BY DAVID ROY
“I used to be fat.”
“Fat. Me. I used to be fat.”
There were just two of us in the compartment: me and the man who used to be fat. The countryside sped past. flat, featureless. Farms, cows, pylons...
“Oh,” I said, feigning interest. It was a bit of a balancing act now; taking enough note of what he said to avoid being rude but not so much that this developed into a full-blown conversation about weight loss.
“That’s good,” I said. I presumed that’s what he had lost, not what he currently tipped the scales at.
“I don’t know how much that is in kilograms,” he admitted. I didn’t care. I sensed that I was in the presence of a benign but chatty force of nature, whose need to explain could not be sated by just one listener showing moderate interest. Really, I just wanted to read my paper. It’s not as if it contained any good news but it was of more interest to me than this man’s struggle against the twin evils of over-consumption and lethargy. As I expected, my calculated praise of his achievements was not enough to quieten him.
“That’s why I have a baggy face.”
I took a moment to look at his face which was as described.
“It goes from the rest of your body but hangs around in your face.” He jiggled one cheek between thumb and forefinger so that I better understood his predicament.
His use of the word ‘hang’ seemed apposite as the excess skin left over from the ‘fat years’ was indeed hanging from his bones in saggy jowls, drooping eye lids and deep fleshy furrows which criss-crossed his forehead. Even his nose seemed a bit... pendulous.
There was no immediate escape from this unwanted conversation, so I asked him how he’d lost the weight. He was delighted to be asked. It felt as if I was the first man on earth ever to inquire about his greatest achievement and I wondered how often a version of this staggering weight loss had been delivered to eager, or not so eager, ears.
“I cut out the rubbish,” he said, his eyes almost glowing in the folds of his face. They were the glistening orbs of the zealot, the disciple, the pilgrim, the enthusiast. He had some sort of energy about him, something radiated and hopeful and zestful... “And exercise, of course.”
I smiled and nodded in a facsimile of admiration. It might have been genuine had it not been for the fact that I wasn’t in the mood to talk to this stranger. Had the stranger in question been an attractive woman I might willingly have paid more attention, but when does a strange woman ever strike up a conversation about personal epic weight loss?
“I cut out sweets and booze...”
I nodded again.
“And started an exercise regime.”
“And you feel much better for it?” I asked, unnecessarily. Clearly he did. He was a convert to leanness, an evangelist no less. My question was met by a renewed burst of enthusiasm for his topic. He had a captive audience and for a minute I imagined myself tied to an upright chair in an ill-lit basement while he paced around me extolling the many virtues of moderation in everything and the life-enhancing benefits of exercise. The image vanished.
“Oh, it’s unbelievable. Un-believ-able. I feel like a new man. It’s like anything is possible.”
“I don’t get out of breath going up the stairs. I can play football again. Did I mention smoking? I gave up smoking. That’s the single best thing you can do for your health? Do you smoke?”
I shook my head.
“That’s a good start.”
A good start to what? I had the terrible feeling that I was being inducted – by stealth – into some kind of health and fitness sect in which all material possessions were relinquished except a basic PE kit. I pictured myself and other trainees carrying out physical jerks in a pine forest clearing with coils of exhaled air spiralling skywards in the weak light of a Scottish dawn. Breakfast of unsweetened porridge, cold shower, lectures on health, mindfulness sessions in which the greatest challenge was not to fall asleep...
He breathed deeply and closed his eyes in some kind of muted ecstasy. I wanted to move compartment but I couldn’t be that rude. I wished someone else would join us so that he might direct his energies at them instead but that seemed like a vain hope.
Could I beat him down with words of my own? I wondered. Maybe he’d be interested to hear about the physical processes of metabolism in which fat stores in the liver and the body are broken down to release energy – respiration – the very processes which had made possible his transformation. Or maybe – and this was, from my point of view, a more desirable outcome – he would be so baffled and out of his depth that he would shut up. I didn’t want him to feel inadequate or anything. It wasn’t for me to smash his dreams. Who really wants to encounter an expert when on a mission to educate?
But it didn’t matter anyway. There was no stopping him as he proceeded to detail his exercise regime in terms of technique and repetitions. My brain wasn’t designed to absorb information in this format but I smiled indulgently and listened with intense disinterest. His manic enthusiasm engendered in me something like apathy.
When it came to describing burpees he found that words were not enough and so he stood and demonstrated, which frankly looked insane in the confines of our compartment. Bear in mind that we were hurtling along at seventy or eighty miles per hour and the carriage rocked from side to side as its wheels gripped the shiny rails below and add to that the frenetic and frantic exertions of this physical marvel as he threw himself to the ground performed a press-up and then hurled himself skywards like a human rocket to perform a star jump and you might have some idea about the scene.
An observer might have thought they were witnessing a trainee mime demonstrating their interpretation of an exploding firework. That this firework should detonate within the confines of a railway compartment designed for six people gave it a sort of terrifying gravitas.
Please make it stop.
But it didn’t stop.
It became less intense but it didn’t abate altogether. I enjoyed a brief respite as he slumped in his seat and got his breath back after flinging himself around. Sweat glistened on his moulded forehead but he looked happy and fulfilled.
Which was nice. For him.
When I thought about it later, deliberately slouched in an armchair, eating crisps and drinking cheap beer, it occurred to me that he wasn’t all that fit. His jerks had tired him.
I seized upon this intermission to look down at my paper, trying to weld my gaze to the page so that I could not possibly be diverted from my task. I wasn’t reading the words, just staring at them without comprehension. I soon discovered that he wasn’t a great taker of hints.
“Do you exercise?” he asked.
I smothered my irritation and looked up.
“An occasional run and I take the kids swimming sometimes.”
He was unimpressed. I hoped that he might give up on me as a hopeless case but the opposite happened.
“You should exercise more. A regular programme. Check your weight each day. Careful with the old carbs and sugars.”
I didn’t point out that sugars were carbs. He had unwittingly given away the fact that there was a limit to his expertise.
I smiled and looked down at my paper. I was in the cruise section, faux-reading about holidays I couldn’t afford and didn’t desire. Being trapped on a ship with someone like him befriending me gave me a vision of damnation. There followed a few minutes of peace and quiet. The rolling, lurching, staccato of the train wheels had a soporific effect but I leafed through the cruise advertisements in my paper, past the crossword and into the sports pages which I attempted to read as a means of fending off sleep.
I yawned. It was a genuine yawn and not just a physical hint directed at my tormentor. His silence forced me to look up. He was staring at me and smiling. He looked a bit demented really and I bowed my head to read after returning a brief smile of my own.
He was going to say something else. I could sense it and I was gripped by some combination of fear and despair.
“Just nipping to the loo,” I said standing. I left my newspaper in the warm patch I had created on the seat as if to preserve some little cosy haven.
But here’s where it gets odd and disturbing. Upon my return I discovered that my new friend was less animated than before. I was surprised (and pleased frankly) that he didn’t even look my way, for that gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in the news, terrible as it was: an article on the US President, a factory closing, the so-called migrant crisis, a footballer in trouble for some political statement or other. Terrible news – literally – but it was respite from his inane observations of healthy living in general and my lack of such in particular.
So, for a few minutes, our train surged through a blurred countryside and I lost myself in world events. I found some sort of muted contentment I suppose until my healthy living advisor suddenly slumped over, tipping out of his seat, his head hitting the floor hard.
I swore, knelt down beside him and then looked around for help. Another passenger – a man of girth shall we say – came to my aid, lumbering down the aisle, claiming to be a trained first aider. Not just a first aider but a trained one. I moved out of the way to allow him to do his thing but after what seemed like just a few seconds, during which he did little, he said, “he’s dead.”
Over to you, Doctor Crippen.
With difficulty, the trained first aider straightened up. I looked down upon the once healthy man upon whom he had lavished very little first aid and was shocked by his grey pallor. He was indeed very, very dead.
That night mindful of his advice, I didn’t go for a run, didn’t take the kids swimming and had sausage and chips for tea and ice cream afterwards. Later I had a couple of beers and watched TV slumped in a chair. For supper I had a bag of crisps.
The thing is, I didn’t die.
Someday... but not yet.
© Baggy Face, 2023, David Roy
David Roy was born in Bangor, Northern Ireland in the mid '60s. After a number of years in the army he left a life in uniform to read for a degree, ultimately qualifying as a secondary school teacher.
He is the author of many books, the first written in 1994 as an account of his service in the first Gulf War. His book The Lost Man, the first of his Ted Dexter adventures, featured on ITV's The Alan Titchmarsh Show where it was shortlisted in The People's Novelist competition.
As well as being a soldier, David has been a dishwasher, a teacher, a civil servant, a security guard, a welfare assistant and an ambulance crew member. He is married and now lives in the north of England with his wife and two daughters.
Books: The Lost Man, Smoke Without Fire, Absent Victim, The Bomber, The Avenger's Apprentice