Husbands secret, p.12
Husband's Secret, p.12Liane Moriarty
The only part of Tess’s bedroom that had remained untouched was the ceiling. She let her eyes follow the rippled edge of the white cornices. She used to lie in bed staring at the ceiling on a Sunday morning, worrying about what she’d said at last night’s party, or what she hadn’t said, or what she should have said. Parties had terrified her. Parties still terrified her. It was the lack of structure, the casualness, the not knowing where to sit. If it wasn’t for Felicity she would never have gone, but Felicity was always keen to go. She’d stand with Tess in a corner, quietly delivering cutting critiques on all the guests and making Tess laugh.
Felicity had been her saviour.
Wasn’t that true?
Tonight, when she and her mother had sat down for a glass of brandy and too much chocolate (‘This is how I coped when your father left,’ Lucy explained. ‘It’s medicinal.’), they’d been talking about Felicity’s phone call, and Tess said, ‘The other night, you guessed that it was Will and Felicity. How did you know?’
‘Felicity never let you have anything just for yourself,’ said her mother.
‘What?’ Tess felt bemused, disbelieving. ‘That’s not true.’
‘You wanted to learn the piano. Felicity learned the piano. You played netball. Felicity played netball. You got too good at netball, so Felicity was left behind; next thing, you’ve suddenly lost interest in netball. You get a career in advertising. What a surprise! Felicity gets a career in advertising.’
‘Oh, Mum,’ said Tess. ‘I don’t know. You make it sound so calculated. We just liked doing the same things. Anyway, Felicity is a graphic designer! I was an advertising manager. They’re quite different.’
But not to her mother, who pursed her lips as if she knew better, before draining the rest of her brandy. ‘Look, I’m not saying she did it deliberately. But she suffocated you! When you were born, I remember thanking God that you weren’t a twin, that you’d be able to live your life on your own terms, without all that comparing and competing. And then, somehow, you and Felicity end up just like Mary and me, like twins! Worse than twins! I wondered what sort of person you might have become if you hadn’t had her breathing down your neck all the time, what friends you might have made –’
‘Friends? I wouldn’t have made any other friends! I was too shy! I was so shy I was practically disabled. I’m still sort of socially weird.’ She had stopped short of telling her mother about her self-diagnosis.
‘Felicity kept you shy,’ her mother had said. ‘It suited her. You weren’t really that shy.’
Now Tess wriggled her neck against her pillow. It was too hard; she missed her own pillow at home in Melbourne. Was what her mother said true? Had she spent most of her life in a dysfunctional relationship with her cousin?
She thought of that awful, strange hot summer when her parents’ marriage ended. It was like remembering a long illness. She’d had no inkling. Sure, her parents aggravated each other. They were so different. But they were her mum and dad. Everyone she knew had a mum and a dad who lived in the same house. Her circle of friends and family was too small and suburban and Catholic. She knew the word ‘divorce’ but it was like the word ‘earthquake’. It wasn’t something that would ever happen to her. But five minutes after her parents made their strange, stilted little announcement, her father packed his clothes into the suitcase they took on holidays, and went to stay in a musty-smelling furnished flat full of spindly, old-lady furniture, and her mother wore the same old shapeless dress for eight days in a row and walked about the house laughing, crying and muttering, ‘Good riddance, mate.’ Tess was ten. It was Felicity who got Tess through that summer, who took her to the local pool and lay side by side with her on the concrete in the burning sun (and Felicity, with her beautiful white skin, hated sunbaking) for as long as Tess wanted, who spent her own money on a Greatest Hits record just to make Tess feel better, who brought her bowls of ice cream with chocolate topping each time she sat on the couch and cried.
It was Felicity Tess called when she lost her virginity, when she lost her first job, when she was dumped for the first time, when Will said ‘I love you’, when she and Will had their first proper fight, when he proposed, when her waters broke, when Liam took his first steps.
They’d shared everything throughout their lives. Toys. Bikes. Their first doll’s house. (It stayed at their grandmother’s house.) Their first car. Their first apartments. Their first overseas holiday. Tess’s husband.
She’d let Felicity share Will. Of course she had. She’d let Felicity be like a mother to Liam, and she’d let Felicity be like a wife to Will. She’d shared her whole life with her. Because Felicity was obviously too fat to find her own husband and her own life. Was that what Tess had been subconsciously thinking? Or because she thought Felicity was too fat to even need her own life?
And then Felicity got greedy. She wanted all of Will.
If it had been any other woman but Felicity, Tess would never had said, ‘Have your affair and give my husband back.’ It wouldn’t have been conceivable. But because it was Felicity it was . . . okay? Forgivable? Is that what she meant? She’d share a toothbrush with Felicity, so she’d also let her use her husband? But at the same time, it also made the betrayal worse. A million times worse.
She rolled onto her stomach and pressed her face into the pillow. Her feelings about Felicity were irrelevant. She needed to think about Liam. (‘What about me?’ her ten-year-old self had kept thinking when her parents split up. ‘Don’t I get a say in this?’ She’d thought she was the centre of their world, and then she’d discovered she had no vote. No control.)
There was no such thing as a good divorce for children. She’d read that somewhere, just a few weeks ago, before all this. Even when the split was perfectly amicable, even when both parents made a huge effort, the children suffered.
Worse than twins, her mother had said. Maybe she was right.
Tess threw back the covers and got out of bed. She needed to go somewhere; to get out of this house and away from her thoughts. Will. Felicity. Liam. Will. Felicity. Liam.
She would get in her mother’s car and drive. She looked down at her striped pyjama pants and T-shirt. Should she get dressed? She had nothing to wear anyway. She hadn’t brought enough clothes with her. It didn’t matter. She wouldn’t get out of the car. She put on a pair of flat shoes and crept out of the room and down the hallway, her eyes adjusting to the dark. The house was silent. She switched on a lamp in the dining room and left a note for her mother just in case she woke.
She grabbed her wallet, took her mother’s car keys from the hook beside the door and crept out into the soft, sweet night air, breathing in deeply.
She drove her mother’s Honda along the Pacific Highway with the windows open and the radio turned off. Sydney’s North Shore was quiet, deserted. A man carrying a briefcase, who must have caught the train home after working late, hurried along the footpath.
A woman probably wouldn’t walk home alone from the station at this time of night. Tess thought about how Will had once told her that he hated walking behind a woman late at night in case she heard his footsteps and thought he was an axe murderer. ‘I always want to call out, “It’s all right! I’m not an axe murderer!”’ he’d said. ‘I’d run for my life if someone called that out to me,’ Tess had told him. ‘See, we can’t win,’ he’d said.
Whenever something bad happened on the North Shore, the newspapers described it as ‘Sydney’s leafy North Shore’ so it would sound extra heinous.
Tess stopped at a traffic light, glanced down and saw the red warning light on the petrol gauge.
‘Dammit,’ she said.
There was a brightly lit all-night service station on the next corner. She’d stop there. She pulled in and got out. It was deserted, except for a man on a motorbike on the other side of the forecourt, readjusting his helmet after filling up.
She opened the petrol tank and lifted the nozzle from its slot.
‘Hello,’ said a man’
She jumped, and spun around. The man had wheeled his motorbike over, so he was on the other side of her car. He lifted his helmet. The petrol station’s bright lights were shining in her eyes, blurring her vision. She couldn’t distinguish his features, just a creepy white blob of a face.
Her eyes went to the empty counter inside the service station. Where was the damned attendant? Tess put her arm protectively across her braless chest. She thought of an episode of Oprah she’d seen with Felicity where a policeman advised women what to do if they were ever accosted. You had to be extremely aggressive and shout something like, ‘No! Go away! I don’t want trouble! Go! Go!’ For a while she and Felicity had taken great pleasure in yelling it at Will whenever he walked into a room.
Tess cleared her throat and clenched her fists as if she was doing one of her Body Combat classes. It would be so much easier to be aggressive if she was wearing a bra.
‘Tess,’ said the man. ‘It’s just me. Connor. Connor Whitby.’
Rachel woke from a dream that dissolved before she could catch it. All she could remember was panic. Something to do with water. Janie when she was a little girl. Or was it Jacob?
She sat up in bed and looked at the clock. It was one-thirty am. The house smelled of sickly vanilla.
Her mouth felt dry from the alcohol she’d drunk at the Tupperware party. It seemed like years had passed since then, not hours. She got out of bed. No point trying to get back to sleep now. She would be up until the grey light of dawn crept through the house.
Moments later she had the ironing board set up and was using her remote to switch channels on the TV. There was nothing worth watching.
She went instead to the cupboard under the TV where she kept all her video cassettes. Her old VCR was still set up so she could watch her old collection of movies. ‘Mum, all these movies of yours are on DVD now,’ Rob kept telling her worriedly, as if it were somehow illegal to still use a VCR. She ran her finger along the spines of the video cassettes, but she wasn’t in the mood for Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn or even Cary Grant.
She pulled cassettes out willy-nilly and came upon one with a blank spine covered in handwriting: hers, Ed’s, Janie’s and Rob’s. They’d crossed out shows as they’d recorded over each one. The children of today would probably consider this tape an ancient relic. Didn’t they just ‘download’ shows now? She went to toss the tape aside and got distracted looking at the names of the shows they used to watch in the eighties: The Sullivans, A Country Practice, Sons and Daughters. It looked like Janie had been the last one to use it. Sons and Daughters, she’d written in her scratchy, scrawly handwriting.
Funny. It was thanks to Sons and Daughters that she’d won the quiz tonight. She remembered Janie lying on the living-room floor, transfixed by the silly show, singing along to the maudlin theme song. How did it go? Rachel could almost hear the tune in her head.
On impulse, she stuck the cassette into the recorder and pressed play.
She sat back on her haunches and watched the end of a margarine ad, with that comical, dated look and sound of old TV commercials. Then Sons and Daughters began. Rachel sang along in her head, amazed to find that all the words could be retrieved from her unconscious. There was Pat the Rat, younger and more attractive than Rachel had remembered. The tortured face of the male lead appeared on the screen, frowning deeply. He was still on TV, starring in some police-rescue show. Everyone’s lives had gone on. Even the lives of the stars of Sons and Daughters. Poor Janie was the only one stuck forever in 1984.
She went to press eject when she heard Janie’s voice say, ‘Is it on?’
Rachel’s heart stopped. Her hand froze midair.
Janie’s face filled the screen, peering straight at the camera with a gleeful, cheeky expression. She was wearing green eyeliner and too much mascara. There was a small pimple on the side of her nose. Rachel thought she knew her daughter’s face by heart, but she’d forgotten things she hadn’t known she’d forgotten – like the exact reality of Janie’s teeth and Janie’s nose. There was nothing particularly amazing about Janie’s teeth and Janie’s nose, except that they were Janie’s, and there they were again. Her left eyetooth turned in just slightly. Her nose was a fraction too long. In spite of that, or maybe because of it, she was beautiful, even more beautiful than Rachel remembered.
They’d never had a home video recorder. Ed didn’t think they were worth the money. The only footage they had of Janie alive was from a friend’s wedding, where Janie had been the flower girl.
‘Janie.’ Rachel put her hand to the television screen.
‘You’re standing too close to the camera,’ said a boy’s voice.
Rachel dropped her hand.
Janie moved back. She was wearing high-waisted blue jeans, with a metallic silver belt and a long-sleeved purple top. Rachel remembered ironing that purple top. The sleeves were tricky, with a complicated arrangement of pleats.
Janie was truly beautiful, like a delicate bird, a heron perhaps, but good lord, had the child really been that thin? Her arms and legs were so spindly. Had there been something wrong with her? Did she have anorexia? How had Rachel not noticed?
Janie sat down on the edge of a single bed. She was in a room Rachel had never seen before. The bed had a striped red and blue bedspread. The walls behind were dark brown wood panelling. Janie lowered her chin and looked up at the camera with a mock serious face while she lifted a pencil to her mouth as if it were a microphone.
Rachel laughed out loud and clasped her hands together as if in prayer. She’d forgotten that too. How could she have forgotten it? Janie used to pretend to be a reporter at the oddest times. She’d come into the kitchen, pick up a carrot and say, ‘Tell me, Mrs Rachel Crowley, how was your day today? Ordinary? Extraordinary?’ And then she’d hold the carrot in front of Rachel and Rachel would lean in close to the carrot and say, ‘Ordinary.’
Of course she said ordinary. Her days were always so very ordinary.
‘Good evening, I’m Janie Crowley reporting live from Turramurra where I’m interviewing a reclusive young man by the name of Connor Whitby.’
Rachel caught her breath. She turned her head and the word ‘Ed’ caught in the back of her throat. Ed. Come. You must see this. It had been years since she’d done that.
Janie spoke into the pencil again. ‘If you could just scoot a little closer, Mr Whitby, so my viewers can see you.’
‘Connor,’ Janie imitated his tone.
A broad-chested, dark-haired boy wearing a yellow and blue striped rugby shirt and shorts slid over on the bed until he was sitting next to Janie. He glanced at the camera and looked away again, uncomfortably, as if he could see Janie’s mother thirty years in the future, watching them.
Connor had the body of a man and the face of a boy. Rachel could see a smattering of pimples across his forehead. He had that starved, frightened, sullen look you saw on so many teenager boys. It was as if they needed to both punch a wall and be cuddled. The Connor of thirty years ago didn’t inhabit his body in the comfortable way he did now. He didn’t know what to do with his limbs. He flung his legs out in front of him and tapped one open palm softly against his closed fist.
Rachel could hear herself breathing raggedy gasps. She wanted to lunge into the television and drag Janie away. What was she doing there? She must be in Connor’s bedroom. She was not allowed to be on her own in a boy’s bedroom. Ed would have a fit.
Janie Crowley, young lady, you come back home this minute.
‘Why do you need me actually in it?’ asked Connor, his eyes returning to the camera. ‘Can’t I just sit off camera?’
‘You can’t have your interview subject off camera,’ said Janie. ‘I might need this tape for when I apply for a job as a reporter on 60 Minutes.’ She smiled at Connor and he smiled back: an involuntary, smitten smile.
Smitten was the right word. The boy was smitten with her daughter. ‘We
‘So Connor, tell me about yourself.’ Janie held out the pencil.
‘What do you want to know?’
‘Well, for example, do you have a girlfriend?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Connor. He looked keenly at Janie and suddenly seemed more grown-up. He leaned forward and spoke into the pencil. ‘Do I have a girlfriend?’
‘That would depend.’ Janie twisted her ponytail around her finger. ‘What do you have to offer? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? I mean, you need to sell yourself a bit, don’t you know.’
She sounded silly now, strident and whiny even. Rachel winced. Oh, Janie, darling, stop it! Speak nicely. You can’t talk to him like that. It was only in the movies that teenagers flirted with beautiful sensuality. In real life it was excruciating to watch them flailing about.
‘Jeez, Janie, if you still can’t give me a straight answer, I mean – fuck!’
Connor stood up from the bed and Janie gave a disdainful little laugh, while at the same time her face crumpled like a child’s, but Connor only heard the laugh. He walked straight towards the camera. His hand reached out so that it filled the screen.
Rachel held out her hand to stop him. No, don’t turn it off. Don’t take her away from me.
The screen instantly filled with static, and Rachel’s head jerked back as if she’d been slapped.
She was filled with adrenaline, exhilarated with hatred. Why, this was evidence! New evidence after all these years!
‘Call me any time, Mrs Crowley, if you think of anything. I don’t care if it’s the middle of the night,’ Sergeant Bellach had said that so many times it had got boring.
She never had before. Now at least she had something for him. They would get him. She could sit in a courtroom and watch a judge pronounce Connor Whitby guilty.
As her fingers jabbed at Sergeant Bellach’s numbers, she bounced up and down impatiently on the balls of her feet, while the image of Janie’s crumpled face filled her head.
‘Connor,’ said Tess. ‘I’m just getting some petrol.’
‘You’re kidding,’ said Connor.
Tess took a moment to get it. ‘You gave me a fright,’ she said with a touch of petulance because she was embarrassed. ‘I thought you were an axe murderer.’
She picked up the nozzle. Connor kept standing there, without moving, his helmet tucked under one arm, looking at her as if he expected something. Okay, well, that was enough chitchat, wasn’t it? On your bike. Off you go. Tess preferred people from her past to stay in the past. Ex-boyfriends, old school friends, past colleagues – really, what was the point of them? Lives moved on. Tess quite enjoyed reminiscing about people she once knew, not with them. She pulled on the petrol lever, smiling warily at him, trying to remember exactly how their relationship had ended. Was it when she and Felicity moved to Melbourne? He was a boyfriend in between lots of other boyfriends. She usually broke up with them before they broke up with her. Normally after Felicity had made fun of them. There was always a new boy to take their place. She thought it was because she was the right level of attractiveness: not too intimidating. She said yes to whoever asked her out. It wouldn’t have occurred to her to say no.
She remembered that Connor had always been keener than she was – he was too old and serious, she’d thought. It was her first year at uni; she was only nineteen, and she’d been somewhat bemused by the intense interest this older, quiet man was showing her.
She may well have treated him quite badly. She’d been lacking in so much confidence when she was a teenager, worrying all the time about what people thought of her, and how they might hurt her, without even considering the impact she might have on their feelings.
‘I’ve been thinking about you actually,’ said Connor. ‘After I saw you at the school this morning. I was even wondering if you’d like to, ah, catch up? For a coffee, maybe?’
‘Oh!’ said Tess. A coffee with Connor Whitby. It just seemed so preposterously irrelevant, like those times that Liam suggested they do a jigsaw puzzle just when Tess was smack bang in the middle of some computer or plumbing crisis. Her whole life had just imploded! She wasn’t going to go for a coffee with this sweet but essentially dull ex-boyfriend from her teens.
Didn’t he know she was married? She twisted her hands on the petrol pump so that her wedding ring was in full view. She still felt extremely married.
Apparently moving back home was just like joining Facebook, when middle-aged ex-boyfriends came crawling out of the woodwork like cockroaches, suggesting ‘drinks’, putting out their little feelers for potential affairs. Was Connor married? She glanced over at his hands, trying to see a ring.
‘I didn’t mean a date if that’s what you’re thinking,’ said Connor.
‘I wasn’t thinking that.’
‘I know you’re married, don’t worry. I don’t know if you remember my sister’s son, Benjamin? Anyway, he’s just finished uni and he wants to go into advertising. That’s your field, isn’t it? I was actually thinking of exploiting you for your professional expertise.’ He chewed on the side of his cheek. ‘Maybe exploiting is the wrong choice of word.’
‘Benjamin has just finished uni?’ Tess was bewildered. ‘But he couldn’t have – he was only in preschool!’
Memories flooded back. A minute ago she wouldn’t have been able to name Connor’s nephew, or even remember that he had one. Now she could suddenly see the exact pale green colour of the walls of Benjamin’s bedroom.
‘He was a preschooler sixteen years ago,’ said Connor. ‘Now he’s six foot three and very hairy, with a tattoo of a barcode on his neck. I’m not kidding. A barcode.’
‘We took him to the zoo,’ marvelled Tess.
‘We may well have.’
‘Your sister was sound asleep.’ Tess remembered a dark-haired woman curled up on a sofa. ‘She was sick.’ Hadn’t she been a single mother? Not that Tess had appreciated that at the time. She should have offered to go out and buy groceries. ‘How is your sister?’
Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.2 out of 5 / Based on83 votes