Matter Of Heritage

Entry by: AbbyF

10th March 2015
The letter alarmed her immediately. It wasn't a bill or a recognisable bit of junk mail and it seemed to stare up at her from the pile with accusing eyes. It made her heart lurch and her breath quicken just to look at it.

She couldn't open it. Not yet. Julia sorted the rest of the post into piles, most of it going into the recycling bin but this one letter she took upstairs and pushed into the drawer in her dressing table. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror as she did so. I look furtive, she thought, it's ridiculous.

'You alright Julia?' Hugh called up the stairs.

'Fine darling, I'll be down in a moment'.

'I'll get the car started' he called back 'don't be too long, we don't want to miss your appointment.' She heard him walk through to the kitchen and pick up the car keys from the rack by the kettle. They clinked together as he walked back to the front door and rattled the lock. She grimaced to herself, he could never do anything quietly could Hugh.

Julia looked up and glanced at herself again in the mirror. It always disappointed her to see how her face had changed; it didn't seem to match the image she had of herself. She wasn't vain, but she was aware that she had always been attractive. She could smile and tease her way through awkward situations and men had often called her 'darling' or 'love'. She had even secretly enjoyed being wolf-whistled from building sites. She'd never admit to that out loud as Hugh would have become angry. But deep down, when men had noticed and appreciated her, she'd glowed.

Now though, she thought, sighing and lifting a hand to her hair. Now no one notices me. It's as if with the grey hair and the glasses I've almost become invisible. I move through life like a ghost. Her hand was still on the drawer where the letter lay; she looked at it for a moment and then started as Hugh blasted the horn. She hurried downstairs; collected her handbag and rushed out to join him.

'What on earth was keeping you?' Hugh asked as they drove away. 'You know that I can't stand being late'.

'I'm sorry' Julia replied automatically, but she wasn't really and that knowledge felt like a guilty secret.

'Are you worried about what the doctor will say?' Hugh asked, and she could tell that he was annoyed by her silence, but she shrugged and looked out of the window.

Am I worried? She asked herself as she automatically flexed her fingers back and forwards. The numbness had become part of life, but it was frustrating not being able to hold a cup of tea properly or write a letter. Slowly the numbness had crept into other areas of her body, her feet and her arms sometimes lost sensation momentarily. But at present it was just that; it lasted for a brief moment and she refused to dwell on the sinister possibilities.

'We're all here for you' Hugh continued, 'Bennie and John obviously live too far away to offer much practical support, but they've already said they're happy to help fund any care you might need'.
Julia felt a stab of pain somewhere in her heart as Hugh spoke. She almost always felt like this when Hugh talked about their sons. They had been hers for eighteen years; well probably more like twelve years, the teenage years had been one of slow abandonment. Even thinking about them now, living their own lives on the other side of the world with their own families felt like part of her was being ripped out. What's wrong with me? She couldn't help but wonder... why don't they want to live anywhere near me anymore? She knew it was illogical; there was nothing that she had done that had led them both to seek their fortunes elsewhere. They had gone where the jobs were, and then they had both met their future wives; and well that was that. She didn't let herself wonder whether it was Hugh that drove them away, no it's the women that run things, she told herself.

Except I never did, she thought and a brief picture of her father and Hugh flashed in her mind, before she hurriedly pushed it away, leaning forward and opening the glove compartment.

'Would you like a mint?' She asked Hugh, holding the packet out to him. He shook his head, not taking his eyes off the road.

'You've only just had breakfast' Hugh replied, his voice mildly reproachful. Julia took a mint all the same and popped it into her mouth. Its strong flavour tingled and gave her a mild jolt, which made her smile. It's come to something if a mint is the only thing making me happy, she thought.

They had to wait in the hospital. Hugh tutted and kept looking at his watch, he even went up to the reception desk twice to ask what was going on. He’s more nervous than I am, Julia mused, although when her name was called she couldn’t help noticing that her legs were shaking and for once she took Hugh’s arm as he led her into the doctor’s office.

Dr Hewitt had that inscrutable expression that doctors seem to perfect as part of their medical training. She invited them to sit down and then shuffled the notes on her desk before pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. Julia, who was watching her closely, thought she sensed the doctor building herself up to break bad news.

‘I’m afraid’ Dr Hewitt began, and Julia felt sick, the mint taste in her mouth suddenly became bilious. ‘The tests were inconclusive’ she finished and Julia felt the breath leave her body in a great whoosh.

‘Inconclusive?’ Hugh repeated.

‘Yes’ Dr Hewitt replied. She looked at her notes again. ‘The blood test did show slight traces of Kerotine, but not enough to make any reliable diagnosis.’ She paused. ‘I’d like to order a few more tests, just to be sure.’

‘But you said that we’d know for sure after the blood test’ Hugh began, Julia put her hand on his arm but he shrugged it away roughly. His voice was rising. Dr Hewitt looked even sterner.

‘There’s no need to shout Mr Horn’ she said. ‘I did mention at the time that the test might not give a definitive answer, that this was just the first step on a long road.’

‘You did not mention that, I would have remembered if you had’ he turned to Julia. ‘Julia, you don’t remember either do you?’ But Dr Hewitt interrupted before she could reply.

‘Mr Horn, I’d like to ask you to step out of the room for a moment, I need to examine your wife.’ They locked eyes for a moment and Julia was expecting Hugh to refuse but to her surprise he didn’t. Instead he stalked to the door without glancing back ‘I’ll be waiting outside’ he said abruptly over his shoulder as he left the room.

‘Mrs Horn’ the doctor prompted and Julia realised she had been deep in thought again.

‘Sorry doctor, you wanted to examine me?’ Julia said beginning to rise.

Dr Hewitt flushed slightly. ‘I don’t need to examine you. I just wanted to speak to you alone. Your husband can be a little’ she paused, searching for the right word. Julia had to stop herself crying out ‘controlling’, ‘cruel’, ‘sadistic’ but she said nothing and Dr Hewitt finally said ‘crowding’. ‘I just wanted to make sure that you were OK with what was going on, and whether everything was alright at home.’
Julia stared at her, saying nothing.

Dr Hewitt flushed. ‘I hope you don’t feel this is out of place, but I’d like you to take this card. It’s a place I know where you can’, she paused, ‘get away from things for a while.’

Julia took the card and look at it. It contained the details of a refuge for battered women. She took a sharp intake of breath but said nothing.

‘It’s possible your symptoms might be caused by deep psychological stress over many years. Often triggered by a single incident in your youth. Is there anything you can think of?’

Julia said nothing, but her mind instinctively went to letter in the drawer at home. She shook her head, but she could feel the tears pricking the corner of her eyes. Dr Hewitt stood up and put her hand gently on her shoulder. ‘Put that card somewhere safe’ she continued, she didn’t say it but Julia could almost hear her adding ‘and don’t tell your husband.’

Julia pushed the card into the pocket of her coat and stood up. ‘I’ll be in touch’ Dr Hewitt said as Julia walked out of the waiting room.

She knew she’d pay for it. It wasn’t her fault, but Hugh did not like being crossed, not by anyone and she was his punch bag. She had been for years and she couldn’t leave him because he knew her secret. Her ribs ached as she pulled herself slowly upstairs and went into the bedroom to inspect the damage.

Hugh had gone to the pub and wouldn’t be back until kicking out time. Julia knew his routine alright. He’d roll into bed, drunk and say he was sorry, that it wouldn’t happen again, but that she must stop annoying him. She was the one who was bad and he was just trying to save her from herself, like he always had. After all, he had saved her by marrying her in the first place. No one else would have had her, she must remember that.

Julia stood in front of the mirror in her bedroom. The red marks on her chest were swiftly darkening but she didn’t think any ribs were broken. She lowered her cardigan and at the same time her eyes strayed to the dressing table drawer. She opened it. The letter was still there, unopened. With shaking hands she turned it over and eased it open. It was handwritten, just as she knew it would be.

‘Dear Mum’ she read. ‘I’ve been looking for you for a long time and finally I’ve found you. I’d love to meet you and hope you will want to meet me too’ Julia’s eyes filled with tears and she crushed the letter to her chest feeling a sharp pain in her ribs as she did so. No more, she thought to herself. No more pain.

It took her less than five minutes to pack her belongings into a small suitcase and let herself out of the front door. The card containing the details of the woman’s refuge was still in her coat pocket and she pushed her daughter’s letter into the other. Her daughter was not going to be tainted, if there was one thing Julia was sure of, it was that.