(from For Laika)
She braced herself as she opened the front door and walked inside the quiet house. The light in the kitchen spilled through the sitting room and into the hallway. Contrary to her first instinct, Julia walked steadily through the dull glow towards the brightness.
But the kitchen was empty. There was a plate in the sink and the breadboard sat on the bench sprinkled with signs of several cut slices. She wiped the knife and then picked up the board to brush off the crumbs over the basin. They fell onto the dirty plate like unmelting snowflakes. Then Julia turned on the hot tap and soaked the cloth to clean the board as the sink filled.
“What happened to you?”
Douglas’ voice had come from nowhere. Julia looked around. She hadn’t heard footsteps on the stairs or the backdoor open. But the rushing water and her brain buzzing with thoughts and the reverberations of the evening could have overridden most sounds. He was standing in the kitchen doorway in his pyjamas.
“What happened to you?” he repeated. “I thought you were with that woman … Maggie … but she telephoned a little while ago to make sure that you’d got home alright. Something about the crowd at the tube station or something?”
Julia let her breath go and her shoulders lowered. She turned off the tap and put the breadboard back onto the bench. “It was just that. It was busy coming out of the meeting and we got separated.” She smiled weakly. “But I’m fine … as you can see.”
Her husband looked at her appraisingly. “I’m not sure. You don’t look …like yourself. … You look … sort of ruffled.”
Julia dried her hands on the cloth hanging over the back of the chair nearest her and walked towards Douglas. “I feel a bit ruffled. There were more people than I thought. …” She rested her hand on Douglas’ arm. “And I’m really really tired. … Let’s go to bed. I’ll wash that with the breakfast dishes tomorrow.”
Douglas turned as Julia passed him. He switched off the light as she reached the bottom of the stairs. “Where was this meeting anyway? And why are so many people suddenly so keen on dogs?”
Julia lifted her heavy legs up the stairs towards the soft warmth of a bedroom lamp. “I can explain tomorrow … if you’re still interested,” she said, without the energy to turn and coax her fading voice over her shoulder towards him.
His feet thudded gently behind her and, within minutes, there was stillness. Silence. And dark.
The room gradually opened as morning light seeped slowly through the net curtains. Julia sat up suddenly in bed.
“What?” Douglas’ voice was thick with sleep.
“I didn’t let Maggie know I was alright. After she telephoned here last night.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Douglas turned over. “She didn’t sound as if she was a worrier like you. … Anyway, I told her you’d be fine …”
Julia looked down at her husband. “Am I a worrier? … Is that what you think?”
Douglas rolled back towards his wife again and opened his eyes. “You’re sitting up in bed at …” – he checked the alarm clock beside his bed – “twenty past seven, worrying that you didn’t telephone someone who is probably fast asleep in her own bed and not thinking about you at all.”
Julia frowned. “She was concerned enough last night to call …”
“People do that to be polite …”
“Not all people. Some people actually care …”
Douglas swallowed, moistening away the nighttime dryness of his mouth. “What is the matter? I just told you that you didn’t need to worry about something – that should be the end of it.”
“But it’s not, is it? Because in there you managed to call me a worrier and indicate that no one could possibly care about me.”
“God, Julia, those dogs have taken the best of you. You’ve really woken up on the wrong side of bed this morning.” He sat up and slid his legs out from under the covers with the confidence that his slippers were beside the bed waiting for his feet in exactly the right place.
“It’s not the stupid dogs, for God’s sake, Douglas – you get something in your head and … .” Julia groaned with exasperation. “You think I’m just a poor imitation of your mother – doing charity work and burning your supper – but I’m not! … I’m not.”
The silence that followed was a true indication of their mutual surprise. Julia’s second bout of shouting in the space of a day had alarmed her considerably more than the first. So Douglas must have been equally taken aback.
“I never said you were a poor imitation of anyone,” he said quietly, in a tone that one would use to calm an irrational child or a wild animal. Or someone who was stupid or clinically insane.
“You don’t have to.” Julia was out of bed. “It’s the way you treat me. What you expect from me.”
“I don’t expect …”
“Exactly! You don’t expect me to do anything interesting, anything beyond a little cake stall at a féte, a walk around some bookshops, a matinee at the ballet once in while. Well, do you know where I was last night?”
“You were at a meeting.”
“Yes. A meeting. Not about dogs. Not about the church Bring and Buy sale. Not about how to bake the best scones in all of England. It was about nuclear disarmament.” Julia stopped. She hadn’t meant for it to come out like that. On the way home the night before, she had thought that she might try and have a normal day after the events of the previous one and then explain it to her husband over a quiet supper.
He didn’t say anything. Or do anything in response to her revelation. He looked like a photograph, captured in the moment somewhere between ‘nuclear’ and ‘disarmament’.
Julia took a deep breath and began again, this time with more composure. “It was exactly what I’d said it was going to be. A meeting. With Maggie. I just didn’t say what it was about. And that’s what it was about. It was the first meeting of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. It’s something I think I want to be involved with. It’s important.”
Douglas thawed. “How could you not tell me that? You’d be with a bunch of … trouble-makers … cranks …”
“They’re not trouble-makers. In fact, they’re just the opposite. A lot of them are pacifists …
“A lot of them! And the rest? What are they? Communists bent on changing this country with their own brainwashed army?!”
Julia sighed. “I’m not going to talk about this now. We’re both too angry.” She turned to pick up her dress from where she had left it the night before – draped over the dressing table.
“I can’t believe this!” Douglas’ fury seemed to be building. “You can’t tell me to stop talking when I want to talk!” His sudden laugh was unnerving in a way. Shaking and enraged, there was just the hint of the cinematic madman in his tone. “Then you’d be a fascist. A dictator. Telling me what to do. That’s not something your socialist friends would like, is it?”
Julia took her clothes and walked out of the bedroom, along the hallway and into the bathroom. She closed the door behind her and let the chill of the morning air surround her with its cool emptiness. She dressed herself and sat down, momentarily observing that it was becoming a habit for her more significant moments to be punctuated by periods of repose on the lavatory lid.
After a few moments, she heard Douglas’s footsteps down the stairs. She heard some clatter in the kitchen but that didn’t last for long. She was just preparing to head down and make him some breakfast when the bang of the front door closing shuddered below her. Guilt and relief rippled back and forth in a match of dueling emotions. She sat for a while. Seconds. Minutes. She wasn’t sure. Finally she stood and opened the bathroom door.
The house had a strange kind of silence. Not just vacant but as if there was a void that needed to be filled. The careful tread of her feet along the corridor and down the stairs had an ominous rhythm. The whirr of the telephone dial was like a menacing purr.
“Maggie. It’s Julia. Sorry I didn’t call you last night. It was late and …”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. I knew you could find your way to the station. It just felt odd to part so abruptly … did you hear about the Downing Street thing afterwards? Five people were arrested …”
“Really? … arrested? …”
“Mm. It’s not in the paper. All they’ve got is a few lines at the bottom of a page saying that a crowd gathered – nothing about the meeting even! But I just heard from one of the people in my local group …”
“I was there.”
“ … she said th … sorry? You were there? … Where? … At Downing Street?”
“You were at the demonstration … at Downing Street?”
“Well, sort of. It’s not exactly what you’re … well, I don’t know what you’re thinking but … I just sort of followed people … and I didn’t stay. It just wasn’t for me.” Julia let out a light laugh. “That sounds as if I tried on a hat and it didn’t suit me … but … well, I just sort of found myself there and then I realised that I hadn’t actually decided to go, that I’d just gone along with everyone and I needed to only do that kind of thing if I’d been clear about it … myself. If I’d made the decision that I wanted to go.”
There was a brief silence.
“Are you alright?” Maggie’s voice was concerned.
“Sorry? … oh … of course. I’m fine. … In fact, I thought I was muddled about it in my head but what I said just then … to you … made sense. So I’m actually alright. I’d been thinking that I’d have to spend the whole day working out what I should have done, what I should do in the future …”
“Well, I’m glad I’ve been able to help you not waste a day ruminating.” The lightness and ease of Maggie’s tone brought a warm smile along the telephone line. “And – not that it makes any difference – but I think you’re right. Everyone has to decide for themselves how they want to participate in these things. And you can’t do that when you’re caught up in the moment – though I’m sure it can be exciting … was it?”
“Was it exciting? Heading off to confront the Prime Minister?”
Julia laughed. Maggie seemed to be able to take the intensity from a moment that was too heavy, one so weighted with significance that Julia had begun to feel unable to dig herself back to her normal existence. “To be honest, I really can’t remember. I just walked. I think I saw Big Ben …”
“Well, that wasn’t the highlight I was expecting …”
Julia’s apology had moved from an explanation – a revelation – to a chat. She felt tension pouring out of her. The relief was very different to the sensation that she’d had when she’d heard Douglas close the front door only minutes before. And once she’d hung up the telephone receiver, she was genuinely ready to meet the day, almost confident that things could be ironed out with Douglas. And she knew that part of that was admitting that he was right. She was a worrier. But she didn’t want to be one forever.
Julia hoped that twenty-five wasn’t too old for someone to change.
* * *