Chapter Twenty One
‘So, Jamaica lived up to all its expectations, then?’
It was January and Julie, Phil and Vicki had just returned from some winter sun. ‘How much longer are you going to live like this, Toots?’ It was a familiar question and Lisa had asked it many times. ‘It breaks my heart to see you so…so…’ she struggled to find the right word. ‘Cowed.’
‘See how you didn’t say unhappy or miserable or depressed? You still don’t get it, do you? I am happier than I’ve ever been in my entire life. This is everything I’ve ever wanted and more. You think he bullies me, but I can handle him, you know. He is a small price to pay to have Vicki and all this.’
‘But the sex stuff. You’ve just spent the last ten minutes telling me how bad it was on holiday, nearly put me off my sandwich,’ she said, motioning to her empty plate.
‘Even that’s not so bad once you get used to it. The thing with the sex is not to fight it. I’ve perfected the sixty second blow job to an Olympic standard. Honestly, nine times out of ten, that keeps him on an even keel. We rarely have full on sex these days.
‘It’s no way to live. The man’s a monster.’
‘It’s my way to live and it works for me.’
‘But you could divorce him and take him to the cleaners. Why are you so bloody stubborn about it? Your promise means nothing.’
‘It means everything.’
‘You know it’s going to come to it one day. Are you really going to throw away everything?’
Julie thought back to the golden promise she had made her Mother-in-law in the early days of the bitter fights and arguments. Violet had called her a gold digger. Said that she’d crawled out of the gutter. Said that Philip was nothing more than a meal ticket for her. Julie had promised, on her life, that if ever her marriage went sour, she would leave with nothing more than the clothes on her back.
She answered her sister’s question. ‘Yes, I am. I’ll walk out of here empty-handed without a second’s hesitation.’
‘God, you’re so stubborn sometimes. Bloody hell, girl, for what you put up with, you’ve earned every chrome washer in this place. It’s Vicki-Vee’s heritance. You can’t deny her that.’
‘I would rather my daughter grew up with dignity and integrity than a silver spoon. If I walk out of here with her and we have to struggle for awhile it will be character-building for her and she’ll always know that her mother did what was right. A promise like that can’t be broken. Anyway, shush, it’s not going to come to that. Things are fine.’
Sensing a feeling of friction building between them, Lisa changed the subject. ‘So, how’s Woodzilla been?’
‘Not so bad lately. She adores Vicki and she’s taken to calling me “Dear,” so maybe after six years of marriage she’s realised that I’m not the monster that she had me painted.’
‘She’s such a fucking hypocrite. How can she pull our family to bits, when she’s got a prostitute in a frock for one son, a fraudster for another, and a friggin’ sex addict for a third.’ She pointed upstairs to where Phil was asleep from his night shift.
‘Shush, you’ll wake him,’ said Julie, just as the living room door opened. He’d crept down the stairs and had been listening at the door. As she heard him coming in, Lisa hastily grabbed her cup and side plate off the coffee table. Julie had no idea how much of their conversation he had heard. His voice, when he spoke, was cool and gave no indication of the fury he was holding beneath the surface. ‘Well, look at Miss Lisa, sitting on my sofa, eating my food and drinking my coffee, and slagging off my family. I think it’s time you ran along home now, don’t you?’ He ripped the coffee cup out of Lisa’s hands and threw it against the far wall. Coffee dregs dripped from the muted mauve paintwork and ran in two trails down towards the carpet. Lisa stood and put her coat on. ‘Get out,’ Phil said in a controlled voice. ‘Get out of my house and don’t ever come back.’
‘Will you be all right?’ she asked Julie, and her sister nodded. ‘I’ll ring you,’ said Lisa, glaring at Phil before beating a hasty retreat.
Phil waited for the squeak of the garden gate before speaking. ‘Am I such a bad husband?’ he asked.
‘No, of course not.’
‘I give you everything you ask for. I work eighty hours a damned week to keep you happy. And you repay me like this. Don’t you love me?’
‘Of course I do,’ she lied. ‘Look, I don’t know how much you heard, but it’s just our Lisa mouthing off. You know she’s got a big mouth.’
He walked over to her and Julie shrank back in her seat. Philip grabbed the front of her fleece and pulled her towards him. ‘Liar,’ he hissed. ‘I’ve never hit a woman in my life but I could wring your rancid neck right now.’ His eyes were blazing and Julie was scared. Phil worked up some spittle in his mouth and spat it full into Julie’s face before throwing her back into the chair. He stalked out of the room, leaving Julie to wipe the soiling from her face.
She was glad that Vicki was at school. She had been quiet lately and Julie was worried that the fights between her and Phil were scaring her. She went into the kitchen for a dust pan and brush for the broken crockery and a wet cloth to wash the coffee from the wall.
In many ways, Phil was the perfect husband. He was right, he had become a workaholic. When Julie had met him he was a fitter on the shop floor. From that he elevated to foreman, and now he had a white collar job in the offices that allowed them an extravagant lifestyle. He worked five twelve-hour shifts instead of three or four and often went into the office on a Saturday and Sunday, too. Phil loved his work, and despised his daughter. He kept out of the way.
They had three foreign holidays a year, that year they had already been to Morocco and Jamaica. He never denied Julie, or indeed Vicki, anything. If they wanted it, it was available. A tin containing an emergency float of one thousand pounds was kept in the back of one of the kitchen cupboards. It was there to pay for anything that cropped up between visits to the bank. Julie had never lived with financial security. Her childhood had always been clouded by her parent’s money worries. They regularly had debt collectors and the loan woman at the door. Julie had taken a part time job working in the kitchen of a nursing home and she loved it. Her money was her own and Philip never asked her about it or asked what she did with it. She was able to help out her own family from time to time. She would take money from the kitchen tin, but she always made sure that she replaced it on pay day. Once a month she went into the mortgage broker’s on Duke Street. The mortgage was an endowment and came out of Phil’s bank on the fifteenth of every month. He left the finances to Julie, secure in the knowledge that everything was paid up and on time. He never looked at the biannual statements from the mortgage people. At the end of every month, Julie would make a second, equal monthly payment on the house. It came from her own wages and was her secret gift to Phil. It was her kick in the teeth for Violet. When the mortgage came to an end years before the final payment was due, she wanted to be able to say, ‘See? I did that. I doubled the house payments so that we would be free of debt earlier. Now call me a gold digger.’ With every extra payment Julie felt ten feet taller.
There’s was a difficult and unhappy marriage, but Julie’s life on the whole couldn’t have been better. She was a loyal and faithful wife and a loving mother.
Mrs Calvert walked across the schoolyard as Julie was re-fastening Vicki’s coat properly and getting the first barrage of words about her day at school. ‘Mrs Woods, hang on. Can I have a quick word, please?’ She looked up, startled, and rose to meet the teacher.
‘What is it? Is everything all right?’
‘Oh yes, I’m sure it is. If you’d just like to come to my office, I won’t keep you long. I’ve arranged for Miss Finch to watch Victoria for you.’ Despite the head teacher’s light tone, it sounded serious. Julie was worried.
In her office Miss Calvert pointed Julie to a chair and produced a buff file. She looked at it for a moment before speaking. ‘Our role as teachers is not only to impart knowledge, Mrs Woods. We are also there to look out for the wellbeing of all of our children. We are trained to spot sudden or even gradual changes in behaviour.’
Julie had sat forward, alarmed. She clasped her hands in her lap. ‘What is it? What’s the matter?’
The middle-aged teacher smiled warmly. ‘Don’t worry, I’m sure it’s nothing, but you see, that’s why we want to talk to you now, so that if something is wrong we can sort it out.’
‘Okay,’ said Julie, wishing that she’d get to the point.
‘Victoria has always been an exemplary student, Mrs Woods. A real credit to you. She’s very well behaved in class, one of the top students. And that in itself is part of the problem, you see.’
‘Miss Finch, as you know, is Victoria’s form teacher. How can I put this? She is concerned that in some ways, Victoria is almost too good. Her manners are so tight that they seem to suffocate her. Am I making sense?’
‘Not really,’ said Julie, rudely.
‘Okay, let me read you part of this progress report from Miss Finch. “Victoria is too stiff. She seems too polite, too clean, too well mannered, too everything. It’s as though she only allows two-thirds of herself to come out. The impression I have is that Victoria is holding her personality in check.” Now, I know,’ the head continued, ‘that this may seem silly to you. How can a child be too good but—’
Julie interrupted. ‘What a load of rubbish. There is nothing wrong with Vicki’s personality. She’s fine. How can you haul me in here to complain that my child is too well behaved? I’ve never heard such rubbish. And while I am here, Miss Calvert, perhaps I can draw to your attention what happened yesterday. Millie Green called my daughter a bitch. I won’t stand for that.’
‘Mrs. Woods, you are taking this all wrong. I’m not here to make you feel as though we’re criticising you. I just wanted to take this opportunity to have an informal chat with you to see that everything is okay. As to the incident with Millie yesterday, we are aware of it and I believe Miss Finch has sent a letter to Millie’s parents. Mrs Woods, you have a lovely daughter. She’s a joy to teach. We’ve seen how you are with her in the yard and she talks about you all the time. But, she never mentions her father at all.’
The teacher stopped talking to let this information sink in.
‘Well, that’s because he works a lot.’
‘I see. As you know, Mrs Woods, Victoria’s a real chatterbox. But both Mrs Finch and myself have noticed that when we mention her father, Victoria becomes distressed.’
‘That’s absolute rubbish. What are you saying? Let me get this straight, are you accusing Philip of something here? Are you suggesting that my husband is abusing our daughter?’
‘No.’ The teacher said this firmly. ‘No, Mrs Woods, please get that idea out of your head. That’s not what I’m saying at all. Please don’t think that for a second. Victoria is a happy little girl, she’s showing no symptom’s of being abused in any way.’
‘Oh, you’ve been looking for them, then.’
‘We watch every child in the school, Mrs Woods. Vicki no more or less than anybody else. It’s our job to be observant. She’s showing none of the usual symptoms of being abused, but she is showing signs of domestic distress.’ The teacher picked up an exercise book from the desk.
‘Because she had noticed some changes in Victoria’s behaviour, Miss Finch set the entire class an exercise. She asked them to think about the best time they’d ever had with their daddy, and write about it.’
‘Wait a minute.’ Julie was furious. ‘The teacher set the whole class a lesson just to trap my daughter into saying something bad about her dad?’
The head mistress didn’t answer. She turned Vicki’s book upside down so that it would face Julie and she pushed it across the table.
Vicki had written: Daddy + mummy + me went to Jamaker. Mummy made sand casuls wiv me. Mummy an me lafed when we got ower feets wet. Mummy and me dansd on the beech.
Miss calvert watched Julie’s reaction carefully.
‘Well,’ blustered Julie. ‘Vicki and I have a lot of fun together. It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have fun with her dad, too. She just remembered that day in her head, that’s all. Philip is a bit stuffy. He’s not the type to play in the sea or build sand-castles. Does that mean that he’s not a good father?’ Julie felt tears stinging the back of her eyes and fought to keep them contained.
Miss Calvert pushed a box of tissues across the desk to her. ‘When Miss Finch asked the children to write about a time with their fathers, she expressly asked the children to think of a time when their mother’s weren’t there, a time when they were having a good time alone with their dads.’ She let the implications drift in the room.
‘He’s a wonderful father. He works all hours to give Victoria the life that she has. I’m sorry; I don’t know what else to say. I’m hurt that you’re making my husband out to be some kind of monster. He’s not. He’s really not.’
‘I don’t mean to upset you Mrs Woods, and we’re honestly not suggesting that something bad is happening at home. I assure you that’s not the case. If we had any real concerns, this chat wouldn’t be happening and the meeting would be far less informal. We’ve just noticed some tension between Victoria and her father that we wanted to make you aware of, as is our duty. All we ask is that you speak to Victoria yourself and maybe we can talk again in a week or two.’
Julie left the headmistress’ office, reeling. Half of the way home she seethed in indignation, mentally defending her husband and deeply resenting the slight against him. The other half she thought about just how much she’d buried her head in the sand where Philip and Victoria were concerned. She acted as peacemaker between them, always trying to keep the equilibrium. She went through life hoping that Phil would ease up and find the joy in his daughter that she had. Sometimes she counted days. The other week she counted six days during which the only time he had spoken to Vicki was to tell her off. He was at her constantly, pulling her up on her manner’s, making her sit up straight, be quiet, talk properly, eat nicely, not drag her feet, pull her dress down, pick her toys up, fasten her shoes, not swing her legs into the furniture, sit properly on the chairs, and a multitude of other minor complaints. When he talked to Vicki he had a tone, he used a certain disapproving, strict tone of voice when he asked her to do something. He only ever talked to her in two ways, in the strict tone asking her to do something, or shouting when he was telling her off. He never just talked to her.
Since starting work, Julie had noticed a change in Vicki herself, but she’d tried to swallow it down and pretend that it was her imagination. If she was going to be late home and Phil would be there when Vicki came home from school, Vicki would throw a tantrum. It was rare that Phil picked her up; he was always at work so that Julie couldn’t do a late shift. On the odd occasion that he did, Julie thought that it was a good thing for Vicki. Of course the child would have a tantrum; it was out of the norm for her to have her dad there when she got in instead of her mum. Children liked order and bucked against change. She didn’t like Julie not being there for her. Julie didn’t want her growing up spoiled so ignored her crying. She would pry her off her legs when she went out of the door. She was grateful when Vicki was at school when she left for work. She wouldn’t tell the child in advance if her dad was picking her up. Vicki asked her every day if she would be there when she came out of school and every day Julie said that she would. Phil only picked her up about once a month, if that. Julie firmly believed that it was good for both of them.
When she got in from work, Vicki was always in bed asleep. She’d ask how she’d been and Phil would always say, ‘fine, no problem.’ The following day Vicki would be clingy and whiney, but that was only to be expected. Julie would assure her that she’d be there after school and Vicki would settle down.
Julie’s head was banging. She’d been trying to work through the headache but it had become worse as her shift progressed and now she felt nauseous with it, too. She was told to go home and get some rest, an offer that she gratefully accepted.
She put her key in the door and went into the living room. She could hear the television in the lounge at the back of the house. They had a long coffee table in the living room that Vicki ate some meals on if they weren’t eating in the dining room, or she’d use it to draw or do jig-saws on. Julie would pull it into the middle of the room for her and when not in use it fit snugly into an alcove at the back of the room.Vicki was sitting bolt upright at the table, facing the wall. She didn’t turn around when Julie entered.
‘Vicki, I’m home, darling. Don’t I get a hug?’
Vicki turned around. Her cheeks were streaked with tears. ‘I can’t, Mummy,’ she said from her little plastic chair. ‘I’m not allowed to move until bedtime.’
Julie was by her daughter’s side; she pulled her into her arms and carried her over to the sofa where she sat with her on her knee. Phil still wasn’t aware that she’d come home and was watching telly in the lounge.
Julie held Vicki’s hand in hers. It was like ice.
‘How long have you been sitting there like that, darling?’
‘Since I came home from school, Mummy. Daddy always makes me sit here and I have to be real still and quiet until bedtime.’
‘Have you had your tea?’
‘Daddy makes me a cheese sandwich when I get in and gives me a drink of juice.’
‘That’s all you’ve had?’
Her little girl nodded her head solemnly, big tears watering her eyes. ‘Don’t tell on me. He’ll be mad.’
‘No he won’t, sweetheart. Don’t you worry. Now you go up and put your jammies on and I’ll make you some tomato soup and toast soldiers before you go to bed, how’s that? She held her daughter close and kissed her hair.
‘I don’t like it when you leave me, Mummy,’ Vicki jumped down off her knee smiling, and Julie patted her on the bottom as she skipped across the room.
‘I promise you, sweetie, I’m not going to leave you anymore. I’m sorry.’
Julie waited for the door to shut before going to confront her husband. He had heard the living room door opening and closing and met her at the threshold to the kitchen.
‘What the hell’s going on?’ she shouted at him. He looked guilty.
‘What do you mean, what’s going on? Nothing’s going on. What are you doing home, anyway?’
‘I walked in to find out little girl sitting in a corner facing the wall. She was crying her heart out because you’d told her that she wasn’t allowed to move. What have you been doing to her Philip? She’s your daughter. How can you not want to love her with everything you’ve got?’
‘Is that what she said,’ he laughed. ‘Well, the little liar. I think we’ve got a problem, sweetheart. Victoria-Violet obviously resents you going out to work. She’s trying to play us off against each other.’
‘Don’t you dare blame any of this on her, you cowardly little man,’ she emphasised the word little. ‘You have no right to call yourself a father. You haven’t even fed her.’
‘Don’t be so ridiculous, of course I’ve fed her. She’s been pushing your buttons, Julie; the little bitch has been lying through her teeth to cause trouble between us.’ Julie recoiled and put her hands over her mouth. She couldn’t believe what her husband had just called their daughter. Had he ever said something like that to her face? He was still talking. ‘She wants a good hiding, that’s what she wants. I’ll sort her out, lying and causing trouble. You’ve always been too soft on her, pandering to her every whim. You know what, Julie, if you want somebody to blame for all of this, you should start by looking in the mirror, woman. If I don’t discipline the child and teach her some respect, she going to revert to her genes and grow up a low-grade whore, like her mother.’
She didn’t think about what she was saying, she just reacted. ‘I want a divorce,’ she said simply, and pushed past him. She pounded up the stairs. Vicki’s bedroom door was open and Julie saw her sitting on the edge of her bed looking terrified. She’d heard them arguing. What was a nice kitchen and Tunisian cookware in comparison to her daughter’s happiness? She pulled a holdall from the top of the wardrobe in her room, mindful of her promise. She would return it later. She packed just one change of clothes for herself. Then she went through to Vicki’s room. ‘It’s all right, darling, don’t be frightened. We’re going on a little holiday, just the two of us.’ She had a couple of hundred pounds left from this month’s wages. It wasn’t a lot but it would buy her a night in a bed and breakfast while she thought about her next move. Of course she’d have to go home, eventually, cap in hand to her parents. But the shame of her failed marriage burned inside of her. She didn’t want to admit that she’d fallen short as a wife. She’d moved on from the tired council house on the roughest estate in Barrow. She’d grown accustom to better and Vicki had never lived the way she had as a child. Her parents didn’t even have central heating. As she threw clothes into the holdall for Vicki, she realised that her family were right, she had become a snob. She hated the thought of going back to all that she had left behind. She worked hard for the things she had, was it wrong to want better than you were used to? Her mind was racing; she was haphazardly throwing Vicki’s clothes into the bag and talking to her about the wonderful time that they were going to have.
‘I’m hungry, Mummy,’ said Vicki.
‘I know, sweetheart, and you know what, forget silly old tomato soup, when we get to our hotel, we’ll order in takeaway. Anything you want.’
‘Takeaway, wow.’ Vicki said it as though she was being offered Cinderella’s castle. They didn’t eat processed food; Phil insisted that everything in the home be cooked from scratch. Vicki had only ever eaten takeaway at her auntie’s house, and of course, because it came in exciting packages it was like the Holy Grail. She jumped up and down and chattered, trying to decide between a Happy Meal or chicken nuggets, or pizza, or sausage and chips.
Maybe they could afford a rented house. She only worked part time but Emma was at home with a small baby, perhaps Julie could pay her to have Vicki after school. Her mind was reeling with possibilities as she zipped her daughter into her warm winter coat.
She walked into the living room with Vicki under one arm and the holdall in the other. Phil was watching the television and barely even bothered to look up when she appeared.
‘So, you think you’re leaving me, then,’ he sneered.
‘No, Philip, I am leaving you.’
‘You’ll be back with your tail between your legs, begging me for forgiveness. I give it twenty-four hours. You’re pathetic, you know that? Here I am trying to discipline the child to avoid situations just like this one, and you just mamby-pamby her all the time. Go on, go if you want to. I’ll be better off without the lot of you. You only hold me back.’
She went over to the pot where they kept keys and odd coins and took her car keys.
Philip raised his eyebrows. ‘Oh, you think you’re taking your car,do you? Think again. The car stays with me.’
She could have kicked herself for allowing him this victory. She threw the car keys at him, catching him on the cheek. Vicki started to cry and Phil wiped at the bleeding scratch on his face.
Julie had to swallow hard. She so badly wanted to scream at him to fuck off, but she held Vicki in her arms and the child was already terrified. She had to make do with a less than satisfying, ‘Get lost, Philip.’ She went over to the phone to ring for a taxi to take them into town where they could find a bed and breakfast for the night. She picked up the receiver and started to dial as Phil rose from his seat and walked over to them. Vicki shrank back into her mother’s arms and clung to her tightly.
Phil grabbed the phone out of her hand and pressed the disconnection button before she had finished dialling. ‘My telephone, I do believe.’
‘You monster, you fucking monster,’ she whispered, hoping that whispering it would make it less likely to stick in Vicki’s memory banks. She had her face buried in her mother’s hair so that she didn’t have to look at her father, and witness the fight taking place between them. Julie’s arm was aching with holding her.
‘What’s in the bag?’ asked Phil.
‘Nothing of yours,’ Julie spat back. ‘Some things for Victoria and a change of clothes for me, that’s all. Surely you can’t begrudge me that.’
Phil adopted a mocking sing-song voice. ‘I’m telling you now that if I ever leave, I’ll walk out of here with nothing but the clothes on my back.’
Julie dropped the bag. It landed on Phil’s feet. She straightened her aching back and stared into his eyes. ‘You disgust me,’ she said to him before dropping her handbag next to the holdall and walking out of the door with nothing but her daughter in her arms.
The bitterly cold night air hit them and she stormed down the road with Vicki. She’d have to put her down soon because she was heavy, but she needed to calm her first. She’d left her purse with all of her money and her bank cards. She could neither pay for a bed and breakfast, nor a takeaway. She had three choices. She could go to her parents, Lisa’s or Emma’s. Her parents and Emma lived on the same estate, but Lisa would have been her port of choice because she was the most likely to have money, so that Julie could borrow enough to get Vicki her takeaway. She was annoyed that her stubborn pride had meant her breaking her word to her daughter, but she also felt victorious that he hadn’t got the better of her. She felt that she’d come out of it the winner. But he wasn’t trudging through the streets at eight o’clock in the middle of January with nowhere to go. Lisa lived in the opposite direction of Emma and her folks. What if she wasn’t in? Emma had kids and was always in, and there was a spare key to her mum’s house in the coal shed, but Lisa was a single woman and often went out at night.
With the takeaway heavy on her mind, Julie made the decision to go to Emma’s house. Vicki would love playing with her cousins, Jack and Scott, and she loved Ruby, the baby. It might just take her mind off things until Julie could get her bearings and decide her next move.
After her late night, Julie let Vicki stay at home the next day. At three o’clock in the afternoon Lisa’s doorbell rang. She went to answer it. Julie heard raised voices at the door.
‘I’ve told you. She doesn’t want to see you. Now do one, will you, or I’ll call the police, you fucking abusive bastard.’
‘I want to see my wife.’
‘Well she doesn’t want to see you.’
Julie went out into the hall. Phil stood on the doorstep holding a massive bouquet and a teddy bear that was bigger than Ruby. He held them out to her, grinning sheepishly.
‘Julie, this is ridiculous. You’re behaving like a child. Come home.’
Emma was ready for tearing Phil’s eyes out and loaded up on another barrage of verbal missiles to fire at him. Julie, told her to give them a minute. They needed to talk.
‘So by protecting my child, I’m behaving like one, am I?’
She saw a flash of anger glint in his eyes, but he controlled it. He took a second, breathed deeply and apologised. ‘Julie, I’m so, so sorry. I want you to come home where you belong. We were both stubborn. We both felt that we were in the right and it got out of hand.’
‘How can torturing a little girl ever be right?’
‘Oh, now you’re exaggerating. Come home. We’ll discuss it. I’ll do anything you ask. I promise you with all my heart. I’ll change. I’ll be the father that you want me to be.’
Half an hour after he arrived at Emma’s house they pulled into their drive. Once inside, at Julie’s insistence, Phil sat Vicki on his knee and apologised to her. The second insistence was a takeaway, anything that Vicki wanted. They bought enough food in to feed an army and had a wonderful family night in. Phil played on the floor with her. He bristled, but controlled himself when Julie said that as a special treat she could have more than one toy out at once. Phil didn’t raise his voice or talk to her in his usual tone for almost five days and the slip back into what they, as a family, considered normal, was a gradual slide.