“Bloody hell!” I wheezed standing in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom. The blasted thing was too large and revealed far too many truths. I had become fat. I’ll admit I was shocked because as ridiculous as it sounds, I never noticed before. I’d spent the last three years living in jeans and baggy shirts. Today I’d had to make an unwelcome change to my daily uniform. Luke, my husband, had lost his Auntie Alice and we were due at her funeral in less than hour. My usual ability to dress in 10 minutes had been brought to an abrupt halt. My black trousers, the smart ones I used to wear to business meetings in those heady days before children, no longer met at my middle and my best black shirt was so tight there were gaping holes where the buttons were straining. The image was not a pretty sight. I didn’t want to be responsible for scaring the rest of Luke’s aging relatives into an early grave.
The sound of small feet charging up the stairs, like a herd of stampeding wildebeest, frightened me into action. I ran for the door and managed to lock it before they could enter. I turned back to the mirror and ignored the insistent hammering.
“I’m hungry and Daddy won’t get me anything to eat,” shrieked a small female voice.
“He’s on the phone,” complained another.
“Eat! Eat!” insisted the youngest.
Three girls aged 6, 4, and 2. Everyone thought we were trying for boys, but I could honestly say we weren’t. I didn’t care and neither did Luke. He loved all the female attention, most of the time. I just wanted three, following me about like a string of ducklings. I looked back at my image, perhaps the third was a mistake.
I pulled in my stomach as far as it would go and turned in profile. It was no good, my bum stuck out a mile, I could see a fold of fat at my back, and then to top it off the button pinged off across my bust.
“Leave Mummy alone!” Luke called up the stairs. “Are you nearly ready, Gail?”
“Won’t be long!” I called back. I turned back to the dreaded mirror and winced.
When I finally emerged I had shrouded myself in a knee-length black mac. I had left the belt undone so the material didn’t pull close to the bulge that was now my stomach.
“Okay, I’m ready.” I was eager to get this over with. “Shall we go?”
The girls were busy devouring yet another round of toast. They were like weeds, the more they were fed the taller they became; I couldn’t help a small sigh of envy.
“Aren’t you going to be a bit hot in that?” Luke asked. The way he looked at me made me irritable. He must have noticed the splurge of flesh, but he’d never said a word.
“Churches are always cold.” I gave a mock shudder and then darted off to ready shoes, bags, and keys. The lot of a working father, Luke never had to organize anyone or anything. At a stretch he was able to prepare a quick snack for starving children, but that was probably only to prevent himself from being consumed by the ravenous hoard. Luke always looked tidy, his clothes wrinkle and food free. He always had time, moving around with that fresh unhassled look. I used to look like that. Now I was overweight, permanently dishevelled, constantly forgetful, and always late. Today was a prime example; as we strapped in the last child and I took my seat in the car I had forgotten to comb my hair and brush my teeth. The children had pristine white teeth, mine must have been fast on their way to falling out of my head.
Luke flashed me a white smile, which made me feel grumpier. I sat low in my seat brooding, aware of how my open trousers had slid halfway down my bum as it swelled across the seat. I would have changed them, but I felt I should wear them as penance.
“All right? You’re very quiet,” Luke said.
“I’m fine, just a bit tired,” I replied.
Whilst I had grown fat, he had remained exactly the same; fit, good-looking, and young. He had that elusive male quality; you never quite know what he’s thinking. He sat quietly watching and absorbing everything, revealing nothing. He must have noticed my changing shape. It had been annoying me for ages that we now had sex with clothes on. Luke always said it was in case one of the children walked in on us, but was it so he didn’t have to look at me? Not that there was much time for sex these days.
The church was dour and cold just like Luke’s family. He was a changeling, planted in their midst. He was sunshine to their rain and a deep jolt of longing surged through me as I watched him towering over his tiny family. He was vital and strong, the father of my children, and I realized for the first time in a long time that I still loved him. Not the comfortable, familiar feeling of shared experiences and the bond of a life lived together, but the gut-wrenching, soul-searing emotion that fills you from the hairs on your head to the tips of your toes. He looked up and met my eyes across his pygmy relations and tilted his head slightly to one side in question. I gave him my best fake smile, all 200 watts of it. The muted ceremony began, and I suddenly felt lucky to be the mother of a demanding and extremely active 2-year-old. I left the church after five minutes with a smug expression. I praised Lilly for the escape she had given me; she picked grass in response and put it on my hair. The churchyard was quiet and whilst Lilly was busy pulling apart flowers and singing softly to herself, I sat and enjoyed the play of breeze across my cheeks and down my neck. I was a little hot, but I’d suffer rather than reveal myself. I tried to pinpoint when the downhill slide began to occur. Becoming a mother was a difficult thing. I had sought solace in food and cheap novels, pretending I didn’t exist. It seemed to be working fine, until today when I discovered that I was real and things had gone to pot in my absence.
The church doors swung open, Marsie and Honour come running out to join us. They sat, my three daughters, and quietly made daisy chains, the tiny little flowers standing out against the sombre black.
“You look pretty, Mummy,” Honour said sweetly from my lap. She had soft blond hair which curled endearingly about her cheeks. She was gentle and quiet, unlike her sisters, as if she understood the unspoken conversations of adults and the mysteries of life and the universe. I smiled at her, appreciative for the small vote of confidence in the midst of my private crisis.
“Thank you, Honour. I think you’re pretty too.”
“I like your fat tummy, but you should do some exercise.” She went back to the little bracelet she had been making and I sat there unhappily acknowledging that things had got to change if my 4-year-old felt she needed to give me health advice.
Later we sat at the local pub, making polite conversation with Luke’s parents whilst the children played happily in the garden. There were platters of chips and small white sandwiches and cakes. I tried not to eat any of it, but I knew I had a problem. I kept staring longingly at the chips and cakes and wishing I were alone so I could happily gorge myself on them until I was so full there wasn’t any room for anything else; not food, nor regret, nor the deep feelings of inadequacy, resentment, and overwhelming responsibility.
I volunteered to drive home so Luke indulged in a couple of glasses of wine. I watched his easy elegance. The girls had it too, well, it was difficult to tell with Lilly who fell over almost all the time. I felt like a sumo wrestler, enormous, larger than life. I tried not to be; I tried to slide into the shadows but there were some things that no one can hide from. One of those was Aunt Grace. I arranged my features into a very reluctant smile, I hoped she could see that, but really she was impervious to anything other than herself, rather like head butting a brick wall, only more painful.
“I hardly recognized you, dear.” She used the “dear” as a lure.
“Yes, it has been a while.”
“I can see that.”
“Well, you look wonderful,” I said through gritted teeth. She created the illusion that she was a sweet old lady then hit you right between the eyes.
“Well, you don’t, dear. You’ve grown so fat. I thought you must be someone else.”
I glowered at her from across the table, but it was a waste of facial movement; she didn’t notice, or chose not to notice. I sat racking my brain for a witty retort but could think of nothing except the fact that she was right.
“Yes, I suppose I have.”
“You should buck up your ideas. You’re not going to keep that fine husband of yours interested looking like that. His eye will wonder if it hasn’t already, and I bet there are plenty of younger women ready to have him.”
I held my breath for five seconds so I wouldn’t say anything I shouldn’t. I couldn’t quite manage a smile any more; it slipped down my face.
“Aunt Grace, it is so lovely to speak with you. I’m just going to check on the children.” The coward’s way out but I didn’t think Luke would thank me for causing a scene.
The girls were playing happily, and Lilly was running full tilt. She was like that; she went at everything with a ferocity of purpose. Tenderness softened the hard lump in my gut as I watched her pause in her game; a game which only she knew she was playing. Something caught her eye in the mud and, with a toddler’s indiscretion, shoved it into her mouth and began to chew thoughtfully. She finished her exploration before I could intervene and was already spitting out something unspeakably mangled and slimy when I arrived. I wiped her chin with a tissue whilst attempting not to gag. Lilly wriggled violently beneath my ministrations determined not to miss a second of play. I sighed watching her trip and then regain her feet. Her determination superseded any pain from the fall as she launched herself into the world and took everything life offered. All of those qualities were within me once, where were they now?
I sat on the grass close to the children and looked around for Luke, Aunt Grace’s warning ringing in my ears. He was standing at the bar chatting with the barmaid, her hair shining like a beacon through the gloom. It was pathetic to feel jealous of a stranger chatting with one’s husband. She clutched his arm and giggled flirtatiously, and I actually groaned out loud. Luke was laughing in response, but even as dense as I was at that moment I could see it was his polite laugh. I brooded over her long red fingernails gripping his sleeve like the claws of a succubus.
“Hi!” Susan had crept up behind me whilst I sat glaring at the barmaid who was totally unaware of the death stares I was sending her. “It’s nice that you came.” Susan was a soft, mousy little thing, with big brown eyes. She was always kind and friendly.
“I’m sorry about Auntie Alice,” I said. She was a great aunt really and ancient. It wasn’t a surprise. Still, saying the proper thing helped to mask my ugly mood.
“Don’t say that to Mum. She’s so relieved.” I snorted in surprise and Susan laughed. “She was demanding, bad tempered, and totally selfish, or so my mother told me at least five times a day.” We sat in silence for a while watching the children.
Susan suddenly turned to me with tears in her eyes. I assumed it was grief and put my arm around her shoulders. She cried harder. She didn’t lean into me and accept the comfort I offered, but remained rigidly self-contained. I looked across the garden to where everyone else was congregated. They were knocking back the drink unaware of anything else. I turned my attention back to Susan. She was dabbing at her eyes, trying to stem the flow of tears mingled with mascara.
She shrugged my arm off.
“It’s good to let it out,” I assured her. “Better that then allowing it to fester.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she snapped at me. I gaped at her; she had only ever been on good terms with me. I was completely thrown by the savage look she threw my way.
“You’re so pleased with yourself. Yes, we all know you’ve got everything,” she hissed at me. I choked on my own saliva as I sat there open-mouthed and forgot to swallow. “You think you’re so superior because he’s yours. You think you’re so special because you’ve borne his children. Three beautiful girls, they’re no credit to you, they’re all him. Look at you, you’re fat and dull, but he sticks with you because of them.” My mouth gaped open wider, nothing came out. Her attack was so completely unexpected. “I don’t understand it.” She scowled at my massive tent-like coat. I suddenly felt some connection with her.
“I know. I don’t understand it either,” I agreed sadly.
“Yes,” I nodded, “yes, he is.”
“If it wasn’t for you, I’d have a chance.” I spluttered in shock.
“But you’re his cousin, that’s practically incest.”
“If this was your funeral, I would be able to comfort him,” she sighed. I sat there bemused by this bizarre conversation.
A movement caught my eye. It was Luke leaving the bar and coming towards us. Susan stared morosely into her drink, snivelling. Luke cocked a questioning brow at me and nodded towards her. I gave him a puzzled shrug. He rolled his eyes with a wry grin and then made a show of sneaking off towards the children. I might have been having doubts today, but there was definitely an intimacy between us which no one else shared. The thought warmed me and gave me a measure of my usual confidence back.
I turned to Susan. She was pathetic really. I rose to my feet, brushing the grass off my clothes.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Susan, but as far as my husband is concerned, he’s mine and you can’t have him.”
I walked over to where Luke was standing, watching all three of our girls going down the slide together in a fit of giggles. He was laughing with them, taking pictures with his phone.
“What’s wrong with Susan?”
“Oh, you know.” I shrugged.
“Should I go and speak to her?” My stomach clenched in reaction.
“Oh, I think she’ll be all right in a minute. She’s a little drunk.” He nodded and turned his attention back to our girls. They were lying in a heap on the wood chips at the bottom of the slide, giggling helplessly.
“They’re so cute,” he said, his eyes tender. He pulled me towards him and brushed his lips softly across mine, making me warm inside. He pulled me closer, squeezing me hard. “I love you,” he whispered in my ear and then pressed his forehead to mine and sighed contently. I was inordinately pleased.
“I’m glad because I was a bit worried,” I whispered back. He leaned his head back so he could see me better.
“Worried about what?” He stood there frowning, and I tried not to feel like I was 15 again.
“Well, I’m not quite the slight young thing you married.” I tried to laugh, pass it off as nothing but my lips trembled giving me away.
“Neither am I.” He gripped me tighter frowning at me.
“Yes, but you haven’t ballooned several dress sizes and become awful and unsightly.” I couldn’t maintain eye contact because I was afraid I would cry.
“Gail, look at me,” he whispered. I slanted my eyes to his. “Give yourself a break. You’ve three children and you’re exhausted. I don’t know how you do it. You’re amazing and they are amazing because of you.” I bit my lip to hold back the tidal wave of emotion. “And you are not awful and unsightly. You’re beautiful.” I grimaced at that not believing him. He moved his hips forward so he was pressing against me. I couldn’t suppress my grin at the undeniable evidence that he still found me attractive. We exchanged another soft-lipped kiss.
“Daddy loves Mummy!” Marsie yelled loudly, so that everyone turned to look at us, standing there clasped together. Luke, never one to disappoint, leaned in and kissed me more deeply leaving my lips tingling and my toes curling with pleasure.
Once we were home I went straight upstairs, threw off that mac and ill-fitting clothes. More comfortably attired, I went to find my family. They were in the kitchen, eating again.
“Honour says I need to do some exercise. Anyone fancy getting the bikes out?”
A cheerful chorus rang out. I grinned as we sorted through the muddle of helmets and safety pads. My life might not be perfect, I might not be perfect, but I was happy, and that was all that really mattered.