I was 12 when I choked on a small morsel of bread. It is difficult to say exactly when I choked: I don’t remember the day or the month, but only that I was 12 and that it was white bread and that, when it happened, I ran into the kitchen and told my mother that it was stuck in my throat. She said I should drink some water. She said the water would wash it away.
But the water did nothing. In fact, the small morsel of bread grew larger and larger over the course of that evening. Years later, my mother told me over the phone that she has always regretted giving me that piece of bread.
She actually said: I curse the day I gave you that bread.
We went to visit my grandmother’s house that night. I remember the carpet in the hallway: it was covered in dog hair.
Many years later, after my grandmother had died of dementia, I had a morbid thought: that the dog had now inherited the house and that the dog had lived longer, in dog years, than my grandmother.
And then I thought: when the dog was dead, the dog hair would outlive the dog; at least until another person moved in and tore out that carpet and made the house their own.
But when I was 12, I focused on the carpet. My mind needed something to focus on. I ran up and down that carpet and said I was choking. I said that the bread was growing inside my throat. My mother, naturally, thought nothing of this. I had always been seen as neurotic. This probably started when I was 9 years old. I had developed a nervous twitch of the arm: it would flex it quickly, like a bodybuilder showing his biceps to an audience. My mouth would open to yawn and I could hear my jaw crack. I still do this when I am nervous. I feel like my muscles are constantly at work, twitching and moving. I feel charged with electricity. A phrase I often say now is that my nerves are jangled.
But when I was 12 years old: a week had passed and the bread had grown even bigger in my throat. I rememeber thinking that the bread completely blocked my throat, that there was no way any food could ever fit down my throat again. I would put my fingers over my Adam’s apple and feel around, thinking that I could actually feel the bread.
And then I stopped. I stopped eating solids. I did not eat a proper solid food until I was 18 years old.
I live in a warehouse conversion in Hackney. It won’t be there for long as it is planned for demolition soon to make way for expensive flats.
This is the view from my window:
The room is small and convenient. It is cheap and I pay cash in hand to a landlord who runs a factory downstairs. Chinese people sew clothes for 12 hours a day and have faces like leather bags.
My view overlooks a car parts graveyard, a place where cars are stripped, where axels, calipers, windshields, exhausts, steering wheels and leather chairs lay strewn about the concrete surface.
Even here in the middle of busy Hackney, there is a kind of solitude, a small warehouse room where I feel myself turning ever inwards, thinking daily about my throat and swallowing.
I have always had a problem with swallowing. I see swallowing similar to the way I used to step onto the escalator as a child: with fear and trepidation, I went to put my foot on the moving steps, but didn’t, always about to, but aborting the movement until I had to take a leap of faith and just do it.
I was and still am conscious of the beating of my heart. I can see myself as a child about to take that leap of faith and can hear the fluttering of breath. It echoes through the years. I make the same fluttering now as I chew my food and make the leap of faith to swallow the food. Even now at 28, I can’t swallow food without a drink of water by my side. If I drink alcohol, the fear of swallowing is lessened considerably but I try not to drink anymore due to my temper.
The anger started just after I swallowed the bread. At school, I was often reprimanded by the head of the year for hitting people. Sometimes I threw chairs around. I threatened to hurt people. I tried to prove I was strong by punching metal poles with my knuckles. My knuckles would bleed or would be reddened by the impact of bone and metal. I can hear the sound now of my bone hitting the metal and I think of the anger as frustration, a frustration born from the fact that whilst other people my age were healthy, I wasn’t.
I was a runner at school, a sprinter. I used to run the 100m, 200m and took part in the relay race too. Although this may not have meant much to anybody else – it was after all, just school – it meant a lot to me. I had something I was good at. I thought perhaps in the future this is something I could do well at. But as the years went on, I couldn’t keep up. At 13, I was one of the fastest in my school and locally. As I became thinner, I became weaker. My heart couldn’t take it. My legs couldn’t do it. And there lay a source of frustration: not being able to keep up.
The only way to articulate my frustration was through violence. Even the films I watched were violent: Japanese films like Ichi the Killer, Abel Ferrera’s Driller Killer and countless zombie films. I never watched the films for their story. Instead, I would rewind and play the goriest moments, the moments where bodies were ripped apart; the moment the drill goes into the temple.
It was as if I felt I didn’t have time to consume an entire narrative. I had to consume only the essentials: the gore, the money shots, the one-liners. In many ways, my eating disorder not only frustrated me but also made me incapable of consuming literature or cinema or music in a traditional way. There were no beginnings, middles or ends: I started wherever I wanted. I moved through the narrative like I was convulsing: forward-winding and rewinding, forward-winding, rewinding, pausing and focusing on fragments. Becoming fixated on paused faces and locations, houses and the trinkets in the background; noticing things that had no bearing on the plot but felt like a secret knowledge, access to a world I had control over.
In Woody Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters (1986), I didn’t watch for the narrative: I was looking at the character’s bookshelf. And there, in the middle of the story, in the middle of a dramatic dialogue, I found and still find myself looking at a copy of Loon Lake by E.L. Doctorow sitting on a shelf, waiting to be seen, waiting to be known, waiting for me to consume it.
With books, I wanted knowledge, but I was too impatient to read the entire thing. I was too tired to read the books, too, with my stomach growling and, often, large ulcers the size of peas on my lower lip. I often imagined eating the pages of the books in order to consume the knowledge faster, an image that has stuck with me ever since. Instead of truly understanding a book on the pathology of mental diseases, I thought of tearing out a page – perhaps a list of plates showing hematoma auris – with the illustrations so alien to me, their colour and potential so great and then swallowing it whole.
It is difficult to mention dates.
It is difficult to mention specific events that mark this journey between the ages of 12 to 18. In many ways it seemed like a fever or, perhaps, a hallucination.
Reading a book review by Ginia Bellafante in the New York Times, 2008:
Mollie Fancher is never mentioned in “Going Hungry,” a collection of first-person essays on the allure of dangerously austere eating, but she is a paradigm for a view in which anorexia emerges less palpably as a humiliating physical and psychological affliction than as an elevated state of mind, an intellectualized hallucination.
It was a space in my life that I lost. I see it as lost time.
And looking back on it, yes, it does seem like a kind of elevated state of mind, a kind of intellectualized hallucination. And although it is difficult to organize my thoughts in regards to this lost time, there are fragments that come back to me, little pulses from the past that throb in my mind and remind me of the things I have tried to bury.
I often wonder how people write about themselves with such accuracy. People who write about dates or describe exactly what their family was wearing that day. People who write about the weather and then, in quotations, write down exactly what their brother or sister said.
It is what people call ‘creative non-fiction’. Memoir only means a written record, an account of a life. This doesn’t always necessarily mean the truth, of course. The accuracy I write of is there to colour the truth so it is more interesting, perhaps. Or to provide a presence where, in reality, there is an absence. To fill in that “lost time” I spoke about to provide a narrative structure to hold on to.
But this will not do.
In my mind, those years from 12 to 18 are truly marked by absence. And in the place of absence there is truly fiction.
This is where you disappear when you are haunted by reality. Fiction is, at least to me, a coping technique. It takes my mind of the images of my thin body, of the physical humiliation of those days, of swallowing, of choking, of feeling too close to my body. Fiction is alive. It provided the presence to my absence; kept me going when I thought I could no longer cope anymore.
The obsession that there was something in my throat. Reading about things people have swallowed, objects that were actually there. A boy aged 4 with a pair of toy opera glasses in his esophagus.
But then there is the idea of something there that is not. Upon reading Don DeLillo’s Libra (1988), Jack Ruby tells one of his dancers about his mother:
My mother, this is the God’s honest truth, I swear to God, she spent thirty years of her life claiming there was a fishbone stuck in her throat. We listened to her constantly. Doctors, clinics, they searched for years with instruments. Finally she had an operation. There was nothing caught in her throat, absolutely, guaranteed. She comes home from the hospital. The fishbone is there.
I am Jack Ruby’s mother.
The thought that there is something there, that there was a foreign object in my throat. It is June 6, 2016 and I note down in my journal that I should research this, perhaps talk to others who have or have had eating disorders because of a fear of a foreign object in their throat.
I have never been good at swallowing. I can’t take pills. Even with a simple paracetamol, I still need to chew it in half, or sometimes chew it completely, in order to swallow it. I refuse to eat fresh fish or cooked salmon fillets. If I do, by some twist of fate, do end up with salmon on my plate, I usually dissect the fish, trying to pick out the bones, much to everybody’s chagrin.
I was once at dinner with some colleagues and somebody saw me picking bones from the salmon. She said, “Even I taught my child to mush his fish up with the fork.” She suggested, then, that I did not know the obvious thing to do in this situation, this trick that everybody knew about except me. She suggested, I thought, that my education in how to approach food was lacking. And perhaps she was right. I don’t think I do have a very good history of chewing and swallowing food, or a good relationship with it for that matter.
I think back to a time when I was perhaps 4 or 5 years old. I can’t quite remember what the situation is, but I am sitting on the floor next to a chesterfield sofa and my mother is holding a plate of food in front of me. She twirls a fork around the spaghetti and then puts it in her mouth. She chews the food into mulch and then puts it back on the fork. She feeds it back to me. I eat what my mother has chewed.
My mother chewed my food for me, like a bird. This is called premastication. Although I believe that my mother did this with the best intentions, I also believe that it had an effect on me. In the act of chewing for me, my mother had already done half the action. There was no need for my jaw to learn that movement.
This translated into other parts of my life. We only ever had a bath up until our third house when I was 18, so when I was young I sat in the bath and let my mother wash my hair for me. I didn’t like the water going in my eyes and couldn’t be bothered to reach for a towel so my mother handed me one. She was my mother, yes, but also an extension of me.
With food, however, I think maybe my problems go back to this point, the point of premastication. Following that, it seemed I started to develop a heightened sense of my own body.
I was a vociferous reader and read anything that was lying around the house. Our bookshelves were often filled with pathology books that my mother had taken from work. I still read them to this day. I am still fascinated by the words in these books, the pictures, the cross sections and case studies of people whose bodies suddenly and without warning, wage war upon them.
Today is Monday 9th, 2016, 16 years since I swallowed that morsel of bread that grew bigger than I could ever imagine. I was on the phone to my mother earlier today. I asked her if she remembered that period of my life and she said yes. I find that difficult to believe. If anything, I have buried that moment, buried it very far into my mind and have, until now, believed that it was gone and that I was better. Now, for example, I weigh 10.7 stones, which is 67.94814kg, which is 149.8lbs. This is healthy, and I believe that I am a healthy man of 28 years old.
But there are moments when I twitch. My girlfriend, for example, says that I twitch when I read. I twitch when I concentrate. I make odd facial stretches and rub my eyes constantly. I frown and clench my teeth in moments of calm. I flex my biceps repeatedly until they hurt and sometimes I stretch the tendons on my neck and give a strange grin to nothing in particular. I open my mouth wide like a yawn, but no sound comes out except the crunching of my jaw on both of its hinges. I can hear ear wax slop just above those hinges as I do it.
I am not in control of my body. These twitches seem like pulses or frequencies from another time in my past, lost signals from 16 years ago. I am not better, it seems. Recently I have had difficulty swallowing in front of others and have also found it difficult to swallow things without taking many breaths – similar to taking a leap of faith – before a solid can go down my throat. When I am invited to dinner, I drink. If I am in a café I usually eat with my back to everybody. I eat facing a wall. If anybody looks at me, I find I focus on chewing, focus on breathing and swallowing. Then I choke.
Recently, it seems that there are some troubling foods: the raw carrot, for example, still poses a threat to me. As do peanuts. I can swallow a peanut, but then it seems to explode in my throat like a grenade and I feel traces of it hours later lining my esophagus.
When I was on the phone to my mother, I asked her what she thought of those 6 years.
She said: it ruined my life.
I pushed her for more detail and she said: Yes, it ruined our life. A friend once told me that you are only as happy as your most unhappy child.
There are questions to consider: Did I make my father’s hair turn grey? Was I a contributing factor to my mother’s hair loss? Did I or didn’t I want to commit suicide? Would I have turned out differently had I not choked on a piece of bread? Why did I hide food down the backs of radiators? Why did I flush food down the toilet? Why did I think that my parents couldn’t see me putting food into my pockets during meals? What would my sexual appetites be like if I hadn’t starved myself for six years? Why am I obsessed with looking at emaciated bodies? Why do I twitch? Will I ever return to the house where I stopped eating? Do I get along with food? Does food get along with me?
And so on.
At 10.00am every day, I would cook a tomato soup on an Aga and stir it clockwise. Never anti-clockwise. If I did stir it anti-clockwise, I would have to spit in the bin three times.
If I were at school, I would visit the tuck shop and buy a cup of soup. It filled me up only temporarily. I would wait until 10.00pm in the evening to eat another soup at home.
And then there are parallels between the routine in my life and the routine I found in fiction. Take, for example Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped  (1956). I watched it during the height of my eating disorder on a small television in my room. It was a cheap VHS and I sat close to the screen to see it in all its detail. The television was a round-screened thing, the cathode ray tubes burning through my retinas.
I saw my eating disorder as a way of doing time.
There was an almost religious intensity to the day-to-day routines. If I did something that did not fit the routine, I would punish myself.
I found and still find comfort in prison movies. The prison movie was a good coping technique to get me through this stage in my life. I saw something in the routine of prison and the routine of my life. Of course, my prison was self-imposed. But sometimes I thought that I enjoyed my prison, that there was a comfort to being confined, a solitude and fuzziness to being ill.
Again, it reminds me of DeLilo’s Libra, when Lee Harvey Oswald is talking to Dale Fitzke, ‘a cripple’:
What do you like best about the darkroom? It’s the way my room used to look when I had a fever. Childhood fevers were the best times…Do you remember what it was like, being under the blankets, sweating, as a kid? A fever is a secret thing. It’s like falling down a hole where no one can follow but there’s no terror or pain because you don’t even feel like yourself.
The eating disorder as a contradiction: that it was a something I desperately wanted to be rid of, but also found comfort in. The comfort of the fever. The pain that does not even seem real because you don’t even feel like yourself. The idea that the eating disorder is a heightened sense of intellectualism, that it is almost like a hallucination, a fever, a dream.
There are memories of being in my room, closing my door to everybody. Computer games, VHS tapes, DVDs, books.
There are memories of looking at pornography too, at naked women, breasts, vaginas, arms, legs, feet. These were the days before fast internet connections. These were the days when I would print off pornographic images on my computer and look at them. The images never printed properly sometimes due to a lack of ink or a shoddy printer. I saw women in fragments, in body parts. I fell in love with whatever image I had in front of me. Perhaps it was the torso of a pornography star, her legs removed by the printer. This was a problem back when my printer ran out of ink: I could never fully print the female form. Sometimes it was just the collarbone, strong and tanned and other times just a high-heeled shoe, a veiny foot and its anklet. I never saw the naked female form as one thing: I saw it in pieces. There, on a badly printed page, was what I thought a woman’s body was.
I think in numbers. Eating at 10am and 10pm. 12 hours. The age I developed the eating disorder: 12. Coincidences. When you watch your weight on a scale every day, you think in numbers. How many stones, kilograms, pounds. At one point, 6 stone. Maybe less. I couldn’t study mathematics, but I could study weight and pounds, stones and kilograms. Measurements of the body. Chest size in inches. Tape measures around my wrist and ankles, noting down fluctuations. Penis size in inches. Sometimes centimeters. Noting down growth on paper. Creating line graphs of subtle differences.
At dinnertime, my mother would sit at the table with my sister. My father rarely ate food with us because he was at work until late. So there we were, the rest of the family eating together. But I saw my mother and sister as two policewomen who were watching me constantly. Their eyes upon me. I put food in my mouth and chewed it. I chewed it and chewed it until it was mulch. I usually kept the mulch in the right cheek and then asked to be excused. I was allowed to go.
What else could they say? I think I used to see tears in my mother’s eyes. My sister would just look at her plate and say nothing. When I got to the toilet I would place the food in my hand and carefully lower it into the toilet so as not to make a splash. There was a window above the toilet that could be opened and I could throw the food out of that. It is difficult to remember what kind of window it was: was it a sash window or the type that opened to the left with a latch?
This eventually had to stop because my father found the discarded food just below the window one evening. I don’t remember what evening it was, but that does not matter. He found it, which is what matters. I threw the food out the window, which is what matters.
The house was a Georgian house and I remember this because I liked history. I learnt about how a Georgian door was different to a Victorian door, for example. I learnt how the style of a Georgian house was nicer than that of the far more ornate, gothic inclinations of the Victorian house.
I liked to run my fingers along the sandstone of our house. I like surfaces. In our living room there was a marble fireplace that I would run my fingers across every day as a matter of urgency. If there were any other marble objects or surface in that room or, in fact, any other room of the house, I would have to touch them too. Routines. Following routine. If I didn’t follow the routines, perhaps something terrible would happen. Touching marble, stirring soup. Limiting a life to movements, to the feel of things.
I didn’t just discard food down drains, toilets or throw it out windows. I would sometimes place the food down holes in the floor, too. In the upstairs bathroom, there was a boiler cupboard and just next to the boiler was a deep, dark hole where the pipes ran down underneath the floorboards. I would place the food down there and hope that my parents never found it. But it created this smell, similar to vomit, that I think my mother noticed but said nothing about.
Why did you do it?
My mother asked me this. We spoke about it the way we usually spoke about it: with pauses, breaks, sighs. There was no fluency to conversation when we spoke about this subject.
Why did you do it?
As if I had a choice. I don’t remember the exact day or the exact month when it started.
But who would willingly choose to put themselves through this? Going to bed and raising my arm above my head and holding my wrist to see how much room there was between finger and wrist. Checking if bodily functions were working.
Masturbating into aerosol caps.
The routine: clockwise, always clockwise. Superstitions: if you see something bad, spit on the floor. If you step on a crack, spit on the floor. If you’re in public and can’t spit on the floor, spit into your sleeve. Sleeves dried with spittle, mucus. Lips constantly lined with ulcers. Going to bed starving. Crying myself to sleep. Punching walls with frustration. Holding knives to my wrists most weeks. Of course, some days these were sharp knives, other days these were butter knives. I was not educated in the ways of suicide yet at the age of 13 or 14.
And then I remember speaking to my sister about it, some years later. What happened, she asked me. I don’t know. It just happened.
Then there was a pause.
Always the pause.
Not knowing what to say.
And then she said: mum always wondered if you were abused.
As in touched?
By somebody, maybe, yes.
I said I hadn’t been abused but it placed an idea in my head that perhaps I had.
I don’t remember the exact date or exact day that it happened.
Perhaps I had. Perhaps I thought I had been.
Sixteen years later, I spoke about my eating disorder with my mother. We spoke on the phone. It was Tuesday night at 20:38 and lasted for exactly 1 hour. I know this because it happened now. I remember things now because I want to remember them.
The first thing we spoke about was the fact that I was writing this book. I asked my mother if it was a good idea to write this and she said yes. I asked for permission, as if this disorder was not mine. She said it was mine and that it was a good idea to make something positive out of something so overwhelmingly negative.
Then I spoke about how I don’t remember things so well from this period in my life and asked what she remembered.
She said: I remember your face. You had a face that was hard as nails, but you were scared. You were a scared boy. And you were a teenage boy too, so I had to be careful with what I said, but you were scared.
She said: It was like you weren’t there.
I asked her why I couldn’t remember things, why we never spoke about things when this all happened.
She said: No words. There are no words. It was like walking through a fog.
When she compared that time to walking through a fog, I am immediately reminded of the hallucinations, the fevers.
She said it was like it was all happening in slow motion.
And after she spoke about the fog, she said: we weren’t getting any better. At first I found it strange that my mother combined us into one entity, but she was right: it wasn’t just I who went through this, but it was my mother, my father and my two sisters too.
She said: I couldn’t see a future for both of us. Again, combining our lives as one. This sentence is usually a sentence one reserves for relationships, when things have ‘run their course,’ when things have become untenable. The relationship between my mother and I as blood. The fact that she chewed my food for me as a child. Premastication. That people see premastication as a form of kissing. The bond between mother and child.
She said: I feel like I could’ve done more. I felt I was going to lose you. I thought about hospital, but I think it would’ve broken you. I don’t think you could’ve been away from your family.
Isn’t this just a mother’s wishful thinking? Was it really a benefit to me to stay at home? Or, perhaps, was it my mother who could not bear to be away from her son? Perhaps I would have ‘got better’ quicker, more efficiently had I gone to hospital. Perhaps not.
There are no words.
It is difficult to glean answers through the fog and fever of memory.
My mother revealed that she would put things in my food when I wasn’t looking. She called this sugar bombing. It was, in many ways, for her, an act of warfare: my mother versus this other version of me, or, what she termed, unconfidently, the ‘chemical imbalance.’ Every evening she would make me hot chocolates – “the most calorific there was” – and would put so much sugar in it that you “could stand a spoon in it.” I don’t remember this because I didn’t see it. I wonder what else there was that I didn’t see.
She mentioned how every evening she would be throwing food away, throwing it all in the bin and that she panicked. She mentioned that there was, on top of this ordeal, the problem with my grandmother.
It is worth noting here that there are some facts and figures that my grandmother and I share, things that I believe are not merely coincidence.
My grandmother, Anne, was born on the 19th of February, 1921. I share the same birthday as her. When I was born, her husband, Walter – my grandfather, my mother’s father – died of a heart attack. I never knew him. I have heard countless stories about him, especially from my Uncle Mike, an uncle I am fond of, a man who has the ability to weave amazing stories from our family’s history.
The fact that I shared the same birthday as my grandmother is something I remember from an early age. ‘Birthday boy,’ she would call me in her house in Wolverhampton. She died in a care home not far from that house on the 14th February, 2003, 5 days shy of her 84th birthday. I didn’t visit her in the last few months of her life because I was too scared to see her. I was young and immature. I remember going to visit her in the care home and not being able to talk to her. She didn’t know who I was. Other times her face would light up as if in acknowledgement, but even this was in doubt.
My grandmother had, according to my mother, vascular dementia. “It was her trip to America,” my mother said. I asked when this was because I couldn’t remember. The early 90’s, my mother said. She went to visit my Aunt in North Carolina and, on the way there, she got deep vein thrombosis. And then, when she returned, my mother said: “she was a completely different person. She never smiled again.”
I found this disturbing: that somebody can leave a place as one person and return as another. Sickness as an act of bodies replacing bodies, or like a magic show – somebody entering a box as one thing and leaving as another. I feel this way with my grandmother and myself: we were one self, then we were another self. We changed overnight. My parents lost a son. My mother lost the mother she knew and gained a new mother, a mother she had to reeducate herself in.
I was new to myself too.
The things I thought I knew about myself had changed instantly. Being inside your body is not an unconscious act but, to me, an act of constant reeducation. You learn to adapt. I couldn’t eat solid food, so I had to find something. Soups, yoghurts, mousses. I couldn’t sit still because of my bodily convulsions so I found secluded areas. I hung out in empty classrooms. Towards the end of my illness, I actually locked myself inside my form room at lunchtimes and ordered as much food as I could from the tuck shop. Beans, toast, hash browns, sausages. Each food required a unique understanding between tongue, throat and texture. The sausage was different because of the skin casing, something I still discard to this day. Beans were difficult at first, but proved to be the easiest to swallow. Carrots were difficult because I seemed to just chew and chew and chew and it never ended.
It was the texture of the food. Some textures work, some don’t. This is still true now. Some foods are easier swallowed in seclusion, some better in groups. For example, I can’t eat a rump steak at a restaurant because it will just be chewed into a grey ball, which I, more often than not, put into a napkin. Crisps are a great food to eat in groups because although they are sharp and potentially dangerous – a shard, I think, could tear my throat, maybe go down the wrong way – they actually make their presence known in my mouth. I like the confidence of the crisp. You know it is there, in your mouth and you feel it go down your throat. Some foods feel weak, almost as if they are not there at all and this is when things become dangerous. This is when I need liquids to help ease it down my throat. In Louis Elsberg’s book on the throat, he mentions that the throat does so much work for the human body, almost a thankless task; but I do not see it this way. I feel my throat needs an intern and that intern is water.
There were moments in our life – my mother, my two sisters – that were punctuated by my grandmother’s increasingly erratic behaviour. I remember that we would visit my grandmother every evening with a plate of hot food that my mother cooked. My mother cooked for her every night without fail. We would drive the car to her house and knock on the door. I rememeber the colour of the door and what kind of doorknob it had. I remember the fireplace in the living room, which wasn’t really a fireplace but one of those old fashioned electric heaters, embedded in the hearth, surrounded by mustard coloured tiles. On the mantelpiece there were family photographs. There was one of my grandmother’s sister Kathleen. She was said to have died of a brain hemorrhage. Even then, at a young age, there was talk of bodies and death, of hemorrhages and heart attacks. There was my grandmother’s other little sister, her name I forget, who, when she was around 9 years old, cut her leg open from a fall. She died. These were the days when people died from cuts and colds and flus.
I remember the television, too. Like the fireplace it was old fashioned and made from wood. You had to turn a dial to change the channel.
Enter the living room and the fireplace was directly in front of you. To the left of the door was a large table and just to the left of that on the left-hand wall was a cabinet where records were kept. There was a record player just underneath and I remember listening to Dinah Washington and Glenn Miller and Buddy Holly. I also think of those three musicians in terms of their deaths, too: Dinah Washington died of a drug overdose at 39; Glenn Miller went missing over the English Channel at 40; Buddy Holly died in a plane crash at 22.
I think back to the photographs on the mantelpiece. These photographs were always a point of reference for us as a family. We would pick one up and talk about it, maybe hear a story about them from the past. During the Blitz when me and Nelly went out during an air raid. We went to the Civic. We could hear airplanes. These photographs were windows into a family history, a collective memory. These photographs – taken on a film camera – are carefully chosen moments. These are memories we have chosen to remember.
Only the other day at a birthday party in Clapton, I sat for at least five minutes as a friend of mine captured the ‘moment’ and then deemed it not good enough: we captured several moments, but I don’t believe we captured ‘the moment’. I was tagged in the photograph, my name close to her name, but there was no connection here: it was, in fact, just a forced souvenir of an evening. This is the way most nights out, these days: waiting for the moment where we can take the photograph and be done with it all, capture the moment in all its perfection and then breathe a sigh of relief.
There was something about these photographs on the mantelpiece that were rich, like food. There were levels to the photograph, levels of life. As a teenager, I often wanted to eat these photographs and digest the history that way. Even upon reading Susan Sontag’s essay on photography, I see the phrase ‘image-choked world’ and think not of too many images, but images literally forcing their way down my esophagus, the photograph as a piece of food, a desperate way to internalize the photograph, a way of absorbing it in a kind of cannibalistic way, of owning it and all the knowledge that exist in its layers.
It is with these photographs that I saw the first signs of my grandmother’s illness. She began to turn the photographs around: she thought they were looking at her. She became dismissive of the people in the photographs. These two dimensional images were, to her, three-dimensional. They had eyes. They were watching her and watching us.
Magazines, too, were turned over: images on the front of Hello magazine were watching. The gaze of the photograph was real.
As my grandmother’s illness became more pronounced, she was moved to a care home. This was and I believe still is a point of contention between my mother’s side of the family. But what we all agreed on is the savagery of vascular dementia as a disease. It takes away memories, one by one. I think back to the photographs and the way they, too, went through a form of degeneration. They were, once, a point of reference and a jumping off point for stories; then they became real human beings, agents of paranoia for my grandmother. And, finally, they lost both their history and their ability to spy on her: they became pieces of paper. The memory of my grandmother seemed like a Polaroid in reverse, the image once existed in all its clarity and, then, in what seemed like minutes, turned milky white and then disappeared altogether.
I find that my memories of the eating disorder are like Polaroids too.
Some things I remember about my grandmother: the smell of her urine. Her wrists getting smaller the closer she got to death. The care home.
I do not remember much about the care home except for the hand rails. I remember thinking that hand rails to assist the elderly down hallways were a depressing sight. This is what I think every time I see a handrail now.
I remember the house, too. We returned to the house a lot, even when she wasn’t in it. The dog still lived in the house. My mother wandered around the house, tidying, hoovering. My mother constantly cleaned that house and she constantly cleans the house she lives in now.
The conversation between my mother and I ended at 21.38pm. That was the first time we had spoken about what happened, at length, for 16 years. We had both been guilty of trying to forget what happened. For me, the act of forgetting was a necessary tool to ‘get over’ the eating disorder and my fear of choking on food. It is only recently, now that I have started to find it difficult to swallow again, that I realised nothing was overcome. I didn’t ‘get over’ anything. To add to the idea of a polaroid, let’s think of a metronome ticking back and forth or me, as a teenager, rewinding, playing and rewinding the same scene over and over again. This is what happens to the memories: they drift away and then they return. The Polaroid turns to nothing and then, going forward again, the image returns.
 Original title: Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut
 Two Kingston University students, Joshua Lake and Luke Evans swallowed two capsules containing 35mm film so they could take pictures of their insides. Acids and enzymes seeped onto the film and created photographs that looked more like apocalyptic landscapes than something medical.