Shauna Mackay lives in Northumberland with her husband and family. She is a previous recipient of the Andrea Badenoch Award for fiction and has stories published, or forthcoming, at several places online.
The Idyllic Land of the 6’s
The town was mined. There’d been coal in Penner, loads of the stuff, long gone and burned away. Maybe some remained, cold, impacted, being left to lie; I’d meant to ask. The river still flowed but so what. That’s what rivers do. The town, I’d say it was a fire-grate of a place, awaiting sticks and a spark to light it up, make orange flicker on the face of its dark river, and the sticks and spark might burn the town or only warm it in the basic way. Whatever, that river will keep flowing on, babe. You may not be a woman but be a man who can be a woman for the minutes of this thing, dare I name it a story when I don’t really know what a story is? Dare I call an ether stranger babe with my mind? I never call anyone babe with my mouth. Potential there, but there’s potential everywhere. There’s potential in you, babe, and there’s potential in me. Some days I think it’s better to have it than to fulfil it. I could be a fat loser, some contrary Mary, a cow, a cur, a hard lump of fear. I could be all those things and more, or less.
What town hasn’t birds and flowers and rats and hot things and cold things? What do you do?
When I got to Penner it was late summer and I’d almost hit my target. My target was 6st 13lb. I don’t feel kilos. I’m young but I measure the old way. I don’t know why. Could be my contrary Mary-ness or any of those things I’ve already listed. It should’ve been a longer list but you’ve got to stop somewhere. My double-edged sword and me. You can be a big fat loser in a good way. I’d been 7st 7lb a month earlier.
I’m 5 feet 3 inches and there was a time I weighed my age. That was when I was fourteen. Fourteen stones with spots on, all bloody and greasy too, and I knew a person then who wasn’t right but it had to be me who was wrong, that was wrong. I was more thing than human then. But nothing’s ever anyone else’s fault or where would that all end, or begin. I was nineteen years old the day I arrived in Penner and I’d been riding the seven mark for five days. I needed to get out of the 7’s. I was banking on the unpacking of stuff; I had faith in the sorting and cleaning, doing it on nothing more than black tea and the sniff of an apple. The physicality involved in making my rented furnished room have no ghost of its previous tenant would get that beautiful bitch of a black pointer on my weighing scales nudging into the idyllic land of the 6’s.
The idyllic land of the 6’s where everything is sound.
I’m not called Mary but it’s a name that will definitely do. Mary had a little job starting on the Monday. And could be she, I, had gotten it by using lots of action verbs on the application form. A girl’s gotta do stuff that makes her squirm. Gah! I don’t like exclamation marks but it doesn’t stop me using them. D’you know what I mean, or not?
This is a depressing thing. Toss that depressing thing into the river!
Here’s something as sweet as a flower.
Mary’s furnished room was one of six in this big house that had once been for people released from mental hospitals but it wasn’t any more. She was at the top and the roof needed repair so when it rained she had a spreading ochre stain to stare at and it was interesting to see an expanding boundary and not be the slightest bit bothered by it. There were two bathrooms. One on the ground floor and another on the first landing so if Mary needed to empty her body or clean the thing she had to go down a half flight staircase. These seven wide stairs had a carpet on them and the carpet was creamy and thick and Mary would sometimes stop and kick off her shoes and just stand there, taking a moment, enjoying the feel of the softness under her feet. For weeks, these stairs of hers—and she thought of them as hers because nobody else needed them or used them—were the only thing in the house she was having any sort of intimacy with. The landings and the floors of the rooms, her own and those she’d glimpsed through an ajar door, were bare polished wood and the main staircase was covered in sisal or coir, something ropey, unloving.
But one day she got to know the fat girl who lived in the room opposite the bathroom. She didn’t get to know her of course. Nobody gets to know anybody. Everybody just pretends. Imagine if they didn’t, babe. I don’t know you and you don’t know me. Some people wouldn’t like that. Especially if it was their lifelong beloved saying it to them on their deathbed. And screw the bad semantics of that sentence, it wouldn’t matter which of them it was on the deathbed, not at all.
When Mary became a friend of the fat girl, she was like everyone is. She felt she knew the fat girl while knowing, absolutely, that the fat girl would never know her. What are we like?
The fat girl smiled at Mary one morning. This was after weeks of not smiling. Smiling’s to make people like you. Mary liked that the fat girl hadn’t been a rusher of smiles.
Mary spoke, pointed at the open door behind the fat girl. “I don’t suppose you have a full length mirror I could—”
“Punch?” said the fat girl.
Was that a compliment or an insult, thought Mary. The fat girl’s face gave no clue. “Look in?” said Mary. “I’ve a mole I’m keeping an eye on.” This was bullshit. She wanted to check her thigh gap. She had a desperate need to check her thigh gap. It was Mary’s BIG WANT. She hadn’t been able to check it since coming to Penner. No smartphones then, not even for smart girls. What our Mary, my Mary, nobody’s Mary would have given at that point to be able to step into the future and grab herself an iPhone for a quick thigh gap selfie in the comfort of her own room. Girls these days don’t know how lucky they are! Mary hadn’t got her wages yet though she’d already picked out the right mirror. The woman in the shop was holding that mirror for Mary till pay day. She had promised.
“There’s one inlaid into my wardrobe door,” said the fat girl. “It’s brown-mottled.”
“Yeah, like tarnished or something.”
“A mirror with moles,” said Mary.
The fat girl didn’t laugh, or smile.
“Could I look in?” said Mary.
“More neck than a giraffe,” said the fat girl.
“It’s not forwardness,” said Mary. “It’s potential cancer.”
The fat girl put her palm over an eye then and her big dress as she stood there was heavy and red like closed theatre curtains. Mary pressed her spine into the wall as the fat girl weighed her up through one small dark left eye. “Come in,” she said, eventually.
Mary went in. Mary was ecstatic. She was going to be able to assess the progress of her thigh gap. Mary wanted a thigh gap wild stallions could leap through.
Let’s reframe Mary, just for a bit. She has a little job remember. Had. Mary’s job was bearable. She worked in an office with a man and so long as she did the moving around, any opening, bending, light lifting and carrying that the job presented, then he was happy and if he was happy then so was she because she needed that job and he was the boss. Is Mary a feminist? It’s questions like that which make Mary starve herself because screaming out loud for the whole of your life gets you locked up. The boss didn’t annoy her with small talk, with much talk really, but there was the odd occasion, strangely it would be when heavy rain, the sort that blackens the day but never the mood, was drenching the office window, that’s when he’d click his nib, rub his own head for self-comfort and tell her about a woman he’d once loved. She’d been from the Horn of Africa. He said she’d lived through biblical famines. The boss had small hands, was skinny-fingered, and didn’t live with his mother but that was only because she was dead, he said. Mary hadn’t much clue where the Horn of Africa was or what a biblical famine was or why the woman from the Horn of Africa would’ve let the boss love her but she enjoyed finding out. Mary found questions to ask the boss that he wanted to be asked and she set them up in such a way he could work a bit of his own sort of humour into his answers. There were loads of questions she wanted to ask but didn’t because the boss wouldn’t have wanted to be asked those questions that Mary wanted to know the answers to most of all. Mary thinks he might not have had the answers to those questions anyway or if he did he was not a person who was able to take ownership of such fucking knowledge.
We’re in the fat girl’s room now. Mary’s there too, staring at the mirror that’s inlaid into the front of the wardrobe. The mirror looks like a stretched teardrop. A hardened teardrop. Brown-mottled. That could be little pieces of cried up heart.
Mary needs to get rid of the fat girl but this is the fat girl’s room. Is the fat girl really fat? Mary doesn’t know. Mary can’t see anything but her own fat. The fat girl doesn’t know if she is fat because she doesn’t know herself at all. The fat girl is totally detached from herself. She doesn’t know whose feelings she’s feeding but hey, babe, please feel free to take a guess. It’s me, I, yours truly, the whole of us, who has labelled the fat girl fat. What do we think we are doing?
“The mole’s in a bit of a funny place,” says Mary. “Do you mind?” She puts out an usherette hand to try to get the fat girl to exit her own room.
“I’m not looking,” says the fat girl.
“You are,” says Mary.
“I’ll read the wall,” says the fat girl. “Look, there, by my bed, if I peel back the paper at the seam, a mad person has written mad things all over the underneath wallpaper.” The fat girl goes to sit on her bed and Mary thinks about going too but stays where she is in front of the mirror. She turns away from her own reflection to watch the fat girl, picking at the wallpaper, lifting a piece up like it’s a page for turning. “Look,” says the fat girl, “look at this, see all the teeny tiny scribbles, it’s like Bronte writing except this is a mad person, it’s all mad, doesn’t make much sense, not to me. I’m only going to bother to read it again so you can look at your mole in peace.”
Mary wants to see that writing. She wants to decipher mad sentences. She wants to swap rooms with the fat girl so she can mine every single seam in this room. Figure out the madness. But there is something she must do first. She needs to check her thigh gap. She needs to look at the mirror, in the mirror, through the mirror.
“Please leave the room,” says Mary to the fat girl. “Give me five minutes, I only need five minutes. The mole’s ugly and I’m ashamed.”
The fat girl smiles. “Don’t worry,” she says. “Everything will be good,” and she gets off the bed and leaves the room. This is the point at which they become friends. This is the sweet as a flower bit. It’s not mandatory for you to agree.
“Thanks,” says Mary as the fat girl goes out the door. Mary’s already unzipping her jeans.
Mary’s thirty-eight now and she weighs her age again. In kilos, but never mind. She’s gone from Penner and she never kept in touch with the fat girl. She never said she would. Mary’s living in some idyllic land somewhere. You know that. I know that. We all know that.
©2017 Shauna Mackay
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