No one had noticed just how much weight she’d lost. Her plan was indeed working. She watched the machine spin the clothes again in the oh-so-near boiling water. The threads pulling tighter and tighter together.

She’d managed to keep most of the same clothes as she slimmed down. The idea had come to her one day as her mum had accidently put the old machine on a 90 degree wash and everything came out smaller. It was an old washing machine and the markings on the dials had rubbed off in most places.

It was a reasonably good disguise. No one questioned, no one saw. If she needed new clothes she’d ask for the money and went out herself, buying a larger size, always 100% cotton, and then she’d put it through the same torturous procedure. If her mum ever noticed the sizes on the labels it seemed as if she was a reasonably regular ‘size’.

She hadn’t kept down a meal in a long time. She’d become a dab hand at making herself sick and arranging leftovers of meals on the plate so that it looked artistically empty. Her mum always told her that she was far too cunning for her age. She was barely sixteen and was living in the frame of an emaciated child. Her extraneous skin hung in wrinkled clumps, hidden under the shrunken cotton.

In front of the body length mirror hanging over her bedroom door she’d stand and stare every night.

It never seemed enough. She’d lay on her bed, lost on the expanse of her single sized mattress, the pillow more a sponge, absorbing its fair share of the saltwater dripping off her cheekbones, defined and sharp. God knows what else she could do. There was still so much to go.

She wanted to be reminiscent of her mother, stick thin in a flower-print maxi-dress, tightly hugging her waistline. She wished she could look so slender, so rarefied. She wished she could fulfil all of her mother’s dreams, all the dreams that had shattered when she had come into existence. Her mother gave up so much to have her. Why couldn’t she be her perfect china doll daughter? A glowing example of the elegance, the sleek beauty she’d seen in that precious photo of her mother, taken before it all went so wrong, the photo she watched her mother burn in a bitter rage on the open fire when she was only seven. She could still remember the smell of those photos, burning one by one, turned to white ashes and the black smoke disappeared up the chimney stack, amongst the embers no remains of the past they told amongst the embers.

In the morning, she stood weak in the kitchen, gulping down glasses of water. She got herself ready for school, taking her shrunken blouse from the ironing pile that her mother had worked through the night before. Her father had long gone to work, though she hadn’t heard him leave before dawn broke, she knew that he wasn’t there. And her mother had gone off to the church. It was Tuesday and she would leave early to organise the weekly cake mornings. Yesterday evening the tangy scent of freshly baked lemon sponge filled the house. She was certain it would’ve been a wonderful, tart sponge with gorgeous lashings of buttercream icing, decorated with crystallised lemon peel. But she hadn’t gone to see it. Her stomach panged when the aroma had hit her, like a punch to the gut.

She’d long realised that it was much better to not see such things, they were only temptations that fought against her will to drop those last few pounds. Her mum could’ve baked for a Parisian patisserie. That’s why her little girl had bloated so much in the first place. This tubby, waddling girl. These days the others at school never called her an ‘elephant’. Or even a ‘hippo’. But she knew they all thought it. Her mother must’ve thought it too. She’d have put the cakes straight into her well carried tins as soon as they cooled, she didn’t offer anyone a slice these days.

The blouse felt loose, and she wondered if she should hot wash it again. So trembling and weak were her legs that she wondered how she’d get to the hall, and then from the door to bus stop. She stood there, holding the worktop like a crutch, looking at the dial on the washing machine, its door hanging at an angle from its hinges. Her mind, slow and as trembling as her knees, looked at the skin hanging from the bones of her fingers against the white melamine worktop.

She took a nearby dishcloth. Slowly and carefully wiping any moisture from the inside of the washing machine door, she kept one hand on the counter to anchor her gaunt frame steady. She turned the dial and made sure it was at a 90 degree wash, and double checked, triple checked. She pressed the on button. The orange light came on and the machine sat, waiting.

Back from the church her mother opened the door, poised with a giddy smile cautiously painted on her lips in crimson red lipstick. She told him to wait behind her as she called out to check if anyone was in. She dropped down the empty cake tins at the door which they closed behind them with one twist of the deadlock and he came in and took the lead, walking straight up the stairs. The caretaker from St. Kentigern had been here once before and the route to the master bedroom was still fresh in his mind from last Tuesday.

He only had time for a cuppa when they came back downstairs, and in the kitchen she filled and turned the kettle on. Noticing the orange light was lit on the washing machine she wondered if she had put a load on before she had left, knowing that she hadn’t. She clasped the handle and opened the door. The caretaker had never heard such a piercing scream. He dashed through the doorway and stood stupefied by the view in front of him. A bruised, twisted, skeletal arm, hanging out over the grey rubber seal, limp and lifeless.

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