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Husband's Secret, Page 2

Liane Moriarty

  Cecilia swore again, and rubbed her head, which really did hurt. She looked at the shoeboxes and saw that they were all for financial years dating back to the eighties. She began stuffing the pile of receipts into one of the boxes, when her eye was caught by her own name on a white business envelope.

  She picked it up and saw that it was John-Paul’s handwriting.

  It said:

  For my wife, Cecilia Fitzpatrick

  To be opened only in the event of my death

  She laughed out loud, and then abruptly stopped, as if she was at a party and she’d laughed at something somebody had said and then realised that it wasn’t a joke, it was actually quite serious.

  She read it again – For my wife, Cecilia Fitzpatrick – and, oddly, for just a moment, she felt her cheeks go warm, as if she was embarrassed. For him or for her? She wasn’t sure. It felt like she’d stumbled upon something shameful, as if she’d caught him masturbating in the shower. (Miriam Openheimer had once caught Doug masturbating in the shower. It was just so dreadful that they all knew this, but once Miriam was on to her second glass of champagne the secrets just bubbled out of her, and once they knew about this it was impossible to unknow it.)

  What did it say? She considered tearing it open right that second, before she had time to think about it, like the way she sometimes (not very often) shoved the last biscuit or chocolate in her mouth, before her conscience had time to catch up with her greed.

  The phone rang again. She wasn’t wearing her watch, and suddenly she felt like she’d lost all sense of time.

  She threw the rest of the paperwork back into one of the shoeboxes and took the piece of the Berlin Wall and the letter downstairs.

  As soon as she left the attic, she was picked up and swept along by the fast-running current of her life. There was a big Tupperware order to deliver, the girls to be picked up from school, the fish to be bought for tonight’s dinner (they ate a lot of fish when John-Paul was away for work because he hated it), phone calls to return. The parish priest, Father Joe, had been calling to remind her that it was Sister Ursula’s funeral tomorrow. There seemed to be some concern about numbers. She would go, of course. She left John-Paul’s mysterious letter on top of the fridge and gave Esther the piece of the Berlin Wall just before they sat down for dinner.

  ‘Thank you,’ Esther handled the little piece of rock with touching reverence. ‘Exactly which part of the Wall did it come from?’

  ‘Well, I think it was quite near Checkpoint Charlie,’ said Cecilia with jolly confidence. She had no idea.

  But I can tell you that the boy with the ice cube wore a red T-shirt and white jeans and he picked up my ponytail and held it between his fingertips and said, ‘Very pretty’.

  ‘Is it worth any money?’ asked Polly.

  ‘I doubt it. How could you prove it really was from the Wall?’ asked Isabel. ‘It just looks like a piece of rock.’

  ‘DMA testing,’ said Polly. The child watched far too much television.

  ‘It’s DNA not DMA and it comes from people,’ said Esther.

  ‘I know that!’ Polly had arrived in the world outraged to discover that her sisters had got there before her.

  ‘Well then why –’

  ‘So who do you reckon is going to get voted off The Biggest Loser tonight?’ asked Cecilia, while simultaneously thinking, Why, yes, whoever you are who is observing my life, I am changing the subject from a fascinating period of modern history that might actually teach my children something to a trashy television show that will teach them nothing but will keep the peace and not make my head hurt. If John-Paul had been at home, she probably wouldn’t have changed the subject. She was a far better mother when she had an audience.

  The girls had talked about The Biggest Loser for the rest of dinner, while Cecilia had pretended to be interested and thought about the letter sitting on top of the fridge. Once the table had been cleared and the girls were all watching TV she’d taken it down to stare at it.

  Now she put down her cup of tea and held the envelope up to the light, half-laughing at herself. It looked like a handwritten letter on lined notebook paper. She couldn’t decipher a word.

  Had John-Paul perhaps seen something on television about how the soldiers in Afghanistan wrote letters to their families to be sent in the event of their deaths, like messages from the grave, and had he thought that it might be nice to do something similar?

  She just couldn’t imagine him sitting down to do such a thing. It was so sentimental.

  Lovely though. If he died, he wanted them to know how much he loved them.

  . . . in the event of my death. Why was he thinking about death? Was he sick? But this letter appeared to have been written a long time ago, and he was still alive. Besides, he’d had a check-up a few weeks ago and Dr Kluger had said he was as ‘fit as a stallion’. He’d spent the next few days tossing his head back and whinnying and neighing around the house, while Polly rode on his back swinging a tea towel around her head like a whip.

  Cecilia smiled at the memory and her anxiety dissipated. So a few years ago John-Paul had done something uncharacteristically sentimental and written this letter. It was nothing to get all worked up about, and of course she shouldn’t open it just for the sake of curiosity.

  She looked at the clock. Nearly eight pm. He’d be calling soon. He generally called around this time each night when he was away.

  She wasn’t even going to mention the letter to him. It would embarrass him and it wasn’t really an appropriate topic of conversation for the phone.

  One thing: how exactly was she meant to have found this letter if he had died? She might never have found it! Why hadn’t he given it to their solicitor, Miriam’s husband, Doug Openheimer? So difficult not to think of him in the shower every time he came to mind. Of course it had no bearing on his abilities as a lawyer, perhaps it said more about Miriam’s abilities in the bedroom. (Cecilia had a mildly competitive relationship with Miriam.)

  Of course, given the current circumstances, now was not the time to be feeling smug about sex. Stop it. Do not think about the sex thing.

  Anyway, it was dumb of John-Paul not to have given the letter to Doug. If he’d died she probably would have thrown out all his shoeboxes in one of her decluttering frenzies without even bothering to go through them. If he’d wanted her to find the letter it was crazy to just shove it in a random shoebox.

  Why not put it in the file with the copies of their wills, life insurance and so on?

  John-Paul was one of the smartest people she knew, except for when it came to the logistics of life.

  ‘I seriously don’t understand how men came to rule the world,’ she’d said to her sister Bridget this morning, after she’d told her about how John-Paul had lost his rental car keys in Chicago. It had driven Cecilia bananas seeing that text message from him. There was nothing she could do! He didn’t expect her to do anything, but still!

  This type of thing was always happening to John-Paul. Last time he’d gone overseas he’d left his laptop in a cab. The man lost things constantly. Wallets, phones, keys, his wedding ring. His possessions just slid right off him.

  ‘They’re pretty good at building stuff,’ her sister had said. ‘Like bridges and roads. I mean, could you even build a hut? Your basic mud hut?’

  ‘I could build a hut,’ said Cecilia.

  ‘You probably could,’ groaned Bridget, as if this was a failing. ‘Anyway, men don’t rule the world. We have a female prime minister. And you rule your world. You rule the Fitzpatrick household. You rule St Angela’s. You rule the world of Tupperware.’

  Cecilia was President of St Angela’s Primary Parents and Citizens Association. She was also the eleventh top-selling Tupperware consultant in Australia. Her sister found both of these roles hugely comical.

  ‘I don’t rule the Fitzpatrick household,’ said Cecilia.

  ‘Sure you don’t,’ guffawed Bridget.

  It was true that if Cecilia died the Fitzpa
trick household would just, well – it was unbearable to think about what would happen. John-Paul would need more than a letter from her. He’d need a whole manual, including a floor plan of the house pointing out the location of the laundry and the linen cupboard.

  The phone rang and she snatched it up.

  ‘Let me guess. Our daughters are watching the chubby people, right?’ said John-Paul. She’d always loved his voice on the phone: deep, warm and comforting. Oh yes, her husband was hopeless, and lost things and ran late, but he took care of his wife and daughters in that old-fashioned, responsible, I-am-the-man-and-this-is-my-job way. Bridget was right, Cecilia ruled her world, but she’d always known that if there was a crisis – a crazed gunman, a flood, a fire – John-Paul would be the one to save their lives. He’d throw himself in front of the bullet, build the raft, drive them safely through the raging inferno, and once that was done, he’d hand back control to Cecilia, pat his pockets and say, ‘Has anyone seen my wallet?’

  After she saw the little Spiderman die the first thing she did was call John-Paul, her fingers shaking as she pressed the buttons.

  ‘I found this letter,’ said Cecilia now. She ran her fingertips over his handwriting on the front of the envelope. As soon as she heard his voice she knew she was going to ask him about it that very second. They’d been married for fifteen years. There had never been secrets.

  ‘What letter?’

  ‘A letter from you,’ said Cecilia. She was trying to sound light, jokey, so that this whole situation would stay in the right perspective, so that whatever was in the letter would mean nothing, would change nothing. ‘To me, to be opened in the event of your death.’ It was impossible to use the words ‘event of your death’ to your husband without your voice coming out odd.

  There was silence. For a moment she thought they’d been cut off except that she could hear a gentle hum of chatter and clatter in the background. It sounded like he was calling from a restaurant.

  Her stomach contracted.


  chapter two

  ‘If this is a joke,’ said Tess, ‘it’s not funny.’ Will put his hand on her arm. Felicity put her hand on her other arm. They were like matching bookends holding her up.

  ‘We’re so very, very sorry,’ said Felicity.

  ‘So sorry,’ echoed Will, as if they were singing a duet together.

  They were sitting at the big round wooden table they sometimes used for client meetings, but mostly for eating pizza. Will’s face was dead white. Tess could see each tiny black hair of his stubble in sharp definition, standing upright, like some sort of miniature crop growing across his shockingly white skin. Felicity had three distinct red blotches on her neck.

  For a moment Tess was transfixed by those three blotches, as if they held the answer. They looked like fingerprints on Felicity’s newly slender neck. Finally, Tess raised her eyes and saw that Felicity’s eyes – her famously beautiful almond-shaped green eyes: ‘The fat girl has such beautiful eyes!’ – were red and watery.

  ‘So this realisation,’ said Tess. ‘This realisation that you two –’ She stopped. Swallowed.

  ‘We want you to know that nothing has actually happened,’ interrupted Felicity.

  ‘We haven’t – you know,’ said Will.

  ‘You haven’t slept together.’ Tess saw that they were both proud of this, that they almost expected her to admire them for their constraint.

  ‘Absolutely not,’ said Will.

  ‘But you want to,’ said Tess. She was almost laughing at the absurdity of it. ‘That’s what you’re telling me, right? You want to sleep together.’

  They must have kissed. That was worse than if they’d slept together. Everyone knew that a stolen kiss was the most erotic thing in the world.

  The blotches on Felicity’s neck began to slink up her jawline. She looked like she was coming down with a rare infectious disease.

  ‘We’re so sorry,’ said Will again. ‘We tried so hard to – to make it not happen.’

  ‘We really did,’ said Felicity. ‘For months, you know, we just –’

  ‘Months? This has been going on for months!’

  ‘Nothing has actually gone on,’ intoned Will, as solemnly as if he was in church.

  ‘Well, something has gone on,’ said Tess. ‘Something rather significant has gone on.’ Who knew she was capable of speaking with such hardness? Each word sounded like a block of concrete.

  ‘Sorry,’ said Will. ‘Of course – I just meant – you know.’

  Felicity pressed her fingertips to her forehead and began to weep. ‘Oh Tess.’

  Tess’s hand went out of its own accord to comfort her. They were closer than sisters. She always told people that. Their mothers were twins, and Felicity and Tess were only children, born within six months of each other. They’d done everything together.

  Tess had once punched a boy – a proper closed-fist right hook across the jaw – because he’d called Felicity a baby elephant, which was exactly what Felicity had looked like all through her school days. Felicity had grown into a fat adult, ‘a big girl with a pretty face’. She drank Coke like it was water, and never dieted or exercised or seemed particularly bothered by her weight. And then, about six months ago, Felicity had joined Weight Watchers, given up Coke, joined a gym, lost forty kilos and turned beautiful. Extremely beautiful. She was exactly the type of person they wanted for that Biggest Loser show: a stunning woman trapped in a fat person’s body.

  Tess had been thrilled for her. ‘Maybe she’ll meet someone really nice now,’ she’d said to Will. ‘Now she’s got more confidence.’

  It seemed that Felicity had met someone really nice. Will. The nicest man Tess knew. That took a lot of confidence, to steal your cousin’s husband.

  ‘I’m so sorry I just want to die,’ wept Felicity.

  Tess pulled back her hand. Felicity – snarky, sarcastic, funny, clever, fat Felicity – sounded like an American cheerleader.

  Will tipped his head back and stared at the ceiling with a clenched jaw. He was trying not to cry too. The last time Tess had seen him cry was when Liam was born.

  Tess’s eyes were dry. Her heart hammered as if she was terrified, as if her life was in danger. The phone rang.

  ‘Leave it,’ said Will. ‘It’s after hours.’

  Tess stood, went over to her desk and picked up the phone.

  ‘TWF Advertising,’ she said.

  ‘Tess, my love, I know it’s late, but we’ve got us a little problem.’

  It was Dirk Freeman, Marketing Director of Petra Pharmaceuticals, their most important and lucrative client. It was Tess’s job to make Dirk feel important, to reassure him that although he was fifty-six and was never going to climb any higher in the ranks of senior management, he was the big kahuna, and Tess was his servant, his maid, his lowly chambermaid in fact, and he could tell her what to do, and be flirty, or grumpy, or stern, and she’d pretend to give him a bit of lip, but when it came down to it, she had to do what he said. It had occurred to her recently that the service she was providing Dirk Freeman bordered on sexual.

  ‘The colour of the dragon on the Cough Stop packaging is all wrong,’ said Dirk. ‘It’s too purple. Much too purple. Have we gone to print?’

  Yes, they’d gone to print. Fifty thousand little cardboard boxes had rolled off the presses that day. Fifty thousand perfectly purple, toothily grinning dragons.

  The work that had gone into those dragons. The emails, the discussions. And while Tess had been talking about dragons, Will and Felicity had been falling in love.

  ‘No,’ said Tess, her eyes on her husband and cousin who were both still sitting at the meeting table in the centre of the room, their heads bowed, examining their fingertips, like teenagers on detention. ‘It’s your lucky day, Dirk.’

  ‘Oh, I thought it would have – well, good.’ He could barely hide his disappointment. He’d wanted Tess all breathless and worried. He’d wanted to hear the tremor of panic in h
er voice.

  His voiced deepened, became as abrupt and authoritative as if he was about to lead his troops onto the battlefield. ‘I need you to hold everything on Cough Stop, right? The lot. Got it?’

  ‘Got it. Hold everything on Cough Stop.’

  ‘I’ll get back to you.’

  He hung up. There was nothing wrong with the colour. He’d call back the next day and say it was fine. He’d just needed to feel powerful for a few moments. One of the younger hot shots had probably made him feel inferior in a meeting.

  ‘The Cough Stop boxes went to print today,’ Felicity turned in her seat and looked worriedly at Tess.

  ‘It’s fine,’ said Tess.

  ‘But if he’s going to change –’ said Will.

  ‘I said it’s fine.’

  She didn’t feel angry yet. Not really. But she could feel the possibility of a fury worse than anything she’d ever experienced, a simmering vat of anger that could explode like a fireball, destroying everything in its vicinity.

  She didn’t sit down again. Instead she turned and examined the whiteboard where they recorded all their work in progress.

  Cough Stop packaging!

  Feathermart press ad!!

  Bedstuff website :)

  It was humiliating to see her own scrawly, carefree, confident handwriting with its flippant exclamation marks. The smiley face next to the Bedstuff website, because they’d worked so hard to get that job, pitching against bigger companies, and then, yes! They’d won it. She’d drawn that smiley face yesterday, when she had been ignorant of the secret that Will and Felicity were sharing. Had they exchanged rueful looks behind her back when she’d drawn the smiley face? She won’t be so smiley-faced once we confess our little secret, will she?

  The phone rang again.

  This time Tess let it go to the answering service.

  TWF Advertising. Their names entwined together to form their little dream business. The idle ‘what if’ conversation they’d actually made happen.

  The Christmas before last they’d been in Sydney for the holiday. As was traditional, they’d spent Christmas Eve at Felicity’s parents’ house. Tess’s Auntie Mary and Uncle Phil. Felicity was still fat. Pretty and pink and perspiring in a size 22 dress. They’d had the traditional sausages on the barbecue, the traditional creamy pasta salad, the traditional pavlova. Felicity and Will had both been whingeing about their jobs. Incompetent management. Stupid colleagues. Draughty offices. And so on and so forth.

  ‘Jeez, you’re a miserable bunch, aren’t you,’ said Uncle Phil, who didn’t have anything to whinge about now he was retired.

  ‘Why don’t you go into business together?’ said Tess’s mother.

  It was true that they were all in similar fields. Tess was the marketing communications manager for a but-this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it legal publishing company. Will was the creative director of a large, prestigious extremely-pleased-with-themselves advertising agency. (That’s how they’d met; Tess had been Will’s client.) Felicity was a graphic designer working for a tyrant.

  Once they started talking about it, the ideas fell into place so fast. Click, click, click! By the time they were eating the last mouthfuls of pavlova, it was all set. Will would be the creative director! Obviously! Felicity would be the art director! Of course! Tess would be the business manager! That one wasn’t quite so obvious. She’d never held a role like that. She’d always been on the client side, and she considered herself something of a social introvert.

  In fact, a few weeks ago she’d done a Reader’s Digest quiz in a doctor’s waiting room called ‘Do you suffer from Social Anxiety?’ and her answers (all ‘C’s) confirmed that she did, in fact, suffer from social anxiety and should seek professional help or ‘join a support group’. Everybody who did that quiz probably got the same result. If you didn’t suspect you had social anxiety, you wouldn’t bother doing the quiz; you’d be too busy chatting with the receptionist.

  She certainly did not seek professional help, or tell a single soul. Not Will. Not even Felicity. If she talked about it, then it would make it real. The two of them would watch her in social situations and be kindly empathetic when they saw the humiliating evidence of her shyness. The important thing was to cover it up. When she was a child her mother had once told her shyness was almost a form of selfishness. ‘You see, when you hang your head like that, darling, people think you don’t like them!’ Tess had taken that to heart. She grew up and learned how to make small talk with a thumping heart. She forced herself to make eye contact, even when her nerves were screaming at her to look away, look away! ‘Bit of a cold,’ she’d say, to explain away the dryness of her throat. She learned to live with it, the way other people learned to live with lactose intolerance or sensitive skin.

  Anyway, Tess hadn’t been overly concerned that Christmas Eve two years ago. It was all just talk and they’d been drinking a lot of Auntie Mary’s punch. They weren’t really going to start a business together. She wouldn’t really have to be the account director.

  But then, in the New Year, when they got back to Melbourne, Will and Felicity kept going on about it. Will and Tess’s house had a huge downstairs area that the previous owners had used as a ‘teenagers’ retreat’. It had its own separate entrance. What did they have to lose? The start-up costs would be negligible. Will and Tess had been putting extra money on their mortgage. Felicity was sharing a flat. If they failed, they could all go back out and get jobs.

  Tess was swept along on the wave of their enthusiasm. She was happy enough to resign from her job, but the first time she sat outside a potential client’s office she had to cram her hands between her knees to stop them trembling. Often