I am eighteen and bulimic, my best girlfriend is Irish and on the dole. We live on cereal and Nescafé. Here’s the plan: we’ll become high-class prostitutes. “Courtesans,” I say, “like ancient Greece.” It will be safer in twos, one of us keeping guard against untoward activities while the other does the business. We down rum and cokes as we discuss details. We do not discuss what “untoward” might mean, or in fact, what “the business” is.
It will just be for a little while, a snack break along the straight and narrow path to successful adulthood. I picture this adulthood quite clearly: I’ll be a dancer, an actress, a writer. I’ll be beautiful, and men will flock. I am licking at the world’s razor-sharp edges.
I like the taste of my own flesh. Sometimes the corners of my mouth crack and bleed after vomiting. My mother, who lives two flights up, points to my mouth and says, “Those cold sores are the same thing as herpes, you know.”
To binge I wait until my best girlfriend seeks her own kind at the Irish pub in Kilburn. If I’m lucky someone will buy her a Guinness and blackcurrant and she’ll be there half the night singing Molly Malone. Vomiting takes time.
I know nothing bad will occur during our new venture. So much has already, what worse can there be? My best girlfriend and I talk deep into the night about how we’ll proceed. We’ll find the men in fancy bars, fancier hotel foyers. On the street. Who cares, so long as they have money.
The rest will be easy: “You look like you know what a man wants,” I was told by a professor from some faculty I had nothing to do with, Psychology perhaps? He’d given me his telephone number, forefinger lingering on my palm.
My best girlfriend and I go over our plan in the minute detail of ten-year-old boys deliberating rules of a game. We’ll need certain clothes, a quality advertisement in a quality newspaper, our hair cut, our nails painted. The dry and cracked skin of our heels removed.
We do none of these things. I have a middle-of-the night wobbly: tearing at my hair, weeping. A one-woman-Sophoclean chorus. I wait for her to say something to make me feel better but instead she gets the early bus to Dublin where the girls are so pretty and die of fevers and wheel their barrows through streets broad and narrow.
I no longer plan on becoming a courtesan. I do not attend lectures or tutorials. I stop reading Classical Greek. I think only of how, and when, and where. I stuff handfuls of Kellog’s Cornflakes into my mouth, wash it down with water. But one box isn’t enough. My month’s allowance is spent, my credit card maxed. The kinds of foods required for vomiting are specific (high absorption rate, low chew factor), and it is hard to slip a packet of creampuffs or a loaf of Hovis into my handbag. Cornflakes will have to do.
And I will have to do something.
In the back of Time Out is an advertisement: Photographic models wanted, payment and photographs in return.
The photographer is short and sandy-haired and married. His house smells of boiled cabbage and burnt toast. After one roll of film he asks me to take my clothes off. His wife brings tea and the toast, trimmed of crusts. She smiles at me, she smiles at her husband. She wears pink, fluffy slippers with ears.
“I’m going to do something naughty,” warns the photographer, the wife still in the room, the words barely registering as he pinches my nipple. “That’s better,” he says, the flash going off.
I receive two pounds and five prints for the session.
All but one of the prints are nudes. I cannot look. Those breasts, those thighs. That stomach. “You’re such a lovely girl,” says the photographer’s wife, the ears on her slippers twitching.
I give the clothed photograph to my mother. In the photograph I am looking over my shoulder. I am wearing a red satin blouse I found at Oxfam. “So sad,” my mother says, and puts the photograph in her spare room, a room she only enters once a month to vacuum.
I buy a slab of Eccles cakes with the two quid. It’s the wrong choice, it comes up like fists.
I cannot pay rent. I move into my mother’s spare room. I secrete her food-stores into my wardrobe. Digestive biscuits, Heinz beef ravioli, Wall’s ice cream, whole tubs forgotten at the back of the freezer.
I telephone the professor from Psychology who is actually from Engineering. He drives me to his flat in Islington, guides me to his bedroom where I undress in the dark but he can still see me for he says, “Put your bra back on,” and I do and then we have sex. He doesn’t suggest I stay over, or that we should meet again. I walk home the three-and-a half miles because I don’t have tube fare. I hum the tune to Molly Malone but that makes me feel worse so I stop.
From the wall of my mother’s spare room I watch myself over my shoulder in my satin Oxfam blouse as I binge and then vomit silently into plastic shopping bags. I tie the bags tight and place them in my wardrobe and in the morning when my mother is still asleep I slip outside and take the bags to Highgate cemetery and leave them on the graves of famous dead men. There are so very many of them.