in with the little needles, something Kyra was very good at.
"I'm afraid I can't offer the gourmet meals you've obviously been enjoying in Lyon."
"Oh Kyra, that doesn't matter."
"How do you feel about the weight you've put on?" Kyra looked at her out of the corner of an eye as she laid out the rice, the beans, and the slab of tofu in a neat little line.
She was prepared for this. "I suppose I'm in two minds. It's not as if the weight suddenly arrives one morning and you go into total shock. It creeps up on you slowly, a little at a time."
"You probably started gaining before you left London."
"I probably did. Well I know I did. But I only took the matter seriously once I could really see the extra pounds in France, and by that time I'd been living with them for a while. I was not pleased, of course I wasn't, but there was something comforting and comfortable about it at the same time. I was really surprised."
"I'm surprised too. The weight can't make your clothes comfortable. You look ready to burst out of those jeans."
Vivienne breathed in and ran her hands down her sides. "Well that is getting a bit of a problem area. But I've always had slightly large hips."
"Do you think you'll diet?"
"I suppose I should do. I don't really want to gain any more. When I get back I'll take more exercise and cut out some of my nibbling. That should do it."
"You need something more rigorous than that. You should diet. Isn't there a fitness centre you could go to in Lyon?" She was chopping the tofu into tiny squares.
"I don't -- ". Further words were stopped by Claudia's ring at the door. Hugs and kisses, the usual French salutations. Claudia's hand clutched Vivienne's waist, feeling the fat bulging round her sides.
"Ah yes, you've gained some weight!" Here we go, thought Vivienne. "But you look so well!"
The males she met were more circumspect, though she could see them performing a slight double-take as they saw her softer physique. "France is obviously suiting you!" Richard said. Ah, thought Vivienne, another variation on 'well'. It was good to see her friends again. She realised how homesick she'd been: for all the stimulation of life with Paul and the release from the grind of a daily job, she missed the buzz of London's cultural scene.
With Roy, she decided to combine meeting up with a visit to a museum. The Feldmeier Collection had come to the Royal Academy, and the papers were full of this fabulous horde of modern paintings usually locked away in Basle. Roy didn't need Vivienne's postcard to tell him that she'd put on weight -- he could see the breasts were more substantial now, the waist thicker, the cheekbones wrapped round with a little fat -- but found himself tongue-tied, unable to reveal how much he approved of her extra pounds.
He comforted himself for the moment by enjoying her beauty and lively company, and snatching admiring glances at the bulge on her tummy as the parade of pictures passed by. They were a strange bunch. One of them was called "The Girl I Left Behind in a Drawer", by a minor Surrealist, Alfonso Alcazar, revealing a bony, anorexic woman lying thin as a rake inside a drawer pulled out from what looked like a bedroom dresser. How sweetly rounded Vivienne looked next to this skeleton. Did the image strike any bells with her, give her a frisson? Roy was dying to know, but shyness, as always, kept him silent. Vivienne stared long and hard, but for all Roy knew she could have been admiring the brushstrokes.
Moving along, they came upon a painting by Renoir, "In the Powder Room": the usual group of rotund women, bursting with pink flesh and fertility. Once again Roy's mind started to spin. Would Vivienne grow as plump as these ladies, breasts billowing beneath flimsy garments, thighs sturdy enough to support a house? In gazing upon them intently as she did, was she seeing her worst nightmare, or a signpost to her own blissful future if she ever let herself move onwards and upwards, past 200 pounds? Was she making any personal connection at all? Her silence revealed nothing.
Then came another Alcazar. " Still Life," it was called. A policeman's helmet, a vase of flowers, a meat grinder, a lavatory brush, and a chocolate cake were laid out on a table, solemnly painted in a parody of the Impressionist style. Here Roy found his tongue. "This is a weird one. What do you think?"
She paused. She considered. "I like the chocolate cake," Vivienne said.
Back in Lyon, life continued as before. Vivienne passed the health club on her way to the library, and picked up a leaflet about hours and rates. But the thought of squeezing herself into her black lycra and working out did not greatly appeal. Her friends in London seemed fairly comfortable with her weight -- even Kyra's barbs didn't carry that much sting -- and she felt little reason to do anything drastic. Anyway, she'd started to cycle a bit with Paul around the countryside. She was walking. She was eating a bit less. She would probably not gain any more.
But she did. Over the next six months the pounds came more slowly than before, but they came nonetheless, generating the first signs of a double chin, further expanding her chest, rounding out her behind, and solidifying the tummy's bulge of fat into a curving expanse that necessitated another trip to the clothes store. Clutching the sides of her waist sometimes, she was awed by the size of her love handles. Of course she knew she was putting on weight, but its manifestations still caught her by surprise.
She recalled there had been a book in the headlines in her student days, "Fat Is a Feminist Issue", by an American woman, Susie Orbach. She hadn't read it: fat wasn't an issue with her at the time, and showed no sign of ever being. But she had read a review or two. She wished she could remember Orbach's argument. Was she for fat, or against it? It would be nice if somebody was for it at the moment, for Vivienne was starting to feel vulnerable.
After she returned from the shops with new corduroy trousers wide enough to take her new waist, she realised she had better fetch out the scales again to know what she was dealing with. Perhaps she had now put on too much; she was beginning to feel so.
Bath over, she stepped onto the scales, noticed how much her thighs had swollen, and watched the needle dance up and down with a mixture of resignation, mock disinterest, and horror. It landed at 163 pounds. In the year she had been in living in France she had gained all of 37 pounds. "Oh me, oh my," she thought to herself, "what has happened to the slim woman I used to be?"
Paul was getting concerned, too. He'd appreciated it when Vivienne first began to acquire gentle curves -- "there's more of you to love," he once said -- but Vivienne's recent gains seem to have taken her beyond what he considered acceptable. Their love-making was not so passionate. Paul's fingers did less probing.
And his tongue was turning tart. Finding Vivienne sitting naked on the bed, midriff and tummy joining forces in a generous and beautiful roll of flesh, he said, "My God, you look like you have a draught excluder wrapped round your waist. That is horrible!"
Wincing, Vivienne glanced at her mid-section, round enough in his eyes to be cut off and positioned at the foot of a draughty door. She was hurt. "I thought you didn't mind me getting bigger."
"In moderation, Vivienne. In the beginning it was fine. But you are now getting too big. And that I do not approve."
Two different feelings tore at Vivienne. Paul had only reinforced the feeling of dismay about her body that she was starting to feel herself. She once had a tummy flat as a plank; now she carried a ring of fat so big it looked like a draught excluder. But she gibed at this business of approval. She had to earn his approval? Was she going to be defined by his notion of her ideal shape? There had always been something dictatorial about Paul: meals had to be prepared just so; nor was there much flexibility in his opinions on politics or literature. He thought himself always right. The French mentality, Vivienne supposed.
They began to have more arguments. Wounding comments kept creeping in to Paul's conversation; the size of her rear, her poor French pronunciation, what he saw as her laziness. Their relationship seemed to be unravelling.
Vivienne fought back as best she could. "I came here because I loved you," she said during one battle in the kitchen. "I gained this damn weight because I loved you, because of the food you insisted we ate. If I could carry off a job here I'd take one on in a flash; I nibble so much during the day because I'm bored! I'm no superwoman, Paul, I'm no robot. I'm human, I'm flawed, and if you can't love my imperfections --" she swallowed hard, eyes moistening -- " then we'd both be better off living apart."
Paul put down the casserole dish he'd been washing. "I don't want that to happen," he said quietly.
"Do you think I do?"
"I suppose not."
A week later, after a reasoned agreement between them that parting would be the best, she packed her things: the philosophy books, the joke book Kyra sent her for Christmas, "Maxims for Modern Marxists", the French language tapes, the clothes she couldn't fit into, the clothes she could. She left behind Agatha Christie translated into French. She would like to have left behind her draught excluder, but she couldn't.
It wasn't what she'd become used to. Beansprout salad. Unadorned chicken breast with midget-sized vegetables nestling alongside. No potatoes. No sauce. But she picked up her knife and fork and made the best of things.
She was back in London, temporarily sharing with Kyra. She'd been there two days now, and already a diet had been instituted. Kyra's eyebrows had shot up when her friend, grown some way beyond chubby, first walked through the door. But Vivienne wanted the diet for herself. She wanted to get back in control, to reclaim her own identity after what now seemed a year of lazy drifting and suppressing her own instincts in order to please her lord and master, Paul. How could she have let this happen? How could she have got so fat? She was going to be herself again. She was going to be slim.
"I'm not going to say I told you so," Kyra said, saying it just the same. "But I always felt Paul was a mistake."
"He wasn't a mistake," Vivienne said. The meagre meal gave her lots of opportunities to talk. "We had wonderful times together. But in the end I was feeling swamped: I was beginning to lead his life more than mine. There isn't any more chicken, is there?"
"No there isn't."
A little sigh.
"No ice cream either?"
"You know there isn't!" Kyra looked at her friend, full in the face, her slack jawline forming a second chin as she ferried the last bite of chicken into her mouth. "Vivienne, I know the physical reason why you put on this weight in France. You were eating much more. But what was the psychological one? There must have been one. You wouldn't suddenly abandon a lifetime of abstinence simply because more food was available. What were you feeling as the pounds started to creep up?"
"What was I feeling? I was feeling tight in my clothes. I was feeling soft to the touch. I was dumbstruck, kind of, watching the fat build up, watching the tummy fill out to the point that the top button of my jeans couldn't be done up. In the beginning there was something magical about it, almost. It's hard to explain."
"No, no, I mean deeper feelings." Kyra wouldn't let this one go. "You weren't gaining weight to protect yourself, were you? Maybe psychologically you wanted to keep Paul at a distance somehow, to preserve your independence, so you started to gain weight. Doesn't Susie Orbach say something like that?"
"Does she? Well she's wrong. You're wrong." Vivienne was getting fed up. "I put on weight because I found that I enjoyed eating Paul's food. It's that simple. And Paulactually liked me rounder at first. I just got too round. I let myself go. But now I'm back on track --". Her words tapered off she surveyed the empty plates on Kyra's dining table, and thought of the endless calorie-conscious meals to come. Was this a track she really wanted to be on?
Still, she stuck to her diet. She lost 10 pounds. Then another five. She rejoined her health club, meeting up with some old Stairmaster colleagues whose eyes widened at the residue of fat still on her body. Three months later she had gone down to 140 pounds. When she went for a job interview as a secretary at London University, where Kyra worked in the same capacity, she could just about fit into the black business suit she'd always worn when a boringly professional image was called for. True, it was tight around the bum and waist: having shrunk somewhat, her tummy was now refusing to shrink any more. Her breasts too kept some of their bulk. But the dress could still be buttoned up. Kyra and Claudia were delighted with her.
Roy's feelings were different. He was thrilled his friend was back in town, available for lunch-time meetings, the odd evening out at a film or a play when the Bangladeshi Relief Fund committee or some other worthy cause did not need her. But he silently cursed missed opportunities. She had come back to London looking plumper and more beautiful still, only to go into reverse and start dieting. "Oh," he'd said, embarrassed, when she told him that's what she was doing.
He had never gone to see her in Lyon, where he could have enjoyed her in her prime, watching her eat those gourmet meals she talked about with longing. And he railed in his mind against Paul, who had watched her gain weight, happily enough, only to put her down when she'd just turned the corner into a new dimension. What a fool Paul was. And how hurtful to Vivienne. From Roy's perspective, the future looked bleak, especially as Vivienne was talking of setting up home with Kyra and Claudia permanently, pooling resources to buy a large flat. How could she flourish with those spindly ogres watching every mouthful she took?
After much searching and financial calculations, a two-storey flat in north London was bought. It needed a great deal of work, which given their skimpy resources could only be accomplished over time. Roy sometimes came round for evening meals. The fare was tasty enough, but plain. Vivienne appeared happy, but to Roy's eyes she had lost something more than avoirdupois. Some sparkle had also disappeared. In the battle between Vivienne's body and mind, her brain and her appetite, her mind had taken over too much control. That's what Roy thought.
Vivienne saw it differently. Having successfully given up food -- sort of -- she was now out for fresh fields to conquer. It was as though she'd assembled a list, headed Sorting Out My Life. She now decided she would give up smoking. Not that she smoked like a chimney; maybe no more than six a day, usually around meals -- they helped pad them out a little. But she was trying so hard to think healthily, and this was a clear health hazard.
She found giving up harder than she'd imagined. She kept needing something held between her fingers, inserted into her mouth. Pencils only went so far. You couldn't eat pencils. For she felt hunger cravings too, and went to work with a host of bread sticks, kept in a drawer for munching. Sometimes she bought a chocolate bar; sometimes she bought three. She insisted on having potatoes with every evening meal. Within twelve days, she had put on eight pounds.
Vivienne knew gaining weight was normal when giving up smoking. But the thought of the fat creeping back, filling out the hollows that had only just started to reappear, was more than her brain could stand. She gave up giving up smoking.
Her secretarial work at the University was tedious, and the office politics that swirled around was not the kind of politics that interested her. She missed Paul. She missed their intellectual sparrings. She missed their passion in bed. And yes, she missed the food. But everything was for the best, she decided.
So what was next on her Sorting Out My Life list? Apprehensively, she chose cooking. She had to improve her skills. How could she have spent that time in France and let Paul dictate the menus, the food preparation? He had ruled the roost too much, and at the time Vivienne lacked any expertise of her own to pitch in with conviction. She had to move beyond shaking pasta spirals into a saucepan, opening up a ready-made low-calorie meal, or heating up slim little chicken breasts in the oven.
Just when she got bitten by the cooking bug, there were ructions at work. The talk was of cut-backs and redundancies. The money squeeze was on. As the newest employee in her department, Vivienne feared she might lose her job: dull as it was, she needed the money. The axe didn't fall, at least not all the way: her job, she was told, would now be part-time, three days a week.
For Vivienne it was the perfect arrangement. She did enough paid work at the University to keep the wolf from the door. The rest of her time was her own; for following her intellectual and political pursuits, and for learning how to cook. On Thursdays and Fridays, her days off, she would be in the kitchen, up to her ears in Pyrex bowls, spices, sauces, learning some of the mysteries that Paul had insisted on keeping to himself. In a second-hand shop she found "The Shirley Temple Cook Book". She did not buy it. But she bought others and devoured their recipes. She learned how to make cakes and pastries too: not for herself, she told Kyra and Claudia, but for selling at the charity events that always seemed part of their weekends.
These were also days when she could spend more time with friends. Sometimes she went into town to have lunch with former library colleagues, like Richard, who told her she was looking well, or Arlene who wondered if she'd gained a little weight, or Roma, now plumper than ever, who said nothing but smiled.
One hot August day Roy came over. Vivienne was wearing a summer top and jeans, and filling them out rather more than she'd done a month or so before. Her upper arms, too, were looking rounder. As she bustled about the kitchen, finishing preparing the lunchtime meal, Roy wondered if he dared make some oblique comment about the side effects of cooking. In the event he was spared his torment.
"I've been trying to expand my cooking repertory, which has been fun. Unfortunately it's a great way to put on weight."
"Have you gained a bit?" Roy said, trying to sound innocent, heart beating faster.
"I've put on fifteen pounds. I suppose there's worse things to worry about, but I was trying so hard to keep slim." She reached up to get some herbs from a shelf, breasts straining hard against her top, a roll of new midriff fat bulging out and jiggling just above her jeans.
"As long as you're happy," said Roy. This was a handy phrase. It suggested no hint of criticism about her new pounds, but still kept his own feelings out of it. They had know each other for several years now, but still Roy could not reveal how much he thought she improved her appearance whenever she put on weight.
Kyra's flat-mates were not so tongue-tied. Over the weeks, observing their pupil backslide and spread more and more round the middle, they applied light-hearted mockery, hoping it might stop her in her tracks. "Some might say it's obscene to put on weight when there's so much world hunger," Kyra observed over breakfast, eyeing the tummy looming out of Vivienne's nightdress. "You should slice off some of your tummy fat and parcel it up to Ethiopia. They could live on it for a year".
"I'll remember that if I get desperate."
"If you're going to be fat, the least you could is to donate your old clothes to charity."
"I'm not going to be fat, Claudia. My body's just in a state of flux at the moment."
"A state of flux!" Kyra cackled. "That's a new one. She's not fat, Claudia, she's just ina state of flux!"
Vivienne stormed out and went to her room. Kyra and Claudia were old friends, but still there were limits. She sat on her bed, took off the nightdress, and fingered the soft swathe of flesh that curved up from her crotch and buckled into two large rolls between her waist and breasts. As she stroked her new fat -- the result, she well knew, of her cooking sprees -- she couldn't decide whether it was her friend or her enemy.
These days she was seriously confused. Sometimes when she took her showers and soaped her body or looked in the bathroom's full-length mirror, she became invaded by guilt and shame. Over the last month or so she'd watched the belly bulge she'd worked so hard to banish reappear with a vengeance; she'd watched her breasts begin to droop, and her thighs creep ever more closer together. She was afraid to stand on the scales, afraid to get confirmed what she felt must be true; that the weight she had lost had all been put back, and that her body and appetite's new natural instincts were in control.
She could think up excuses for her weight gain in France: there was a different pattern to her life; there was Paul's cooking. But back home she had fewer alibis, and could only feel her failure. She'd failed at the relationship with Paul, and here she was failing at slimming. Kyra's goading comments at breakfast hurt her, but a part of her knew she deserved them. For a woman of her height and build, being over 130 pounds was immoral. She knew that.
Yet nothing was quite that simple. Even now, in her bedroom, hurt and vulnerable, she still couldn't deny the sensuous thrill as she moved round her waist, gently squeezing the fat that had mounted up in the last month. She liked feeling soft, she had to admit. For all her pangs of guilt, a part of her was glad she was gaining weight. There was something comfortable about her pot belly, back in force, filling out her jeans as she lay back on the sofa after a meal. She wished she could talk to Kyra or Claudia about it; that might help her through her own confusions. But they wouldn't be sympathetic. They were so censorious. Simple pleasure was something foreign to them, as it once was to her.
They would certainly be shocked to learn that Vivienne's increased girth was not as accidental as she liked to make out. Apart from the cooking sessions, Vivienne was starting, just occasionally, to binge. Her night table held a collection of chocolate bars, which she'd consume with the door locked, flush with the excitement of breaking her diet behind her flatmates' backs. Two large cakes made for the Sudan Drought Relief Bazaar never made it outside the kitchen, wolfed down one lazy afternoon. Secret eating, she discovered, seemed to make the food even tastier. She knew this behaviour was not sensible, but sometimes a demon gripped her. All she knew at such moments was that she wanted to feel her full belly pressing hard against her clothes. She wanted to see her breasts overflow her bra, watch her hands wrinkle up as she tried to squeeze them into her hip pockets. She wanted to be fat.
After her shower that day, Vivienne fetched out the bathroom scales. With fear and trembling, awe and wonder, guilt and pleasure raging within, she watched the needle shoot up and see-saw back and forth. 172 pounds, twelve stone four. She was now even heavier than she'd been in France.
"What is happening to me?" she cried.
"Why?" said Claudia. "Tell me why?"
She was staring at Vivienne's breakfast platter. Summer had turned, and the pair were on a week's holiday in southern France. From the hotel buffet Claudia had selected a low-fat yoghurt and a small bowl of muesli. Vivienne had picked out two chocolate-filled croissants, three pancakes, and had her eyes on the bacon, eggs and fried potatoes.
"I'm on holiday, Claudia. You should learn to let go."
"Watching you letting go is not a good advertisement, Vivienne. You are putting on so much weight."
It was no use. During the week Claudia looked on helpless as her friend let loose in the hotel dining room, in patisseries and bistros, and came back to London ten pounds heavier. Claudia gained two. Kyra was appalled, and even Vivienne began to think she might have overdone things.
Winter beckoned. But before the long nights descended, the trio realised they should make a stab at decorating at least part of their new flat and remove the bottle green and elephant grey wallpaper the previous owners had thought so charming. They were going to have a weekend blitz, and Roy offered to help out; he had been away on business, and had not seen Vivienne for six weeks.
"Come and help!" Vivienne had said on the phone. "It will be fun. There's something so therapeutic about simple manual work, slapping a paint brush over a wall."
Vivienne answered the doorbell. Roy stood paralysed for a few seconds by love and awe: she had grown so much fatter. Jowls surrounded her round, beaming face, not a cheekbone in sight. Her breasts seemed twice the size they last were. As he gave her a quick hug, his hands felt the thick layer of fat blanketing her wide waist and her upper arms. She had finally become the creature of his dreams.
Her clothes accentuated her development. Rummaging about for trousers and shirts she could happily splash with paint, she had encountered a major problem. None of her older jeans now fitted. A pair of pale lemon summer slacks, not worn for ages, gave her a reprieve. She could not zip them up all the way; she could barely zip them up a few inches. But with a few huffs and puffs they just about fit round her beautifully rounded derriere.
Shirts? There were several now that she no longer wore; t-shirts that were just too tight, blouses that couldn't be buttoned. None of these would do. She had asked Claudia, who was two inches taller. At the back of her closet, Claudia unearthed a red and black checkered shirt two sizes too big -- "My lumberjack shirt," she called it -- given to her by her father one Christmas. It was pretty unsightly, and Vivienne's breasts looked as though they were about to burst through, but at least she could button it up, and it hung down straight and long enough to obscure some of her belly swell and the unzipped zipper.
But nothing could hide the extra bulk Vivienne was now carrying, or the extreme tightness of her trousers. Vivienne was obviously aware of this. "I know what you're thinking," she said at the door. "There's nothing like wearing old clothes to let you know you're gaining weight".
"Are those trousers tight?" Roy said blithely as he watched the bulging lemon slacks navigate the stairs to their first floor flat.
"I can hardly move. I put on so much weight on holiday in France."
"Maybe all the effort of painting today will help knock off a pound or two."
"That's a sweet thought, Roy, but I don't think so. More drastic action is needed. No, I'm afraid it's time for another diet."
"Don't, don't," Roy said in his thoughts, "you're perfect right now!" But the thoughts stayed buried. He just couldn't prise them out.
They settled down in light-hearted spirits to the job at hand. Claudia's bedroom, large and airy but papered with a claustrophobic green jungle design, was the first room to be attacked. "How could anyone have put up such horrible wallpaper?" she asked. A cassette recorder sat on the floor, and a Bach cello suite burbled out. Vivienne had insisted on something gentle.
"It's the perfect room to commit suicide in," said Kyra, surveying the rain forest all around. "But no longer --". She dipped her roller into the tray of creamy white non-drip paint. No time for finesse. They wanted results quickly.
"If we used paint brushes," Vivienne said, "we could do something fancy. Paint a mural. Would you like that, Claudia?"
"It depends on what topic. "Communism Triumphant" would be good, or "The Obliteration of Third World Debt"." Her French accent made a nice meal of 'obliteration'.
"Maybe we could do a copy of some of those bizarre paintings we saw at the Feldmeier show, Roy." Roy thought back to that parade of bodies, thin, plump and in-between. Where would he put Vivienne now?
"Even better," Roy piped up, "I could paint a portrait of Shirley Temple for you."
Vivienne laughed so much she dropped her roller. Bending down to pick it up, she heard through the Bach cello suite the unmistakable and embarrassing sound of ripped fabric. Her slacks couldn't take it. Stretched to danger point and beyond, they had split wide open along the back seam.
"My God, Vivienne, you've split your pants!" Kyra cried.
Vivienne, red in the face, felt around with her fingers, locating the tear. "They were old and thin..."
"That's not the reason, Viv, and you know it." Kyra adopted her headmistressy voice. "You've put on so much weight. You're going on a diet tomorrow. Isn't she Claudia?"
"I think you should, Vivienne. You can't keep going on like this. You will be a balloon."
"Balloons are nice," Roy attempted, wanting to ease Vivienne's embarrassment. It was the most demonstrative he'd ever been.
"Little balloons held by children are nice, Roy. Big balloons walking round on legs are not."
"I'd better change," Vivienne said quietly, scuttling out of the room, head lowered.
"I don't understand why she's letting herself go." Kyra rolled the walls with a vengeance. "She slimmed back down well enough after France, but now she's fatter than ever."
"She'll have to go on the thousand calorie diet. We'll weigh her food. There's no other way."
"Judging by the size of her bum, she needs the hundred calorie diet. Sorry, Roy, girl talk."
"That's OK," he said, thinking grim thoughts.
A few minutes later, Vivienne re-emerged. The only slacks she felt safe in now were the new ones she'd bought a few weeks before, big enough to take her new measurements with ease. "Sorry about that. I was so embarrassed."
"Tomorrow, Vivienne, DIET!" Kyra and Claudia called out together.
"Yes, girls," she said sheepishly.
Winter had suddenly arrived. The moon was shining cold and bright. As Roy walked towards the girls' flat he noticed for the first time how the Victorian gables gave their house a gingerbread look, as though it were a fairy tale castle. Not inappropriate: he certainly thought of the plumpened Vivienne as the beautiful fairy tale princess. If only her life weren't in danger!
He had not seen her since the painting weekend two weeks before. But she'd been always on his mind. He hated to think of her dieting again. After her time in France she'd complained about her own identity being eroded by her relationship with Paul. Yet here she was not one year later, ready to cave in again to other peoples' demands. It seemed obvious to Roy that being plump was her destiny, and what her beautiful body deserved. From the lustiness of her own appetite once she let it rip he could tell she'd be happy eating until she was 200 pounds, 250 pounds; whatever satisfied. Yet she refused to follow her instincts. For all her intelligence and concern for the plights of others, he thought, Vivienne seemedght, and they'd be witches. They had certainly cast a spell on Vivienne. She sat between them on the sofa, talking about what they wanted to hear: the pounds she'd dropped -- twelve to date -- and the trousers she found she could now fit into, if not yet zipper up. She was trying to sound upbeat, but Roy could tell it was a struggle.
"Be glad you're not a woman, Roy. Your body can cause you such problems. Can you believe I used to be really slim?"
"You will be again, Viv," Claudia said, encouragingly.
Vivienne smiled and sighed at the same time. She looked defeated. She felt defeated. The incident with the split seam had shaken her. She must have been in a daze, gaining weight and not caring. But now she'd woken up. Her fat was not her friend. Her fat was her enemy. How could she have fattened up so much, and even found pleasure in it? Some base instinct, perhaps.
Roy offered to help fetch the coffee from the kitchen. He half expected to find a witches' cauldron on the table, bubbling away with some foul low-calorie stew. But what he found was disturbing enough. There were small kitchen scales, for the weighing of every quantity of food. There was a packet of rice cakes. There was a bowl of lentils soaking in water, some dried apricots, and a heap of withered prunes. "Oh Vivienne!" he said, under his breath.
"No nibbling, Vivienne," Kyra called out.
"No, no!" She was trying so hard.
Back in the living room, coffee poured, the talk turned to chat about things of the moment: stories in the news, new gallery openings, some play called "Death to Stalin". The witches did most of the talking. Roy was not listening much. Vivienne was quieter than usual, and appeared wary of making eye contact with anyone.
After half an hour, Roy had had enough. "I'll see you out!" said Vivienne, stirring herself, a wan smile appearing.
"Thanks for coming round." As they stood on the doorstep the night air clung to them, cold and damp. A cat was mewling a few houses away. There was so much Roy wanted to say, but Vivienne's air of defeat was contagious. The battle was lost.
"Take care of yourself," he said as he hugged her. He felt the bulk of her breasts pressing against his chest; he felt the thick wad of flesh around her waist, already starting to dwindle. All this would soon go! She would become a shadow, a wraith, a skeleton.
Hands still round her waist, Roy found tears in his eyes, and the thoughts hidden for so long inside him welled up alongside. Suddenly he heard the sound of his own voice, pleading loudly: "Don't. Don't lose the weight. Give up your diet."
"What?" Vivienne looked bewildered.
"You look so beautiful. Can't you see you were meant to be fat?"
Vivienne's eyes were moistening too. "No-one has said that before."
"I hate to see you torturing yourself. This is who you are, Viv, beautifully plump, radiantly plump."
"But it goes against everything I believe in."
"Forget what you believe. It's your feelings that matter most. It's your happiness that's at stake." The dam for Roy had broken. He couldn't believe he was talking like this. But this was a matter of life or death. He grew more heated. "Come with me, now. Leave this house. You have to leave this house."
"Leave? But where would I go to?"
Roy pulled her suddenly by the arm and ran with her down the path. Through the open door, Kyra could be heard shrilly calling: "Vivienne? Where are you? What about your rice cakes?" But they were already twenty yards away, streaking past other gingerbread houses lit by the moon and the dim street lights.
"Don't look back," Roy urged, as Vivienne turned her neck, anxious, confused.
"But I'm cold. I've left the front door open. Roy, why are we running?" She was panting a bit; she had long given up her health club and had not grown accustomed yet to carrying her extra weight. Roy steered her round a corner into the next street, snatching a backward glance to make sure that Kyra or Claudia were not following, riding their broomsticks.
The new street looked even darker than the last. But ahead through the murk was an orange glow. "Roy, stop!" Vivienne cried. He kept pulling her along, towards the orange glow, now just a few paces away. It was an electric sign, hanging in front of the bright lighted windows of a burger restaurant, "The Happy Eater".
They stopped in front. The windows were moist with condensation, but through the blur the restaurant's warmth and brightness leaped out. "Come on, Vivienne, this is your chance. Be yourself. Eat and be happy."
Vivienne staggered, breathless, into the warmth, still bewildered by her nightmare run. Beads of sweat appeared on her brow. Silently, she looked at Roy, then cast her eyes slowly over the vividly coloured photos of burgers, buns and chips plastered above the counter. She looked into the faces of thetwo serving girls, smiling, well-rounded, eager to please. She blinked several times. It was the forbidden land.
"I can't. I just can't."
"Vivienne, you put so much effort struggling to improve the lot of others, but you've never given yourself a chance to make your own life happy. This is your chance. Take it."
"And what can I get you?" said the girl behind the counter.
Vivienne stood still. The machinery in her brain was whirring. Her heartbeat quickened; Roy's, too. The girl looked expectantly.
Vivienne spoke slowly at first, in a voice quieter than usual, but steady. "I'll take -- three double whoppers, four portions of chips, and a very large chocolate milkshake. And what will you have, Roy?"
Six months later, Kyra and Claudia were sitting on the sofa , their meagre evening meal on the coffee table in front of them, the television news droning on from the set in the corner. They were not really paying attention; but it helped to have some other noise in the flat beside the sound of their own voices. The place had seemed so much emptier since Vivienne had packed up and left, shortly after that crazy night when she had left the front door open and ran off with Roy to burger heaven. Kyra and Claudia had thought of getting another flatmate; they really needed another person to share the bills. But no-one seemed to meet their requirements, so they remained alone, two thin bodies rattling around.
"Wars, wars, wars," Kyra moaned as the bulletin's catalogue of rebellion and massacres in Africa and the Far East unfolded. She picked up a carrot from the small dish of raw vegetables that accompanied their lightly grilled tofu burgers.
"Maybe the local news will be cheerier," said Claudia.
"Doubt it. Murder, rape, and motorway pile-ups." She'd watched the local news before.
The local newscaster started up, to the accompaniment of the crunch of celery. "Traffic on the M25 today was caught in a five-mile tail-back..."
"See?" Kyra yawned, and shut her eyes. The newscaster moved on to a new report on housing estate crime. Yet for all the noise from the television and the occasional chomping on raw food, the most notable sound in the flat was the sound of the women's silence.
Suddenly Claudia perked up. "That can't be Vivienne, can it?" The news report had reached its final item. A group calling itself the Fat Liberation Army had staged a demonstration during the day outside the London HQ of Calista World, a modelling agency particularly noted for promoting scrawny waifs. The Army spokesperson was being interviewed, a big woman, round and rosy as an apple, talking passionately about the need to liberate models and their fashion followers from the tyranny of being thin.
"It could be." Kyra peered into the healthy, plump face, cheeks dimpling as she talked, the chin resting on a second chin as soft and comforting as an in-flight pillow. "It is!" Kyra's eyes moved down to the watermelon breasts, filling out an extra large t-shirt emblazoned with the message "EVEN SUSIE ORBACH WAS WRONG". "But she's grown so huge!" Kyra was squawking. Neither of them had seen Vivienne since she'd moved out, first into Roy's flat, and then into a flat of her own, set up with Roma, her old library colleague with whom she discovered a lot in common, not least a weight of 205 pounds.
"She's really gone to seed," said Claudia.
"I suppose she's found her niche," Kyra sighed, looking at the loudhailers, the police presence, and the placards vigorously waved at the camera by ladies of size.
"I just never thought it would be a fat niche."
"Me neither." Claudia picked up a prune, mostly for something to do.
"She looks happy." Kyra sounded envious.
"Yes." Claudia toyed with the prune stone.
"She looks fat."
"Do you want any more of this tofu burger?"
"Not really." Claudia's voice was toneless, forlorn. "Do you?"
"Not really." They looked at each other, folded their arms in unison, and sighed.