‘Will you please just see to Vicki while I put this wash on?’
‘Oh, come on, Jules, just a quickie, I’m aching.’ He reached for her as she bent to stuff the dirty clothes into the washer, one hand around her waist, the other grabbing roughly at her breast, which leaked milk all over his hand. He rubbed his erection against her buttocks. ‘Come on, Mummy, turn around and give me some titty milk.’
She stood with Phil still attached to her. Picking up a packet of washing powder tablets, she crushed them hard in her fist before opening the packet. She wished that they were her husband’s balls. He disgusted her. If ever a man needed castrating, it was him. ‘Your mother’s coming any minute now. Get off me, will you.’ She flung him away from her, pulling down her disarranged top and bra with one hand while she opened the tablet packet and put them into the washing machine with the other. Phil was smelling the breast milk on his palm and she turned away before she saw his tongue come out to lick it.
She went into the living room where Vicki was crying against the bars of her playpen. Julie picked her up and cradled her into her shoulder. Vicki stopped crying instantly, but every few seconds she gave a great heave as the residue of her sobs subsided. Julie stroked her angry daughter’s sweaty head and swore that she saw reproach in the baby’s eyes. ‘I’m sorry, baby girl. Mummy had to get tidied up for Grandma coming. And as usual, Daddy’s no help at all. We don’t want to give her anything to crow about, do we sweetheart? No, we don’t.’
‘I’ll just go and sort myself out again, then, shall I?’ said Phil as he walked past the living room door and stomped up the stairs in the direction of the bedroom and his stash of lurid porn. She hated it when he was on the late shift at work; he would be pestering her again before he went out at two.
Forgiven for her abandonment to the playpen, Vicki was already reaching for Julie’s breast. These days it felt as though everybody wanted a piece of her.
Grandma, as she now insisted on being called by all three of them so as not to confuse Victoria, was already perched on the sofa, with the baby on her knee, when Phil came downstairs. He glared at Julie in the second before Mother turned around, and then, when she did, he smiled a simpering smile and dropped a light kiss on top of Julie’s head. Julie felt a wetness on the top of her scalp. The bastard had purposely spat into her hair. She imagined it burning her scalp, like acid. He would be in a bad mood for the rest of the morning and when he pestered her for sex later, he would be even rougher than normal. She couldn’t refuse him twice in one day.
When she’d made the tea, she washed up the teaspoon immediately, dried it carefully on the tea-towel and put it in the drawer facing the right way and ensuring that it sat neatly with all the others. Julie had learned a lot since leaving her family home. She had learned to cook and found that she had a natural flair for it, and she had come to enjoy it. Mostly it was the little things that she had to perfect and never slip up on. The first time she had stirred a cup of tea and left the spoon on the side of the sink, Phil had gripped the top of her arm tightly. He had screamed at her, called her a dirty whore, and stood over her while she had washed the teaspoon and put it neatly away. Her arm was dappled with dark blue bruises for a week before fading to a dirty yellow colour. He’d had a similar reaction when he saw Julie drying her hands on a tea towel. He yelled so hard that he damaged his throat. He didn’t touch her, but he degraded her and called her names, before turning the blame on her family and upbringing. Hand towels were for drying hands, tea towels were for pots. She only needed yelling at the once. She got it.
The house, even with a baby in it, was kept spotless. Even the dust bunnies were banished to warrens beyond the property. There was not a node of dust, not a spot of dirt anywhere in their home. It was kept immaculate. As soon as something was used, it was cleaned. It was the way he liked it.
The strange thing was, it became the way she liked it too. She really had changed. At her family home, she had been untidy. Clothes were taken off and discarded over the back of the bedroom chair, until it threatened to tip under the weight. As Mrs Julie Woods, she had become a different woman. Lisa had come to visit them a few months after they were married. It had been so good having her sister there, but Julie had to tidy up after her all the time so that it didn’t irritate or upset Phil. After the first two days she found that she was getting pissed off with her untidy sister herself. When she waved Lisa off, Julie had heaved a big sigh of relief and couldn’t wait to get the duster out to obliterate any stray fingerprints that might have been left behind.
She had changed in other ways, too. Julie had always been a jeans, t-shirt and ponytail kind of girl. If she had to analyse her change of style to herself, she would have put it down to becoming a mother and growing up. But lots of women had babies without changing their entire personalities. She had taken to buying print dresses and skirts. She found herself drawn to delicate flowers. Her trainers had been replaced by dolly shoes, feminine and dainty. She was leg waxing and having six-weekly hair do’s. Phil hadn’t ordered her to do it; he’d never said a word. But on occasions she’d felt that he disapproved of her dress sense, or lack of it. Julie’s change of image was all tied up in a Martha Stewart fantasy. She had to be the perfect mother, and far more importantly, the perfect wife.
‘Nice cake, dear,’ said Grandma, ‘did you bake it, yourself?’ She had. She made everything from scratch. Phil didn’t hold with processed food. He said it wasn’t sustaining for a man to work on. She made roast dinners and baked cakes. She had given up work and now she cooked and cleaned and pottered in the garden.
‘Guess what?’ she’d said to Lisa on the phone one day soon after her marriage.
‘I’m doing plants.’
She was really excited. ‘Plants and stuff. I’m growing them.’
‘It’s called gardening, love.’
‘Oh, yeah,’ she’d said. ‘I knew that.’
Phil had come home and complained bitterly about the state of the garden. She hadn’t had a clue what she was doing, but she bought books, and then every few days she’d buy blubs, or seeds. In six months she bought her own poly-tunnel and now grew all of their veg. She had a herb garden, flower beds, lawns—three in total including the front—so smooth you could play crown bowls on them. She had a tool shed and a potting shed, and she took advice from her father-in-law. This year, she had entered her first carrots at the local fête. They hadn’t been placed, but her Victoria sponge took third and was awarded a blue rosette.
Since the day she married, she hadn’t taken a single alcoholic drink. Partly because Vicki came along so quickly, and because she was permanently breast feeding. She declined all offers of nights out from her sisters and old workmates until they had finally stopped inviting her. Occasionally, she went shopping with her sister on a Saturday afternoon, but that was rare these days. She preferred being at home in her lovely house, in her lovely garden, happy.
Lisa and Emma, and even her mum and dad on occasion called her The Stepford Wife. She became Steppy and tolerated it with good humour. They never called her that in front of Phil, though, just like they never called Victoria, Vicki when he was around. He didn’t like it. In fact, wherever possible he preferred her to be given the full title of Victoria-Violet. Lisa called her Vicki-Vee because she said it sounded like a DJ’s name, but Julie couldn’t bring herself to say even that. She never, ever used her daughter’s hyphenated name. She felt that calling her daughter Violet or even a shortened form of it, would sour her child, but she had stopped shuddering when Phil used the full name, because that’s all he ever called her, apart from when he was angry and then he would address her as The Child.
Julie detested her husband. She had grown to hate him immediately after Vicki had been born. He had no interest in his little girl apart from when his parents were around, or there was somebody else that he was playing the devoted father for. When it was just the three of them, he ignored her completely. He never woke in the night to attend to her. He never changed a nappy. He resented her and was jealous that she took her mother’s attention from him.
‘Victoria-Violet loves her grandma more than anybody else in the world,’ sang Violet as she bounced Vicki on her knee. The baby had had enough and was struggling to get down, but Violet held her in a vice-like grip. There were going to be tears. Julie watched her daughter screw up her face in preparation for the first yell. She had her father’s temper. She rose quickly and put a plain biscuit in Vicki’s fist to distract her. ‘Does silly Mummy feed you nasty biscuits that are full of sugar? Does she, does she?’ Violet crooned. ‘Silly Mummy. Tell her, Victoria-Violet, silly mummy.’ Julie thought that she might puke if she had to listen to any more of Violet’s stupid baby talk.
‘Oh, here, dear, take her from me. Grandma really mustn’t get this coat dirty. Jaeger, dear.’ She held Vicki out to Julie as though the baby was radio active. Phil stepped in and took her out of his mother’s arms. He cradled her gently in the crook of his arm and kissed her on her cheek. ‘Victoria-Violet is Daddy’s little Princess, isn’t she?’ he said. Vicki flung herself sideways, extending her arms towards her mother. She dropped the sucked biscuit on the floor and grizzled loudly. As Julie rose to take her from Phil she realised that it was the first time that Phil had touched his daughter in over a week.
‘You shouldn’t give in to her like that, Philip, dear. She’s becoming far too clingy for her mother. It’s not good for her. She’ll become a spoiled brat. Put her down in her play pen and let her be.’
Vicki was grabbing at Julie’s breast. Ignoring Violet’s advice, she left the room, sickened by the act that Phil was performing for his mother’s benefit.
When she first brought Vicki home from the hospital Violet and Donald had come round for a visit. The baby wanted a feed, so Julie discretely covered her chest with a feeding cloth and put her daughter to her breast. She hadn’t given it a second thought—her baby needed feeding and she was there solely to provide for her.
‘Take the child to the nursery and do that,’ said Phil. Julie had never heard him speak to her so coldly and she thought she’d heard every nasty tone that the man possessed. His eyes were smouldering with fury. She looked up, shocked to find Donald pointedly looking out of the window and Violet with her head turned into the sofa an expression of deep disgust on her frosty face.
‘The flowers are looking nice again,’ said Donald. Julie, hoisted Vicki, covered herself and left the room.
‘How dare you disrespect my parents like that,’ Phil raged after they had left. ‘I cannot believe that you brazenly exposed yourself to my father like a fishwife. I will never live this down. How could you? You filthy, dirty whore. I would make you get on your knees and humbly beg their forgiveness if it didn’t mean bringing the disgusting spectacle up again.’ He was clearly thinking about doing so. ‘No, it’s best just left now. But if you ever embarrass me in front of my parents like that again, I will never forgive you. If you were a Christian woman you’d go to confession and beg for your soul to be cleansed of such wickedness. He stormed from the room without another word. The upside was that he never pestered her for sex for nearly a month after that. He said that she disgusted him, but he still lay in their bed beside her, masturbating at night.
Julie thought back to that incident when she sat in the nursery chair feeding Vicki. She could hear their muffled voices from downstairs and she felt content. How could Phil not love this precious child?
‘Grandma and Grandpa are leaving now, Julie,’ Phil shouted up the stairs.
‘Okay, see you next time. Thank you for the bonnet,’ Julie shouted back down. She heard Phil’s feet pounding up the stairs. She knew just from the footfalls that he was angry again. He flung the door open, startling Vicki and making her jump in her mother’s arms. She whimpered, but didn’t remove her mouth from the nipple.
‘Have you no manners?’ he hissed. ‘Get down those stairs now and say goodbye to my parents properly.’
‘I’m in the middle of feeding your daughter, I can’t just pull her away,’ she hissed back.
‘Put the child down and do it.’ He didn’t wait for her to respond and grabbed Vicki roughly from her mother’s arms. As the suction from around Julie’s breast was released, Vicki’s rosebud mouth came away with a loud smacking noise. She instantly began to wail. Phil put her roughly in her cot. She hadn’t been winded and wasn’t finished feeding.
If Donald and Violet hadn’t been waiting at the bottom of the stairs, she would have fought against this indignity bitterly, but under the circumstances it was better not to make a scene, it would only be held against her by all concerned. She glanced at her screaming baby and left the room, covering her breast as she went.
‘No need. Really no need,’ said Donald as she appeared around the bend in the stairs with a smile ready on her face.
‘Every need, Dad,’ replied Phil, hammering the point home that they had had words.
Violet’s mouth literally dropped open to gape as she stared at Julie. Julie had been about to embrace Donald in the customary, awkward, goodbye hug before moving onto Violet, but Donald had also seen what had happened and busied himself with his hat, holding it in front of himself like a shield.
Julie looked down to see a sticky wet patch covering the front of her top. Still full, her swollen breast had lactated. She felt a small river of it trickle to her navel.
‘Go and clean yourself,’ Phil spoke to her like a dog, further humiliating her.
Julie went back to Vicki. She lifted her gently from the cot, crooning to her all the time. Vicki latched on to her mother’s breast, comforting them both. Five minutes later Julie was singing softly to her daughter, who had hold of her little finger and was staring up into her mother’s eyes. Out of the blue, Julie remembered the look on her Mother-in-law’s horrified face when her breast had leaked onto her top and she started laughing. Not getting the joke, but finding it funny anyway, Vicki laughed too and mother and daughter shared a special moment before Julie had to go downstairs to face her husband’s latest fury.