On the day of my grandmother’s funeral, I stopped eating. To begin with, there was no conscious effort to starve myself. I didn’t have a grand scheme, I just wasn’t hungry, and I couldn’t face food. I couldn’t even face the thought of food. Like my insides had been scooped out and replaced with sawdust.
The service was sombre, as they are, and the wake was held in the bungalow of an aunt, who I had never liked. Her main concern seemed to be whether or not people were enjoying the spread she had put out. There were vol-au-vents, and sausage rolls, and chicken drumsticks. She was extremely proud of her Coronation Chicken. Of course, it was very likely that she was just hiding her pain, but at the time I couldn’t find the energy to see it that way.
While others filled their faces, I sat on a bench overlooking the vegetable patch in the back garden, where I smoked myself stupid and rejected a dozen offers of alcohol. The sky was heavy with cloud, and I could feel the weight of it pushing me down into the ground. Numerous relatives took turns to sit beside me and reminisce, but as the day drew on their drunkenness peeved me and I excused myself and went back to my flat.
There, I continued to smoke, until my chest became tight and I felt truly nauseous. As evening drew in, I didn’t turn any of the lights on, and sat in gloom, then darkness, until eventually I fell asleep in the armchair. I woke several times, but felt no inclination to undress and take myself to bed. When morning came, the sick grey city dawn came creeping through the window, and finally I stood and sloped to the bathroom.
A morning routine, in normal life, commenced with phase one. A five-minute shower, during which time I would brush my teeth and spit catarrh into the plughole, rinsing my mouth in the steamy hot water from the showerhead. Phase two was a case of dry and shave, followed by the deodorant and dress duties prescribed in phase three. It was at phase four that I encountered difficulties.
Phase four was a trip to the local internet café. A phase designed to prevent the need for grocery shopping. The last time I had milk or bread in the flat was when my mother brought some round the day I moved in. That was approximately four years ago. An internet café is good, because it provides all the conveniences of a morning at home without any of the inconveniences. And by inconveniences, I mean, in my case, the washing up of dirty dishes, and the thunderous feet of the very fertile unemployed family which lives in the flat above me.
I reached the café without incident, and approached the curved glass counter with the expensive sandwiches and the meagre portions of selected cakes. So far so good. The autopilot was functioning as it should have been. But at this point, the black box [they’re actually orange, you know] began to record a deviation. The Polish girl with the too-large breasts and the slight hair-lip asked me what I wanted. And I just stood there dumbstruck. Like a child at the nativity who’s forgotten his lines. I didn’t actually want anything.
Of course, I had to buy something, or I couldn’t make use of their Wi-Fi. So I stammered, sucked my teeth, and came away with a bottle of mineral water. I took a seat by the window, went online, and checked my emails. Three kind offers to expand the size of my penis [how do they know?], a bargain rate on airport parking, some prick from South Africa who wanted my bank account details, and, judging by the title, a letter of condolence.
Knowing pretty much what it would say, I immediately deleted it. It would say something along the lines of: I know how much she meant to you... Well, what’s the point in telling me what I already know? And anyway, you don’t know, you can’t know, I’m only just finding out for myself. I felt justified in what I had done, because my grandmother would have done the exactly same thing. We both considered sentiment a private affair, and felt that wallowing in public was as big an offense as going down the high street naked. This was my loss, and mine alone.
It started drizzling as I left, and trudging home the air was filled with that smell rain brings to a dirty city. Dust and oil, and the scent of damp earth from the nearby allotments. As the drizzle turned to something harder, I watched people hurrying past me on the slickened pavement. We all run, I thought, and we still get wet. Despite all our efforts and all our cares, we can’t do a thing to stop the rain. And I didn’t run. I didn’t even quicken my pace. By the time I got home, I was drenched to the bone, and I stared through the TV screen until way past midnight.
The days that followed adopted a similar pattern. I had three weeks of leave, and did very little with it. Mornings consisted of the same four phases, and in the afternoons I would sit in the armchair, filling the room with cirrus clouds of cigarette smoke. Daytime TV passed in a montage of fatuous bargain hunts, property programs, and cooking competitions. By the time the evening came, I had drunk my eyes senseless on cathode rays. What I watched after six, I couldn’t begin to tell you.
I became fascinated with the way my body behaved without sustenance. After a day or so, I stopped passing solids, instead expelling gushes of orange water, containing what looked for all the world like shreds of tobacco. It occurred to me that what I was doing might actually be beneficial. A detoxification of sorts. So I tripled my water intake in the hope of attaining a clear stool.
And what of the hunger? Well, hunger is an abstract noun for starters. Just like Communism. What you experience are its effects. My stomach churned in peristalsis, like a set of teeth gnashing away at thin air. My sense of smell went through the roof. And, aside from the occasional bout of giddiness, I felt remarkably alert. I guess I began to enjoy the experience. Abstinence gave me a sense of achievement, as did looking at my body in the bedroom mirror.
When Thursday came, the night I usually went to my grandmother for dinner, I stayed at home and feasted on my empty stomach. The TV flickered before my eyes as usual, and I smoked and took sips of hot water from a Cadbury’s mug. Considering the armchair bad for my posture, I had taken to sleeping in my bed again. After all, what kind of wreck would fall asleep in front of the TV every night? And my sleep was becoming very sound, another symptom of the fast, I presumed.
I began to meet my grandmother in my dreams, and we’d talk long and hard, as we used to across the dinner table. Those dreams were incredibly vivid, to the point I felt I could actually reach out and touch her. She was beginning to get upset with me for not eating.
I don’t know what you’re hoping to achieve with this nonsense.
Well, I suppose I’m trying to flush myself out. You always told me I drank too much. That I ate too much rubbish.
That’s as may be, mister, but I didn’t invite you to starve yourself. What’s your mother got to say about it?
I’ve not seen much of her. You know what she’s like.
It’s that bloke of hers is the problem. Don’t want her to have a bloody minute to herself. She’s always been the same. Spreads herself thin for every bugger, and got no time for her family.
I don’t know, Grandma. Maybe she’s trying to keep busy because she misses you.
Well, what’s the bloody point in that? No good ever came from harking back on things. Anyway, you’re letting me get off the point. Get something inside you before you waste away.
Looking back, I guess I was afraid that the dreams would stop if I began to eat. That if I did as she said, she would consider her job complete, and she could leave me in peace. Or maybe the dreams were a biological result of fasting. Either way, I wasn’t going to start again, despite her annoyance. Having her angry was better than not having her full stop.
By the middle of the second week, I had dropped a jeans size. Shirts that were once quite tight across my shoulders now had room to spare. I avoided family wherever possible, and had already turned down two offers of dinner from my mother. It wasn’t that I desperately didn’t want to see anybody. I just didn’t desperately want to see anybody. It was a vague old feeling, and hard to express, but I guess you could call it indifference. Besides, I would only get the lecture about not eating, and there was plenty of that when I was in dreamland.
On the Friday, there was a problem with the network at the café, and I couldn’t get online. They told me it would be sorted out by the lunchtime. The morning was bleak, and I had little inclination to go into town, so I headed home, stopping off to buy some cigarettes on the way. It must have been just before ten when I got in, and thankfully upstairs were out on the morning nursery run. I poured a mug of water from the kettle, and settled down in front of the TV.
Same old morning bullshit, with a pair of grinning robots presenting the usual list of nonsense. Celebrity guest chef, latest debut novelist, something on making fat legs appear slimmer. There was also a feature on women who’d recovered from mastectomies. An Irish woman in her early forties was explaining how for years she was ashamed of the scarring. They showed some quite unnecessary photos of her post-op, and I had to agree it was a pretty awful sight. Then something more recent, where the scar had become a translucent purple silver. The male presenter asked her if she missed the breast, which I thought was a truly thoughtless question.
For a long time I did, she said. But what right did I have to feel hard done by? Thousands of folks die every year. At least I got to carry on.
That afternoon, when the rain had eased, I went back to the internet café. When she saw me enter, the Polish girl with the too-large breasts and the slight hair-lip reached down into the fridge behind her. Without a word, she placed two bottles of water on the counter and held her hand out for the money.
‘Do you have anything other than carrot cake?’ I asked her.
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