I work in the Blue Cat café. It is the worst place to be, wiping the counter of tea spills, the smell of fat. I hardly eat any more. I pick, throw my meals away. Sometimes you just have to throw things away. My flesh falls.
‘Occasional’, says Marion, ‘that’s what you’ll be.’ ‘It’s not that we don’t need you’, adds her husband Noah softly, ‘it’s just we don’t know how much we’ll need you, ‘or when’, finishes Marion.
I live above the café in the top floor flat. ‘Only you then,’ said Marion as I stood still in the doorway, not viewing the three rooms. It wasn’t a question and I didn’t reply. And it wasn’t the rooms I wanted, but to be curled up tight in that dark roof space, pressed up against the sky.
On ‘occasional’ days, Marion sends Noah up the two flights of stairs. He taps lightly on the door. ‘Lollo’ he whispers, ‘Lollo, are you busy? Can you come and help?’ I always go. I am never busy. My books still lie in boxes, my notes unfiled. Letters from my mother and another, unread. I know what they say.
My name is Roberta, in honour of my father, my absent father. Not dead, just gone. He’s another woman’s Robert now and soon he’ll be another child’s father and soon, I’m quite, quite sure, he’ll be gone again. His absence is why my mother wants me home. She needs to hear my name reverberate around the deadened house. It is a summons, a memory cold call. It is only Noah who calls me Lollo.
When busy, the Blue Cat moves like a ladened ship and Marion as figurehead rises above the waves of faces with plates of congealment. It is then that Noah becomes quieter and quieter as he stacks cups and scrapes the deadened yolk from plates. Sometimes, words just get in the way.
My stomach aches. It is hooking me back upon my self. I am wasting my life and wasting away all at the same time, (this is what the letters say). I hope to become invisible. Yes, it’s what I want. And I measure my success with meticulousness. At night, as I lie in my thin bed, I run my hands over my body. I rub my hollow stomach, smooth my reducing thighs, and lightly touch the hairs between my legs. It used to be a grander choreography of moves, wild tangos of desire at one remove, turned and turning on from a loosening past. Now my hands shrink from such a dance and only occasionally do I remember my breasts. There is only me to remember them now.
I have become immune to serving food to those who eat. People who live on, day after day, through piled high plates. I have become immune to people too, missing no one. Not even Lyall. Especially Lyall, who’d, lied with the weight of his body about the weightlessness of mine. His hands clutching my waist as his tongue wagged its sharp whisper, ‘nip and tuck, nip and tuck.’ Such nightly measures filled Lyall’s mind and made me surplus. These fractions began my reducing life. I owe Lyall everything.
The Blue Cat squats at the edge of the pavement next to a bus stop. Sometimes those tired of waiting for buses or just tired of waiting come into the café to sit at tables, hunched and hawkish. ‘Regular Ray’ sits upright in his window seat. In quiet moments when I can hear the fat breaking in on egg, sausages, and bacon, I watch him as he reads the menu over and over, though his order is always the same. I sense he has given up on waiting or rather has let waiting pass him by. ‘A disappointment’ says Marion briskly and Noah nods. Disappointment makes Ray eat huge breakfasts. Occasionally Marion cooks him an extra egg and doesn’t charge.
Each time I see Ray he is larger. The breakfasts are covering up his heart but revealing his stomach. It bulges and rolls, soft and white, through his shirt. Disappointment cannot be contained.
I continue marking progress on my retreat but tiredness steals my pace. I am just letting myself go. Once I fell asleep, my hands clasped tightly under my breastbone and dreamt I had translucent skin. My heart was faint like a star at dawn and my intestines glowed pinkly but small. Ray was holding out a menu to me. ‘Choose’ he kept saying, ‘choose’.
I get more letters. I am also tired of resisting and open them. My mother asking me to go home, Lyall telling me he misses me. All of me.
Ray stops coming to the café yet there’s something in my bones that’s calling him. He is still there in my dreams, though really it is the same dream. We sit opposite each other at the window table. Ray no longer reads the menu and lets me rest my withering hand on his wide arm. I wake and think of men who gaze upon your breasts but do not see a heart. It is a thought that rolls and rolls, like tumbled stone, and sets in the fat of my mind.
‘Coronary’ says Marion. ‘Massive’. Noah is stacking cups and silent. I am pulling out the crumb tray from the toaster. ‘In his flat for two days’ continues Marion. I tip the black and gritted bits of grain into the bin. They seem so large.
Lollo? Lollo? Are you there? Are you busy? I do not reply for yes, today, I am busy. I am at last sorting out my files, writing replies to my mother, to Lyall. Really I write the same letter.
I am cold and have put on all my clothes. Everything. But the cold still gets in. It’s just like you, my mother would say, always feeling the cold. Mother, I would tell her now, it’s all that I can feel.
I have told Lyall I won’t be seeing him again. He’s too far away, we’re too far away. I look out of the window, that gap in the dark roof space, and watch the remnant of last night’s wispy moon retreat into the lightening sky. Noah has stopped calling my name and I can hear his quiet footfalls on the stairs. I am so cold I climb back into bed but the covers do not warm me. Through the layers, I can feel my hip bones, pointed like arrows. I think of Ray and how those breakfasts broke not mended his heart. I pull the covers tighter and wait. Sometimes you just have to throw things away.