Issue #12

Deprivation, noun.

—the lack or denial of something considered to be a necessity (OED)

She had always kept her waist; I would hear Mother say of me in that harrowing period following the incident when they were still trying to stitch it together, to make some sense of it all. And she was right, I suppose, I had always been slim. But that strikes me as an altogether reductive way to look at things. It is, perhaps, one reason why the issues that preceded that day have never been fully articulated. In all the confusion, this much has always remained clear to me: that I had never really cared.
I had never worried that I might display too much untanned flesh if I shirked my coat in the winter. I had never reassessed my diet during the run down to summer. On the Sports Day field, I had never agonised over the unforgiving nature of Lycra, or that my legs might wobble when I outstripped male admirers. They had not required me to be all skin and bones. They had, in fact, expressed, though without actually saying the words, that they quite preferred me otherwise. Perhaps it all came down to our Darwinian heritage. And yet, being uninclined to tailor myself according to the predilections of the opposite sex, my eating habits had remained unchanged for most of my life.
I had always eaten what was placed in front of me. If I was still hungry, and, quite often, even when I was not, I had requested more. I had never restricted myself, as Mother had done, to specific mealtimes, preferring to eat instead whenever the hell I felt like it. I had never kept track of my calorie intake; I would not have known where to start. I had, and honestly still have, absolutely no idea what the numbers mean.
Though my partiality for a spare stick of raw carrot was scorned by Big Brother, to whom indulgence in a roasted parsnip, even, was an extremist decussation of the nutritive/palatable borderline, I was certainly no health-freak. When the carrot had been chewed-up, swallowed, and subsequently forgotten all about, equally, I had never given a second thought to chomping down on a greasy hunk of pork crackling ten minutes before dinner was to be served.
Actually, I had hesitated; once. I was fifteen, and, as not uncommon amongst girls of my age, my back teeth had been giving me some trouble. For several seconds, at least, I pitched the crackling’s satiating crunch against the threat it posed to my dental welfare; a girl could not care enough for her pearly whites. At the risk of sounding spurious, I had actually never minded the dentist. In fact, I had come to regard the annual trip as a chance to exhibit my uncommonly gleaming array. And so, in the end, I had deemed the risk tolerable and chomped down hard on the fatty shell.
And yet, I fear I am misrepresenting myself as some sort of voracious animal. I had, on occasion, displayed admirable self-restraint: it was the day after Easter Monday. Father had declared war on a particularly rebellious privet and, struggling with an extension cable, had summoned Big Brother to help. Having been occupied by little more than the methodical besiege of chocolate egg boxes (though he would later defend this as essential to the liberation of Mother’s kitchen worktops) he had, reluctantly, obliged. And in doing so, he had left a Mars egg entirely unguarded beside me on the sofa.
After several minutes, when his jaw had begun to cramp with disuse, he had come bounding back into the lounge, expecting to find his prize utterly ravished. Yet there it sat, sunlight bouncing off its honeycombed shell. Disappointed by my disregard of such unprecedented opportunity, he had all but scolded me; for I had left the egg completely untouched. Quite honestly, until he had come rushing to salvage its remnants, I had never even noticed it was there.
I suppose then, what I have been trying to convey is that, whilst I had never opposed the occasional overindulgence, neither had I been as predisposed to them as others in the family had. And yet, when I survey the months, even years, preceding the incident, scouring for some tiny variable that might have prevented me from doing what I did, I cannot help but heed how rarely I had declined a bite slipped to me by Father. In the afternoons, I had snacked on cheese. After dinner, I had preferred my yoghurt full fat, creamy and off the lid.
Then again, I had never really had a say in the nutritional content of my food. The family background was one of rustic simplicity. They had never been the type to pander to the fads and peculiarities of picky eaters. Food, to them, had been little more than something to look forward to three times a day; breakfast, though rushed, had remained hearty, lunch was never skipped, and dinner had been considered significantly substandard if it negated the format: carbohydrates, vegetables, meat, and something sweet, preferably home-baked, to follow.
On the rare occasion that Mother had placed before them a homely variant of some dish popularised by the latest celebrity chef, in which one of these components had been tentatively neglected, I had surveyed the exchange of nervous glances between Big Brother and Father, agreeing silently that ‘standards were slipping’. And yet, their apathy towards the calamity that might arise should Mother one day take offence, and thence cease feeding us altogether, had perturbed me greatly. But the meals had continued to come, as if Mother had known from the start that her attempts to wean them onto something more adventurous would be in vain.
Big Sister, however, when home, had always displayed an unashamed fondness for second helpings of Mother’s experiments. Until that trip to Asia. There her appetite had undergone a drastic revision. Though it had done wonders for her work ethic, self-deprivation had gnawed greedily at Big Sister’s hips until the bones of her pelvis jutted out painfully from the sagging crotch of her jeans. And so, upon her return, the family eating habits too had had to undergo minor re-workings.
Refined carbohydrates were all but outlawed. Tofu thrived. Rocket rocketed. And the inclusion of exotic vegetables in Mother’s meal plans became prolific. A long forgotten jar of cayenne seasoning that had spent the last decade crusting itself to the back of the cupboard, had been scavenged by Big Sister for its metabolism-boosting properties, and accepted by Father as an effective disguise for the taste of bok choy. But the most drastic change had been the reassessment of meat. Its protein to calorie ratio significantly inferior to that of, say, soy beans, red meat in particular had been relabelled as an enjoyable but not altogether essential component of a meal.
The latter adjustment, for Father in particular, would take a great deal of getting used to. It was, however, a sacrifice considered ‘worth persevering with’, if it meant that Big Sister would join them at mealtimes and refrain from clawing at her thighs in between. And so he had simply bowed his head and asked Mother to pass the soy; memories of sloshing Henderson’s onto the crust of a good steak and kidney sliding like udon noodles through the misaligned chopsticks in his grasp. But, before long, it was clear to us all that Big Sister was on the mend; her cheeks were, once again, filling out. For a time, at least, it seemed to me that ‘the whole no meat thing’, as it had been affectionately dubbed, would be, after all, a temporary one.
Which is probably why, when Big Brother announced, not long after, that he would be cutting meat from his diet altogether; ‘Magnus Samuelsson was—were we aware?—literally a vegan’, I had never really considered vegetarianism as sustaining or sustainable. Naturally, I had tittered along with the rest when Father had wagered that he’d be up to his ears in sausages again by Friday. Big Sister too had coughed up something about inevitability, and a World’s-Strongest-Man-Sausage-Fest, that made me think about laughing. And yet, looking back I cannot help but consider it as being to my eternal credit that, on this occasion, I kept my scepticism to myself.
The following Sunday, when Mother had presented Big Brother with cabbage mountain, its gravy streams collecting bleakly in the carbohydrate recesses of his plate, he had tucked in as though blind to the gaping ceramic void where his pork chop should have been. And throughout the week, when a red lentil and tomato curry had followed an alarmingly tuna-less pasta bake in rapid succession, the vegetarianism had endured. What’s more, it had begun to spread; even Father’s protests were dwindling.
The diet consciousness had descended. And so, inevitably, it was not long before my own diet had come under scrutiny. It had been observed that my usual dinner time had begun creeping earlier and earlier. This I could not dispute. For a while, I had found myself requesting, and, more often than not, receiving, two dinners; having inhaled the first at around 4pm, it was not uncommon for me to be hungry again by the time Big Brother and Big Sister would be returning home to reheat their reserved meals in the microwave, sending lingering wafts of my own dinner pervading the room.
Secondly, it had been noted by Big Sister, to whom, despite her reformation, the novelty African cookie jar had remained quite literally the porcelain elephant in the room, that my grazing had become zealous. Where she was expending great effort, painstakingly forcing herself to snack, to me, it came naturally. Reluctantly, I had found myself agreeing; something needed to change. And yet I could not, had I been asked, have said why. I suppose I had simply assumed that, as always, the Family had had my best interests at heart.
The first cut made was the mid-morning biscuit. My enthusiasm for athletics having diminished somewhat during the frostier months, the biscuit had become the chief motivation for dragging myself from my bed and out into the freezing November mist. Initially, I lamented feeling the warming prickle of blood return to my wind-whipped cheeks as I worked the pulp into a starchy clod between my jaws. However, having little say in the matter, I had persisted in my abstinence, and, after several more weeks, I surprised myself with the sudden realization that I no longer missed it. Even more surprising was that the exercise of a brisk morning walk had recommenced being reward enough in itself.
Off the back of such success, it was then that I made the decision to stop snacking altogether. Though drastic upon reflection, it had seemed at the time part of a natural progression into a more wholesome mindset. And yet, I would later come to identify it as the last point at which I could claim with any confidence that I had control over my eating. Regrettably, it would take more than a few uncomfortable hunger pangs to illuminate the extent of my regression and, by that point, the damage had already been done; Big Sister would bear the scars for life. Had I known that this would be the pivotal decision after which all paths would lead towards my actions on that God-awful Boxing Day, I like to believe I would have exorcised it from my mind. It might even have been quite easy to do so.
Christmas was coming. Aldi had bulk offers. The geese, as it happened, were getting fat. And yet, though the avoidance of festive treats was tricky to negate, I found ways to persist in my deprivation. I perfected the art of selective vision when a bowl of mixed nuts was tauntingly neglected, and I found myself occupied in the hallway whilst the personalized cheese-board circulated; a gift to Mother and Father from Big Sister the previous Christmas, and, quite possibly, the earliest indication of an emerging obsession with food that no one could have predicted would, by the following year, have spiralled into fully-blown anorexia.
I had, inadvertently, learnt a lot from Big Sister’s evasion strategies. And yet, impassive to their physical manifestations, I cannot honestly say that I was ever completely committed to their long-term maintenance. Alongside my snubbing of calorific snacks, the portion sizes of my meals themselves had been reduced; a change that would leave me frequently scouring my bowl for lingering remnants of sauce, and finding it empty, secretly wishing it otherwise. But the hardest change to accept, whether I would have liked to admit it or not, was my forced abstinence from meat.
It was Boxing Day. In the interests of tradition, Big Brother had elected to suspend his vegetarianism over the holiday period. For a one-time only Christmas exclusive, Meat Was Back. And though my own resolve had, in fact, endured, I remember being unable to shake the feeling that things were winding down, or else winding up, to some cataclysmic event. Having spent Christmas Day gnawing at my digits, stomach audibly growling as cold cut platters passed in ceaseless streams beneath my nose, needless to say, I was ravenous.
And the hungrier I became, the more I could feel my resolve sliding with each shrivelled slab of turkey and gammon, from serving plate to bin. Silently, I cursed the mid-life whim that had spurred Father to take a borrowed sledgehammer to the wall that had divided the kitchen, from the dining room, where Big Sister and I had now spread ourselves on the rug before the fire. A resentment I hoped stemmed from my desire to shield my hungry eyes from the scraps Mother was now discarding alongside ransacked Schwartz jars, and not so that I might skulk off undetected for a secret rummage.
My composure had endured for weeks, days, hours. All the while, I had drilled myself that it was not a waste if it was working. And, yet, as I found myself counting the dragging minutes, I began to question that it was working at all. Yes, I had received a few compliments from distant relatives in high spirits, and drunk on them too, about improvements to my waistline, but was I really any happier? No. I had spent Christmas utterly miserable.
‘Toast!’ announced Father’s red wine.
My eyes followed Big Sister’s, which darted from the plastic cracker puzzle she was fathoming, to the kitchen alcove which housed the toaster, to the almost empty glass poised in his hand; panic faded as she realised Father was not proposing more food, but saluting that which they had already consumed. Though Big Sister had conquered full-fat condiments, the prospect of toast after such a heavy meal was unsettling, even if it was multigrain. I watched the anxious flush linger in her newly plump cheeks, as she joined in with Father’s chorus:
‘A toast! To family, good grub, and absent hounds!
I shuddered. If I could not get some meat between my teeth soon, I would almost certainly be joining them. And so, when Big Sister nuzzled her full face closer to mine, so close that I could taste her breath, I silently declared that I would not do to myself what she had almost done. Humans could survive on a vegetarian diet, but I could not; dogs were supposed to eat meat. It was in my nature. I had never, and would never, worry about my body image, quite frankly, because dogs didn’t need to. And until the second that my prized pearly canine sunk into the flesh of Big Sister’s left cheek, so deeply that she would require four stitches and a rabies shot, I had never considered that a female of another species might.

Lucy Hamilton