At 5 pm on Boxing Day we sweep up the drive of the establishment my sister refers to as “the fat farm”. Its modest buildings are set in an old, deep garden: lawns, curved hedges, huge native trees. Our rooms give on to bushland that chinks all day with bellbirds. If anybody asks, we’ve come to give our digestive systems a rest.
At dinner, I enthuse about our five-day juice and water fast. But it turns out I’ve misunderstood: my sister hates fasting. What? I have to go through it on my own? We begin to squabble. I rebuke her for continually listing things she hates. She snaps back at me that I’m always telling people how I “adore” things, and suggests I stop sneering at people who believe in “the toxins coming out”. Why don’t I ask the naturopath what a toxin is? I might learn something. Returning from the smorgasbord, officially known as “the smorg”, she reports that a woman has asked her if we are twins. Our laughter has a tinny edge. She is younger than I am by eight years, and looks it. She decides to go the yoga option.
This retreat must be what a recently discarded wife I know kept calling, in her initial panic, the world of women. But what’s not to like? It’s sweetly daggy – flowery tablecloths and napkins, a writing desk with monogrammed paper, everything old-fashioned and demure and punctual. I don the standard-issue bathrobe, and go in search of human touch.
I crawl into a quivering, thumping old contraption called a Vibrosaun. I am coated in pink mud, wrapped in plastic, steamed, scrubbed and moisturised. Silent young women massage my feet, my face, my whole body. Awful New Age ambient music oozes into the treatment rooms; I drift off into jungles of dripping dark foliage. I spend hot hours in the garden, sprawled on a plastic chaise longue in thick shade, or lie in my dim room reading the Times Literary Supplement, sleeping, and practising my ukulele.
On a regime of five vegetable and fruit juices a day, plus two litres of filtered water, I never think of eating. Some switch has clicked in me. I can sit at a table, holding a tumbler, and watch without a twinge while my companions devour a three-course meal.
What’s harder is being sociable. Until I’m told, I don’t realise that my eyes are half-closed and my response time has trebled. I try to sit near the quiet, older women, who simply smile and nod as they pick up their cutlery. I need their protection from the mouthy girls.
For places like this attract monomaniacs. Every big talker here has her body problem, and her draconian theory on how to manage it. One scorns food with additives, the next eschews all things processed. A third speaks earnestly of food combination. Many wouldn’t drink fluids with a meal in a fit. I sit numbly under the cataracts of obsession, inserting the odd query in the hope of an exchange. But none of them ever asks anyone else a single question. What happened to conversation? It’s become a series of monologues that intersect only by force.
One lunchtime I’m trapped at the table by Sonia, a universal expert and compulsive talker whose life situation I have drawn from her by dint of ordinary social labour, but who has shown not the faintest interest in my life or anyone else’s. When everyone else has fled, she begins to harangue me about skin cream. Apparently the brand she uses is superior to any other on the market, in that no chemicals at all are used in its manufacture. Watching her mouth moving, I become aware that I am going to have to take her out.
In my starved stupor, I dig up from the depths of my scientific ignorance a series of disingenuous questions about what chemical processes actually are. She bluffs. She patronises. She tries to derail me. We are leaning on our forearms, staring right into each other’s faces. I keep laboriously drilling in, ever narrower, driving her back and back. “Things without chemicals,” she says wildly, “are just better for you.” I lay down my trump card: “But Sonia, what exactly is a chemical?” At last she’s silent, on the ropes, her head at a sharp angle, her cheeks flushed. “You can say ‘I don’t know,’” I hiss. “I won’t think any the less of you.”
At that moment my sister wanders up to the table: “Want to go for a walk?” The young know-all sits back. I head for the door, suddenly ashamed.
That night I can’t sleep. I’m nauseous. My hips ache. My shoulders are in the way. At dawn, when I stand up, everything blurs and bleaches, and I have to grab at the window frame. Shocked, I sit on the edge of the bed and wait for my head to stop spinning. Why am I doing this to myself? Who’s the deluded one around here?
Each morning I’ve been pulling up my nightie and looking in the mirror for my former body, the youthful one with the ribs and hipbones. Is it showing yet? Is it still in there? How many more layers to go? But today, sitting dizzily on the bed listening to the calm chinking of the bellbirds, I finally come up against the brute fact of the matter. Starve myself as I might, the body I once had is never, ever coming back.
Crossing the garden to break my fast, I meet my sister, straight-backed and serene from meditating. “I suppose this place is good to come to,” she says. “People can whinge to strangers about their problems, and give their families a rest.” She flashes me her sardonic smile. “I propose that the government set up whinge farms all over the landscape, to harvest negative energy and power the nation.” We stroll up to the smorg with our empty bowls, and take our places in the queue.
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