I look in disbelief at the scales beneath me. Stepping off, I wait until they reset, then climb on again. One foot lingers on the ground so I can transfer my weight as slowly as possible. Bollocks. Same reading. And it’s Weight Watchers tonight.
‘Shirl?’A voice comes at me through the door. ‘What you doin’ in there?’
‘On my way,’ I say, grunting as I bend to slide the scales back under the bathroom sink. That’s another thing. What’s with the grunting? I’m starting to sound like an Olympic weightlifter. Although I will be lifting half a stone more to the Town Hall tonight. Wrestling to stretch Gary’s paisley dressing gown across my chest, I unlock the door and Jen’s there, fist raised, ready to knock. I squeeze past, feeling her eyes lasering my back.
‘You’ve been on those scales haven’t you? We’re supposed to wait.’
But I’m gone, clumping downstairs, mouth working in agitation. How can I lose seven pounds in two hours? I briefly consider the merits of wrapping myself in cling-film and running on the spot for a bit, but when I look in the kitchen drawer, there’s only enough for my right leg. And I’m starving.
‘Just step onto the scales dear.’ I hear the words but don’t move a whisker. ‘Step forward please.’
The grim reaper’s looking at me and I know what she’s thinking. Eaten too much last month have we? Now comes the reckoning, love. I wonder if she’d listen to my mitigating circumstances. It was Gary’s cousin’s wedding, but, what with Covid and that Nova virus, half the guests didn’t show and we had quite a few Happy Meals to get through.
I inch forwards, eyeing the pen hovering over her clipboard to record my shame. The weighing machine’s scale is magnified and the rest of them, including Jen, are suspended over it, mouths open and eyes locked onto the needle which rests at zero pounds. I raise my right foot and it hangs above the silver metal plate of the scales. The room buzzes with the silence of anticipation and Muriel Matthews’s gone a funny colour.
‘Come on Shirl,’ Jen says, but my foot won’t go down. Honestly, I can’t do it. Sod it, I think. I’d rather be fat.
‘I’m not going back Jen,’ I say. ‘It’s bloody mass humiliation.’ ‘Don’t be daft. Don’t give up now.’
‘That Cruella with her clipboard. I knew what she was thinking. Fat cow, that was what she was thinking.
‘She wasn’t. Don’t be daft. Mind, she wasn’t too pleased when you refused to get weighed.’ She barked a laugh. ‘Her face.’
‘Skinny bloody cow she is,’ I say, opening a packet of cheese and onion. She looks at me. ‘You won’t lose any that way.’
‘I’m starting tomorrow. No point starting when you’ve got crisps in, is it?’ I push the bag across the table but she pushes it back.
‘No chance. You might be giving up but I’m nearly at my target weight.’
‘I’m not giving up,’ I say, spraying crisps in her direction. ‘By July, I’ll be Victoria Beckham.’
‘Getting your jaws wired are you?’
I’m in Starbucks, waiting for Jen. She’s always late. On my way in, I caught my reflection in the door. I’m someone the old me would’ve gazed at surreptitiously and sniggered with Jen about bulimia and laxatives. I’ve been thinking about Weight Watchers a lot lately. About how much it meant to us all, how fiercely we watched the accelerated arc of that needle from zero to a number that would either crush us or induce euphoria. I smile at the irony of it. Nowadays, I will the needle to travel further in its arc than the week before so that the progress of my slow disappearing act, like a lozenge dissolving in water, would finally be halted. The problem is, you can’t say to your cancer, ‘Enough matey. I’m at my target now, you can shuffle off.’
‘You’re only thirty six, Jen said when I told her. She looked at me aghast, then distraught, then confused. I know she wanted me to say something – they all did- but I didn’t make it easy for them. It wasn’t easy for me was it? I remember the marble egg thingy on the doctor’s desk with IZA printed on it. All I could do was wonder what it meant – Indiscriminate Zombie Attack, Incontinent Zebra Appears and so forth– while she droned on about ops and chemo.
So, as the jaws of the National Health Service swallowed me up, Jen reached her target weight and went out for a curry to celebrate. Weirdly though, over the next few months, she gained weight at probably the same rate as I lost weight, like we were two interdependent systems.
‘Hi you.’ Jen’s through the door and walking towards me, her tone bright with effort. ‘Did you get me one?’
‘No. You’re twenty minutes late as usual.’
She tuts and squeezes her body past the chair to reach the counter, returning with a double latte and a chocolate muffin. She’s staring at me but I’m used to it. It’s like she can’t quite compute that the size ten girl in front of her is really me. She’s been a good friend this year and I’ve needed her but there’s been a subtle change between us over the last few months, a slippage in the gears of our friendship.
‘I’m going back to Weightwatchers. I’ve just paid up front for six months,’ she says between mouthfuls of muffin.
‘You won’t lose any that way,’ I say, recognising the echo. She stops chewing. ‘Come with me,’ she says and I bark out a laugh.
‘Want me as a rake or a rail by Christmas?’ She’s wearing a strange expression that I can’t read – somewhere between offended and irritated.
‘Don’t be daft. Just for support. You don’t need to worry anymore. Look at you.’
‘Yes, look at me,’ I snap, ‘Perhaps I should say a few words at the next meeting about how cancer can really help you reach your target weight.’
‘Geez, forget I asked. I’ll go on my own.’ She pushes her chair back and stands up and I shoot my hand out to cover hers.
‘Sorry. Course I’ll go with you if that’s what you want.’ She shrugs briefly. ‘Yeah, well maybe. Or maybe I’ll ask Bernadette. She’s joining again.’
‘Oh, OK,’ I say, withdrawing my hand and we both fall into an awkward silence. She loops her handbag over her shoulder.
‘Better be off. Got to get a few things for tea.’ She’s moving towards the door. ‘Well, good luck anyway,’ I call after her.
She throws a ‘thanks’ over her shoulder and she’s gone.