It happened again the other day. Was just sitting in the coffee room, minding my own business, when a nice lady I vaguely knew came over to me, smiled kindly, and asked ‘Sooooo, when’s it all happening?…’
I immediately thought she must mean my (very exciting) exhibition of drawings in a pub; or maybe she’d just seen the interview I gave about it on local TV. But before my brain had the time to register and process this information (hang on; she doesn’t know about either of these things), I could already see what she meant by simply following her gaze: she was looking, kindly and expectantly, at my stomach – which, comfortably swollen and rounded after just too many helpings at dinner, was looking a bit fat in exactly the wrong place.
You see, I am afflicted by a mysterious and too-little-known condition: the phantom food baby. Pretty much every time I eat a bit more food than is good for you, I pay for it not in weight gain, but in a temporary food-baby-belly. And I usually don’t even realise. Kindly strangers nod at me in shops, and move out of my way; old ladies fall over each other to give up their seats for me on the bus. Security guards bark at me to get away from the X-ray scanner, in airports and government buildings. And it always takes me ages to twig.
Over the last few years, my tummy’s already impressive capacity for accommodating extra helpings of food has surpassed itself. I used to feel a bit stuffed whenever I ate too much. Now it merely expands outwards.
‘Oh, this?’ I say in response to the nice lady. (I’ve handled this situation so many times, I’m a pro.)
‘Haha, this is my pizza baby’, I tell her with a smile, patting my stomach. ‘It’s from eating too much pizza.’
A look of muted horror crosses the lady’s face. I don’t want her to feel bad about her little faux pas, so I plough on with my explanation: I get this a lot, she’s not the first to make the mistake, it literally happens to me, like, all the time; my friends think it’s hilarious. I tell her story after story, going on and on, and only realising about five stories in that I am in fact just making her more and more mortified, and that she is wishing the ground would swallow her up and that she would die.
It’s not all bad. I can’t tell you how many times I have been warmed by the generosity of strangers who scrabble to offer me a seat on the Tube. (A pregnant friend once complained on Facebook about how no-one ever did this for her; I don’t know what she was doing wrong, because all I have to do is unbutton my coat and slouch down a bit and it’s like I’m Moses parting the Red Sea.) There are also fun games you can play with the food baby: they include ‘Scare Away the Man’ (to play this game, you need a food baby and some unwelcome attention from an annoying man; stick out your stomach and caress it visibly, and watch the man melt away); another good one is ‘Is She or Isn’t She?’ (To play this game, you need your food baby, a reasonably full carriage on the Tube, and some people to notice you. Wait until they offer you a seat, and when they do, smile magnanimously and say ‘Oh, no, but thank you.’ Pretend not to listen as the nice people spend the rest of their tube ride shamefacedly conferring on whether they were wrong or right. ‘Erm, I thought she was… I don’t know now… She IS, isn’t she?… Is she?’)
OK; I exaggerate a bit (I’m not really that mean), and besides, the joke’s on me; I eat so much that I end up looking like a Moomin. Except giant Moomins don’t tend to wander the streets so much these days, and so no wonder everyone jumps to the only other logical conclusion.
The thing is, the joke is starting to wear a bit thin now. Endlessly entertaining as this has been for myself and my friends (recent trip to Paris, for example: food coma on metro after nice restaurant, elderly lady jumps out of her seat at the sight of me, gesturing invitingly – ‘Madame?…’; my friend chokes with silent laughter), I’m starting to get a bit bored with the explaining and the, you know, discrimination (the waiter who looks at me askance when I demand another pint of beer). Recently, I’ve found myself Googling juice detoxes (unlikely) and those Slendertone belt things (expensive). The other day, I even had a go at running. And I’m even – gulp – starting to do the smaller portion size thing (the fact that I then end up going back five times surely means I’m at least getting some exercise).
I never saw the nice lady again; not in the coffee room, nor anywhere. Rumour has it she’s quit her job and left the country. Shame. I wish her all the best.