“Born to love, born to be partners to the opposite sex…and that is the most important thing they can do in life…to be wives and mothers, to fix their hearts on one man and to love and care for him with all the bounteous unselfishness that love can inspire,” this is what Monica Dickens told Judith and all the other readers of Woman’s Own. Judith had nothing against the great granddaughter of Charles Dickens, but who was she to say what all women were born to love and be?
“Of course I love Fred,” Judith told Betty a couple of days later. “I just love other things too.”
“Like what, your books and that piano?” Betty’s voice hinted at sarcasm but her smile seemed warm and genuine. She adjusted her already immaculate hair as she turned away from Judith to pick up her mixing bowl.
“Yes, what’s wrong with that?” Judith replied, distracted for a moment by the sheer height of Betty’s hair. What did she have in there? Steel scaffolding?
“There’s nothing wrong with it, dear, but those things… Well, they’re folly, aren’t they? What girls do. You’re a married woman now, with a little one on the way,” Betty nodded towards Judith’s now bulging stomach. “You won’t have the time once the baby arrives and before you know it, you’ll likely have another one on the way. You’re hardly going to just have the one, are you?”
Judith said nothing for a while. Instead she studied Betty as she whisked her cake batter with deftness, that both fascinated and terrified Judith in equal measures. She looked around Betty’s kitchen, all equipped with the latest gadgets; an electric kettle was the latest, which her husband probably bought to keep up appearances more than anything.
“It’s not that I don’t appreciate everything I have,” Judith pleaded her case further.
“I’m sure, just like you really do love Fred,” Betty stopped whisking for a moment and looked Judith straight in the eyes. “Don’t be fooled, Judith. We all have our secret wants and desires. Karen across the road there, she wanted to be a dancer. Maureen, she wanted to drive a bus of all things. Kate, well, Kate just dreams of having a full matching Tupperware set like mine, but we shan’t mention that,” Betty winked and Judith smiled. “ My point is, my dear, there are lots of things we all dream about, but this is real life and us women have a role and it’s a bloody hard one.”
Judith sat back, shocked that Betty had it in her to swear.
“I know, I’m not saying it’s not hard, and rewarding even, but – ”
“You wanted and hoped for more,” Betty interrupted her.
Judith shrugged, “I guess I did,” realising the time, she stood up, her posture more slumped than when she arrived. “I’d best get home to get dinner on.”
“Right you are. Chin up Judith, you’ll come round to it all soon enough,” Betty’s bright smile did little to improve Judith’s mood. “You don’t mind if I don’t see you out, do you? I need to get this batter in the cake tin whilst it’s still fluffy.”
“Not at all,” Judith returned the smile and left.
“Darling?” Fred called from the sitting room, not moving his eyes from the page he was reading. The doorbell trilled a second time. “Darling!” he repeated, louder this time, dropping his paper onto his lap.
Judith jolted back into the present, hearing the doorbell and her husband’s terse voice calling her. She took the water off the boil and dried her hands on a towel. Fred watched her as she passed him without so much as a sideward glance. Whoever had been ringing their doorbell had given up patience and left already. He picked up his paper and straightened the pages out with force, his brow furrowed and severe.
Judith put the water back on to boil and waited, her long, slender fingers stroking the shiny new counter – not dissimilar from Betty’s – that Fred had installed the week before. Her fingers began to take on a life of their own as they followed the melody of Elvis crooning, She’s Not You, over her wireless. She began to hum along, but angry bubbles spat at her from the pan, silencing her, as she pulled her scalded hands away. She turned down the heat, appeasing the water into a timid simmer and walked through to the dining room with two place mats. Her dulled grey eyes drifted to where the piano had stood, its stubborn footprints still evident in the carpet.
“Dinner is ready,” Judith called through to Fred.
It was a quiet affair, neither brave enough to break the deafening silence between them in fear of what might replace it. Not until their plates were empty, did Fred finally manage a few words.
“Thank you, that was lovely.”
“That’s kind of you to say and you’re welcome,” Judith began clearing the plates and stopped when she thought he was going to say something else. Instead of speaking again however, he wiped his mouth with his napkin, glanced at the marks in the carpet and left the room.
The next day was miserable. Judith watched the bulbous rain pelt the kitchen window listening to the washing machine complete its last cycle. Laundry always made her think of her mother in their old squashed terraced house – several miles and a lifetime away from the up-market suburban landscape she now resided in.
“Hasn’t she done well for herself marrying above her station, eh?” She could imagine the neighbours gossiping about her over their washing lines.
As a young child, every Monday Judith would watch, as her mother filled up the dolly tub, a big galvanised metal ribbed thing, with hot water and begin her lengthy and laborious weekly routine.
Cleanest things in first and Judith would beg to be allowed to use the three-legged dolly peg, a long odd looking pole with a handle on top – it was almost as big as her. Her mother would tell her no, as always, and would turn the contents clockwise and anticlockwise, alternating with the copper plunger, to plunge them up and down, up and down. Now every day was a washday.
The laundry done and hung up to dry, Judith pulled on her coat and left the house with her umbrella to do some shopping. On her return she was surprised to see Fred’s car. It was far too early for him to have finished work already. Worry furnished her face and with trepidation she unlocked the front door.
“Fred?” Judith called out.
He came out of the dining room into the lounge to meet her, his breath ragged and uneven.
“Here, let me take your coat,” not waiting for a reply he took the bags from her and removed her coat. Judith stood stunned and wary of the transformation in her husband.
“Is everything alright, Fred?”
“Yes, everything is absolutely fine. In fact, I have a surprise for you.”
“Well, yes. Sit down, Judith.”
Judith sat on the edge of the couch, scanning her husband’s face. Has he been drinking? His brown eyes had taken on the intense darkness that only occurred when he was angry or excited. He chewed on his slightly protruding bottom lip, making sure he had her attention before he spoke.
“Now I know you all think a great deal of Betty, all you ladies, that is. And because of that I took what she said as gold.”
“What exactly did she say?”
“Never mind that, the important thing is, I realise I made a mistake. I thought she must be right and that the kitchen was the most important thing to make nice for you to be happy,” Fred took a breath and his excitement simmered down a notch, his brow furrowed as he contemplated his next words. “I’m sorry Judith, I was a fool. I was trying to do something special for you, but instead completely disregarded everything I actually know about you. You are a wonderful wife and will be a fabulous mother, but you are still you, aren’t you?”
Judith sat back, unable to speak.
“I’m prattling on, but the point is, I know you better than Betty does. I guess I just forgot and I’m sorry I took the piano away without consulting you. Come on.” Fred held out his hand and pulled Judith up from the couch.
The next day the sun had reappeared making the speckles of dust by the window fly around like dazzled fairies. Judith breezed past them as she went to answer the door.
“Oh, hello, Betty,” Judith smiled warmly at her.
“I saw a delivery van yesterday, but couldn’t spot what they were bringing in. I take it Fred decided to buy you a new cooker? You know the one I have makes such a difference,” Betty beamed at Judith, “of course, you won’t mind that I had a little word in his ear,” Betty winked at her.
“I had no idea you did. Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?”
“Yes, that would be lovely.”
Judith opened the door further to let Betty walk through. She watched with amusement as Betty’s face soured at the sight of the dust sparkling in the window.
“Go on through to the kitchen if you like,” Judith felt liberated at not feeling the need to apologise for the mess.
Betty managed a smile and as she walked through to the dining room towards the kitchen, stood quite still at the sight she was faced with.
Judith grinned at her new piano. “Isn’t it wonderful? It’s no electric cooker, but who needs a new kitchen aid when you can have something as beautiful as this?”
The story itself came about, as I was interested in the 1960s because it was such a turning point in social history for women. There was an entire counter-culture movement going on and young women were beginning to feel more independent, some even liberated, but many were on the sidelines. There were of course many women happy and proud in their domestic roles, but there were even more that were questioning their lives and the meaning of them. Even today it can be a difficult subject, in a time when it is now often frowned upon for a woman to want to be a mum at home; the 1960s were a time when it was more than likely to be frowned upon to want anything more. My piece isn’t a social criticism, but more an observation and a suggestion that as opposed to women being placed into a singular group and classed as wanting to be and being the same, the individual can sometimes be overlooked.