This was a woman who abhorred waste and adored waists. Her crisp white working smock was cinched in under her ribs as if she were scared a morsel of salad would dare descend to her colon, the snakeskin belt acting as tourniquet on her digestive tract. As a successful specialist in her field, she could have made a killing in the growth industry of obesity; but no, the wrinkles that furrowed her nose like a pitbull raising its hackles gave away her distaste all too clearly to the fuller figured people pausing at her clinic’s door.
“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” was her personal motto [despite her training]. Nobody dared ask her if her bedfellows agreed, and I certainly wouldn’t, but looking at her ugly collar bone and antlers of pelvis I somehow doubted it.
All white – tiles, sinks, walls and wipe-clean chairs – the place had an aura of cleanliness and sterility that was at odds with her professional name. And her teeth. Her business card said ‘Janetta Vermilion: beauty therapist / eating disorder clinician’; her driving licence read ‘Ethel Hughes’. The duality didn’t end there.
Front of clinic was the Treatments Area, for the rich old women who allowed the mirror to be their master, and the bored mistresses who often shared more than the services of Janetta Vermilion with the woman waiting for her moustache to pale or botox to take effect next to her. ‘All natural ingredients – prepared on site!’ and ‘secret recipe – unique to Janetta’ were the proud boasts of the menu on the wall, as well as price lists to make your eyes water. Whatever she used, and despite the faintly familiar smell troubling the odd nostril through the peppery odour of pink and white lilies beautifying the place, it worked.
At the back of the premises, in what used to be the kitchen and dining room of the two-up/two-down, was a large room of palest peach and a series of cubicles along the furthest wall. Sofas and throw cushions made it almost comfortable, but the closest cubicles, with their clear glass doors, were off-putting to say the least. What looked like fancy toilets sat there, waiting, all too visible to my curious eyes.
As an investigative journalist, I had to tread carefully or face being flung out the door. Or worse – there’s a lot of folks not been told it’s wrong to hit girls, not told till I ‘educated’ them, anyway. I might be small, but I’m shit hot at street fighting. A whole bunch of dickheads have the scars to prove it.
“I advise my clients to change their habits one step at a time.”
“Instead of binging at home or in the car or wherever you’ve designated your ‘safe place’, you come here. Eat what you want; I’m not going to judge you. Say what you want, you’re with people who care. And if it’s coming back up, if you’re driven to purge…” she spread her arm to indicate the curious cubicles, and I noticed her hands were the smoothest of anyone I’d ever seen. “…you do so here.”
I think I blinked.
“Most of my clients start with the more discreet ones at the far end. But as you progress in your journey to recovery, you’ll find it easier to be open and accepting of who you are and what you’re doing to yourself.”
I think I nodded.
“When you feel ready, you’ll move to the cubicles nearer the group. Then eventually, the closest ones.”
I figured I’d better practise gagging to order since there was clearly going to be no faking it here. She smiled and her teeth were greyer than I expected, as if ghosts of their former use.
“I find most of my clients accept themselves and others more readily after a few days of treatment.”
Well, we’d see about that.
A few hours later I was biting my nails and wondering what I’d got myself and my poor teeth into. I waited about outside till a scrawny girl with bad breath and dull hair wandered near. Like me she was clutching a goody bag of bingeing treats, and I offered her a carefully nervous smile as we walked in. The white chairs and front room were empty; beauty appointments were mornings only, the rest of the day devoted to ‘my girls’, as she called us.
We got ourselves comfy on the sofas as more clients joined us, and Janetta – or Ethel, as my boss called her in the newsroom – sauntered in. We all smiled, and stopped rustling through our carrier bags of sweets, crisps, bread and biscuits.
“Hallo, my dears. Every day, in every way, you grow more beautiful to me. Every day, in every way, you are getting better. Love yourselves for who and what you are. Allow your bodies to serve you. Be kind to yourselves. And soon you, too, will be safe, happy, and healthy once again.”
I waited for more, but that seemed to be it. Speech over, she smiled with those great grey teeth and lowered herself onto an enormous peach cushion on the floor. And so it began.
All around me were wet sounds of gulping, gnawing, chomping need. I have a very sweet tooth, twenty six of them, so I’d skipped my usual early breakfast of toast and honey knowing that here and now I’d need to feed. Six chocolate bars. A jar of Marshmallow Fluff. And a packet of pink chewy sweets, to mark the beginning of food, and the end of purging. I’d read a lot about bulimia to prepare me for this role, and I could see from glancing round the room that I’d chosen well.
A couple of the women were clearly used to this, this place, this ordeal. They were first to leave us, first to purge in the clear glass cubicles that reminded me of Snow White’s location before her Prince’s kiss. They barely made a sound, but I gathered bulimics, long term ones, rarely do. One by one, the women joined them in bending penitently to retch their self-loathing to the porcelain toilets. The place stank of sweet sick. Janetta / Ethel had explained to me she only turned on the extractor fans when she was alone at the end; it was important for us to confront the realities of what we were doing to ourselves and those around us. Or so she said. When I looked at her now I could have sworn she was sniffing the air as appreciatively as I do when mooching past perfume counters in the department store in town.
I was last to go in. The others sat about, weary, smelly, and hoarse of voice, murmuring encouragement to each other about ‘going for glass’ next time. I chose the one at the end. Closing the door, I breathed in the acidic fumes and thought of dogshit sandwiches, licking snails, sucking off my boss, and other revolting things. I hate Marshmallow Fluff. Doubling over at the waist, fingers down my throat, I felt the tide turn deep in my gut. Up it came, all of it, I didn’t stop till there was a tell-tale layer of pink to show I was empty.
Relieved, I went to press the flush button – then realised there wasn’t one. No handle, no button, no dangling chain. Just a toilet which I now realised was actually somewhat different to any I’d seen before. I could hear the others chatting huskily through the door, and very quickly stuck the tiny camera my boss had given me in a crack where the cubicle met the wall. With the door open it would get a good view of the treatment room. I’d just need to remember to use the next one along if I had to come back for ‘treatment’ again tomorrow. No point sharing that with my colleagues, even with the danger money I was getting for this assignment.
The toilet had what appeared to be a seat, but when I tried to lift it, I realised it was fixed to the pedestal beneath. Checking it, I found a small hole towards the back which I could only assume was for a key. The kind of key cleaners use to unlock toilet tissue dispensers and things like that. But why would a toilet be locked? And unflushable? I could only hope that the camera worked and I’d get the answers later in the office. What it could have to do with the curious arrangements and practices of Janetta Vermilion I had no idea, but I was damn sure I was going to find out.
Curiosity killed the cat.
The dog dug it up and brought it back, whispered a voice in my head.
Lack of food didn’t agree with me. I left the cubicle door wide open, and sprawled with the rest of the group till people started checking their watches and murmuring about school runs, then made for the office.
“See you tomorrow, dear,” I tried not to stare at her teeth, nodding. I’d see her a hell of a lot sooner than that.
Back at work, I wandered into a newsroom that smelled like the salon I’d just left. A couple of the guys were on the phone, but my boss was nowhere to be seen. I could hear him, though, hunting for Hugh and Ralph in a bin behind some poor sod’s desk.
“What’s up, boss?”
Part of me was pleased about the situation, hoping if he knew what I was going through he’d maybe add a zero to the expenses sheet at the end of the investigation. All right, it was all of me. He’d fondled my arse several times too often, and the dickhead could barely even remember my name.
A hand wafted at me from behind the desk. I took this as a sign to approach. The monitor was on, and I could see it was receiving the feed from the cubicle at Janetta’s. The cubicle door was still open, and so was the one between the front and back rooms. My stomach lurched and I was kind of glad there was nothing in it.
Now we knew what the secret ingredient was, anyway.
Janetta / Ethel / whatever her name was, was sitting on the floor of the peach room where I’d sat and fed my face not long before. All the scatter cushions were piled on the sofas, and around her sat white bucket-shaped containers with weirdly flattened rims. As she picked them up, one at a time, to empty them into a large metal soup pot – the kind my grandma uses for her Christmas soup – I realised they were the toilets we’d vomited into before, now free of their pedestals. One of them was particularly heavy, apparently, and required both hands to lift, tilt and pour. What? What was that? For some reason, she had a large sieve over the soup pot, I realised this when she lifted it and gave it a small shake, as I do when I’m straining spaghetti. Someone hadn’t chewed their food a hundred times, that was for sure. As the flow of fluid slowed to a dribble, she turned at her wasp-like waist and emptied its contents into another large metal pot at her side. Tap tap, all out.
Then she did something I hope a stroke or Alzheimer’s will help me forget. I’m not kidding. Now I knew why my boss was meeting his lunch again so soon.
She dipped her hand into the white porcelain puke potty, the one she’d just emptied, and wiped her hand round like she was oiling a cake tin or something. Then she drew it out and as I marvelled again at how youthful her hands looked, even glistening with sick, she sucked and licked the vomit off her fingers as if it were the finest champagne then worked her way round the rest of her hand. I’ve seen cats clean themselves in such a way, I’ve even watched them lick their dirty arses, but the way she took such sensuous pleasure, such delight, in enjoying a stranger’s stomach contents really weirded me out. Part of me wondered if it would still be warm, and that just made it worse.
I might have been okay, I might not have retched bile on the newsroom carpet and my boss’s expensive shoes, if I hadn’t watched the rest. If I hadn’t seen her decant the stomach juices into her beauty bottles for acid peels the following day. If I hadn’t witnessed her plunge her hands into the mush of masticated crisps and Mars bars, squishing and squashing, mashing handfuls of it against her face, preparing it for the still empty tubs of Face Masque ready at her feet. Licking her lips as a gobbet dripped off her nose, catching it with her tongue, and chewing with those great grey teeth.
One of the guys, now off the phone, came round to see what the fuss was about. Peering at the screen, glasses smudged as per usual, he said:
“Isn’t that the bird your Sandra goes to for her facials?”
It made me feel a bit bad, barfing on the poor guy’s feet.
By Gill Hoffs