BEFORE: Stepping out of the whatever-ness of life
Thank you Katie Pollock, you’re brilliant! Asking me to play the fat version of you in your film was pure genius. I slipped away after this and I’ve never been the same since.
Hi, I’m Alex, Alex R. Burrows. R stands for Regina. Totally embarrassing because it rhymes with something down below if you know what I’m saying, so I don’t usually tell anyone my middle name. Apparently my grandma lived there once. It’s a tiny place in Canada I think. Why I have the name of somewhere my grandma lived is beyond me.
Anyway, Katie called me with her lovely request one fateful evening last summer, but my story starts earlier that day at school . . .
In a sticky non-air conditioned room.
In a normal school in a boring town in England called Bromley.
I sat stuffed into my uniform staring out of the window.
It was the anniversary of my Dad’s death—my gorgeous, best-Dad-in-the-Universes death to be exact. He’d died three years ago when I was twelve, and in the middle of the wilting heat I’d zoned out thinking about him.
He liked to wear brown, well brown and beige with a bit of red when he was feeling adventurous. He loved his bright red scarf and seemed to get great pleasure from wearing it, and he was bald. Mum said that he was even thinning on top when she met him, but what she fell for was his cheeky smile.
One of the things I remembered about him was how he would wake me up in the morning. He’d stand in the doorway of my room, and I’d know he was there but would pretend to be asleep because I could sense his love for me in the stillness. He would make a popping sound by plucking his finger on the side of his mouth and say,
“Good morning Princess, it’s time to get up.”
Then as I was getting ready for school, brushing my teeth and getting dressed, he’d shout up the stairs,
“Are you ready for your milk yet?” and he’d pour the milk on my cereal at just the perfect time so that the cereal didn’t get soggy.
“Not yet Dad, give me five minutes.” Or “Yep just coming.”
I would go downstairs and we’d eat breakfast in the dining room, chatting non-stop. I loved to talk to him about whatever art project I was doing because art was my thing. Then after this he’d kiss me goodbye and go upstairs to the loft where he worked from home teaching music. Most of his students came after school and in the evenings, so during the day he used to compose stuff. I don’t know much about music, so I’ve no idea if he was any good, but what he created seemed amazing to me. I told him that he was a brilliant musician and he said that I was a supersonic artist. I guess we were each other’s greatest fans.
“Alex, what do you think?” Miss Angel said enthusiastically bringing me back to the classroom.
“About what sorry?” I mumbled.
“About the point of life.”
We were in English, and it was a Class Discussion Day where we were encouraged to say our opinions about big thought provoking issues.
My throat went super tight and my eyes began to sting. Oh no, a big cry was coming on. I blinked at Miss Angel hoping that she’d see that I was upset and move onto someone else, but she just smiled kindly.
Then, OMG out of my mouth came the following ramble, “Well personally I think life sucks. Like really I don’t even know why we’re here half the time. I mean what is the point of everything? We get up, go to school, learn things that aren’t going to help us when we grow up—I was thinking about algebra—then we leave school, get a job that makes us tired and grumpy—I was thinking about Mum, more about her in a minute—and we don’t have time to do nice things and . . . people we love die and . . . ”
I took a big breath and my face went bright red. The room was dead quiet. No one said anything. Not even Miss Angel. Then Luke, who never normally joined in our class discussions, raised his hand. Everyone turned their heads to look at him. He always sat on the back row, right in the corner against the wall.
“Yes Luke?” Miss Angel said.
“I . . . er . . . ”
“What is it Luke? Tell us.”
Speaking through his floppy fringed hair he said,
“I think that . . . er . . . well . . . I think that Alex is right. I . . . er . . . I can’t see the point of it all either.”
What a depressing atmosphere hung in the room. It was then that Miss Angel said something I’ll never forget.
“Well, what if there was a wonderful point to life that we are here to find so that everything can start to flow for us? And what if we were all players in each other’s lives helping one another become our best selves? What do you think about that?”
Fantastic. That’s what I think about that! What a brilliant way to look at the world. Life would be loads better, because it would feel like you were watching yourself in a film or something, but what was this wonderful-point-to-life? The bell went as the whole class were deep in thought.
“Okay class,” Miss Angel said, “I won’t give you proper homework today, but perhaps you could just ask yourself Alex’s question?”
She wrote it on the whiteboard,
What’s the Point of Everything?
“After the summer holidays we can see what ideas you come up with,” she said, beaming.
Wicked one, Miss Angel! I loved homework like this and my mind was buzzing all day. Even when I got home I couldn’t stop thinking about this point thing. I particularly wanted to know what the point of my life was. Why on earth was I here? Was there something bigger than just day to day boring stuff that I was meant to experience? What was I, Alex R Burrows, meant to add to the world other than being a pain to my Mum for two reasons: one because she had to get home from school to feed me—she was a Head Mistress of a crumbling down school that had become her baby since Dad died, like hello what about her daughter!—and two, because I got in the way of her being able to see Rupert—nerdastic-new-boyfriend—on her own and so stopped them from having some big romance.
Oh yeah, and maybe I was meant to be here to go out with Matthew Challis and have his boring children. Mum thought he was such-a-nice-boy and was always hinting at how he liked me. He was so dull. God and I was so fat! Nothing fit me anymore and I so wasn’t going to buy another size up. I’d done that twice already. Enough was enough. The worst thing about me were my ridiculous beach-ball-boobs that were so damn big that I had to cross my arms under them when I ran for the bus. I was on a right downer, feeling really sorry for myself.
I saw my sketch pad on my desk, and like I was on automatic pilot, I sat down and carefully tore a page out. I wrote the question, what’s the Point of Everything? in bright red ink and did a lovely picture underneath. It was going to be fun pondering this and I began to feel better.
Then to further block out my self-pitying thoughts I started to imagine my soon to be skinny self after the nearly-here-yay-summer-holidays. Two weeks ago I’d started a calorie controlled diet and had to have a thousand calories a day. If I lost two pounds a week—I aimed to lose far more than that, but apparently this was the advised amount to go for—then, by the time I went back to school in the new term I’d be sixteen pounds lighter. In my dream of dreams I wanted to have lost two stone—twenty eight pounds—so that I could fit into my old skinny jeans and Ben would ask me out.
Ben was in the year above me at school and I’d fancied him for ages. I can still remember the moment when I first saw him. It was break time and I was at my locker when I heard this gorgeous deep voice shout,
“Catch this Williams!”
Then hurtling past me came a football, followed by a streak of a laughing-Adonis-ness, and a waft of aftershave. That was Ben Harper, the Ben Harper who I can’t imagine any girl not fancying and . . . he caught my eye and winked. I’d been trying to get him to notice me again ever since.
So basically I had to lose weight.
Right! Time to add up how many calories I’d eaten that day so I knew how many I could have for dinner. But first I had to get comfortable. With great pleasure I ripped off my school uniform and pulled on a pair of super baggy pajama bottoms, Dad’s old t-shirt, and my favorite fuzzy slippers. I’d been living in this outfit recently—or versions of it—no matter what the weather because I could forget my body in it if you know what I mean. Normally I put it on as soon as I walked in the door. Funny that I hadn’t today, anyway, feeling all cozy I flopped onto my bed with my phone. I had a brilliant app with the calories for everything on it and began counting:
Wednesday 1st July 2015
2 Weetabix with semi skimmed milk – 240
Glass of Really Light Blackcurrant Ribena – 20
Total cals = 260 good start
Snack on way to school
Bag of M&M’s – 240
3 Reece’s Pieces – 263
Total cals before even getting to school = 763!!!
My phone rang. Just fantastic I thought as I answered it, 763 before nine o’clock in the morning. I’ll probably have minus a thousand calories left for dinner tonight at this rate.
Expecting it to be Amy—best-friend-since-forever—I said, “Hey.”
It wasn’t Amy.
Silence, because why was Pollock calling? I had an uncomfortable feeling about this. She—Katie Pollock, slash Perfect Pollock, slash Pollock Face on a really bad day—continued to speak in her silly squeaky voice.
“Ben gave me your number.”
“What?” I didn’t mean to be so blunt but it just came out.
“He’s in film club with me and he suggested that I call you.”
I didn’t say anything and there was like this really long awkward silence.
“Are you still there Alex?”
“Yeah.” I just couldn’t find any words and I wished that I hadn’t answered the phone. I was flabbergasted that Ben even had my number. I mean I hadn’t given it to him, so maybe he’d asked Amy for it. He probably asked her just for this film club thing, not because he liked me or anything, and she probably gave it to him because she knows I like him and, oh I don’t know, but what I did know was that Pollock was going to say something horrid.
“Er . . . well we wondered whether you’d be in our film? Ben’s directing it and I’m playing the leading role obviously. It’s called Me and My Dreams.”
“Be in your film!” God I couldn’t act. Pollock must have heard the horror in my voice.
“It’s only a small part and you don’t even have to speak actually.”
“What would I do then?”
“Just stand there really. There’s a moment in it when I’ve just signed like a huge modelling contract and I have a memory of when I was . . . er . . . don’t get offended Alex because you’ve got a pretty face and everything but . . . ”
OMG what was she going to say?
“. . . but you’re a bit . . . well you know . . . and my character is remembering what she used to look like before she got fit. Ben had this brilliant idea of how we can superimpose my face onto your body so you look like the before version of me and . . . ”
She continued to talk but I wasn’t listening. She couldn’t be serious. Did she really want me to play the fat version of her in a film, and even worse, had this been Ben’s idea? He must think I’m genuinely gross. I had absolutely no chance with him ever. I bet him and Pollock Face had a great laugh talking about Fat Old Burrows. I hung up on her, dropped the phone onto my bed, and sat on the edge of it like a zombie. I felt numb. Then, as if I was in a fog or something, I went downstairs to the kitchen, opened the fridge door and just stared inside. Before I knew it I’d started eating. I ate and cried at the same time. The voice in my head that was telling me to stop was drowned out by delicious swirls of sweet lemon meringue pie. I noticed that there was a loaf of bread on a board by the sink, so I took the easy-spreadable-butter out of the fridge, cut a huge slice and smothered it with the butter. I then literally stuffed this in my mouth and, trying to chew it, I surveyed the kitchen. Now then there was a freshly made cake somewhere. Mum had made it at the weekend. Where was it? I looked in the usual cake cupboard but I couldn’t see it.
“Alex, what are you doing in there?” Mum called from the front room.
“Nothing.” I shouted back, nearly choking as I tried to swallow the bread so that I could speak properly. I hoped Mum stayed where she was. I heard her laughing at something on the telly. Good. We used to have a tiny television but Rupert had bought us a huge state-of-the-art one, which he’d mounted on the wall in our little front room—which looked ridiculous—and now Mum was into Netflix shows in a big way. She was obsessed with Downton Abbey at the moment. Excellent that will keep her distracted for a while.
Taking a chair from the dining room I placed it by the cupboard and climbed up to see if the cake had been put on the top shelf. Hurray. There was the old Quality Street tin that Mum used as a cake tin. Taking the lid off, I looked inside. Damn it was a plain sponge one filled with jam and covered in vanilla butter icing. I preferred the chocolate one Mum made but, whatever, I grabbed a handful of it and licked the icing off the top. Ahhh! Then I pulled the sponge apart and licked the jam out before nibbling the sponge slowly, almost pretending that I wasn’t eating this bit, but it kind of went in my mouth anyway.
Looking at the cake in the tin I realized that I should’ve used a knife to cut it because it looked a right mess, but . . . I took another handful, rather too roughly, because the tin fell onto the kitchen floor. With my mouth full of the sponge and a lump of jam on my lips, I got off the chair and knelt down to put the cake back in the tin. As I picked it up I started eating it. Ugh. I was eating cake off the kitchen floor. Then Mum came into the kitchen because she must have heard the tin drop. By this point I was on all fours on the floor and was totally mortified to have been caught red-handed.
“What’s going on, Alexandra?”
Arrrrgh! I hated her calling me Alexandra. She knew that. I’d told her hundreds of times before. She never listened to me.
“The tin fell.” I said really rudely. I think my face must have been as red as the strawberry jam that dropped from my lips onto the back of my hand. I looked down at it to save me from seeing the expression on Mums face, which I knew would be vile. A great big fat tear plopped down onto the jam on my hand, washing the sweet sticky red goo onto the floor. Keeping my eyes on this I saw her feet in my line of vision. She’d moved to stand in front of me and I could sense her disapproving presence as she stood there. I bet she had her hands on her hips in her usual demanding fashion too.
“How did it fall?”
“God I don’t know.” I mumbled, still looking down. I was burning up inside.
“Why don’t you ask it?” I said as my hand slid on the jam causing me to actually fall flat on my face. Ouch that hurt.
She’d said it again. I crawled on the floor picking up the remaining cake crumbs, putting them back in the tin.
“Don’t put them back, they’ve been on the floor. That’s disgusting Alex.”
“Sorreeee.” I said. “Sorry for being helpful.” I left the cake tin on the floor and stormed upstairs. I stamped as hard as I could as I went, and feeling the thud ripple back up my legs from the stairs, I did it again and again, really getting into the force. That’ll show Mum. How dare she have a go at me when I’m so upset? Talk about kicking me when I’m down. She should’ve known that I was in a really bad way if I was crawling on the floor eating cake. God couldn’t she just tell when her only daughter needed some loving kindness rather than being attacked.
I slammed the door with all my might and threw myself onto my bed. Lying on my tummy I put my head under my pillow and screamed my head off. I was so hot and felt as disgusting as Mum had said I was. When I couldn’t scream anymore I rolled over onto my back. I heard a crumpling sound under me. Sitting up I saw that I’d laid on that beautiful picture I’d drawn for English earlier.
Hey hang on, what was this doing on my bed?! I distinctly remember leaving it on my desk before changing out of my school uniform. I’d even put my precious birthday-present-from-Amy-amethyst-crystal on top of it because there had been a breeze coming in through my window, and I wanted to make sure that the paper didn’t blow away.
I looked at my desk and . . . OMG my amethyst crystal was missing. I scanned the room. It was now on the window sill. I had not put it there. The only other person in the house was Mum. She could have sneaked into my room, looked at my homework, placed it on my bed and then put the crystal on the window sill. That is possible, but not likely. I mean if she had come into my room and looked at what I was doing on my desk, she’d not have wanted me to know, so she’d have left everything exactly how she found it. We’d had a big discussion about privacy, and how our bedrooms were out of bounds to each other when the doors were shut, so I always left my door shut. It was habit now. This was really weird!
I stared at the—very crumpled—piece of paper. Under the question, what’s the point of everything? I’d drawn a picture of a willow tree by a stream in a field of bluebellI’d actually copied a mural from my wall. I was in a Mural Phase right now, and had painted awesome images on all of my bedroom walls. I’d even done the ceiling too which was wicked. I liked to lie on my bed and just stare at the big blue sky with the white puffy clouds and a bright happy sun, the canals in Venice, the snow in Alaska, Hawaii, or—my favorite—the willow tree by a stream in the field of bluebells. Bluebells were really cute flowers. They were tiny sweet-smelling-bell-shapes that, when you saw them on mass, looked like a bright blue carpet.
This woodland painting had become my Happy Place. Somewhere where I’d go to in my mind to relax. With this serene scene in my hand I imagined being there now. I didn’t want to think about Dad anymore, or about Katie or Ben or Mum or being fat. And I certainly didn’t want to go into another negative-thought-loop about something else I haven’t told you about either.
Okay big confession . . . deep breath . . . I really only had one friend. There said it.
It hadn’t always been like this. I’d had loads of friends when I was younger, but since starting secondary school and Dad dying and everything I’d started to feel really awkward around people. Not with Amy of course, we’d been friends since we were three and we just got each other, but, well, take Chloe and Ella’s gang for instance, I’d have loved to hang out with them but they just blanked me. Blooming hell I had one friend in a school of a thousand people.
Looking at the picture I read the question above it—what’s the point of everything? Yes indeed what was the point? There was no point. There had to be more to the whatever-ness of life than this. I hated myself, I hated Mum, and I hated my life. I didn’t want to be here. I wanted my Dad back. Arrrrgh! Getting off the bed I went to stand in front of my bluebell-field-painting, imaging the scent of the place and the sound of silence.
Then something caught my eye. I think I saw a flash from somewhere. I looked to see where it came from and my eyes were drawn to my amethyst crystal on the window sill. It was still sunny outside even though it was early evening, and I think that the sun must have come in through the window and reflected off the crystal. I say this because the room was filling with a soft purple haze. I had a weird sense that the crystal was sort of drawing the sunlight from outside into my room and lighting it up strangely. I’d read that they had energy and stuff but really.
My phone beeped. A text had come in and I just knew it was from Pollock.
Wanna be in my film? Let me know 2mor ok.
God was she deranged. What did she expect me to say?
“Oh yes please Katie, I really want to be your fat-body-double and I can’t wait to work with you and Ben.”
I felt sick after my Kitchen Incident and my tummy was sticking out so much I looked six months pregnant. The purple light in my room intensified, and turning back to my bluebell-field-painting, I saw that this was bathed in the purple light too, sort of making the water sparkle. I longed to be there right now. I’d had enough. I really had.
Mum screamed up the stairs.
“Alexandra get yourself back down here right now. I haven’t finished talking to you.”
I bet you haven’t I thought, and standing face to face with the painting on my wall I stared at the luminous water. Then I took a huge breath, and in voice so loud that it must have come from the absolute depths of me I screamed,
“ W h a t e v e r ! ”
Then, OMG, my body began moving of its own accord. My arms stretched out wide, and my face turned up towards what felt like the sun above me—well I felt something warm on my face anyway—and a loving-voice whispered,
“The wall is open now. Step forward.”
Full of curiosity I did so.