Alice was an anxious woman. She couldn’t remember how many situations had turned into the type that she was about to go through again, every one of them different but somehow the same. She watched the toilet light turn from red to green, crossed her legs and squeezed.
The man next to her was asleep and not only emitted loud snoring sounds but blew the air out so hard it felt like a small breeze lifting her hair. She shrank from the pressure of his arm against hers and shifted in her seat so that he was not touching her. But it was impossible to create a space between them without turning her body, twisting her shoulder away, and crossing her arm awkwardly over her chest. In fact his enormous bulk overlapped the armrest and insinuated itself so heavily into her space she could smell his sweat, his spicy aftershave and the utter oiliness of his hair.
Not that he could help it. He had actually reminded her of someone she knew when he sat down and sure enough, before she could deaden the feeling, that old friend of hers, unwanted emotion, welled up like a strong liqueur from the inside out. Her eyes watered, and she had felt sorry for him, if only for a moment.
“Hello there! Robert Rastas at your service! But you can call me Bob!” he had loomed over her blocking the light. She hadn’t even introduced herself because he just started talking, to cover up the physical facts of himself, obviously. This was not what she had planned, set up to be powerless and self conscious again. Her thoughts turned to jokes about fat people. How do you get a fat guy into bed?
“Be kind,” she told herself. Under there is a human being going about his life. She imagined him a jolly Santa at Christmas time, bringing home the pine tree over his massive shoulder, little boys and girls clinging to his corduroy trousers as he stooped through the front door. Like the pictures on old Christmas cards, a rosy candle glow surrounding them, while outside their cottage windows, so much snow falling, everywhere snow falling. But she realised that she couldn’t be kind, she had no control over these thoughts that piled up like so much reindeer poo.
And no matter how hard Alice tried to push the anxiety down it started pressing heavily on her chest. She imagined it was actually like the weight of his body lying on top of her, whilst inside her chest the hammer of her heart made its rhythmic banging. Cramped and uncomfortable she felt like she had been pushed into a small box, only to look up and realise she was in another longer, bigger box, breathing the crisp recirculated air, aware of the low drone, that assured her the jet engines were still burning litres of fossil fuel into the black, starry void.
Alice would start her relaxation routine at times like these, or start humming Greensleeves or Silent Night, squirt a couple of sprays of Rescue Remedy under her tongue and begin the positive self talk.
“What’s the worst that can happen? If you die now, you have had a good life. You have no control over anything.” But she preferred to catastrophize, her heart on shaky ground, her swirling thoughts snatching random fears on the way down the swift current of negativity that included all the things that could go wrong, right then and
there, to her children and her life.
Up popped another weird thought. His wife, if he had a wife, must lie on top of him or she’d be flattened like a Portuguese chicken. A little laugh escaped her but she quickly smothered it in a soft cough.
“Come on Alice, you have overcome these situations before.”
And she had overcome these situations before…the sour taste of panic, the sweaty palms, the shallow breathing, would reach a crescendo, and then she’d slide down the other side, where miraculously a slow release of tension resided, and a calm confidence would take over. Once she was sure her dead mother had taken the wheel of the car she was driving and steered her through the worst of an anxiety episode.
But nothing made a difference this time. Movement past him into the freedom of the aisle became an obsession, and the shaky turbulence of the last half hour made it even more important to escape the confines of her economy class seat. She had already drunk way too much water and she knew the price to be paid for that.
“Excuse me” she leant forward towards his ear but his large fleshy jowls only quivered in response with another huff through his full lips. She knew these lips. A red and rubbery variety that caused you to watch them as they talked, and ate and sipped a glass of wine. She had a particular aversion to these types of lips. In fact she had a lot of aversions. Ear hair, nose hair, you name it. You only had to ask her husband, he knew what it was like to live with someone who could spot a stain at fifty paces. Luckily for him he was able to ignore most of her critical scrutiny.
Another deep exhalation and her nose was assaulted by the acrid smell of cooked food, wine, coffee, and could it be a trace of mint? Strangely she had looked forward to the airline meal in its neat foil tray, even though they never seemed to change the menu, she had flown with them so many times, she knew what was coming. What was she thinking? Two weeks of eating like this and she would be decidedly unwell, or have some allergic reaction to a piece of toxic seafood.
“Ok, relax and remember all those breathing exercises,” she told herself, “the ones you learned in Yoga. Inhale for the count of six, exhale for the count of ten.” She loved numbers, they were so soothing and reliable. She’d often add, subtract and multiply in her head or on her phone with the handy Accounts Ap, to reassure herself that order could be made of the chaos of detail that threatened to overwhelm her life.
But her small bladder was now so full she had to give up and sit as still as she could, pressing her knees together trying not to think about the intensity and pain of her need, the need to relieve herself of the pressure that was building, like water behind a dam wall. She was going to burst!
“Excuse me” she tried again.
The fleshy shell of his ear opened at eye level and was so close she could see its hills and valleys funnelling into his head. This time he grunted and shifted position so that his face was in front of her and the open pores of his nose adorned with tiny beads of sweat glistened in the light of the overhead reading lamp. She couldn’t help but be fascinated by such a close up. His face at this level was soft focus and everything seemed magnified and blurry.
“Maybe I should get my eyes checked? Oh God why me? What kind of strange karma has put this gigantic human next to me for nine hours?”
She believed in karma. Her mother had been a magical thinker and always had a convenient little saying for any situation…
“Uh, uh, uh, do unto others as you would have them do unto you…little birds in their nests agree, for it’s a shameful sight, lest they fall out disagree and fight.”
She had an aphorism for any kind of conflict, as if they made any bloody difference. Well this was a fine little nest, way up here in the sky, not cosy at all, and this little bird wanted to fall out because this man was being very disagreeable without even knowing it. He even had a puffer vest on for God’s sake and she hated puffer vests.
Another thought, “what makes someone eat until they are stretched like a human puffer fish?”
The look on her face had said it all, barely hiding her dismay when he flopped down into the seat beside her and noisily adjusted his hugeness for the half hour before take off. She had smiled weakly but she was really disgusted. How dare he take up so much space? How could he be so inconsiderate of her, whom he’d barely acknowledged? How could they allow such people to fly with others of a normal weight? But deep down she knew these were anxious thoughts, her way of dealing with anything that was beyond her personal control.
He was jolly too. A jolly good Social Accountant headed for some company posting in Shanghai. She had never heard of this kind of accounting before so she listened quite attentively as he explained the important process of reporting the implications of an organization’s activities on its ecological and social environment. According to him China was developing one of the most socially conscious governments in the world.
Might even save the planet, he said. His job entailed providing environmental reports to accompany the annual reports of companies. Still in the early stages of development Social Accounting was a response to the growing environmental consciousness of a more socially conscious public. His specialty was food production companies. Who would have guessed?
But she listened all the same and after an hour understood more about accountants than she had her entire life. It took a brave person to go into the wild world of accounting. Accountability was his thing, there must be accountability in the micro and macro economic landscape. Individuals, companies and countries had to pay their way. He just couldn’t see why on a personal level and even more importantly on a global level anyone should just get away with it. The reckoning was coming!
Words like excruciating and unbearable were now very real. She looked sideways at his big shaggy head and wanted to scream in his face. Visions of being restrained by the flight attendants were not pleasant. She had pre-booked her seat one month ago, but it was always a wild lottery as to who was going to be seated next to you.
Alice thought back to her childhood, of how happy she had been, how blissfully ignorant of her weight, and how unaware of her impression on others. She was going to be a ballet dancer when she grew up and often dressed up in a homemade tutu, sparkly plastic tiara and pink jiffy slippers. A reclusive child she could be found drifting dreamily in her bedroom, ballet class, or around their large garden, dancing her own steps while her mind floated like a cloud above her, at one with herself and simply oblivious to the taunts and teasing of others, the inevitable cruel reactions of being very, very, plump.
Not until years later when Alice sat with the albums of small, black and white Kodaks, or lay sprawled on the vinyl couch in the rumpus room for her father’s slide nights, did she see how big she had really been. A fat girl in paradise just didn’t fit the picture.
There she was posing on the the steps of their home beside her shapely, beautiful mother dressed exotically in a cheongsam, while she was decked out in a checked party dress and pigtails adorned with gigantic nylon bows. She looked all puffed up and pleased with herself. Damn those fifties styles did nothing for a child with excess pounds. And here was another one of her with her brothers and the servants posing on the steps of their French Colonial mansion. They looked like sticks compared to her.
And there were more, so many more of them! Sunburnt in Hawaiian print mu mu, floral lei around her neck, turtle neck sweater plus tight houndstooth pants and winkle pickers, green velvet Edwardian smock with frilly lace jabot. Somehow she looked like she was constantly practicing for a fancy dress party that never happened, but what was certain, whenever she looked at these photos she cringed.
Mind you she had also thrown her weight around. There was no way her puny siblings or their friends were going to get the better of her. She had pushed her mass against the door of her bedroom to keep them out, she had hogged the top of the roundabout in the children’s area of the beer garden, and she had laughed as the lighter ones peeled off and rolled into the dirt. There were advantages to being bigger, a certain respect was accorded and a smudge of fear. She remembered sitting on her brother’s arm and getting some satisfaction when he squeaked in pain.
Her father was often away on long trips. She loved to cook and her mother kept her at home a lot, maybe for company. A good girl and mother’s helper, they’d bake for hours. She could almost taste the sweetness of sponge cakes, delicate biscuits, fudge and puddings. In her room home from school, a plate high with mint creams, jam sandwiches and cake, she retreated to read for hours before dinner. She loved reading. Alice in Wonderland, that was her.
“Whatever happened to the Dodo?” she wondered. Inevitably her father would return.
“Just let me get in the door” he’d snarl, brushing her aside as she ran to meet him. Tired and grumpy, in the end no one ran to greet him, he was someone to be dreaded.
“Our father who art in heaven…” Yes, he was dead now, but in those days it was safer to be fat, and those protective layers were better than wool in winter, too bad they looked so ugly exposed to the heat and steam of summer.
“Thy will be done.”
He was snoring loudly now. She didn’t snore, she was sure of it. Her husband’s snoring often kept her awake, his heavy breathing was also a problem, when she woke, as she often did for the bathroom in the middle of the night.
“Shshshoosh, stop snoring.”
He would stop, for twenty minutes or so. Or she’d poke him and he’d turn over, giving her enough time to drift back to sleep. She resorted to earplugs a lot of the time, but this man was too close to block out with little bits of foam. Should she try poking him too?
Another flight across the Indian Ocean to her father’s posting in 1964. Silver trays with hot towels arrived for take off and hard sweets in little baskets to suck so your ears wouldn’t pop. No movies to watch then, only books and food to fill the hours. She loved those hours of silver service, the real cutlery, and china plates with beautiful gold rims.
“This is your captain speaking.” Her father was at the controls and of course they visited the cockpit as the privileged children of the pilot. Her mother sat cross-legged beside them, elegant in a boucle suit, a gin and tonic in one hand and a Peter Stuyvesant in the other. In those days you could smoke in planes and she hadn’t coughed or wheezed at all back then. The only sign of what was coming, a husky voice. Smoking seemed so sophisticated, and all the Hollywood stars did it.
Years later her mother’s ‘passport to smoking pleasure’ had slowly killed her. No one knew how bad it was. Grandfather had told her it would clear her lungs but he had also died of a lung disease. Mustard gas in WW1 had started it topped off with heavy smoking. A wonderful father she would say who patiently sat all night beside her bed when she had one of her frequent asthma attacks. He was lucky he managed to stay alive until he was seventy nine with only an eighth of a lung.
Landing on Cocos Island took great skill; the plane bumped and shook down the short runway, barely the length of the tiny atoll, its wheels crunching giant land crabs, the silver cutlery clinking, and the bags falling from the overhead lockers. In those days planes with propellers had to island hop all the way to South Africa, the days when you really had to know how to fly a plane, according to her father.
“Bonsoir madams et monsieur, we are about to land in Port Louis, Mauritius.” Outside the little window the clouds were piled like enormous pink marshmallows and below them the lawns and terraced tropical gardens of French Colonial mansions, sugar cane fields and rice paddies rolled away towards extinct volcanic mountains, sparkling green sea and the creamy edges of a coral reef that flickered in the distance.
Five thin black servants waited on the stone steps. Michele the cook would become a hero of their household. Upright and calm, he nourished the family with food that spoke of his Creole heritage. The gardeners, Haradeth and Pierre dug the rich volcanic soil to supply the green and earthy supplies for the kitchen and Marie and Cecile looked after the house and la famille. Oh Cecile, how well you massaged that plump little back until a stolen purse under a pillow caught you out.
“Tu es un voleur! Tu es un voleur!” She could still hear her mother’s shrill accusations.
A normal weight she had never been. But underneath her pale skin was a sensibility that dreamt of finer things. Hours were spent in Chinese emporiums, admiring the old rosewood, pearls and jade. The smell of camphor wood boxes stirred memories of ancestral ties she felt to all that was the Orient, drawing her senses like sandalwood incense to the streets and markets of South East Asia.
Alice’s first year at a French school proved a disaster and her mother floundered with the correspondence material. Consequently her brothers became quite feral and preferred to spend days in the huge garden. They ran about in their little cotton shorts bleaching and tanning in the sun. She and her mother on the other hand shopped in the markets, read and met for tiffin. It was a social time full of small intrigues and silly affairs amongst the small contingent of expatriates met through the very British Gymkhana Club. While week in week out their father flew back and forth to Johannesburg.
“These kids are like wild animals!” her father would complain every time he came back from a trip.
“They’re learning another language and culture, they’ll be alright. Please don’t send them away.” Her mother’s tears fell every week. But the fun couldn’t last. The second year she and her elder brother were sent back to elite boarding schools in Perth.
St Mona’s Church of England Girls School catered for the educational and spiritual needs of its inmates but provided ghastly meals and nothing more extraordinary than a small fruit box allowance. She had shrunk slowly at first and returning home after two years away, a beach culture and the mini skirt also played their parts in reducing her to a blond freckled fourteen year old. Somehow her legs had grown longer and her hair also long, the colour of faded wattle.
Now she was very much aware of her body. Only then did she see her roundness rising above the water as she lay in the black and white tiled bathroom. Only then did she see her breasts budding like small pink waterlilies. Food had been a glorious cover up but now it was the enemy. Her teens were torturous. There were days of deprivation, almost starvation, fasting, and exercise regimes. A tall man in a chef’s outfit, with wild eyes and big teeth had come to rescue her in the form of a book about juicing and whole food.
“What’s wrong with you?” her father would growl. “This food not good enough for you?”
“Alice is a vegetarian now” her mother defended her most mornings as she sat piously eating her brown rice porridge.
Her hippy boyfriend Frank had introduced her to a macrobiotic diet, which was a menu that included its fair share of substance abuse but she was a quick learner and her passion for food switched seamlessly into an obsession with health.
Alice became a self proclaimed expert on whole foods, the yin and the yang of all grains and vegetables, meat and fish. She could fast for days on juice or brown rice, grind her own spices and make curries that could burn tread off a rubber tyre. She soon shed the pounds while alpine teas and days of fasting brought her bones out. It was the seventies after all and what she did and what she learnt in this decade was to become the foundation for her future work.
“Darren, you have to understand, the world hates fat people!” She had emphasised this with feeling to the compere on the talk back radio show she had rung about rising obesity rates. She had so much knowledge to share about food and its ethical production, it was her job after all, but she had really wanted to tell her story, of what she called her abundance gene, of having too much of everything and being allowed to continue consuming without restraint. ‘Just give me more, more of everything.’ But he just thanked her and said something about not judging others before you knew what kind of a life they had lived.
This was just before the real change came. Her beautiful mother had become very ill. Cancer had claimed her and as she watched her waste away, being overweight didn’t seem to matter any more. She wished she could have given her a few kilos; a transplant of fat to bring her dimples back. Her sweet face gaunt, her papery skin bruised like a fallen apple. Tethered to an oxygen bottle, her small joys, a brandy in the evening and visits from her grandkids.
Another bump and the immediate reality of her present situation came flooding back. “He must have taken sleeping pills,” she thought to herself. They were only three hours into the flight, dinner was over, and the screen in front of him was flashing with some crazy action movie. The greedy pig had asked for another tray of Chicken Chasseur and a second glass of wine. He had slurped and burped, ripped cellophane and laughed with his mouth full. After that he had taken off his jacket, cocooned himself in the grey poly blanket and gone to sleep.
Alice looked down at herself and even though she was trapped and uncomfortable she quietly rejoiced. It had taken work to get here; she had learnt about being content with her body. She sighed and thought about her husband at home, a tall square shouldered man who loved her and her soft places. She knew she would always struggle, moderation was hard for her and sometimes she went overboard but she was plainly happy she had discovered her inner self, and outwardly by all accounts, she had led a good enough life.
It was like trying not to disturb a sleeping bear but somehow she managed to do it! By standing on her seat Alice straddled his large torso, whilst trying not to fall into the cushion of his massive stomach, and as she manoeuvred herself over him, she couldn’t help imagining his straining buttons under the blanket ready to pop and blow
her upwards into the hard base of the overhead luggage compartment. But she reached her destination.
Rows of toilet cubicles stretched before her but water was running from under all the doors. She continued down the softly illuminated aisle where she found every door was shut with the red engaged sign visible in each shiny slot, but their low height allowed her to see over the tops of them into the space beyond. They were all empty, but the bowls were brimming and clear sparkling water was pouring out. Everywhere was the rushing sound of water as it bubbled and spilled out and over her feet.
Now Alice was conscious of her thoughts running as fast as the water itself. She was running too, and then flying down a narrow street with high walls. Faces and places she knew flashed past her, and snatches of conversation and other words were all jumbled and scrambled in a hiss of white noise.
She remembered the anxiety with which she had waited to give the eulogy at her father’s funeral. The same man who used to say ‘come here you fat little broad’, in his faux American accent.
“I forgive you Dad. I hope you will forgive me.” What an odd connection, she thought. Strangely though, it was a relief of sorts, something she had been expecting.
“Excuse me, excuse me, madam, please wake up, we’re about to land and you must place your seat in the upright position.”
Alice opened her eyes and looked to her left. The empty seat yawned before her, and beside it, the face of the flight attendant smiled and moved away. Further forward and much higher up the green light of the toilet sign winked brightly.
By Anna Pryor from Australia