Kathy Grubb loved cellar bars. Something about descending, something about
being beneath. Cellar bars were an annexe to real life, sanctuary. You saw
nothing of the world from a cellar bar and, better still, nothing of the
world saw you. They were the duvets of the pub world and Corbierres on Half
Moon Street had a high tog rating.
The barman placed her white wine in front of her and smiled. “How was City
of God last week?”
The barman wasn’t bad. Sexy, actually. But…stop, stop, what was
the point? He was way, way too young.
“I loved the opening sequence. Chickens in films are great, aren’t
“Gotta love the chickens.”
Since Christian left her for The Cheese Straw —Fiona Zapp, digital artist, “space” consultant,
and editor of Jelly Kiss—Kathy had an unignorable compulsion
to keep her culture topped up, and film, the art form of the lonely, seemed
an acceptable solitary pursuit—as long as it was a midweek early-evening
screening. Did she worry too much about these details? She did. Was her pleasure
spoiled? It was ruined utterly.
Analysing everything. So tiring. Every microscopic social transaction. Was
it acceptable to engage a shopkeeper in conversation? If so, for how long?
Married, she never used to think about it. But now she worried that if she
talked to every shopkeeper for minutes and minutes each one would believe it
was Kathy’s desire to recruit them as a friend. In fact, a few weeks
ago she got friendly with a Waterstone’s worker named Harry. The two
of them chatted about books, plays, films—even their personal lives.
They had laughed together, and once, while laughing, Kathy had placed her hand
on Harry’s upper arm.
One evening Kathy dropped into the conversation that she was off to see Vera
Drake and Harry said that he was desperate to see the movie himself, but
Dunc and rest of them—the blokes he lived with—hated britflicks.
Before she could stop herself Kathy had asked Harry if he’d like to come
with her to the cinema.
A thick membrane grew between them. The air tightened. They were both thinking
about Kathy’s hand on Harry’s upper arm.
Oh, and the consequences of this unspooled ahead of her as usual. Harry would
tell Dunc all about it and Dunc, a hard-bitten cynic, would sneer and instantly
diagnose Kathy as a hopeless sociophobe whose presence could only darken their
luminous lives. Harry’s anecdote would confirm what Dunc had always asserted:
bookshops were full of losers and fantasists, people with impossibly rich interior
lives but no grip on the texture of day-to-day life. The notion of Dunc at
home, sneering and growling and tearing up paper (for some reason Kathy pictured
him tearing up paper and stuffing the shreds into plastic bags) complicated
the idea she had of Harry, and put a huge wrinkle in her plan to move things on
But hold on. Stop. Wasn’t this exactly what Dr Phillips said she shouldn’t
do? She was OVER-THINKING. She had invented a future fantasy world, a new universe
in which Kathy Grubb was the pivotal point.
Kathy Grubb is not the centre of the world.
Everyone is not looking at Kathy Grubb.
There are many futures and anything can happen.
Kathy Grubb is as important as everyone else.
There is no such thing as bad luck.
Bad things don’t always happen to Kathy Grubb.
Driving instructors don’t all have dirty fingernails, hum Spandau Ballet
songs, and take photographs up your skirt with hidden digital cameras to display
on their Web sites.
Now that she had found herself single again Kathy realised she’d been
so close to Christian and his wanky design crowd she’d made no friends
of her own. She always suspected that The Cheese Straw was romantically interested
in Christian but she had come to the conclusion that the over-demonstrative
shows of affection—flowers, kissy texts, gushing e-mails—were part
of being in an arty crowd.
But Kathy missed those people, the people she thought she hated. She missed
the dinner parties, the private views, the opening nights, the making an event
out of everything—like fancy dress for Eurovision. Now that Christian
had gone she had no links with the wives and husbands of his friends. She was
completely alone—the scientific definition.
So every week she went to a film and, before the screening, popped into Corbierres.
She ordered a sandwich and as the barman tapped the figures into the till the
waitress came up close behind him and tickled his back with scrabbly spider
fingers, a routine intimacy that made Kathy envious of their lives.
She sat down with the cinema programme and flicked through the pages. Tonight
was the first in a season of Iranian films and, if she was honest, she wasn’t
looking forward to it. It had been filmed with one camera from the back of
a car. Why did she subject herself to arduous cultural challenges? At the Odeon
they were showing Dumb and Dumber. In truth, her choice of film was
dictated by the fact that she was looking for a man, and she preferred to meet
the sort of man who’d watch an arty film over one who’d watch Dumb
and Dumber. When she’d met her man and they’d fallen in love,
they would watch Dumb and Dumber over curry and Dandelion and Burdock
and giggle about how they hated Iranian films.
And didn’t even enjoy the films like she used to. She would emerge, blinking
in the light, images and sounds swirling in her head, and feel sucked dry,
hollow. It was all so pointless. Why worry about the problems faced by fictional
characters? Cultural activities had no value until they were exposed to the
oxygen of conversation with friends.
Her sandwich arrived and she picked at it morosely, moving the salad around
her plate. She wondered what people thought about whilst they sliced cucumber,
whether they got into a rhythm, chopped a whole lot all in one go, or whether
they swapped about from cucumber to celery to tomatoes. She suspected there
would be a kind of satisfaction to be gained from making sandwiches all day,
a sort of Zen oneness with yourself, and wondered whether she should leave
her job at the bank and set up a business delivering sandwiches to offices.
She would become well known by the office staff and they would call cheery
hellos when she arrived and ask what the soup was. She would develop friendships
in each of the offices and there would be many opportunities to meet men. Selling
food would associate her with pleasurable experiences, which always helped.
Jobs that give others pleasure. That was the answer. She remembered Christian
saying that the very best job he’d ever had was for a parcel delivery
company because everybody loves you when you bring them a parcel.
At first she wasn’t sure who it was, the face was out of context, so
she hesitated. Then he smiled at her, and she knew.
“Harry,” he said. “From the, you know, the shop.”
Harry from Waterstone’s. She looked up at his chubby face. She’d
forgotten how overweight he was. His features were buried in folds of flab,
but he was good looking, in a Robbie Coltrane kind of way. Kathy didn’t
mind someone who carried a little weight. She herself was a bit heavy for her
height. You wouldn’t call her fat; in fact most men said that they liked
her as she was. Don’t be going on any diets, they always said.
Nevertheless, she tried to avoid getting any larger, especially now that she
was “out there.”
Harry glanced at her plate on which was sitting a third of her sandwich and
salad. “You’ve left a lot of your food,” he said. “You
on the two-thirds?”
It was true—she’d been trying out this new diet called two-thirds.
Eat two-thirds of every portion and lose a third of your weight.
“It’s such a waste. I’ve tried it and, as you can see, it
doesn’t work. Not seen you in the shop for a while. I wondered whether
you might be in here.”
Her chest tightened. Had he come looking for her? Was he a stalker? Stop worrying.
He’s fat. Fat people can be trusted. Fat people know what it’s
like to be abused and ignored, so they treat everyone with respect.
“Do you want to finish it?” she said.
He sat down opposite her. “I’ve eaten. But would you like to share
a special pudding?”
“What’s a special pudding?”
“Well, this is a funny one. To enjoy your special pudding your dining
partner must lick the spoon first. But she, or he, must not eat any of the pudding.
Not even a little bit. Lick the spoon, then watch me eat.”
It was an odd proposition, but, well, what else did she have to do?
A glutinous orange blob in a glass beaker arrived. Kathy licked the spoon then
passed it to Harry Lawson. Harry began to eat, very, very slowly, taking tiny
pecks of pudding at a time. There was an odd, wistful smile on his face as
he slurped. But that wasn’t the strangest thing. Kathy felt a new and
uncanny sensation that she’d never felt before. She could actually taste
the pudding as Harry ate it. And the taste sent a tingle from her tongue to
her scalp and then from her scalp all the way down to the soles of her feet.
She watched him chew and it was as if she were chewing. Gooey sugar and starch
slid down her throat and into her stomach. Gorgeous.
“Mmmm,” she said, not realising the sound she was making was audible. “That’s
He squinted at her over the orange desert and smiled. She knew from his wistful,
far-off expression that he was aware she could taste the pudding. He’d
been through this experience before. Kathy began to feel frightened. Was this
a hypnotic trick? Had she, in her suggestible state, fallen under the influence
of some twisted, amateur magician? All of a sudden she felt queasy and stood
up quickly, grabbing her things and making ready to leave.
But he touched her arm and looked her in the eyes. “Don’t worry.
It’s nothing to do with me. I’m not making it happen. I heard about
this pudding and what it does, and wanted try it out. Honestly. Sit down. Let’s
She sat down and looked at him. She said nothing. He said nothing. Then they
“How weird,” they said in unison. “I wonder how it works?” again
in chorus. They laughed again. His eyes were nice when he laughed, little lines
shot out at the side that weren’t there before, showing that he laughed
“God, you know what?” said Harry. “I could eat some more.”
“Yeh. What do you think?”
Kathy thought about it. She had enjoyed the feeling of the pudding slipping
down her throat, and if this was a pleasure she could enjoy without putting
on a single ounce, it was some sort of miracle. She leaned across the table. “Yes.
Why not have another? Let’s have another.”
Cheesecake came and the same thing happened. Kathy watched him delicately spoon
in gobbets of strawberry and crushed digestive and again she tasted it, a taste
sensation in ultra-high definition, as if every dimension of its flavour were
magnified a hundred times. The coldness on her lips, the crumbling and melting
on her tongue, the sweet goo oozing down her throat. Yet her stomach remained
as empty as her mouth.
Kathy and Harry worked their way through the whole of the desert menu, pudding
after pudding, and though Kathy tasted them all, she felt not a tiny bit full.
And the taste. A thousand bursts of explosion inside her.
Outside the bar they stood together for a few moments. Harry dragged a woolly
hat from his pocket and tugged it onto his head. It made his face, which bore
a satisfied, faraway expression, into a round ball.
He laughed and gave her a big hug. “I’ve had a brilliant evening.
Thanks for eating with me.” Up close he had smelt sweaty, an odour that,
though it would usually repel, was oddly arousing and made her feel feral,
“What are you doing the rest of the week, Kathy Grubb?”
“Ever heard of the Time Out guide to eating out in Manchester?”
* * *
to Mexican, from French to Greek, from Chinese to Turkish, Kathy and
Harry tried them all. Kathy ordered a minuscule starter whilst Harry
had the works. She would sit and watch him eat, tasting it all, every
bite of steak, every blob of sauce, every mayonnaise-doused chip, every
pie, pastry, pudding, tart and bake, and in each restaurant the diners
and bemused waiters watched on in awe as Harry worked his way though
the menu on Kathy’s command whilst she eyed him with what must
have looked like an eerie, predatory expression.
Kathy was having fun for the first time in months. She liked Harry; he was
a great guy. But after a few weeks she noticed that although she’d eaten
hardly anything, she was looking, if anything, fatter, despite her new proxy
dining system. She weighed herself and was astonished to find that she’d
put on two and a half stones. She stood on the scales, looking down at a bulging
belly that blotted out the view of her feet. Her skin was blotchy and dry,
her face puffy, her neck flabby. She gasped when she felt under her biceps:
But despite her weight gain, she continued to eat out with Harry. She was beginning
to like him, maybe even fall in love. But the truth was clear. As Kathy gained
weight, Harry lost it. Pounds and pounds slid off him. Off Harry Lawson and
straight onto Kathy Grubb.
Kathy began to experience this proxy eating effect even when they were apart.
In the office she’d taste his morning croissant; later, a midmorning
muffin and at lunchtime a greasy pizza, followed by cloyingly sweet tiramisu.
Then, on Tuesday the 28th of August at 10:23, she received a text message.
Harry wanted to cool things down a little. For a short time, that was all.
He was sorry. Very sorry. He liked her a lot but didn’t think they had
the same, well, values. That’s how he wrote it in the text. Well,
followed by a comma, then the word values. She reread this text over
and over. She tried to spot where he had hesitated in his typing, where there
were unnecessary spaces or where the words were too close together which might
mean he had originally chosen a different word. But the text message was perfectly
constructed. She wrote his words out on a piece of paper so she could view
the message as one whole thing. He had ended it with a kiss, one kiss only.
Yet she and Harry’s text communications had developed to include three
kisses. This growth in kisses had been important to Kathy; in fact she’d
been working on increasing it to four. But even though she had used four kisses
once or twice, he had never reciprocated. She looked at the piece of paper
again. Well spelt (no l8rs or anything for Harry) and grammatically correct.
He always texted that way. But what did he mean, values? And why,
before it, the word well?
She called him. But there was no response. She e-mailed him, but her message
bounced back. She visited Waterstone’s, but was told that he’d
been moved to the distribution centre—a promotion of sorts. They wouldn’t
pass on any information; it wasn’t company policy.
She went up to her bedroom, turned off the light, and sat at the window looking
out over the sparkling lights of the city. The handwritten version of his text
was on her lap. She cried. Tears fell onto the sheet of paper, smudging his
words. She was miserable, hated, alone, and fat. She longed for Christian to
return, to leave The Cheese Straw and come back to her. She wanted be part
of his crowd again. To be arty, to be trendy, to be loved.
She looked across towards the city centre, where Christian and The Cheese Straw
now lived. She could almost make out the roof of their house, a trendy old
terrace converted into what the council called “artists live/work spaces.” She
wondered what they were doing at that very instant. They were so close that
if she had some means of propelling an object—a missile launcher, say—she
would be able to send them a message. She looked over to the other side of
the city where Harry had said he lived. But did he really live there? She’d
never been to his house, had only a vague idea that it was north.
She pointed the missile launcher towards the north and flicked an invisible
trigger. A gleaming cigar scooted up into the air, making a lovely curving
trajectory over the city and descending into Whitefield. It zoomed along a
road of semis, its little nose twitching as the electronics sniffed out Harry,
glided through his kitchen window, and landed right in his big fat lap, blowing
his balls off.
It was an interesting thought, but, really, she didn’t wish Harry any
One aspect of Harry remained with her. Kathy tasted every single item of food
and drink he consumed throughout the day. Which meant she continued to grow
fatter. And fatter. Becoming grossly fat was bad enough, but tasting Harry’s
food tortured her in another way, because from the type of food she could guess
what he was doing.
One night he was in a restaurant. A date. And later, predictably, Kathy’s
mouth was crammed with the flavour of waxy, fatty lipstick. They would be standing
outside the woman’s house, snogging. The woman would be deciding whether
to invite him in. And Kathy knew as soon as she did because that’s when
Harry began to kiss her face, rapidly, urgently, all over, just like he had
with her. Kathy tasted everything about this woman—the bitter, unrinsed
shampoo flecks in her hair, the salty sweat on her brow, the antiseptic burn
of defoliating cream around her mouth, the milky wash of cheap moisturiser
on her cheeks, the nip of Harry’s teeth on her lobes, the sour dead skin
flakes as his tongue slipped into her ear.
There was a pause for a gulp of heavy red wine, then more of the same; then
Kathy knew where he was heading.
She panicked. She had to distract her taste buds, somehow numb her senses.
She went to the drinks cupboard, but found only Buckfast tonic wine, a concoction
Christian had bought for one of his ironic dinner parties—the quaff of
choice for Scottish tramps. She took a succession of rapid sips directly from
the bottle, and gagged. It was cheap, pungent, like sucking rust, but she had
to drown out her senses. When Kathy’s mouth began to fill with the taste
of the space between the woman’s legs she retched and rushed to the bathroom.
The next day her mouth stung with toothpaste and soap. She immediately decided
to kick her life into gear. She called work and said she would take six months
unpaid leave. She went to Woolworth’s and bought baggy tracksuits and
cheap slippers. She would dress for comfort.
* * *
Over the next few weeks she changed her life. She stopped showering, washing
only when she felt it was essential, which wasn’t that often. She drank
Buckfast tonic wine straight from the bottle because what was the point of
cleaning a glass every day? She got used to its vile, rusty taste. She cleaned
her clothes by throwing them into the bath with her whenever she washed herself.
All this seemed highly logical and she congratulated herself on this eminently
practical way of organising her life. She would stay in the house and never
see another human being again. There was a glum finality to this decision that
satisfied her. She was in control.
She was in the bath sipping Buckfast, a couple of her tracksuits and several
pieces of underwear floating about her, when the door went. She pulled on Christian’s
old dressing gown and went to see who it was.
The last person she expected was The Cheese Straw.
The Cheese Straw wrinkled her nose at Kathy’s stained jogging clothes
and the sour-sweet smell of Buckfast.
“I hope everything’s OK with you?” she said. “I am really
sorry about what happened.”
“Do you want a drink?” Kathy jiggled the bottle of Buckfast. “It’s
tonic. Good for the nerves.”
Fiona Zapp, bony face the colour of pearl and buffed with expensive lotions,
gave Kathy her point of view.
“There’s some papers we need you to sign. We’ve been waiting
a few weeks now. You know it’s all over. Theres no going back. Everyone
has to accept things and move on. Its hard for us all.” Her eyes
skimmed the room and fell on the mountain of unopened post.
“I guess you’ve been busy. It’s just a couple of signatures.”
“Listen,” Kathy said, “I’ll sign everything, anything
you want. It’s just I need to know a bit more about why everything went
wrong. I don’t blame you but, as you can see, I’m struggling to
get over Christian. I was wondering, would you meet me for lunch? We could talk.
And if you bring fresh copies of the papers, I will sign them right away.”
The Cheese Straw curled her lip, barely perceptibly, then quickly reassumed
her posture. “Of course. Where would you like to meet?’
* * *
At Corbierres The Cheese Straw licked the spoon just as Kathy asked, then Kathy
tucked into the special pudding. The Cheese Straw shuddered at the weirdness
of the experience, but she said nothing.
After that, Kathy signed every one of the necessary legal papers with a huge
flourish of her pen. Tears of happiness streamed down her chubby cheeks and
she must have looked like a fat, red pig. The two women cheek-kissed with a
vow to do lunch again—soon, very soon.
Over the next few days Kathy ate like a rat. She pictured The Cheese Straw
weighing herself every morning and gasping as the pounds clocked on. Would
she have a digital scales or analogue? Kathy preferred the idea of analogue,
enjoying the thought of a slim needle twitching up the scale, rather than the flickering
of cold red digits.
Kathy’s weight peeled off. She threw out the tracksuits. She began washing
again. She stopped drinking Buckfast. She got herself a new boyfriend, Ray,
a housing consultant and amateur flamenco guitarist.
* * *
She was out shopping with Ray on King Street when she saw them. At first she
thought Christian was pushing a pram, and with horror imagined they’d
had a baby. But it wasn’t a pram; it was a wheelchair. And sitting in
it was The Cheese Straw. A shapeless jogging suit covered legs the thickness
of tree trunks and a stomach that looked like she’d swallowed a small
deer. Kathy thought about the Caesar salad she’d eaten for lunch and
the side portion of potato wedges and felt abruptly queasy. All the food she’d
eaten paraded about town as a horrifying blob on wheels.
Kathy pulled Ray into a shop doorway and they waited for the couple to pass.
As they did she saw them close up. The Cheese Straw had lost all her facial
features. It was as if someone had inflated her head with a pump. Christian’s
face was creased and emptied of colour. A thought came unbidden into Kathy’s
head: she wondered if they still made love, and gagged at the idea. She had
to do something. She couldn’t stand the idea of Christian being so unhappy,
hated that he was chained forever to this monstrous whale-woman.
* * *
Upstairs she slipped into her new purple underwear and purple nightgown. You
had to wear purple; everyone knew that. She took out the ingredients she’d
bought, measured out the quantities as the Web site had directed, and laid
it all out in a row of little pyramids. It was as if as she were organising
spices for a special meal. She’d had to run all over town to the get
the things she needed: chemists, DIY shops, even a builders yard. She scooped
up each hill of powder with a teaspoon and mixed it all into a mug of hot chocolate.
A sticky sludge formed at the bottom. She drank it down in long, heavy draughts,
panting between gulps. Beads of sweat were on her brow. She felt her pulse.
It was normal. She felt her head. No temperature.
She went to the window and sat there, looking out. She rang Christian on his
mobile. He was surprised, very surprised to hear from her. They were settling
down to watch a DVD. She must have heard that Fiona had been ill, not really
“Christian, I’m dying,” she said. “I need you come to
me. I’ve taken something. Come now.”
He was silent for a long time. Then she heard him murmuring something to The
Cheese Straw. “OK, OK,” he said. “I’ll be there.”
She heard him grabbing his car keys, then he hung up his phone.
It was a steamy hot night. Everything was completely still. You could hear
noises from all over the city. Lorries changing gear on the motorway as they
climbed the slip road, voices leaving the pub down the road. She looked over
to where Christian and The Cheese Straw lived. Again she imagined she could
see the roof of their house. She waited a few minutes, then took out a cigarette
lighter. She snicked the ignition, lifted it to her mouth, and opened wide.
She sucked hard. A ball of hot air rolled down into her stomach like a fiery
Flames swathed the rooftops orange; there was an enormous bang. The glass in
the window trembled. A plume of smoke rose up. Car alarms sang—one, then
another, then another. The air crackled, eased, died, leaving a temporary silence.
A few moments later, sirens wailed. People shouted, screamed. Could she hear
sobbing? Was it possible from this far away? Maybe it was the thrumming of
blood in her head.
Christian was on his way home. He was safe, and would be all hers again. The
Cheese Straw—Fiona Zapp, digital artist, “space” consultant,
and editor of Jelly Kiss—was gone. Here at the window sat a
new woman. She would be his special thing, his special friend, his special
love, his special pudding.