Fatty | Dizz Tate | Granta

Fatty

Dizz Tate

Summer had turned to September and so it was time for my mother to bring a new man home. I could hear him on the other side of the wall, but his breathing didn’t give much away about his personality. On the other hand, I could hear my mother’s whole soul by listening to her sleep. She had a spectacular snore. It evaded every obstruction, rumbling across our house and, I imagined, through the thin walls to the neighbours next door. Sometimes I thought the whole road could hear her, and I imagined myself as one of a long row of neighbours in a line of beds, all of us tense and silent, waiting for the beginnings of my mother’s next note. She lived her whole life with the same fervour as that snore. Her bedside drawer was full of disposable leopard-print earplugs for her suitors, and condoms that she ordered in bulk from Amazon, an empty teabag nestled among them that she’d filled with lavender stolen from the neighbour’s hedge and a few drops of vanilla essence. I checked the contents of this drawer throughout my childhood, fingering the sharp foil packets, squeezing the earplugs small and stretching them back out again. Love was in that drawer, and sex, and these are the only two things in the world that have ever interested me.

My father left when I was nine. He had another family kept tidily hidden an hour’s drive up the motorway, and when the two women found out about each other, the other one forgave him and my mother did not. After this she told me very clearly that she was done with men in a serious way, but she knew herself well enough that she could not do without some male attention from time to time. ‘Is that okay?’ she asked me, the only time the question was ever posed. I didn’t really understand but I nodded and said, ‘Okey-dokey,’ which was the way I agreed to serious matters at the time. She kept her promise. She found her niche with men on the brink of divorce and brought one home for about three months each year, usually just after summer, when sun and skin convinced them to stray. She liked big, sad men. She took care of them for this brief confused time in their lives and then, more often than not, sent them back to their wives in time for Christmas, both exhausted and refreshed by her kindness and her coldness. I didn’t mind the men. They sat at the kitchen table and stared at me as I ate cereal, smiling to themselves and blinking a lot, like someone who couldn’t believe their luck and had to keep checking they weren’t dreaming.

Since I’d finished school, I’d been working in a cafe in town called The Tea Room. It was in the basement floor of a failing shopping centre that had been there for decades. A jazzier, shinier American-style mall had been built on the other side of town, with a cinema and a fancy burger place, the kind where they sealed the two buns with a toothpick to contain the overflowing contents, and an H&M. I never saw anyone I knew at work, which suited me.

 

One morning I was on the opening shift alone, and had to be in by eight. I pulled on my white work shirt from the back of the chair, and rolled up the sleeves to hide the ketchup stains at the cuffs. I found the tights where the ladders were highest up, with only a hidden, gaping hole across my left butt cheek. I stuffed my shirt into them, then pulled on my elasticated black skirt that held in my belly and just covered my crotch. I sprayed myself all over with Impulse deodorant, a scent I had decided was my signature. It was called Vanilla Musk. I probably associated it with my mother’s sex drawer, though I did not make this connection at the time. I covered my skin and neck in a BB cream that I’d bought a few shades dark to try and make myself look tanned, striped some glittery bronzer across my bones, rubbed rose Vaseline into my cheeks and lips and then ran a mascara wand through my eyelashes until they came together in dramatic clumps. My hair was greasy, and I pulled it into an aggressive topknot that elevated my eyebrows into two quizzical arches. I glared at myself in my mirror. I blew myself a kiss. I turned to the side, sucked in my stomach and pushed out my bum, following the curves with my hands, undulating them like little fins.

I didn’t know what I was doing but I figured it would be attractive to someone, this aquatic dance, this bare and bold admiration. I loved looking in the mirror. When I looked at myself it was like I couldn’t think at the same time. I was all body in there, enclosed in the glass, like a girl in a peep show. I didn’t even care if I was beautiful or not, it was a body to look at, and it was mine, and I could move it in so many interesting ways. It was a secret life I led in the mirror. I joined in with the other girls at the pub when we discussed our faults, girls much more beautiful than me complaining about jutting bones in their noses or thin lips, but I didn’t really believe what I was saying or agreeing with. All I had to do was imagine the mirror girl, like a mistress I kept secret, average and willing, brimming with unfulfilled desire.

My shopping centre, and I thought of it as mine, was a ten-minute walk from my house, straight past the shuttered high street with the DIY store, the newsagent, the pharmacy, the launderette, the bakery, the pub. It was one of the first cold days, the light white and crisp, full of back-to-school possibility, the return of order after the summer chaos. I was eighteen. I felt thrilled by the lines September drew, even though nothing tangible was going to change in my life that year. I liked the feeling of expectancy anyway, all tucked up inside me.

I unlocked the centre doors with my set of keys, feeling grand and important, like I always did opening up, like one of those businessmen or minor celebrities cutting a ribbon with a huge pair of scissors. The centre was silent, the beige floor freshly waxed, a smell hanging in the air like chlorine. Only some of the panel lights had been switched on, the rest came on at eight. I walked past the dark bowling alley, the neon lights of the two arcade games still flashing. Sometimes I saw girls coming out of there because the owner was a creep who let anyone stay over for a lock-in, served pitchers of warm beer to thirteen-year-olds if they popped a button on their shirts when they leaned over to tie up their squeaky clown shoes. Someone was turning the lights on in the ancient greeting-card place, which had recently undertaken new management and started selling penis pasta and sashes that read things like bridal slut alongside the teddy bears and fake flowers. I drifted past the clothing store that had shown the same stock for twenty years, shapeless V-necks and slacks with diamanté belts, and then the kiosk where the blonde woman sold chocolate-covered strawberries, expertly dipping half-mouldy fruit into a stout chocolate fountain, handing them over to horny-looking men who practically ran home, their berries squishing in the box. But no one else was around that early.

The pet shop was dark, too. It was right opposite the cafe so I knew its rituals, its timings, as well as ours. He never switched the lights on before ten. I took the opportunity to creep up close to the window. There sat the joy of the shopping centre, what I thought of as its secret heart. A white rabbit. Her hutch took up the whole of the window, by far the finest display in the centre. Stuck to the exterior glass were two posters showing a slimy-haired magician pulling a rabbit out of a top hat by the ears. The posters were faded, giving them the look of an old romantic film, and the pictured rabbit was small, fluffy and bright-eyed compared to the real rabbit behind the glass, who was larger with a glazed expression that made her seem as though she was always caught in the centre of a sigh. She did not look as though she would take kindly to being stuffed into a hat, or being pulled out of it by her long, silky ears. There were star stickers adhered to the glass too, and the marvellous magical f . . . written across the window in cheap red print that looked like lipstick. Often I thought it looked like something the rabbit had written on the window herself, like a cheap joke after a one-night stand. I had never been into the store, though I watched the rabbit often, and appreciated the novelty of the pet shop man’s commitment to her story, as an ageing celebrity past her prime. The rabbit had become imbued with this story for me: the way she shuffled through her sawdust, seeming to shrug, her bright red eyes aloof and seductive at once, her languid napping schedule, the way she nibbled at her lettuce, like a woman who’d been on a diet for fifty years. She wouldn’t have looked out of place with a cigarette tucked beneath her two long teeth, her water bowl swapped for the fizzing yellow of champagne. ‘Darling, I’m simply exhausted,’ I imagined her saying when she shuffled along sleepily to settle in one corner or another. She was somewhat famous in town. Kids with no hope of affording pets came to watch her for hours while their mothers blew on cups of tea at our tables, their eyes glued to phones, taking advantage of the free wifi. The children watched the rabbit with such hope in their eyes, but the pet shop man gave them nothing back for their devotion. There was a sign in the window in big black print demanding one child at a time, and if one brave kid dared go in to try and stroke her, I’d hear the pet shop man’s voice, sudden and bellowing from the dark of the shop: ‘No Buying, No Looking.’ So the kids stayed outside. I knew he still saw them, because whenever a crowd gathered he’d stumble over to the hutch, his hunk of a shadow hovering, and shove the rabbit around like some food on his plate he didn’t want to eat. He’d growl her name, the one he’d surely christened her with, Fatty or Fucking Fatty, when he cleaned up her neat pellets with a doggy bag, always loud enough for the kids and me to hear.

I’d only ever seen one brave girl protest his style of care, early in the summer. She had two tight braids and a voice high with a belief in justice when she called out: ‘Can’t you be a little more gentle with her?’ There was such a sweetness in the choice of the word gentle. It made me feel nauseous. I moved into the cafe door to watch, pretending to wipe the glass. The pet shop man picked up Fatty in one heavy palm, lifted her to the height of the girl’s head beyond the window, so the two were eye to eye, and then let the rabbit fall straight to the floor. She landed with a soft woomph back in the dust, her hair billowing around her like a ball gown. ‘Fuck you!’ the girl shouted out. But the kids all scattered, screaming with laughter, when the pet shop man bounded towards the door. It was the first time I’d ever seen him enter the shopping centre’s unforgiving fluorescent light, and it was only for a second before he disappeared back into his dark store. He had a name, and I know it, but for the sake of the story I prefer to call him the pet shop man. I’ve remembered him in so many ways. I’ve made him beautiful, disgusting, old, young, but my favourite costume to dress him in is the skeleton that was hung from the ceiling in my science class in Year 9, the one Lucinda Bailey was dared to give a lap dance to and did. I always remember that dumb joke of a skeleton as Lucinda rode him in a performance that stunned the boys into silence. It’s the most harmless form of a human I can summon, that loose skeleton, that stupid puppet of bones.

 

I set up the cafe that morning, following the same routine I always did, unstacking the chairs, wiping the tables, turning on the coffee machine and brushing the encrusted grinds free, changing the toilet roll and squeezing blue bleach in the toilet, clicking on the Spring Linen plug-in air fresheners. This all took about twenty minutes of my allotted set-up hour. The rest of the time I spent making myself an elaborate coffee that included hot chocolate powder, caramel syrup and a layer of marshmallows that formed a pink skin across the surface. Then I slowly and leisurely cleaned the front windows, climbing on the chairs to reach the corners, and I waited for the pet shop man to appear in the window to watch me.

He lived above the store. He must have had a back entrance to stop him ever having to walk through the centre. The store was pitch-black behind Fatty’s hutch. I only knew he was there because I could see the delicate white cloud of his breath, widening and receding, like some mysterious jungle flower, on a small square of glass near the till, a peephole between the opening-times sign, the one child at a time poster, and some ancient notices for funfairs. I pretended not to notice the breath, appearing right on cue as it had every morning I’d worked that whole summer. I reached cutely on my tiptoes to prise at a dead spider caught in a corner of the window, my skirt rising to a dangerous height, and in a fit of carefree daredevilry, I turned round, bent to pick up the window cleaner, and mooned a whole cinematic shot of my bum, feeling the cold air of September gracing the free exposed butt cheek from the hole in my tights. It was only a brief second, but when I turned back, the breath-cloud was widening, and even with my hazy eyesight I imagined I could see his lips, so close they were practically kissing the dirty window. Then I readjusted my skirt, clambered down off the wobbly chair, and when I looked back the cloud was gone as though it had never been there. Fatty was asleep, her long ears caught in her paws. Everything was the same, except for me, who had escalated. I felt enhanced and thoughtless and happy, like the girl in the mirror.

Mishka came in then, the only other girl who worked in the cafe. She was five foot tall, with peroxide-blonde curls and blue eyes that seemed to bubble. She stormed through to the kitchen. I heard the thwack of her bag hitting the floor, the clattering of her keys on the chopping board, the sudden blast of pop music as she slammed the radio on. She came back, tying the strings of her apron, which she folded in half so it was about the size of a napkin. She pulled her hair into two top curls with a child’s felt scrunchie, reached for a biro and stuck it in the formed bun. She was always doing effortless beautiful things like this.

‘How can you work without music?’ she said, her voice accusing in a way that made all my enhancement blur. She was pissy, so I knew her date must have been bad. She stabbed at the till with her candy-pink nails. ‘You do not know how to live.’

‘What was wrong with him?’ I asked. Mishka was committed to dating apps. She loved complicated lingerie and believed absolutely in sex on the first date, marriage after six months and never getting divorced. ‘If you know, you know,’ was her favourite thing to say, while she flicked through men or told me what fault she had found in her different contenders – some issue she had discovered, always before the six-month deadline. He was too English, or had referred to his ex-girlfriend as crazy, or forgot his mother’s birthday, or could not iron a shirt. She taught me a lot of absolutes she had about men. At the time, I ignored her, but I’ve come to believe she was right about all of them.

‘He said his sister was making a big deal about her wedding,’ she said. She said A Big Deal in a honky English accent that made me snort. She smiled then, and seemed to relax. She’d seemed to really like this one. He was a fireman, and she often called him ‘a real man’, like this was a rare find in a sea of dolls. She brandished a nail at me. ‘Never trust a man who says weddings are stupid. Every girl deserves a wedding and the man should say only yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!’ She said the series of yeses in a way that was increasingly orgasmic. I looked over to the pet shop instinctively, but there was no breath on the glass, and I felt a twinge of pride, like I owned the pet shop man and all his desires. I imagined a wedding between us. Back then, I didn’t think of him as the skeleton, but more as a formless thundercloud, a dark mass floating beside me down the aisle, breathing acknowledgements of my beauty into my ear.

‘Who are you thinking about?’ asked Mishka. I felt hot and stupid, but the phone rang and saved me. It was our boss. Mishka spoke to him in Polish, but he always said the same things to us. He’d had cameras installed that summer, and he called about twice an hour to yell at us for leaning against the walls or sitting down when there was no one in, or to tell Mishka she looked sexy when she came out of the toilet at the end of her shift ready for her dates. I’d never seen him, but I imagined him as a pepper-haired businessman in an illuminated office full of screens of my body in a variety of slow-motion films, bending over to wipe tables, cleaning the spout of the milk frother with a damp cloth. I tried to make my voice deeper on the phone when I answered, and said Yes, sir, when he told me to stop slouching. I couldn’t make my fantasy travel any further because he seemed to be a male incarnation of my mother.

 

The day began then, and I had no more time to think. The Tea Room had three different rushes. We had the regulars in the morning. There was a man who came in for a slice of white toast and a cappuccino that he liked to be all froth. He always told me about the weather in detail, including the predicted time of sunrise and sunset. I remember that day it was cold and dry. ‘My favourite time of year,’ he said, though he said that every time the weather changed. I think he just liked to have something to say. Then Georgie came in mid-morning when we were quieter. He always had a bacon sandwich that he’d have with half a bottle of ketchup and a builder’s tea straight after. He had epilepsy and he’d trained himself so that when he was about to fit he’d raise one hand up high so we knew to go and catch him under the arms before he fell. He read long books about war, and would talk your ear off about it if you didn’t have a distraction prepared. Mishka hated him, because he went on and on about Poland during the Second World War, saying he wanted to teach her about her history. Still, she caught him more times than me, had a sense for it when I was busy at the coffee machine. As soon as his fit was over, she left him in the chair and told me to take him a plastic cup of water with a sugar cube dissolved in it. She never said anything to him. After Georgie, there were a few young mothers who came in throughout the afternoon, the children rising in age as the hours darkened: babies turning into toddlers turning into kids straight from school. That was when we were busiest. We had a food menu that consisted entirely of the Tesco Value microwave meals we got from beside the station. Mac and cheese, chilli con carne, spaghetti carbonara. Couple of slices of toast. A sheet of oven chips, always crisping up on a low heat. A saucepan of spitting baked beans. Fish fingers. Hummus. The kids seemed to enjoy it well enough. They kept coming back anyway, making a mess, their mothers stuffing them with bananas and yogurt in the time between when they ordered and the food arrived minutes later, as if fearful the children would implode in fury if not immediately fed. It was my favourite time of day when the single mums and nannies were in. There was a pleasant warmth in the shopping centre, especially in the autumnal air, a feeling of yellowness, a warm place in the quickening dark. Even Mishka cheered up. She made a few cups of chocolate milk and warmed them up in the microwave, then came out of the kitchen to count the money and chat to me about her new date that night, an estate agent who ran marathons on the weekends.

She was still at the till when I cleared one of the final plates, one of the few stragglers left before we shut at six, a brat who’d only eaten two chicken fingers and then laid a bogie-sticky napkin over the salad bowl beside it. In the kitchen, alone, I thought of the pet shop man again. I took a bite of cold chicken finger and plucked the napkin off the salad bowl, revealing it had not been touched. I stared at the bowl, then slowly balanced the plate on the bin, keeping the bowl in my hands. The salad looked like the most delicious thing I’d ever seen in my life. The lettuce was the colour of lime, the edges frilled in an icy and delicate white, practically erect with freshness. The single tomato we rationed out over a whole day, one slice per salad, was almost a perfect circle, the fleshy, seedy insides plump as two lungs. I almost expected it to begin breathing. Curls of purple red onion intertwined round each other like locked legs or fingers, and a sour black olive lay tucked in the corner, puckered as a nipple. I held the disregarded salad bowl in my two hands like an offering, my mind traversing images of monks and beggars, baptism and stray cats lapping at milk, and I felt so overwhelmed with stimulation, so psychically and suddenly alive, that I almost dropped the bowl, but I didn’t, I clung to it like someone hanging on to life, and then I quickly sealed it with three wrap-arounds of cling film, and stuffed it into my backpack hanging on the back of the kitchen door.

We were running late, the last mother was still sat there at five past six, sipping the cold dregs of her tea while her son sat cross-legged across the way in front of Fatty, who was leisurely chewing her way down a carrot like it was a Cuban cigar. I understood the mother’s reluctance to leave, this rare moment to watch her son enjoy life without needing her. A fragile peace was drawn over her face. She wasn’t looking at her phone, she was just staring at the boy, who was only about five. The pet shop man wasn’t there, as far as I could see, and again I felt a surge of pride in him, that somehow he was feeling the same way as me, letting this mother’s love play out, understanding it. I imagined he was leaving the boy alone to enjoy his fantasy, probably of taking Fatty home, letting her fall asleep on his sweetly sloped stomach, how if he could only take her home he’d be good the rest of his days. I would’ve stayed watching them forever, but Mishka went and swooped the cup out of the woman’s hand and said, ‘We’re closed now.’ No one ever argued with Mishka. When it was my turn to kick people out, my voice wavering with apologies and bargains, the women didn’t even pretend to gather up their bags, just looked at me until I left and Mishka came back, make-up perfected and apron discarded, and they fled at the sight of her before she could even speak. The mother nodded at Mishka and paid. I watched as she dragged her son off by the hand. He looked over his tiny shoulder at Fatty like a romantic lead leaving the love of his life.

Mishka’s dress that night was dark green, strapless and short, shiny with sequins. Her hair was extra fluffy, her lips bubblegum pink. She had a faux-leather jacket, the material thick as flesh, around her shoulders. She wore black tights and tall, thin, neon-pink heels. The phone rang as soon as she came out of the kitchen. She picked it up, smiled, said something in Polish, then hung up before our boss could finish whatever line he’d had planned to seduce her with once and for all. ‘C’mon, I’ve got a train to catch!’ she said, linking my arm and pulling me out the cafe door, still tentacled to me as she forced the big old key in the hole, punched in the code to lower the shutter. She bent over, smacked a pink kiss on my cheek and tottered off towards the exit and the sparkly blue bar of the station beyond, sequins dropping in her wake like a trail of breadcrumbs. She stopped when she got to the door and turned back to me, screeching across the empty shopping centre: ‘Hurry up and live!’ Then she was gone. The lights clicked on the timer and half of the shopping centre’s panels softened into darkness. Everywhere was quiet and shadowy except for Fatty’s hutch, glowing brightly in the pet shop window like a low-lying UFO.

I walked over to it, crouched down like the little boy to meet her eyes through the glass, but she was asleep. I felt the salad bowl dig into the centre of my back, and I took a deep breath, pulled down on the straps of my backpack, and walked through the door.

The bell clinked gently.

I didn’t look at the pet shop man.

The store smelled like wet dog. There were no other live animals in there, just packets of brown food and a hanging display of bright squeaky toys. The shelves were half empty and looked sad. The pet shop man didn’t say anything, but I heard the solid thud of a phone being placed onto a flat surface. I felt his full gaze on my back, and I could smell the cloud of his breath, though it wasn’t the salty, lemony scent I’d imagined.

‘I brought something for her,’ I said. My voice was strange. I was grateful he didn’t say anything.

I stood behind the hutch, slowly removed my backpack and took out the bowl of salad. I struggled with the cling film, finally ripping into the tight plastic drum I’d formed with my teeth. The salad’s beauty had not lasted in my bag. It was limp and looked like a cheap salad that would taste of nothing. I quickly dug my fingers into it, lifting out the lettuce and shredding it in a green rain above Fatty’s angelically sleeping body, squeezing the tomato, pelting the olive towards her. My hands were sticky. I suddenly wanted to get the job done as quickly as possible. I wiped my hands on my T-shirt, manoeuvring the bowl between them, and it was then that I felt him behind me, the bulge in his crotch absurd as it pressed into my backside. I started to laugh, a little hysterically, the lump was so hard and he pressed it forward so confidently, like a cat presenting a headless bird as a gift. His arms looped around my stomach, and he began to sway gently. I mimicked his movement. I was happy I couldn’t see him, and wondered how I could picture this dance, what soundtrack I could apply to it. But then he started to try to twist me around towards him, shoving and patting me on the ribs and hips like he pawed Fatty around in her hutch. As I felt myself lose, knowing I would be turned without resistance, I threw my arms forward, shoving him backwards with my bum, and picked Fatty up. He didn’t seem to notice, and Fatty made no sound, though I felt her body shiver in surprise. When he spun me round harder, grunting now, to face him, I held Fatty up in front of my eyes, not wanting to look at him. It didn’t cross my mind that he would close his eyes to avoid the reality of me too. He must have done, though, because he shoved his face into Fatty’s with such force that she screamed. I hadn’t even known rabbits could scream. It was a metallic noise, the sound of prey with nothing left to lose, and I saw teeth, claw and fur rise up in shock, like a girl possessed by a devil in a movie, and he screamed too, the pet shop man, and dropped the handles of my body, and in the chaos I scooped up my backpack and ran from the store, turning back only once to see this new creature I’d created, the rabbit-headed man dancing around in the dark.

I ran, keeping to the squares on the floor illuminated by the remaining panel lights. I heard no steps following me, but I ran until I was out in the last glittering autumn light, everything dappled and glorious. The pub on the corner was busy, and everyone seemed to have a full glass in their hand, golden and sloppy. The football was blaring. Someone must have just scored a goal, because there was a note of collective joy in the air, like everyone was about to break into the same song. There was a tall lad in a tight white T-shirt leaning against the pub wall, struggling to roll a cigarette, and as I flew by he slurred, ‘Happy birthday, lovely.’ I turned around, marched towards him and caught him by the shoulders. I positioned myself on my toes and launched upwards, my lips hitting his at such a perfect bullseye that they both seemed to split at once, and our tongues and teeth and saliva met in a small and somehow delicate implosion, and then his friends, it felt like there were dozens of them, hundreds, but it may have only been two or three, were all cheering and screaming and applauding, and the boy was holding tenderly on to my backpack like it was a part of me. When we stopped to breathe, I didn’t wait for him to speak. I wiped my mouth and continued my walk home, leisurely, swinging my hips, unfurling my bun from its knot, taking deep breaths of the clean, cold air, feeling my life as a sexual being swiftly begin, as though someone had switched all the lights on inside me. For a moment, I was floodlit, awash with this exquisite, strange light, romantic as a swimming pool or a football field at night. I was blue and stunning and atmospheric. And then the moment turned into another. The lights flickered, dimmed, didn’t fail, but became instantly ordinary, and I was the same real person, no less excited but no more special, lit only by the panel lights of this unlikely universe.

 

When I got home, my mother was at the kitchen table. Her breath left a small fog on her chilled glass. She always kept a wine glass in the fridge beside the milk and the brown sauce. She would not touch a warm glass. There was no man. I could always tell when there was one in the house. She watched me as I fetched another wine glass from the cupboard, took the bottle from the fridge and filled my glass even higher than hers, almost to the brim. She raised the two careful curves of her eyebrows but said nothing. I did not sit down. I walked past her and ascended the stairs. I stood for a second on the landing, and then turned left into her bedroom instead of going into my own. I opened her wardrobe to reveal the long mirror that was stuck on the inside of the door panel, a mirror I never looked in. I perched on the bed opposite it, sipping my wine. The mirror was so covered in dust that it made my reflection look furred. The room was dark, but the mirror caught the street light outside and caused the shadows in the room to harden, splitting my face and body into a variety of anatomical lines. I stared at this curious, newly formed creature. I watched as the dust shivered and settled upon her skin.

 

Artwork by Hunt Slonem, Untitled (Pink Rabbit), 2018
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022

Dizz Tate

Dizz Tate has been published in the Stinging Fly, the Tangerine and No Tokens Journal, among others. Her first novel, Brutes, will be published in early 2023.

More about the author →