My youngest cousin was one of those girls who are called pretty by well-meaning friends and relatives, usually female, who are aware that the girl is not going to be judged pretty by the rest of the world. By which I suppose I mean, in this case, that she was overweight. And I suppose they were referring to her hair and eyes, which, indeed, might have been components in prettiness: her hair a sort of curly sheaf, it always made me think of cornfields or haystacks at sunset, a lustrous bronzy glow, and of the word stook as I’d seen it in old novels, which I suppose now just means stack, but which I think of as a rolled bundle to be tossed over a labourer’s shoulder at the end of a hard day’s reaping, the midges rising and falling in the ciderish Keatsian light. And her eyes – I don’t know, all eyes are beautiful, which I guess means worthlessly beautiful in this context, and to tell the truth I’m not observant enough to ever really notice the colour of someone’s eyes, unless they’re unusual or exceptional in some way – say, pale or reddish.
But they kept on calling her pretty, my youngest cousin, long after she had definitively exited the early bloom-phase which many people of even unremarkable appearance ride through their late teens, and I understood this as being a statement of hope rather than true belief, a hope that by declaring in her presence that she was pretty she might believe it and be happier, yes, but perhaps more despairingly, might also start to conform more completely to what they really meant by pretty – which led them to use the label with a kind of wild or slightly aggressive commitment, in the hope that she might lose weight and thereby make the most of having beautiful hair and eyes, and so gain that crucial element which was necessary if she was really to be judged pretty by the world, by people who were not well-wishers and relations.
My cousin’s lack of prettiness or otherwise didn’t seem to be an issue through her university years and after, and not just because of the bloom of youth, or whatever stupidly archaic title for that property I seem to have fallen into, but because she was with a partner, a boyfriend, and was happy. That was obvious. They had met during her second year at university, and I remember thinking when I met her later that summer, how her mood, her demeanour, had changed, how she had suddenly grown up, that’s how I put it to myself, she upheld her part of the conversation, she popped up voluntarily to fetch things from the kitchen, she laughed a lot, but she had always laughed a lot as a child, and I remember that now as I remembered it then, my signature memory of Emily would have been of her laughing, and yes, I see now how it was a laugh directed always slightly at herself or her circumstances, a delighted realisation of something about herself or the context in which she found herself that she had not noticed before and which rendered her stance or belief or what she had just said slightly ridiculous, or out of date, a realisation which others also woke into just before her or at exactly the same time, so she was partaking of it with them, or slightly in their wake but together, a bubbling and childish delight in the absurdity of everything, herself included, but not in a self-punishing way, but rather as if she was taking herself as the voluntary lab-rat in the long-running experiment that was all of our lives, pushing out along our boundaries in the direction of absurdity, of fundamentally inconsequential mistake, and then looking back at us, wild-eyed, laughing, isn’t this just too much?
And so she was sat there round the dining table which a shared aunt possessed and which was a part of both of our childhood’s, and Ben, the boyfriend, was there as well, giving the occasion the special air of a celebration, or a slightly make-believe quality, and she was laughing as she always had, though somehow it was more of a pleasure to see this than ever before, she was happier than ever before, and no, I now see that it seemed this way because she had been obviously unhappy in the previous few years, the trauma of adolescence, of growing into sexuality, and worse, entering the sexual battlefield, at which I guessed she had not been doing well, her weight already prone to fluctuation, her skin patchy, a typical teenager you might say, only for some reason it seemed to go particularly hard for her, temperament maybe, or simple circumstance, unlucky enough to be in a school with a cut-throat atmosphere of social competition, a lack of supportive friends, or even self-aware friends, I thought of another girl I knew, a contemporary’s younger sister, just as pretty or not as Emily but part of a band of girls who were self-aware enough to resist some of the imperatives of fashion and culture that attracted to the magnet of women’s bodies, and perhaps, now I think about it, it was because this girl’s parents were a lawyer and an academic, and her friend’s parents would probably have been drawn from a similar liberal professional university set, and so they had determinedly and self-consciously tried to show in their daughters the evilness, yes, I’ll say evilness, of the culture’s attempts to bully and punish and process young women, and so, so much for the fatuity of liberal parenting, of empowerment and parental self-awareness, those old object of popular ridicule and scorn, caricatures that had been merrily bundled into the general defeat of the left through the late twentieth century as a way of discrediting efforts to resist the processing of people, the commodification of them, and thereby removing those tools and efforts beyond the reach of whole swathes of the population by representing their proponents as unnaturally self-conscious, absurd, ineffectual, pretentious, disruptive, effete, effeminate, saggy-titted mothers burning their bras and red-eyed weedy husbands crying at the thought of their sons playing rugby. So Emily had been in one of those schools where you sink or swim, socially, where friendship groups are vulnerable to opportunistic betrayal and collapse, a dystopian or perhaps realist version of the American high-school movie, Fredric Jameson compares those movies to Utopia, well, we might say that it’s no surprise, therefore, that the current real-world version is closer to fascism, bullying and tyranny and violence, and God help you if you’re not gifted naturally or socially or familially with the qualities that are the currency in that world.
But meeting Ben seemed to have wiped all that away as easily as a wave swiping out footsteps: so easy a reset that all those years of anguish and tribulation just seemed, overnight, to have been an anomaly, unfortunate growing pains, and here she is, suddenly, washed up on the sane and civilised shores of adulthood, where all will now be different. I remember her sat at that dinner table, a minor family reunion of sorts, we only managed to get such a quorum together once every year or two, and Ben and Emily the tacitly agreed centre of attention because of their youth, and because we were all witnessing Emily becoming an adult, and because of Ben’s newness, and for him to be taken to an occasion like this it must be pretty serious. Well, it was pretty serious. They bought a house together, I heard, six years out of university; and a year later Ben accepted a job in LA, and though he would not, apparently, say as much outright, he used this as lever to bring about a separation, so it might seem that they had both stumbled together into the decision to part, the malignancy of circumstance, and no matter that he had applied for and got the job and that she had professed herself willing to come out and join him, had even flown out a couple of times, only to find him irresistibly vague about any long-term plans for living together in the city, and he was always at work when she visited, and, in short, in no uncertain terms, he made it clear that he no longer wanted to be with her.
But I heard all this in dribs and drabs and did not see Emily for over a year. At one stage she was working as a receptionist in a doctor’s surgery; and then, as the haphazard momentum of family engagement began to pick up I’d see her now and again, at gatherings, and she was always, how can I put it, carefully aligned within herself, composed, reserved, clearly not very comfortable being there, not able to enter into the self-fulfilling fiction of distant family intimacy in the way I was, the way I enjoyed, indeed, and her skin a little blemished, and she had put on weight, I would not call her fat, the weight she carried would be regarded as normal, unremarkable in this country, a slightly large arse and heavy thighs and some excess flesh around the face and chin, but I could tell she was aware of it, and oppressed by it, or maybe I couldn’t, maybe it was partly her demeanour and partly the simple fact that her mother confided it to us when she was out of the room, a pained whisper, which makes her mum sound awful, as if she was complicit in this scenario, but she was just worried, helpless, she didn’t care about the weight except insofar as her daughter did, she whispered to us, Emily’s feeling a little down: she’s put on a little weight, uttered as if complacently, a throwaway line, her two hands joined around the mug and her eyes looking into it, as if she was not worried and there was nothing to worry about, though this was tantamount to a confession of her own helplessness, a distress signal, a plea for help while knowing there was no help to be had, depression, Emily was depressed, clearly, and I have one more memory, before the recent incident or experience which has generated this story or whatever it is.
The memory, which I had forgotten until now, was of going to stay with Emily’s parents, my aunt and uncle, when I was in my late twenties and she must have been about fifteen. It was a small house, all on one level, a sort of idiosyncratic bungalow, branching off into unexpected tangents and corners, but quite squashed when anyone came to stay, and we had just had dinner, some kind of potato salad, and I was going to fetch a book or a jumper or something I had left in the room I’d been allocated. And I was just going past the toilet door when I heard the unmistakeable sound of someone retching, vomiting, and realised it was Emily, who had gone missing from the dining room. And I write this knowing it is occupying the uncomfortable position of a sort of narrative climax or pre-climax when it is pretty much unremarkable, certainly not unheard of behaviour in a teenage girl, no revelation or surprise, but I guess I want to write it here because it should be a fucking narrative climax, a huge thing, a young girl making herself vomit because she is scared of putting on weight; and then there’s the fact I didn’t do anything about it, not only that I didn’t mention it to her parents, which might perhaps be comprehensible as a kind of judicious tact or caution, a holding back on the understanding that intervening might do more damage, but that I barely even mentioned it to myself, I just thought poor Emily, I just thought, shit, I’ve read about that kind of thing, and so I suppose I also thought that’s not entirely unremarkable, and she didn’t seem painfully thin, or unwell, or in danger, and besides, what was I going to do about it, I had my own troubles and teenage girls are practically another species, and hopefully she’ll get over it, and maybe, yes, maybe, well, she’s doomed anyway, if she thinks like this, if she acts like this, because she might be pretty, she might be the most beautiful person you could possibly imagine if you learnt to see her properly, but she existed in a culture whose megaphone voice announced different rules for looking, rules she would have to work impossibly hard and still get lucky to satisfy, thanks to the nature of the body doled out to her by genetics, and what’s more, she understood herself as a component in that megaphone world, she had not been able to break free from it, via friends, I suppose that’s the only way, via her peers, or maybe even via herself, if she read enough of the right kinds of thing, was fostered in a more critical and perspectivally agile thinking, though even then –
At the end of last year I went with my current girlfriend to visit Emily. I had a reason: we were not close enough that I could just declare I was coming to visit her, and to be honest it had never occurred to me before to do that, we become stuck in our mode of relating to people, such that generosity or love become unthinkable if their expression would involve breaking through long-established protocols, but I had a reason, an excuse, I thought of it pretty much as killing two birds with one stone, I was going to Norwich to visit the manuscript archive at UEA, and I could thereby also touch base with a member of my family. Emily readily agreed to put us up for the night, in her small flat just outside Norwich, and I knew both that she would not be looking forward to the visit, as she was not a sociable person, and would also welcome us, for being a kind person, and generous. We slept on a blow-up-mattress in the living room. But what I didn’t know was that Emily had acquired a dog, a medium-small pug-like thing, or perhaps more of a Staffie, a cross-breed, I’m not really sure and I didn’t ask, but for all that Emily’s relationship with the dog was what you’d call entirely normal, not particularly excessive, I don’t want a caricature here of a woman who has displaced all her love and emotional life into a pet, the pet treated as human, as a substitute baby and partner, it was not that, but still, it was not entirely not that, she dragged it onto her lap in the evening, on the sofa, and gave it a heavy kiss on the ruff of its neck, and the dog had every amenity, might as well say it like an estate agent, every amenity, a splendid bed, and toys, and food bowls, and whatever, and the dog was an overweight little thing, not horrendously fat, not incapably obese, but clearly carrying too much weight for its own comfort, wheezing and huffing slightly, pausing as if with reluctance and a detestation of the task ahead before scrabbling up onto the sofa, and yes, the psychology is entirely obvious isn’t it, this might almost be a literary device, look at the doggy doppelgänger, the displacement, the animal double, but I have nothing really to say to that, and we both watched Emily cradle unthinkingly the dog in her arms, mammalian warmth, mammalian love, pulling it closely and habitually into her chest as she talked to us late at night, a measure of restraint in her because of the unfamiliar presence of my girlfriend, everyone indeed on a slightly artificial best behaviour, for all that I’m not sure how it would have been different even if my girlfriend hadn’t been there, though I suppose I’m avoiding the thought of what a spectre of a loving human couple might have been doing to my youngest cousin, and she’d give the dog treats, she was trying to make it happy, and it wanted food, hell yes, oh yes, it just wanted food, it was a dog and that would make it happy, and though I sensed she knew it did not need the extra food, it might even be doing the dog harm, she still gave it the scrapings from her plate after dinner, because she wanted to make it happy, and she wanted to share with it what she had, and this is all entirely unremarkable, this is like everything else that is bad and already understood everywhere, why even bother commenting upon it, but I thought of all the places I had lived where you’d see the old and the middle aged who have lost the sociality that still might cling by habit or circumstance to youth, living alone and taking their dogs out to be walked, their only close or intimate companions, the only everyday objects for their love and affection, and easy for it because of their unquestioning fidelity, unquestioning love, unjudgemental love, and I remember how so many of the homeless you see have dogs, people drunk and high and battered and dirty and wretched, people foul-mouthed and difficult and scandalous, but their dogs see none of that, they see only the loved person, though it would be wrong to romanticise it too much, they also see authority, but still, dogs are pack animals and so are we, dogs evolved into dogs in our keeping and company, they live together and work together and the same with us, and fuck, I thought, fuck, have we somehow outsourced a significant chunk, no, perhaps the most important branch or dialect of our loving to dogs, have we been outstripped in our ability to love and care by dogs, and perhaps I should have called this The Age Of People Who Were Loved By Dogs, and I see with something like horror as I write how the title impels itself into the past tense, the elegiac, and I feel like a man waking with horror from words he has just screamed out, the certain and convicted prediction of a civilisation’s downfall, when all he meant to do was express something of interest about the swirl of grains at the bottom of his cup.
David Sergeant grew up a few miles from Land’s End in Cornwall, was educated at Oxford, and is now a Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at the University of Plymouth. He is the author of two collections of poetry.
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