Trimming the Fat

Picture credit: Erik Mclean

When Mary got home from work, Steve was sitting on the sofa in nothing but his boxer shorts and socks. The window was open as far as it would go and a white plastic pedestal fan was blowing warm air around the room.

They lived on the fourth floor. The lift had been broken for months.

Mary put her handbag on the table and pushed her hair back from her face. She pinched the front of her shirt and fanned the material against her chest.

“Jesus,” Mary said. “It’s hot out there.”

“It’s hot in here,” Steve said.

Mary kept fanning at her chest and Steve watched as she did so, the magnetic nametag clacking against her necklace. She took off her heels and placed them by the door.

“I need a drink,” Mary said. “Something cold.”

“I could do with something too,” Steve said.

Mary disappeared into the kitchen and Steve picked up the remote and switched the channels on the TV. He pulled the fan closer to the sofa. There was a thick layer of dust on the blades and between the metal bars on the grill. He knocked it with his hand and watched the dust fall to the floor.

“Steve,” Mary said. There was a pause, enough time for Steve to think he had imagined it. Then she called his name again. “Oh, Christ,” she said.

Entering the kitchen, Steve saw it what it was.

There was a shallow pool of water extending from the refrigerator to the back legs of the chairs, and Mary was squatting down in the middle of it, pulling items from the freezer and throwing them onto the kitchen table.

“What’s happened here?” Steve said.

“What does it look like?” Mary said. “The fridge has gone.”

Steve took off his socks, walked to the refrigerator and opened the door. There was a strange metallic smell. The light inside wasn’t working. He tapped the bulb and tried the door mechanism, clicking it in and out.

“This isn’t right,” Steve said. “The heat must have something to do with it,” he said.

Mary pulled out one of the drawers and a bag of frozen peas spilt onto the linoleum. “Look at this!” she said.

Steve went to the bathroom, took the towels from the rack and threw them onto the kitchen floor along with the dishtowels from the drawers. He mopped up as much as he could. Then he took the sodden towels and dumped them in the bath.

The packages on the table were dripping water onto the floor, forming another smaller puddle.

“Put that in the sink,” Steve said. “We need to put all that in the sink.”

The flat was rented but the refrigerator belonged to them. Mary’s mother had given it to them as a hand-me-down when they first moved in and it was ancient even then.

“I can’t believe this,” Mary said.

“We’ll get someone to come out and fix it,” Steve said.

“Who’s going to come out and fix this?” Mary said. “They’re not going to know how to fix this.”

“One fridge is the same as the next,” Steve said. “They work the same more or less.”

But Mary was right. The fridge was too old and when Steve called around nowhere had the parts.

So that night, after they had put the contents of the freezer in the sink and mopped up the last of the water, they looked around online until they found one they could afford.

It was second-hand: a large, expensive-looking model with a stock photograph and the words Good as New. Cash Only.

“That’s an eight-hundred pound refrigerator,” Steve said, “and this guy’s selling it for two-hundred.”

“That’s only an hour’s drive from here,” Mary said, pointing to the screen.

Things had been difficult between them. For three months, Steve had been out of work. They had gone through what little savings they had and were now living in their overdrafts. To clear some of the debt, they had sold Steve’s car. But even with the overtime Mary was working, it wasn’t enough.

There were other problems too.

The looks Mary gave him when she got in from work, that was part of it. The long silences in the evenings. It had been weeks since they had shared a bed, since he had even made a move in that direction.

Getting this right, Steve understood, was important.


The following morning, after Mary left for work, Steve drove her car to the bank. He took out two hundred in twenties and tens, put it into an envelope, and then drove an hour out of the city to the address on the advert.

It was a small, new-build cul-de-sac in the suburbs. The houses were a good size and looked mostly the same. Each had a garage and a driveway and the front gardens were rectangular and neat and separated from the pavement by low wooden stumps about a foot high and a meter apart.

It was the kind of place where at one time Steve and Mary had imagined they might live.

The house that matched the address was different to the others. There was no car in the driveway and the curtains on the downstairs windows were drawn. The front garden was overgrown and one of the wooden stumps had been knocked out.

Steve wiped the sweat from his forehead. It was as hot as it was the day before and he could feel his shirt sticking to his back. He shielded his eyes from the sun. He walked to the front door and knocked.

The man that answered the door couldn’t have been ten years older than Steve. He was wearing a purple dressing gown that was faded in places and stained. There was stubble on his chin and in the hollows of his cheeks.

The man looked at Steve and blinked, long and hard, scrunching his eyes and then opening them again.

“I’m here about the fridge,” Steve said.

“I was expecting someone else,” the man said, “a woman.” He scratched behind his right ear and rubbed at the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand.

“I must have got confused,” the man said. “The days, I suppose.” He shook his head and stepped to one side. “Come in,” he said. “Come on in.”

There were envelopes on the welcome mat that looked as though they had already been opened and a rack against the wall filled with both men and women’s shoes.

The man walked ahead and Steve followed. “The fridge is through here,” he said.

 The curtains in the living room were drawn and the air was thick and stale and difficult to breath. There was a brown leather sofa with a woman’s dress folded over the arm and glasses on the coffee table and the mantelpiece filled with cigarette butts.

They were crystal, the glasses. The sort of thing you might bring out at a dinner party.

“Let’s get some light in here,” the man said.

He opened the curtains and sunlight illuminated the room, revealing, in the far corner, the glossy black exterior of the refrigerator.

“You want a drink or something?” the man said. “I could get you a drink, if you want.”

“I’ll take a glass of water,” Steve said.

The man walked into the kitchen, filled two glasses with ice from the chest freezer, and topped them up with water from the tap.

“I haven’t had it more than a couple of months,” the man said. He passed Steve a glass and drank from his own. “It won’t fit in the kitchen,” he said. “I can get it through the door easily enough, but there’s not enough room beside the stove.”

“Everything works?” Steve said, looking around the back of the refrigerator, pressing his hand against the side of it.

“Thing’s as good as new,” the man said. “The whole thing, it’s fully working.”

The man took another drink, fished one of the ice cubes out the glass with his finger and put it in his mouth.

Steve ran his hands along the outside of the refrigerator, taking pleasure in the chrome bezels, the weighty, polished feeling of the thing. He opened the double doors and looked inside. He ran his fingers over the glass shelves and pulled out the vegetable drawer.

“This is a nice machine,” Steve said.

There was no response, and when Steve looked over his shoulder he saw the man standing at the mantelpiece, staring at one of the photographs there.

“You got a woman?” the man said.

“Sure,” Steve said.


Steve shook his head.

“That makes a difference.”

The man stood there a moment, scratching his chin, and then picked up the photograph and brought it over.

“That’s me,” the man said, leaning over, pointing to the photograph, “and that there’s my Sally.”

The man in the photograph was clean-shaven, wearing a Hawaiian shirt on a beach somewhere with his arm around a woman in a white dress and a necklace made of flowers. The woman was very large, at least three times the size of the man. They were holding fat-bottomed cocktail glasses with straws and tiny paper umbrellas.

“Barbados,” the man said.

“It’s a nice picture,” Steve said.

He pretended to take further interest in the photograph before passing it back.

“We had some times, the two of us,” the man said. “She was an extraordinary woman.” He held the photograph and appeared to study it. “Of course, I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “Because she’s fat, because she’s a woman of that size, a man would have to be crazy to love someone like that.”

“I wasn’t thinking that,” Steve said, suddenly realising that he had been.       

“I’m not saying I liked her big like that,” the man said. “I’m not one of those guys who gets a kick out of it. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. But I didn’t mind it. That’s what I’m saying.”

Steve watched as the man looked at him and tapped the frame against the palm of his hand.

“There were issues that came with that, of course,” the man said. “I worried about her health. You love someone, you worry about things like that. But for the most part we were happy.”

The man took a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from the table. He shook one out and lit it. He dropped the lighter into the pocket of his dressing gown.

“She liked to eat, my Sally,” the man said. “Hell, we both did. We would go out to restaurants, get some drinks inside us, and order one of everything on the menu. We would split the plates between us and what we couldn’t finish we would take home in these little Tupperware containers. That probably sounds ridiculous to you.”

“That doesn’t sound ridiculous,” Steve said. He opened the fridge doors and then closed them again. He looked closely at the LED display and the symbols and the numbers there. “You got a manual for this?”

“Yeah, I’ve got that somewhere.” The man rolled his glass between his hands. “How about a real drink?” he said.

“I’ve got to drive after this,” Steve said.

“One won’t do any harm.”

The man put out his cigarette in one of the empty glasses and walked into the kitchen, returning a moment later with another couple glasses filled with ice and something else too.

“Hot day,” the man said. “This is just the thing for it.”

Steve took a drink and felt the pleasant warmth of brandy in his throat and chest. He swirled the ice cubes and looked at the syrupy film on the glass. “So,” he said.

“It all started at the restaurant,” the man said. “My Sally, she worked in a restaurant, you see. And one night this group came in, these men and these women. They had been drinking, I suppose. And one of them cracked this joke. Something about her weight. Her fat arse. Or her fat legs.”

“That’s terrible,” Steve said.

The man shrugged. His heavy arms resting on the mantelpiece.

“Now usually,” the man said, “when that sort of thing happened, within a couple of days she would have forgotten all about it. But this time it was different. There was something about it that got to her in a way that it hadn’t before, and for the next couple weeks, when she got home from work, she would just sit there not saying anything. We would be watching TV on the sofa with the usual snacks between us, but she wouldn’t touch them.”

Steve looked at his watch. He finished the last of the brandy and swirled the ice around the empty glass.

“You want another one?” the man said.

Steve shook his head. He was thinking about what he would do when he got home, how he was going to tell all this to Mary. “Thank you,” he said.

The man nodded. He drank what was left in his own glass and put it on the table.

“The first thing she did was she went out and bought this exercise bike. She started in on it in the evenings when we were supposed to be watching TV. Then she started in on it in the mornings before she left for work. At first, this exercise, I thought it was good for her, you know? But after a couple weeks, she started getting this dazed sort of look. I would be talking to her, trying to have some sort of conversation, and her attention would be somewhere else.”

Steve massaged the fleshy part of his hand between his thumb and his index finger.

 “Not long after that these workout DVDs and diet books started arriving in the post. She bought a yoga mat, some weights, and one of those big inflatable exercise balls. She went from three meals a day down to two and started carrying around these unsalted pistachio nuts that she would suck on whenever she was hungry. Can you believe that? Pistachio nuts, for Christ’s sake.”

The man shook his head.

“Within a couple months, she lost so much weight she was almost unrecognisable. She had to buy new clothes, a whole new wardrobe. There were beauty treatments too, spa days. I won’t tell you how much it cost us. Then she started going out. That was the next thing. Started hitting the bars with her younger sister Leslie.”

Steve pressed the side of his body against the edge of the refrigerator where it was cold. The heat was making him dizzy and the reflections on the coffee table hurt his eyes.

“I ought to be going soon,” Steve said.

The man seemed not to hear him. He walked to the mantelpiece and lit another cigarette.

“More often than not,” the man said, “after the bars had closed, Sally and Leslie would come back here and carry on until the early hours. I was working nights at this point, you see. I wasn’t around to keep an eye on things.

“Then, one night, Leslie brought a man back with them. Some stranger she had met at one of the bars. I found them in the kitchen. It was six in the morning when I got home. My Sally was passed out on the sofa and Leslie was on the counter with this guy’s hand up her skirt. They didn’t hear me come in, the music was so loud.”

There was a butter knife on the coffee table beside a plate smeared with margarine and an open packet of Jacob’s crackers. The man took one of the crackers and bit into it, brushing the crumbs from his dressing gown and the hair on his chest.

“Well, that was it as far as I was concerned. I sat Sally down and I told it to her straight. I didn’t want Leslie coming back here and I didn’t want Sally going out with her anymore either. Now of course, my Sally, she didn’t like that. She said that all her life she had been fat and that now for the first time she could be a woman. Whatever the hell that meant. So we got to shouting, waking up the neighbours, going back and forth until we came to what I thought was an understanding.”

“For a while after that,” the man said, “things went back to normal. Or as close to normal as they could be. But then Sally started seeing Leslie again during the day. Calling in sick to work and going to Leslie’s house for cocktails over lunch. They started going out in the evenings again too. And it was worse this time that it was before. My Sally, she was out four nights a week. She was out more than she was in. Some nights she didn’t come home at all. When I asked her about it, she told me she was staying at Leslie’s. But I wasn’t stupid. I knew what was going on.”

The man walked to the sofa and sat down beside the dress. He looked at it. He started rubbing the material between his fingers as he spoke.

 “So, one night, I lost it, I suppose. It was late and I was drunk, my Sally still wasn’t home and I was sitting around thinking all sorts of things. So I went to the shed and got my toolkit, opened that exercise bike up and cut the belt inside it. Then I took the scissors to the exercise ball, threw the weights out the window, and tore up the yoga mat too. I went through the cupboards, took out all the healthy snacks, the yoghurts and the protein powder, and mushed it all together in the sink.

“Then I got on the computer, and I must have felt bad for what I had done, because I started thinking about ways to make it right. I remembered, back when she was still fat and we were still happy, how she used to complain about the fridge. Saying it wasn’t big enough. That we couldn’t fit as much in there as she would like.” The man coughed into a closed fist. “Well,” he said, “you can probably guess what happened after that.”

The man was silent then. He sighed and leant forwards.

“That was three months ago,” the man said. He scratched at something on the back of his neck and shook his head. “Sure I can’t get you another drink?”

“I need to be getting back,” Steve said.

The man nodded. “You don’t want to be hearing all this,” he said. “You came to buy a fridge, that’s what you came to do.”

The man walked to the window and, for what seemed like a long time, looked out at the road. “So,” he said.

“Two-hundred,” Steve said.

“Two-hundred,” the man said. He picked up the glass he had been drinking from and examined it under the light. “That sounds about right,” he said. “I can do that.”

Steve took the envelope from his pocket. “I’ll be in touch,” he said, “in the next couple of days.”

The man took the envelope, glanced at the money inside, and put it on the table. “That’ll be fine,” he said.


Mary was still at work when Steve got home. The flat was as they had left it the night before. But there was something about it now, its appearance that unsettled him.   

The sun was still bright outside. But Steve turned on all the lights and opened all the windows.

He moved the magazines from the coffee table and brought the empty glasses and mugs into the kitchen. He straightened the pillows on the sofa and took the duvet that was there, the same one he had slept under the night before, and folded it under the sofa.  

He went around the flat like that, putting things in drawers, straightening them out, or moving them to some other place, until he felt that there was a sense of order to things.

Then he felt a heaviness come over him and suddenly he was very tired.

 He walked into the bedroom, where Mary had already made the bed that morning, and lay down on the sheets. He rested his head against the pillow and kept his body straight and stared at the ceiling.

He didn’t remove his clothes. He remained very still.

Then at some point he must have fallen asleep – into a deep, dreamless sleep in which no time seems to have passed at all – because the next thing he knew Mary was sitting on the bed beside him.

He felt her fingers brushing the hair behind his ears. He smelled her perfume.

She was still wearing her work uniform, the name badge reflecting the ceiling lights. She was looking at him, smiling.

“Mary,” he said.

“How did it go?” she said.

There was a hint of something, Steve saw, what looked like lipstick on her front two teeth.

“Yeah,” he said.

“You got it?” she said.

“That’s right,” he said.  

Mary clapped her hands and smiled and looked for a moment happy, proud of him almost.

“Mary,” Steve said. He brought his hand to her waist and felt the firmness of her body through her shirt.


 He lifted himself up on the bed and brought his other hand into her hair and kissed her then. He felt the press of her lips against his own and on her tongue tasted what he thought was gin.

“Steve,” Mary said.

He kissed her neck, the spot below her earlobe. He felt her hair on his face and then its sudden removal as she pulled away.

“Not now,” Mary said.

She looked at him as though waiting for a reaction, and then rubbed his arm and smiled. “It’s so hot out there,” she said. “I need a shower.”

“I don’t mind,” Steve said.

He kept his hand on her waist and pulled her towards him, but when he kissed her this time her mouth was tight.

“Steve,” Mary said.

It was hard to look at her now.

“I’m exhausted,” she said. She removed his hand from her waist and straightened her shirt. “This heat,” she said, “it’s exhausting. I’m going to have a shower, I think. I’m going to get in the shower.”

But Mary didn’t undress and she didn’t make a move towards the bathroom. Instead she walked through into the kitchen, and after a while Steve heard the chair scrape back against the linoleum and the sound of her phone placed down on the table.

“Mary,” Steve said.

There was no response.

He said it again, louder this time. “Mary?”


There were so many things he wanted to say, but he wasn’t sure what they meant, and he was afraid to say them, so instead he said nothing and simply laid there, watching the door.

It wouldn’t be tonight, Steve thought. And it wouldn’t be tomorrow either. But at some point, he would have to explain it to her. They weren’t getting the fridge. He understood that now.

He might be able go back, get the money from the man, and use it towards something else. Or he might not be able to get it back at all. But there was no way that he was bringing any part of that man’s life into theirs.

And when Mary asked what had happened, he would tell her the truth. That it was gone and had been before he arrived. They had never stood a chance.

About David James

David H James is a writer of short stories, living and working in South East London.

David H James is a writer of short stories, living and working in South East London.

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