Husbands secret, p.14
Husband's Secret, p.14Liane Moriarty
The alarm clock wrenched Cecilia cruelly, instantly awake at six-thirty am. She was lying on her side, facing John-Paul, and their eyes opened simultaneously. They were so close their noses were almost touching.
She looked at the delicate scribbles of red veins in the whites of John-Paul’s blue eyes, the pores on his nose, the grey stubble on his strong, firm, honest chin.
Who was this man?
Last night they had got back into bed and lay together in the darkness, staring blindly at the ceiling while John-Paul talked. How he’d talked. There had been no need to probe for information. She didn’t ask a single question. He wanted to talk, to tell her everything. His voice was low and fervent, without modulation, almost monotonous, except there was nothing monotonous about what he was telling her. The more he talked, the hoarser his voice got. It was like a nightmare, lying in the dark, listening to that raspy whisper of his, going on and on and on. She had to bite her lip to stop herself from screaming, Shut up, shut up, shut up!
He’d been in love with Janie Crowley. Crazy in love. Obsessed even. The way you think you’re in love when you’re a teenager. He met her one day at Hornsby McDonald’s when they were both filling in applications for part-time work. Janie recognised him from when they’d been at primary school together, before he’d gone off to his exclusive boys school. They’d been in the same year at St Angela’s, but in different classes. He didn’t actually remember her at all, although he sort of knew the Crowley name. Neither of them ended up working at the McDonald’s. Janie got a job at the dry-cleaners and John-Paul got a job at the milk bar, but they had this amazing intense conversation about God knows what, and she gave him her phone number, and he rang her the next day.
He thought she was his girlfriend. He thought he was going to lose his virginity to her. It all had to be really secretive because Janie’s dad was one of those crazy Catholic dads and he said she couldn’t even have a boyfriend until she was eighteen. Their relationship, such as it was, had to be completely secret. That only made it more exciting. It was like they were secret agents. If he rang her house and anyone but Janie answered, the rule was that he had to hang up. They never held hands in public. None of their friends knew. Janie insisted on this. They went to the movies once and held hands in the dark. They kissed on a train in an empty carriage. They sat in the rotunda at Wattle Valley Park and smoked cigarettes and talked about how they wanted to go to Europe before uni. And that was it, really. Except that he thought about her day and night. He wrote her poetry he was too embarrassed to give her.
He never wrote me poetry, thought Cecilia irrelevantly.
That night Janie asked him to meet her in Wattle Valley Park where they’d met often before. It was always deserted and there was the rotunda where they could sit and kiss. She said she had something to tell him. He thought she was going to tell him that she’d gone to the family planning centre and got the pill, they’d talked about that, but instead she said that she was sorry but she was in love with another boy. John-Paul was stunned. Bewildered. He didn’t know there was another boy in the running! He said, ‘But I thought you were my girlfriend!’ And she laughed. She seemed so happy, John-Paul said, so happy that she wasn’t his girlfriend, and he was just crushed, and humiliated, and filled with this incredible rage. It was his pride more than anything. He felt like a fool, and for that he wanted to kill her.
John-Paul seemed desperate for Cecilia to know this. He said he didn’t want to justify it, or mitigate it, or pretend it was an accident – because for a few seconds he absolutely felt the desire to kill.
He didn’t remember making the decision to put his hands around her neck. But he remembered the moment when he suddenly became aware of the slender girlish neck between his hands and realised it wasn’t one of his brothers he had in a chokehold. He was hurting a girl. He remembered thinking, What the fuck am I doing? and he dropped his hands so fast, and he actually felt relieved, because he was so sure he’d caught himself in time, that he hadn’t killed her. Except that she was limp in his arms, her eyes staring over his shoulder, and he thought, no, this couldn’t be possible. He thought it had only been a second, maybe two seconds of crazy rage; definitely not long enough to kill her.
He couldn’t believe it. Even now. After all these years. He was still shocked and horrified by what he’d done.
She was still warm, but he knew, without a shadow of doubt, that she was dead.
Although later he wondered if he could have been wrong. Why hadn’t he even tried to revive her? He must have asked himself that question a million times. But at the time he had felt so sure. She was gone. She felt gone.
So he laid her carefully at the bottom of the slide, and he remembered thinking that the night was getting cold, so he put her school blazer over the top of her, and he had his mum’s rosary beads in his pocket, because he’d done an exam that day and he always took them for luck. So he placed them carefully in Janie’s hands. It was his way of saying sorry, to Janie and to God. And then he ran. He ran and ran until he couldn’t breathe.
He thought for sure he would be caught. He kept waiting for the heavy weight of a policeman’s hand to drop on his shoulder.
But he was never even questioned. He and Janie weren’t at the same school, or in the same youth group. Neither their parents nor friends had known about them. It seemed that nobody had ever seen them together. It was like it had never happened.
He said that if the police had ever questioned him he would have confessed immediately. He said that if someone else had been accused of the murder, he would have given himself up. He wouldn’t have let anyone else take the fall for it. He wasn’t that evil.
It was just that nobody asked the question so he never gave the answer.
During the nineties he started hearing news reports about crimes being solved through DNA evidence, and he wondered if he’d left a miniscule vestige of himself behind: a single hair, for example. But even if he had, they’d been together for such a short time and they’d played their undercover game so effectively. He would never be asked to give a DNA sample because nobody knew he had known Janie. He could almost convince himself that he hadn’t known her, that it had never happened.
And then the years had just gone by, layers and layers of years piled on top of the memory of what he’d done. Sometimes, he whispered, he could go for months feeling relatively normal, and then other times he could think of nothing else except what he’d done and he was sure he’d go crazy.
‘It’s like a monster trapped in my mind,’ he rasped. ‘And sometimes it gets free and goes rampaging about, and then I get it under control again. I chain it up. You know what I mean?’
No, thought Cecilia. No, actually, I don’t.
‘And then I met you,’ said John-Paul. ‘And I sensed something about you. A deep-down goodness. I fell in love with your goodness. It was like looking at a beautiful lake. It was like you were somehow purifying me.’
Cecilia was appalled. I’m not good, she thought. I smoked marijuana once! We used to get drunk together! I thought you fell in love with my figure, my sparkling company, my sense of humour, not my goodness, for God’s sake!
He kept talking, seemingly desperate for her to know every tiny detail.
When Isabel was born and he became a parent he suddenly had a new and terrible understanding of exactly what he’d done to Rachel and Ed Crowley.
‘When we were living on Bell Avenue, I used to drive by Janie’s father walking his dog on my way to work,’ he said. ‘And his face . . . it looked . . . I don’t know how to describe it. Like he was in such terrible physical pain that he should have been rolling about on the floor, except he wasn’t, he was walking the dog. And I’d think, I did that to him. I’m responsible for that pain. I tried to leave the house at different times, or drive different ways, but I kept seeing him.’
They’d lived in the house on Bell Avenue when Isabel was a baby. Cecilia’s memories of Bell Avenue
‘I’d see Ed Crowley and I’d think, That’s it, I’ve got to confess,’ he said. ‘But then I’d think about you and the baby. How could I do that to you? How could I tell you? How could I leave you to bring up a baby on your own? I thought about us leaving Sydney. But I knew you wouldn’t want to leave your parents, and anyway it felt wrong. It felt like running away. I had to stay here where at any moment I could run into Janie’s parents and know what I’d done. I had to suffer. So that’s when I had an idea. I had to find new ways to punish myself, to suffer without making anyone else suffer. I had to do penance.’
If anything gave him too much pleasure – pleasure that was solely for him – then he gave it up. That was why he gave up rowing. He loved it, so he had to stop because Janie never got to row. He sold his beloved Alfa Romeo because Janie never got to drive a car.
He devoted himself to the community, as if a judge had ordered him to do so many hours of community service.
Cecilia had thought he was ‘community-minded’. She’d thought that was something they had in common, when in fact the John-Paul she thought she knew didn’t even exist. He was a fabrication. His whole life was an act: an act for God’s benefit, to let him off the hook.
He said the community service thing was tricky, because what about when he enjoyed it? For example, he loved being a volunteer bushfire fighter – the camaraderie, the jokes, the adrenaline – so did his enjoyment outweigh his contribution to the community? He was always calculating, wondering what else God would expect of him, how much more he would have to pay. Of course he knew that none of it was enough, and that he would probably go to hell when he died. He’s serious, thought Cecilia. He really believes he’s going to hell, as if hell is an actual physical place, not an abstract idea. He was referring to God in a chillingly familiar way. They weren’t that type of Catholics. They were Catholics, sure, they went to church, but heavens above, they weren’t religious. God didn’t come into their day-to-day conversation.
Except, of course, this wasn’t a day-to-day conversation.
He kept talking. It was endless. Cecilia thought of that urban myth about an exotic worm that lived in your body, and the only cure was to starve yourself and then place a hot dinner in front of your mouth, and wait for the worm to smell the food and slowly uncoil itself, sliding its way up your throat. John-Paul’s voice was like that worm: an endless length of horror slipping from his mouth.
He told her that as the girls grew older his guilt and regret were becoming almost unendurable. The nightmares, the migraines, the bouts of depression that he tried so hard to hide from her were all because of what he’d done.
‘Earlier this year Isabel started to remind me of Janie,’ said John-Paul. ‘Something about the way she was wearing her hair. I kept staring at her. It was terrible. I kept imagining someone hurting Isabel, the way I . . . the way I hurt Janie. An innocent little girl. I felt like I had to put myself through the grief that I put her parents through. I had to imagine her dead. I’ve been crying. In the shower. In the car. Sobbing.’
‘Esther saw you crying before you went to Chicago,’ said Cecilia. ‘In the shower.’
‘Did she?’ John-Paul blinked.
For a moment there was beautiful silence as he digested this.
Okay, thought Cecilia, we’re done. He’s stopped talking. Thank God. She felt a physical and mental exhaustion she hadn’t experienced since she’d been through labour.
‘I gave up sex,’ said John-Paul.
For God’s sake.
He wanted her to know that last November he was trying to think of new ways to punish himself and he decided to give up sex for six months. He was ashamed that he’d never thought of it before. It was one of the great pleasures of his life. It had nearly killed him. He’d been worried she might think he was having an affair, because obviously he couldn’t tell her the real reason.
‘Oh, John-Paul,’ Cecilia sighed into the darkness.
This perpetual quest for redemption he’d been undertaking for all these years seemed so silly, so childish, so utterly pointless and so typically unsystematic.
‘I invited Rachel Crowley to Polly’s pirate party,’ said Cecilia remembering, marvelling at the idiotically innocent person she’d been just a few hours earlier. ‘I drove her home tonight. I talked to her about Janie. I thought I was so great –’
Her voice broke.
She heard John-Paul take a deep shuddery breath.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he said. ‘I know I keep saying it. I know it’s useless.’
‘It’s all right,’ she said, and nearly laughed, because it was such a lie.
That was the last thing she remembered before the two of them must have suddenly fallen into a deep, drugged-like sleep.
‘Are you okay?’ said John-Paul now. ‘Do you feel all right?’
She smelled his stale morning breath. Her own mouth felt dry. Her head ached. She felt hungover, seedy and ashamed, as if the two of them had engaged in some disgusting debauchery the previous night.
She pressed two fingertips to her forehead and closed her eyes, unable to look at him any longer. Her neck ached. She must have slept at a funny angle.
‘Do you think you still –’ He stopped himself and cleared his throat convulsively. He finally spoke in a whisper. ‘Can you still be with me?’
She looked into his eyes and saw pure, primal terror.
Did one act define who you were forever? Did one evil act as a teenager counteract twenty years of marriage, of good marriage, twenty years of being a good husband and a good father? Murder and you are a murderer. That was how it worked for other people. For strangers. For people you read about in the newspaper. Cecilia was sure about that, but did different rules apply to John-Paul? And if so, why?
There was a rapid pitter-patter of footsteps down the hallway and suddenly a small warm body catapulted itself onto their bed.
‘G’morning Mum,’ said Polly as she breezily wriggled herself between them. She shoved her head onto Cecilia’s pillow. Strands of her blue-black hair tickled Cecilia’s nose. ‘Hello Daddy.’
Cecilia looked at her youngest daughter as if she’d never seen her before: her flawless skin, the long sweep of her eyelashes and the brilliant blue of her eyes. Everything about her was exquisite and pure.
Cecilia’s eyes met John-Paul’s with perfect, bloodshot understanding. This was why.
‘Hello, Polly,’ they said together.
Liam said something Tess couldn’t hear, dropped her hand and stopped right at the entrance to St Angela’s. The flood of parents and children changed course to cope with the sudden obstacle in their path, streaming around them. Tess bent down next to him and someone’s elbow banged against the back of her head.
‘What is it?’ she said, rubbing her head. She felt twitchy, nervy and overstimulated. School drop-off was just as bad here as in Melbourne: a very particular version of hell for someone like her. People, people everywhere.
‘I want to go back home,’ Liam spoke to the ground. ‘I want Daddy.’
‘What’s that?’ said Tess, although she’d heard. She tried to take him by the hand. ‘Let’s get out of everybody’s way first.’
She knew this had been coming. It had all been suspiciously, oddly easy. Liam had seemed strangely sanguine about this abrupt, unplanned change of schools. ‘He’s so adaptable,’ Tess’s mother had marvelled, but Tess had thought it had more to do with the problems he’d been experiencing at his old school than actual enthusiasm about starting a new one.
Liam dragged on her arm, so she had to bend back down again.
Tess’s heart stopped.
Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Had she really thought she could put this over Liam? He’d always surprised her with how well he observed what was going on around him.
‘Grandma can come and stay with us in Melbourne,’ said Liam. ‘We can look after her there until her ankle gets better.’
Funny. That had never actually occurred to Tess. It was as if she thought her life in Melbourne and her mother’s life in Sydney took place on different planets.
‘They have wheelchairs at the airport,’ said Liam solemnly, just as the edge of a little girl’s backpack swung against his face and caught the corner of his eye. His face crumpled and tears spilled from his beautiful golden eyes.
‘Honey,’ she said helplessly, on the edge of tears herself. ‘Look. You don’t have to go to school at all. This was a crazy idea –’
‘Well good morning, Liam. I was wondering if you were here yet!’ It was that dotty school principal. She crouched down on her haunches next to Liam as easily as a child. She must do yoga, thought Tess. A boy about the same age as Liam walked by and gave her a loving pat on her grey, frizzy-haired head, as if she was the school dog, not the school principal. ‘Hello, Miss Applebee!’
‘Good morning, Harrison!’ Trudy lifted a hand and her shawl slid off her shoulders.
‘I’m sorry. We’re creating a traffic jam here –’ began Tess, but Trudy just smiled slightly in her direction, readjusted her shawl with one hand and returned her attention to Liam.
‘Do you know what your teacher, Mrs Jeffers, and I did yesterday afternoon?’
Liam shrugged and roughly brushed away his tears.
‘We turned your classroom into another planet.’ Her eyes sparkled. ‘Our Easter egg hunt is in outer space.’
Liam sniffed and looked extremely cynical. ‘How?’ he said. ‘How’d you do that?’
‘Come and see.’ Trudy stood up and took Liam’s hand. ‘Say bye to your mum. You can tell her how many eggs you found in space this afternoon.’
Tess kissed the top of his head. ‘Okay, well. Have a wonderful day, and don’t forget I’ll –’
‘There’s a spaceship of course. Guess who gets to fly it?’ said Trudy, leading him away, and Tess saw Liam glance up at the school principal, his face suddenly bright with cautious hope, before he was swallowed up in a crowd of blue and white checked uniforms.
Tess turned and headed back out onto the street. She felt that strangely untethered feeling she always felt when she left Liam in someone else’s care, as if gravity had disappeared. What would she do with herself now? And what was she going to say to him after school today? She couldn’t lie and tell him that there was nothing going on, but she couldn’t tell him the truth, could she? Daddy and Felicity are in love. Daddy is meant to love me best. So I’m feeling angry with them. I’m feeling very hurt.
Supposedly the truth was always the best option.
She’d rushed into this. She’d pretended to herself that she was doing everything for Liam. She’d yanked her child from his home and his school and his life because in actual fact that was what she wanted to do. She wanted to be as far away from Will and Felicity as possible, and now Liam’s happiness was dependent on a peculiar frizzy-haired woman called Trudy Applebee.
Maybe she should homeschool him, until all this was sorted out. She could handle most of it. English, geography. It could be fun! But maths. That was her downfall. Felicity had got Tess through maths when they were at school, and now she was in charge of helping Liam with his maths. Felicity had said just the other day that she was quite looking forward to rediscovering the quadratic equation when Liam was in high school, and Tess and Will had looked at each other, shuddered and laughed. Felicity and Will had behaved so normally! All that time. Hugging their little secret to themselves.
She was walking along the street outside the school, back towards her mother’s house, when she heard a voice behind her.
‘Good morning, Tess.’
It was Cecilia Fitzpatrick suddenly walking alongside her in the same direction, chunky car keys jangling from one hand. There was something odd about the way she was walking, as if she had a limp.
Tess took a deep, bracing breath. ‘Morning!’ she said.
‘Just dropped Liam off for his first day, did you?’ said Cecilia. She was wearing sunglasses so Tess was spared the scary eye contact. She sounded as if she was coming down with a cold. ‘Was he okay? Always a bit tricky.’
‘Oh, well, not really, but Trudy . . .’ Tess stopped, distracted, because she’d just noticed Cecilia’s shoes. They weren’t matching. One was a black ballet shoe. The other was a gold sandal with a heel. No wonder she was walking funny. She looked away and remembered to keep talking. ‘But Trudy was wonderful with him.’
‘Oh, yes, Trudy is one in a million, that’s for sure,’ said Cecilia. ‘Anyway, this is my car here.’ She indicated a very shiny white four-wheel drive with the Tupperware logo along the side. ‘We forgot Polly had sport today. I never . . . anyway, we forgot, so I’ve got to drive home and get her shoes. Polly is in love with the PE teacher, so I’ll be in terrible trouble if I’m late.’
‘Connor,’ said Tess. ‘Connor Whitby. He’s her PE teacher.’ She thought of him last night at the service station, his helmet under one arm.
‘Yes, that’s right. All the little girls are in love with him. Actually, half the mothers are too.’
‘Really.’ Slosh, slosh went that waterbed.
‘Good morning, Tess. Hi there, Cecilia.’ It was Rachel Crowley, the school secretary, walking from the other direction, wearing a pair of white running shoes with her businesslike skirt and silk shirt. Tess wondered if anyone ever looked at Rachel without thinking about Janie Crowley and what had happened to her in that park. It was impossible to think that Rachel had once been an ordinary woman, that no one could have sensed the tragedy that was waiting for her.
Rachel stopped in front of them. More conversation. It was endless. She looked tired and pale, her white hair not quite as beautifully blow-dried as it had been when Tess had met her yesterday. ‘Thanks again for the lift home last night,’ she said to Cecilia. She smiled at Tess. ‘I was at one of Cecilia’s Tupperware parties last night and had too much to drink. That’s why I’m on foot today.’ She gestured at her shoes. ‘Shameful, isn’t it.’
There was an awkward silence. Tess had confidently expected Cecilia to speak next, but she seemed distracted by something off in the distance and was strangely, almost bizarrely silent.
‘Sounds like you had a fun night,’ said Tess finally. Her voice sounded too loud and hearty. Why couldn’t she just speak like a normal person?
‘It was actually.’ Rachel frowned slightly at Cecilia, who still hadn’t said
Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.2 out of 5 / Based on83 votes