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The Husband’s Secret, Page 2

Liane Moriarty

  Ever since Esther was three years old, she’d been developing these interests, or more accurately, obsessions. First it was dinosaurs. Sure, lots of kids are interested in dinosaurs, but Esther’s interest was, well, exhausting, to be frank, and a little peculiar. Nothing else interested the child. She drew dinosaurs, she played with dinosaurs, she dressed up as a dinosaur. ‘I’m not Esther,’ she’d say. ‘I’m T-Rex.’ Every bedtime story had to be about dinosaurs. Every conversation had to be related somehow to dinosaurs. It was lucky that John-Paul was interested, because Cecilia was bored after about five minutes. (They were extinct! They had nothing to say!) John-Paul took Esther on special trips to the museum. He brought home books for her. He sat with her for hours while they talked about herbivores and carnivores.

  Since then Esther’s ‘interests’ had ranged from roller-coasters to cane toads. Most recently it had been the Titanic. Now she was ten she was old enough to do her own research at the library and online, and Cecilia was amazed at the information she gathered. What ten year old lay in bed reading historical books that were so big and chunky she could barely hold them up?

  ‘Encourage it!’ her schoolteachers said, but sometimes Cecilia worried. It seemed to her that Esther was possibly a touch autistic, or at least sitting somewhere on the autism spectrum. Cecilia’s mother had laughed when she’d mentioned her concern. ‘But Esther is exactly like you were!’ she said. (This was not true. Keeping your Barbie doll collection in perfect order hardly compared.)

  ‘I actually have a piece of the Berlin Wall,’ Cecilia had said that morning to Esther, suddenly remembering this fact, and it had been gratifying to see Esther’s eyes light up with interest. ‘I was there in Germany, after the Wall came down.’

  ‘Can I see it?’ asked Esther.

  ‘You can have it, darling.’

  Jewellery and clothes for Isabel and Polly. A piece of the Berlin Wall for Esther.

  Cecilia, twenty years old at the time, had been on a six-week holiday travelling through Europe with her friend Sarah Sacks in 1990, just a few months after the announcement that the Wall was coming down. (Sarah’s famous indecisiveness paired with Cecilia’s famous decisiveness made them the perfect travelling companions. No conflict whatsoever.)

  When they got to Berlin, they found tourists lined along the Wall, trying to chip off pieces as souvenirs, using keys, rocks, anything they could find. The Wall was like the giant carcass of a dragon that had once terrorised the city, and the tourists were crows pecking away at its remains.

  Without any tools it was almost impossible to chip off a proper piece, so Cecilia and Sarah decided (well, Cecilia decided) to buy their pieces from the enterprising locals who had set out rugs and were selling off a variety of offerings. Capitalism really had triumphed. You could buy anything from grey-coloured chips the size of marbles to giant boulder-sized chunks complete with spray-painted graffiti.

  Cecilia couldn’t remember how much she’d paid for the tiny grey stone that looked like it could have come from anyone’s front garden. ‘It probably did,’ said Sarah as they caught the train out of Berlin that night, and they’d laughed at their own gullibility, but at least they’d felt like they were a part of history. Cecilia had put her chip in a paper bag and written MY PIECE OF THE BERLIN WALL on the front, and when she got back to Australia she’d thrown it in a box with all the other souvenirs she’d collected: drink coasters, train tickets, menus, foreign coins, hotel keys.

  Cecilia wished now she’d concentrated more on the Wall, taken more photos, collected more anecdotes she could have shared with Esther. Actually, what she remembered most about that trip to Berlin was kissing a handsome brown-haired German boy in a nightclub. He kept taking ice cubes from his drink and running them across her collarbone, which at the time had seemed incredibly erotic, but now seemed unhygienic and sticky.

  If only she’d been the sort of curious, politically aware girl who struck up conversations with the locals about what it was like living in the shadow of the Wall. Instead, all she had to share with her daughter were stories about kissing and ice cubes. Of course, Isabel and Polly would love to hear about the kissing and ice cubes. Or Polly would, maybe Isabel had reached the age where the thought of her mother kissing anybody would be appalling.

  Cecilia put Find piece of Berlin Wall for E on her list of things to do that day (there were twenty-five items – she used an iPhone app to list them), and at about two pm, she went into the attic to find it.

  Attic was probably too generous a word for the storage area in their roof space. You reached it by pulling down a ladder from a trapdoor in the ceiling.

  Once she was up there, she had to keep her knees bent so as not to bang her head. John-Paul point-blank refused to go up there. He suffered from severe claustrophobia and walked six flights of stairs every day to his office so he could avoid taking the lift. The poor man had regular nightmares about being trapped in a room where the walls were contracting. ‘The walls!’ he’d shout, just before he woke up, sweaty and wild-eyed. ‘Do you think you were locked in a cupboard as a child?’ Cecilia had asked him once (she wouldn’t have put it past his mother), but he’d said he was pretty sure he hadn’t. ‘Actually, John-Paul never had nightmares when he was a little boy,’ his mother had told Cecilia when she’d asked. ‘He was a beautiful sleeper. Perhaps you give him too much rich food late at night?’ Cecilia had got used to the nightmares now.

  The attic was small and crammed, but tidy and well organised, of course. Over recent years, ‘organised’ seemed to have become her most defining characteristic. It was like she was a minor celebrity with this one claim to fame. It was funny how once it became a thing her family and friends commented on and teased her about, then it seemed to perpetuate itself, so that her life was now extraordinarily well organised, as if motherhood was a sport and she was a top athlete. It was like she was thinking, How far can I go with this? How much more can I fit in my life without losing control?

  And that was why other people, like her sister Bridget, had rooms full of dusty junk, whereas Cecilia’s attic was stacked with clearly labelled white plastic storage containers. The only part that didn’t look quite ‘Cecilia-ish’ was the tower of shoeboxes in the corner. They were John-Paul’s. He liked to keep each financial year’s receipts in a different shoebox. It was something he’d been doing for years, before he met Cecilia. He was proud of his shoeboxes, so she managed to restrain herself from telling him that a filing cabinet would be a far more effective use of space.

  Thanks to her labelled storage containers, she found her piece of the Berlin Wall almost straightaway. She peeled off the lid of the container marked Cecilia: Travel/Souvenirs. 1985–1990 and there it was in its faded brown paper bag. Her little piece of history. She took out the piece of rock (cement?) and held it in her palm. It was even smaller than she remembered. It didn’t look especially impressive, but hopefully it would be enough for the reward of one of Esther’s rare, lopsided little smiles. You had to work hard for a smile from Esther.

  Then Cecilia let herself get distracted (yes, she achieved a lot every day but she wasn’t a machine, she did sometimes fritter away a little time) looking through the box, and laughing at the photo of herself with the German boy who did the ice-cube thing. He, like her piece of the Berlin Wall, wasn’t quite as impressive as she remembered. Then the house phone rang, startling her out of the past, and she stood up too fast and banged the side of her head painfully against the ceiling. The walls, the walls! She swore, reeled back and her elbow knocked against John-Paul’s tower of shoeboxes.

  At least three lost their lids and their contents, causing a mini-landslide of paperwork. This was precisely why the shoeboxes were not such a good idea.

  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 whit
e 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 Fitzpatrick 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