Husbands secret, p.16
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       Husband's Secret, p.16

           Liane Moriarty
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  this wall, at least we’re alive. At least our children are alive. Death is too high a price for freedom.”’

  What was the price for John-Paul’s freedom? Rachel Crowley? Was she the price? Her peace of mind? The peace of mind she would have in at last knowing what had happened to her daughter, and why, and that the person responsible was being punished? Cecilia still felt rage at a preschool teacher who had once made Isabel cry. Isabel didn’t even remember it, for heaven’s sake. So how must Rachel feel? Cecilia’s stomach churned. She put her tea back down.

  ‘You’ve gone completely white,’ said Tess.

  ‘I guess I’ve got a virus,’ said Cecilia. My husband has given me a virus. A really nasty virus. Ha! To her horror she actually laughed out loud. ‘Or something. I’ve got something, that’s for sure.’

  chapter twenty-five

  As Tess drove Cecilia’s car up to the school to drop off Polly’s sports shoes, it occurred to her that if Polly was doing sport today, then Liam would be doing sport too, because weren’t they in the same class? And of course he wasn’t wearing sports shoes. Nobody had told Tess it was PE day. Or perhaps they had but she hadn’t registered it. She wondered if she should stop at her mother’s house and pick up Liam’s runners. She wavered. Nobody ever told you that being a mother was all about making what seemed like thousands of tiny decisions. Tess had always considered herself quite a decisive person before she’d had Liam.

  Well, it was past ten o’clock. She’d better not risk getting Polly’s shoes there late. It seemed to matter so much, and Tess didn’t want to let Cecilia down. The poor woman really did seem very sick.

  Cecilia had said to take the shoes either to Polly’s classroom or straight to the PE teacher. ‘You’ll probably see Connor Whitby on the oval,’ she’d said. ‘That might be easiest.’

  ‘I know Connor,’ Tess had surprised herself by saying. ‘I actually went out with him for a while. Years ago. Ancient history now of course.’ She cringed, remembering the ‘ancient history’ part. Why had she said that? So pointless and nerdy.

  Cecilia had seemed quite impressed. ‘Well, he’s currently St Angela’s most eligible bachelor. I won’t tell Polly that you once dated him, or else she’ll have to kill you.’

  But then she’d given another one of those disconcerting, high-pitched giggles and said she was very sorry but she had to go and lie down right that very second.

  When Tess found him, Connor was in the process of carefully placing basketballs in the centre of each coloured segment of a giant, multicoloured parachute laid out on the oval. He was wearing a very white T-shirt and black tracksuit pants, and looked less intimidating than last night at the petrol station. The sunlight showed up the deep lines around his eyes.

  ‘Hello again,’ he smiled as she handed over the shoes. ‘For Liam I assume.’

  You kissed me for the first time on a beach, thought Tess.

  ‘No, these are for Polly Fitzpatrick. Cecilia is sick and I offered to bring them up for her. Liam doesn’t have any of his sports gear actually. You won’t put him on detention, will you?’

  There it was again. That mildly flirtatious sound in her voice. Why was she flirting with him? Because she’d just remembered their first kiss? Because Felicity had never liked him? Because her marriage had fallen apart and she needed urgent proof that she was still attractive? Because she was angry? Because she was sad? Because why the hell not?

  ‘I’ll go gentle on him.’ Connor carefully placed Polly’s little shoes off to the side of the parachute. ‘Does Liam like sport?’

  ‘He likes running,’ said Tess. ‘Running for no reason at all.’

  She thought of Will. He was an obsessive AFL fan and when Liam was a baby he’d talked so excitedly about how he’d take him along to matches, but so far Liam had zero interest in Will’s passion. Tess knew he must be bitterly disappointed, but he’d laughed it off, made the joke on him. Once they’d been watching a match together on TV and Tess had heard Liam say, ‘Let’s go outside and run, Dad!’ Will, who didn’t really enjoy running at all, had sighed with comic resignation, and next thing the TV was off and they were running in circles around the backyard.

  She would not let Felicity ruin that relationship. She would not have Liam one day making awkward conversation with a father who didn’t really know him.

  ‘Is he okay about starting at a new school?’ asked Connor.

  ‘I thought he was,’ said Tess. She fiddled with Cecilia’s car keys. ‘But he was upset this morning. He misses his dad. His dad and I are – anyway, I stupidly thought Liam was oblivious to some things that were going on.’

  ‘They surprise you with how smart they are,’ said Connor. He took another two basketballs from the cloth bag and held them against his chest. ‘Then next thing they surprise you with how stupid they are. But if it makes you feel better, this is a lovely school. I’ve never taught at such a caring school. It comes from the school principal. She’s a nutcase, but the children come first.’

  ‘It must be a very different world from accounting.’ Tess watched the bright primary colours of the parachute gently rippling in the breeze.

  ‘Ha! You knew me when I was an accountant,’ said Connor. He gave her a friendly, tender smile, as if he was much fonder of her than he could possibly be after all this time. ‘I forgot that for some reason.’

  Clontarf Beach, thought Tess suddenly. That’s where you kissed me for the first time. It was a good first kiss.

  ‘It was all such a long time ago,’ she said. Her heart rate had picked up. ‘I can hardly remember so much.’

  I can hardly remember so much. It didn’t even make sense.

  ‘Really?’ said Connor. He squatted down and placed one of the balls on the red segment of the parachute. As he straightened, he shot her a look. ‘I actually remember quite a lot.’

  What did he mean? That he remembered a lot about their relationship, or just that he remembered a lot about the nineties?

  ‘I’d better go,’ she said. She met his eyes and looked away fast, as if she’d done something wildly inappropriate. ‘Get out of your way.’

  ‘All right.’ Connor bounced the basketball back and forth between his palms. ‘Still up for that coffee some time?’

  ‘Sure,’ said Tess. She smiled in his general direction. ‘Have fun – parachuting, or whatever it is you’re doing.’

  ‘Will do. And I promise I’ll keep an eye on Liam.’

  She started to walk off, and as she did, she remembered how much Felicity liked watching the football with Will. It was something they had in common. A shared interest. Tess would sit and read her book while they shouted together at the TV. She turned around. ‘Let’s make it a drink,’ she said, and this time she did meet his eyes. It felt like physical contact. ‘I mean, instead of a coffee.’

  Connor shifted one of the balls on the parachute with the side of his foot. ‘How about tonight?’

  chapter twenty-six

  Cecilia sat weeping on the floor of her pantry, her arms wrapped around her knees. She reached up for the roll of paper towels on the bottom shelf, ripped one off and blew her nose furiously.

  She couldn’t remember why she’d come into the pantry in the first place. Maybe she’d come in for no other reason than to calm her mind by looking at her Tupperware containers. The pleasing, purposeful geometry of their interlocking shapes. Their blue airtight lids keeping everything fresh and crisp. There were no rotting secrets in Cecilia’s pantry.

  She could smell a hint of sesame oil. She was always so careful to wipe the bottle of sesame oil, but still that faint scent lingered. Maybe she should throw it out, but John-Paul loved her sesame chicken.

  Who cared what John-Paul loved? The marital scales would never be even again. She had the upper hand and the last word forever.

  The doorbell rang and Cecilia gasped. The police, she thought.

  But there was no reason for the police to turn up now, after all these years, just because Cecilia
knew. I hate you for this, John-Paul Fitzpatrick, she thought as she got to her feet. Her neck ached. She took the bottle of sesame oil and tossed it into the bin on her way to the front door.

  It wasn’t the police. It was John-Paul’s mother. Cecilia blinked, disoriented.

  ‘Were you in the bathroom?’ said Virginia. ‘I was just thinking I might have to sit down on the step. My legs were getting all wobbly.’

  Virginia’s specialty was making you feel just a little bad about anything she could. She had five sons and five daughters-in-law, and Cecilia was the only daughter-in-law who hadn’t at one time been reduced to tears of rage and frustration by Virginia. It was due to Cecilia’s unshakable confidence in her abilities as a wife, mother and housewife. Bring it on, Virginia, she sometimes thought to herself as Virginia’s gaze swept over everything from John-Paul’s crease-free shirts to Cecilia’s dust-free skirting boards.

  Virginia ‘dropped by’ Cecilia’s every Wednesday after her tai chi class for a cup of tea and something freshly baked. ‘How do you stand it?’ Cecilia’s sisters-in-law moaned, but Cecilia didn’t really mind all that much. It was like taking part in a weekly battle with an unspecified goal that Cecilia felt she generally won.

  But not today. She didn’t have the strength for it today.

  ‘What’s that smell?’ said Virginia as she presented her cheek to be kissed. ‘Is it sesame oil?’

  ‘Yes,’ Cecilia sniffed her hands. ‘Come and sit down. I’ll put the kettle on.’

  ‘I’m really not fond the smell of sesame,’ said Virginia. ‘It’s very Asian, isn’t it?’ She settled herself down at the table and looked about the kitchen for grime or errors of judgement. ‘How was John-Paul last night? He called this morning. That was nice that he rushed back earlier than expected. The girls must be happy. They’re all such Daddy’s girls, your three, aren’t they? But I couldn’t believe it when I heard he had to go straight back into the office this morning after only flying back last night! He must have jet lag. The poor man.’

  John-Paul had wanted to stay home today. ‘I don’t want to leave you alone to deal with this,’ he’d said. ‘I won’t go into the office at all. We can talk. We can keep talking.’

  Cecilia could think of nothing worse than more talking. She’d insisted that he go in to work, virtually pushing him out the door. She needed to be away from him. She needed to think. He’d been calling all morning, leaving frantic-sounding messages. Was he worried she was going to tell the police what she knew?

  ‘John-Paul has a good work ethic,’ she told her mother-in-law, as she made tea. Imagine if you knew what your precious son did. Just imagine.

  She felt Virginia’s eyes shrewdly assessing her. She was no fool, Virginia. That was the mistake Cecilia’s sisters-in-law made. They underestimated the enemy.

  ‘You don’t look very well,’ said Virginia. ‘You’re washed out. Probably exhausted are you? You take on far too much. I hear you did a party last night. I was chatting to Marla Evans at tai chi and she said it was a great success. Everyone got tipsy apparently. She mentioned that you drove Rachel Crowley home.’

  ‘Rachel is very nice,’ said Cecilia. She put Virginia’s tea in front of her, along with a selection of baked treats. (Virginia’s weakness. It helped give Cecilia the edge.) Could she talk about her without feeling nauseous? ‘I actually asked her to Polly’s pirate party next weekend.’

  Which is just wonderful.

  ‘Did you?’ said Virginia. There was a pause. ‘Does John-Paul know that?’

  ‘Yes,’ said Cecilia. ‘He does actually.’ It was an odd question for Virginia to ask. She knew perfectly well that John-Paul didn’t get involved in the planning of birthday parties. She put the milk back in the fridge and turned around to look at Virginia.

  ‘Why do you ask?’

  Virginia helped herself to the coconut lemon slice. ‘He didn’t mind?’

  ‘Why should he mind?’ Cecilia carefully pulled out a chair and sat down at the table. She felt like someone was pushing their thumb right through the centre of her forehead, as if her head was made of dough. Her eyes met Virginia’s. She had John-Paul’s eyes. She’d been a beauty once and had never forgiven one of her hapless daughters-in-law for not recognising her in a photo hanging in the family room.

  Virginia looked away first. ‘I just thought he might prefer not to have too many ring-ins at his daughter’s party.’ Her voice was off-key. She took a bite of the slice and chewed it awkwardly, as if she was only pretending to chew.

  She knows. The thought dropped straight into Cecilia’s head with a thud.

  John-Paul said nobody knew. He was adamant that nobody knew.

  They were silent for a few moments. Cecilia heard the refrigerator hum. She felt her heart race. Virginia couldn’t know, could she? She swallowed: a sudden involuntary gulp for air.

  ‘I talked to Rachel about her daughter,’ said Cecilia. She sounded breathless. ‘About Janie. On the way home.’ She paused, took a breath to calm herself. Virginia had put down the slice and was scrabbling for something in her handbag. ‘Do you remember much about – when it happened?’

  ‘I remember it very well,’ said Virginia. She pulled a tissue from her bag and blew her nose. ‘The papers loved it. They had pages and pages of photos. They even showed a photo of the –’ She crumpled the tissue in her hand and cleared her throat. ‘The rosary beads. The crucifix was made of mother-of-pearl.’

  The rosary beads. John-Paul had said that his mother had lent him her rosary beads because he had an exam that day. She must have recognised them and never said a word, never asked the question so she’d never need to hear the answer, but she knew. She absolutely knew. Cecilia felt a clammy shivery sensation creeping up her legs, like the start of the flu.

  ‘But that was all such a very long time ago,’ said Virginia.

  ‘Yes. Although it must be so distressing for Rachel,’ said Cecilia. ‘Not knowing. Not knowing what happened.’

  Their eyes locked across the table. This time Virginia didn’t look away. Cecilia could see tiny particles of orange face powder embedded in the drawstring of wrinkles around Virginia’s mouth. Outside the house she could hear the soft midweek sounds of her neighbourhood: the chatter of cockatoos, the twitter of sparrows, the far-off buzz of someone’s leaf blower, the slam of a car door.

  ‘Although it wouldn’t really change anything, would it? It wouldn’t bring Janie back.’ Virginia patted Cecilia’s arm. ‘You’ve got enough on your mind without worrying about that. Your family comes first. Your husband and your daughters. They come first.’

  ‘Yes, of course,’ began Cecilia and stopped abruptly. The message was loud and clear. The taint of sin was all through her house. It smelled like sesame oil.

  Virginia smiled sweetly and picked up the coconut lemon slice again between her fingertips. ‘I don’t need to tell you this, do I? You’re a mother. You’d do anything for your children, just like I’d do anything for mine.’

  chapter twenty-seven

  The school day was nearly over and Rachel was busy typing up the school newsletter, her fingers moving rapidly over the keyboard. Sushi is now available at the tuckshop. Healthy and yummy! More volunteers are needed to cover library books. Don’t forget the ‘Eggscellent’ Easter Bonnet Parade tomorrow! Connor Whitby has been charged with the murder of Rachel Crowley’s daughter. Hooray! Our warmest wishes to Rachel. Applications now open for the position of PE teacher.

  Her little finger hit the delete key. Delete. Delete.

  Her mobile phone buzzed and vibrated on the desk next to her computer and she snatched it up.

  ‘Mrs Crowley, it’s Rodney Bellach.’

  ‘Rodney,’ said Rachel. ‘Do you have good news for me?’

  ‘Well. Not – well, I just wanted to let you know that I’ve given the tape to a good mate at the Unsolved Homicide Team,’ said Rodney. He sounded stilted, as if he’d carefully scripted his words before he picked up the phone. ‘So it’s absolutel
y in the right hands.’

  ‘That’s good,’ said Rachel. ‘That’s a start! They’ll reopen the case!’

  ‘Well, Mrs Crowley, the thing is, Janie’s case isn’t closed, ’ said Rodney. ‘It’s still open. When the coroner returns an open finding, as they did with Janie, as you know – well, it stays open. So what I’m saying is the boys will take a look at the tape. They’ll certainly look at it.’

  ‘And they’ll interview Connor again?’ said Rachel. She pressed the phone hard against her ear.

  ‘I guess that’s a possibility,’ said Rodney. ‘But please don’t get your hopes up too high, Mrs Crowley. Please don’t.’

  The disappointment felt personal, as if she was being told she’d failed some test. She wasn’t good enough. She’d failed to help her daughter. She’d failed her again.

  ‘But look, that’s just my opinion. The new guys are younger and smarter than me. Someone from the Unsolved Homicide Team will call you this week and let you know what they think.’

  As she put down the phone and returned to the computer, Rachel felt her eyes blur. She realised she’d had a warm sense of anticipation all day, as if finding the tape was going to set in motion a series of events that would lead to something wonderful, almost as if she’d thought the tape was going to bring Janie back. An infantile part of her mind had never accepted that her daughter could be murdered. Surely one day some respectable authority figure would take charge and put it right. Maybe God was the reasonable, respectable figure she’d always assumed was going to step in. Could she really have been that deluded? Even subconsciously?

  God didn’t care. God didn’t care less. God gave Connor Whitby free will, and Connor used that free will to strangle Janie.

  Rachel pushed her chair back from her desk and looked out the window at the schoolyard. She had a bird’s eye view from up here and could see everything that was going on. It was nearly school pick-up time. Parents were scattered about the place: little groups of mums deep in conversation, the occasional father lurking in the background, checking his email on his mobile phone. She watched one of the fathers quickly step aside for someone in a wheelchair. It was Lucy O’Leary. Her daughter Tess was pushing the chair. As Rachel watched, Tess bent down to hear something that her mother said, and threw back her head and laughed. There was something quietly subversive about those two.

  You could become friends with your grown-up daughter in way that didn’t seem possible with your grown-up son. That was what Connor took away from Rachel: all the future relationships she could have had with Janie.

  I am not the first mother to lose a child, Rachel kept telling herself that first year. I am not the first. I will not be the last.

  It made no difference, of course.

  The buzzer went for the end of the school day, and seconds later the children tumbled out of their classrooms. There was that familiar afternoon babble of childish voices: laughing, shouting, crying. Rachel saw the little O’Leary boy run to his grandmother’s wheelchair. He nearly tripped because he was using both hands to awkwardly carry a giant cardboard construction covered in aluminium foil. Tess bent down next to her mother’s wheelchair and all three of them examined whatever it was – a spaceship perhaps? No doubt it was Trudy Applebee’s doing. Forget the syllabus. If Trudy decided Year 1 was making spaceships that day, so it would be. Lauren and Rob were going to end up staying in New York. Jacob would have an American accent. He’d eat pancakes for breakfast. Rachel would never see him run out of his school carrying something covered in aluminium foil. The police wouldn’t do anything with the video tape. They’d put it on file. They probably didn’t even have a VCR to watch it on.

  Rachel turned back to her computer screen and let her hands splay limply on the keys. She’d been waiting twenty-eight years for something that was never going to happen.

  chapter twenty-eight

  It had been a mistake suggesting a drink. What had she been thinking? The bar was crowded with young, beautiful drunk people. Tess kept staring at them. They all looked like high school students to her, who should have been at home studying, not out on a school night, shrieking and squawking. Connor had found them a table, which was lucky, but it was right next to a row of flashing, beeping poker machines and it was clear from the panicked concentration on Connor’s face each time she spoke that he was having difficulty hearing her. Tess sipped a glass of not especially good wine and felt her head begin to ache. Her legs were sore after that long walk up the hill from Cecilia’s place. She did that one Body Combat class with Felicity on Tuesday nights, but she couldn’t seem to manage to fit in any other time for exercise in between work and school and all of Liam’s activities. She remembered suddenly that she’d just paid one hundred and ninety dollars for a martial arts course that Liam was meant to have started in Melbourne today. Shit, shit, shit.

  What was she doing here anyway? She’d forgotten how bad Sydney bars were compared to Melbourne. That’s why there wasn’t anyone over thirty in this place. If you were a grown-up living on the North Shore you had to do your drinking at home and be tucked up in bed by ten o’clock.

  She missed Melbourne. She missed Will. She missed Felicity. She missed her life.

  Connor leaned forward. ‘Liam has pretty good hand-eye coordination,’ he shouted. For God’s sake, was this a parent-teacher conference now?

  When Tess had picked Liam up from school this afternoon, he’d seemed elated and hadn’t mentioned anything about Will or Felicity. Instead, he’d talked nonstop about how he was definitely the best at the Easter egg hunt, and how he’d shared some of his eggs with Polly Fitzpatrick, who was going to have this amazing pirate party and everyone in the class was invited, and how he’d done this really fun game with a parachute on the oval, and there was an Easter hat parade on the next day, and their teacher was going to dress up like an Easter egg! Tess didn’t know if it was just the novelty factor or the chocolate high that was making him so happy, but for now at least Liam was definitely not missing his old life.

  ‘Did you miss Marcus?’ she’d asked him.

  ‘Not really,’ Liam had answered. ‘Marcus was pretty mean.’

  He’d refused help making his Easter hat and had made his own weird and wonderful creation out of an old straw hat of Lucy’s incorporating fake flowers and a toy rabbit. Then he’d eaten all his dinner, sung in the bath and been sound asleep by seven-thirty pm. Whatever happened, he wasn’t going back to that school
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