"The eating thing:
the slouching beast
that's come to stay,
to splatter the slops
and foul the manger,
to snap at the hand
that tries to feed it, so
we leave it and we lie
in darkness, trying not to know,
not to hear it gnawing
in the next room, gnawing
itself to the bone."
It isn’t hard anymore, not really. It comes naturally now, looking without touching, seeing plump Chelsea buns laid out in baker’s windows or freshly picked strawberries sitting cosily in punnets on street stalls: seeing them and walking away. He no longer covets the chocolate bars his friends munch in free periods, the bags of crisps they tip down their throats - even the apples they crunch seem bloated and disgusting somehow. He has learned to hate the heady smell emanating from fast food restaurants, even trained himself to gag at the spicy scent of Mrs Patel’s cooking from the flat next door.
(she used to press homemade sweets into his hands when he was younger, chikkis and khajas, but now when they meet in the corridor he says no politely and smiles and tries not to see the look of worry in her eyes.)
The excuses come easy too, after a little while. “I just ate” or “I’m still full from breakfast” or “The canteen food makes me queasy”. He steers clear of the post-school outings to Pizza Hut, the late night drunken takeaways, the hung-over greasy spoon breakfasts. He drinks water by the litre, swilling it in his mouth, savouring the tastelessness as it slips easily down his throat.
No-one notices. It is spring, the final year of sixth form and his friends are wrapped up in the ecstasy of being eighteen, on the cusp of university, of adulthood, of life. They’re giddy with it, heads full of schemes and dreams and fears and love, like children half-lifted off their feet by kites, too light-headed to realise that one of their number is earthbound.
So no-one notices.
Until someone does.
Merlin really didn’t think it would be Arthur.
He wasn’t overly concerned about any of them, convinced he was covering his tracks rather well; but if he’d pegged anyone to be suspicious, it would have been Gwen. Gwen who only last week frowned when he refused yet another dinner invitation and said softly: “You never come over anymore. My mum misses you. I miss you.”
Or maybe even Lance, who latched onto his wrist to emphasise some point he was making about the book they were reading for English Lit, and suddenly looked surprised, his fingers looping round Merlin’s arm.
“Are you getting skinnier, mate? I’m pretty sure my fingers aren’t supposed to meet.”
And Merlin had snatched his wrist back, shaking down the long sleeved shirt he always wore nowadays till it covered his hand, and only then did he force a smile on his face and object to being teased just because he wasn’t some football team super-jock like the rest of them.
But Arthur? Arthur was… oblivious. In every sense of the word. From the little things, like never noticing when one of the girls got their hair cut, or when Gwaine got that extremely ill advised eyebrow piercing; to the big things, like not realising Freya was upset despite her silently crying next to him all the way through Maths, or the fact that Merlin was desperately, hopelessly, irrevocably…
Well. What good was being in love with Arthur Pendragon anyway? Merlin had allowed himself to entertain some small flicker of hope when Arthur and Gwen had finally called it off at the end of last term, but that flicker was doused pretty quickly when Arthur showed up to the pub after Christmas with Mithian from the year below on his arm. That night had been so strange, Merlin felt almost out of his own body as his friends laughed and joked around him; all he could look at was Arthur, his face, his eyes, the arm he had casually slung around Mithian’s waist.
(and she was so thin.)
Such a tiny, petite little girl, t-shirt pulled tight against her flat abs, long fingers fiddling with Arthur’s hair, tipping back her head to laugh with perfect white teeth.
Merlin was as tall as Arthur, probably taller. Is that why they didn’t fit together, is that why Arthur didn’t want to take him in his arms? Because he was the wrong shape, because he couldn’t fold into Arthur perfectly like Mithian seemed to?
It wasn’t that that set him off, not exactly. Merlin doesn’t remember this very well, but his mum tells him he was strange about food when he was little. Picky, she calls it.
(“it wasn’t that you wouldn’t eat love, it’s just you only wanted certain things. At certain times too. You went through a phase where you only wanted rice, then you swapped that for noodles. Then you started making me count aloud every mouthful you took.”)
His mum had put a stop to it after that, refused to make any special meals or play any games.
(“you were furious at first, threw some right tantrums. But then you just seemed to forget all about it. It’s just one of those phases kids go through.”)
So the eating thing, as Merlin euphemistically called it, wasn’t exactly new. During the stress of his GCSES he got into a pattern of not eating much as well, driven mad by fear of failure and unable to leave his books even for a second. But then the exams weren’t so bad and Arthur insisted on dragging him on holiday to that cottage in Wales when they were over, the one that Uther bought for Igraine just before Arthur was born and then never set foot in it again for the next eighteen years. Merlin had thought it might be sinister or just plain sad but the cottage was in surprisingly good nick, kept clean by a woman from the village, and if Arthur looked a little pensive when they first walked in, he soon cheered up.
As a ploy to get Merlin out of his own head, it had worked remarkably well. They went swimming every morning in the sea, and Merlin read on the beach while Arthur practised his footwork with a beach ball, and in the evenings they drank cheap beer purchased with Arthur’s cousin’s ID. And Arthur had shown himself to be surprisingly handy with a saucepan, his food wasn’t gourmet, but it was pretty good and somehow, with Arthur bragging opposite him about his amazing chef skills, Merin hadn’t found it difficult to eat.
He sometimes thinks of that holiday as the last of the good times. Because when they came back to school for Year 12, Arthur was suddenly staring at Gwen a lot more and Merlin realised to his horror that Gwen was staring back. And, sure enough, two months into the new term, at Gwaine’s ‘Who Needs An Excuse to Have a Party’ party, Merlin had drunkenly stumbled into what he thought was an empty bedroom to see Gwen and Arthur intertwined on the bed, lips locked together.
“Merlin!” Arthur said, but the worst thing was, he didn’t sound annoyed, just elated, like someone who had finally got what they wanted. And Gwen just giggled and the sound was so intimate that it cut Merlin like a knife, leaving him to choke out an apology and quietly shut the door behind him.
He had kept it together mostly, the next couple of months. Gwaine and Lance were convinced it was just a brief fling (and if Lance may have been a little too insistent on that point for reasons of his own, no-one was cruel enough to pick up on it) and even Freya laughed when Merlin would-be casually asked if she thought they were in love.
“Jesus, Merlin, they’re seventeen! Bit soon for that,” and the weight in Merlin’s chest lessened slightly, until Freya added; “It’s probably just wild sex at this stage,” and Merlin felt bile rise in his throat, sharp and acrid.
(he still feels that bile when he looks at Arthur some days, but he can’t tell if it’s just a side effect of the constant sour hunger pangs in his stomach.)
But soon a couple of months was six months, then eight months, then a year, and it clearly wasn't a fling anymore. Arthur and Gwen were no longer two, they were one, a package deal. They ate together, walked to class together, went home together. And when Merlin called Arthur at the weekends, to see if he wanted to go to the park or the cinema, Arthur had invariably made plans with Gwen. So Merlin waited patiently and went to the park by himself but Arthur was still never free so Merlin stopped going out and stopped calling and started spending his weekends in his bedroom with the curtains drawn and the television on.
He was eating, still. But the childhood games were back. He’d have days where he’d favour one colour of food, or days where he could only take bites in multiples of three, or days where he'd throw his plate away if any of the foods on it touched each other.
It didn’t feel like a problem. More like a source of amusement, something to pass the time.
But somewhere along the way he stopped snacking, because he didn’t feel like it; then stopped breakfast, because he never had time for it in the morning; then found himself skipping lunch before it was too hard to concentrate on class when he was too full, it made him sleepy.
He still ate dinner though, every night, with his mum, so he knew it was all okay.
But then the month before Christmas, his mum got switched onto the night shift at the hospital. So she wasn’t there in the evenings any more, and even though she left him ingredients, secure in the knowledge she’d been teaching him to cook for years, Merlin found he couldn’t be bothered. It seemed like such a hassle when he got home from school, and he was also so tired nowadays, so much so that he needed to go to bed the instant he got in.
And then it was the new term and Arthur was with Mithian and she was so impossibly small.
It's March now, and Merlin can’t remember the last time he’d eaten a proper meal. He keeps himself going, sometimes grabbing a slice of dry toast in the morning, or a yoghurt from the canteen at lunch.
He knows it’s not enough. He knows that the constant pounding in his head, the shortness of breath, the dizziness are warning signs of worse to come. He can see how his clothes hang off him, how his cheeks have hollowed out, how the skin stretches tight across his collarbone. It doesn’t make him feel good to look in the mirror, but it doesn’t make him feel bad either, not anymore. There is less of him there and that makes him feel contented somehow. He’s forgotten what he really wanted out of this when it all began but his mind seems to be guiding him to some sort of… nothingness. It’s like… he doesn’t want to be. Not in a dramatic, suicidal sense, simply that he has this vague, unarticulated thought that he’s trying to move towards a kind of disappearance.
It doesn’t really make sense but Merlin thinks that’s okay, because what does make sense anyway? They’re reading war poetry in English Lit and Merlin finds it hard to concentrate these days, he’s barely scraping by in most of his subjects.
(there’s a half completed essay under his bed due for next week and he has no idea how to complete it, so that’s what he does, hides all his unfinished work under the bed along with the ingredients his mother leaves for his dinner, wraps them tightly in plastic bags and imagines them rotting below him when he lies in bed at night.)
But he likes the poem where everyone suddenly bursts out singing because it makes him think that nothing really fits together, that they’re all just muddling through life waiting for the random and the funny and the tragic. And there’s no control, he knows that, but why not this one thing? Why can’t he be in charge of this one thing? Why can’t he eat what he wants?
It’s Tuesday and he is floating, drifting down the corridor like he’s airborne. The strip-lights above his head are passing in and out of his vision as he glides along and he’s happy and he’s free and then… and then suddenly the light is too bright and he’s not drifting, he’s being dragged down, inexorably, pulled towards the earth by some twisted force of gravity and there are spots dancing in front of his eyes…
“Merlin?” A familiar voice says. A blurred face appears before him, and he can barely make out the features but he’d know that voice anywhere.
“Arthur?” he says.
Then he falls.