by Hannah Simpson
We’ve not long settled – coats off, pleasantries exchanged – and she already wants a picture. Classic Beth.
‘Come on, just one,’ she pouts. Sarah, the eldest of the four and ever the mediator, suggests we leave it another hour to settle in, warm up, have a drink. But Beth wants to do it now. Emily passes her new phone over the table as we all know it has the best camera, and we smile obediently at the screen held aloft in Beth’s hand.
Our whole friendship is documented in photos like these, years’ worth of pictures taken with an outstretched arm. Four heads held unnaturally close together, a Rushmore of faces obscuring the background. Angles, lighting, it’s all vital. Everyone knows the same tricks that the models do to focus attention on cheekbones rather than a double chin. A perfect lie to let each high school crush and every playground bully know that we’re winning at life.
For a disconcerting moment before the camera falls, all of our faces are visible in the screen. Within the frame, our smiles drop, horrifically neutral after sustaining fixed grins.
‘I’ll put them in the group chat on my way home,’ Emily says, taking her phone back and placing it facedown on the marble-topped table. ‘There’ll be at least one decent one.’ There’s no urgency for her to review the photos, she’ll look great in all of them. She always does.
It’s the rest of us who will tournament our favourites later, barely casting an eye over the other faces and plumping for the picture that we look best in.
Attention turns to menus, but I don’t need to look. When Emily told us she’d booked a table here, I was straight on their website and reviewed the menu to the point where the words on the page are familiar. The thought of wild mushroom and smoked ham tortellini in a creamy garlic and white wine sauce sustained me through yet another limp ‘lighter choices’ tuna sandwich at my desk. The corner photo of the baked vanilla cheesecake with a cinnamon crumb base served with a sharp raspberry coulis made yesterday’s bus ride home much more enjoyable. I’d taken to hurriedly minimising the menu whenever someone walked past me at work, deleting my browser history like a horny teenager forced to use their parents’ desktop for their illicit viewing. Drifting off to sleep the night before, truffled fries and lobster mac and cheese jumped the fences in my mind in place of sheep.
No one can decide how many courses to have. Can we have dessert and cocktails, or is that too much? Does anyone want wine? No, Sarah’s off sugar and we wouldn’t believe how much sugar there is in wine. Starter–main, or main–pudding?
‘I’m not sure yet, I might have both,’ I say. I can barely narrow down the list of main courses to one, let alone ruling out whole pages.
All three heads look up in unison with expressions of barely concealed disgust. I can feel their discomfort radiating off them.
‘Both?’ Emily wrinkles her nose. ‘Are you sure?’
It’s clear that she thinks I shouldn’t be sure. Even though we’re making eye contact, it feels as though she’s scanning my body, evaluating and appraising. I fight the urge to retreat from her searching gaze, to close in on myself and make my body smaller. In that moment, I can suddenly feel how every part of me is wrong. The elastic waistband of my tights slicing between two rolls of my stomach. My bra’s underwire cutting into my side. The unruly buttons of this dress that always gape slightly across my chest. She has this ability to make me feel like I’m occupying too much space, no matter my size. When I look back on old pictures, I’m amazed. I was so conscious of looking frumpy next to my beautiful friends, constantly tugging at my clothes and hiding behind my hair. Now, I would kill to have that body back.
‘God, I wish I could even think about both,’ she says, leaning forwards and lowering her voice conspiratorially. ‘I’ve been so bad this week. I only went to the gym once, and we had a takeaway on Wednesday.’ She shudders but her smile never wavers. She turns a page in the menu without looking down at it. ‘So I probably shouldn’t even have two courses, maybe just a main.’
“I’m not exactly sure when everyone’s bodies became temples, but I didn’t get the memo.”
Beth couldn’t agree any quicker. Between work and training her new puppy, Slimming World has gone right out the window and she barely gets time to weigh herself.
‘He’s getting so big!’ she coos. ‘And he’s nearly learned how to roll over for treats.’ She thrusts her phone across the table so we can see video evidence.
Sarah too has been lacking in self control.
‘I had like, four beers after work last night,’ she admits. ‘I kept telling him I was only drinking clear spirits but you know what boys are like, they never listen.’ She rolls her eyes fondly and everyone nods, humming with understanding, without commenting that the ‘boy’ in question is nearly thirty and really plenty old enough to be listening to people by now.
It’s my turn to confess. I’m shame-faced as I tell them about the whole tub of ice cream I ate in front of the telly last night. I didn’t feel guilty about it until right now.
When the food arrives, it is a depressingly green affair. We all end up opting for variations on a Caesar salad, wary of being the only person at the table to consume a single carb. I make a tiny act of rebellion in changing my order of a vodka tonic to a red wine at the last minute, ignoring the pointed exchange of glances and the musings on how many more calories that will be. I pretend I don’t care, but I must. A little bit at least, or I wouldn’t be toying with a plate of lettuce and trying to select the most appetising leaf. It feels easier to go away unsatisfied than it would be to have them all sit and watch me eat, a side order of morbid fascination with their salads.
It seems hardly any time since we were downing rancid combinations of whatever alcohol we could afford, or devouring whole loaves worth of toast at four in the morning. We wouldn’t have considered denying ourselves anything, be it another cigarette or another biscuit, certainly never a whole food group. But slowly – so slowly it took me a while to notice – changes had started creeping in. Emily’s Instagram feed, once full of pouting pictures from nights out, became a shrine to green juices and gym selfies. Beth took up Zumba with one of the girls from her office. Sarah began cutting out each and every type of food she could imagine, one by one. I’m not exactly sure when everyone’s bodies became temples, but I didn’t get the memo.
‘Would anyone like to see the dessert menu?’ The waiter is polite, nodding encouragingly and seemingly oblivious to the gauntlet he’s thrown down amongst the green-flecked plates. Eyes dart around, faces stay neutral as they try to read the feeling at the table. My stomach is gnawing at itself, desperate to add something else to the limp leaves swimming around in red wine. The waiter stands patiently, familiar with the unspoken tension. He stands with one hand resting on the menus tucked under his arm until Emily shakes her head.
‘I couldn’t eat another thing,’ she says through a clenched smile, holding one dainty hand to her flat stomach, not a bulge in sight even when she’s sat down. ‘And I have a super early start tomorrow, so I shouldn’t have a cocktail.’
The other two scramble to follow, practically shouting over each other in their eagerness to agree. I chew at the inside of my cheek in frustration, but stretch my lips into a grimace of a smile.
‘Are you sure no one fancies a cocktail? Or coffee?’ I try hard to keep my tone light but I can hear that I sound strained. My voice gives a wobble of irritation. Desperation. The cocktail will have fruit swimming on its surface. The coffee will come with one of those caramel biscuits in the red packet. That would do, right now.
Emily smiles up at the waiter, requesting the bill. He casts a glance my way, one of secret apology. Maybe next time, Sophie. Maybe when your friends stop saying what they think everyone wants to hear. Maybe when they admit what they actually want instead.
For as long as I’ve been getting it, the 51 bus has never been on time. I’m surprised that I still let myself be surprised by this. At least I have a salty polystyrene box to keep me warm, the familiar grease and grit oddly comforting. The guys in the kebab shop must know my order by now but they do me the courtesy of asking, even as the basket is dunked into the spitting fryer before I’ve finished speaking. A few steaming chips hang out from under the lid, the heat that radiates from them only slightly more visible than the plumes my breath produces in the cold. My body is cursing me for the sad salad I’d put into it. The wine has gone to my head with no food to temper its effects. I’m past the point of hungry, so I figure the chips are best left to cool down on the short bus ride home. That is, if it ever turns up. All I want is to get out of this dress and into something baggy, so I can lose myself in their starchy comfort.
I refuse to feel guilty, to think about how many sit-ups I’d have to do, how many minutes on a treadmill would cancel them out. I fight the thought that I haven’t earned this. Fuck that. Fuck delaying gratification. You wait for things and they go cold, or stale, or they die. Fuck that. Maybe I don’t want to wait. I pluck the longest fry free.
The tang of vinegar sizzling with the searing heat of fresh oil on my tongue makes my cheeks flush, warmth radiating outwards. I hold my mouth open and blow from my throat over the surface of the potato in an attempt to get some air to it. Spitting being the only other option, I choose to swallow. The heat persists all the way down my throat until my insides feel violated, leaving my tongue swollen and the roof of my mouth scalded. I won’t quite be able to enjoy the rest of the chips now, even when they’re at an edible temperature.
I attempt to wipe the grease from my fingers on my coat sleeve, and retrieve my phone from my pocket to distract myself from making the same mistake again.
The photos that Beth took on Emily’s phone are waiting for me – ten unread messages in the group chat. Ten becomes eleven becomes twelve as Sarah, presumably already on her tram, replies.
ugh i look fucking awful in all of these xox
thx for a great night though, love u xox
Beth’s reply says that if anyone looks awful it’s her and asks when her face got so round. My phone momentarily states that Emily is typing but no message materialises. I swipe through the pictures idly, a smudged smear of grease filtering our features, blurring our edges. I try to wipe it away with my thumb but I only move the mess, spreading it further.
Another slew of messages appear at the top of the screen, phone buzzing erratically. I stuff my friends back into my pocket. It was naïve to think this time would be different. I exhale a solitary laugh at my own private feast. Not the one I expected, but enough for me, for now.
Hannah Simpson | @hannahsimpson__ | http://hannahsimpsonwrites.com
Hannah Simpson is a writer of short fiction based in Manchester, UK. Originally from the Wirral and with an English degree from the University of Hull, she writes contemporary fiction about the modern female experience. When she’s not writing, she can be found locking people in rooms and watching them solve puzzles to escape (for a job, not just for kicks) and spending an unhealthy amount of time scrolling through Instagram.