The hunger is on her and Mem knows she should get up right away and eat something. If she ignores her appetite then in no time at all it will be a clawing, insatiable beast and her puny attempts at self-control will not contain it. Having caught her reflection in the mirror that morning, she doesn’t want to eat. Never has she been so fat.
No food. No food. No food. She repeats the mantra. Her brain hears: food food food.
The tidy kitchen sparkles; the café press is been hidden on a top shelf to guide her away from eating. The plan is for a bowl of coleslaw with apple sliced through it for lunch, maybe a rye biscuit too, if the urge for carbohydrates is too overwhelming. The fat woman in the mirror told her she must not eat. All society’s woes come from obesity and she is the worst offender.
No food. No food.
Easing herself into a chair Mem scrunches her face against the gnawing in her gut. Maybe if she allows herself a dream about eating it will be enough.
Closing her eyes, she conjures her favourites like old lovers: by smell, by touch, by sound, by the feeling in her mouth. In her fantasy world the sandwich maker is heating. Cheese, avocado, finely chopped onion, and tomato are stacked high on soft white bread and a bottomless bowl of hot chips beckons from beside it. She snacks on the salty fries as the sandwich toasts, cheese sizzling on the hot grill. Even as she summons the smell of hot smoked cheddar she wishes that lessons about nutrition would have stuck better, would have permeated her psyche instead of retreating to the part of her brain where she stores useless but un-acted upon information, like how often to wash and starch curtains.
Some people grow up with a sense of what is good and bad to eat. Those people are intolerant of her weakness, of her thick waist and rounded belly. They damn her with their eyes.
Dreaming never hurt anyone so she ventures further into her fantasy world. Now she is eating fresh fat prawns which burst as her teeth sink into them. She pours herself a large glass of merlot and pulls the sizzling steak a little closer. It is almost buried by fried onions and buttery mushrooms.
Mem didn’t learn nutrition at all as a child. Her mother didn’t know the word, all she knew was staying alive, surviving. When you live hand-to-mouth any fleeting, sensual opportunity that blows in on the wind, relieving the grind of daily drudgery is embraced. Mem can see her mother collecting the eggs and churning the butter she would sell to keep their home together. She took in laundry and laboured over a vast vegetable patch. Once a week she slaughtered her own chooks for meat. When the eggs were plentiful and milk rich, Mem’s mother fed her children well. But such times were few. Mem’s life has been one of ease in comparison, but the poverty of her childhood burns bright.
Sinking further into her chair, Mem closes the door on her mother’s ghost. Instead she remembers making shortbread for the Christmas market, the luxurious sensation of the raw, buttery dough melting on her tongue. She recalls the sweet walnuts from her uncle’s trees and the smell of macadamias roasting in the oven. On rare occasions a block of chocolate would be divided between the children, and she would savour the pleasure, crushing the squares against the roof of her mouth and letting it ooze slowly down her throat.
Chocolate chocolate chocolate. She must not think of chocolate.
Before Mem realises it, she is in the kitchen tearing open the cupboards, scooping ice cream on top of tinned pudding. She opens the jar of artichokes that her niece left and loads them onto crackers that come from faraway Timboon, like the feta cheese she balances on top. Is it true that some people have a ‘full’ button? Where is hers? What does it feel like to know when the body has had enough?
She shovels in mouthful after mouthful. She prises the top off a jar of maraschino cherries and sucks them from her fingers. She pours chocolate sauce from the bottle right into her mouth.
Only when it feels like her stomach will burst does she stop and stagger out to the lounge room. Turning on the TV she falls back into her armchair, her full belly aching and expelling wind to accommodate the gluttonous feed.
“Mem?” A voice breaks the silence of the noon’s golden hush. “Auntie Mem, are you here?”
Alice calls from the porch. The TV is on but the door is locked. She tries the back door, also locked. She looks down at her little-Red-Riding-Hood basket and thinks about her father’s warning.
“If she doesn’t start looking after herself better then I’ll have no choice. I’ll have to find her a place in assisted-care living. Like it or not, the old bat is anorexic.”
Alice doesn’t believe him. Ever since Mem’s husband, the Lieutenant Colonel, died her great aunt has been a bit, well, distracted. Yes, she has lost a lot of weight, dropped four dress sizes in fact. Her octogenarian skin hangs off her like droopy wallpaper. Mem won’t discuss it. She only wants to talk about the love of her life, the man who for over sixty years called her ‘my vital spark’.
Mem still thinks she is fat and somehow has twisted things in her brain that maybe if she had been trimmer ‘the Colonel’ wouldn’t have died. The reasoning flummoxes Alice. The Colonel died from a massive coronary and, yeah, he was no string bean himself but how Mem’s former stoutness figures into his death isn’t clear to Alice. Rather than distress Mem with logic she regularly brings her assorted delicacies, homemade cakes, fragrant white bread and pots of pate. If she sits and visits for a while, her great-aunt will eat something, out of manners.
Collecting the spare key from the chook shed, she notices the birds are languid and thin. Their water trough is dusty dry and when she fills it, they come to life, flapping, squawking, and quarrelling for position. Alice lets herself into the laundry and, ignoring the foul smell permeating the house, grabs a sack of pellets and scatters feed around the now-raucous hens. Maybe the farm with its dozen birds is getting too much for Mem?
Alice frowns. Has it really been a month since she visited? It’s a two hour drive each way but still, she spoke to Mem only last week. Mem was vague but not unusually so.
What is that smell? Alice looks around the kitchen. As always, the counter tops are gleaming. In the fridge she finds sour milk, tainted cream and rotting fruit and vegetables, untouched and becoming more toxic by the moment.
Are those the same socks drying over the Aga?
What is that smell?
Satisfying herself that the only rotten thing in the kitchen is the contents of the refrigerator, Alice pokes her head into the living room where Mem is frozen in front of the TV. Her head has fallen to one side, looking away from Alice. A drool stain marks the front of her old cardigan.
Asleep. Alice walks over and puts a loving arm around the emaciated old lady before the horror hits her. She snatches her hand away.
Mem is icy cold, her dreams of eating and drinking having rendered her incapable of doing either. Having finally slipped out of her uremic coma, the fantasies of her stuporous state have eased her to the other side. The once tall, voluptuous woman is now a skeletal corpse, her face locked in a grinning death mask
© Maggie Bolitho
Photo from Wikimedia Commons: The Aga, by Wehha