Tinned Pilchards

by Dawn Foster
My mother came home one night from the evening class she attended at the local college with a man we’d never met. The Jobcentre, or Department for Social Security as it was known back then, had suggested she go to increase employability. She didn’t find a job, but she did find a new boyfriend: that night he encouraged us to jump on him, my sister and I were between the ages of four and six, and he threw us in the air as we all howled with laughter. Shortly afterwards, he moved in and never moved out. I wasn’t fazed by having a de facto stepfather, my memories of my parents’ short marriage were dim: I was a bump in the wedding photos, and they broke up for good shortly after my sister’s conception when I was two-and-a-half years old. She was lonely and often unhappy, as single mothers often are.

For all of us, the honeymoon period didn’t last long. My stepfather had a horrendous temper and was incredibly easy to anger. Quickly, many more siblings were conceived and born, and the house was full of children and the attendant trail of destruction, laundry and mess each baby and toddler brings. All of us had complex and extensive tables tacked to walls detailing the chores we must complete in the morning and evening on a rota basis. There was never enough time to complete the cleaning and laundry and since every minor failure on our part resulted in being sent to be early, it became impossible to do anything right. 

Anything that reminded my stepfather of his predecessor tipped him into a rage. It’s easy to hide or destroy photographs, but children are harder to discard. Perhaps it was because I looked more like my father than my mother, but I became the target for a lot of this anger, and as such was punished endlessly. But you can become acclimatised to suffering, and eventually even children can become used to physical pain, feeling it less as unendurable beatings and more as a physical form of background music, or a permanent buzzing in your ear. So the attacks had to alter, take many forms, not just being smacked, but hit with belts, different parts of your body beaten, cold showers for hours, solitary confinement in the dark, and finally, one particular battleground: food.

There was much to be done with food to inflict suffering: withdrawal of food for days was easy and effective, especially at the weekends or during school holidays, when the free school meals or snacks teachers slipped me because they knew what was happening were out of reach. But once we must have been given tinned pilchards on toast because my stepfather liked the meal. None of us did when we tried it, so from then on, any minor infraction resulted in a red tin of pilchards appearing from a cupboard and the offender being forced to eat one, two, three tins cold. The skin felt both slimy and rough in your mouth; the flesh oily and contrasting with the metallic tang of the coagulated tomato sauce; swallowing without chewing wasn’t an option because of the bones. Twenty years later I still can’t walk past a tin in the supermarket without shuddering at the memory of pilchards vertebrae disintegrating to wet dust between my teeth each time.

Food became a symbol of control and resistance. Everything that passed my lips was controlled by this man. We were poor, and essentially prisoners in the home, so never had any choice over meals. The children ate separately to the adults in terms of menus and space: we were in the kitchen, stood at the table (no chairs allowed, lack of comfort is another punishment) eating whatever we were given, and never allowed to leave the table until everyone had eaten. One sister, a very slow eater would often end up completely full but forced to stand at the table for hours with us all, once overnight, until she had finished. 

Hungry, nearing puberty and furious at the treatment, I became adept at shoplifting. Stealing from supermarkets, I could eat when I had been deliberately starved and had absolute choice over the food I ate. It was a revelation, and an utter joy, one I couldn’t explain to friends at school. I ran away from home endlessly, though was always caught, bundled into a police car and returned miserably to the house, with social services and the police showing no interest in why I kept fleeing. The days when I slept rough, in empty houses, barns, or woods were the happiest days I’d had in years. I was freezing cold, could barely sleep due to fear of being raped or murdered if someone found me, but could eat whatever I chose to and move freely. 

Eventually, I escaped: one day in a rage, my stepfather gave my mother an ultimatum – either “she goes, or I go” and my mother chose him. I was told to go to the police station and tell them I wasn’t wanted any more. The police officer on duty, didn’t believe me, rang my mother and couldn’t even think of a response when she confirmed it. I was free. I could see my friends after school, read what I wanted (my stepfather found me reading a psychology textbook from school and ripped it up, explaining prisoners read psychology in jail to outwit prison officers), but most importantly, eat what I liked.

For a girl in her early teens, having such a complex history with food and control was completely disastrous. Already at high risk of developing eating disorders, the “punishments” meant I viewed food as both an enemy and a symbol of my freedom. I oscillated between compulsive over-eating and anorexia, continued to shoplift because the idea of even being constrained economically when it came to food gave me panic attacks. I settled a little around the age of 16, getting a job that meant I stopped shoplifting, and my vegetarianism meant I was able to cook meals for myself and choose my own food at the supermarket, as “no one knows what vegetarians eat”. 

But my relationship with food was still dreadful. I overate, then skipped meals, and also had no real portion control. An ex-boyfriend told me he’d leave me if I didn’t quit vegetarianism, so I started eating meat again, and didn’t realise for years that most omnivores don’t eat meat with every meal. I still ate when I was unhappy and celebrated with food too. The pilchards remained stuck in my memory, causing at least four panic attacks when I saw the familiar can in aisles. At black tie dinners, I’d often find myself facing a plate of fish, and anything filleted gave me flashbacks to being forced to eat whole tins of the oily things. Anchovies appearing on pizzas when I hadn’t read menus correctly ruined an evening: even picking them off did nothing, and seeing the bones move and the flesh flake as I attempted to remove them killed my appetite entirely.

I assumed this was permanent: I would forever struggle with my appetite, weight and with explaining to friends and partners that food was often a minefield for me. To explain why, I’d have to explain my childhood, and even thinking about it tightens my chest, and no one knows what to say in response. You end up pitied but also considered “too much” and likely to be “a complicated person”. 

Then I fell ill: an illness that baffled the doctors for month, as I constantly vomited in bouts, resistant to every anti-emetic they gave me, with nurses staring with confusion as I projectile vomited with a drip in my arm giving me higher doses of drugs than cancer patients are prescribed. For three months I ate almost nothing but soup and toast. Eventually, a doctor diagnosed Cyclical Vomiting Syndrome, a disease usually seen in childhood but occasionally in adults, that causes clusters of extreme nausea, albeit with no cure. 

Once the worst of the vomiting died down, I had to think about food again. But rather than simply throwing together a quick meal or following a recipe, I had to walk around the supermarket for sometimes up to an hour, choosing food. I had no appetite so scrutinised everything, to find something that I might like to eat, because eating something mindlessly would invariably make me vomit. For every meal, I had to choose something I desperately wanted to eat, chew slowly and psychologically invest in keeping it down. Mostly, it worked: I’d eat, I’d feel sick shortly afterwards, and with a huge amount of mental energy managed to stymie the gag reflex. Patterns helped too – toast and coffee, followed by soup for dinner meant my body and mind became primed to expect those meals, after barely eating for months. For my evening meal, I’d research, experiment, and have something interesting, even if it was only what looked like a snack to others. 

For the first time in memory, I was listening to my body’s cues on food. I knew very well what small physiological signs meant I was in danger of vomiting. But I also started understanding when I was hungry, different levels of hunger, when to stop eating and when I wasn’t hungry, but bored. My palate too, changed: barely eating from November to March meant I’d essentially hit reset on my tastebuds. Suddenly I liked apples and taramasalata, but could no longer eat pasta or cheddar with any enjoyment. And I thought, if I can listen to both my psychological and physical reaction to food so well now, I can confront my fish phobia and consign it to the past. I started small.

At a restaurant with a friend recently, two dishes were brought out from a tasting menu: bream and sardines. In the past, I’d have felt dizzy and short of breath at the sight of a sardine. Instead, I served myself a small portion of the bream, tried a forkful and didn’t like it, but didn’t feel as if I’d failed or been defeated by it. I didn’t try the sardine; I considered it, looked at it and decided that today was not the day. But I will, in the future, buy a tin of pilchards. After I have slowly worked my way up to trying a sardine in a restaurant, putting an anchovy in a pasta sauce and enjoying it, I will try a pilchard, though perhaps not a cold one. Doing so will feel like a victory, and the laying to rest of the past. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about adulthood and ageing is how much there is to learn about human behaviour and decision-making. I had assumed my relationship to food was irreparably broken, when in actuality I had misunderstood precisely how my mind and body worked together. I’d also failed to grasp how much I was capable of controlling my mind, a fact which only came to light when I properly listened to psychological and physiological cues. But I can see an endpoint in my personal struggle and know that it is possible to reach this in my own time. I just hadn’t envisaged an improvement in the state of my mental health would manifest as a jolly red tin of oily fish.