Her answer was a long time coming. He knew she was still there, he could hear her inhaling deeply on the other end of the telephone connection. The silence was laden with disappointment, her disappointment of him, and his feeling of being small and useless. He thought he was going to have to break the nothingness between them, be the first one to speak. He had cleared his throat nervously and had even stammered the first syllable of ‘say something, please, Mother,’ a couple of times when she cut in on his ineptitude to even manage basic vocabulary.
She spoke slowly and quietly. ‘Put her on the line.’ There was no please. The ice in her voice froze any argument he might have put forward. A bigger man could have tried to protect his wife to be, but he humbly pointed the handset towards Julie.
‘She wants to speak to you,’ he mumbled in the voice of a chastised child.
She took the telephone from him. It was slick with the sweat from his clammy palm. ‘Hel…’
‘Are you pregnant?’ Julie actually winced at the attack in the form of words. Four syllables, three words, and yet she felt as though the woman, who was soon to be her mother-in-law, had punched her in the face and knocked her to the floor with a single blow. It was only words that she had been struck with, and yet she straightened her posture and clung on to the door beside her for support against the assault.
‘No, Mrs Woods, I am not pregnant. I—’
‘Liar,’ Violet spat. ‘You must be pregnant. Why else would you be rushing into this ridiculous notion of marriage? My son’s not a fool. He won’t marry a low-grade trollop. Or is it just that you’re scared, missy? Is that it? Hmmm?’
Although she had asked a question, she had no intention of giving Julie an opportunity to reply. Barely pausing for breath, she launched herself into a full-blown rant, spitting out accusations like darts from a blowpipe. ‘Are you scared? That’s it, isn’t it? You’re scared that any day now, my Philip will look at you and see what you really are. He’ll look at you and see filth, won’t he? And we know what will happen then, don’t we? He’ll kick you out into the same gutter that he pulled you up from. Oh, I can see what your game is. You saw my poor son and your greedy little eyes lit up. You saw a great big pound sign and you grabbed at it, like any common little whore would.’
Philip was hovering half way across the room, tugging on his hair the way he always did when he was upset. Although he was over ten feet away from Julie, and the words were tinny and distorted by the telephone line, he could hear every word that his mother said. She had called him a bastard the last time they’d spoken. Now she was flinging insults at Julie. He tried to take hold of the telephone, and lowered his head so that his mouth was close to the receiver, but Julie wouldn’t let go.
‘Oh really, Mother. I think—’ Julie held up a hand to silence him. She didn’t even try to excuse herself from the tirade on the other end of the phone. She spoke directly to Phil without bothering to cover the handset for privacy.
‘No, love, it’s all right, let her speak. She needs to do this. Let her get it all off her chest.’ Phil let the tension go from his body with an audible sigh. He was visually relieved not to have to try and get between the two strong women, better to let them sort it out themselves.
‘Let me speak? Let me speak? Why, you condescending, crass, little bitch. How dare you assume that I need your permission to speak! Who the hell do you think you’re talking to? I could buy and sell your stinking family a thousand times over.’
‘Stop right there. You can say what you like about me, but leave my fam—’ Violet cut her off as though she’d never spoken.
‘But you know that, don’t you? You know that if you don’t get a ring on your finger quickly, my son is going to see you for the gold digging tramp that you really are. Don’t think I don’t know what’s going on. He’s a meal ticket, isn’t he? And you’re going to take him for every penny you can, bleed him dry and then cast him aside when you move onto your next victim. Well, I’m telling you now, girl. This wedding will not take place. It isn’t going to happen. Do you hear?’ Her voice had risen to a shrill screech.
‘Right, Mrs Woods, you’ve had your say now let me have—’
‘Over my dead body. Do you hear me? Do you hear me?’ Violet was screaming into the telephone now, the last remnants of self-control lost in the rage of her tantrum. ‘Don’t mess with me, girl, because I’ll crush you like a woodlouse.’
In other circumstances Julie would have found this funny. Even in the drama of the moment her mind wandered and she wondered briefly how a woodlouse would crush. She completely missed the final barrage of the bitter woman’s threats and was brought back to it with Violet screaming at her to put her son back on. Phil lolled beside her, looking diminished.
‘I want you to go to Dr Watkins to be tested for AIDS,’ were the first words she spoke when Phil muttered ‘hello’ into the handset.
‘Oh really mother now you’re being—’
‘She could be riddled with disease. You don’t know who she’s lain down with before you, do you? I’d hate to think that you’ve caught something dirty from her. Oh, Philip, please go and get yourself checked out. You’ve always been such a sensible boy. Why are you doing this to me? How could you hurt me so, after all that I’ve sacrificed for you?’ Phil’s eyelids drooped slightly and his posture slumped as he settled in for a heavy dose of Violet’s pain and disappointment. ‘You said you’d never leave me. You were the one who was going to stay home and look after me. We’ve always been so close, Philip. How could you let this trollop come between us like this? I swear, this marriage will not happen. I forbid it. Now tell the girl to go back where she came from and come home immediately. We can sort out the mess you’ve got yourself into buying that silly little house. Come back to your family and be forgiven, son, because I’m telling you now, if you don’t you are going to lose us all. And for what? Eh? What is so good about this fat, low grade bitch that you’d give up your own family for her?’
‘Mother, please. It doesn’t have to be like this. If you’d just give Jules a chance.’
‘Never. She will not set foot over my door, and as long as you are with her, neither will you. I hope you’ll think it’s worth it son, because you’ve broken my heart. Your father, brothers and I will not be attending this sham of a wedding.’
She ranted some more, sobbed some more and feigned illness, but the latter was only a momentary hiatus while she restocked on new and previously unused insults. Philip learned that his mother had quite a talent for profanity and gutter talk. Julie sat quietly by, listening to the tinny voice spouting poison, willing Phil to stand up to his mother. She heard the names the foul woman called her, but remained seated; breathing slowly and thinking about the flowers she wanted to plant in the garden. If we marry in early May, she thought, the cherry and apple blossom will be out. That’ll be nice for photographs. She said nothing, hoping that Phil would jump to her defence at some point. And then Violet got started in on Julie’s family again.
‘The father doesn’t work and the mother’s a domestic, Philip. They’re scum, scrounging off the state and living a life of filth and squalor.’
It was as though a bomb had been placed under the pink cherry blossom tree. Julie, sitting pretty beneath the boughs in a white dress, saw the blossom explode and she was on her feet wrenching the telephone out of her fiancé’s hand.
‘You nasty, venomous old cow.’ She screamed, slamming the telephone into its cradle hard enough to cause a tremor to ripple through her carpal tunnel.
They argued that night. It started when Phil turned to her and said in a cold voice, ‘I won’t have you speaking to Mother like that,’ and finished some time after midnight when Phil stormed up to his bedroom in a sulk.
Julie didn’t feel lonely lying in bed on her own that night. She didn’t cry into her pillow, confused and rejected. She seethed, furious with Phil for taking his mother’s side like that. Sleep was a long time coming.
The distance between them was tangible the next morning, the air thick with resentment. Julie made plans for her wedding, wondering all the while if she even wanted to get married, and Phil sulked. As she was leafing through a brochure of wedding cakes she paused and examined her reasons for going through with a wedding to a spineless man who would never protect her when she needed him to. She loved her new lifestyle. She loved her house. After living on a rough council estate all of her life, after tasting a better life, she didn’t want to go back to what she had been. She was ashamed to recognise that her motive was more mercenary and sheer bloody-mindedness than love. There was no way she was going to let the old cow win this one. She, Julie, was going to marry Philip, and if that pissed on Violet Woods’ parade then all well and good. Somebody had to stand up to the evil old trout and if her future husband couldn’t do it, then she was going to marry him and teach him how.
Philip was great at sulking over short distances, but he couldn’t go the mile. ‘I’m making a coffee, can I get you one?’ he said at three thirty. The frost was still in the air, but she sensed some slush dripping from the edges. She hadn’t made lunch, so they both did without. At teatime he went to the kitchen and made chicken with pasta and a cracked pepper sauce. It was her favourite and they ate from trays in the lounge, something Phil normally hated. That evening they picked out a honeymoon in Corfu but Julie still went to bed alone.
The following day she had just finished washing up after their evening meal and they were settling down to watch some TV. Julie went into the lounge to answer the phone, but Phil was already there, pulling a face at being disturbed. His telephone voice was evident by the time he’d put the handset to his ear.
‘He-llo,’ he chimed. Around both strangers and on the telephone he sounded like the most easygoing bloke in the world.
‘All right, Spud. How’s it going?’ It was SP. He’d called Phil Spud for years, but nobody could remember the origins of the nickname. ‘What’s going on, bro? Mum’s really upset.’ It was only around Violet that they spoke with cut-glass pronunciation. ‘What’s all this about you getting married? Bit of a rush, isn’t it? Hell, we haven’t even met the girl yet.’
‘You’ve heard then? Listen, SP, are you going to come?’
‘Whoa! Slow down man. In fact, that’s what I’ve rung up to say. Why not just slow down. Mum say’s this girl—what’s her name? Julie? Mum says she says she’s not pregnant or anything, so what’s the rush? Why don’t you just wait a while? You’ve not known her five minutes. We’re worried about you, Spud, and don’t want to see you made a fool of, that’s all.’
‘Made a fool of? Who’s making a fool of me, SP? You’re judging her before you’ve even met her just because of what Mum says.’
‘I don’t like my Mum being hurt like this, Phil, she was crying to Ros for two hours today. What’re you playing at?’ His voice, although still cajoling, had taken on a hard edge.
Phil’s voice echoed his resentment. ‘Look, I don’t like Mum being hurt either. All I want to do is marry the girl I…All I want to do is marry Julie, and if you don’t want to come, then that’s fine, but the marriage is going ahead.’
‘Come down off that bloody high horse of yours a minute, will you? If my littlest bro is getting married then of course we’ll be there, all the lads will, you know that.’
‘And Mum and Dad?’
‘Well, Spud, that might not happen, she’s pretty raged up you know, and the old man just wants a quiet life. My guess is, he’ll try and talk her round…but, well, you know what she’s like. So what’s the big hurry, Phil? Why are you digging your heels in on this? If you waited and gave everybody a chance to get to know her, I’m sure things will calm down. Why do you have to get married on the rush, six weeks is a ridiculously short space of time. How can you arrange a marriage in six weeks? Doesn’t it make sense to do things properly? Why not set a date for next summer and we’ll have a bash to be proud of? Or are you hiding something? Maybe she is pregnant and you’re trying to hide it.’
Phil spent the next ten minutes convincing SP that Julie was not pregnant. He blushed as he admitted that they hadn’t even slept together and that they had separate bedrooms for the time being. He explained that he did want to do things properly. Julie was furious and could have hit him for talking about their personal life so openly.
‘Look, Spud, let me be honest with you. We’re worried. What’s this with the mental illness thing? What exactly is wrong with her? I’m not judging or anything but if we can understand, maybe what you’re doing won’t seem so mad.’
‘What?’ Phil spluttered into the telephone. ‘There’s nothing wrong with her, what are you on about? What mental illness?’
‘Mum says she’s been in Dane Garth. Said she thought it was drugs-related, something to do with heroin, or something.’
‘Oh, she’s gone too far this time. She’s talking a load of bollocks, man. Heroin! I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous.’ He was shouting now. Julie had been following Phil’s side of the conversation and at that moment, just until the shock set in, she thought the situation was hilarious. She began to laugh.
‘She said what?’ she spluttered. ‘I’ve never done drugs in my life.’
On the other end of the telephone SP heard what Julie had said.
He lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘I’m guessing she hasn’t got AIDS either, then.’
‘No she has not got bloody AIDS.’ This time even Phil could see the funny side, and the three of them shared the joke.
SP tried to persuade Phil and Julie to change their plans and have the reception at the hotel, but Julie wouldn’t hear of it. She wanted this to be her wedding, organised her way.
She asked to speak to SP before Phil hung up. ‘Hello, Simon Peter.’ He told her to call him SP, everyone does. ‘Look,’ she went on. ‘I know you think this is too soon and all that, but I do love your brother, you know? I suppose, I just want to say thank you for giving us a go. It means a lot to Phil...Well, to both of us. Thank you.’
Julie was hurt. She wasn’t a bad person. How could Violet make up those horrible lies about her? She went into the garden and dug around the plants in her herb garden looking for miscreant weeds. She talked to her baby chives, they were growing well but they had grown long and leggy, bolting for the sun until they couldn’t sustain their own weight and had slewed to one side. Julie didn’t want them to look untidy. She supported them with fresh soil while asking the more robust Basil why anybody could be so cruel. Phil brought her coffee and they sat at their table on the patio enjoying the garden. It was bitterly cold and he put his cardigan around her shoulders. He praised her efforts in the garden and said that she was doing a good job. She basked in his praise. He told her not to worry and that everything would work out just fine. She tried to believe him.
James rang the same evening. He began the conversation with, ‘Way to go, bro! Have you lost the plot, or what? It’s okay shacking up with a drug-crazed loony for a bit. Hell, I’ve bedded a few of them myself, but fucking hell man, wanting to marry one? If you were here now, I’d shake your hand. It’s the first time you’ve ever bested me as the black sheep of the family. When did you grow a pair of bollocks? Jesus, I bet the old girl had a cow. Wish I’d seen it. Is she a goer then, this Julie?’
For the second time that night, Phil explained the situation and James was clearly disappointed. But he good-naturedly assured them that he wouldn’t miss the wedding for the world. ‘Hell, there’s bound to be a punch up somewhere along the line, bud. Count me in. I’ll travel up from London the night before with John, if he’s coming. You can guarantee he won’t want to miss out on a party.’
Andrew was the next to ring. SP had already filled him in on the anti-climax of their mother’s vicious tongue.
‘Hey, Phil. I’m sorry about all the hassle you’ve had, bruv. I’ve just called to say that I hope there’s an invitation to this wedding for us.’
And so it was arranged. The wedding was going ahead and all the Woods boys would be in attendance. Julie still didn’t feel accepted by this hostile family, but she did feel that maybe a few bridges had been mended before too much damage had been done.
They didn’t hear from Mother Woods again until soon after the invitations had been sent out. Phil had invited friends in Windermere and word spread that the youngest of the Woods boys was getting married and, what’s more, it was taking place in a registry office.
People stopped Violet in the street to fish for gossip about this startlingly low-key marriage. She flew home that day in a rage. She tried to get Donald to do the dirty work for her, to let it be understood that this was his idea and that he’d put his foot down to make his wife comply. Indeed, Donald had done his damnedest to make Violet change her mind about not attending their son’s wedding. It broke his heart to think that he wouldn’t be there to shake his son’s hand and wish him all the best. He didn’t approve of the girl, either, but it was Phil’s choice and, rightly or wrongly, he had made it. To this point, Violet had been immovable. Donald had resigned himself to the fact that if he wanted a continued peaceful life, he would have to stand resolutely beside his wife on this one. The gossips were already out in force; it wouldn’t do to be seen to be at war with his wife, and if he went against her, he knew for a certainty there would be war.
She flounced through reception in a fury. Mrs Hughes-Norris was knocked out of her path as Violet muscled her way through the WI brigade with elbows out and murder in her eyes.
‘Something must be done about this wedding,’ she said to her husband when she reached their suite.
Donald was rarely immovable about anything, but on this point, he faced his wife down and flatly refused to do her grovelling for her. Had Violet been less involved in herself at that moment, she might have seen an unusual expression tiptoe across her husbands face. He listened with his arms folded across his chest. His mouth worked very hard not to let the minuscule curl at the edges of his lips turn into a full-on grin, his eyes shone. He’d never seen Violet eat humble pie before and he wanted to see if it could be done. He was going to enjoy this. He had tried to push for a run out to see the couple and sort this silly mess out face to face, but that was going too far and Violet was having none of it.
‘Philip, My daaarhling. How are you both? How is Julia?’ Violet enthused in a voice flooded with insincerity.
‘What is it, Mother? If you want another fight, we’re not interested. You said some vile, terrible things about Jules. How could you?’
‘Oh, yes, I know dear,’ her voice remained bright and not in the least repentant. ‘Your father and the boys have told me off already about that silly misunderstanding. You must tell Julia to be more precise about things dear. Still, never mind that, it’s not important. Now then, dear, time is moving on you know. If we are going to make this wedding the Event of the Year, dear, we are going to have to get on. Now then, the first thing we’ve got to do is cancel that horrible registry office. What were you thinking, Philip? How beneath you. Sometimes I despair of you boys, I really do. Now, wait until you hear this. It was almost impossible, I grant you, and there had to be some radical changes made. But…are you ready for this, dear? As a special favour to me, Monsignor Burton has agreed to attend your wedding at St Mary’s though of course father McDonnegal will be leading the service. We’ll have the hotel at our disposal, of course. There now, what do you think of that?’
Julie, who had her ear pressed against the telephone and was fighting for the handset with Phil to hear what Violet was saying, couldn’t believe what she heard. Phil just stood there like a plank listening to his Mother muscle in. He didn’t say a word. Julie was the first to speak. She addressed her comment to Phil, but was in no doubt that Violet, and indeed most of the neighbours, could hear her.
‘No way. No bloody way is that wom—’
Violet gave a little chuckle. ‘Oh, she’s such a one, that Julia of yours. Tell her there’s no need to thank me, dear. I’ll pick her up at ten sharp tomorrow; we’ll have to have her measured for a dress.’ Her voice dropped slightly, ‘Given her dimensions it might take some time, dear. It really is most inconsiderate of you, giving me so little time to arrange an entire wedding, and not just any wedding. The Wedding of the Year, dear. Now, you two lovebirds just leave everything to me. Cheerio.’ And with that, Phil was left listening to a broken connection, and Violet was gone.
‘Well, thank you very much,’ screamed Julie, wheeling round to Phil in fury. ‘Why didn’t you tell her that there’s no way I’m going with her to get my wedding dress? In fact, while were on the subject, why didn’t you tell her that while she is welcome as a guest, she is having absolutely nothing to do with the organisation? Why didn’t you tell her, Phil?’ she finished on a sob.
Phil’s mouth had stretched to form a thin lipless line. He spoke to her in disgust. ‘You’re hysterical. Calm down and when you’re ready to have a civilised discussion, then we’ll talk.’
‘She called me an AIDS ridden junkie with mental problems, Phil. How do you expect me to react?’
He retreated to the quiet of the study.
She was hurt. She sat on the sofa staring at the television but taking nothing in. she couldn’t understand why Phil wouldn’t stand up to his mother. Gradually, her blood pressure dropped, her breathing returned to normal and she went from rasping sobs to the occasional dry hitch. It wasn’t Phil’s fault that his mother had rung, she could see that. She had turned on him pretty irrationally, she could see that too. She took him a cup of coffee, remembering to knock on the study door and wait for an answer before going in.
‘I’m sorry, love,’ she said, going up behind him and putting her arms around his shoulders. She felt him stiffen beneath her touch. ‘I know this isn’t easy for you and you must feel stuck between us. Can we talk now, please?’
‘She’s my mother, Julie. Why can’t you let her in? Have you any idea how hard that must have been for her?’
Julie wanted to say that it wasn’t easy for her either but she held her counsel. ‘If I go tomorrow, she’s going to completely take over. This is our wedding. It’s supposed to be the best day of our lives. I want us to arrange it ourselves. I don’t mind getting married at the registry. I like the fact that it’s going to be small and intimate and that we’re paying for it all ourselves. I don’t want her to take over, Phil.’
‘Oh, well, excuse me here, Julia, I didn’t realise you were the elite when it came to producing a wedding. Have you any idea how many weddings Mother’s managed. She’s done celebrities.’
‘What did you just call me?’
‘You just called me Julia.’
‘No I didn’t. I said—’
‘You did. You called me Julia.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. Anyway, my mother’s wedding plans might not be good enough for you, but I think it was very generous of her. You’re going to make her look a fool in front of her priest if you snub her. And frankly, Julie, I won’t have that. Either you let my mother in and you’ll be grateful for her generosity or the wedding’s off. So, what’s it to be? Do you want to marry me, or not?’
She tried to keep her temper. He was still angry with her. He had every right to be but she was angry too. ‘I’m sorry, Phil, but that’s just it. Your mum produces weddings; she choreographs them like a stage production. That’s wonderful if it’s what you want. But I just want us to say our vows with the people we care about behind us and then have a bit of a do afterwards. I just want it to be special. I know we had no choice but to do it on the cheap, but you know what, it’s exactly the way I want it.’
‘Have you once stopped to think what I want? Have you once asked me if I want a dirty little two-bit affair? Has it even crossed your mind that unless I’m married in the sight of God, as far as I’m concerned we won’t be properly married? I went along with you because it was all we could afford and yes, dammit, I wanted to please you.’ He omitted the fact that the main reason he agreed to marry her was to keep her out of his bed. ‘Things are different now. Mother is offering us a proper marriage, done in the correct way.’ The anger went out of his voice and she felt his shoulders slump. ‘That’s what I want, Julie.’
She turned things over through the night. Insomnia was a new but frequent bed partner these days. At first, she stubbornly resisted the thought of that woman having anything at all to do with their wedding. It felt as though having her making arrangements was to give the wedding the kiss of death before they even made it to the alter. And then some of Phil’s words came back to her, ‘Have you any idea how hard that must have been for her?’ Julie smiled and hugged a pillow to her. The thought of just how hard it would be for Violet to watch her favourite son marry a woman she detested filled Julie with a delicious feeling of power. Even better was the fact that she would be paying for it all. Hadn’t one of her main accusations been that Julie was a gold digger? She could learn her part and, she decided, she was going to play it to the hilt. It would have to be a grand wedding, because Julie knew that Violet’s position in the community was everything to her. It would be a wonderful, lavish and expensive wedding, with all of Julie’s down to earth family and friends in attendance, and Violet would be paying for every penny of it. Let the old bitch have her way, thought Julie. I’m going to love every second of it from this moment on. And, while I’m having the time of my life, she’ll hate it and be suffering.
She slept soundly dreaming of wedding cake and victory.