I told her I would see what I could do, but Julia knows her mother and I don’t get along. Generally, she wouldn’t expect me to visit with her, but this is different. It’s the first anniversary of her father’s death and she doesn’t want to spend the whole day in her mother’s company without my support. I never usually work on Saturdays, but I genuinely have some things to do at the office that morning.
I really liked her father. Richard was a quiet man, bookish and intelligent, who doted on his only child, and when he died Julia struggled with her loss. But her mother, Barbara, is difficult – always has been – and I learned very quickly that the best approach is to avoid her when possible. Julia understands this. Sometimes when I’m in Barbara’s company I wonder, as you do, if I’m seeing an image of how Julia might be in the future. But I can’t entertain the notion that the warm and sensitive Julia could ever end up like frosty, critical Barbara. Julia is so much more Richard’s daughter than her mother’s.
‘I’ll get a sandwich in town after work and meet you at the house around two, okay?’ I say.
Julia is quiet. She gets like this when there’s something bothering her.
‘I need to finish that report this Saturday or else I’ll be home late every night next week.’
‘I know, you said.’
‘What’s wrong?’ I ask. ‘Come on, tell me.’
‘Nothing… only, she said you wouldn’t come. It just goes to prove that she’s right about everything as usual.’
‘Don’t mind her.’ I place my hand on the small of Julia’s back and rub slowly. ‘It’s simply the way things are. She doesn’t like me, never has. But I’ll be there for two o’clock and we can all go out for dinner later. And I won’t say a cross word, I promise.’
She smiles at me and I feel so sorry for her.
‘Don’t worry,’ I say, ‘she’s probably just upset about your dad right now. Just like you are.’ I move my hand up and stoke her hair gently.
Tears fill her eyes then and she takes my hand in hers.
‘You’re so good to me, Andrew,’ she says. ‘I know you understand how it feels to lose someone.’
She’s referring to the fact that both my parents passed away before I met her. I was in my mid-twenties then and was living abroad. I come from a big family, so my siblings took care of all the arrangements. I flew home both times and flew back within days. I wasn’t affected, not really; not the way you imagine I might be, certainly not the way Julia imagined I had been, what with them dying within a year of each other. I felt sorry for her because I knew she missed her father, but I couldn’t map my own experience of bereavement on to hers in any meaningful way. People are different, I suppose.
It’s hard to know exactly why Barbara doesn’t like me. Part of it is snobbery, of course. Julia comes from money. My parents were poor, but I’m educated and have a well-paid job. Still, that isn’t enough. I used to work for an investment bank and perhaps such proximity to money somehow appears unseemly to those who are born rich. Or maybe it’s me. I still feel intimidated by Barbara and people like her because I grew up in a working-class estate and worked hard to make my way in the world, while she has always lived in this leafy suburb in a detached house that looks out on the foothills of the Dublin Mountains. I suppose I resent how lightly she wears her inherited affluence, and maybe I showed it a little on the first few occasions when Julia took me to visit. Doubtless my failed first marriage didn’t help either.
‘Try not to be late on Saturday,’ she pleads.
‘Don’t worry, love. I’ll be on time. And, anyway, she’ll probably have some of her friends over, so you won’t be on your own.’
‘I’m not so sure. Last time she phoned she complained how she hates the way they pity her since Dad died.’
‘Ah, she just wants to make you feel guilty,’ I say.
‘I know. And she does, because I do feel guilty. I don’t visit her often enough.’ Julia stares into space.
‘And when you do visit, she finds fault in everything you do. She can’t help herself.’
‘I know, I know.’
I can see the tears forming in her eyes again. I’m getting tired of these circular conversations about her mother and her guilt. It’s all manipulation, I know, but I say nothing more.
On Friday night we have a party to attend. I half expected Julia to make up some excuse, but after dinner she reminds me of the time and urges me to hurry. She shows me the flowers and champagne she’s bought for Emma and Peter who have just moved in together. I’m conscious of the fact that I need to get up in the morning, but at the same time grateful that Julia seems to be in a good mood. I shower and dress quickly and decide that I will drive. I sit on the sofa in the kitchen and read the sports pages while I wait for her to get ready.
‘Ta-da!’ she says, and twirls quickly, letting her long blonde hair fly. She looks amazing. But totally overdressed.
‘You look a million dollars!’
‘You like?’ she asks.
I nod. ‘I sure do! But do you think it’s a little over the top for where we’re going?’
She suddenly looks downhearted.
‘I mean, it’s just a rented flat-warming, all warm beer and reheated frozen food most likely.’
‘You don’t like my outfit?’ she asks, and there’s a cloying tone that irks me.
‘It’s not that, Julia. But look.’
I take her shoulders gently in each of my hands and examine every inch of her. She’s very beautiful and the dress she’s wearing clings to the contours of her supple body and reveals occasional flashes of her smooth fair skin. It’s sleeveless and cinched around her tiny waist, opening into a fuller skirt below. The top is cut low and fitted sleekly around the curve of her breasts. There is some cleavage. I move one hand down and caress the skin above the neckline where the roundness of her bosom starts. She looks up at me and I kiss her gently on the lips.
‘You can’t wear this,’ I whisper, ‘not to where we’re going. You’ll be talking to the tops of men’s heads all night, if you know what I mean.’ I laugh lightly.
‘But I thought you liked it…’
‘I do, I do. But go up and change. You can wear it another night when we’re going out for dinner or something.’
She hesitates, but then she goes upstairs without another word.
Later that night she says nothing as she gets ready for bed. We didn’t stay too late at the party which I was glad about, because it’s hard to make small talk when you don’t have a glass of wine in your hand.
‘Are you tired?’ I ask as she pulls the duvet around her.
‘Are you okay?’
I worry about her when she gets this quiet. Last year, after her father died, she retreated into herself. At first, she got so bad she wouldn’t go to work and spent the days at home in bed or on the sofa wrapped in a duvet. It was tough. I did my best to get her through it. After a while she seemed to turn herself around. She went back to work, met with her friends for lunch and coffee, even started going to the gym. But I knew there was something wrong. All this activity, this hectic lifestyle, this sudden newfound energy was like a symptom of a deeper malady. I tried to talk to her about it, to get her to rein it in a little, to give herself a break. After all, she had never been sporty before. What she was doing was out of character; she was becoming someone I hardly recognised.
After a month or so, I’m sad to say, I was proved right. She was getting quiet again, hiding away in the bedroom or bathroom for hours at a time. We stopped having sex, but I didn’t put any pressure on her. I noticed she no longer undressed in my presence but went to the bathroom to change before bed. I guessed what it might be, although I couldn’t bear to believe it was true. I walked in on her in the shower one day and saw the water run pink from the cuts on her stomach and sides.
I was angry at first. Hurt even. I took her unhappiness to be a reflection of our life together, but when she stopped crying and we sat down together later that evening I could see that she was simply missing her father. We talked about our dead parents for a while; I tried to say the right things, even though I had no real understanding of the way she felt. Feeling helpless, I promised to do everything I could to support her, even if it meant her spending more time with her mother. That night we made love for the first time in weeks, and it felt very special, like it was our first time together all over again.
On Saturday morning I rise early and set off for the office while Julia is still asleep. At eleven I text her: hope ur on ur way by now! xx. No reply. I work until one and then eat a sandwich at my desk before getting in the car again. When I arrive at Barbara’s house there’s no sign of Julia’s car. Richard’s Mercedes sits in the drive as it has done unmoved for over a year. I consider making Barbara an offer for it; I always fancied driving one of those. As I ring the doorbell, I have a sense that it won’t be answered. I move around the back of the house; the lawn is pristine, the solid garden furniture immaculately arrayed on the stone patio. But there’s no sign of life, so I dial Julia’s number and it goes straight to the message. A knot of anxiety tightens in my stomach as I walk back to the car.
At home it’s much the same: no car in the drive, no one at home. I let myself in and move between the kitchen and living room. I’m not sure what I’m looking for, maybe a note or something, but there’s nothing. Upstairs in the bedroom everything looks normal. I sit on the unmade bed for a while and try to order my thoughts. Something has happened, an accident maybe, but I feel that to start phoning hospitals would be premature.
I feel useless just sitting there so I lock up the house and get back in my car. My neighbour, Tim, gives me a wave as I reverse out of the drive. I let the window down.
‘You haven’t seen Julia this morning, have you?’ I ask.
Tim strolls over and leans across the low wall that separates our front gardens.
‘Yeah, Andrew, she was off out earlier, all done up to the nines. Something special on?’
‘Her father’s anniversary, that’s all. She was going to her mother’s house.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot. Has it been a year already?’
‘Yes. It has.’
‘The poor pet.’
I close the window before he can say anymore.
I drive around for a while before heading back to Barbara’s, as if in a daze, vaguely hoping Julia might call.
I don’t like this, not knowing what’s going on. Julia knows I must get a call or at least a text message if she decides to do something outside of our daily plan. I know that might sound very prescriptive, but when you’re working long hours it’s important to organize your free time carefully, I believe.
One time, shortly after we were married, Julia’s cousin came to visit. She lives in London and was in town for work but took some time out to look up Julia. She arrived on Saturday morning with an overnight bag and assumed she was going to stay with us. It was awkward. Julia didn’t want to be rude to her, but at the same time she could see it wasn’t convenient. We had made plans that day to meet with friends for lunch and then go to an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. I didn’t want to force her hand in any way, so I said nothing and left them to have coffee together. When I came downstairs an hour later her cousin had already left and Julia was distraught. Our Saturday was ruined.
I have no option but to sit in the car outside Barbara’s house and wait. I consider going to one of the neighbouring houses, but the prospect of having to explain myself to them is unappealing. The afternoon passes, and I keep putting off the moment when I will have to make a decision. Suddenly my phone springs into life, a number I don’t recognise. I knock off the radio and answer it. It’s Barbara.
‘Where are you?’ I ask. ‘Is Julia alright?’
‘She’s fine.’ There is a moment’s silence. ‘I’m calling just to let you know that she’s okay.’
‘But where are you?’
‘She’s okay. But she doesn’t want to see you, Andrew.’
I can hear a smile in how she says my name.
‘I don’t understand,’ I say, and I truly don’t. ‘Put her on, put Julia on the phone now.’
‘No. You must listen to me. She doesn’t want to speak to you, and she doesn’t want to see you.’
‘She won’t be coming home. We’ve gone away, I’m not going to tell you where. You must get used to the idea that Julia will not be coming back. It’s over, Andrew. She’s taken all she can take from you.’
‘But she’s my wife – you can’t take her from me!
‘There’s nothing more to say. I’m hanging up now.’
‘No, wait! Let me talk to her at least. I’m sure there’s some mistake. We had a difference of opinion last night, that was all. Let me talk to her.
‘No, Andrew. Goodbye.’
‘No, wait! No!’
The line goes dead. I sit there for a few moments and then press call back. The number is engaged. I try again. Again, engaged. I start the engine and tear out of there onto the road without looking.
‘Did you find her alright, then?’ Tim’s smiling head appears at my window as I park in the drive. I kill the engine and push open the door almost knocking him over.
‘Is something wrong, Andrew? Is it Julia?’
I open my front door and slam it shut behind me. I move from room to room, but I’m not searching for anything; I cannot sit or stand in one spot for a moment before I move again until, eventually, I fall onto the bed. I stay there, fully dressed, wrapped in the duvet, until the light outside dies completely. Earlier, the doorbell rang three times and there was knocking on the glass, but I ignored it. Now all I can hear is the sound of the house settling, the fridge downstairs juddering occasionally and the traffic on the by-pass hissing like a distant sea. Hours later my phone rings, its submarine light fills the darkened room.
‘Hello,’ I say.
‘It’s me,’ a voice whispers.
‘I’m sorry, Andrew.’
‘Julia,’ is all I can say again.
‘I didn’t mean for it to happen like this.’
‘I know, love.’
‘You understand, don’t you?’
‘Julia, love, just come home now. Please.’
‘But you understand why I went away?’
‘Just come home, love. It’ll be just like it was before.’
‘No, it won’t unless you understand.’
‘I don’t know what you mean. I’m tired. We’re both upset. Come home and we can fix things up, the two of us.’
There is silence on the line.
‘Julia, are you there?’
‘Julia? Is it her? Did she force you to go away? She’s not good for you. She infects everyone and everything around her with her spitefulness.’
‘Sssh! It’s got nothing to do with her. I asked her to help me and she did.
‘She’s my mother. She loves me.’
‘I love you, Julia! What have I ever done to you to deserve this?’
‘I’m sorry, Andrew. You just don’t see it, do you?
‘Are you cutting yourself again, is that it?’
‘Stop, just stop now!’
‘It’s true, isn’t it? You’re cutting yourself and she thinks it’s because of me somehow. She’s poisoned you against me, can’t you see that?’
The silence between us opens out and spreads until it envelops the whole room. It feels wrong to break it somehow, so we don’t. But she doesn’t end the call and I don’t hang up either. I nestle the phone by the side of my head and pull the duvet around me. I lie there and listen to her breathing and I know she’s doing the same.