APPETITE | Jessica Shelley shares her story of slowly falling back in love with food (tw: eating disorders)
by Jessica Shelley
In the bathroom, morgue tiles against my flesh, I stepped on the scales.
Every morning was either a success or a failure.
I measured my worth by a number, hunger and the ghost at the end of the fork. I measured my growth by how many times the word ‘no’ slipped out of my mouth with ease.
I noticed things more because I thought more, so I was terrified of Christmas.
Nerves would churn in my belly at the sound of a jingle. Palms sweating under knitwear. But no amount of jumpers could escape the chill or talk. So I stumbled out my future at the long-running table. Death was a mixtape I danced to daily.
The slab of beef, its running red juices, oozed. Mash potato filled and piled like a miniature mountain. Butter spilt out like a lake between. And the homemade cakes, the tarts, the cheese boards, and Bailey’s cream, so many streams and numbers, running around in front of my empty plate. It was a waterfall display amidst crackers and paper hats. It was an equation I did not know the answer too.
I could not see their value, what they were worth, so I could not track it or write it down. The voice in my mind was loud, dialled to drown, but it quietened when something caught its attention. I heard the women I loved were hungry too. They discussed their future in numbers; it’s all I would hear: eighty-twenty, five-two, three stone to lose after the gorge. They recalled what had worked for them but never works for them. And I watched some devour their plate like a carcass, going up for seconds, elbowing for the crackling. Whilst some looked pained, concentrated, pushing peas. And the men, plates filled high, twice or three times lucky. Puddings were galore. Because, they knew, they did not have to worry. They measured their numbers elsewhere.
I ran to my grandmother’s bathroom, salt tears fell on my lips. I tasted it on my tongue. I noticed the vacancy where the scales should have been. I hunted for them. It was my only satisfaction. But they were nowhere. Hidden. I dropped to the floor. The nutrition I needed for the day had escaped me. My secrets were not so hidden. So I opened the toilet lid and stared at the bottomless hole of possibility. I did not know the numbers in, but I could subtract the numbers out.
I was never very good at maths and always daringly hopeful.
Back home, I would scold myself into baths, not eat for days to shake off the shadow of the family meal. I did not want love. Did not deserve it. I did not see the beauty in my grandmother’s giving.
All I saw were contradictions.
All I heard was noise.
All I wanted was the silence.
But I wrap her in my arms now, smell the thyme and white wine sauce. Celebration in a full feast dinner, a table fit for a queen but made for us. Parting love looks like a scorch mark on my grandmother’s hands, the kitchen is filled with spices and herbs.
I say, ‘It smells so good.’
She says, ‘I’ve made you a goat’s cheese tart too and I’ve done you a side salad. Oh! And I thought I would add a jus in too. But don’t ask me for the recipe. I’ve got no idea.’
She spoons me the taste. And I take it, with my newly washed hands.
“I close my eyes, savour the taste of my second helpings.”
Smiling faces enter the house with questions. I can now answer with pride. I tell them of the importance of stories and the forgetting of numbers.
Words take up my time now – fill my life with rhythm.
The river is now flowing.
We hang out of doorways, in living rooms, outside on benches, children play on the garden grass. Laughter ricochets in the air and I feel alive with love.
I hear growling bellies, giggles, and plates stacking. Feel the warmth from my cheeks to my toes.
I blush like a sunrise.
In the halfway point between a vegetable curry, the cinnamon and raisin pakoras, there is an orchestra of music. My cousins invite us in freely, to watch them play the violins. They recite the opening call of an opera, over and over. We burst into fits of howling hyenas.
They have no fear, they see this as a sign to play louder.
We all join in.
And after, puddings fill the small round table, where my grandmother, my pop, my partner and I have shared so many meals. Offerings, after long days of work and reaching for caring connection.
‘This is how we share our love in this family,’ my grandmother says.
Melting brownie out the oven, profiteroles stacking in a triangle, and the apple pie slicing.
‘Food is our connection.’
And I close my eyes, savour the taste of my second helpings. Kiss her cheek, as we say goodbye, with happy tears and a muddy mouth.
I savour the taste as we move to the city.
Jessica Shelley | @jessmaeshelley | @jessmaeshelley | jessicashelley.co.uk
Jessica recently moved from her home in the Shropshire hills to the city life of Cardiff. She’s studying an MA degree in Creative Writing at Cardiff University. Her flash fiction piece, ‘Jumping over the Trampoline’ was published by Parthian Books in the Cheval 10 anthology. She’s been a runner up for the Terry Hetherington Young Writers Award and published elsewhere in various anthologies. She’s currently being mentored by Lee Weatherly (bestselling YA author of the Broken Sky trilogy) for her middle-grade fantasy novel that intertwines constellation mythology and astronomy. She loves anything and everything fairy tales, folklore, and poetry, and believes that possibility is more than true and hope can be found in the darkest of places.