A hand reached out to take a sandwich.
Amongst muddy knees, running noses and paint splashed cotton, I watched the boy push his hair out of his eyes and bite into it. Marmite squeezed between his fingers. My breath stiffened, and waited.
His face cringed. “Wow, that is STRONG.”
“and so SALTY.”
Marmite is not a political issue in my household. Anorexia hasn’t wasted kcal considering it before. I had tried to prepare for the responsibilities of my new job, but not this. Not a marmite sandwich.
Fresh out of lessons, the children teemed into my classroom. As “Miss Davies”, I stuff their snack, activities, tea and energy into three hours and clean the set ready for the next day. In a week, “Miss Davies” survived the administrative health checks, and passed the food handling assessments (I’m laughing too). “Miss Davies” built a den in the woods; modelled paper hats; dressed Barbie in Ken’s clothes; and conducted bulb-planting in the playground. Alas, the competent facade fell away when “Miss Davies” had to make a batch of marmite sandwiches for tea.
I’ve never been confronted by a marmite sandwich before in my life. Anonymous, unhelpful as ever, volunteered the logic that other people need more. To make Ellie feel better, other people need to be eating more.
The knife scooped out a gleaming blob of that satanic spread. Like an oil spill, it engulfed the bread. A rusting of breadcrumbs was the only evidence there had been any in the first place. More guesswork and suppositions were spread, layered and quartered. Served up on plates as the children began to cheep.
He swallowed. I held my breath.
“There’s NEVER this much marmite!”
“… can we have some MORE?”
Miss Davies waited, then released the air she had cornered in her lungs. “What do you say?”
“Can we have some more PLEASE?”
The comments about the next batch were thinly spread. Yet the content quiet devoured every last mouthful.
I looked down at Miss Davies’ hands, now covered in food. For the children, it seems Ellie can wash her hands of that fear. She has no choice: let them eat marmite sandwiches.
Anonymous drew back from my new job as soon as it was offered to me. She plucked words from the job description and twisted them into an anxious script.
This 3 hour window each weekday lets in a blast of uncertain energy expenditure, and sucks her afternoon walk away. Anonymous’ calorie budget gets scrubbed out by random bursts of sitting or standing, bending and crouching.
The children’s menu was sniffed at when she spotted smelly foods and sticky foods.
‘What-Ifs’ and ‘Protection Procedures’ decorated the walls with worry.
Anxiety swept the classroom and could predict the acoustic bedlam: riotous laughter clashing with squeaky shoes and marble run. Noise still shakes me like an alarm: one day, it might shake me so hard I’ll fall into distraction, and something bad could happen.
Getting this job at this school would scavenge a day away from my other job as a waitress: would save a day treading Ellie slowly into the ground.
Everything about working in that restaurant hurts.
The moist and dingy conditions sustain anorexia, and Anonymous strains have become tangled in the strings of my apron.
Anxiety runs riot across a floor mined with shopping bags, ducking as the blitz of shattering glass rains into my shoes like water. Puddles of anorexic sweat mingle with the unidentified fluid objects that claw at my toes, the smell clinging to my shoes. Paranoia is placed precariously down the crooked stairs into the dungeon: the kitchen that imprisons a handful of exhausted chefs and one poor, unfortunate waiter. The tribute, who was volunteered by some higher power to run food to table 10 – 63 – 42 –
My nurse watch in horror as shifts devour 8 or 9 hours apiece. Time is swallowed up standing, summating the lunchtime rush, trekking as far away as possible from the carnage tearing through my own head.
Anonymous enjoys the show. She watches me dodge a fistful of peas thrown by another perfect toddler. She grits my teeth and takes orders for steaks, fish pies, burgers. Anonymous nestles Ellie under the people whose mouths fill with saliva, sugar and salt – but never a please or thank you.
The air in there assaults me, and my anorexia flares up. I hold offensive articles at arms length and march at a pace, just to get to the table in time to escape again.
My breaths are rationed, and confined to several ‘safe spots’ near the ventilation. Ellie literally holds her breath until the end of the day. Fumes rise off customer’s plates even after they’ve finished.
Miss Davies’ hands are protected by napkins each time she has to pick any dishes up. They provide a thirty second grease barrier, before they too become sodden. A wheezing disinfectant spray cannot save the cloth that wipes up all manner of sin.
Anonymous sometimes breaks out in a nervous rash when serving overweight people. I cannot reuse the air around them in case I catch fat. Their money is held by the corners, their card payments contactless. It is one of the most shameful symptoms of my anorexia, one of the most hurtful.
With the high risk of exposure, any cross contamination is washed away in the sink next to table 56. Every time I walk past it. My hands are cracked from the chemical sterilisation.
In the car, my waitressing costume is quarantined. Shoes are removed and placed in a plastic bag, wet wipes wiping the grime off my forehead, the cleft in my nose, my frown lines.
Work will always follow me home, and catch up with me just as I walk through the door. There Anonymous is confronted by the trauma of her job, my parents, Billy. Please Billy, please don’t lick me. I’m filthy, I’m filthy.
In the shower I wash away the day.
A day’s work somehow makes the ends of reason meet, and I can afford a better snack: Anonymous lets me have a slightly bigger date, or heap my teaspoon of honey. Only by enduring a gruelling day do I earn that.
There is a thin reason for staying in this job. I just need that hit of High Intensity Harm. It is an expensive addiction. It has already cost me kcal, days in recovery pcm, and car parking.
Anonymous won’t cut the apron strings. It fits Anorexia: the monotonous routine, the warm superiority I am wrapped up in watching someone else eat whilst I starve. The Anonymous waitress is an ironic character: almost the fool, only better. She thinks.
I need to quit, I need to get clean.
Just not yet. If those 8 hours of exercise are stripped back, I don’t know what will be uncovered.
I watch Autumn’s generosity, and am in awe. Trees lay down their leaves before the retreating daylight, and welcome the violent, blustering storms as they pass through. The air releases the pressure, and nature lets go. All the energy stolen by summer is now returned to the earth. Sinking under piles of dead leaves. This, the seasonal retreat away from things that are over-ripe, chewy, no longer useful. I watch Autumn simply let’s itself go, and drift slowly back to earth.
Anorexia’s mother tongue will die out as the weight comes on. A dialect riddled with baggy pants will slip into the past tense. Only my words will retain an Anonymous accent. Struggle is covered up in Anorexia:
the stamp of a diagnosis.
– join dots of blood with drops of sweat
piece together broken
promises and roll,
roll strands into a joint or a line but thin keep it thin
bottle it up and put it on ice,
drink me dry, lick me clean
use the s word or r word or x word against mine, and your own;
then leash a tag, a stamp, #metoo –
Explain the holes.
– what Change forgot to take away.
There is a conspiracy of silence. One day, it will be uncovered.
I’ll kick a pile of leaves talked down from their twigs. My thoughts will straighten into a strong, natural line.
My nurses are going to start pushing me now: our approach thus far has been too weak, too baggy. I need to eat in front of them, but I also need to talk to them.
A job gives me something else to chew over during the day. Something that isn’t myself, a piece of my mind, or food. I chew so vigorously polishing cutlery, or herding children, just to drown out the sound of my thighs expanding. In the clamour of the classroom and racket of a restaurant, Anonymous sucks on a sweet peace of mind.
I know which job Ellie enjoys the most. I know which job is sustainable in recovery.
Being anorexic makes me a good waitress.
But Anorexia is a language children don’t understand: they want to be sat with. They want a marmite sandwich. Long may that be the case.
In the mirror, I can see Change smile in all but myself.
I still can’t put my nuts back into my meal plan: not since they were taken out weeks ago. They are stuck.
Yes, I watch Autumn declutter with apparent ease.
I need to face the cold, icy reality of anorexia and recovery.
A winter of weight gain is inevitable: nature needs me to let go, and trust that the sun will rise on the other side.
Practice makes perfect: perhaps the first step is just closing your eyes, and swallowing. Get it over with.
I learned something delicious at school today.
Ellie has been practising so hard at thinking about sitting during the day. She learnt the theory, but didn’t have the conditions to test it. A pupil pushed me into it. She stood before me clutching a book, and wanted me to read with her. Oh, reading. That nourishing, liberating joy – that needs practising over, and over, and over. We sat for an unprecedented length of time, we devoured a chapter.
She learnt a new word, and how to train a dragon.
I learnt a new meaning: one that could help without hurting.
The sitting became irrelevant: it just didn’t mean anything anymore.
Looking at myself, I never found happiness. Perhaps I’ve been looking for the wrong thing: maybe it is meaning that will be uncovered,
if i recover.
I’ll never learn what it could mean to recover, unless I do.
(An aftertaste: Anonymous is a fool to think looking after children is any less exhausting than walking. They are exhausting, but not draining.)