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.
Story Copyright © 2008 by J Barrington. All rights reserved.
Previous: In the Clouds by Aliya Whiteley | Next: In the Clouds by Aliya Whiteley
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.