Husbands secret, p.22
geography teacher’s husband had died. Janie had been so shocked and distressed, and then she’d laughed. It was inexplicable. The whole class had turned to look at her accusingly and she’d just about died of shame.
John-Paul lunged at her. Her first fleeting thought was that he was going to kiss her, and this was his odd yet masterful technique, and she was pleased and excited. He wasn’t going to let her break up with him. He wasn’t going to stand for it!
But then his hands grabbed her neck. She tried to say, ‘That’s hurting, John-Paul,’ but she couldn’t speak, and she wanted to clear up this dreadful misunderstanding, to explain that she actually liked him more than Connor, and she’d never meant to hurt his feelings, and she wanted to be his girlfriend, and she tried to convey that with her eyes, which were staring straight into his, his beautiful eyes, and she thought for a second that she saw a shift, a shocked recognition and she felt a loosening of hands, but there was something else happening; something very wrong and unfamiliar was happening to her body, and in that instant a far-off part of her mind remembered that her mother had been going to pick her up from school today to take her to a doctor’s appointment, and she’d forgotten all about it and gone to Connor’s house instead. Her mother would be ropable.
Her last properly articulated thought was: Oh, shit.
After that there were no more thoughts, just helpless, flailing panic.
‘Juice!’ demanded Jacob.
‘What do you want, sweetie?’ whispered Lauren.
Juice, thought Rachel. He wants a juice. Are you deaf?
It was only just light, and Rachel, Rob and Lauren were standing in a shivery little circle at Wattle Valley Park, rubbing their hands together and stamping their feet, while Jacob slithered in and out between their legs. He was rugged up in a parka that Rachel suspected was too small for him, his arms sticking straight out like a snowman.
As expected, Lauren was wearing her trench coat, although her ponytail didn’t look quite as perfect as normal – there were a few strands escaping from her hairband – and she looked tired. She was carrying a single red rose, which Rachel thought was a silly choice. It was like those roses in long plastic cylinders that young men gave to their girlfriends on Valentine’s Day.
Rachel herself was carrying a small posy of sweet peas she’d picked from her own backyard, tied up with a piece of green velvet ribbon like Janie used to wear when she was very little.
‘Do you leave the flowers where she was found? At the bottom of the slide?’ Marla had once asked.
‘Yes, Marla, I leave them there to be trampled by hundreds of little feet,’ Rachel had said.
‘Oh, yes, good point,’ Marla had said, not at all offended.
It wasn’t even the same slide. All the clunky old metal equipment had been replaced by fancy space-age-looking stuff, just like the park near Rachel’s house where she took Jacob, and the ground had a rubbery surface that gave an astronaut-like bounce to your step.
‘Juice!’ said Jacob again.
‘I don’t understand, sweetie.’ Lauren flipped her ponytail back over one shoulder. ‘You want me to loosen your jacket?’
For heaven’s sake. Rachel sighed. It wasn’t like she ever really felt Janie’s presence when she came here. She couldn’t imagine her here, couldn’t conceive how she had come to be here. None of Janie’s friends had ever known her to come to this particular park. It was a boy, obviously, who had brought her here. A boy called Connor Whitby. He probably wanted sex and Janie said no. She should have had sex with him. That was Rachel’s fault, for going on about it so much, as if losing her virginity was this momentous event. Dying was far more momentous. She should have said to her, ‘Have sex with whoever you want, Janie. Just stay safe.’
Ed had never wanted to come to the park where she was found. ‘What’s the bloody point of that?’ he said. ‘Too bloody late to go there now, isn’t it? She’s not bloody there, is she?’
You’re bloody right, Ed.
But Rachel felt like she owed it to Janie to turn up each year with her posy of flowers, to apologise for not being there, to be there now, to imagine her last few moments, to honour the last place she’d been alive, the last place where she’d breathed. If only Rachel could have been there to see her for those last precious minutes, to drink in the sight of those ridiculously long skinny legs and arms, the awkward, angular beauty of her face. It was a silly thought, because if Rachel had been there, then she would have been busy saving her life, but still, she longed to have been there, even if she wasn’t able to change the outcome.
Maybe Ed had been right. It was pointless to come here each year like this. It felt particularly pointless this year with Rob and Lauren and Jacob standing around like people waiting for something to happen, the entertainment to start.
‘Juice!’ said Jacob.
‘I’m sorry, sweetie, I just don’t understand,’ said Lauren.
‘He wants a juice,’ said Rob so gruffly that Rachel almost felt sorry for Lauren. Rob sounded just like Ed when he got grumpy. The Crowley men were such grumps. ‘We don’t have any, mate. Here. We’ve got your water bottle. Have some water.’
‘We don’t drink juice, Jakey,’ said Lauren. ‘It’s bad for your teeth.’
Jacob held his water bottle with fat little hands, tipped back his head and drank thirstily, giving Rachel a look that said, We won’t tell her about all the juice I drink at your place.
Lauren tightened the belt of her trench coat and turned to Rachel. ‘Do you normally say anything? Or, um –’
‘No, I just think of her,’ said Rachel in a flat, shut-the-hell-up voice. She certainly wasn’t going to let her feelings loose in front of Lauren. ‘We can go in a moment. It’s very nippy. We don’t want Jacob getting a chill.’
It was ridiculous bringing Jacob here. On this day. To this park. Perhaps in future she’d do something else to mark the anniversary of Janie’s death. Go to her grave like they did on her birthday.
She just had to get through this endless day and then it would be done, for another year. Let’s just move it along. Come on minutes. March on by until it’s midnight.
‘Do you want to say something, honey?’ Lauren asked Rob.
Rachel nearly said, ‘Of course he doesn’t’, but she stopped herself in time. She looked at Rob and saw he was looking up at the sky, stretching his neck out like a turkey, gritting those strong white teeth, his hands awkwardly clenched across his stomach as if he was having a fit.
He hasn’t been here, realised Rachel. He hasn’t been to the park since she was found. She took a step towards him, but Lauren got there first, and took his hand.
‘It’s okay,’ she murmured. ‘You’re okay. Just breathe, honey. Breathe.’
Rachel watched, helpless, as this young woman she didn’t really know that well comforted her son, who she probably didn’t know that well either. She watched how Rob leaned towards his wife, and she thought of how little she knew, had ever really wanted to know, about her son’s grief. Did he wake Lauren with nightmares that twisted the sheets? Did he speak quietly in the darkness to her, telling stories about his sister?
Rachel felt a hand on her knee and looked down.
‘Grandma,’ said Jacob. He beckoned to her.
‘What is it?’ She bent down and he cupped a hand over her ear.
‘Juice,’ he whispered. ‘Please?’
The Fitzpatrick family slept late. Cecilia woke first. She reached for her iPhone sitting on the bedside table and saw that it was half-past nine. Dishwater-grey morning light flooded through their bedroom windows.
Good Friday and Boxing Day were the two precious days of the year when they never scheduled anything. Tomorrow she’d be frantic, preparing for the Easter Sunday lunch, but today there would be no guests, no homework, no rushing, not even grocery shopping. The air was chilly, the bed warm.
John-Paul murdered Rachel Crowley’s dau
She was lying on her side, with her back up against John-Paul. She could feel the warm weight of his arm across her waist. Her husband. Her husband, the murderer. Should she have known? Should she have guessed? The nightmares, the migraines, the times when he was so stubborn and strange. It wouldn’t have made any difference, but it made her feel somehow negligent. ‘That’s just him,’ she’d tell herself. She kept replaying memories of their marriage in light of what she now knew. She remembered, for example, how he’d refused to try for a fourth child. ‘Let’s try for a boy,’ Cecilia had said to him when Polly was a toddler, knowing that both of them would have been perfectly happy if they’d ended up with four girls. John-Paul had mystified her with his stubborn refusal to consider it. It was probably yet another example of his self-flagellation. He’d probably been desperate for a boy.
Think of something else. Maybe she should get up and make a start on the baking for Sunday. How would she cope with all those guests, all that conversation, all that happiness? John-Paul’s mother would sit in her favourite armchair, full of righteousness, holding court, sharing the secret. ‘It was all such a long time ago,’ she’d said. But it must feel like yesterday to Rachel.
Cecilia remembered with a lurch that Rachel had said today was the anniversary of Janie’s death. Did John-Paul know that? Probably not. He was terrible with dates. He didn’t remember his own wedding anniversary unless she reminded him; why would he remember the day he killed a girl?
‘Jesus Christ,’ she said softly to herself as the physical symptoms of her new disease came rushing back: the nausea, the headache. She had to get up. She had to somehow escape from it. She went to throw back the covers and felt John-Paul’s arm tighten around her.
‘I’m getting up,’ she said without turning to face him.
‘How do you think we’d cope financially?’ he said into her neck. He sounded hoarse, as if he had a terrible cold. ‘If I do go to . . . without my salary? We’d have to sell the house, right?’
‘We’d survive,’ answered Cecilia shortly. She took care of the finances. Always had. John-Paul was happy to be oblivious to bills and mortgage payments.
‘Really? We would?’ He sounded doubtful. The Fitzpatricks were relatively wealthy and John-Paul had grown up expecting to be better off than most people he knew. If there was money around, he quite naturally assumed it must emanate from him. Cecilia hadn’t deliberately misled him about how much money she’d been earning the last few years; she just hadn’t got around to mentioning it.
He said, ‘I was thinking that if I’m not here, we could get one of Pete’s boys to come around and do odd jobs for you. Like clearing the gutters. That’s really important. You can’t let that go, Cecilia. Especially around bushfire season. I’ll have to do a list. I keep thinking of things.’
She lay still. Her heart thudded. How could this be? It was absurd. Impossible. Were they actually lying in bed talking about John-Paul going to jail?
‘I really wanted to be the one to teach the girls how to drive,’ he said. His voice broke. ‘They’ve got to know how to handle wet roads. You don’t know how to brake properly when the roads are wet.’
‘I do so,’ protested Cecilia.
She turned around to face him and saw that he was sobbing, his cheeks crumpled into ugly grizzled folds. He twisted his head to bury his face in the pillow, as if to hide his tears. ‘I know I have no right. No right to cry. I just can’t imagine not seeing them each morning.’
Rachel Crowley never gets to see her daughter again.
But she couldn’t harden her heart enough. The part of him she loved best was the part that loved his daughters. Their children had bound them together in a way she knew didn’t always happen to other couples. Sharing stories about the girls – laughing about them, wondering about their futures – was one of the greatest pleasures of her marriage. She’d married John-Paul because of the father she knew he would be.
‘What will they think of me?’ He pressed his hands to his face. ‘They’ll hate me.’
‘It’s all right,’ said Cecilia. This was unbearable. ‘It will be all right. Nothing is going to happen. Nothing is going to change.’
‘But I don’t know, now I’ve actually said it out loud, now that you know, after all these years, it feels so real, more real than ever before. It’s today, you know.’ He ran the back of his hand across his nose and looked at her. ‘Today is the day. I remember every year. I hate autumn. But this year it seems even more shocking than ever. I can’t believe it was me. I can’t believe I did that to someone’s daughter. And now my girls, my girls . . . my girls have to pay.’
The remorse racked his whole body, like the worst sort of pain. Her every instinct was to ease it, to rescue him, to somehow make the pain stop. She gathered him to her like a child and whispered soothing words. ‘Shhhh. It’s all right. Everything is going to be all right. There couldn’t possibly be new evidence after all these years. Rachel must be mistaken. Come on now. Deep breaths.’
He buried his face in her shoulder and she felt his tears soaking through her nightie.
‘Everything is going to be fine,’ she told him. She knew this couldn’t possibly be true, but as she stroked the military straight line of John-Paul’s greying hair on his neck, she finally understood something about herself.
She would never ask him to confess.
It seemed that all her vomiting in gutters and crying in pantries had been for show, because as long as nobody else was accused, she would keep his secret. Cecilia Fitzpatrick, who always volunteered first, who never sat quietly when something needed to be done, who always brought casseroles and gave up her time, who knew the difference between right and wrong, was prepared to look the other way. She could and she would allow another mother to suffer.
Her goodness had limits. She could have easily gone her whole life without knowing those limits, but now she knew exactly where they lay.
‘Don’t be so stingy with the butter!’ demanded Lucy. ‘Hot cross buns are meant to be served dripping with butter. Have I taught you nothing?’
‘Have you heard nothing of the word “cholesterol”?’ said Tess, but she picked up the butter knife. She and her mother and Liam were sitting in the backyard in the morning sun drinking tea and eating toasted hot cross buns. Tess’s mother was wearing her pink quilted dressing-gown over her nightie and Tess and Liam were wearing their pyjamas.
The day had started out suitably dour for a Good Friday but had suddenly changed its mind and decided to twirl about and show off its autumn colours after all. There was a brisk, flirty breeze and the sun was pouring through the leaves of her mother’s flame tree.
‘Mum?’ said Liam with his mouth full.
‘Mmm?’ said Tess. She held her face up to the sun, her eyes closed. She felt peaceful and sleepy. There had been more sex last night in Connor’s apartment after they’d come back from the beach. It was even more spectacular than the previous night. He had certain skills that were really quite . . . outstanding. Had he read a book perhaps? Will had never read that book. It was curious how last week sex was just a pleasant semiregular pastime she never really thought about. And now, this week, it was all-consuming, as if it were all that really mattered about life, as if these moments in between sexual encounters were irrelevant, not really living.
She felt like she was becoming addicted to Connor and the particular curve of his upper lip and the breadth of his shoulders and his -
‘Mum!’ said Liam again.
‘When are –’
‘Finish what’s in your mouth.’
‘When are Daddy and Felicity coming? For Easter?’
‘I’m not sure,’ she said to Liam. ‘I have to talk to them. They might have to work.’
‘They can’t work at Easter! I want to see Dad headbutt my rabbit egg.’
Somehow they’d started the somewhat violent Easter Sunday tradition of beginning the day with the ceremonial headbutting of a chocolate Easter bunny. Will and Liam both found the poor bunny’s caved-in face to be hysterically funny.
‘Well,’ said Tess. She had no idea what to do about Easter. Was there any point in putting on a happy-family show for Liam’s benefit? They weren’t good enough actors. He’d see right through it. Nobody would expect that of her, surely?
Unless she invited Connor? Sit on his lap like a teenage schoolgirl proving to her ex-boyfriend that she’d moved on to no less than the muscly armed school jock? She could ask him to roar up on his bike. He could do the headbutting of Liam’s chocolate rabbit. He could out-headbutt Will.
‘We’ll call Daddy later on,’ she told Liam. Her peaceful feeling had vanished.
‘Let’s call him now!’ He ran inside the house.
‘No!’ said Tess, but he’d gone.
‘Dearie me,’ sighed her mother, putting down her hot cross bun.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ began Tess, but Liam came running straight back with her mobile phone in his outstretched hand. It beeped with a text message as he went to hand it over.
‘Is that a message from Dad?’ said Liam.
Tess grabbed for the phone in panic. ‘No. I don’t know. Let me see.’
The message was from Connor. Thinking of you. xx Tess smiled. As soon as she read it, the phone beeped again.
‘This one is probably from Dad!’ Liam bounced in front of her on the balls of his feet as if he were playing soccer.
Tess read the text. It was another one from Connor. It’s a good kite day if you want to bring Liam up to the oval for a quick run. I’ll supply the kite! (But understand if you think it’s not a good idea.)
‘They’re not from your dad,’ Tess said to Liam. ‘They’re from Mr Whitby. You know. Your new PE teacher.’
Liam looked blank. Lucy cleared her throat.
‘Mr Whitby,’ said Tess again. ‘You had him for –’
‘Why is he texting you?’ said Liam.
‘Are you going to finish your hot cross bun, Liam?’ asked Lucy.
‘Mr Whitby is actually an old friend of mine,’ said Tess. ‘Remember how I saw him in the school office? I knew him years ago. Before you were born.’
‘Tess,’ said her mother. There was a warning note in her voice.
‘What?’ said Tess irritably. Why shouldn’t she tell Liam that Connor was an old friend? What was the harm in that?
‘Does Daddy know him too?’ said Liam.
Children seemed so clueless about grown-up relationships, and then all of a sudden they’d say something like that, something that showed that on some level they understood everything.
‘No,’ said Tess. ‘It was before I knew your dad. Anyway, Mr Whitby texted because he’s got this great kite. And he wondered if you and I would like to go up to the oval and fly it.’
‘Huh?’ Liam scowled, as if she’d suggested he clean up his room.
‘Tess, my love, do you really think that’s – you know.’ Tess’s mother held up the side of her hand as a shield and silently mouthed the word, ‘Appropriate?’
Tess ignored her. She would not be made to feel Guilty about this. Why should she and Liam stay at home here doing nothing, while Will and Felicity did whatever the hell it was they were doing today? Anyway, she wanted to show that therapist, that invisible critical presence in Connor’s life, that Tess wasn’t just some crazy damaged woman using Connor for sex. She was good. She was nice.
‘He’s got this amazing kite,’ improvised Tess. ‘He just thought you might like to have a turn flying it, that’s all.’ She glanced at her mother. ‘He’s being friendly because we’re new at the school.’ She turned back to Liam. ‘Shall we go meet him? Just for half an hour?’
‘All right,’ said Liam grudgingly. ‘But I want to call Dad first.’
‘Once you’re dressed,’ said Tess. ‘Go put your jeans on. And your rugby top. It’s chillier than I thought.’
‘All right,’ said Liam, and slouched off.
She tapped out a text to Connor: We’ll see you on the oval in half an hour. xx.
Just before she was about to hit send she deleted the kisses. In case the therapist thought that was leading him on. Then she thought of all the actual kissing they’d done last night. Ridiculous. She may just as well kiss him in a text message. She made it three kisses and went to hit send, but then she wondered if it would seem overly romantic, and changed it back to one kiss, but that seemed stingy, compared to his two, as if she was trying to make a point. She made a ‘tch’ sound, added back in the second kiss and hit send. She looked up to see her mother watching her.
‘What?’ she said.
‘Careful,’ said her mother.
Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.2 out of 5 / Based on83 votes