Haywire dieters

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On Sunday, I was on a train, going to Bath for a christening. The journey from Paddington took an hour and 40 minutes, and there was a couple sitting across the aisle from me all the way. She was thin. When I say thin, I mean that her knees were thicker than her thighs and she had the wrinkles you get from having nothing for your skin to mould itself round. She can't have been more than 25 and she looked 40. And she was eating a packet of dry-roasted peanuts.

This was how she ate them. On to a piece of paper she tipped half a dozen nuts. Broke one open. Picked out the little round bit in the end with her fingernail and popped it in her mouth. Ground her front teeth on it. Then she snapped one half of the nut into half again, down the centre seam. Nibbled one of the quarters down from the end until it was all gone, then nibbled the other. Repeated the process with the other half. When the nut was finished, a full minute had passed. She sorted through her little pile like a diamond dealer in a mob movie, selected another and started all over again. Pick, pick, nibble, nibble. It was like watching a monkey eat lice from another monkey's scalp.

As we pulled in to Bath, her bloke stood up and said: "Well, now you've eaten all that, you'd better not have any lunch. You'll blow up like a balloon otherwise."

Forget absinthe: if there is one substance in the world that induces madness, it's food. Otherwise rational people suddenly come over completely barking when they get near the stuff. Put a quiche in a room full of dieters and you'll think the moon is full.

Years ago, I worked as a temp - as secretary for the PA to a director of a large City accountancy firm. Her name was Ellen and she was a couple of years older than me, married with a starter home in Essex. This woman was trustworthy in every way: pop stars trusted her with the details of their private lives, her boss trusted her with his wife's birthday present; the petty cash contained hundreds of pounds in foreign currencies. She was in all ways a model PA: friendly, intelligent, unhassleable, bilingual.

And yet: food. I never saw her eat a whole anything. She spent pounds and pounds on food every day, and most of it ended up in the bin. You could have kept a small village on the contents of Ellen's wastepaper basket: chewed, spat out crusts; half-Hob-nobs; sausage-roll pastry; the insides of Mars Bars: these were a few of her favourite things.

Our first lunchtime, I watched her squat up on her chair, tuck her feet beneath her and eat a banana with a plastic spoon. Well, part of a banana. Half-way down, she tied the loose peel into a knot and dropped it into the bin. The spoon she licked and put back in her top drawer with the Kleenex.

That wasn't all, though. When I'd been there a couple of weeks, things started happening to my food, too. Corners taken off. The second biscuit in the packet snapped in half and the whole one replaced on top. For a while I thought I was just having bad luck at the supermarket, but it became obvious that these things happened whenever I left the room. On my last day, I decided to eat my emergency chocolate ration. There it was, immaculately wrapped, in my top drawer. I was surprised to find it still there. I unwrapped it. Each corner had a small gnaw-mark. You'd never have been able to tell by looking at her.

We are none of us immune. The mania usually takes two forms: the secret vice and the public display. At all times there is a packet of roast beef and mustard flavour crisps in my bedside drawer, where most people keep their dirty magazines, just in case. Sometimes, in the small hours, when his wife is asleep, my friend Ian sneaks out to the garage where he keeps a kettle, a packet of Smash and a jar of mayonnaise. They have never discussed this aspect of his life, though he thinks she probably knows.

And then there is the other lot: the public ones. Like Linda McCartney forcing her dogs to eat vegetables. Or people who turn up to dinner parties and say "I can't eat that" about the coq au vin, as though it were arsenic.

Or the more extreme ones. Here's another story. It's true, cross my heart. A fashion shoot has been going on for three days. There's more than one supermodel there, and they're pulling the usual I-want-Concorde, I-want-a-bigger-dressing-room stunts. Miss Tits has been sulking about make-up, but Skinny has been causing far greater concern: she hasn't eaten since the shoot began.

It's Sunday evening before she finally expresses an interest in food. "I want scrambled eggs," she announces. The word goes round. Supermodel's going to eat! Hey, everybody! Supermodel's going to eat! Supermodel wants scrambled eggs!

The catering people have long since gone home (not enough work), so a gofer is dispatched to race across the valley to the nearest pub, which does sandwiches only. He explains the problem. "Oh, well," says the landlady. "If I can say it was Supermodel I cooked for, I'll rustle some up in my own kitchen." Which she does: a beautiful plate of scrambled eggs, just a hint of Tabasco, neatly triangled toast on the side. Gofer takes his hot-box and races across the valley. Everyone has gathered to witness this phenomenon, as no one has ever seen Supermodel eat. She is sitting at a table with a fag in her hand and talking to Tits. "Here are your eggs, Miss Supermodel," says the gofer, and places them before her.

"Fanks," says Supermodel, and stubs out her fag in them.

You see what I mean? Barking mad. Why else waste a perfectly good cigarette?

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