Secretarial: The Temp: This is all a sick mistake

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The Independent Culture
AWFUL NOISE of the week: running feet, a banging door and the sound of retching in the cubicle next to mine. I'm feeling fragile this morning, and my ability to cope with this sound is severely limited to my ability to control my own gag reflex. I fight for self-control, studying the graffiti on the back of the door, and think, damn, I bet I know who that is.

Into my second week of banting, and with great pleasure I notice that the waistband of my trousers is noticeably looser, though I'm not sure how long my flatmates are going to be able to live with the lentil-soup farts, the salad breath, the thunder-like rumbles that erupt without warning and drown out the dialogue on EastEnders. My ability to concentrate has partially reinstated itself, in the same way that I'm sure starving people throughout the world retain a sharp sense, even when almost comatose, of who might have dropped a sack of rice in the vicinity. I can hear a KitKat wrapper drop at 50 paces, know instinctively when someone opens the fridge door, and have developed a razor-sharp awareness of who around me is in the same state as I am.

Everywhere I look, I see knees bigger than thighs, faces lined with the effort of living without fat, teeth protruding from flesh stretched over skulls. I see women filling themselves up with mineral water, toying with sushi, eyeing the cheesecake of the man at the next-door desk with haunted, longing eyes. I see women throw snacks half-eaten into the bins beside their desks, and wrap chocolate bars back up and stow them in the backs of drawers with furtive looks. I see muscles that have been worked to snapping-point in obsessive hours spent pressing benches or whatever it is they do in gyms, jawlines hardened by nightly gurning, skin like poached leather from jogging in the sleet.

And then there is Elinor, my prime suspect for the churning sounds emanating from next door. My obsessive eyes spotted her on the first day because joy obviously left her world at some point and never came back. Pale, drooping Elinor, no use to anybody in the morning because the effort of dragging herself in to work each day has obviously worn her out. Elinor, who has gone so far on the starvation trip that she has loose clothing to disguise her skinny ribs, huge specs that highlight how small her face is, hair tied back in a careless ponytail. Elinor is no longer banting to be beautiful; Elinor has lost the will to live.

I consider this as the retching gradually dies down to a few soft snuffles and, finally, a heartfelt moan. Decide that I'm going to give up dieting; not only is it making me obsessive, but it could lead to what's going on on the other side of the partition. I've worked in dozens of offices, and this sort of thing has gone on in more than I could enumerate: tell- tale smells in the loo, lunch-time misery, desperately low blood-sugar levels leading to tantrums at 4pm. Why do women punish themselves? You don't catch men doing it. If the price for all-round success - job, home, figure - is this, isn't it too great a cost?

Next door flushes, and Elinor shuffles out, turns on a tap. Thinking maybe I should say something, but knowing that I won't, and will probably just stand there nursing quiet contempt when I see her, I follow. She's bent over the sink, elbows on the top, splashing water on her face and looking miserably in the mirror. I start washing my hands, catch her eye and receive a wan smile.

The door bursts open and Brenda, a motherly Australian, appears, catches sight of Elinor and comes over. "Oh, dear," she says, "you off again?"

Elinor nods, dabs at her face with a dampened paper towel. "I can't believe it," she says. "I thought it was supposed to have died down by now."

Brenda pulls a sympathetic face. "My Karen was so bad with her first," she says, "She was practically throwing up on the way into the delivery room."

"Oh, great," says Elinor, "That makes me feel a whole lot better."

"How long have you got to go?" asks Brenda.

"Another four months," says Elinor. "I tell you, if it's always like this, Daniel can forget about having a large family."

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