If you can’t stand the heat…

Cooking became my domain. We still shared much of the housework, at weekends, and I was never going to be as efficient as Jo. But cooking was satisfying and creative and necessary. Its results were supremely tangible, and you could justify taking some time over it, which Jo didn’t have.

And you would be praised for it! Cooking serves such a primal need that it is always going to be appreciated far more than any other domestic chore and I craved recognition (I don’t know if you’ve noticed.) I wrangled my way into the job, taking advantage of how busy Jo was, then stuck out my elbows and refused to be budged. It made me a provider. Poor Jo was relegated to tasks she probably would rather I’d done, but she didn’t have the time to negotiate.

I come from a generation of men who still feel a tiny bit proud to have made a simple meal. It’s changed now, and hopefully we’ve got over ourselves, but we used to appear in the doorway to announce, “I have made… (pause for drumroll)…A QUICHE!!…(pause for applause)… To which our girlfriends/sisters/mothers would reply, “Yeah? Well, this week I’ve continued to manage a successful logistics company employing 40 people, made 7 family dinners, 5 sets of packed lunches, two cooked lunches, a set of muffins for the office Cake-Friday, and 3 Victoria sponges for the school bake sale, but you won’t catch me BRAGGING ABOUT IT!”[1]

I became very possessive of both the kitchen space and my role, chasing off all challengers for my title, often by being incredibly rude. The last thing I needed was other people muscling in and stealing my only source of usefulness. Especially Jo, back from a hard day’s earning.

As my weight plummeted, I became particularly rigid in my routines and practices, because, like all anorexics, I was stricken by deep anxiety at the thought of losing control. It’s partly because you feel something terrible will happen – all the demons of the abyss will come spilling and howling out of some gaping portal in your walls. It is also because just existing is so exhausting, by this stage. Staying upright demands a supreme effort of will and self-control. If anyone wrests even a small part of that control from you, you fear you’ll just collapse, your strings will be cut; you’ll lose control of everything – your bowels, your words, you’ll sprawl to the floor in a tangle of arachnid-thin limbs and body, shit, snot, tears, a thin puke like whey.

So anyone intruding on my kitchen, especially if they were offering to help, brought with them the threat of their own wayward and uncontrollable will. Driven by alarm, I needed to resist them as fiercely as possible, even to the extent of physical violence[2]. To hell with politeness, this was life and death struggle!

The worst is my sister-in-law. When she comes to visit, she is brutally insistent that she must cook or help to cook, or, at least lay the table. Or do the washing up. I have to employ eye-watering levels of rudeness to get her to back off. She will literally make feints and rushes towards the cooker or cutlery drawer; I have to physically block her line of attack. This is not a metaphor. [3]

Footnotes

[1] At this point, you needed to be careful not to put an arm around her shoulders and say, “You’re right, darling, and we don’t appreciate you enough!” That would be deeply complacent and patronising. She wasn’t asking for appreciation; she was putting you in your place. The gentlemanly thing to do was hurl the quiche into the bin and storm off in a huff. This demonstrated that you took her seriously, was threatened by her agency, had no reply to her, and were far more immature than she was. All of which was sweet of you.

[2] Luckily this would never happen: we are as weak as kittens. Never give an anorexic a gun, though, and then offer to cook them a lovely breakfast in their own kitchen, or offer to serve them…

[3] Last Christmas, as Jo’s family sat around the kitchen table, talking easily, Katherine and I stood, hovering around the edges trying to serve people tea and cheap fizz. I caught her eye. It finally dawned on me that our motivations are identical: we are both just awkward people trying to find a niche.

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