Authors: Margaret Forster
When Julia was eight, she was asked to be a bridesmaid at her beautiful cousin Iris’s wedding. Her mother saw this as a chore – expensive, inconvenient – but Julia was thrilled. When the time came, even the fact that her bridesmaid’s dress didn’t fit, and was plain cream rather than the pink she’d hoped for, couldn’t ruin the day. But after this, things began to go wrong for Julia, starting with an episode involving her cousin’s baby, a pram and a secret trip round the block.
A lifetime later, Julia is a child psychologist who every day deals with young girls said to be behaving badly. Some are stealing, some are running away from home, some are terribly untidy, some won’t eat or get out of bed. Julia has a special knack with these girls. She understands which really are troubled, and which are at the mercy of the way they are seen by the adults around them.
But one day, Julia’s own troubled past starts to creep into her present. And as she struggles to understand her childhood self, she must confront the possibility that the truth may not be as devastating as she feared.
The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff
Miss Owen-Owen is At Home
Mr Bone’s Retreat
The Seduction of Mrs Pendlebury
Mother Can You Hear Me?
The Bride of Lowther Fell
Have the Men Had Enough?
The Battle for Christabel
The Memory Box
Diary of an Ordinary Woman
Is There Anything You Want?
Keeping the World Away
Isa & May
The Rash Adventurer
William Makepeace Thackeray
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Daphne du Maurier
Rich Desserts & Captain’s Thin
Selected Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
For Gertrud Philippine Watson
JULIA GAVE THE
child the doll, and waited. There was a toy cradle in the room, and a toy pram, the old-fashioned sort, not a buggy. Beside the cradle and the pram was a neat pile of miniature blankets, and sheets, and pillows. No duvets. Julia made a mental note to include a duvet in the choice of bedlinen. Most children today would be used to duvets, not sheets and blankets. Sheets and blankets might confuse them.
The child, a girl of eight, small for her age, thin and quite frail-looking, though she had been examined and pronounced perfectly healthy, held the doll in both hands, gripping it round its shoulders. She looked at it without any apparent interest. It was a baby doll, with a bald head, and blue eyes which could close if the doll was tilted in a certain way. It was dressed in a Babygro, a blue one, and underneath it wore a paper nappy. After a minute or so, the girl looked up at Julia, and frowned. She put the doll down, and folded her arms.
Quietly, without speaking, Julia picked the doll up and gave it a cuddle, patting it on its back as though it were a real baby. Then she went to the toy pram and put the doll into it. The girl began to show some interest, but this interest was more in Julia’s action than in doll or pram. Carefully, Julia tucked the sheets and blankets round the doll until only its head, with its closed eyes, was visible. Then she pushed the pram backwards and forwards, edging it nearer and nearer to the
girl, and then finally letting it come to rest right beside her. The girl immediately pushed the pram away, quite violently.
Julia was eight when the invitation to be a bridesmaid came from her cousin Iris. It was a great surprise to Julia’s mother as well as to Julia herself. Iris’s mother and Julia’s mother were sisters, but they were not close. Julia’s mother had always felt that Maureen, her older sister, treated her with disdain. She’d felt this all her life, and so had been happy, once she had married and moved away from Manchester, where they were both born, to keep her distance. But a wedding changed things. Julia’s mother understood that her sister would want the gathering together of her family, if just to match the gathering on the bridegroom’s side. The bridegroom was a major in the army and his father was an MP. Maureen couldn’t match that but she could at least have her sister and niece at her side.
But, though she understood this, Julia’s mother did not immediately accept the invitation for Julia to be a bridesmaid; she waited three days, and then she rang her sister up, saying she doubted whether Julia could accept because of the expense involved. There would be the dress, the shoes, the flowers, and she had no money to spare for any of those things. She reminded her sister that she was a widow on a small, a very small, pension. Her sister was furious, but she tried to keep the anger at Julia’s mother boasting of her poverty (which is how she regarded it) out of her voice. She reminded herself that her sister had had a hard time, and was indeed quite poor, whereas she herself was comparatively well off, and ought to be magnanimous. She said her sister was not to worry about the expense. She said that of course she would pay for Julia’s outfit and everything that went with it. She had always intended to and should have made this clear. If Julia’s measurements were sent, a dress would be made and shoes bought.
Julia’s mother still made a fuss about expense. She and Julia were to stay with Maureen, so the cost of a hotel was not involved, but a train ticket to Manchester would be pricey. Then there was the expense of getting to the station in the first place. The buses from their village were rare, and at awkward times, so a taxi would be needed. On and on Julia’s mother went, moaning about money, doing sums on scraps of paper, looking in her bank book and emptying loose change out of various tin boxes marked ‘gas’ and ‘rent’. Julia, always a good and obedient child, held her breath and waited. Meanwhile, a swatch of material arrived in the post, sent by Maureen to show Julia the colour and texture of the dress being made for her. It was not pink. That was the first disappointment. Julia had always assumed the dress would be pink. Instead, it was not exactly white but a kind of cream. And it was not soft or silky. This scrap of material felt like cotton, or even – ‘Good heavens,’ said Julia’s mother – rayon. ‘If it’s rayon,’ she warned Julia, ‘it will crease instantly.’
A taxi to the station was not in the end needed. Julia’s mother had told everyone about the coming wedding, dropping the name of the bridegroom’s family ever so casually, and she and Julia were offered a lift by the village shopkeeper’s daughter who was going into Penrith that day. But nobody met them at the other end. Manchester station was, to Julia, terrifying. She held her mother’s hand tightly. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ her mother kept saying, which didn’t help Julia’s fear. ‘Maureen said we’d be met.’ Clearly, some arrangement had gone wrong. After a good fifteen minutes of standing stock-still on the platform where they had alighted, Julia’s mother told her they would have to get a bus. She had a vague memory of a bus which went to the end of Maureen’s road, but had no idea where the bus stop could be found. ‘We will have to ask,’ she said, in tones of horror. What, Julia wondered, was so terrible about asking
where to find a bus stop? But her mother’s agitation had communicated itself to her so completely that this wondering did not help. The noise in the station, the shrieking of the trains as they arrived and departed, and the surging crowds of hurrying people, made Julia terrified.
That was her recollection. Aged eight. Terrified, over something so unthreatening.
The girl’s mother was waiting in the adjoining room. One look at the woman’s face and it was obvious that she had recently done a lot of weeping. Her eyes were red and the dark shadows underneath them appeared shiny, as though they were damp. Her hair, thin hair, bedraggled, had been pushed back behind her ears, but little tendrils had escaped and clung to her cheeks.
‘Well?’ she said to Julia, making no movement towards her child, who stood in front of her mother, waiting. There was no gesture of affection. She didn’t, Julia noted, even look at the girl. It was as though she were not standing there, entirely submissive. ‘Well?’ she said again, her voice rising higher this time on the question.
Julia smiled, and sat down. ‘I think Honor might be thirsty,’ she said. ‘It was rather warm in my room. I’ll just get her a glass of water. I won’t be a moment.’
It would have been useful to have a two-way mirror in that room, but there had never been any money for that helpful device, and Julia was not sure if she herself would have agreed with the spying element. Useful, though, in a situation like this. But re-entering the room, carrying water for Honor, Julia was pretty certain nothing significant had happened during the two minutes she’d been absent. Mrs Brooks hadn’t folded her daughter in her arms, or in any way tried to connect with her. Both mother and child were
in exactly the same positions, their faces wearing exactly the same expressions, both of them tense and silent.
‘Well?’ Mrs Brooks said, this time neither challenging, nor impatient, but resigned.
‘Sit down, Honor,’ Julia said gently. ‘Drink this. You look hot. You must be thirsty. Mrs Brooks, would you like some tea or coffee?’
Mrs Brooks shook her head. ‘Let’s get on with it,’ she said. ‘Let’s have it straight, for God’s sake.’
Julia looked at her. She looked into the mother’s eyes steadily, unblinkingly, keeping her expression entirely blank, no frown, no slight smile, waiting. Honor drank the water greedily, in three big swallowings which were heard distinctly.
Mrs Brooks closed her eyes and sighed. ‘What happens now?’ she asked.
The bridesmaid’s dress didn’t fit. Julia’s mother was almost delighted by this. There was no dismay in her voice as she said to her sister Maureen, ‘The dress doesn’t fit, it’s been made too small!’ Her tone was one of peculiar triumph.
‘Or Julia has grown since you sent those measurements,’ said Maureen, adding, ‘if they were accurate in the first place.’
Julia stood miserably in the too tight dress while the sisters argued, each insulting the other in every word said. Julia tried not to listen. She wondered if she was allowed to take the dress off now it had been demonstrated that it didn’t fit her. There was a mirror in the bedroom where this unsuccessful fitting took place, a full-length oval-shaped mirror on a wooden stand. Julia could see herself only partially because the mirror was slightly swivelled, making the lower half of her body invisible. It was a little like looking in a fairground mirror. She felt she was distorted, though she didn’t know if this was the fault of the tight dress or the mirror. Whatever
the reason, she felt miserable, standing there waiting to see what would happen when her mother and aunt stopped arguing. It never occurred to her to give her own opinion.
Then Iris came in. Oh, she was so pretty!
‘Julia!’ Iris said, laughing, holding her arms out. ‘How you’ve grown! What a big girl you are!’
Julia blushed deeply. She’d forgotten what her cousin looked like, all that long blonde hair, so smooth and sleek, and the big blue eyes and the round face with the neat little nose, and the perfect skin with cheeks so pink, glowing with health and happiness. Julia couldn’t credit that her Aunt Maureen was this girl’s mother. Where had Iris’s prettiness come from? And then Iris saved her.
‘Mummy,’ she said, ‘Julia’s dress doesn’t fit. Phone Mrs Batey right now and get her round here to see what she can do. I can’t have my best bridesmaid in a dress that doesn’t fit. Poor love, look at her, it’s a shame.’
Mrs Batey came. She was in a huff, suspicious that the dress not fitting would be blamed on her dressmaking skills, but Iris handled her expertly. Mrs Batey, Iris cooed, was clever. Mrs Batey could see ways of managing things which no other dressmaker could. What Mrs Batey saw was that all the dress needed was the side seams let out. The waist dropped, and the hem let down. There was time, just, to do all this (at a price), and for Iris, Mrs Batey would do anything.
During the next few days, before the wedding, Julia saw how everyone was in thrall to her cousin Iris. She was both loved and admired. Her own mother, Maureen, adored her. Julia could not have said how she knew this, but know it she did. So did Julia’s mother. ‘Sun rises and sets with Iris,’ she complained, though why this had to be a complaint Julia could not fathom. ‘Spoiled, she’s been spoiled from the day she was born. There could be a shock coming.’ A shock? Julia was alarmed and worried, and asked her mother what would this shock be, would the lovely Iris be hurt? The reply to this
was far too enigmatic for an eight-year-old. Julia didn’t get the full significance of ‘She’ll have to come down to earth with a bump once she’s married’. A bump didn’t sound too dangerous. Iris could surely survive it.