Content Warnings: Eating disorder and self harm
‘You’re not going until you’ve finished.’ Mum watched and Poppy pretended to chew on the pasta that was slowly congealing on the plate in front of her. ‘Have you got your snack for later?’
‘You should know; you packed it.’ Poppy wanted to scream but managed to keep to sarcasm, buoyed by the knowledge that she would ditch the biscuit in the first bin she saw.
‘Are you sure you’ll be alright having breakfast at Anna’s?’ Mum took a yoghurt from the fridge – which gave Poppy just enough time to slide the last of the pasta into her pocket – and sat across from her smiling tightly with her mouth but not at all with her eyes.
Why wouldn’t she shut up? Stupid Cow. All the woman thought about was what the next meal was going to be and what was for pudding and not to forget her late night snack. But Poppy was smart, and knew that if she smiled sweetly she could pretty much control what went down and what came back up. She held her breath and swallowed the slimy pudding.
Finally free, she slammed the front door with half a goodbye. She heaved her rucksack onto her back and the sneaky hip flask clanked against the cans of Diet Coke that Mum had given her. Anna had said to meet at six and it was already half past five. Poppy hated being late and have everyone stare at her when she arrived: much better to arrive early and be the starer.
She ran from the bus stop all the way to the Southbank. Anna was already talking to a bunch of boys, and Poppy slowed down in the hope that her flush would fade before she joined them.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ she tried to sound cool but was boiling inside.
‘Are you?’ Anna flicked her sleek blonde hair with a roll of her head and smirked at the tallest boy. ‘I hadn’t noticed.’
They made a gang and walked along the crowded embankment. Poppy handed the rum to Anna and admired her long, slender neck as she tipped it back and swallowed. She tried to do the same but her throat automatically clenched against the alcohol and she spluttered it into her hand. Anna smirked at the boy again and Poppy coughed to hide her shame.
They sat on a concrete curve to watch skateboarders show off. One of the boys put his arm around Poppy’s shoulder and leaned in for a clumsy kiss. His breath smelt like cheesy Wotsits but she let him poke his tongue in her mouth anyway. He wiggled it around a bit. Poppy swallowed a gag.
‘This is boring.’ Anna stood up and smoothed her short tartan skirt over her thighs. ‘Let’s go to mine.’ She led the way, leaning into the tall boy who hooked his elbow around her neck; a hold that was more like a grip than a grope. The two other boys, little and large, fell in step behind the leaders; hands in their pockets, desperately trying to look like they didn’t mind being the odd ones out. Poppy and Wotsit lagged behind. He held her awkwardly about the shoulder so she couldn’t move properly. She had to look at their feet to try and establish a matching march.
She didn’t see Anna or the boys in front of her stop and so walked right into the back of the skinny one. She lifted her head with a start and knocked Wotsit in the chin; the coke cans shuddered in her rucksack and across her bony back. He released her in order to rub the pain and complain while Poppy pretended to be fine.
Anna was pointing into the shadows under the concrete mass of the theatre and it took a few seconds for Poppy to figure out what was there. Then she saw them, almost hidden but not quite. A wave of nausea rose from her gut and threatened to spew onto her tatty white Converse and the ground that was now spinning beneath her.
‘Isn’t that your mum?’ Anna almost sounded concerned.
Poppy slapped her hand to her mouth as the familiar taste of bile clawed its way up her gullet. They were all looking at her now and she felt the expectation of a reaction. She didn’t know whether to laugh with them, make a scene or to brush it off with indifference. So she did what she always did when things got difficult: panicked.
She pushed past Anna and her pretence of concern, and ran until she knew she was out of her sight. Only then did she slow to a march and process what she had seen. Mum. Kissing a strange man. It was disgusting. Poppy knew that Dad was a prick but that didn’t mean Mum could go around with other men. The bile bubbled inside her again but she swallowed it down; it could wait. She pushed her hands deeper into her jacket pocket and tried to quiet the voice in her head. But it kept on at her. It was all her fault; she should never have eaten that pasta.
As soon as she got home, Poppy ran up the stairs, reached for the toilet seat and vomited her disgust out. It tasted of rum and cheese and she felt even more nauseous, so shoved her fingers down her throat just to make sure there was nothing left inside. Her throat burned but it was what she deserved.
Later, in bed waiting for sleep, she heard the scratch of the key as it searched for the barrel and the familiar creak of the front door that no one could be bothered to oil. Then voices: his and hers. Mum laughed; a noise almost forgotten: sweet and trill and edged with happiness. It made Poppy hate herself even more. Then she heard the tread of footsteps on the stairs; her parent’s bedroom door closing with a soft click; the harmony of two voices as they danced with each other – and lastly, the fumbling silence. She reached for her headphones and the scissors that were hidden under her mattress.
In the morning Poppy clattered around in the kitchen as loudly as she could. She banged a frying pan onto the cooker and fried the bacon hot and hard. She raised her arms above the pan to crack an egg into the sizzling fat, making sure that it splashed onto her already burning skin. She whizzed up a smoothie, long and loud, and clattered the dishes away.
A floorboard creaked in the room above and shushed voices tripped down the stairs. Poppy slammed a knife and fork onto the table, tipped the greasy bacon and eggs onto a plate and angrily smeared toast with a thick layer of butter. The front door closed quietly and a smile stretched over her perfectly white teeth.
‘You’re home early.’ Mum picked up the kettle and walked to the sink, her eyes focussed on anything but Poppy.
‘I didn’t stay at Anna’s.’
‘What do you mean?’ The kettle stalled under the tap and water overflowed the spout.
‘What I said.’ Poppy scraped the chair out from under the table and sat down with a thump.
‘You came home last night?’
Poppy poured herself a tall glass of smoothie. ‘That’s right.’
Mum fumbled the kettle into its stand and cautiously approached the table. ‘What time did you get home?’
‘Early.’ Poppy pushed the plate of food away from her as Mum perched on the chair and pulled her dressing gown closed across her chest.
‘How could you, Mummy?’ Poppy watched with satisfaction as the dim glow of happiness drained from her mother’s eyes. She put the food bin on the table and slowly lifted its lid, releasing a tiny cloud of fruit flies. Normally she secreted her food away when Mum was distracted by a phone call or the beep of the microwave. But not today. Today she could do what she wanted. She gently tipped the plate and let the food slither into the gaping mouth of the bin.
‘Don’t,’ said Mum. ‘Please.’
‘But Mummy, how can I eat when I’m so unhappy?’ she stood triumphant, liberated from food for at least a day.
Mum stared up at Poppy with eyes like two dried capers: hard and bitter. ‘And how do you think the rest of us feel watching you slowly kill yourself?’
The bravado left Poppy as quickly as it had come.
‘Everything is about you: your bloody meal plan, your bloody exams, your bloody lies.’ All the years of pent up caring spewed onto the table between them as the plate fell and rocked slowly from side to side, smears of fat pooling around the rim as it stilled.
Poppy sniffed and Mum became herself again, all whimpering contrition. ‘I’m so sorry.’ She reached out for her daughter’s hand. ‘I didn’t mean it.’
Poppy let her hand be held in the silence that sat between them, as heavy as the bags of uneaten food that had been secreted away since this all began.
‘Why do you do it?’ Mum’s voice was kinder now, quiet in the aftermath of the explosion.
The truth was that Poppy didn’t know why she did it, but she did know that, by not eating, she felt nothing. And that was infinitely better than feeling anything. ‘Sometimes I just want it all to go away. Everything. Just to disappear and be gone.’
Mum laughed. Not in a nice way like when Poppy was a kid and they had chased waves at the beach, but in the way of a woman gone mad, a woman who didn’t have the words to express her loss. ‘You really think you have to starve yourself to disappear? Oh, my darling girl.’ She encircled Poppy’s feeble wrists with her forefinger and thumb as if to manacle them together. ‘Life will do that for you.’
The fruit flies settled on the rim of the smoothie, a few brave enough to walk on its viscous surface. Poppy wriggled her wrists free and rubbed the pink welts that were starting to show. ‘I’m going to shower. Will you be OK?’ She was surprised to find she cared.
She stood in front of the bathroom mirror and peeled off the layers of clothes. Her fingers traced the outline of her body; her collar bones felt hard, which was odd because they looked spongy, and when she felt for the bulge of her belly there was only tightness and bone. She could make no sense of it; the reflection of her body was round yet the edges were sharp. In the shower, she turned the temperature up until her skin turned as red as a freshly boiled lobster; but no matter how hot it was it couldn’t purge the feeling of disgust she had for herself. Her Mum was right; she was a selfish, ugly, fat cow. The skin on her thighs stung as the fresh cuts poached in the boiling water.
When Mum knocked on the door Poppy didn’t answer, just stood once more in front of the mirror. Her reflection was misted with steam that softened the edges of her hideous body. Mum came in but Poppy didn’t shout at her, scream for her to get out, to mind her own business.
As the mist escaped through the door, it was as though Poppy’s mirror image stepped under a spotlight to reveal a hunched body of pink, pinched flesh. Poppy recoiled and instinctively wrapped her arms across her torso in an effort to hide from herself. Mum slowly undressed and turned the shower on, but instead of stepping under the water, she moved closer to Poppy and gently peeled her hands from her sheltering body. They stood side by side, facing themselves; naked and silent as the steam billowed around them and kissed the mirror with an opaque mist that blurred them, obscured them, and, finally, erased them.