If you were to take a walk through Highdown Road in Barnton the only thing that may strike you as odd is how similar all the houses are: small and terraced with neatly trimmed front gardens. Symmetry is this street’s outstanding feature. Potholes provided the only crack in an otherwise perfect urban vision. However, if you were to look more closely (and I mean nose-pressed-to-the-window close) you’ll find that Highdown Road in Barnton is privy to some peculiar goings-on.
At number seven, for instance, Helen Jacobs was becoming increasingly exasperated with her eighteen year-old son’s downright offbeat behaviour.
‘I’m starving,’ whined Gareth.
‘Well, eat that sandwich,’ said Helen, as she picked up clothes spread about the bedroom floor.
‘I’m starving,’ he said again.
‘Just eat, Gareth.’
He fixed her a stare akin to a tiger about to pounce, and was about to say his new catchphrase again when she slammed the door behind her. The door provided an ineffective barrier against Gareth’s repetitious ramblings, though, as Helen could still hear him as she cleared the stairs into the kitchen.
This pattern of behaviour had been the same since Gareth had left school the week before: plates of food were brought at first to his bedside, and then left outside the room, whilst he continued to protest about his apparent hunger. By Sunday evening, Helen Jacobs was exhausted and defunct of any reasonable explanation. Gareth normally scoffed a plate of food in record time, only to be admonished by his mother. Why, then, would he suddenly be rebuffing his mother’s tasty grub?
‘I’m back at work tomorrow,’ she said to him before bedtime.
His reply was obvious and expected: ‘I’m starving.’
‘It’s the start of the summer holidays. Start your job search.’
Helen couldn’t settle to sleep at first; she needed to give this predicament due consideration. Her first instinct was, indeed, to think that her son was trying to get out of looking for work now he had finished school. Then she realised that Gareth had not seen any of his friends this weekend. He normally went clubbing on a Saturday; she hadn’t heard him on his phone making arrangements for the night before. Or, was there maybe something physically wrong with Gareth that prohibited him from eating?
Playing back over the events of the past week only served to deepen her worry and make way for a sleepless night. Helen took consolation in that tomorrow would be the day she would take action against her son’s affliction – and the fact that she would play hardball with him, if needs be.
‘He’s just being stupid,’ she said, covering her ears with a pillow as Gareth bellowed out for the umpteenth time.
Monday morning presented as a mixed blessing for Helen. For, although she savoured a rare moment of peace at breakfast, her mind had ground to a halt. Her movements were as slow and deliberate as a lack of sleep allowed. She repressed her anger, instead trying to focus on the working day ahead. Today was not a day to drive, today was a day to catch the bus into town.
Helen worked as a receptionist at a hotel next to the train station. Throughout the day she tried to maintain her usual upbeat attitude – at which she had become a master at faking when the need arose – as periodic phone calls from a perpetually undernourished Gareth began to wear her down. By five o’ clock Helen sported a Halloween mask expression that had left some customer’s grief stricken when encountering her.
‘Is everything alright, Helen?’ her supervisor, had asked before she left.
‘I’m fine, thanks.’
‘Only you’ve looked shattered all day.’
‘I just didn’t sleep well. I’m sure I’ll catch up tonight.’
With that, she left in haste to the bus stop.
The effects of her spirits being lifted by the late July sun were only temporary once she noticed her son’s curtains still pulled tight. The overwhelming tiredness she experienced wrestled her from any ideas of confronting Gareth, and putting a solution into action right away. Instead, Helen turned the key in the front door, and made to console herself with a bowl of soup and the TV.
Helen nearly spilt the hot liquid in her lap.
‘And I’ve been working,’ she harrumphed.
Gareth was stood in the doorway in the same boxer shorts and t-shirt that he had worn for the last two days. His blond hair stood to attention, dank from not being washed. The look was completed with bloodshot eyes and stubble.
‘Look at the state of you. Have you looked for a job today, Gareth?’ said Helen.
‘Maybe I should call the doctor. I’m starting to worry now.’
‘No doctor. I’m just starving.’
‘I’ll make you some chips now,’ she huffed.
‘Aarrggh, I’m starving,’ Gareth screamed.
With that he turned and ran to his room.
As she put down the empty bowl, Helen reflected it was strange how no food had been touched in the kitchen, nor did Gareth have the cash to order a take-away – and yet, there he was looking far from famished.
This same cycle continued for a few days – Gareth phoning his mum at work to tell her of his rumbling tummy, a trade-off as soon as Helen arrived home and Gareth still refusing to eat – but Helen had slept better and was, therefore, more well-equipped to deal with the shenanigans. By Thursday evening, she had called the doctor in, who had surmised that Gareth was not necessarily in need of a good feed and that he was, indeed, trying to pull a fast one. Gareth had rolled around on his bed clutching his stomach reciting the trusted – but well-worn – phrase over and over.
‘Get a grip and think of your mother,’ had been the doctor’s final words.
Gareth ignored this professional opinion and continued his war on food. Helen, relieved and satisfied that there was no apparent underlying medical cause to her son’s current condition, commenced level two of her plan: blackmail.
Gareth’s dad, Ian, was also Helen’s ex-husband. The divorce had happened two years before and had been quite amicable. Ian had preferred to spend more time at his used car lot than with his family, but always provided for his family’s needs, and still did. He and Helen had grown apart, but remained close friends.
‘I’ve got work waiting for you, Gareth,’ he began.
‘Starving!’ was the monotone reply.
‘Paid work means holidays.’
‘Empty stomach means starving.’
Ian had swung by after Helen had called him explaining the situation. After another debrief in the kitchen, they had gone upstairs attempting to deal with Gareth tag-team style. The initial softly-softly approach had been in vain, and now the motivation of guaranteed employment had been cast aside by their duplicitous, bedbound son. Helen gave Ian the nod to ramp up the attack.
‘Right, sonny Jim, I’m certainly not going to pay for your holiday this year.’
‘My name’s not Jim and I don’t need a holiday. I’m starving,’ retorted Gareth, turning away from them to stare at the wall.
‘Your bedroom’s a mess and you are too. Sort it out for your mother,’ rasped Ian, his face becoming redder. ‘I won’t be paying for your driving lessons on your nineteenth birthday.’
‘Money, money money. I’M STARVING!’
Helen squeezed her ex-husband’s arm, calling time on his fruitless endeavours. The scene was descending into what resembled a stand-off between a middle-aged rapper and his protégé.
‘I’ll return on Monday. If you haven’t made an effort to find work, things will be very different.
Gareth put his finger in his ear and closed his eyes.
On the way downstairs his parents reflected on the episode. Gareth had been fine in the last week of school – he was a very dedicated student – and he had a close group of friends; Gareth had always planned to start looking for work once he’d finished his exams as well. Ian Jacobs said that he agreed with his ex-wife that their son was pulling a fast one, but, like Helen, he was confused as to how to progress.
‘The threats haven’t worked. Maybe you should call his friends,’ were Ian’s parting words.
Helen agreed that she would do that first thing in the morning; tonight, though, she just wanted to turn the tv on, lie back and drown her son’s moans out.
The next evening saw Johnny and Kelvin come over at Helen’s behest. Having both been debriefed at length by their friend’s mother, they came armed with Gareth’s default post-clubbing treat: a chicken shish kebab smothered in garlic mayonnaise. Forty-five minutes after arriving, however, and they were sitting in the front room with Helen adding their concerns to Gareth’s plight.
‘The kebab’s untouched. He don’t wanna come out tonight,’ Kelvin began. ‘We told him it’s been weird him not being about.’
In fact, Gareth hadn’t been in touch at all. Helen had been concerned that her son had fallen out with his mates, so the fact they were here was a relief.
‘Do you think he could be this way because you two are going to uni and he isn’t?’ she said.
‘Naaa, Mrs Jacobs. He was only saying last week at school how he’d come and visit us,’ remarked Johnny. ‘Don’t like seeing him like this. He just kept saying he was…’
‘Starving?’ interrupted Helen.
‘Yup!’ said the friends in unison.
She thanked the boys and paid them for the kebab. Seeing them both leave with their tousled hair and designer clothes made her pine for her son to get back on track – even if it did mean her worrying until he got in at 6am on a Sunday morning.
Over the next few days, Helen soldiered on: work, Gareth, work, Gareth. She had returned to her normal level of function at work, having invested in a pair of earplugs to restore sleep. Still, she lacked a plan to resolve this matter, and this ate away at her as much as the vision of her hungry hermit of a son.
Ian Jacobs and Gareth’s friends visited again over the next few days, but could offer no new insights. It had been noted by all that Gareth looked remarkably well-fed and probably had a secret stash of food somewhere.
On the Thursday of the second week – which was the first day of July and day eleven of Gareth’s hunger strike respectively – Helen was talking to Kelvin about the whole shoddy affair at the kitchen table when a strong raw onion-like smell hit them. It was an unwashed Gareth.
‘I’m starving. What’s he doing here?’
‘Kelvin’s as concerned about you as I am, my love,’ Helen said.
‘Your love? I’m starving.’
‘Boring, more like,’ Kelvin blurted.
‘There’s food in the fridge, son.’
Gareth stood in the doorway as wild and weary as a lost soul. Helen was about to make cups of tea, when Kelvin jumped out of his chair and raced past Gareth, up the stairs and into his friend’s bedroom. He slid the chest of drawers tight behind the door and fired up the computer. A few seconds later Gareth thumped at the door barking all manner of obscenities at his friend. It wasn’t long, though, before Kelvin had re-entered the main hall, clumsily bolting past his seemingly ravenous friend.
When Gareth appeared back in the kitchen, Kelvin was stood next to a perplexed Helen, gripping a freshly printed piece of paper.
‘Da-da-da-da-da-da,’ sounded Kelvin, his hands positioned in front of his mouth playing an invisible trumpet. He thrust the piece of paper at Gareth, who grabbed it with a growl.
‘This is to confirm that Gareth Thomas Jacobs has changed his name. From this day forward he shall be known as STAR VING.’
A smile spread across Gareth’s face.
‘Yes, that’s it. I’m Star Ving,’ he commented, opening the fridge door. ‘Star Ving is my name.’
‘You mean…and how did you figure that out Kelvin?’ whimpered Helen.
‘Once I knew Gareth was being a complete tool – begging your pardon Mrs Jacobs – the idea just came to me.’
‘Right then,’ said Star Ving with a pork pie in his hand. ‘I’m off to take a shower, then look on the internet for work.’
As Helen Jacobs threw a vexed expression to the skies, she understood that the ripples which had unsettled life at 7 Highdown Road, Barnton, would soon thin out, and life in the street would return to the way it was.
Except for having to call her son Star Ving, that is.