Douglas loved the girl next door. He loved her dark brown eyes, her long hair and the way she laughed as though life had given her a reason to. He had known her all his life; their mothers were best friends and they encouraged Douglas and Julia to play together between their gardens while they chatted and knitted. Douglas thought that when they grew up they would get married and be together forever. Happily for Douglas, the girl next door loved him back and they did marry. Unfortunately for them both, Forever had other ideas.
Julia was a receptionist at Brink Stenton Primary School, the school their twin daughters attended. They all lived with Douglas’ mother in the house in which he had grown up. Douglas’ souvenir shop struggled to make any money from the beginning and Julia did not earn much more. A family house in the newest part of Brink Stenton was always their dream but it stayed out of their reach. Julia’s mother still lived next door which, although made for wonderful babysitting opportunities, left them with no privacy. It delighted Douglas and Julia, however, to watch Jinger and Jessica chase each other from garden to garden, screaming and laughing as they themselves had done when they were little.
Julia was tired. Her back ached from sitting in her swivelling office chair and her mind was buzzing from answering the telephone all day to parents wanting information about the Parents’ Evening tonight. Every child has taken home a letter with all this stuff on it. She had stood at the photocopier for hours last week making the copies so she knew this better than anyone.
Answering the telephone was a particularly exhausting part of the job for Julia so she tried to send out enough letters to minimise how often it rang. She always had to be careful about what she said on the telephone. “Hello, Brink Stenton Primary,” was usually fine. “Good morning, Brink Stenton Primary, Julia speaking,” was not. She knew that she would definitely not be able to say the hard ‘G’ sound at the beginning of ‘Good morning’. She was not afraid of saying that sound, she just knew from experience and the uncomfortable tightening of her throat when she even thought about it, that ‘Good morning’ was not going to be possible. Unfortunately, sometimes the alternative ‘Hello’ was uncertain too.
On rare, miserable occasions Julia had stared at the ringing telephone, her hand hovering above the receiver as her mind scrabbled desperately for another greeting which might be appropriate for a school receptionist to offer. To her shame, she sometimes just had to let it ring.
So it would have been nice if the parents had read the letter, she thought as she put the telephone down and stretched her stiff back. Her thought was interrupted by it ringing again straightaway. “Julia Barley speaking. This is the school. Hello.” Well, that was rubbish. Maybe they didn’t notice it was all backwards but they probably did. Do other people realise how easy it is for them?
“Hi sweetheart, it’s me,” the reassuring voice said. “Just ringing to check if you want me to bring anything home from the shop tonight?”
Julia smiled. This was an excuse for Douglas to telephone her at work and a long-standing joke between them. What could Douglas possibly bring home from a Brink Stenton souvenir shop that would improve their evening? Maybe if he had owned a butchers or a mini-market he could swipe something from the shelves which was out-of-date for them to eat, but there was no particular sell-by she knew of for a pink baseball cap with an octopus on it.
“No, honey,” she replied, playing along, “I think your mum has some ‘I’ve been to the Brink’ t-shirts in the freezer. We’ll have them on toast”.
And suddenly it was easy to talk. Douglas had changed her day. But it was not that she did not stutter when she talked to him. It was quite the reverse. She stuttered with every word. But now there was no sound she felt too embarrassed to repeat, no strange expression she felt she could not show him. There was no need to substitute a single word. It was freedom and it was only with Douglas.
“Okay, sweetheart, that sounds delicious,” he said, in a mock-sincere way. “I’ll see you at around six. Love you,” and he meant that. Julia gently put the telephone down on her husband and laughed.
Caroline Gulley came into the school office. “Can you stay late after all, Julia? Someone left me a message to say Glenys has gone home with the ‘flu so we’ll be a bit short-handed. Can Douglas pick the girls up and bring them back later for the Parents‘ Evening?” she asked, wheeling herself across the laminate flooring to check her low pigeon hole for mail as she spoke.
Julia sighed. She knew Caroline would not have asked unless she had to and, more importantly, that she could not really refuse the headmistress’ request. “Okay, I’ll phone Douglas so he knows he’ll need to come and get the twins.”
Julia had intended to say ‘call Douglas’ but had to change it when she felt the familiar strain as she approached the hard ‘C’. She and Caroline might have known each other since they started at this school as girls nearly forty years ago but Julia would still not let herself speak freely to her. She was grateful to Caroline for keeping the job open for her after the twins were born and did not want to give her any reason to think it had been a mistake.
“Thanks, we can’t have the parents running wild all over the school. If you just direct them to Classroom B as they come in we should be okay.” Caroline did a neat move with her wheelchair and headed out of the school office carrying a large pile of letters on her lap.
Julia telephoned Douglas at the shop and was not surprised that his only employee, Dorothy, answered. “Oh lovey, Douglas has just popped out to get a newspaper. We were going to do the crossword together. It’s a bit quiet today. Can I take a message for when he gets back?” she asked helpfully. Dorothy’s voice was so familiar that Julia could almost smell her perfume.
It’s a bit quiet everyday in that shop Julia thought, then regretted it. She knew Douglas worked as hard as he could to make It’s A Shore Thing a success but all of the tourists getting off the train at Brink Stenton only wanted one thing. And that was to hike up to Murkle. Julia left a message with Dorothy, who she knew would write it down for Douglas slowly and carefully.
Dorothy also ended the conversation the way Julia knew she would, “Hope my Caroline isn’t working you too hard, lovey.”
By the end of the Parents’ Evening, Julia was beyond tired. She had managed to work out that, “B, that’s the classroom you’ll need,” was the best way she could direct the parents. Douglas had popped in to see her after the normal school day and had already collected Jinger and Jessica from their teacher. He was holding one hand of each little girl in each of his and was carrying two large pieces of paper, stiff and curling with too much paint, in his mouth. His glasses had moved down his nose and he had no free hand with which to slide them back up.
“They did these for us!” he declared proudly through his teeth. “I think I got them a bit spitty though.” The twins giggled. He turned his head sideways and let Julia have a look at the masterpieces.
“You did these yourselves? Aren’t they brilliant? Our little artists!“ She kissed all three of them goodbye. She used her nose to nudge her husband’s glasses into their proper place and their eyes met through the familiar smudged lenses.
“I’ll come back with them,” Douglas murmured and then added more loudly, “That’s right, you two. We’ll see what your teacher has to say later. I hope you’ve been good girls, or they’ll be trouble!”
By the way the twins laughed and dodged him as he pretended to chase them, Julia knew the girls were reassured that there would be no trouble really, no matter what their teacher had to say.
As she watched them leave she wondered how long they would be able to send their daughters to school in sweatshirts with dolphins on them. Pretty soon, she decided, they would realise where their clothes had come from and want something else. Through the wide glass doors at the front of the school, Julia could see her husband fastening them into the Barley’s practical estate car.
The telephone sitting on the reception desk rang into the dark office. Julia’s throat tightened as she rounded the corner and grabbed the receiver. She had not been expecting any more calls tonight.
“Good evening, Brink Stenton Primary School, Julia speaking.” She had not been expecting that either. Her fluency could be as unpredictable as her stutter.
“It’s me, sweetheart. Jessica says she has tummy ache. I’d better not come back with them after all, had I? She might be faking it but I’m not sure.” Douglas sounded worried, but there was a hint of amusement in his voice.
Julia could find out how the twins were getting on at school any time she liked, but she had wanted them all here tonight. However, she could not ask her husband to drive back with a little girl who had a suspected tummy ache. “Okay, I’ll see you when I get home,” she said and put down the telephone once more.
The long day came to an end. Caroline Gulley came through the school foyer in front of the reception, turning off the long orange lights in the ceiling as she went. “Right, that’s it, Julia. The last ones have gone. Sorry Douglas and your girls couldn‘t make it. I’m parked right outside, I‘ll give you a lift.”
Together the two women made their way into the cold fresh air. Julia pulled her cardigan more tightly around herself and got into Caroline’s car. She waited for Caroline to load her wheelchair into the boot of her estate and slowly walk around to the driver’s side.
“Thanks for the lift,” Julia said politely as Caroline fastened her seatbelt. “I spoke to your mum earlier. She asked about you.” Well, that was not quite true but she had spoken to Dorothy and she did not want to start a conversation about work now she was finally leaving for the night.
They chatted about their families as Caroline drove carefully along the side of the river towards the older part of Brink Stenton where they both lived. As Caroline swung the car around the corner away from the river they were suddenly hit from the side by a Land Rover. Glass from the window shattered into Julia’s lap. The larger car shoved them towards the fast flowing river then reversed and hit them again, this time forcing them violently into the water. The other driver paused in the middle of the road to watch as Caroline’s car sank. The Land Rover reversed for a final time then drove away.
Douglas spent the rest of forever without his laughing girl next door.