Preoccupied: A story by Siobhán Ryan

Fighting Words 2019: Siobhán Ryan is 15 and a student at Temple Carrig Secondary School, Greystones, Co Wicklow

I’m a prisoner. My eyes open and I stare at the ceiling, visualising the day ahead. I see a grey, wintery day, dark school corridors and hunger. A wave of overwhelming emptiness crashes over me and I’m numb. I dress myself. I look in the mirror. So many grey, cruel feelings come to my mind, but I ignore them and head to the kitchen and continue my morning routine.

I want breakfast. Just the thought of buttered toast warms me. But as I move to the cupboard the grey, cruel feelings snarl. My reflection in the mirror flashes to my mind. “You don’t deserve food. You greedy selfish pig,” says the greyness. I submit. These cruel feelings will cover the rest of my day like a grey cloud. I feel empty as I leave the kitchen.

On Mondays we have PE. I am changing amongst a sea of girls. “I’m soo fat,” Jennifer complains, touching her flat stomach. Everyone protests at once.

“Are you kidding?” says Gwen. “Have you seen my legs? They’re huge.”

“Your legs are huge! Have you seen mine?”

I change quickly so no one sees my body. If I was them I’d love myself. I wish I could joke about my appearance but I’m worried they won’t correct me.

Gwen is good at basketball. She says it’s a stupid game but when she’s on a team, they win.

Now she’s dribbling the ball towards the basket. No matter what she said in the changing room there’s no way she can hate her legs. They’re toned and tanned and on her the obnoxiously red skort actually looks good. I hate that skort. I never realised how ugly my legs were until the dress code forced me to frame them with a skort.

Gwen scores a basket and is praised by Ms Carson, the PE teacher, who then turns to me. “You’re not doing anything there, come here and throw in the ball.” I pass the ball but do not pursue it up the court. I don’t have energy to run these days.

“Don’t just stand there!” Ms Carson yells, “Be like Gwen and get a basket!”

Be like Gwen. I’d do anything.

It’s lunchtime. Gwen is eating a baguette filled with salad and Jennifer is munching on a bagel. They’re gossiping about some girl who is supposedly dating some guy. I smile along. My stomach is aching and empty. I wish I had lunch but when Jennifer asks why I’m not eating I tell her I’m not hungry.

“Are you sure?” Gwen says.

“You can have my apple.”

The ruby red fruit looks heavenly but the grey cloud in my head answers for me. “No thanks.”

“Can someone tell me how to find the area of a circle?” Mr Brennan, the nervous maths teacher asks the class, who are ignoring him. The emptiness in my stomach has reached my brain. I don’t think I could tell him what a circle looks like. I wish I was at home. All I want to do is sleep. Forever. Really, I just don’t want to get up, don’t want to live my life.

“Hey, wait for me, I’m getting the bus too!” Gwen is running to catch up with me as I’m walking up the concrete steps towards the school gates. “I am so tired,” she complains. “Same,” I reply, not lying for once. “Do you wanna go to the shop? The bus isn’t for ages,” she says, checking her phone. The small corner shop is stuffed with food. “Ohhh I love onion rings!” she says, grabbing a pack. My heart drops to my feet and is replaced with fear as she pays. I love onion rings. But eating them would ruin everything. I haven’t eaten yet, and I can’t give up now.

It’s starting to drizzle when Gwen opens the onion rings at the bus stop. The greasy, processed smell of fake onions is heavenly. My stomach hurts. I want to fill the void inside with crisps. I want to hide the greyness behind a wall of artificial flavour, stuff myself until I can’t feel sad.

Gwen shoves the packet in my face. “Take some,” she says through a mouthful of onion rings. I feel dizzy, weak and tired. I want to say yes but I don’t. I want to eat and I want to starve. I wish I didn’t care. I want to sleep. Please.

I take one onion ring after the most stressful decision of my life. I’ll make it last, it’s rude to refuse, one onion ring won’t hurt, I tell the greyness. I relax a little as I nibble my onion ring. Gwen is talking about some show on Netflix. It’s almost like before, when the grey thoughts just didn’t exist. A flame of happiness warms me as I chatter to Gwen. I could forget about everything if it wasn’t for the onion ring in my hand.

My bus arrives as I’m finishing my onion ring and I’m saved from being offered another one.

“See you later, Gwen.” I step off the bus and walk quickly up the hill, into our estate. The rain has driven the usual crowd of kids inside and everything feels unnaturally silent. The front gardens of the identical houses are devoid of the usual chatting moms and their screaming children. A single football lies abandoned in the grass. By the time I have reached my house, my hair is plastered to my head and my jumper is a shade darker.

I unlock the door and drag my bag up the stairs. I leave it beside my desk and sit down. I’d give anything to eat. To distract myself I pull out my books and start on my homework. It takes longer than usual, my stomach aches and grumbles. I get into bed and pull the covers around me, cocooning myself from the world. I can hear the rain thundering against the window. There are no thoughts buzzing through my brain, as there usually is when I try to sleep. I just feel empty.

I wake at the sound of my name. Mum’s in the doorway, her checked apron tied over her suit. “Dinner’s ready,” she says and goes back downstairs, towards the warm glow of the kitchen. A roll of thunder is added to the storm outside as I wash my hands.

A huge plate of chicken curry sits in front of my chair. The greyness is silent as I sit down and pick up my knife and fork. Mum is munching through double of what’s on my plate, but the fingers gripping her knife and fork are twig-like. I cut a piece of chicken in half, and in half again. I take a bite, so small that I taste nothing, and then a sip of water. I look over at mum again. Her plate is half empty. I cut up the rest of the chicken, until it’s too small to cut any more.

“Don’t you like it?” Mum asks. Her expression reminds me of a cowering puppy. I am almost desperate for an excuse to leave my food, but hurting mum is crossing a line. So I say, “It’s gorgeous! I’m just savouring it,” and force my face to smile. Mum’s face sparkles and a cloud seems to lift off her as she sits up straight. I mix my chicken into the rice and divide it into piles before scraping it all into one big heap. “Do you mind if I finish some paperwork,” Mum apologises after a moment, gesturing to her empty plate. “That’s fine,” I say, and she drops her plate in the sink and leaves the room.

I get up and close the kitchen door. I pick up my plate and scrape the curry into the bin. My stomach rumbles as the curry falls and I wish I didn’t have these stupid rules and could eat mum’s curry. I crumple some tissues and drop them on top so she doesn’t know. The greyness is proud of what I have done but now guilt is mixed into the emptiness inside.

I’m lying on my bed. I’m too tired to do anything. Even sleep. Do I even care what I look like if I feel like this? The reason I stopped eating was so I could be happy with myself. But I’m not. I feel worse than I did before. It feels like there’s a hole in my chest. My whole body feels hollow, not just my stomach. It’s too late to fill the emptiness with food.

My vision becomes blurry and when I blink, there are tears. I want to cry, scream until the grey cloud leaves. When the greyness told me it could help, I told myself I was going on a diet, just until I was happy with my weight. I promised myself I would stop, before it was too late. But now I don’t think I can.

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