Weight Room Title Bar

By Swordfish

His embrace almost pinned her to the wall. After eight months away, sent by his firm of investment brokers to their Tokyo office, he was eager to reclaim his girl, his trophy, and resume normal life.

He looked quizzical for a moment. “Your hair is different!”

“No it’s not.”

He scrutinised her face again, her shoulder-length auburn hair curling at the ends slightly as it always did, the brown eyes sparkling, the olive, almost Mediterranean complexion beaming back at him. Something was different. He couldn’t place what.

Vickey grinned. “Don’t say you’ve forgotten what I looked like!”

Bruno’s hands loosened their grip and began roaming over her body -- medium build, medium height -- renewing contact with her breasts and slipping underneath the bottom of her sweater.

“Course I haven’t. Hey, you’ve got a bit squashy!” He had touched her midriff, tight as a drum when last encountered, but now grown softer, lightly padded with fat.

“I have put on a few pounds.” She sounded only a touch remorseful.

He pulled away a few inches, hardness entering his voice. “Can’t have that, lovebird, can’t have that.” He looked at her slacks, more tightly fitting than he remembered. He returned to her face, and realised what had thrown him: the fuller cheeks, the slightly blurred jawline, the suggestion of a double chin as his hug thrust her backwards towards the wall. “I bought you some chocolates shaped like Santa Claus at the airport, but maybe you shouldn’t have them.”

“You swine!”

He smiled. She laughed herself. But as she watched him unpack his suitcase on the bed, she could feel the temperature in her heart dropping a few degrees. His movements were so precise and orderly, the clothes so neatly folded. Out came the toilet bag -- his preening box, she called it. The shaving cream. The deodorant. The after-shave. She looked at his hair, short as bristles, and the eyes -- small, pale blue, fierce. Everything about him was kept under such control. She looked round their shared apartment in a converted warehouse bordering the Thames: the bare pine floor, the spartan decoration, the stark lighting. Industrial chic. It was his place originally, not hers, and she never really liked it; with Bruno returned, and the rooms swept clear of her own clutter, she could already feel the walls moving in. Was this a home, or a prison?

Vickey had to admit it: she had enjoyed his absence. Or aspects of it. She had missed him in bed, but not round the dining room table. She had enjoyed going out more with friends, drinking and eating, indulging herself in the odd chocolate cake or other item bouncing with calories, freed from his disapproving eyes. Over six months, through the summer and autumn, more curious than seriously concerned, she had watched this small layer of fat creep on tiptoe onto her tummy, around and below her belly button, gathering into the suggestion of love handles at her side. Her weight had increased by just ten pounds, from 122 to 132: at five foot seven scarcely enough to change her shape, but enough to make her softer to the touch and also, just in the last few weeks, launch the start of a small pot belly that rubbed against some of her tighter clothes.

“You know TV puts pounds on you anyway. You’ve got to be careful.”

Vickey sighed. “Oh come on. I just stand in front of a weather chart and point at things. I don’t appear in a swimsuit.”

Bruno was hanging up his Armani. “You’re in the public eye, and I need you to look good.”

“I’m not your possession. I’m my own person.” She didn’t want to argue just now -- he had only just come through the door. But sometimes Bruno was too much, and this was one of them.

“OK, OK.” Bruno didn’t feel like arguing either. The long-haul flight was pulling him down. He was tired. He was hungry. He was thirsty. “Let’s not fight. Can you rustle up something to eat? Something real? Not served on a plastic tray?”

Vickey moved into the kitchen, and poked her head into the fridge. She saw the chocolate chip cookie bag eyeing her. Better not serve those. The salad container? That looked better. Rocket lettuce. Cherry tomatoes. Yellow and red peppers. Organic mushrooms. A salad, perhaps, with a modest bowl of pasta?

As she gathered the ingredients, she heard the sounds of Bruno showering, the water jet washing away the debris of hours in the stale cabin air, the thud of the soap as it slipped from his fingers (“Blast!” he yelled), the toneless, fragmentary humming of a tune that might have been identifiable to him but remained a mystery to the outside world. It felt strange having the apartment filled again with another person’s noise, another life being lived. She thought back to their early days in a basement flat, small and dark, constantly rubbing together as they moved about the kitchen, squeezing into the bathtub, sharing a wardrobe, every inconvenience a source of fun. At the time, for these two, friends from the same health club, there seemed nothing like cramped quarters for getting to love and know each other. Now that she did know him, four years later, she wanted more space. A lot more space.

“Do you want some bread?” she asked. He sat at the dining table, hair still damp, feeling clean and pink.

“Ah-ha,” he muttered, shaking his head. That was a no.

As Vickey cut herself a piece from the granary loaf she imagined his eyes following the knife, clocking the slice size, watching with disapproval as it entered her mouth.

“These are squirty things!” Bruno was gingerly trying to spear a tomato. He hadn’t been watching at all.

When she cut a second slice a few minutes later, she still expected some reprisal, a barbed comment perhaps, something about food and weight. It didn’t follow.

“I’m bushed,” he said, pushing aside the pasta, half-eaten. “More tired than hungry, I guess.” He let out a great yawn, and rubbed what little stomach he had, polished and toned in gyms worldwide. “Good to be back. Good to have me back?”

“A-ha.” That was a yes. She kissed him perfunctorily on the forehead, and began clearing away the plates. Bruno’s uneaten rigatoni was spooned into a plastic container, and parked in the fridge. It might be just the thing, she thought, for a snack when she returned from her night shift at the TV station.

“We’ll have sex tomorrow, right?” Bruno called out as he disappeared into the bathroom. Vickey cringed. Why did he have to be so blunt?

“Do you have to announce it to the neighbours?”

“A-ha-ha.” He was cleaning his teeth.

Sighing, Vickey moved into the bedroom and gathered her things together ready for the night’s work tracking weather systems on the computers, preparing a forecast for the day ahead and presenting it during the TV breakfast shows, bright and bushy-tailed in one of the smart dresses her job demanded. Even without checking the charts she could predict bad weather ahead: storms, possibly violent, and cold, cold winds.

A brief hug, another perfunctory kiss, toothpaste-flavoured, and she was out the door.

When she returned from the night shift at nine the next day, Bruno was still in bed, dead to the world, chest undulating from his slow breaths, mouth formed into what looked like a smirk.

Vickey slipped out of the bedroom, kicked off her shoes, and sank into the living room sofa. It looked so bare without her mess -- the magazines, the TV guide, the tissue box, the chocolate cookies. She picked up the phone.

“Hi, it’s me.” She was talking to Alannah, best friend since university. The words tumbled out in a torrent. “He’s back. Just in time for Christmas. I don’t know if I can take it. I mean, he’s so controlling, and even when he isn’t controlling he looks like he is. It’s like I could feel the walls closing towards me...It’s like living in a box, Alannah, a box. And his eyes, I felt them on me the entire time. Soon as he saw me he noticed I’d gained a few pounds ....Well I have actually -- around ten. Can’t have that, he said. Bloody cheek ..... I know .... Exactly. Exactly. He thinks I’m some trophy to put on his shelf ....What? I can’t talk too loudly, Alann, he’s in the bedroom getting his beauty sleep .... Getting his ugly sleep, then .... Habit I guess, that’s why I stay, and companionship .... Sweet of you to say I deserve better. True friend, that’s what you are .... Oh God, you’re going to psychoanalyse me. Not before my coffee, please. Shit, is he stirring? Hang on a sec...”

She peered into the bedroom, heard faint snoring, and tiptoed out.

“False alarm.” Silence as Alannah put her on the couch. “You think better of me than I do myself. I must say, though, if he’s a father figure he’s a pretty funny one. I suppose the bottom line is that you know who you are -- I’ve always admired and envied that. I don’t quite yet....Well I know I’m a weather girl. I stand with a stick and point at low fronts advancing across the Atlantic. But beyond that, Alannah, who I am? You trust yourself, you’re sure of yourself. I don’t know whether I’m coming or going .... I can’t go now, Alannah, he’s just come back. And that’s a big step. I’m not sure I’m ready .... We’ve grown apart, that’s for sure. Well I have. Not sure he’s noticed, he’s so self-absorbed .... It’s not just that he’s been away. Even when he’s here, we haven’t been seeing each other that much. He works late at his bloody office. I work the night shift sometimes. Often we just see each other for a hurried meal, or a session at the health club .... No, I haven’t been lately. I need to go .... Well that’s so nice, Alann, but you would say that wouldn’t you .... Beautiful? I don’t think so. You haven’t seen my midriff lately .... Well the fat kind of sits there, winking at me .... What? You want to come over and see it?”

Vickey heard a yawn, and the sounds of the bedside radio. “Look I’ve got to go. Bruno is stirring. Talk to you later? .... You’re a pal. Love you.”

Through the door she heard the voice of a financial analyst droning on about stock market reports, gilts, and futures. She let out a short sigh, put on the morning coffee, filled a cereal bowl with muesli, and dragged out the cookies from the fridge.

“Bugger it,” she said, “I’m hungry.”

Christmas was bearable: visits from Bruno’s mother, Vickey’s sister, everyone on good behaviour. But it was not an easy winter. Through January and February the British Isles had been besieged by one low pressure area after another wheeling in from the north or the west with clouds, rain, general unpleasantness. There was so little good news to forecast. Difficult even to rejoice in the mild temperatures. Had it been colder, the rain might have fallen as snow. Skies might have cleared. Everyone could have enjoyed feeling crisp. No such luck.

At work, Vickey tried to look understanding in front of the camera, but her farewell smiles were getting more desperate as the gloom dragged on. “We know it’s not your fault, Vickey,” one viewer had written to her. “We understand. Spring will come.”

To Bruno, eyes fixed on one computer screen or another, the sky’s colour was immaterial. What mattered was the volume of trading, stock exchange movements. Hard work. Exercise. Competition. Success. The feel of his head as he rubbed a hand over his hair, cut to a black fuzz after his tri-monthly scalp at his favourite salon, “It Will Always Grow Back”. Not that he let it. Hard to imagine now that this sleek male machine had once been a boy who’d worn short trousers, believed in Santa Claus, grazed a knee and ran to his mother for comfort.

“How’s that Vickey Pryce-Jones?” Angus called from the neighbouring booth. “Caught her looking cute on the box last night.”

“Oh we’re -- rubbing along.” It seemed the best way to describe things.

“She’s especially nice when she bends down to point out low pressure areas coming up from the south-west.”

Bruno wasn’t listening. His mind had frozen, as his computer did when bombarded with too many commands. He was fixed on the image of the two of them avoiding each others’ eyes in their apartment. Nothing had been working since his return. She was distant and secretive. Sex was perfunctory or non-existent. Had her needs changed or his? Both, maybe. He used to get a charge from her company. He used to think she was someone special. Now she’d become a disappointment, sometimes even an annoyance.

“You’re a lucky dog. Does she wear those clothes around the flat?”

Bruno’s mind jumped back to the open-plan maze around him. He looked at Angus, who was grinning vigorously, a nudge and a wink in his eyes. “Nope. Jeans and t-shirt. She needs to go to the gym,” Bruno added, gratuitously.

Vickey heard the same sentiment every day. Sometimes she paid attention. Other times the words brushed past her. With Bruno she had grown silent and sullen, resentful of the critical look that now seemed permanently stamped on his face. In his company, she ate little. Out of sight, she veered between meals small enough for a mouse and defiant bingeing on high-calorie goodies bought for the purpose behind his back.

She knew winter weight gain was normal, but now she found herself regarding her body warily, almost as though she were seeing it with Bruno’s eyes. She was reluctant to stand on the bathroom scales, but that morning she bit the bullet. 138 pounds. “I knew it,” she groaned. Slipping on her clothes after her shower, she noticed how much the top of her panties dug into the flesh building up round her midriff: how her navel was sinking further within her: how her flesh now bulged into a little roll above the belt on a pair of jeans that were starting to leave her little room to manoeuvre round the hips, rear and front.

She moved to the kitchen and stood, fridge wide open, hand poised to fetch out the milk -- low-fat, on Bruno’s orders -- and the other breakfast supplies. Then she stopped. She stared. She seemed to hear voices, inside the fridge. The food, she could swear, was talking to her. This had first happened several weeks ago; and it was happening now.

“Why don’t you eat me?” said a pack of chocolate eclairs, peeved and querulous, wrapping undisturbed after ten days on the shelf. “You bought me to eat. Eat me. Do you know what my sell-by date is?”

“I can’t,” Vickey said, eyes rolling upwards at the absurdity of it all. She was talking to a chocolate eclair. “You’ll make me put on weight.”

“But I’ve a crisp chocolate top with a soft chewy middle. You don’t want me?”

“Give me a break! Can’t I get my milk in peace?”

“And what about me?” A tub of ice-cream had joined in. “You haven’t had a scoop all week. Is it something I said?”

“It’s something you do,” she shouted back. Then she slammed the fridge shut, pulled out her tongue at the white enamel and the silly fridge magnets -- animals, Niagara Falls, a smiley face -- and retreated clutching milk and a cinnamon bagel.

The voices continued behind the fridge door, pained, but muffled. “Hey, lady, only trying to help.”

Then silence. And exasperation.

She ran her hands through her hair. “What’s happening to me?” she said. As she chewed, the cinnamon bagel -- plain, without jelly or cream cheese -- offered no answers and little comfort. But at least it kept quiet.

“What’s taking you so long to leave him?”

“I don’t know. Lack of will power. Fear.” Several weeks later, Vickey was circling the rim of her hot chocolate mug with a finger, eyes hollowed, mouth drawn tight.

Alannah stroked Vickey’s spare hand, limp on the coffee shop table. “You know you can stay with me until you get somewhere else.”

“I know.” She tried to sound grateful, but the words still came mixed with a sigh. “Somehow I just can’t make a move. I feel stuck. You know he’s got me counting calories?” She stared at the iceberg of cream bobbing on the top of her drink. “Instead of tasting the food, I taste the calories. This” -- she pointed to her mug -- “is really upsetting the apple cart.”

Alannah bristled. “If you want to gain weight that’s your business.”

“I don’t want to gain weight. I just am gaining weight. Or was. I got up to 139 pounds, and he kept bugging me, dragging me to the gym. I tell you, I fill out my gym clothes.”

Alannah -- permanently clothed in earth colours, tall, frizzy hair flecked with grey -- regarded her friend with loving. Longing, too. With part of her brain she tried to imagine the body in front of her without its clothing, the flesh honey-coloured, breasts and tummy pushing perhaps against black lycra. Then she cursed herself for her secret desires, suppressed for so long, even to herself, and doused them with cold water.

“It doesn’t show, Vickey, if it’s worrying you.” She half-eyed the girl brushing past carrying two cappuccinos, as though testing her audience and expecting to be found out in a lie.

Then it was back to her main topic. Bruno. The male pig. The robot. The yuppie dinosaur. So many terms came to hand. Far harder to find words to explain why he and Vickey had come together, and stuck together. A few rays of winter sunlight streaked onto their table. “Do you remember what first attracted you to him?” Alannah said, fingering the shaft of light playing between the cups.

Vickey took a long breath. “He was -- ”. She picked up a cube from the sugar bowl and toyed with it. It didn’t help. “He was -- oh, I don't know -- he was --”. The seconds stretched. “Brisk. That’s it, he was brisk.”

“Brisk?” Alannah almost shrieked.

“I don’t know how to describe it.”

“An electric egg whisk is brisk. A pentium 4 computer is brisk. That doesn’t mean you go to bed with them.”

“He had this brisk manner. It was kind of sexy.” She looked defeated. Even as she said the words, Vickey knew what the comeback would be.

“Surely deep down that’s camouflage for saying he was domineering, and you liked the feeling. Master and slave. That’s what you really wanted. Back then. But not now, surely.” Her hand sought out Vickey’s once more. After a few seconds, Vickey stiffened and pulled it away. She was finding this discussion uncomfortable. The finger had been pointed too accurately; the sun was too fierce. She wanted cloud cover.

The sugar cube was dropped back into the bowl. “I don’t know what I want. I only know what I don’t want. Be careful with me, Alannah.” She looked at her warily.

“I’m sorry. Session over.” Alannah eased back into her chair, eyes tender again. Vickey loosened up as well and sat back, revealing, as Alannah noticed, the hint of a double chin.

Suddenly Vickey changed tack. “What about you? Have you ever been in this position with boyfriends?”

Alannah, tasting her own medicine, hoped her blush wasn’t noticeable. Through her mind rushed all the past years and months of self-deception, lies, evasions, stretching up to this very moment. She was someone Vickey thought of as a rock, granite next to her jelly. Could she admit her own quiverings? Not now. Not yet. “I’ve never got so far, Vickey, you know that. Just never had any success.” She was scouring the room as she said it, seeking out their waitress. It was time, she felt suddenly, to pay the bill.

“Sixty seconds, Vickey.”

She nodded to the TV cameraman, whose lens seemed to be staring her down. She felt a combatant in a battle of wills, which the camera, she knew, was going to win.

She’d felt rattled all day. Coming back from the night shift she’d found a note pinned to the fridge in Bruno’s hand: “No more cookies.” The elegant penmanship somehow made it worse. In her mind during the morning she’d had a furious row with him and roasted him over the coals. “I’m fed up to the back teeth,” she’d snorted, “with your obsession with pounds and calories. If you love someone, Bruno --” she’d spat out his name as though it were poison -- “you respect them. And you take them as a whole. You love them for their insides.”

She’d kicked him to the floor, pinning him down with her foot. “So I’ve been gaining a bit of weight. So what? I’m still the person you’re supposed to be in love with. Maybe you’d be happier with a Barbie doll? One-inch waist. Plastic. Never changing.”

She’d won this imaginary boxing bout hands down. Then reality had wormed its way back. What was the point of knocking out Bruno in her head? When he was flesh and blood, standing before her, she froze. She did everything to avoid confrontation. They weren’t a loving couple any more, she had decided. They were the living dead.

And then there was her wardrobe. For the upcoming shift at the TV studio, she’d decided to wear her red suit, the collars trimmed with black, very trim and chic. Even though it was almost April, winter was dragging on: the flash of bright colour, she’d thought, would help take the edge off the doom and gloom she was bound to forecast.

But damn it, damn it, after almost a year on the hanger the suit was too small. Even after Bruno’s calorie-watching, the waistband remained impossible to clasp. The jacket no longer hung properly either. If she buttoned the jacket, she felt too constricted; if she wore it loose, the camera would pick up the loose clasp on her pants. She felt doomed.

“Damn my fat,” she’d cried that morning. “Damn Bruno. Damn everything.”

“Thirty seconds,” the cameraman said.

So here she was with her frazzled mind, wearing a commodious black outfit that she called “my funeral suit”, preparing to give the nation bad news.

“Well,” she said, trying to smile, “spring just doesn’t want to come, does it?” Then she launched upon her prepared forecast, the words memorised, her hands free to click the autocue that changed the image flung by the miracles of technology onto the blue screen before her.

But the words stumbled. “In the morning,” she warned Scotland, “look out for frog and fost.” She stared blankly for a moment, then tried again. “Fost and frog.” The cameraman, Dirk, shot her a look. “Fog and frost. It will clear by late morning, but temperatures will still be slow to rise, all because of this little fellow here --” she gestured inaccurately to an empty space in the North Sea. She heard herself drone on, promising temperatures no higher than 38 Fahrenheit. (“At least I said Fahrenheit right,” she thought.) Then she swept on. “Further south” -- hand swooping down to the south-east of England -- “there’s less chance of frog, but even here it’s not going to be a day for the sun cream”. She’d rather liked that little jest writing it down beforehand, but now, she decided, it was just stupid. And did she say frog? Dirk was eyeing her, she could tell.

“Over here --” She turned towards Wales and Ireland and became aware of a clatter. She had dropped her autocue. Dirk’s eyes widened. On camera, before the viewing millions, she had to stoop down and pick it up. She needed that little button, to click the symbols into life, the map of Europe, the long-range forecast, the temperature chart. “Thank God I’m not wearing my red suit!” she heard herself say as she straightened up. She stared again. She’d said it out loud.

Click. The map of Europe showed up, lassooed with weather systems, none of them benign. She was on the home stretch. “And that’s the forecast,” Vickey sputtered. “Good night.” Transmission over, she stood transfixed before the camera like a rabbit in a car’s headlights.

“You all right, Vickey?” Dick said, slipping off his perch. “You seemed distracted. And what was that about a red suit?”

“A joke,” Vickey muttered; “It didn’t quite work.” She apologised for her slip-ups; she was a bit tired, she said. Three night shifts in a row. As she gathered her belongings, said goodbye to Dirk, put on her jacket and signed out at the front desk she began wondering where she could buy a Barbie doll, and tried to recall which of the suitcases in the flat were hers.

There was a distinctive style to the way Bruno pressed an elevator button. Was imperious the word? The finger plunged in, executed a wiggle, then yanked itself away as though the button were on fire. The elevator had to come, the gesture said, because Bruno had summoned it. Arriving at a shaft to find a group waiting, instinct always told him to force to the front, jab, and smile smugly as the elevator arrived. He switched on computers in exactly the same way.

So there he was in the foyer of his building in the early evening, doing the jab, standing expectant. One elevator was out of service. The other one appeared stuck on the tenth floor. He shifted his feet. It had been a difficult day. His computer had crashed. Company trading figures for the last month were poor. Socks, they were told, had to be pulled up, more business generated. I can’t pull them up any higher, he’d moaned; they’re already up to my crotch. He wanted his sofa, a warm bath, a whisky, and Vickey ministering.

When the elevator doors opened the cause of the delay stepped out: elderly, genteel, somebody’s mother, no doubt visiting the pin-striped City type holding her arm. They smiled. Bruno attempted a smile back, but it was only a glare with wrinkles. Having taken possession, he jabbed the button for the twelfth floor, felt flush with youth, and ascended into his heaven, forgetful of where he’d come from in life, and where, inevitably, he was going.

It took time for him to notice the Barbie doll. Other things snagged his attention first. The apartment looked different. Tidier, was it? Less clutter on the shelves. He called out for Vickey and appropriated the sofa. The drinks cabinet beckoned. Whisky, straight, not even any ice. Then, putting away his coat in the bedroom closet, he noticed how unruffled the bed counterpane looked, as though a hotel maid had just visited.

Barbie was sitting propped against a pillow, ski clothes covering her long plastic limbs and one-inch waist, sun glasses and a vacuous smile perched on her pinched face. What crap is this? Bruno thought. Is she playing with toys now?

Then he saw the note, tucked under Barbie’s ski boots. It was brief but to the point. They were getting nowhere. He wasn’t allowing her to be herself. Since he wanted to be the puppetmaster, maybe Barbie was a better playmate. She was going to be at Alannah’s. See you on TV. Signed Vickey. No kisses. No love.

It took a minute for the message to sink in. Did this mean she had actually left him? He stared at the note, seeing the letters, not reading the words, then rattled through her rack in the closet. Clothes were gone. Shoes, too. Something was missing from the storage cupboards up above.

He felt disbelief and anger. Was this any way to leave? A note attached to a stupid doll? As he moved round the flat, checking her bedside table, the bathroom, noticing how the “No more cookies” note had obscenities scrawled on it, he worked hard casting himself as the injured party. He’d been left high and dry, he decided, denied the chance to say “We can work it out” or “But I love you”, or flare nicely with wounded pride.

The words that Vickey might have said in response -- “Why do you think we could talk about it now?”, “I don’t think you know what love means” -- never once entered his head. Seeing the letters. Not reading the words.

Checking for further evidence, he felt the weight of the empty spaces: the gaps in the bookshelves, the shelf swept clear of her family photos, the air hanging silent over floor, furniture, drapes.

In the bathroom, Bruno caught his reflection in the mirror above the sink. He tried to look defiantly handsome and cocky. But he couldn’t manage it. A shudder took hold, and he realised that the face in the mirror -- chiselled and scrubbed, teeth gleaming like white sand in the sun -- would be all he had for company. Picking up Vickey’s note, he sank into the sofa, crumpled up the paper, swigged the remains of his whisky, stared at his hands, and for the first time in a long while felt lost, small, and hollow. If he hadn’t forgotten how to do it, he might even have cried.

Alannah’s flat was always a jumble, tottering piles of books everywhere on the floor, plants climbing up to the ceilings, the bike in the hallway, available wall space decorated with Che Guevera, or a Van Gogh ripped from a magazine. There was no place to store Vickey’s suitcases, no separate room she could make her own. Her bed was the pull-out sofa, and in the first days she spent all available time asleep, shaking off the stress built up living in Bruno’s prison.

“My body’s going through de-programming, I guess,” she said when Alannah told her over the weekend that she’d just slept fourteen hours straight through. She’d been oblivious to the coffee percolator, the phone ringing, the sunlight streaming through the blinds (the first for weeks).

Vickey rubbed her eyes. “Two o’clock in the afternoon? God, I am a slug-a-bed.” She raised herself up and sat on the bed’s edge. “Thank you -- I know I’ve said this before, but thank you for taking me in. I finally feel I can breathe again.”

“My pleasure,” said Alannah, a little quiet and coy. Her friend headed for the shower. She returned to the papers spread out on the table -- her superior in the Community Action office was anxious for her report on housing estate crime -- but looked up smartly when Vickey emerged from the bathroom, trying to locate her toiletries, lost in the flat’s jungle.

Vickey was naked.

“You haven’t seen my toilet bag, have you?” All Alannah could see was the friend she loved, stripped bare before her for the first time, olive-skinned, gorgeous and desirable. For months, even years, as Alannah’s passion had incubated and grown, the back of her mind had idly wondered what sights might be revealed if that body ever relinquished the slacks and t-shirts that enveloped, protected, and teased. Now she had her answer. She noted the swing and hang of the breasts, larger than expected. She took in the neat swell of her bottom and the tummy bulge, previously only a hint behind clothes but now revealed sitting in glory just below her waist. She saw the fat softening her midriff, sweetly rounding out her upper arms. So this was the weight Vickey had put on. It was more than Alannah had imagined, but there was no dismay or disappointment: the new pounds, she decided, really looked beautiful. As she watched her retreat back to the shower clutching her bag, bottom jiggling just a fraction, the back of her mind idly wondered if Vickey would gain any more.

Alannah returned to the crime statistics. But concentrating was hard. She was worried. Having her friend sharing her flat was in some ways a dream come true. But she wanted to be honest; she wanted to be fair. And that meant opening up both Vickey and herself to feelings never previously aired. If the two of them were going to share, she had to finally admit out loud that it wasn’t only friendship that drew her to Vickey. She had to say that, yes, she loved the nape of Vickey’s neck, the cut of her features, the cut of her hair, her sudden warm smile, and now, just now, the curve of her belly and breasts, the face shimmering with a little extra flesh.

But could she say the right words, words that would both honour her own feelings and respect Vickey’s right to feel different? The columns of statistics blurred as she listened to the water jets. She imagined Vickey’s hand clutching the soap, encircling her breasts, pressing lightly into the fat on her tummy.

And then Alannah’s desires loomed up before her like a monster. She was treating Vickey, she suddenly realised, like her personal toy, a living doll. But Vickey was flesh and blood. More than that she was someone Alannah loved as a friend, someone she could not hurt or demean. These were cold thoughts, and the right words to say slipped down the shower drain along with the suds. Not now, not just yet, she reasoned. Another time.

Later in the afternoon, before the sun vanished, they went for a walk, and returned via the supermarket. Alannah wondered if Vickey would head for the high calorie aisle, and pile the cart with the cakes and cookies Bruno had frowned upon. Vickey showed no interest.

“Get whatever you want,” she said. “I don’t feel hungry. I should probably lose weight anyway. I still feel flabby.” She may have left Bruno, but he hadn’t left her.

Back at the flat, they shared a meal -- stir-fry chicken, vegetables, saffron rice; salad enlivened with horse chestnuts.

“Pecan pie for dessert?” Alannah offered. “It doesn’t quite go, but --”.

“Not for me. Oh, just a small slice”. Slice in hand, Vickey sat on the sofa, watching what passed for entertainment on Saturday night television, a glimpse of a love handle visible in the gap between sweater and jeans.

“Vickey,” Alannah said, summoning the breath from deep in her lungs, “we should talk.” On the TV screen, a quiz contestant, bald and excited, face like a lightbulb, was contemplating which category to go for: Elvis Presley, capital cities, Madonna, or the plays of William Shakespeare. “Do you mind switching this off, or at least turning the sound down?”

“Oh sure!” The lightbulb turned mute. Vickey smiled her sudden smile, cheek flesh creasing slightly. To Alannah she had never looked more beautiful.

Where could she begin? Practicalities, she decided. “Look, it’s inconvenient both for you and me if you sleep on this sofa night after night -- during the day too. And it’s not that comfortable. You’re very welcome to share my bed. There’s lots of room. I don’t wriggle. I don’t think I snore. But before you say yes, if you’re going to, I need to be frank.”

Vickey sat expectant.

Another breath was dragged from the depths. “We’ve been friends for a while, but there’s some things about myself I haven’t told anyone. For a while I didn’t even tell myself. I -- I swing both ways in sex.”

She hesitated, fearing to look into Vickey’s eyes. “Well, more one way than the other, really. What I’m trying to say” -- she wanted so much to clutch her hand, and realised so much that she mustn’t -- “is that I have feelings for you. Sexual feelings. I’m not going to act upon them. I wouldn’t dream. Not without mutual consent. I respect you too much. But it’s only right that you know.”

The contestant had just failed to identify Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes”. A zap from the remote control, and he vanished into the black hole. Vickey was smiling again.

“Did you know before?”

“Not exactly. But you’ve always been, well, how shall I put it? Demonstrative in your affection. I’m not a lesbian, but after Bruno I need love very much, and I’m not going to turn your love away. But why couldn’t you tell me before?” She sounded almost hurt.

Alannah looked rueful. “As I said, I wasn’t even telling myself. And then, I suppose I was afraid you’d bite.”

“Me? I wouldn’t bite anything. Except food.” She patted her waistline.

Alannah hesitated. Should she mention she liked the extra pounds? No. One revelation was enough for one day. And weight, she knew, was a sensitive issue for any woman. Tension eased. The discussion continued: Alannah’s failures with boyfriends, crushes on women teachers, her need now for Vickey to feel safe in the bed they agreed, for convenience and friendship’s sake alone, that they would share. “I won’t jump you, I promise,” she said.

Vickey flashed her most open smile. “I know you won’t.”

Sighs of relief. “After all that, maybe more pecan pie?”

Vickey didn’t need much persuading. “You know,” she said, a wedge speared on the end of her fork, “I can’t tell you what a relief it is to eat food that isn’t talking to you.”

At work, Bruno kept his changed circumstances to himself. If Angus mentioned catching Vickey on TV, he buttoned his lip, or changed the subject. Even when Angus got personal -- “She’s looking hot stuff these days, you lucky dog” -- Bruno’s only response was a grunt. Some nights these past months he’d been watching her too, gazing bemused at the face that once lay next to his on the pillow and now -- were the cheeks a little fuller? -- only existed for him as dots and lines in the box in the living room corner, beyond touch, beyond words, beyond scent.

Or she existed in his memory. In the quiet evenings he’d begun to ponder what had gone wrong. Was it his work, or hers? Their cockeyed hours hadn’t helped. In time, a corner of the veil lifted. He saw himself acting badly, ruthless and unfeeling. The admission was so uncomfortable that wherever possible he tried to avoid, or at least delay, any solitude at all. He stepped up visits to the health club, pounding the machines, lifting weights, pedalling to kingdom come, sweat beading his brow. He started to notice other gym users, spotting the regulars, comfortable among strangers unaware that he’d just been ditched by Britain’s most attractive TV weather girl.

“My name is Humphrey,” the guy two lockers down said one night, towelling himself vigorously after his shower.

“What do you expect me to do about it?” It had been another bad day for Bruno -- phone bedlam, the yen tottering -- and his gym session hadn’t helped. Besides, he didn’t much like conversation while he was removing his pants.

“You could at least commiserate. I’m only trying to be friendly. Seen you here before.”

“A-ha.” So had Bruno. He’d taken in the ebony body, the powerful limbs, veins standing out like highways on a map, blazing brown eyes that had appeared to wink at him over the machines. Did he have a twitch, or was he flirting?

“Do you want a drink in the club room?”

Bruno hesitated. It would be better than staring at his own walls. “OK,” he said, cautiously. “I’m Bruno. See you when I’ve got clothes on.” He walked off to the shower, wondering why he felt embarrassed.

“Bruno, eh?” Humphrey said as they sat down, his hands cradling an “Energiser” drink of carrot, beetroot and orange. “I guess both our parents gave us bum raps. Most of my friends eventually call me Hank.”

“Most of mine eventually call me Bruno.” He supped his Belgian beer. Talk was slow to come, but in time he opened up, lowering defences enough to mention that his girlfriend had just left him, he had this high-pressure job, and four bare walls, and a mother whose warmth intimated him, and enough stray bits and pieces to suggest, without meaning to, a desperate person lost in a maze. Within half an hour, he was talking so much he scarcely took in what Hank said in reply. But he noticed the furnace eyes. He noticed the body’s inches and strength as Hank stood up to leave -- he had a night shift, he said, as a bank security guard. And he certainly noticed the piece of paper, left with a phone number and two words: “Call me.”

Spring came late, but with a flourish. Constant changes in the weather: difficult to predict with razor accuracy. Every day Vickey had to find a new way of phrasing the forecasters’ old bromide -- “a mixture of sunshine and showers”. Outside work, she enjoyed day trips with Alannah to the countryside; plus a weekend in Wales, visiting her mother, who noticed she had gained a bit but since she’d not seen her own waist in years was in no position to make tart comments.

Vickey always liked spring. Especially this one. Sure, she felt the inconvenience of sharing a small flat -- she was putting stuff in storage, pending purchase of a place of her own. But for all the clutter, the file boxes and potted plants, the broken loudspeakers used as book-ends -- couldn’t Alannah throw anything away? -- the flat still felt bigger than Bruno’s minimalist paradise overlooking the river. At Alannah’s, there was room to breathe.

Alannah had kept her word. They shared the bed, and both felt comfortable. Alannah gazed fondly at the face on the pillow, hair tumbling down, jowl buckling sweetly into a little double chin, and gave thanks for Vickey’s trust. Tucked in, lying on a firm mattress, Vickey felt safe and fully at home; it was as though they were sisters. “Oh look at that,” she said one morning, catching an old movie on Saturday morning TV, “Laurel and Hardy share a bed too!”

She had spoken with Bruno on the phone, and returned with a van to remove a few extra pieces of furniture. Beforehand, butterflies had fluttered in her stomach, but the meeting went smoothly. Bruno was withdrawn, but polite. He helped carry a small bookcase; and at the end, as Vickey gave him back the flat keys, he actually mumbled “Sorry”.

“Good,” she said. “I’m sorry too, but it had to be.” The van drove away fast. Bruno stared at the parking space.

Weeks grew into months. In the relaxed, raffish atmosphere of Alannah’s apartment, her appetite soon returned. She began nibbling around the house, routinely snacking on pastries bought for the purpose from the local bakery, and never felt a meal was complete without a substantial dessert. And all the time, day by day, as the sunshine and showers, the hot winds from Spain, the odd Icelandic blast came and went, extra fat was creeping over her body, further padding her cheeks, edging her breasts and tummy outwards, widening her hips, leading her ounce by ounce towards the promised land of rounded peaks, soft valleys, and generous hinterlands.

Over the summer eyes started to be raised as work colleagues watched Vickey’s clothes getting tighter, and spotted the fudge slices on her tray at the self-service canteen. “You’re actually going to have that?” said her fellow forecaster Sarah, thin as a stick, silently calculating that Vickey’s breasts must have jumped two cup sizes over the last twelve months. “A-ha,” Vickey said.

She knew in a vague way that she was starting to put on more weight. She felt the lack of room to manoeuvre in one set of clothes after another; she felt her breasts pinched and squeezed as she clasped her bras at her back; she could sense as she brushed her body with soap that the fat round her middle was growing deeper, the belly button pushed ever further inside.

But in her mind she tried not to notice. She told herself this was only the fat she’d built up over the last year, plus perhaps a tiny bit more. She had become accustomed to feeling rounder and carrying more weight; so there wasn’t much difference now, was there? Was there?

Not that she wanted her hazy reasoning to be dragged into the light and tested. As summer advanced she avoided even looking at Alannah’s scales leaning under the bathroom sink, let alone stepping on them. Facing the mirror after her shower, she’d conveniently wrap a towel around to camouflage the danger zones. She wore shirts loose. No confrontation, please. After her months in the deep freeze with Bruno she simply wanted to live, work, enjoy, eat.

Alannah kept her thoughts to herself, content for the moment to enjoy the spectacle of nature’s progress: the plumpening arms, the heavier breasts, the roll of fat now circling Vickey’s waist whenever she sat down. At the end of one Friday night meal -- Alannah declined the rhubarb cream soufflé -- Vickey intuitively patted her tummy, feeling the tight fit as her flesh pressed against her trousers. Her fingers reached for the waistband. With a slight intake of breath she undid the clasp, allowing her stomach to ease its way forward into the gap as the top of the zip split apart.

“I guess I’m putting on weight again!” she murmured, catching her friend’s eyes. She had said the words. It wasn’t so bad.

“That’s all right,” Alannah said. “Isn’t it?”

“At least Bruno can’t see me.”

“Don’t bring Bruno into it. He’s history. What’s your opinion?”

“Oh I don’t know. I’ve been trying to avoid thinking about it.” She lifted up her blouse and began tweaking the flesh hanging over her waistband. “God, there must be over an inch here!”

“It’s not a crime.” Alannah took the plunge. “I think you look kind of - lustrous.”

“Oh my. Lustrous. I’ve never been that before.”

“You’re getting a glow.”

“I’m getting fat. And I’m getting worried about Saturday.” All the frontline TV forecasters, she said, had to report for a photo session, for publicity purposes. She had to face up to it: she was fatter now, and the pictures would show it.

Alannah said she looked great, but Vickey wasn’t convinced. “That’s sweet, but you’re prejudiced. I’ve been living in a dream, I guess, and I’m just waking up. Oh why did I eat that rhubarb soufflé?”

“Because you wanted it. The best reason in the world. Look,” she said, hand on her arm, tweaking the flesh slightly, “choose your outfit for tomorrow. Let out the seams if you have to. You’ll knock those tentpoles for six. Who’s the one, Sarah Wilmot, hair like a dachshund’s ears? She’s off an advert for famine relief. Horrible.”

Vickey smiled briefly. “She’s nice when you meet her. But I don’t even know how much I weigh. I suppose I should check.”

“Don’t starting dieting, please,” Alannah called as she disappeared into the bathroom. “You really don’t need to.”

From behind the door came sounds of clothes pulled off, feet ascending the scales, and the lurch of the needle as it started to jump.

And then the scream. She weighed 154 pounds.

Like most of the hurdles Vickey jumped over, the photo session proved easier than expected. After adjustments she felt comfortable enough in her light purple suit, as long as they didn’t expect her to button the jacket: her breasts now made that very difficult. There was no need for the cameraman to tell her to say “Cheese”: she smiled into his lens at will.

And she enjoyed the social side. Working separate shifts, some forecasters rarely saw each other; everything depended on the timetable prepared by Barney Platt, weather supremo, Vickey’s boss, the only forecaster to own a dog (Vickey had learned that from a TV magazine), the forecaster whose trademark -- not to be copied, on pain of death -- was ending each forecast with a wink.

But here all the motley crew were rounded up. Sarah Wilmot, gawky, with a hard thin face but a kind heart. Kyle McMurdoch, whose clean looks and square jaw made him resemble a 1950s comic-strip hero. Jenny Wilbraham: she rode horses and voted Conservative. Norman Bond, old before his time, the last man in Britain to wear V-necked pullovers. Tracy Greenaway: notorious for wearing outfits suggesting that she squeezed her forecasting in between cocktail parties. And Kate Spode, ditzy, long blonde hair, very new, who’d announced she was going to change her name, but couldn’t settle on a replacement. Somebody high-up’s girlfriend: that was the rumour.

Photos taken, the bunch hung around chatting, trading gossip, soaking up the remains of the sandwiches and supermarket wine offered by the cheapskate PR people to jolly things along. Kyle was leaning against a wall surveying the scene, whispering into Norman’s ear.

“Have you noticed a certain increase in avoirdupois in our beloved Vickey?”

Norman’s eyes followed his own towards the figure in purple, leaning over a trestle table in search of tuna on rye.

“See what you mean.”

“I hear tell,” said Kyle, smug and snide, “that when she stands in profile before the map of Europe, her tummy blots out Portugal.”

“Pity, that,” Norman smirked. “I liked Portugal.” They sniggered, finished their drinks, and moved on to besmirch someone else with cheap jibes. Schoolboys, that’s what they were.

Sarah caught their grins and traced their glances. She had no desire to hurt Vickey’s feelings. But she felt she had to warn her that people were muttering about her figure, and not just the resident male bozos. The next thing you knew, tabloid newspapers would be making fun; her bosses would start weighing in -- oops, Sarah thought, better avoid that phrase.

“Vickey,” she said gingerly, catching her alone in the washroom, “please don’t take this amiss but I can’t help noticing that you’ve gained a bit of weight. I’m sure it’s because of breaking up with your boyfriend, all very understandable, but --”

“But?” Vickey knew she didn’t want to hear whatever was coming next.

Too late to back out now, Sarah thought. “You’re getting a bit of a tummy, Vickey, and it’s starting to show on camera. People are talking. Oh God this is embarrassing. I just wanted to warn you.” She looked nervously into Vickey’s eyes, hoping not to find daggers drawn.

“I’m not so thin as I was, I know that. It’s not a problem, is it?” Cautiously, she looked into the washroom mirror, hands on hips, tummy looming out of her trousers, jacket swinging down over her breasts, hoping against hope that what she saw would be different from what she felt.

“I only mention it because I don’t want you to get into difficulties. If -- if you could lose some weight, I think it would be good for your job, that’s all I’m saying...” Sarah felt limp and useless. She’d wanted to be a good friend, but seeing Vickey’s face she didn’t feel one.

“Thank you,” Vickey snarled, snapping shut her handbag and striding towards the exit. “Of course you yourself last gained weight when you were two, didn’t you?”

Alone, Sarah gazed at her own reflection, puckering her mouth. “Oh dear,” she said.

“I know she meant well” -- Vickey was cramming the suit back into the closet -- “but I felt so exposed. And hurt. It’s not nice to hear people are making comments behind your back.”

“How much does Sarah weigh, 34 pounds? People should be talking about her, not you, you rosebud. Come here, you need a hug.”

“Alannah,” she said, comforted by the arms that clutched, the hand stroking her shoulders, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to diet. I don’t want to hear the food talking. But how many weather girls weigh 154? In the last year and a bit I’ve put on 30 pounds. I’ve blown up like a balloon. That’s what I was at the photo shoot, a purple balloon.”

“What you should do,” Alannah said, snatching a tissue to wipe away Vickey’s tears, “is come to bed. Let’s get cosy and talk this all through.”

“Didn’t you have work to do? A graph to draw?”

“This is important.” She led her by the hand, through the files, the leaning towers of books and videos, into the bedroom, and started undressing. Sex was not on her mind, nor had it ever been throughout the summer: she had kept her word. But she wanted Vickey to feel good about her body, and right now, she felt, tender caresses were more important than words.

“No clothes?” Vickey said, eyebrows raised.

“No clothes. It’s more therapeutic.”

Lying on the bed, they gazed at each other for a while, nothing said, much thought. Then Alannah began circling Vickey’s breasts with her fingers, beginning on the outer perimeter, moving inwards and upwards, noting along the way the marks where the cups and straps of her current bras had begun digging into her flesh.

“Be gentle,” said Vickey. “This is new territory for me. A woman’s fingers on my body.” Nervous, her breath quickened. She could sense her breasts tingling. Alannah’s fingertips couldn’t be kinder. No privacy was being invaded.

“Better than a man’s, aren’t they?”

Vickey closed her eyes, and the past flooded back. “Bruno didn’t know what foreplay was. Straight in, straight out. That was him.”

Alannah had reached the nipples. Involuntarily, Vickey let out a groan and shifted her body, feeling the thrill of pleasure run down to her toes. She looked into Alannah’s face, and saw the loving eyes, a loose strand of frizzy hair straggling over one cheek, the slightly turned-up nose, the mole above her left eyebrow. Bruno, she remembered, had a face like a bullet, no interesting features, no kinks. Just a weapon of brute force.

Alannah began to move down, fingers gliding over the skin, soft and golden, circling round the belly button, buried now over an inch inside, before settling playfully upon the fat on her lower stomach. She pinched it slightly with her fingertips and then with the flat of her palms rubbed the moveable feast of flesh this way and that, back and forth, watching Vickey cautiously to see her reaction.

“Doesn’t this feel nice?”

Vickey could sense her heartbeat quickening. “When you do it, yes.”

“Come on, Vickey. Feel your body yourself, feel its beauty. The fat won’t bite. The fat’s your friend. Start at the breasts.” She led Vickey’s hand to the outskirts, lay back, and watched her trace the same journey, over the body’s new landscape, the peaks and rolling hills.

“You know,” said Alannah, encouraged by the wonder she thought she saw in Vickey’s eyes, “if you wanted to put on more weight, it would be fine with me.”

The notion threw Vickey for a moment. She raised herself up.

“You want me to put on weight on purpose?” Vickey ran a finger along the crease separating her midriff fat from the ripples of flesh below her breasts. “You really like this?”

It was time to be honest. “Yes, I do. You’ve really blossomed. You were always attractive, and not just to me” -- Alannah reddened, despite herself -- “but since you’ve been gaining you’ve steadily grown even more stunning.”

“But I thought small was supposed to be beautiful.”

“70s concept, Vickey. You’re out of date.”

“You obviously don’t think I should diet.”

“That’s my personal preference. But the big thing, Vicks,” she said, coaxing Vickey’s head back to the pillow, watching the midriff bulge ease back into her body fat as she lay horizontal, “ is to do what you want. Not your bosses. Not Sarah. Not Bruno. Not even me. If you want to slim back down, I’ll still love you. The question you need to ask is, would being thin again make you happier? If it would, fine. No more cookies. Would it?”

The tick of Alannah’s bedside clock filled the silence. Vickey lay her hands on her stomach and lightly pressed into the flesh, feeling its softness, remembering the desserts, the extra portions, the pleasure, the freedom that had led to the fat covering her body inch by inch, ounce by ounce, until now she felt a woman transfigured. Then she turned on her side, facing Alannah.

“No,” she said quietly. “No it wouldn’t.”

Grinning broadly, Alannah kissed her midriff, the fat floating free once more, needing only a slight change of body position to crease into another little bulge. She started to laugh.

Vickey too. “My body is amazing, isn’t it?”

Whisky downed, Bruno sat with his filofax and his phone. Which of his friends should he call? No easy answers leaped before him. Every night the space in the flat seemed to have increased. No-one to talk to. No-one to shout at.

Another question presented itself. Did he actually have friends? Flicking the pages, he only saw names of colleagues, contacts and associates, with little to share except talk of the stock market, computer software, and prowess in bed. Outside of that, they could stretch to men’s toilet water, maybe footwear. Everything else was a closed book.

He wanted to feel big, successful, busy, but ever since Vickey left he had found it hard. Walking about in the office, on the pavements outside, he had this strange feeling that he was now an inch or two smaller, closer to the ground, as though he were not wearing shoes and socks or had shrunk after a night left out in the rain. Not only did other people look taller, they also had the air of knowing what they were doing, and why. One of their footsteps followed the other with a purpose: they were marching smartly to the photocopier, the cash dispenser, the water fountain, the coatrack, the girlfriend waiting in the doorway, the rest of their lives.

Even Bruno’s elevator summoning suffered. He still jabbed the button, but then lingered, hoping to coax the thing down with pleading, withdrawing the finger slowly, unconvinced that the elevator gods had even been listening. And they hadn’t. Never before had Bruno been forced to wait so much in lobbies, feeling only an inch away in height from the cigarette stubbing bowl, the secretaries’ handbags and their take-out coffee. It was like being a child, or a dog.

Anchored to chair and computer in his cubicle, he’d find his gaze drifting from the screen to others around him -- Angus across the way, perpetually leering; Damien with the day’s choice of flashy tie; Mark, eyes bright, chin plastered with six o’clock shadow at ten in the morning. He’d watch their frenzied movements, hands skating around with the mouse, fingers tapping the keys like a piano virtuoso tossing off high-speed Bach. It wasn’t as though they had the two heads and antennae of aliens from outer space, but still, Bruno had to admit that viewed from a distance they’d started to look just a little weird. Not quite human.

Or was he the robot in human form? He often felt like it, sitting nursing the empty glass, hours stretched out ahead like a roll of grey carpet. Like tonight.

The phone rang. “Hello, Bruno,” the voice said, kindly, but with a little needling slipped in. “It’s your mother.”

He groaned. She made him, she nurtured him, but at the moment he just didn’t want to know. She would ask questions he didn’t want to answer. She would show concern.

“How are you doing?”

“OK, OK,” he said without thinking.

“Have you heard from Vickey?”

“No, no. I don’t expect to.”

“Such a pity. Such a nice girl.” The words sailed over Bruno’s head. “She’s gained a few pounds I think since you split up. Don’t you think? I saw her on the telly last night, just before “Underpants of the Rich and Famous”.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me.”

“Still pretty though. Very pretty.”

Bruno was getting exasperated. “Mother, are you calling for a reason?”

“Reason? Yes, you’re my son. I’m your mother. I care about you and I’d like to know how you are.”

“Look, I gotta go. Thanks for ringing. I’ll call at the weekend.”

“But --”

He put the phone down. He shouldn’t have been so short, he knew, but every word she’d said had hit a dead spot.

He stared at the phone. What next? He called Hank. Seeking companionship, he had found himself doing this over the last few weeks, meeting him at the health club, visiting him for a few hours while Hank sat in his security guard uniform in the bank HQ’s lobby. They talked, nothing more; at the moment, for Bruno, lost in his maze, that was tonic enough.

“Come over here if you want,” Hank suggested. And so he did, pressing the night button, filling the cavernous atrium inside with one more body. He settled into the chair next to Hank’s at the lobby desk.

“My life’s a bit like that,” Bruno said, watching the monitor screens’ black-and-white images of office carpeting, filing cabinets, computers switched off. He didn’t seem in the mood to talk.

Hank glanced at him, then placed a hand on his thigh. Not for a second, either. It stayed put, inches away from his private parts. Hank glanced at Bruno again.

“What -- what are you doing?” Bruno tried to look mystified.

“I’m touching you. I’m putting a hand on your thigh.”

“I can see that. Why?”

“You seem down. You need comforting.”

“This is comforting? To you or to me?” The voice was sharpening.

The hand was removed. “Lighten up, Bruno. Live a little. Go with the flow.”

“What flow? I’m flowing?” He edged away, confused and embarrassed, as the hand was removed to safety. “You’re maybe flowing, somewhere down there...” His eyes glanced furtively towards Hank’s groin. “You’re - you’re gay, aren’t you?”

“Bruno, for a clever guy you can be terribly dense. You’re not going to tell me that you didn’t know?”

He knew clear enough. He knew right from the early winks, the touches, the hand on the shoulder, the affectionate pats. But to have openly admitted this truth would have meant admitting other truths: that he too had been glancing, sizing up the torso, spotting the shoulders’ bulk, the neck’s curve, the strength of the arms, without fully understanding why. So in self-defence he had put up blinkers, gliding through the weeks of budding friendship happy to leave things safe and blurred.

“I -- I wasn’t sure,” Bruno said, eyes roaming nervously, scouring the atrium.

“Well now you know. And?” Hank raised a hand and gestured. On which thigh should he place it, the fingers were saying. Yours, or mine?

Bruno’s eyes had come to rest on the monitor screens’ images, each shifting at five second intervals to reveal another strip of carpeting, a desk, computer, rubber plant, everything in its place, unmolested by human life.

“It’s OK. I’m cool.” Not a word he would normally have used, but he wanted to sound streetwise.

“You’re not cool, Bruno, you’re ice-cold. You need someone to warm you up. And fill you up. You’re so skinny, you know?”

Hank had slipped the tip of a finger under the waistband of Bruno’s jeans. “Nothing much there, is there?” he said. “I think we’d better order you a pizza.”

In the high summer sunshine blazed over the country, high pressure areas squatting day after day, any sprinkling of rain tucked away during the early hours. “Another good day for a barbecue,” Vickey told her viewers. “Perfect picnic weather.”

“Have you noticed,” Alannah said one day, “that you always mention eating in your forecasts?”

“I wonder why that is?”

“Can’t say,” she said, laughing, taking in the breasts, round arms, and general plumpness, more noticeable than ever after an indulgent ten-day holiday in Spain. The holiday snaps, recently developed, had at first given Vickey a shock. She knew her fat was there, of course, but it felt different seeing it glisten in the sun, rolling round her bikini, pinned down forever on five by four photos to be placed, ultimately, in an album not too many pages away from earlier snaps where the thighs were trim, the stomach hard, the face narrow enough to fit through a keyhole.

But by now she had shrugged off her embarrassment. While not fully embracing her new figure and her new weight -- 165 pounds -- she accepted them. This was her year, she decided, for being her own person, growing up, and if she was going to grow up fat, well, she didn’t at the moment feel like fighting it. She was faintly amused by the thought that she might before long have to buy more new clothes to give her body breathing room: amused and pleased that even Alannah, lanky Alannah, after a lifetime of imitating the beanpole, was starting to show a few extra pounds. There were no harsh words there. None from her family either. Her sister Sue was actually getting chubby herself: they’d had sisterly words about it. Her mother merely remarked she’d been surprised Vickey had stayed thin for so long. Her father, the Welsh army officer, would certainly have had something harsh to say, but he was no longer alive.

The trouble was other people, society, expectations. On a good day, Vickey strode through life, content with her size. On bad days, she would clock the difference between her sturdy physique and the twigs in the TV offices, and feel like a beached whale. And it took only a few words to change a good day to a bad one: a shriek of concern from Sarah; or Kyle perhaps, telling her cruelly that her bottom was now the size of the former Soviet Union. Then the nightmare came, with the Sunday tabloid newspaper that ran two photos, ‘Before’ and ‘After’, and estimated, not incorrectly, that between the two she had gained at least 40 pounds. “And No, She’s Not Pregnant,” the headlines screamed, “She’s Just Getting Fat”. That day, Vickey stayed in bed.

The morning after, though, she had to pull herself together and face the world; including her boss, who asked to see her at 11 o’clock sharp.

For a practised managerial type, Barney Platt looked unusually uncomfortable. The two sat, mute, on either side of his desk. Barney seemed unable even to make small talk.

Vickey hated the silence and pitched in. “How is your dog?”

“Fine, fine,” he said airily, relieved to be saying something. “Coming up to its tenth birthday. Look, this is awkward. ‘Cause I don’t want to offend you personally. I’m being professional here, not personal.” He was twisting in his seat. “But it’s about a personal matter. It’s about your weight.”

Vickey felt the muscles tightening, her mouth hardening. This was going to be difficult.

“You must know you’ve been gaining weight this summer, gaining quite a lot, and it’s -- it’s showing too much on camera. It’s distracting.”

To her surprise, she found herself in no mood to be pliant. “My forecasting’s just the same, isn’t it? Or do you have complaints there too?”

“No, no. Beautiful job. Beautiful.” He looked helpless. “But you -- you’re in the public eye. Yesterday you were in the ‘Sunday Mirror’, did you know that? It’s kind of bad publicity.

“Why is it bad?”

He ducked the question. “But it’s not just that. We’ve had letters and phone calls.”

“People complaining?”

“Well you’re picking up fans in Latin America who watch you on satellite. But they’re the minority. Other people who write are making tut tut noises, and saying your -- what shall I say, your personal growth puts them off taking in the forecast. Here. I know this is ridiculous, but --” He fetched a letter from a sheath of papers and waved it in Vickey’s direction.

“This is from the Portuguese Ambassador. Embossed notepaper. Addressed to the Controller of Weather. Who does he think I am, God?” He tried to laugh, but failed. “He says that he used to like seeing his country on the weather map, it was a little reminder of home, but now Vickey Pryce-Jones’s tummy obscures it. Regard it as a great favour if she could lose weight, or stand a few inches further back to return Portugal to view. Yours most sincerely, Jose Manuel de Oliviera, Ambassador to the Court of St. James, etc. etc.”

“This is a joke.”

“No the letter’s very serious. The notepaper’s embossed.”

“I’ve been gaining weight, but it’s not a problem for me and I don’t see --”

“Look, the bottom line is this.” He wished he hadn’t said bottom. “If you were only on radio it wouldn’t much matter. But you’re on television, and you’re paid to look nice.”

“Nice? What does that mean?”

Suddenly, Barney just wanted to end it all. No more words. No excuses. “Just lose some weight. Don’t lose all the extra pounds if you don’t want to, but some, some. Well, most of it actually. And you’re off the TV roster until you do. We’ll give you a month.”

“And if I don’t?”

“I don’t want to go that far.”

“Spell it out for me, please.”

“Or we drop you permanently from TV. You stay in the back room, or do radio only.”

Vickey glared at him, furious, and stormed out.

“Lose weight, Vickey,” he called out. “We have to see Portugal.”

She strode down the corridor, caught a glimpse of Kyle sniggering through the crack of a door, and marched into the ladies’ washroom. “I’m going to say the f word,” she announced to the mirrors. She did, five times in a row. She ran her hands down her sides as she examined her profile, opulent breasts outdistanced by the bulge of her tummy in front. She stared into her face, round as an apple, ringed at the bottom with the start of a permanent double chin.

“Have I put on too much?” she asked the face in the mirror, starting to be fearful of the answer.

“No,” the face said. “Definitely not.”

“Thanks,” said Vickey, and she marched out the door, back into the world.

“I’m just not going to do it,” she cried into the phone, fingering with her spare hand the treacle tart, just fetched from the fridge. “I didn’t go through hell with Bruno just to go through hell all over again. I’m not going to have food talking to me. If I want to eat, I will.” She bit into the tart.

“Vickey,” Alannah’s voice came over the line, “your defiance is terrific. And I’m behind you all the way. But you’re going to need support.”

“What do you mean? A corset?”

“People fighting for you. Not just me. You need your union behind you. And the public, too. You need sort of a fan club, but a fan club with teeth.”

She snorted. “No fan clubs have teeth, Alannah. Fans just sit in bedrooms and drool.”

“No they don’t. You’ve got millions of viewers out there. They just need to be mobilised. Get some journalist on your side. And look into the terms of your contract. There could be grounds for unfair dismissal, an industrial tribunal, the works, if they really decide to get heavy.”

“I’m the one who’s doing that,” Vickey said, leaning back in her chair, glimpsing the edge of her stomach over her peak of her breasts. “You know I now weigh 168? I never ever thought I’d be this size.”

“But you’re gorgeous, darling. Look, can I phone you back? My boss is gesturing. I’ll call you in a jiffy.”

“Jiffy,” Vickey said, savouring the word, “isn’t that the brand name of a candy bar, orange flavoured, with chocolate coating?”

At first, being defiant came easy. Furious enough over her suspension, her fumes rose higher after Sarah phoned to offer sympathy and tell her that the Ambassador’s letter was a fake worked up by Kyle and Norman, who were roving the corridors looking like cats up to no good in the neighbour’s garden. Sarah had then spoiled the call by urging her to diet, and promising to put in the post a book just out, “Puncture That Balloon!: Your Guide to Fast Weight Loss”.

Vickey spent her first days in suspension lolling around the flat in jeans conspicuously designed for a slimmer figure, nibbling frequently. “I’m going to show them,” she cried. “By the end of the month I’ll probably be fatter. And they’ll take me back. There’s nothing in my contract about weight restrictions. The union says so too.”

But it was hard to keep up the fighting talk in the face of the drip drip drip of media publicity. The Mirror’s story had spread to the dailies. Some of the coverage was cruel and rude, and Vickey was fearful about journalists moving beyond her weight to her private life, and Alannah. She acknowledged reluctantly that her TV appearances had made her looks in some way public property. But her private life was private. Alannah, she vowed, was not going to get hurt. Even sympathetic approaches frightened her. The women’s magazine “Stella” said they were mustard-keen to run a fat-friendly interview. “No, no,” she cried. She didn’t believe them. She wanted a quiet victory, or no victory at all.

By the end of the first week she was also starting to be fearful about the food she encountered in the refrigerator, or stacked high on the supermarket shelves. Making herself lunch at home, she would hold a bread roll to her ear, waiting to see if it spoke. Roaming down the supermarket’s goodie aisle, she would taunt the displays. “Got anything to say?” she’d shout at the cream biscuits. Heads turned.

Her mood grew increasingly disconsolate. Night after night, she’d switch on the television to find the new weather girl Kate Spode getting her break, gangly as a drainpipe, tumbling over words, enduring a coughing jag, wrapping up her dismal spiel with a frighteningly fake smile. It was horrible to watch. And as her mood sunk, so did her appetite. Through lassitude and gloom she began to eat almost nothing; crispbread, beans, sprigs of lettuce, fruit. She even read a few pages of “Puncture That Balloon!”

Alannah was worried, and felt her capacity to help fading. She had almost smothered Vickey with loving words and gestures, the hands caressing the breasts, stroking the fat on her tummy, resting her head there, face down, murmuring over and over, “You’re so soft, so beautiful.”

But the words and gestures were not getting through. “You’re biased,” Vickey said. Or “That’s just you being you.” She refused to be cheered even when letters began to trickle through from viewers who missed her, and said being chubby made her sweeter, more like one of them. She couldn’t see it. She felt her weight oppressing her, choking her, a heavy overcoat she couldn’t take off, apparent for all to see.

Alannah pleaded with her to seek help from her doctor, or a women’s support group -- someone not emotionally involved, who could provide the perspective needed to guide her through the storm. “No, no,” she said, “I’d be too embarrassed. How could I tell a perfect stranger I’ve had conversations with a treacle tart?”

But in time she made an appointment with Woman Concern, and found herself staring at Miriam, a counsellor, large as a barrel, flaming red hair, eyes gentle as a doe’s. Around the walls of her tiny office were an odd jumble of medical charts and posters of Janis Joplin, Mother Teresa, the Dancing Baby from “Ally McBeal”, plus Marilyn Monroe pouring out of a dress.

“Unusual office decoration,” Vickey murmured, eyes roving nervously.

Miriam smiled. “They can help people get talking.”

“At least you don’t have Margaret Thatcher up there,” said Vickey, trying to smile back.

“God forbid. How can I help?” The welcome mat was out, the door open. Now all Vickey had to do was go through it.

She stumbled at first. She told Miriam who she was. She’d been suspended from her job because she’d put on weight, she said, she’d been ridiculed, and she was in a black hole.

Miriam sat back in her seat, and looked down at her own chest. “As you can see,” she said, “you’re not alone in being a certain size. Can you tell me how you started to gain?”

She sketched the story, eyes catching as she did so the plumpness of Miriam’s arms, dimpled round the elbows, the way her chin and its sister merged with her neck. Oh God, she suddenly thought, this woman won’t take what I’m saying personally, will she? She told her that she always used to be thin, that she gained a bit when her boyfriend was away, that he didn’t like it, that she tried to diet, got fed up, left her boyfriend, found a girlfriend, gained a lot more, and the rest was history.

“But those are facts. What about feelings? Tell me what it felt like when you first noticed the extra pounds.”

Vickey pursed her lips, and thought back in time. “I didn’t pay much attention at first. I was just enjoying the food, I remember. The extra weight wasn’t an issue. I didn’t think it was that visible. It was only when Bruno came back that I started to feel I’d gained too much.”

“But where those your feelings or his? Try to be honest with yourself. You’re among friends.”

Vickey wriggled in her seat, and looked down at her thighs. “They were his,” she sighed. “I just took them over.”

“Alongside negative feelings, did you ever get feelings of sensual pleasure as your body grew?”

Vickey gulped. Even now, if she were truthful, she felt a certain charge from her clothes’ cosy fit, the extra swagger that her bigger breasts and tummy gave to her carriage, the sense of body dynamics redistributed. But could she admit it in public, even to this smiling face?

“Yes,” she said quietly. “Always.”

“Did you ever analyse why you might be putting on weight, apart from obviously calorie intake, or a shift in metabolism, or even genetic coding?”

“Oh questions, questions!” But she said it with a grin. Her fear was receding. It was almost like a game. “I liked the freedom of eating what I wanted, rather than what someone else wanted. I suppose it was a form of self-expression. But this, look at this” -- she cupped both breasts in her hands -- “I’ve got this big bosom. Is this really me, or just an aberration? Was I always meant to be fat?”

“Some people are. Some people aren’t. What size are your parents?”

“Mother, large. Father, when he was alive -- oh, he was thin, thin as a rifle.”

“Sisters or brothers?”

“One sister. Used to be thin. Now she’s getting a bit chubby.”

“Well, the genes might be part of this. Think of your appetite like an underground stream. It was there all along, hidden under the surface. But now it’s burst out, and it’s irrigating the earth, making the crops flourish.”

“Aren’t you the poet?”

“I try,” Miriam said. “Let me put it this way. Would you say overall that you’ve been happier since putting on weight, leaving job problems aside if you can?”

She knew the answer to that one too. “Happier. But the problem comes from other people. It’s a thin world out there.”

Miriam gestured to the walls around her. “Tell that to Marilyn Monroe.”

“But I’m overweight!”

“Over what weight? Look,” she said, leaning closer, “notice I don’t have a weight chart up on the walls. I don’t believe in them. All they tell you is what a particular group of thin white male doctors in suits say is the norm, and what is not. They take no account of a person’s bone structure, exercise habits, the happiness factor, or the evidence of history. It’s just a late 20th century obsession.”

Vickey mulled this over, as Miriam began shuffling in her desk drawer. “Let’s remove the focus from yourself,” she said, bringing out a file and spreading three photos on her desk. “I keep these for special clients.”

They were three photos of Mel C from the Spice Girls, taken over a span of several years. One showed a lean, lithe body, bone and muscle clearly visible, Sporty Spice to the life. In another, the body had softened somewhat, the face filled out a fraction, the waist a touch thicker. The third showed a chubby-cheeked, chunky Mel C with noticeable breasts, jeans fighting to contain the round bottom and the belly roll hanging over the waistband.

“Quite a transformation, eh?” Miriam said. “Now look closely, and think only of her, not yourself. Is there one of these photos where you find her looking unattractive, relative to the others? Be truthful. Be blunt.”

Vickey roamed over the set. “That one,” she said. “She looks anorexic.”

“Which would you say shows her off best? Which is she most attractive in?”

She toyed between the two other photos, observing how the barbed wire tattoo expanded with the flesh on Mel’s upper arms, sizing up the sudden eruption of belly and breasts, and all the other differences between a body lightly dusted with fat and a body where the fat covers the landscape inches thick, glistening like heavy snow.

She took her time, but finally chose. “That one,” she said, finger prodding Mel’s belly. “She’s a really hot babe.”

“Welcome to the club,” Miriam smiled.

Kate Spode, shoes kicked off, sat buffing her nails in Barney’s office. “What if,” she said, “I call myself Tracy Greenhalgh?”

Barney sighed. This had been going on for weeks, and he was fed up with humouring the girl; he was fed up with her very presence. “You can’t be a Tracy. We’ve got one already. Besides, as I keep telling you, you can’t appear on the box with one name and then appear with another a month later. Unless you’ve got married.”

“I know. Kate Clifton-Webb.”

“Why Clifton-Webb?” It was as though he were talking to a four-year old child.

“It’s the name of an old movie actor. I just like it. Besides, hyphenated names are in, aren’t they? Though it didn’t help Vickey Pryce-Jones. How’s she doing? Any fatter?” Kate started inching her skirt further up her thighs.

“Don’t get so cocky, Miss Spode. I’ve given you her slots, but you’ve a long way to go before you’re in her league. Do you realise you were the only forecaster in the whole country yesterday who predicted snow?”

She pocketed her nail file and shrugged. “It looked like snow.”

“White, fluffy stuff falling from the sky?”

“I’m not an idiot. No, the computer data and stuff. I thought there’d be snow.”

“Well there wasn’t.”



If they were dogs -- Barney’s dogs -- they’d be face to face, growling. But they weren’t. There didn’t seem anything else to say. Barney gestured towards his paperwork, then pointed towards the door.

“I get the message,” Kate said, slipping into her shoes. She leant over Barney’s shoulder. “What’s all this? Letters? Complaints about Vickey getting fat?”

“No. Complaints about us for suspending her. Letters in praise of her getting fat.” He cupped his chin in his hand. “They never end.”

“I told you I didn’t want extra pepperoni. You weren’t listening.”

“OK, I slipped up. You don't have to yell.”

Bruno and Hank were enjoying bickering. An old married couple almost: though it had only been two months since Hank had moved into Bruno’s riverside palace and invaded the pristine spaces with beer cans, pizza cartons, socks drying on a radiator. It had come as a shock at first, but Bruno had decided that Hank was worth it -- if love was offered, you took it, he decided -- and he weathered the change.

He had changed himself. He had uncoiled a little. He sometimes went to work not wearing a tie. He had given up obsessive exercising, and stopped getting himself scalped so often at “It Will Always Grow Back”. With his changed diet and social life he had even gained a little weight, padding out his face, thickening the gut just enough to make a few of his trousers difficult to wear.

They were sitting on the sofa, enjoying a boys’ night in, the fast food feast spread on their laps.

“Hey, you’re getting a spare tyre!” Hank said in mock alarm, patting the little roll of flesh poking out under his shirt button.

“I know. And it’s your fault. All this junk food.”

“Ah, you love it.” Hank kissed him lightly on the lips.

“Let me eat, will you?”

They munched in silence.

Bruno took a swig of beer. “I wonder what Vickey would think of all this.”

“Let’s ask her.”

“Phone her up? I’m not doing that.”

“No,” Hank growled, reaching for the TV’s remote control. “Isn’t this about her time of night? Won’t she be pointing at things with a stick? We can ask her on television.” He started hopping channels. Saturday night. Some married couple on a garish set revealing intimate bedroom secrets. Football players sprawled in the mud. A pensionable rock star interviewed about the good old days, when girls screamed and the world was young. A newsreader with a bank manager’s charisma, telling about floods in Bangladesh. No Vickey at all.

Bruno was dismissive. “She won’t be on. She’s not been on for months.”

But then his mouth dropped. For there she was, standing before the weather map, voluptuous in form-fitting navy blue, face encircled by a full double chin, hips stretching across the screen, bursting with the joy of living.

“Good evening! It may be deep winter, but today’s at least seen some patchy sunshine, and --”

“She’s back!” Bruno sounded pleased. “And she’s fatter. She’s definitely fatter!”

She definitely was. While the suspension had dragged on, Vickey had waited out the weeks developing her cooking skills, reading books, taking exercise, and gaining weight. The new pounds were not great in number -- two there, five here, three over there -- but they had the effect of finally tipping the balance, taking her just beyond “chubby” into that special land where “fat” was the only word possible, where the body billowed and glowed, where the flesh on her face shook with each little movement, where rings on her fingers sat happily trapped, and the hands’ outlines of bones and knuckles were starting to sink out of sight.

“The wider European picture shows --”. You couldn’t see Portugal. You couldn’t see half of Spain. But she was oblivious. And victorious. Her union had put up a stout fight, but it was the viewers’ support that had made the difference. Once the cause of her suspension was made public, letters, phone calls and e-mails had started flooding in. “How dare you remove her from the screen just because she’s grown a bit plump? She’s one of the family. Would you turf out your own daughter if she started to gain?” “I don’t like this Spode. Can’t understand what she says.” “We really don’t care if Vickey Pryce-Jones is fat or thin. We just like her. If you don’t bring her back, we’ll switch channels.” Message after message, day after day. Some people had sent her food parcels: chocolate biscuits, jelly mixtures, a cake decorated with the word “Enjoy”.

For Barney and the higher-ups it had simply grown too embarrassing. She would be happily welcomed back, they said, at whatever weight. If she wanted, she could top 200 pounds. Kate Spode, spindly and inept, returned to the broom closet from whence she came. Kyle and Norman were cautioned. This was Vickey’s first day back.

“And you let her slip through your fingers?” Hank said, eyeing the generous curves as Vickey pointed to a troubling depression over Scandinavia.

“I know. I was such a beast.” His eyes were downcast. He nursed bad memories. Then he looked up at the screen. “I’m sorry I was such a beast to you, Vickey.”

“That’s all right, Bruno,” she said, smiling brightly inside TV’s magic box. “We’re both happy now.” Bruno blinked, and blinked again. He glanced at Hank.

But Vickey was off and away, hands swirling over Scotland, reeling off temperatures, warning of early morning mists.

And then the general forecast. The weather was turning foul again, but she didn’t appear to care. “Tomorrow, indeed most of the week, will see plenty of rain over the British Isles” -- why was she smiling? “But I’m sorry to say umbrellas may be of little use. Because strong winds are coming too...” She gave figures and directions, clicked her autocue with a flourish, exuding power, pleasure, and total self-confidence.

“And more than anything,” she said, a twinkle in her eye and her voice, her skin glowing, jowls dancing, the arms plump, hands suddenly rubbing the tummy surging out towards the TV millions, “tomorrow is going to be -- FAT!”

“Isn’t that right?” said Hank, tickling Bruno’s belly.

Copyright Swordfish, 2001

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