by J Barrington
'A stroke,' her mother said as she offered the plate of digestives. 'To do with that high blood pressure he's been having. Stress. Work has been giving him stress.'
'He doesn't have stress,' Julie said. She took a biscuit and dunked it into her tea. 'So what changes do you need to make?'
'A stairlift. A walk-in bath. A nurse will come in three times a week at first.' The digestives were taken away and tipped from the plate into the barrel. Her mother moved between appliances like an ice dancer negotiating turns: the kettle to the dishwasher, the dishwasher to the fridge, a synchronicity of motion, fluid from endless repetitions. Julie wondered if her mother ever forgot where she was in her routine and turned in a circle, lost, looking for some cue to remind her what to tidy away next.
'It's going to change a lot of things,' she said to her mother's back.
'No. Not anything I can't get used to. In fact, it'll be lovely to have him around more.'
'Even though he can't speak?'
'There comes a point when a couple gets beyond words, Julie.' The tone of voice was so familiar from her childhood. It meant ' here is a lesson. Learn it. And suddenly Julie didn't want to learn any more lessons in this kitchen, with the beige lino and the china jugs on the window ledge that were so familiar. She could have been ten years old, and dreaming of another life in London.
That life did exist, she reminded herself, and she would go back to it.
'Mum, you'll need help.'
'I told you, a nurse will come round . . . '
'Not just that. What if there's an emergency? You're not thinking of how hard this is going to be. On you, on your health. That's why I think you'll have to get a phone. Just to keep in touch. I'll arrange everything. Let me get you a phone.'
Her mother shook her head. 'You know how I feel about telephones.'
'You don't have to use it. Just have it in the house. For me.'
And that was how she won that argument: by claiming it was necessary for her own peace of mind. And maybe that was the truth.
She stayed until her father came home. It was him on the new armchair in front of the television, yet not him. The right side of his face had fallen, and he made no attempt to speak or smile. Most of the time he slept, or feigned sleep, perhaps.
Julie and her mother sat side by side on the sofa and made light conversation for his benefit. They talked about clever things she had said when she was little, or ridiculous mistakes she had made, and every hour or so they left the room to make more tea, and wept in the kitchen, not looking at each other, as they warmed the pot and set out the cups, retreating into the comfort of mechanical behaviour.
During those lonely minutes, Julie found herself wondering why she had always assumed that her mother would die first. Perhaps it was due to the way her father had always looked at his wife. It was as if she was a delicate pattern of frost found on a window, an unexpected reward after a cold night that could not be expected to last.
Her father was clever, but had taken a job as a salesman for an animal feed company on the estate so that he could guarantee being close to home. Throughout her childhood, her mother had worked part-time in a café, frying bacon and cracking eggs, and every day she had made it clear to the manager that she couldn't be pushed to work longer hours. By the time night arrived they were always encased within their bungalow at the end of the cul-de-sac, with the tulip lamp on low and the only disagreements to be heard radiating from the unfamiliar lives on the television screen.
It had taken a lot of firmness and patience to get her parents to accept that she needed to leave, but eventually they had acquiesced, and waved Julie off from the platform of the train station with only the merest dab of a handkerchief and the slightest tremor in a voice.
London was large.
Julie got out of the habit of smiling at everyone in the third week. She stopped giving change to beggars in the third month. By the third year she belonged: she knew that Masala Zone in Soho did a tremendous lassi at lunchtime, and Cuba Libre in Islington made Kahlua cocktails to die for; she knew to not take the short-cut back from her tube stop after dark; she knew that she preferred the single life but dreamed of one day meeting a man who would make her forget that fact. She told people she met in bars and at her exercise class that she was born a Londoner, and it was easy to believe it herself as there were no reminders of any lifestyle to the contrary. Her parents visited once a year, wrote a short letter every week, and didn't have a phone.
The telephone they had once owned, long ago, led to their only argument. And so it had been taken down to the shed at the end of the garden, smacked neatly five times with a claw hammer, and squeezed into the black sack behind the back door for the dustman to collect on Wednesday. Although Julie knew that the argument hadn't really been the phone's fault. It had erupted because of the conference.
She had been fifteen when the conference was held. There had undoubtedly been conferences before, but her father had never mentioned them. Julie could still picture her mother, standing in the kitchen over a pan of boiling potatoes with the smell of breaded fish rising from the oven, wearing an expression that suggested she had just been slapped and was trying to like it.
'Where is it? On the estate?'
Her father shook his head and picked at the stubble on his chin. 'Barcelona.'
'It's in Spain, Cyn.'
'Well, I know where it is,' her mother said. 'How long for?'
'A week. The company's expanding. They want us to work on our sales techniques.'
'Oh. A week? Oh. Lovely. I'm sure it'll be lovely.'
'I'll phone you every day,' he said. He turned to the serving hatch and winked at Julie, who was in the front room. Cartoons were on the television, but the view through the hatch was much more interesting.
The phone was on an occasional table under the stairs. It gathered dust that was swept away with a soft yellow rag by her mother every Saturday morning to the sounds of Elvis Sings Gospel. Julie remembered seeing on her mother's face that the novelty of actually using the apparatus appealed to her.
'Yes, that would be nice, Fred,' she had said, checking the softness of the potatoes with a knife. 'Lovely.'
It was difficult to imagine what solitude was going to be like until she experienced it. Julie had found freedom in her small flat through such acts as leaving the bathroom door unlocked and cleaning the kitchen in nothing but her underwear. During that week of enforced absence seven years' ago, her mother had discovered no such emancipation.
As soon as the car had pulled out of the drive, the nerves had started.
'I hope he doesn't crash on the way to the airport,' her mother said. 'He was very excited, wasn't he? He doesn't concentrate when he's excited.'
They went inside and ten minutes passed in front of the television. 'Would the police come round to the door as soon as they discovered the crash?' her mother mused throughout Eastenders. 'Would they bring a woman police officer, do you think? Someone with training in that sort of thing?'
Julie had stopped trying to reassure her by the time Newsnight came on. 'Air Traffic Controllers are overworked nowadays,' her mother said in Jeremy Paxman's direction. 'Accidents happen all the time. All the time.'
Lying in bed that night, Julie could almost hear her mother's thoughts. Every so often the soft rustle of bedsheets would penetrate the silence, followed by a mournful sigh. It was as if she had already become a widow. By the time the phone rang at 6.45am the following morning, Julie had given up on sympathy and felt nothing but a hard knot of disdain.
There was no pause between the first shrill of the phone and the sound of her mother's feet on the polished floorboards, hitting the stairs with staccato urgency.
There was a pause, then, 'Is this a joke?'
Julie listened, lying flat, her duvet pulled up under her chin. Her mother said again, 'Is this a joke?' and her voice was full of excitement and dread. 'You're not my husband. You sound nothing like him. Who is this?'
The argument took on the rhythm of a tennis match: volley, pause, volley, pause, and her mother persisted, not my husband, not my husband, until Julie got out of bed and took the stairs two at a time to reach the hall. Her mother turned and smiled at her. There was a grimace on her face, and she held out the phone as if it was some sort of practical joke in itself; a buzzer in her palm, or a fake pile of dog mess.
Julie took it.
'Hello Julie, love,' her father said, sounding very far away. 'I'm almost out of money here. Tell your mum I'll be home soon, okay? I'll get a flight back now.'
She wanted to tell him to stay and enjoy his conference, to not be such a pushover, but her mother was hovering over her, anxious for any words that might come out of her mouth, so she limited herself to, 'Okay Dad. See you soon,' and put the receiver softly back on its cradle.
'Who was it?' her mother said.
'He's on his way home,' Julie said. She turned away and tiptoed back up the stairs to bed. It had taken her a long time to get warm again. Her mother brought her up a cup of tea, and moaned about the pile of dirty clothes against the radiator.
Her father had arrived home in the early afternoon. He had kissed them both hello, and then unplugged the phone and taken it away.
A year later, while he was dropping her off at a party, perhaps her first party, he told her what he had done to it. She couldn't remember why; maybe she had mentioned it first, in a jokey manner. Or maybe it was the only time he ever chose to confide in her.
And now she would never be able to ask him why.
The first sign that something was wrong had come with the absence of the weekly letter. It was easy to lose track of time, but Julie had been using the regularity of the letter as others might use the clockwork nature of a Monday morning. She had been taking its constancy for granted, and when it didn't turn up, it upset her more than she would have imagined. She found herself telling her regulars about it at the salon where she worked, and earned herself a reprimand from her boss. It was never good form to unburden on the customers.
It was a worry that grew in size, doubling every hour, until it could not be ignored. Twenty-two days after the last letter, she caught a train and took a taxi to the familiar blue door of the house she still secretly thought of as her home.
Julie fell out of her dream and crashed back into the reality of early morning. The pillow, damp with her sweat, felt like a cold hand against the back of her head. She had been falling in her dream, a common theme for her, but accompanying her descent had been a tumbling stream of red liquid that murmured to her. She realised she was still hearing that sound, and the cadences were those of a voice.
The rises and dips of sound coalesced into the speech patterns of her mother, in the hallway, talking low.
Julie got out of bed and inched open her door.
'I know. I know.'
There was a brief pause, then her mother said, 'Of course I will. Always.'
She opened the door wider and slipped through, to stand at the top of the stairs, changing her weight from one foot to the other to try to minimise contact with the cold of the polished floorboards.
'I'll tell her,' her mother said, and Julie took the stairs two at a time, feeling bound to repeat a pattern she did not understand. The receiver was in her mother's hand, pressed up to her ear, and as she turned she covered the mouthpiece, curving her fingers over it as if to defend it.
'Who is it?' Julie whispered.
'He loves you very much,' she said. 'He wants you to know that.'
'Your father,' her mother said, as if that explained everything, and then she removed her hand from the mouthpiece and began to talk again, turning to face the darkness under the stairs once more.
'I told her. No need to worry.'
Julie stared at the hunched lines of her shoulders.
'No, it's fine. Don't you worry. I'm listening,' her mother continued. Her voice was so soft, so loving. Julie had never heard those tones before.
'Give me the phone,' she said.
'No, it's just Julie,' her mother said into the receiver.
'Give it to me.'
Her mother whipped around to face her, her eyes alight with anger. 'Stop being so rude, miss! Go and wait for me in the front room. I'm nearly finished.'
She couldn't disobey a direct command; obedience had been instilled in her for too many years. She walked into the front room and was met by the sound of the television on low, cartoons playing, and the familiar body of her father in his old tartan dressing gown. He was slumped to one side in his armchair, his eyes closed, his chin blurred by coarse stubble.
She moved to his side and plucked at his sleeve, in a little-girl gesture that she recognised as a call for reassurance. He didn't respond immediately; she stood there, rubbing the material between her fingers, for perhaps a minute before he sighed from the corner of his mouth and lifted one eyelid.
His gaze hung on her like that of an old dog disturbed from sleep, not quite seeing anything, not really aware of what was happening beyond the desire to return to his rest. His eyelid fell down and his mouth opened wider. She could see the edge of his grey tongue resting on his lower lip.
She stepped away from him and sat on the sofa, folding her arms over her chest and realising with the movement that she was cold to the bone.
'Now, what's the matter?' her mother said. She strode, on a burst of energy, into the room, filling it with sound. 'I'm sure I don't need to tell you how impolite that was. Is that what passes for telephone manners up in London?'
'Who were you talking to?' Julie demanded.
Julie pointed to the armchair, and the form slumped there. 'Who's that, then?'
Her mother rolled her eyes and pulled the lapels of her dressing gown closed over her low breasts. 'That's just a body, Julie.'
'How can you say that?'
'Your father told me himself,' her mother said, in the tone of voice she had once used to explain how to tie shoelaces and bake biscuits. 'He said he was in a different place. A better place.'
'A place with a telephone.'
'Sarcasm doesn't suit you.'
Julie grabbed the remote control and silenced the television. 'This is ridiculous, Mum. Come on. You have to see it's ridiculous.'
Her mother walked out of the room. They didn't speak for the rest of the day.
It would be impossible to get her to agree to seeing a psychiatrist. Maybe a doctor's appointment would be more suitable, Julie mused in the darkness. She had no idea of the time; only that she had been lying awake for hours, listening to the tiny sounds of her sleeping mother ' a cough, a sigh, a movement on the mattress. Her father was asleep in the front room, in his reclining armchair. The stairlift was due to be fitted in a month's time, but even after that, Julie couldn't see how her mother was going to move him to and from the stairs alone.
She couldn't understand a lot of things about her mother lately. She was aware that if she was of a more melodramatic nature she would be making claims about having lost both parents at the same time, so removed were they from the people she had grown up with, but she refused to be so ridiculous. Instead she concentrated on how to get her mother back. Perhaps she should follow her father's example ' simply unplug the phone, take it to the shed, and hit it with a hammer until she felt better.
She was lost in the pretence that she might be able to do such a thing when the phone rang.
Impulse took over. Before her mother had stirred, she was out of bed. Her feet hammered against the stairs, and then she had the receiver in her hand. At that moment, fear grabbed her and held her tight, but she could hear her mother behind her and there were only seconds left to act.
She put the receiver to her ear.
There was a voice.
It was small, as if someone was shouting from a long distance. Julie couldn't make out the words. Only the tone was decipherable. She could hear a strong desire to reach her.
'Hello?' she said. Her mother was behind her; she grasped the phone in both hands to stop it from being taken away. 'Who's there?'
The voice grew more passionate, and then it was swallowed in a sea of hiss and crackle as the line worsened.
The background noise cleared and she heard the voice, speaking fast.
And then the line went dead.
Julie took the phone away from her ear and her mother grabbed it. 'You have no right to answer my telephone!' she hissed. She was white-faced, her eyes huge.
'I'm sorry,' Julie said.
'What did he say?'
'He said . . . ' She swallowed, and fought against the tightness in her throat. 'It didn't say anything much. It's a fault with the line. You need to call an engineer.'
Her mother put the phone to her own ear and listened. Then she leaned over, in front of Julie, and replaced the receiver. 'I don't believe you.'
'Well, I . . . '
'Tell me,' her mother said. It was a command, as if she was being told to peel the potatoes or dust the television set.
'Mum, there wasn't anything.'
A long silence stretched between them.
'Isn't it time you went back to London?' The question was delivered softly. After all, Julie reminded herself, they were the family that had never had an argument.
'Don't you need me here?' she asked.
'We're the parents, Julie. We don't need you. You need us.'
She wanted to argue. Things had changed. She was the one in control now, the one who knew where to eat and how to get the best from internet banking. But the only words she had in her head were the ones she had heard through the receiver. Nothing else would come out of her mouth if she opened it, and so she kept it closed.
There was always comfort in routine.
Julie had not realised before how much she was like her mother. She had her patterns too ' the places to eat, when to be naked and when to be clothed, the way she positioned her comb and scissors when she started a trim. She thought she had escaped to London; now she could see she had brought her old life with her, finding comfort in setting a routine, no matter what the place.
She closed the lid of her laptop and switched off the television with a jab at the remote control. The flat was filled with silence. Then her ears readjusted, and the noise of the traffic on the street below reminded her that there was no such thing as silence in the city.
The clock on top of the television flashed eleven-thirty in red numerals: her bedtime. Another busy day awaited her tomorrow ' work at the salon, lassi for lunch, cocktails with the gang in the evening. Every day since her return had been deliberately hectic, filled with things that kept thoughts at bay, but tonight her dinner date had cancelled, leaving her with nothing to do but sit at home and look at the phone.
The voice had belonged to her father. Had it? But that was stupid, and it couldn't be true. It had sounded like her father. That was the more sensible thing to believe.
If she repeated it often enough, she might begin to accept it.
She picked up the spoon from the bowl of expensive ice-cream, now a melted pink mess, and licked it clean. Eleven-thirty seven. Still she could not move. There had to be a way to break this stalemate, to make her mother listen to her, take her help.
The voice played over in her head.
'Cyn?' the voice had said. 'I can't talk to you. I want Cyn.'
Why could she not tell her mother what had been said? Was it too much to admit that she really wasn't needed?
Her parents had always excluded her, from her birth to this moment. She hadn't completed a circle of love; she had intruded into it. And now it was being closed against her. She was outside. She had always been outside.
Julie leaned over the arm of the sofa and picked up the phone. On the pad next to it she had written her parents' number; she dialled it quickly, without hesitation, not daring to form a first phrase in her head, not knowing what she wanted to say.
The line was busy.
Story Copyright © 2008 by J Barrington. All rights reserved.
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About the author
J Barrington lives in Cambridgeshire. She has been an actress and a singer. She's currently a housewife. This is her first short story.