Authors: Claire Davis,Al Stewart
Eight Inches to make Johnny Smile
First published 2015 by Beaten Track Publishing
Copyright © 2015 Claire Davis and Al Stewart
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent publisher.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
Thank you to Debbie McGowan, for more than we could ever say, and to Amy, Kristan and Noah for the advice and encouragement.
This story is dedicated to Ben, who saw.
Ever since he could remember, people always watched him in this street.
When he was a young kid he would play out on the small green in the middle, football or chasing, but even then he was aware of the mothers, gathering and nodding disapprovingly. Once, he bought an ice cream – a double rocket sundae – and heard them laughing at him. It hadn’t stopped him from gobbling down that ice cream, tasting nothing, with his cheeks burning up red from shame.
Then, as a teenager, he tried for a while to fit into the skinny jeans and little T-shirts the other boys wore – he could scarcely call them friends – but he would notice the curtains move as he slunk past the watching whisperers. It wasn’t long before he stopped being able to squeeze himself into anything but joggers and big T-shirts, and he accepted that he was a freak.
That last year before he left home for college he really gave up and piled on the weight. The more they called him names, the more he ate. In a way it was to spite them, but also to spite and spike himself.
All that was ten years ago; now he had a job and was moving into his own flat, but he still hated this street and the way that it always waited for him, throwing chocolate wrappers and bags full of embarrassing memories at him every time he came around the corner. Even now he hurried anxiously, past the houses with their windows like calculating eyes, keeping his head down and holding his breath.
“Hello, love.” She pecked him on the cheek then prodded him in the stomach. “You still going to the gym?” she asked, shrewdly, meaning ‘are you putting on weight again?’
“Hello, Mum, the traffic wasn’t too bad today. That new roundabout seems to be really working, doesn’t it?” he answered breezily, because sometimes he could divert her from the inevitable digs. She looked him up and down and nodded absently as she made tea, and he wondered for the millionth time if she even knew she did it.
“Your father’s up the garden doing the digging. Why don’t you go up and have a look? He’s worked ever so hard on it. Go on, I’ll bring the tea up.” The house was pristine as always. He was the only messy thing that ever came in here. Sometimes he wondered if she dusted and sprayed his chair after he left.
He made his way up the garden with a thudding heart. If Dad started on him today he wasn’t going to bite back; he’d just smile and sip his tea politely then leave.
Dad appeared and shook his hand as always. “There you are. Mum was getting worried. You not giving her a hand with the tea? She’s not as young as she was.”
“She told me to come up and wait here.” He wasn’t going to rise to anything today. Dad brushed his hands off on his jeans and sniffed. “Well, you can get the big chair out the shed yourself. Don’t go breaking the others.”
He felt the sting right through to his bones but kept his face wooden. People only went on at you more if they knew they’d hit a target.
He sat resolutely on the wall. “Here’s fine, Dad. The garden’s looking great.”
“It is, isn’t it? See what I did with that patio?”
And thank God, Dad was no longer looking at him. Despite the large baggy top, Mat felt naked, and tugged at the T-shirt to prevent any clinging, wishing he could wear a sheet.
They settled themselves with tea and cake, and there was that awkward thing of whether he should accept or refuse cake – didn’t really matter because either way invited speculation.
“How’s the job going?” Mum asked, making him cough slightly as he swallowed the cake whole.
“Fantastic,” he lied. “I really love it.”
“Well, thank heaven for that. Me and Dad thought you’d likely never find a job, the size you got to.”
And there went a year’s worth of therapy down the drain, just like that.
He parked a way down the road so he could have a good look around before he got out of his car. The meeting was in the community centre, every Wednesday night at seven. He’d chosen the lightest clothes he could and found some old canvas slip-on shoes that couldn’t possibly weigh much.
People started to appear and go in. Ladies mostly, and none of them anywhere near as large as him. He couldn’t do this. He should just go home and try the milkshakes again like he had before. He shifted uncomfortably under the seatbelt, and felt sweat sliding off his face onto his top. It wouldn’t be much longer before he would have to send off for an extra-long seatbelt, because he was so fucking greedy.
He pushed the door open and clambered out. Lately his breathing had been worse again when he walked or got upset. But he wasn’t upset today, because he was going in there and joining Weight Fighters. He didn’t have to decide today; he was only going to look. One filthy remark and he would be off.
Most people seemed to be chatting in a queue, so he joined the end and tried to still his heart. There was a large dial at the front that said:
… inches to make Johnny smile.
You can go the extra mile.
As people got off the weighing scale, they added how many inches they wanted to lose on the dial. The woman in front of him smiled and asked, “Are you new, love? You have to fill in two forms. Mary? Mary?” To Mat’s horror, she shouted across the room, and everyone looked right at him. Suddenly, he was six again, eating that ice cream, then thirteen wearing jeans that were two sizes too small, and finally fifteen, being chased home by a pack of jeering boys, all gorgeous, thin and horrible.
Mortified, he turned to leave, but Mary cut him off at the door, half running past him with tight elbows and a determined set to her face.
“Hello, nice to meet you. Come over here and I’ll show you how it works.” She smiled at him so kindly – why couldn’t his own mum do that? – so he followed her. He walked tightly across that room with little steps, knowing that everyone was likely noting the over-sized trousers and his stomach wobbling. Everyone seeing him. Any minute she’d ask him how much he weighed and tell him he was too fat for this group, and it was all his own fault anyway.
She handed him a pen and said, “Don’t worry, love. Everyone’s really nice here. You’ll get all the support you need, plus a few friends and some dirty laughs.”
He felt his cheeks going red, but then he giggled with the sheer relief of having got through the door.
The forms were easy, as Mary said, asking for personal details. He gave his work address like he always did because post went missing from the pigeon holes at the flats. Then it was the weigh-in. Even though it was only July, he noticed that there were Valentine’s Day posters everywhere, but he was too flustered to ask about them. By the time he got to the front of the queue he’d chewed his lip to a mess and it was all stupid. Why was he even bothering? Everyone knew Fat Mat couldn’t stick to a diet. Then he was next. The dial said ‘Eight inches to make Johnny smile. You can go the extra mile.’ He read this, and then met the eyes of the person taking weights.
No, no, no, no, no.
A man doing the weigh-in. Taking the weights and writing them down.
A man, a man, a bloody fucking man
, wearing an enormous Valentine’s Day badge. A thin man with pretty eyes and a kind face that lit up when he saw Mat.
“Hello. Haven’t seen you before. Welcome to the group. I’m Johnny. Just ask me anything you want to know. I’m the active leader, so I’ll give you my number before you go. Hop on the joystick, love.”
Words failed him. He clambered on the scales and stared at Johnny, holding his eye and daring him to snigger. But Johnny smiled brightly, made a scribble on Mat’s red ‘Success Booklet’, and then helped him off. With his hand; an actual man’s hand on Mat’s wrist.
“Lovely. Here you go, Mat. You are staying for ‘Fess Up’, aren’t you?”
Mat raised his eyebrows and tried to hold his stomach in at the same time, creating an interesting but probably not attractive stomach tidal effect. “Fess up?” he squeaked, wincing slightly at the mouse-like tone.
“Yeah, ‘Fess Up’. According to our literature,” Johnny lingered over ‘literature’, making it long and pouty and ending in a Henry of Troy smile, “it is ‘a chance for members to discuss lapses’, but really it’s just a good bitch. You’ll love it.” Johnny’s exaggerated wink caused first his head to wobble, then his whole body to pivot elegantly.
Mat went to ‘Fess Up’, if only to stare at Johnny, who led the discussion. He gingerly sat between two ladies: Pat and Shelly. Pat linked arms with him and Shelly tapped his knee. Three people had touched him in one night. Unprecedented, and rather marvellous.
Johnny stood at the front, wearing a massive sweater that hung almost to his knees. He was beaming and blonde, with the whole room in his hand. “Right then, serious stuff first. This week, we have lost…wait for it…wait for it…twenty pounds!”
Cheers engulfed the room, and Mat found himself cheering along with the rest. Johnny punched the air with both arms and did a little dance, which Mat would think about later in bed.
“A few pounds gained, but we needn’t think about them,” Johnny continued, sitting astride a chair and leaning his chin on his hand. “So, tonight we start the Valentine challenge. Same as last year, we compete over the next six months with the Northend group for the biggest group loss by Valentine’s Day. Last year we lost by two pounds, remember?” There were mutters around the room. Shelly next to Mat shouted, “Yeah, it was a bloody fix,” and everyone laughed.
“Right, who’s up first? Kath? What happened at your date?”
All eyes turned to Kath, a young woman dressed in yellow leggings and a leopard-print top that said ‘You Wish’, though it didn’t specify what for.
Kath began, “I snogged his face off, Johnny.” Another cheer went up, with Mat helplessly sandwiched between Pat and Shelley, who both hugged him.
“Go on,” urged Johnny, watching with both hands pressed dramatically over his face, eyes crinkling. So Kath did.
“He took me to effing McDonald’s, so I was not best pleased. He said at least the food had calorie counts on it and he was only thinking of me. I was gonna offer him chastity as a punishment, but a girl’s got needs, Johnny.” And the room dissolved in raucous hysteria.