The Husband’s SecretLiane Moriarty
Cecilia Fitzpatrick, devoted mother, successful Tupperware business owner and efficient P&C President, has found a letter from her husband.
‘To my wife Cecilia Fitzpatrick, to be opened only in the event of my death.’
But Cecilia’s husband isn’t dead, he’s on a business trip. And when she questions him about it on the phone, Cecilia senses something she hasn’t experienced before. John-Paul is lying.
What happens next changes Cecilia’s formerly blissful suburban existence forever, and the consequences will be life changing for the most unexpected people.
Praise for Liane Moriarty:
‘Superb in technique . . . All of her novels set themselves extremely difficult tasks’
‘a gifted writer, whose light touch doesn’t stop her exploring darker themes’
AUSTRALIAN WOMEN’S WEEKLY
‘What [Moriarty] writes are acute social comedies of the feminine, where the domestic is more political than cosy’
‘Moriarty’s prose turns from funny through poignant to frightening in an artful snap’
About the husband’s secret
About Liane Moriarty
Also by Liane Moriarty
For Adam, George and Anna.
And for Amelia.
To err is human; to forgive divine.
Poor, poor Pandora. Zeus sends her off to marry Epimetheus, a not especially bright man she’s never even met, along with a mysterious covered jar. Nobody tells Pandora a word about the jar. Nobody tells her not to open the jar. Naturally, she opens the jar. What else has she got to do? How was she to know that all those dreadful ills would go whooshing out to plague mankind forever more, and that the only thing left in the jar would be hope? Why wasn’t there a warning label?
And then, everyone’s like, Oh, Pandora. Where’s your willpower? You were told not to open that box, you snoopy girl, you typical woman with your insatiable curiosity, now look what you’ve gone and done. When for one thing it was a jar, not a box, and for another, how many times does she have to say it, nobody said a word about not opening it!
It was all because of the Berlin Wall.
If it wasn’t for the Berlin Wall Cecilia would never have found the letter, and then she wouldn’t be sitting here, at the kitchen table, willing herself not to rip it open.
The envelope was grey with a fine layer of dust. The words on the front were written in a scratchy blue ballpoint pen, the handwriting as familiar as her own. She turned it over. It was sealed with a yellowing piece of sticky tape. When was it written? It felt old, like it was written years ago, but there was no way of knowing for sure.
She wasn’t going to open it. It was absolutely clear that she should not open it. She was the most decisive person she knew, and she’d already decided not to open the letter, so there was nothing more to think about.
Although, honestly, if she did open it, what would be the big deal? Any woman would open it like a shot. She listed all her friends and what their responses would be if she were to ring them up right now and ask what they thought.
Miriam Openheimer: Yup. Open it.
Erica Edgecliff: Are you kidding, open it right this second.
Laura Marks: Yes you should open it and then you should read it out aloud to me.
Sarah Sacks: There would be no point asking Sarah because she was incapable of making a decision. If Cecilia asked her whether she wanted tea or coffee, she would sit for a full minute, her forehead furrowed as she agonised over the pros and cons of each beverage before finally saying, ‘Coffee! No, wait, tea!’ A decision like this one would give her a brain seizure.
Mahalia Ramachandran: Absolutely not. It would be completely disrespectful to your husband. You must not open it.
Mahalia could be a little too sure of herself at times with those huge brown ethical eyes.
Cecilia left the letter sitting on the kitchen table and went to put the kettle on.
Damn that Berlin Wall, and that Cold War, and whoever it was who sat there back in nineteen-forty-whenever it was, mulling over the problem of what to do with those ungrateful Germans; the guy who suddenly clicked his fingers and said, ‘Got it, by jove! We’ll build a great big bloody wall and keep the buggers in!’
Presumably he hadn’t sounded like a British sergeant major.
Esther would know who first came up with the idea for the Berlin Wall. Esther would probably be able to give her his date of birth. It would have been a man of course. Only a man could come up with something so ruthless: so essentially stupid and yet brutally effective.
Was that sexist?
She filled the kettle, switched it on, and cleaned the droplets of water in the sink with a paper towel so that it shone.
One of the mums from school, who had three sons almost exactly the same ages as Cecilia’s three daughters, had said that some remark Cecilia had made was ‘a teeny weeny bit sexist’, just before they’d started the Fete Committee meeting last week. Cecilia couldn’t remember what she’d said, but she’d only been joking. Anyway, weren’t women allowed to be sexist for the next two thousand years or so, until they’d evened up the score?
Maybe she was sexist.
The kettle boiled. She swirled an Earl Grey teabag and watched the curls of black spread through the water like ink. There were worse things to be than sexist. For example, you could be the sort of person who
pinched your fingers together while using the words ‘teeny weeny’.
She looked at her tea and sighed. A glass of wine would be nice right now, but she’d given up alcohol for Lent. Only six days to go. She had a bottle of expensive shiraz ready to open on Easter Sunday, when thirty-five adults and twenty-three children were coming to lunch, so she’d need it. Although, of course, she was an old hand at entertaining. She hosted Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Christmas. John-Paul had five younger brothers, all married with kids. So it was quite a crowd. Planning was the key. Meticulous planning.
She picked up her tea and took it over to the table. Why had she given up wine for Lent? Polly was more sensible. She’d given up strawberry jam. Cecilia had never seen Polly show more than a passing interest in strawberry jam, although now, of course, she was always catching her standing at the open fridge staring at it longingly. The power of denial.
‘Esther!’ she called out.
Esther was in the next room with her sisters watching The Biggest Loser while they shared a giant bag of salt and vinegar chips left over from the Australia Day barbecue months earlier. Cecilia did not know why her three slim daughters loved watching overweight people sweat and cry and starve. It didn’t appear to be teaching them healthier eating habits. She should go in and confiscate the bag of chips, except they’d all eaten salmon and steamed broccoli for dinner without complaint, and she didn’t have the strength for an argument.
She heard a voice from the television boom, ‘You get nothing for nothing!’
That wasn’t such a bad sentiment for her daughters to hear. No one knew it better than Cecilia! But still, she didn’t like the expressions of faint revulsion that flitted across their smooth young faces. She was always so vigilant about not making negative body image comments in front of her daughters, although the same could not be said for her friends. Just the other day, Miriam Openheimer had said, loud enough for all their impressionable daughters to hear, ‘God, would you look at my stomach!’ and squeezed her flesh between her fingertips as if it were something vile. Great, Miriam, as if our daughters don’t already get a million messages every day telling them to hate their bodies.
Actually, Miriam’s stomach was getting a little pudgy.
‘Esther!’ she called out again.
‘What is it?’ Esther called back in a patient, put-upon voice that Cecilia suspected was an unconscious imitation of her own.
‘Whose idea was it to build the Berlin Wall?’
‘Well, they’re pretty sure it was Nikita Khrushchev!’ Esther answered immediately, pronouncing the exotic-sounding name with great relish and her own peculiar interpretation of a Russian accent. ‘He was like, the Prime Minister of Russia, except he was the Premier. But it could have been –’
Her sisters responded instantly with their usual impeccable courtesy.
‘Shut up, Esther!’
‘Esther! I can’t hear the television!
‘Thank you darling!’ Cecilia sipped her tea and imagined herself going back through time and putting that Khrushchev in his place.
No, Mr Khrushchev, you may not have a wall. It will not prove that Communism works. It will not work out well at all. Now, look, I agree capitalism isn’t the be all and end all! Let me show you my last credit card bill. But you really need to put your thinking cap back on.
And then fifty years later, Cecilia wouldn’t have found this letter that was making her feel so . . . what was the word?
Unfocused. That was it.
She liked to feel focused. She was proud of her ability to focus. Her daily life was made up of a thousand tiny pieces – ‘Need coriander’, ‘Isabel’s haircut’, ‘Who will watch Polly at ballet on Tuesday while I take Esther to speech therapy?’ – like one of those giant jigsaws that Isabel used to spend hours doing. And yet Cecilia, who had no patience for puzzles, knew exactly where each tiny piece of her life belonged, and where it needed to be slotted in next.
And okay, maybe the life Cecilia was leading wasn’t that unusual or impressive. She was a school mum and a part-time Tupperware consultant, not an actress or an actuary or a . . . poet living in Vermont. (Cecilia had recently discovered that Liz Brogan, a girl from high school, was now a prize-winning poet living in Vermont. Liz, who ate cheese and Vegemite sandwiches and was always losing her bus pass. It took all of Cecilia’s considerable strength of character not to find that annoying. Not that she wanted to write poetry. But still. You would have thought that if anyone was going to lead an ordinary life it would have been Liz Brogan.) Of course, Cecilia had never aspired to anything other than ordinariness. Here I am, a typical suburban mum, she sometimes caught herself thinking, as if someone had accused her of holding herself out to be something else, something superior.
Other mothers talked about feeling overwhelmed, about the difficulties of focusing on one thing, and they were always saying, ‘How do you do it all, Cecilia?’, and she didn’t know how to answer them. She didn’t actually understand what they found so difficult.
But now, for some reason, everything felt somehow at risk. It wasn’t logical.
Maybe it wasn’t anything to do with the letter. Maybe it was hormonal. She was ‘possibly perimenopausal’, according to Dr McArthur. (‘Oh, I am not!’ Cecilia had said, automatically, as if responding to a gentle, humorous insult.)
Perhaps this was a case of that vague anxiety she knew some women experienced. Other women. She’d always thought anxious people were cute. Dear little anxious people like Sarah Sacks. She wanted to pat their worry-filled heads.
Perhaps if she opened the letter and saw that it was nothing she would get everything back in focus. She had things to do. Two baskets of laundry to fold. Three urgent phone calls to make. Gluten-free slice to bake for the gluten-intolerant members of the School Website Project Group (ie Janine Davidson) which would be meeting tomorrow.
There were other things beside the letter that could be making her feel anxious.
The sex thing, for example. That was always at the back of her mind.
She frowned and ran her hands down the sides of her waist. Her ‘oblique muscles’ according to her Pilates teacher. Oh, look, the sex thing was nothing. It was not actually on her mind. She refused to let it be on her mind. It was of no consequence.
It was true, perhaps, that ever since that morning last year she’d been aware of an underlying sense of fragility, a new understanding that a life of coriander and laundry could be stolen in an instant, that your ordinariness could vanish and suddenly you’re a woman on your knees, your face lifted to the sky and some women are running to help, but others are already averting their heads, with the words not articulated, but felt: Don’t let this touch me.
Cecilia saw it again for the thousandth time: Little Spiderman flying. She was one of the women who ran. Well, of course she was, throwing open her car door, even though she knew that nothing she did would make any difference. It wasn’t her school, her neighbourhood, her parish. None of her children had ever played with the little boy. She’d never had coffee with the woman on her knees. She just happened to be stopped at the lights on the other side of the intersection when it happened. A little boy, probably about five, dressed in a red and blue full-body Spiderman suit was waiting at the side of the road, holding his mother’s hand. It was Book Week. That’s why the little boy was dressed up. Cecilia was watching him, thinking, Mmmm, actually Spiderman is not a character from a book, when for no reason that she could see, the little boy dropped his mother’s hand and stepped off the kerb into the traffic. Cecilia screamed. She also, she remembered later, instinctively banged her fist on her horn.
If Cecilia had driven by just moments later she would have missed seeing it happen. Ten minutes later and the little boy’s death would have meant nothing more to her than another traffic detour. Now it was a memory that would probably cause her grandchildren to one day say, ‘Don’t hold my hand so tight, Grandma.’
Obviously there was no connection between l
ittle Spiderman and this letter.
He just came into her mind at strange times.
Cecilia flicked the letter across the table with her fingertip and picked up Esther’s library book: The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall.
So, the Berlin Wall. Wonderful.
The first she’d known that the Berlin Wall was about to become a significant part of her life had been at breakfast this morning.
It had been just Cecilia and Esther sitting at the kitchen table. John-Paul was overseas, in Chicago until Friday, and Isabel and Polly were still asleep.
Cecilia didn’t normally sit down in the mornings. She generally ate her breakfast standing at the breakfast counter while she made lunches, checked her Tupperware orders on her iPad, unpacked the dishwasher, texted clients about their parties, whatever, but it was a rare opportunity to have some time alone with her odd, darling middle daughter, so she sat down with her Bircher muesli, while Esther powered her way through a bowl of rice bubbles, and waited.
She’d learned that with her daughters. Don’t say a word. Don’t ask a question. Give them enough time and they’d finally tell you what was on their mind. It was like fishing. It took silence and patience. (Or so she’d heard. Cecilia would rather hammer nails into her forehead than go fishing.)
Silence didn’t come naturally to her. Cecilia was a talker. ‘Seriously, do you ever shut the hell up?’ an ex-boyfriend had said to her once. She talked a lot when she was nervous. That ex-boyfriend must have made her nervous. Although, she also talked a lot when she was happy.
But she didn’t say anything that morning. She just ate, and waited, and sure enough, Esther started talking.
‘Mum,’ she said in her husky, precise little voice with its faint lisp. ‘Did you know that some people escaped over the Berlin Wall in a hot air balloon they made themselves?’
‘I did not know that,’ said Cecilia, although she might have known it.
So long Titanic, hello Berlin Wall, she thought.
She would have preferred it if Esther had shared something with her about how she was feeling at the moment, any worries she had about school, her friends, questions about sex, but no, she wanted to talk about the Berlin Wall.