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Truly Madly Guilty, Page 2

Liane Moriarty

  'He reckons all this rain is related to climate change. I said, mate, mate, I said, it's nothing to do with climate change. It's La Nina! You know about La Nina? El Nino and La Nina? Natural events! Been happening for thousands of years.'

  'Right,' said Erika. She wished Oliver were with her. He'd take on this conversation for her. Why were cab drivers so insistent on educating their passengers?

  'Yep. La Nina,' said the cabbie, with a sort of Mexican inflection. He obviously enjoyed saying La Nina. 'So, we broke the record hey? Longest consecutive run of rainy days in Sydney since 1932. Hooray for us!'

  'Yes,' said Erika. 'Hooray for us.'

  It was 1931, she never forgot a number, but there was no need to correct him.

  'I think you'll find it was 1931,' she said. She couldn't help herself. It was a character flaw. She knew it.

  'Yup, that's it, 1931,' said the cabbie, as if that's what he'd said in the first place. 'Before that it was twenty-four days in 1893. Twenty-four rainy days in a row! Let's hope we don't break that record too, hey? Think we will?'

  'Let's hope not,' said Erika. She ran a finger along her forehead. Was that sweat or rain?

  She'd calmed down as she waited in the rain outside the library for the cab. Her breathing was steady again, but her stomach still rocked and roiled, and she felt exhausted, depleted, as if she'd run a marathon.

  She took out her phone and texted Clementine: Sorry, had to rush off, problem at work, you were fantastic, talk later. Ex

  She changed 'fantastic' to 'great'. Fantastic was over the top. Also inaccurate. She pressed 'send'.

  It had been an error of judgement to take precious time out of her working day to come and listen to Clementine's talk. She'd only gone to be supportive, and because she wanted to get her own feelings about what had happened filed away in an orderly fashion. It was as though her memory of that afternoon was a strip of old-fashioned film and someone had taken a pair of scissors and removed certain frames. They weren't even whole frames. They were slivers. Thin slivers of time. She just wanted to fill in those slivers, without admitting to anyone, 'I don't quite remember it all.'

  An image came to her of her own face reflected in her bathroom mirror, her hands shaking violently as she tried to break that little yellow pill in half with her thumbnail. She suspected the gaps in her memory were related to the tablet she'd taken that afternoon. But it was a prescription pill. It wasn't like she'd popped an Ecstasy tablet before going to a barbeque.

  She remembered feeling odd, a little detached, before they went next door to the barbeque, but that still didn't account for the gaps. Too much to drink? Yes. Too much to drink. Face the facts, Erika. You were affected by alcohol. You were 'drunk'. Erika couldn't quite believe that word could apply to her but it seemed to be the case. She had been unequivocally drunk for the first time in her life. So, maybe the gaps were alcoholic blackouts? Like Oliver's mum and dad. 'They can't remember whole decades of their life,' Oliver said once in front of his parents, and they'd both laughed delightedly and raised their glasses even though Oliver wasn't smiling.

  'So what do you do for a quid, if you don't mind me asking?' said the cabbie.

  'I'm an accountant,' said Erika.

  'Are you now?' said the cabbie with far too much interest. 'What a coincidence, because I was just thinking -'

  Erika's phone rang and she startled, as she did without fail whenever her phone rang. ('It's a phone, Erika,' Oliver kept telling her. 'That's what it's meant to do.') She could see it was her mother, the very last person in the world she wanted to talk to right now, but the cab driver was shifting in his seat, his eyes on her instead of the road, virtually licking his lips in anticipation of all the free tax advice he was about to get. Cab drivers knew a little bit about everything. He'd want to tell her about an amazing loophole he'd heard about from one of his regular customers. Erika wasn't that kind of accountant. 'Loophole' wasn't a word she appreciated. Maybe her mother was the lesser of two evils.

  'Hello, Mum.'

  'Well, hello! I didn't expect you to answer!' Her mother sounded both nervous and defiant, which didn't bode well at all.

  'I was all prepared to leave a voicemail message!' said Sylvia accusingly.

  'Sorry I answered,' said Erika. She was sorry.

  'Obviously you don't need to be sorry, I just need to recalibrate. Tell you what, why don't you just listen while I pretend to leave you the message I had all prepared?'

  'Go ahead,' said Erika. She looked out at the rainy street where a woman battled with an umbrella that wanted to turn itself inside out. Erika watched as the woman suddenly, marvellously, lost her temper and jammed the umbrella into a rubbish bin without losing stride and continued walking in the rain. Good on you, thought Erika, exhilarated by this little tableau. Just throw it out. Throw the damned thing out.

  Her mother's voice got louder in her ear as if she'd repositioned her phone. 'I was going to start like this: Erika, darling, I was going to say, Erika darling, I know you can't talk right now because you're at work, which is such a pity, being stuck in an office on this beautiful day, not that it is a beautiful day, I must admit, it's actually a terrible day, a horrendous day, but normally at this time of year we have such glorious days, and whenever I wake up and have a peek outside at the blue sky, I think, oh dear, oh what a pity, poor, poor old Erika, stuck in her office on this beautiful day!, that's what I think, but that's the price you pay for corporate success! If only you'd been a park ranger or some other outdoorsy job. I wasn't actually going to say the park ranger part, that just came to me then, and actually I know why it came to me, because Sally's son has just left school and he's going to be a park ranger, and when she was telling me, I just thought to myself, you know, what a marvellous job, what a clever idea, instead of being trapped in a little cubicle like you are.'

  'I'm not trapped in a cubicle,' sighed Erika. Her office had harbour views and fresh flowers bought each Monday morning by her secretary. She loved her office. She loved her job.

  'It was Sally's idea, you know. For her son to be a park ranger. So clever of her. She's not conventional, Sally, she thinks outside the box.'

  'Sally?' said Erika.

  'Sally! My new hairdresser!' said her mother impatiently, as if Sally had been in her life for years, not a couple of months. As if Sally were going to be a lifelong friend. Ha. Sally would go the way of all the other wonderful strangers in her mother's life.

  'So what else was your message going to say?' said Erika.

  'Let's see now ... then I was going to say, sort of casually, as if I'd only just thought of it: Oh, listen darling, by the way!'

  Erika laughed. Her mother could always charm her, even at the worst times. Just when Erika thought she was done, that was it, she could take no more, her mother charmed her back into loving her.

  Her mother laughed too, but it sounded hectic and high-pitched. 'I was going to say: Listen, darling, I was wondering if you and Oliver would like to come to lunch at my place on Sunday?'

  'No,' said Erika. 'No.'

  She breathed in like she was breathing in through a straw. Her lips felt wonky. 'No, thank you. We'll be at your place on the fifteenth. That's when we'll come, Mum. No other time. That's the deal.'

  'But darling, I think you'd be so proud of me because -'

  'No,' said Erika. 'I'll meet you anywhere else. We can go out to lunch this Sunday. To a nice restaurant. Or you can come to our place. Oliver and I don't have anything on. We can go anywhere else but we are not coming to your house.' She paused and said it again, louder and more clearly, as if she were speaking to someone without a good grasp of English. 'We are not coming to your house.'

  There was silence.

  'Until the fifteenth,' said Erika. 'It's in the diary. It's in both our diaries. And don't forget we've got that dinner with Clementine's parents on Thursday night! So we've got that to look forward to as well.' Yes, indeed, that was going to be a barrel of laughs.

  'I had a ne
w recipe I wanted to try. I bought a gluten-free recipe book, did I tell you?'

  It was the flip tone that did it. The calculated, cruel brightness, as if she thought there was a chance Erika might join her in playing the game they'd played all those years, where they both pretended to be an ordinary mother and daughter having an ordinary conversation, when she knew that Erika no longer played, when they'd both agreed the game was over, when her mother had wept and apologised and made promises they both knew she'd never keep, but now she wanted to pretend she'd never even made the promises in the first place.

  'Mum. Dear God.'

  'What?' Faux innocence. That infuriating babyish voice.

  'You promised on Grandma's grave that you wouldn't buy another recipe book! You don't cook! You don't have a gluten allergy!' Why did her voice tremble with rage when she never expected those melodramatic promises to be kept?

  'I made no such promise!' said her mother, and she dropped the baby voice and had the audacity to respond to Erika's rage with her own. 'And as a matter of fact, I have been suffering quite dreadful bloating lately. I have gluten intolerance, thank you very much. Excuse me for worrying about my health.'

  Do not engage. Remove yourself from the emotional minefield. This was why she was investing thousands of dollars in therapy, for exactly this situation.

  'All right then, well, Mum, it was nice talking to you,' said Erika rapidly, without giving her mother a chance to speak, as if she were a telemarketer, 'but I'm at work, so I have to go now. I'll talk to you later.' She hung up before her mother could speak and dropped the phone in her lap.

  The cab driver's shoulders were conspicuously still against his beaded seat cover, only his hands moving on the bottom of the steering wheel, pretending that he hadn't been listening in. What sort of daughter refuses to go to her mother's house? What sort of daughter speaks with such ferocity to her mother about buying a new recipe book?

  She blinked hard.

  Her phone rang again, and she jumped so violently it nearly slid off her lap. It would be her mother again, ringing to shout abuse.

  But it wasn't her mother. It was Oliver.

  'Hi,' she said, and nearly cried with relief at the sound of his voice. 'Just had a fun phone call with Mum. She wanted us to go over for lunch on Sunday.'

  'We're not due there until next month, are we?' said Oliver.

  'No,' said Erika. 'She was pushing her boundaries.'

  'Are you okay?'

  'Yep.' She ran a fingertip under her eyes. 'Fine.'

  'You sure?'

  'Yes. Thank you.'

  'Just put her straight out of your mind,' said Oliver. 'Hey, did you go to Clementine's talk at that library out in wherever it was?'

  Erika tipped back her head against the seat and closed her eyes. Dammit. Of course. That's why he was calling. Clementine. The plan had been that she would chat to Clementine after her talk, while they had coffee. Oliver hadn't been overly interested in Erika's motivation for attending Clementine's talk. He didn't understand her obsessive desire to fill in the blank spots of her memory. He found it irrelevant, almost silly. 'Believe me, you've remembered everything you're ever going to remember,' he'd said. (His lips went thin, his eyes hard on the words 'Believe me'. Just a little flash of pain he could never quite repress, and that he would probably deny feeling.) 'Blank spots are par for the course when you drink too much.' They weren't par for her course. But Oliver had seen this as the perfect opportunity to talk to Clementine, to finally pin her down.

  She should have let him go to voicemail too.

  'I did,' she said. 'But I left halfway through. I didn't feel well.'

  'So you didn't get to talk to Clementine?' said Oliver. She could hear him doing his best to conceal his frustration.

  'Not today,' she said. 'Don't worry. I'm just finding the right time. The food court wouldn't have been the best spot anyway.'

  'I'm just looking at my diary. It has been two months now since the barbeque. I don't think it's offensive or insensitive, or whatever, to just ask the question. Just ring her up. It doesn't need to be face to face.'

  'I know. I'm sorry.'

  'You don't need to be sorry,' said Oliver. 'This is difficult. It's not your fault.'

  'It was my fault we went to the barbeque in the first place,' she said. Oliver wouldn't absolve her of that. He was too accurate. They'd always had that in common: a passion for accuracy.

  The cabbie slammed on the brake. 'Ya bloody idiot driver! Ya bloody goose!' Erika put her hand flat against the front seat to brace herself as Oliver said, 'That's not relevant.'

  'It's relevant to me,' she said. Her phone beeped to let her know another call was coming through. It would be her mother. The fact that it had taken her a couple of minutes to call back meant that she'd chosen tears over abuse. Tears took longer.

  'I don't know what you want me to say about that, Erika,' said Oliver worriedly. He thought there was an actual correct response. An answer at the back of the book. He thought there was a secret set of relationship rules that she must know, because she was the woman, and she was deliberately withholding them. 'Just ... will you talk to Clementine?' he said.

  'I'll talk to Clementine,' said Erika. 'See you tonight.'

  She turned her phone to silent and put it in her bag, at her feet. The taxi driver turned up the radio. He must have given up on asking her accounting advice now, probably thinking that judging from her personal life, her professional advice couldn't be trusted.

  Erika thought of Clementine, who would be finishing up her little speech at the library by now, presumably to polite applause from her audience. There would be no 'bravos!', no standing ovations, no bouquets backstage.

  Poor Clementine, feeling she had to virtually abase herself in this way.

  Oliver was right: the decision to go to the barbeque was of no relevance. It was a sunk cost. She put her head back against the seat, closed her eyes and remembered a silver car driving towards her, surrounded by a swirling funnel of autumn leaves.

  chapter three

  The day of the barbeque

  Erika drove into her cul-de-sac and was greeted by a strange, almost beautiful sight: someone was finally driving the silver BMW that had been parked outside the Richardsons' house for the last six months, and whoever was driving hadn't bothered to brush away the layer of red and gold autumn leaves that had accumulated on the car's bonnet and roof, so that as they drove (much too fast for a residential area) a whirling vortex of leaves was created, as if the car were being followed by a mini tornado.

  As the leaves cleared, Erika saw her next-door neighbour, Vid, standing at the end of his driveway, watching the car drive away, while a single ray of sunlight bounced off his sunglasses, like the shimmer of a camera flash.

  Erika braked next to him, opening her passenger-side window at the same time.

  'Good morning,' she called out. 'Someone finally moved that car!'

  'Yes, they must have finished their drug dealing, what do you reckon?' Vid leaned down towards the car, pushing his sunglasses up onto his head of luxuriant grey hair. 'Or maybe it was the Mafia, you know?'

  'Ha ha!' Erika laughed unconvincingly because Vid looked kind of like a successful gangster himself.

  'It's a cracker of a day, you know. Look! Am I right?!' Vid made a satisfied gesture at the sky, as if he'd personally purchased the day and paid a premium price for it, and got the quality product he deserved.

  'It is a beautiful day,' said Erika. 'You off for a walk?'

  Vid reacted with faint disgust to this suggestion.

  'Walk? Me? No.' He indicated a lit cigarette between his fingers and the rolled-up, plastic-wrapped Sunday paper in the other hand. 'I just came down to collect my paper, you know.'

  Erika reminded herself not to count the number of times Vid said 'you know'. Recording someone's conversational tic bordered on obsessive-compulsive. (Vid's current record: eleven times in a two-minute diatribe about the removal of the smoked pancetta pizza fro
m the local pizzeria's menu. Vid could not believe it, he just could not believe it, you know. The 'you knows' came thick and fast when he got excited.)

  Erika was very aware that some of her behaviours could potentially be classified as obsessive-compulsive. 'I wouldn't get too caught up with labels, Erika,' her psychologist had said with the constipated smile she tended to give when Erika 'self-diagnosed'. (Erika had taken out a subscription to Psychology Today when she started therapy, just to educate herself a little about the process, and it was all so fascinating she'd recently begun working her way through the first-year reading list for a psychological and behavioural sciences undergraduate degree at Cambridge. Just for interest, she'd told her psychologist, who didn't look threatened by this, but didn't look exactly thrilled by it either.)

  'Bloody revhead kid hoons up the street and throws it from his car like he's throwing a grenade in bloody Syria, you know.' Vid made a grenade-throwing gesture with the rolled-up paper. 'So what are you up to? Been grocery shopping?'

  He looked at the little collection of plastic bags on Erika's passenger seat, and drew deeply on his cigarette, blowing a stream of smoke out the side of his mouth.

  'Not exactly grocery shopping, just some, um, bits and bobs I needed.'

  'Bits and bobs,' repeated Vid, trying out the phrase as if he'd never heard it before. Maybe he hadn't. He looked at Erika in that searching, almost disappointed way he had, as if he'd been hoping for something more from her.

  'Yes. For afternoon tea. We've got Clementine and Sam coming over later for afternoon tea, with their little girls. My friends, Clementine and Sam? You met them at my place?' She knew perfectly well that Vid remembered them. She was giving him Clementine to make herself more interesting. That's all she had to offer Vid: Clementine.

  Vid's face lit up instantly.

  'Your friend, the cellist!' said Vid delightedly. He virtually smacked his lips on the word 'cellist'. 'And her husband. Tone-deaf! What a waste, eh?'

  'Well, he likes to say he's tone-deaf,' said Erika. 'I think technically he's -'

  'Top bloke! He was a, what do you call it, a marketing manager for an F-M-C-G company and that stands for a fast-moving ... don't tell me, don't tell me ... a fast-moving consumer good. Whatever the hell that means. But how's that? Good memory, eh? I've got a mind like a steel trap, that's what I tell my wife.'