People always ask me, “Does it hurt?”
I tell them the truth. “No, it doesn’t hurt at all.”
If they’re the mean type—the kind of people who say, “Why don’t you just diet?”—I whistle for Charlie.
Then I say, “Because this is better. Do you want to try it? Don’t worry—he won’t bite. Well, he will. But it won’t hurt.” That sorts them out. They always shrink back and make some lame excuse. When Charlie starts sniffing them, they run like hell.
Lots of people call him ugly. Don’t be so judgmental, I say. After all, Charlie’s from another planet, and that spotty purple is camouflage at home. That’s what I’ve heard, anyway. I’ve never been out there myself. When I was a boy, I dreamed of going into space—I thought being fat wouldn’t matter in zero gravity. I used to imagine myself floating between the stars, moving so easily, so delicately, like I could never do on Earth.
Yeah. The careers adviser had a good laugh at that.
I promised myself if I couldn’t go into space, at least I’d get myself a really cool space creature. That’d be one up on Jody Taylor, whose dad had a snake. Not to mention Chipper Dan, who kept spiders for a while, till he got bored of them and left them all in my lunchbox.
My parents wouldn’t let me have a hamster, never mind anything else. But when I moved out—well, they threw me out when I got to twenty-two—that’s when I bought Charlie. He cost a fortune, but it’s easy to save up when you don’t go out much.
His habits took some getting used to, though he’s so friendly I soon got attached to him. He’s a perfect pet, really cheap to keep. And quiet. I’d far rather have Charlie than some horrible dog slobbering everywhere and barking while I’m trying to watch When Aliens Attack.
That’s when I usually feed him, when I’m watching TV. I’ll sit down with the remote and some chocolate cookies, or a big bag of chips, or maybe nuts, and of course some beer or Coke or something . . . Anyway, I sit down and Charlie snuggles up to me—those spines are softer than they look—and I don’t even notice when he starts sucking. I just see he’s got his thing in me. His pro . . . I can never remember the word.
Yeah, proboscis, that’s it. It doesn’t hurt at all. He pokes it in my belly, or the top of my leg—anywhere, really—and then he gets going.
That’s how I lost eleven stone. Sure beats working out. And there’s no doctors sneering at you between psychobabble. I went from twenty-three stone down to twelve, in less than a year. Charlie didn’t just suck the weight out of me, he kept me company, too. I was pretty lonely back then.
When I lost weight, I had a bit more confidence to get to know people, and they didn’t laugh at me or beat me up like at school. I began going out more, even watching sports. Everything would have been perfect, if it hadn’t been for Charlie.
He started shedding spines, and he smelled like a blocked drain. I kept having to push him away, because of the smell and the spines on my clothes. But he looked so out of sorts, I was really worried. I had to do something.
It took me a while to find a vet who would see him. Most vets only do Earth animals. That’s a bit prejudiced, don’t you think? They shouldn’t be so judgmental. I don’t see what right they have to turn Charlie away just because he’s purple and spiny and not from round here.
Anyway, I finally found Toric’s place. Turns out he’s the only exotic vet in Liverpool. Looking round the waiting room, I felt like I’d walked into a comic strip. People say Charlie’s ugly, but some of those aliens were out of this world. And their pets were even weirder.
Toric’s one of those silver Bugcats you see on TV yapping about trade and stuff. Almost makes me glad I never got to another planet, if they’re all full of strip-malls like ours. When I saw him, I remembered the tax thing they’re always complaining about—the xeno-tariff—and I wondered how much this was going to set me back. But I couldn’t leave, not with Charlie looking so bad. I hoisted him onto the table, and he just lay there like roadkill, his last few spines all droopy and limp.
I thought Toric would have some beeping gadget that he’d wave over Charlie to find out what was wrong. But he just asked me a few questions. I said I’d had Charlie a year, and I fed him myself, and it was only lately he’d gone off-color.
“Do you feed him as much nowadays?” asked Toric. His translator had a posh accent that made him sound like a bad guy in an old film.
“Not since I got down to twelve stone. That’s my ideal weight, you know. He still eats now and then, if I’m pigging out, but I’ve had to shoo him away a lot. I even have to shut the bedroom door.”
“That’s the problem. He’s malnourished.”
“Like, hungry?” I was surprised at this. “The guy who I got him off said he could go months without feeding.”
“Back home, perhaps—I believe they hibernate through eclipses. Here they need regular meals. You want to be careful about keeping him indoors, otherwise someone might get hurt.”
“It doesn’t hurt,” I said. But I saw what he meant. And maybe it explained why Mrs Bhalla next door kept giving me dirty looks. “What can I do?” I asked.
Toric waved his antennae in a sort of “whatever” gesture. “The simplest treatment would be to consume more yourself, and feed him frequently until he recovers.”
The perfect solution! I’ve always loved eating. Now I could eat even more, and help Charlie at the same time. I started planning a real nosh-up as I made for the exit.
While I talked to Toric, more people’s pets had arrived in the waiting room. On my way out I noticed a purple insecty-lizardy thing with brushy spines—just like Charlie. Smaller, but definitely the same kind of critter. I’d never seen anyone else with one. I stopped to see who owned it.
She was around my age, fairly short, with blonde hair that looked like the “before” in a conditioner advert. Her collar bones poked out above a white blouse that hung loose down to her baggy jeans. Sort of wasted looking is the best way I can put it. Could have been drugs, but I didn’t think so.
You know, “eating disorder” is a nasty kind of phrase. I mean, “disorder”? It’s practically a sign you’d see on a broken elevator. Just because I love food, does that mean I’m disordered? If someone isn’t peckish very often, is that a disorder? Don’t be so judgmental.
Yet there must be something in it, because we can usually spot each other. It was as if she really did have a sign on her, which I could see because I had one, too. She had a look in her eye, a “walling off the world” kind of look that I knew all too well—from the inside. That look, that so familiar look, made me feel like we were crewmates on the Disorderly Diehards.
Now, I never used to be much at chatting up girls. They always laughed at me even before I spoke to them. Yeah, call me Big Lardy Fat Arse, why don’t you? Like I hadn’t noticed until you shouted.
I never had a girlfriend when I was fat. Never asked anyone out. And they sure as hell didn’t ask me.
But losing eleven stone helps your confidence. I’d started smiling at women, and sometimes they even smiled back. A smile! If you’re the type who gets laid all the time, you don’t know how much a smile can mean.
Now I was ready to try talking to the girl in the white top. It helped that she was someone like me, with an eating disorder, but obviously I didn’t start by mentioning that. Instead I sat down next to her and said, “That’s a rare critter you’ve got there. How long have you had him—or is it a her? It’s hard to tell, isn’t it? I call mine Charlie, but I’m not really sure either way . . .”
I stopped, because I was babbling. My face felt red, and I looked at her pet rather than her. Even though Charlie was probably too ill to do much, I kept a tight hold on him. If he attacked the other critter—or tried to mate with it—that might not go down well with the owner.
From the corner of my eye, I saw her give me a polite smile. Our two critters eyed each other up. To my relief, they didn’t fight. I’m fond of Charlie, but if he had screwed up my chance with this woman—no supper for him!
She said, “This is Morna. I’ve had her a few months, but she’s not doing very well at the moment.”
I thought I knew why. Charlie had helped me so much, I could see how a critter like him would suit an anorexic or bulimic, or whatever label they’d stuck on her. But if Charlie couldn’t live off me at twelve stone, no wonder her pet was so small and still. I was pretty sure what Toric would tell her.
I didn’t say so. I’ve heard women can be put off by men who act like they know everything. And apart from that, us “disorder” types don’t appreciate people getting judgmental about our eating habits. Toric might suggest that she eat more, but I certainly wasn’t going to.
Instead, I said, “My name’s Stuart, by the way. I live near the spaceport. Had a hell of a time finding this place.”
“I’m Isabel,” she said, in a tone friendly enough to encourage me to keep talking. Her voice was low-pitched, deeper than you’d expect from someone so fragile-looking, and I wondered if she’d had a voice-mod in that fad a few years back.
We chatted a little, with me hampered by trying not to say anything stupid. I knew I had to seize the chance because this could be over any minute, when she got called in to see Toric, so finally I asked if I could call her sometime.
“Sure,” she said.
Yeah! I don’t mind telling you I really went on a binge that night. Pizza and beer, blueberry pie and chocolate fudge cake . . . It was for Charlie, too—and he perked up a bit—but mostly it was for me. I had a date!
Well, actually I had a chance to ask for a date. And I worried that it would go wrong, that she might change her mind. But the call went okay, and I arranged to meet her in a few days.
I didn’t take Isabel out to dinner, of course. Instead I met her in the park, and we made for a bench by the lake. I thought that would be safe, but just as we sat down, a gray-uniformed NannyNurse glided by with her toddlers, who started feeding the ducks and geese. The little boy kept shouting, “Greedy goose! Greedy goose!” and, “Why’s that one not eating?”
“Perhaps it’s full, dear,” said the NannyNurse. “Come along.”
Isabel looked unhappy. At first I thought the duck feeding had upset her, or that she regretted agreeing to see me, but then she said, “Morna died.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said. I didn’t ask what her critter had died of.
“It was awful. She curled up on my bed, then didn’t move. I slept on the floor for two nights. I mean, with an alien pet you never know if they might just be hibernating or something. But she was so cold . . . And whenever I touched her—trying to see if she was still alive, begging her to wake up—her spines came off in my hand.”
Isabel started snuffling as she spoke. “I took her to Toric’s again, and he said she was dead. I couldn’t even take her home to bury her. Toric said he had to incinerate the body, because Earth regulations class dead aliens as hazardous waste. So I just stood and watched . . . while the flames . . .”
She broke into choked little sobs. I did the best I could to comfort her, putting an arm round her bony shoulders while she cried herself out. I didn’t speak, except a sort of wordless rumble of offered sympathy.
After a minute or so, she lifted her head and wiped her eyes, spreading little wet smears of that black stuff—mascara, is it?—women sometimes use on their eyelashes.
She put make-up on for me, I thought.
I saw her try to pull herself together and put on a “facing the world” expression. When she looked at me, I didn’t know what to say. Earlier, I’d practised a few lines in my head—talk about the weather, ask where she worked, all that kind of stuff. But none of it seemed appropriate now.
I asked if she wanted to go home. She shook her head, but got up off the bench. We walked along the waterside. As we strolled, I took her hand in mine. It was small and thin as a child’s.
The sun glittered on the windswept surface of the lake. Whenever we passed ducks waddling over the grass, they quacked and flew to the water.
I waited for Isabel to speak. About halfway round, she started talking about how when she was a little girl, her grandparents took her to a show farm. “The guide said all the animals were ‘retired,’ which apparently meant they wouldn’t be slaughtered like normal. It was the first time I’d heard how animals got killed and eaten, and I started crying. They had to buy me an ice-cream to get me to shut up. Then we went to the bird pen, where all the hens and geese were tame, of course, and a big white goose snapped my ice-cream cone right out of my hand. So I started crying all over again.”
Isabel smiled a little, but it stopped short of her eyes. “I guess now you’re thinking I don’t ever do anything except cry. I’m not like that, I promise. I just remembered that farm now, I don’t know why. Maybe those geese reminded me.”
“I can go over and make them apologize, if you like.” I nearly added, “Get your ice-cream back,” but I bit it off just in time.
A long pause later, I realized what she really expected me to do was come up with a matching anecdote, something that told her about my feelings and all that. I cast about in my memory and said, “My family were mad on taking me to stately homes with big flower gardens. When I was a kid I never really saw the point of flower beds. But I remember one place where they had a pond with black swans. Back then I was moody and angsty the way kids get”—the words touched lightly as feathers on the vast lonely void of my childhood—”and I thought it would be cool to have black gardens. Tall dark walls casting long shadows, and inside everything black—flowers, bees, swans. I loved the black swans with their red beaks. But when they stretched their wings to clean them, I was surprised to see they had white under-feathers.
“White feathers on a black swan.” I stopped for a moment, knowing I didn’t have the words to explain. “It was a kind of weird zen moment, like I’d seen the answer to a riddle I hadn’t heard the question of.”
I didn’t think Isabel understood what I was getting at—and I could hardly blame her, since I’d described it so badly—so I finished by saying, “And the swans had this funny high-pitched squeak.”
I tried to do the squeak. Isabel didn’t laugh as I had hoped, but she smiled a little more, and it reached her eyes this time. The sun shone on her blonde hair. Just for a minute—because of the smile, and her being so thin—she looked like she’d stepped from the cover of a magazine.
We fell into a conversation about where we’d go if we could fly away for the winter, like migrating birds. Then we talked about our boring jobs, and what we’d originally wanted to be when we grew up—we laughed about that, and promised to be spaceman and actress, just for each other.
Isabel did a little skit as if from a one-woman outdoor show. “Oh cruel grass, you looked so greener when you led me on. I wanted to make hay, and you gave me hay fever. Oh heartless tease, oh cruel sneeze—when will I find my final ease?”
I pretended the park was an alien planet, and reported back on what I found: “A wire mesh receptacle, filled with ritual offerings of plastic bags and sacred cans. A beautiful native dressed in white and gold, such a gorgeous vision to a man who’s been alone in space for years . . .”
The evening passed quicker than a rocket reaching orbit.
She came back to my flat. I felt like I’d won the lottery the first time I bought a ticket. On the way we picked up a bottle of wine, though when we got home we didn’t even open it.
Isabel turned her back on me while she undressed. I noticed that she wore a bra, although she was so slim she had no breasts to speak of. In bed, our figures looked a little odd together. Even though I’d lost so much weight, she was far thinner than me, so delicate-looking that I almost feared touching her.
We kissed . . .
I think it went as well as could be expected. Not as well as in books, or in porn. In truth, I didn’t find it quite so great as I’d dreamed. And yet afterward, when we snuggled up to each other, I loved the warmth of her skin, the sense of togetherness.
I woke early, with dawn’s gray light creeping through the thin curtains. I was so used to waking alone that it took me a few moments to realize Isabel had gone. A sick feeling seized me when I thought she’d left in the night, but then I saw her shoes still under the chair. Perhaps she’d got up to use the bathroom, and that had woken me. I waited, but she didn’t come back. A few minutes later, I tried the bathroom anyway. She wasn’t there.
Well, maybe she was an early riser. My stomach growled, and I decided I might as well get some breakfast. We’d have time to talk before we headed off for work.
On my way to the kitchen, I saw Isabel lying naked on the living room sofa, with Charlie’s proboscis sucking her flesh.
Funny, Charlie’s feeding never looked ugly to me until I saw it on her. It was like a scene from a monster movie. Yet Isabel’s eyes looked so rapt—far more than they had last night.
The sick feeling returned, ten times worse. I felt stupid and pathetic as I realized how I’d been duped. Isabel had never liked me at all. Her critter was dead, so she needed mine. She’d only slept with me because she had to. Right then, I hated her for using me. And I hated myself for being so easily taken in, for being stupid enough to think that any woman would ever care for me.
“So that’s what you really came for,” I said.
Charlie scuttled away at the sound of my angry voice, leaving a small pale mark on Isabel’s flat stomach.
She jerked in surprise, and turned to look at me. “No,” she said. “I came to be with you.”
“And yet here you are, with Charlie.”
“I thought I could resist this.” Isabel’s low tones sounded flat and weary, lifeless as Toric’s translator. “I was going to invite you back to my place, but if we’re going to be together, I knew I’d have to visit you sometime. I thought I could be strong. I should know by now I can’t be strong. I’m weak—I’ve always been weak.” As she spoke she got up and walked past me, back to the bedroom.
“I know how it feels to be weak,” I said. And I did know. All those years of being fat had taught me how a resolution made one day—diet; exercise; eat fruit, not chocolate—can crumble the next.
I desperately wanted to believe her, and I thrilled to the thought of her words, “if we’re going to be together”. But if we were going to be together, why was she gathering her things?
“I’m sorry,” Isabel said as she began dressing. “I shouldn’t have come. I never meant this to happen.” She had a horrible defeated look in her eye. “I don’t want to take Charlie away from you.” She put her shoes on and headed for the door.
“Don’t go!” I raced round her and blocked her way in the hall. I can run, now I’m twelve stone. “I don’t mind Charlie feeding from you. I just thought that was the only reason you came—that you didn’t really care for me at all.”
Isabel didn’t try to push past me, but she didn’t go back either. Her expression wavered between doubt and determination.
“Look, at least let me make you some coffee,” I said. “Then we can talk.”
The pause stretched for a dozen of my speeding heartbeats. At last Isabel nodded. She returned to the living room and sat on the sofa. I went into the kitchen. While I waited for the kettle to boil, I watched Isabel delve into her handbag for a hairbrush, and start wrenching her hair into shape with savage jerks. Little clumps of thin blonde hair hung all round the edge of the brush.
I made myself a bowl of corn flakes, but didn’t bother getting anything for her. I was pretty sure Isabel wasn’t the type who ate much in the mornings. I remembered some white-coat type telling me, Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Yeah, sure it is, if you’re a food fascist.
Out of habit I nearly flipped the TV on, but I just managed to stop myself. I gave Isabel her coffee. “Morning,” I said, like we did this every day.
She took a sip. A small smile crept onto her face, like the sun peeping up over the spaceport. “You didn’t put sugar in it,” she said.
“Of course not.” I sat down next to her.
“Anyone who ever makes me coffee—my parents, the nurses at the clinic—they always put sugar in. It’s like they think I won’t notice they’re trying to force-feed me calories.”
“I’m not judgmental,” I said.
And that’s how I found love.
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