The alarm beeps at 6 in the morning. Mark gets out of bed quickly, knowing that if he doesn’t get out of bed in the next five seconds, he’ll find a reason to stay. The heating has packed up in his flat, and the cold whips at his naked body. He flicks on the light and floods the room with harsh artificial florescence. It’s still dark outside.
He’s not hungry, but he needs the energy. He grabs a yellow sachet of energy gel, bites the lid off, and squeezes the contents of the tube down his mouth. The gel has the sickly tang of artificial sweetener. Three swallows and the tube is finished. He pulls on a tracksuit, trainers, flicks off his light, and heads outside.
The sky is grey like the pavements he treads, as though the world is rendered in black and white.
His hands freeze even stuffed inside his pockets. The soles of his trainers are worn and he feels the uneven ground through his feet. He reaches the station and swipes his card through the machine.
Even at this time in the morning, there are people up in the city. Bleary commuters with dead eyes and autonomic movements.
There’s a breakfast place on the platform, the flash green logo standing out on a platform otherwise dominated by muted browns and smothered by the slate sky. The smell of baked crusty bread weaves through the air and hits his nostrils like cocaine. He breaths in deeply, as though he could inhale the taste, the crunch of the crust and the soft white silkiness of the bread.
No bread. That’s part of the rules. He’s had all the calories he needs in the energy gel. He strides away from the breakfast stall, twitching his nose to exorcise the smell.
The train rolls in, and the doors beep as they slide open. He stands on the train while others fill the faded blue seats. Someone’s bought one of the sandwiches, and the smell of bread taunts him throughout the journey.
He walks into the gym and there’s another beep as his card is scanned. Idly, he wonders how many beeps he hears in a day. He walks to the bench press and loads up the weights. Gets underneath and as usual flashes on that mini terror that the bar will fall onto his chest and splinter his ribs. Then he lifts.
His chest strains with the effort of the reps, each downward motion an expression of faith in his ability to push back up. The familiar ache settles in early – too early. The energy gel is not working out for him. Maybe he should go back to unsweetened porridge, made with water. He finishes one rep down from last week and moves onto the next exercise tired and grumpy. His sweat stings his eyes.
By the time he heads into work, he’s achingly hungry, even though he’s not supposed to eat for another hour. He heads through the sliding doors (another beep), in his head running through a list of excuses to eat early. Heads for the stairs instead of the lift even as a fist grabs and twists his stomach. God, he’d like something to eat!
He sits down and boots up his computer, actively seeking distractions. There are tedious administrative tasks to do, but his hunger is an attention-seeking beast of immense power, its screams echoing in his empty stomach. The monitor is a lifeless grey, just like his desk, like the walls, like the sky outside. The colour of an old cadaver.
He needs to check that the Capps files went out last night. Better do that now, before the phone starts ringing.
Jenny pokes her head around the door, and for a moment he forgets his hunger. As usual, her hair is arrestingly bright. Flame coloured would be wrong, and a cliché. Poppies, he thinks. Her hair is the red of poppies.
“Hey Mark!” She steps into the doorway, and he keeps his gaze fixed on her face. It takes iron discipline not to grab a quick glance down. In his peripheral vision he can see she’s wearing a dress as deep a red as her hair.
“Heya.” He smiles at her and pivots in his chair so that his muscles, pumped from his workout, are on maximum display.
“Pat’s birthday today. You know what that means!” She grins and waves an iced bun at him. “Cakes in the kitchen. I’d grab them know before she sends the email round and everyone swoops!”
“Yeah!” He laughs and pats his treacherous stomach, which has reasserted its complaining at the sight of the iced bun. “I’m meant to be on a diet though. You know, watching my figure.”
“Ooh, you poor dear.” She waves the bun at him again. “Worried you won’t fit into your prom dress?”
“Hey, this body doesn’t come for free” he says, and flexes at her. She laughs and he laughs with her, taking the opportunity to have a quick up-down look.
A crazy, untenable thought sneaks into his head quite suddenly. Do it, he thinks.
“Yeah?” She’s looking at him, and he feels a powerful urge to drop his eyes, to turn back to the screen. He maintains eye contact, and suddenly he’s no longer sure that he’s still pinned to the ground.
Get the words out. Now.
He swallows. Hopes his voice will modulate properly.
“I’ve got a mate who’s managing a sushi place, just opened. He’s said he can reserve me the best table. Do you want to” – come on – “be my guest?”
‘Be my guest’? It’s a date, not awards show. What a tool. But Jenny is smiling.
“Yeah, sounds good. What time?”
“9?” His voice sounds as though it comes from far, far away.
“Great!” Am I ok to just wear this? She gestures down at herself. It’s all the justification he needs to take a proper look.
“You look great.”
Now she’s beaming. “You smoothie. See you later, player.”
She moves away and Mark does absolutely no work whatsoever.
He goes back to the gym before showering and getting dressed in smart jeans and a tight T shirt under a jacket. Admires himself in the mirror a few times and from a few angles, knowing he’s being ridiculous. Satisfied, he heads out to the restaurant, where he meets Jenny. She’s got changed despite her earlier assertion, but he’s not disappointed; her new dress is black and strapless, and his throat – already dry, he’s been watching his water intake so as not to have any water weight – feels like crust.
She greets him with a little hug; her body is tiny in his. For one small moment that hug is something deliciously more, then she pulls away.
“This way.” He leads her into the restaurant, where a waiter takes them through the darkened, fusion-inspired room. They’ve overdone it a bit – it’s so dark that he can barely see the (black wood) tables in his path, and when he glances back Jenny is shrouded in darkness, her hair flaring each time it catches a meagre source of light.
Their table, though, is by the floor length window at the far end, overlooking the river, and gets at least some light spill from outside. He pulls out a chair for Jenny, and makes sure she is sitting down and looking at him before taking off his jacket and sitting down himself.
“Nice place.” She picks up a one page menu and glances down.
“Yeah.” His brain has forgotten the route map he’d had planned, and all conversational avenues are cordoned off by mental roadworks.
She looks up at him. “Bit dark though.”
He laughs, a bit louder than necessary. “That’s what I thought! I was worried I was going to bump into the tables on the way here.”
Now she laughs, and it sounds real enough to him. “I worried about you surging on ahead and leaving me between tables, stranded. I could have been there for years.”
He grabs her hand and stares into her eyes, exaggerated like a melodrama. “Jenny, I would never abandon you like that. Almost certainly.” More laughter.
There’s a lull. She doesn’t try to take her hand back, but he’s suddenly so aware of it, like he’s only just woken up from the half dream that was the rest of his life. It’s only a hand, but the physical connection is sending shockwaves through him. She’s looking straight at him, and he drops her hand and leans back, remembering a book about body language he read.
The waiter comes over and asks if they are ready. He’s not, but they order anyway, and settle back while the waiter sorts their table. He resists the odd urge to pull out his phone.
The waiter leaves and he looks across at Jenny again. She’s stunning. He doesn’t know why this wasn’t obvious before, why he ever entertained any notion that she was anything else. He needs to be at his best. He needs to find his rhythm. He-
“So, you’re looking nice tonight.” She says.
“Thanks.” He says. What does he normally talk about? What does he normally think about? What has happened to his rich inner life, full of clever mediations and thoughts? Why can’t he translate that into being an interesting person? He notices that he’s leaning forward again, and forces himself back into a posture of nonchalance.
“Yeah, I’ve been on this new regime.”
“Yeah, it’s actually really simple, but people make these things more complicated than they actually are.” He’s beginning to relax into his chair now. “I mean, half the people in the office are on some diet or other, but lots of them don’t get any thinner.”
“So why is that?” He feels light headed with the relief of having found some subject material. “It’s because they’re always doing the latest fads, then dropping them. As soon as they drop them – because they’re impossible to sustain – they put the weight back on. Whereas I do something different.” He gestures at himself and knocks his napkin of the table. Jenny grins, and he smiles back, but he’s a little annoyed that this has dented the force of his words.
“Don’t you think though” she says “that their dieting is about something different, at heart? They all do it together, and they all fail together. They all laugh and joke about it.”
He cuts across. “In the meantime, though, they get fatter. They start something with the specific intention of losing weight, and it never works. They don’t eat right, they don’t exercise right, so they fail. It’s A to B. Simple logic.”
Their food arrives, suspiciously soon. He picks up the chopsticks with the ease of habit and peers at the sushi on his plate. The presentation is immaculate; black, square plates on which the little pieces of sushi and sashimi are organised like an army.
He looks across at Jenny, who is a little clumsier with the chopsticks. She picks up a piece of maki and pops it into her mouth. For some reason he finds this incredibly erotic, and for a moment he loses his thread.
“But yeah, anyway, what I do is simple. No bread, no pasta, no white rice except” he gestures with the chopsticks “in sushi, and I stick to 2,500 calories a day when I’m cutting, 3,000 when I’m bulking. I always eat the same foods, over and over, so the whole process is simplified.”
“But don’t you ever feel like a massive cheesy pizza?” Jenny spreads her hands. “Or fresh baked bread? Or…” she savours the words “a chunk or two of dark chocolate?”
He realises he has finished over half his sushi already. If they were once an army, they have been decimated in the battle, and are scattered over his plate in isolated piles. The plate seems too large for the food.
“That’s the way to being a fattie. So no. That stuff is mostly all artificial rubbish anyway.”
She doesn’t say anything.
“So, what regime do you do?”
She looks up at him. He notices that she has, in the space of five minutes, become better with the chopsticks than he is.
“I don’t. Even the word ‘regime’ seems a bit awful to me. Like a punishment.”
“Indicates discipline” he says, through a mouthful.
Mark pays the (extortionate) bill, and heads outside with Jenny, guiding her through the tables with his hand on her back. They get outside, and he flags down a cab.
She shivers in the cold as the cab draws closer.
“So, I guess I’ll see you in the office Monday?” She asks.
He gives her a slow smile. “Actually, I was wondering if you’d like to come out with me on the weekend. There’s a show on at West End called…” but she is looking away and he trails off.
“Actually, I’ve got quite a lot to do.” She says. Then in a rush “I had fun tonight, though.”
“Next week sometime?”
The cab arrives; she steps in front of him and opens the door. She turns back to look at him and smiles, but only with her mouth.
“Mark…I think maybe I’d just like to be friends. We’re really good mates and I…I don’t want anything to ruin that. Ok?”
He nods, not trusting himself to speak. He can feel the lump form in his throat, and is grateful for the darkness of the street. He runs through a thousand replies in his head – angry retorts, affected nonchalance, begging and bargaining.
Instead he gives her a big, wide, empty grin, and says
“Sure. See you Monday!”
On his way back home, he passes a kebab van. A fried chicken shop. A takeaway pizza place where the oil floats on top of the pizza. A fast food burger outlet with its signature smell of salty, fried awfulness. All the while he is not thinking. It is taking a lot of effort not to think.
He gets back and lets himself in. The house is dark and empty; he switches on the light and heads through to the dining room.
Then he falls on the food he’s just bought. He crams a slice of pizza into his mouth and the oil dribbles down his chin. He gnaws a chicken leg, the skin rubbed with salt and chilli sauce. A gulp of Coke to wash down. Tears a vast chunk out of his quarter pounder, sweating with the effort of eating. Shoves in a fistful of chips, smeared with BBQ sauce.
All the boxes are red, he notices. Every single one.
He pulls the pizza box closer and reaches for another slice.
Edmund is a 27 year old lawyer, but please don’t hold that against him. He spends his days buying and selling properties he will never be able to afford. After doing very little of substance through university and law school, he finally started writing in 2013, and has been published in Crannog Magazine and The Fiction Desk. He is working on a first novel, but don’t expect it for another 10 years. When not writing he enjoys playing guitar.
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