The Disappearance Of Jennifer Stone
In any college reunion photo, there is always one figure, noticeably plumper than the others, who stands apologetically around the edge. This was Jennifer Stone. The envelope, with its college crest, had arrived at family breakfast time, and Chloe, nibbling a minuscule piece of toast, was peeping over her mother's shoulder.
"Don't worry, Mum, you may be the fattest, but you look the youngest!" she exclaimed cheerfully. Jennifer's husband Nigel (muesli on the hop, rushing for the gym before work) neatly plucked the mounted photo from Jennifer's hand.
"Hmmm. The dark one in the middle with the boobs is what Jason would call ‘well fit'."
"Oh gross!" retorts Chloe, "look at the false eyelashes and the big lips. I wouldn't want a mother like that, pretending to be my sister, flirting with my boyfriends like Amy's Mum!"
"Well have no fear," retorted Jennifer, "no one is going to flirt with me, are they?"
"I should hope not," replied Chloe rolling up her skirt an extra inch to show off her thin legs. "But don't worry Mum, all the boys in my year love you after the profiteroles you made for the prom. They call you the ‘Pudding Lady'."
Chloe was out of the door with her father, in a flurry of locating coats and bags. Jason, having what they all pretended was a gap year, was not up yet. He would emerge later and do some composing on his keyboard.
Jennifer is left with the photo, sitting in her capacious velour dressing gown, with a fresh pot of tea. She does not like being the fat one, not one bit. At the next reunion, will she be even fatter? Tilly, the family Jack Russell, is looking up at her hopefully. She has sensed Jennifer's wave of depression, which usually precedes a biscuit binge.
"No! Don't look at me like that!" Jennifer reproved the dog. "There is going to be no nibbling for us this morning. You and I are going for a proper walk."
Tilly wagged her tail and fetched her lead. Jennifer went and changed into a tracksuit, over which went her hooded parka, as the wind was bitter. They drove up to the Common, and Jennifer let Tilly out. In the normal way, she would be allowed half an hour's sniffing and piddling, and then Jennifer would drive her home. Today, in a pair of blue wellies, Jennifer strode out across the Common. Tilly stared at her, puzzled at first, and then realising that she was being allowed some freedom, bounded ahead.
Jennifer puffed a bit, and Tilly panted a bit, but they kept going. This gave Jennifer space for thought. She was thinking about her stomach, which she saw as the source of all her problems. Bloated after food, she often felt empty again so quickly, with her stomach grumbling inside her. Supposing this offending body part just shrank?
What if it became very small, large enough only for modest amounts of healthy food? Jennifer Stone looked up at the wintry sky; she looked at the blackened branches of the trees and the gorse bushes; she heard the rooks crying on the freezing air. And she prayed. "Please God make my stomach small." The sky went dark. And it was so.
They walked further than they thought they could. On returning home, Jennifer had a shower and Tilly snored in her basket. Lunch was a cup of soup and supper that night would be shepherd's pie, but Jennifer would have a tiny portion with lots of vegetables. The chilly walk on the Common has exhilarated her and hardened her resolve.
"Tilly," she addressed the dog's slumbering form, "This is to be our secret. No one will be told about the miracle of my small stomach. I'm fed up with people taking a personal interest in my diet. This time, no one will know, and this time, I will be successful." Tilly snuffled in her sleep, worn out by the unaccustomed exercise.
When it came to supper, Nigel took his apple crumble to eat in front of Top Gear. Jennifer discovered that her dainty new stomach was genuinely full, and she had no desire for dessert. Regulating her eating accordingly during the day was easy, but evening meals, especially when the children were there, involved something of a subterfuge. Her small portions were disguised with large helpings of vegetables.
And what about The Ladies Who Lunch, the group of four local friends, including Jennifer, who meet once a month for a gossip? The first time they met after the "shrinking", Jennifer ordered a salad and refused a bread roll. Amanda, a wiry, athletic woman, challenged Jennifer to a pudding.
"Come on Jen, you'll have sticky toffee pudding with me, won't you?" (Amanda had an enormous appetite, and burnt it all off training for marathons.)
"No, not today," replied Jennifer. "I've made a lemon meringue pie for later, and I think one pudding is quite enough."
A thought occurs to Janey as Jennifer orders mint tea.
"You aren't on another one of your diets, are you, Jen?"
"You know diets don't work," put in Cathy. "It's scientifically proven. Most long-term dieters end up even fatter." They all stared at Jennifer as a sort of visual aid to Cathy's point.
"No, I'm not on a diet, smiled Jennifer. "I've given up diets for ever."
"Good for you!" replied Amanda. "Accept the shape you are. But I'll have the sticky toffee pudding with clotted cream."
Jennifer and Tilly's walks on the Common continued, even after a heavy fall of snow. After a fortnight, she jumped on the scales, and was not really surprised to see that they recorded no loss of weight. Years of failure had resulted in low expectations.
When she tested it a second time, she actually seemed to have put on a pound. Why is it, with these state-of-the-art digital scales, do they not read the same weight each time you go on? Jennifer banished them to the wardrobe.
As the weeks went by, Jennifer and Tilly were ready to venture further than the Common, and eventually crossed into the gardens of The Poplars, a council owned Victorian House, with grounds open to the public. Jennifer rediscovered the path through the woods and down to the river, where they had come when Chloe and Jason were small. She was pleased to see coltsfoot and celandine already peeping green through the soil and catkins in the hedgerows; spring was on its way. Each day brought a new delight as the sun grew stronger, and Jennifer was tempted away from her freelance website design to spend longer hours along the river. They walked as far as the watercress beds, where Jennifer bought big bunches direct from the grower, and one bright morning she spotted a kingfisher darting from the reed bed.
She continued to wear her smock tops, waterfall cardigans and elasticated waists (after all she had so many of them!), although when the elastic went she had to take in the skirts and trousers. This was happening more often lately. And thank goodness kaftans had come into fashion again; so easy to dress up with some new beads and earrings for a special evening. Jennifer was in sparkling form in one of these outfits at the Residents' Association AGM. She spotted Rob Carstairs across the room, a friend who she hadn't seen since schooldays. Rob was suddenly by her side smiling and greeting her with kisses on both cheeks.
"Jenny Neal! I was hoping you might be here! We've just moved back to the village."
"I'm Jennifer Stone now. This is my husband, Nigel."
"Nigel, I'm delighted to meet you. I have to tell you," added Rob slipping his arm round Jennifer's waist, "that Jenny was the prettiest girl in the school."
"Ah," replied Nigel, "I didn't meet her until university. You were quite rounded by then, weren't you Chubby?"
"I was slim on my wedding day," retorted Jennifer, silently remembering the weeks of living on Pot Noodles.
"Well as far as I'm concerned, she's still a cracking girl," beamed Rob.
"What a creep!" remarked Nigel as Rob rejoined his wife, who was sending a rather forced smile towards Jennifer. "Obviously a salesman of some sort."
"He's not a salesman, he's a Vicar," replied Jennifer.
"How do you know that?"
She pointed to the programme. "Guest Speaker, the Rev. Robert Carstairs, will give a talk on ‘The Whole Community'."
Nigel liked to have the last word. "That explains the gush. He has to be nice to everyone."
But Jennifer Stone didn't hear him. She was enjoying the warmth of Rob's admiration.
Spring gave way to early summer, and masses of bluebells greeted Jennifer and Tilly on their walks. They heard the cuckoo, and delighted in the clouds of white blackthorn, and later the flowering cherry blossom everywhere. Yellow gorse shone like sunshine on the Common. Nigel announced the first barbecue of the season, and Jennifer made large salads, managing just one of Nigel's glutinous sausages. Tilly jumped up and begged for one. Chloe caught her.
"Mum! Tilly is looking very scrawny! You haven't been overdoing her walks, have you?"
"Walks?" scoffed Nigel. "Tilly doesn't walk! Mum parks up on the Common and lets her out to pee while she listens to Classic FM! I know! I've seen the sweet wrappers in the car."
"Not for a long time, you haven't," said Jennifer quietly.
"Well, Tilly is thin," went on Chloe stroking her head. "She used to have a double chin. Look how pointed her little face is!"
"It's your mother who has the double chin," replied Nigel. "But it is looking a bit firmer, Chubs. You were so rude about my sister's book of facial exercises. I told you they were worth a try. Much cheaper than a facelift! Burger, anyone?"
Jason followed his mother into the kitchen as she went in to fetch the strawberries and cream. He put his arm round her.
"Are you losing weight, Mum?"
"Would it be good if I did?"
"I don't know, would it? It's not about appearances you know. It's not important."
Jennifer looked fondly at him, with his curtains of uncombed hair, wrinkled T-shirt and torn jeans.
"No, I get that."
"Be what you want to be, Mum," he said, and gave her a hug.
"Thanks, I'll remember that, Jase."
As the summer drew to a close, Jennifer had more energy than ever before. She felt happy, she slept well, and at the local farmers' markets and supermarkets she had discovered more fruits and vegetables than she ever knew existed. One evening she remarked to Nigel:
"Do you know what day it is on the 24th?"
"Yes, the day I have to have my final figures in for the following year. It's decision time for how many staff we have to lay off."
"Well apart from that, it's our 20th wedding anniversary. I know that with the recession and everything we said we wouldn't have a holiday, but I thought we could manage a short break, somewhere warm."
"Actually, I could do with a break from work. But I won't have time to organise anything. You book it, and it's a deal."
"I'll organise it, and I'll pay," replied Jennifer. In straightened times, people need good websites, and her work had been going well. "Where would you like to go?"
"I don't mind," replied Nigel, "as long as it's got some watersports. You know I don't like lazing about on a beach."
"Actually, I thought I might do some walking," said Jennifer.
"Walking! Yes, ha ha! Walking to the nearest ice cream bar if I know you."
"I'll book it then," was all she said.
On the first morning of their holiday, they had finished breakfast, and Jennifer was in the bathroom while Nigel waited impatiently to get to the beach. Eventually she came out, and he was so shocked that at first he thought she was a different person. Jennifer was wearing a white one-piece swimsuit, cut low at the bust, and high at the thigh. A glittering chain was round her neck, and pearl studs were in her ears. Her hair was a blonde cascade.
"Wow!" his mouth was open. "You look amazing! You've obviously lost a lot of…"
"Weight," replied Jennifer, "You can say it, you know; I've lost weight."
"Well now you are slimmer, perhaps you will be up for it," he replied, the desire lighting his eyes. ("God, just look at her! Her legs so brown and gleaming! Had she had one of those spray tans? And her toes, in those high wedge sandals, like blood-red mirrors!")
He reached out for her. "We've got time…"
"Not now, Nigel." She was over by the bedside table, looking through the drawer.
"Even your feet are different! What have you done to your toes?"
She looked up at him. "My feet haven't changed, Nigel. I always have a pedicure before our holiday. You said it was an unnecessary extravagance."
She was putting things into an expensive-looking tote bag he hadn't seen before.
"What are you doing with your passport and your purse? You don't need those for the beach. They should be in the safe..."
Amazing how the desire in his eyes had faded so quickly. He looked like a sulky toddler now.
"Okay, you're obviously a lot slimmer. But you didn't need to do it, you know. We loved you as you were."
"I know you did, she replied, "but I did it for me."
"Then why did it have to be such a big secret? You could have said."
"Because when I talked about it in the past, it never worked. All that scrutiny… And you know, it wasn't really such a big secret. You could have noticed. You slept alongside me all these months, after all."
Jennifer went to the wardrobe, took out a multi-coloured piece of silk, and tied it around her svelte thighs, sarong-style.
She was by the French doors now, and she looked back at him, a man not quite tall enough, with thin little legs in spite of the gym, and just the beginnings of a paunch. She felt a sudden rush of affection for him. Her hand was on the door now.
"For goodness' sake!" He exclaimed. "How was I to notice? You always wore those fat lady clothes. You even travelled in one of your tents!"
"One of my… tents?
"That kaftan thing. And in bed… how was I supposed to tell? I never look at you in bed!"
"You never look at me anywhere."
The wind of the muslin curtain billowed, and in came the sounds and smells of the sea, the birds crying, voices calling.
"I am looking at you now!" he cried. "I am looking at you now!"
But it was too late. Jennifer Stone had disappeared, to a new life.