Husbands secret, p.3
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       Husband's Secret, p.3

           Liane Moriarty
 

  she could actually feel her head wobbling. Even now, after eighteen months, she still suffered debilitating nerves each time she met a new client. Yet she was oddly successful in her role. ‘You’re different from other agency people,’ one client told her at the end of their first meeting as he shook her hand to seal the deal. ‘You actually listen more than you talk.’

  The horrible nerves were balanced by the glorious euphoria she felt each time she walked out of a meeting. It was like walking on air. She’d done it again. She’d battled the monster and won. And best of all, nobody suspected her secret. She brought in the clients. The business flourished. A product launch they did for a cosmetics company had even been nominated for a marketing award.

  Tess’s role meant that she was often out of the office, leaving Will and Felicity alone for hours at a time. If someone had asked her whether that worried her, she would have laughed. ‘Felicity is like a sister to Will,’ she would have said.

  She turned from the whiteboard. Her legs felt weak. She went and sat back down, choosing a chair at the other end of the table from them. She tried to get her bearings.

  It was six o’clock on a Monday night. She was right in the middle of her life.

  There had been so many other things distracting her when Will came upstairs and said he and Felicity needed to talk to her about something. Tess had just got off the phone from her mother, who had rung to say she’d broken her ankle playing tennis. She was going to be on crutches for the next eight weeks and she was very sorry, but could Easter be in Sydney instead of Melbourne this year?

  It was the first time in the fifteen years since Tess and Felicity had moved interstate that Tess had felt bad about not living closer to her mother.

  ‘We’ll get a flight straight after school on Thursday,’ Tess had said. ‘Can you cope until then?’

  ‘Oh, I’ll be fine. Mary will help. And the neighbours.’

  But Auntie Mary didn’t drive, and Uncle Phil couldn’t be expected to drive her over every day. Besides, Mary and Phil were both starting to look frail themselves. And Tess’s mother’s neighbours were ancient old ladies or busy young families who barely had time to wave hello as they backed their big cars out of their driveways. It didn’t seem likely that they’d be bringing over casseroles.

  Tess had been fretting over whether she should book a flight to Sydney for the very next day, and then perhaps organise a home helper for her mother. Lucy would hate to have a stranger in the house, but how would she shower? How would she cook?

  It was tricky. They had so much work on, and she didn’t like to leave Liam. He wasn’t quite himself. There was a boy in his class, Marcus, who was giving him grief. He wasn’t exactly bullying him. That would have been nice and clear cut and they could have followed the school’s sternly bullet-pointed ‘We Take A Zero-Tolerance Approach to Bullying’ Code of Practice. Marcus was more complicated than that. He was a charming little psychopath.

  Something new and awful had gone on with Marcus that day at school, Tess was sure of it. She’d been giving Liam his dinner while Will and Felicity were downstairs working. Most nights she and Will and Liam, and often Felicity too, managed to eat as a family, but the Bedstuff website was meant to go live that Friday, so they were all working long hours.

  Liam had been quieter than usual while he was eating his dinner. He was a dreamy, reflective little boy, he’d never been a chatterbox, but there was something so grown-up and sad about the way he mechanically speared each piece of sausage with his fork and dunked it in the tomato sauce.

  ‘Did you play with Marcus today?’ Tess asked.

  ‘Nah,’ said Liam. ‘Today’s Monday.’

  ‘So what?’

  But he’d closed down and refused to say another word about it, and Tess had felt rage fill her heart. She needed to talk to his teacher again. She had the strongest feeling that her child was in an abusive relationship and nobody could see it. The school playground was like a battlefield.

  That’s what had been on Tess’s mind when Will had asked her if she’d come downstairs: her mother’s ankle and Marcus.

  Will and Felicity had been sitting at the meeting table waiting for her. Before Tess had joined them, she’d collected all the coffee mugs that had been sitting around the office. Felicity had a habit of making herself fresh cups of coffee that she never finished. Tess put the mugs in a row on the meeting table and said, as she sat down, ‘New record, Felicity. Five half-drunk cups.’

  Felicity didn’t say anything. She looked oddly at Tess, as if she felt really bad about the coffee cups, and then Will made his extraordinary announcement.

  ‘Tess, I don’t know how to say this,’ he said, ‘but Felicity and I have fallen in love.’

  ‘Very funny.’ Tess grouped the coffee cups together and smiled. ‘Hilarious.’

  But it seemed it wasn’t a joke.

  Now she put her hands on the honey-gold pine of the table and stared at them. Her pale, blue-veined, knuckly hands. An ex-boyfriend, she couldn’t remember which, had once told her that he was in love with her hands. Will had had a lot of trouble getting the ring over her knuckle at their wedding. Their guests had laughed softly. Will had pretended to exhale with relief once he got it on, while he secretly caressed her hand.

  Tess looked up and saw Will and Felicity exchange covert worried glances.

  ‘So it’s true love, is it?’ said Tess. ‘You’re soul mates, are you?’

  A nerve throbbed in Will’s cheek. Felicity tugged at her hair.

  Yes. That’s what they were both thinking. Yes, it is true love. Yes, we are soul mates.

  ‘When exactly did this start?’ she asked. ‘When did these “feelings” between you develop?’

  ‘That doesn’t matter,’ said Will hurriedly.

  ‘It matters to me!’ Tess’s voice rose.

  ‘I guess, I’m not sure, maybe about six months ago?’ mumbled Felicity, looking at the table.

  ‘So when you started to lose weight?’ said Tess.

  Felicity shrugged.

  Tess said to Will, ‘Funny that you never looked twice at her when she was fat.’

  The bitter taste of nastiness flooded her mouth. How long since she’d let herself say something so cruel? Not since she was a teenager.

  She had never called Felicity fat. Never said a critical word about her weight.

  ‘Tess, please –’ said Will without any censure in his voice, just a soft, desperate pleading.

  ‘It’s fine,’ said Felicity. ‘I deserve it. We deserve it.’ She lifted her chin and looked at Tess with naked, brave humility.

  So Tess was going to be allowed to kick and scratch as much as she wanted. They were just going to sit there and take it for as long as it took. They weren’t going to fight back. Will and Felicity were fundamentally good. She knew this. They were good people and that’s why they were going to be so nice about this, so understanding and accepting of Tess’s rage, so that in the end Tess would be the bad person, not them. They hadn’t actually slept together, they hadn’t betrayed her. They’d fallen in love! It wasn’t an ordinary grubby little affair. It was fate. Predestined. Nobody could think that badly of them.

  It was genius.

  ‘Why didn’t you tell me on your own?’ Tess tried to lock eyes with Will, as if the strength of her gaze could bring him back from wherever he’d gone. His eyes, his strange hazel eyes, the colour of beaten copper, with thick black eyelashes, eyes that were so different from Tess’s own run-of-the-mill pale blue ones, the eyes that her son had inherited and Tess thought of as somehow belonging to her now, a beloved possession for which she gracefully accepted compliments – ‘Your son has lovely eyes.’ ‘He gets them from my husband. Nothing to do with me.’ But everything to do with her. Hers. They were hers. Will’s gold eyes were normally amused, he was always ready to laugh at the world, he found day-to-day life generally pretty funny, it was one of the things she loved about him most, but right now they were looking at her implori
ngly, the way Liam looked at her when he wanted something at the supermarket.

  Please Mum, I want that sugary treat with all the preservatives and the cleverly branded packaging and I know I promised I wouldn’t ask for anything but I want it.

  Please Tess, I want your delicious-looking cousin and I know I promised to be true to you in good times and bad, in sickness and health, but pleeeease.

  No. You may not have her. I said no.

  ‘We couldn’t work out the right time or the right place,’ said Will. ‘And we both wanted to tell you. We couldn’t – and then we just thought, we couldn’t go any longer without you knowing – so we just . . .’ His jaw shifted, turkey-like, in and out, back and forth. ‘We thought there would never be a good time for a conversation like this.’

  We. They were a ‘we’. They’d talked about this. Without her. Well, of course they’d talked without her. They’d ‘fallen in love’ without her.

  ‘I thought I should be here too,’ said Felicity.

  ‘Did you now?’ said Tess. She couldn’t bear to look at Felicity. ‘So what happens next?’

  Asking the question filled her with a fresh nauseous wave of disbelief. Surely nothing was going to happen. Surely Felicity would rush off to one of her new gym classes and Will would come upstairs and talk to Liam while he had his bath, maybe get to the bottom of the Marcus problem, while Tess cooked a stir-fry for dinner; she had the ingredients ready, it was too bizarre, thinking of the little plastic-wrapped tray of chicken strips sitting staidly in the refrigerator. Surely she and Will were still going to have a glass of that half-empty bottle of wine and talk about potential men for the brand-new beautiful Felicity. They’d already canvassed so many possibilities. Their Italian bank manager. The big quiet guy who owned their local deli. Never once had Will slapped his hand to his forehead and said, ‘Of course! How could I have missed it? Me! I’d be perfect for her!’

  It was a joke. She couldn’t stop thinking that the whole thing was a joke.

  ‘We know nothing can make this easy, or right, or better,’ said Will. ‘But we’ll do whatever you want, whatever you think is right for you and for Liam.’

  ‘For Liam,’ repeated Tess, dumbstruck.

  For some reason it hadn’t occurred to her that Liam would have to be told about this, that Liam would have anything to do with it, or be in any way affected. Liam who was upstairs right now, lying on his stomach, watching television, his little six-year-old mind filled with giant-sized worries of Marcus.

  No, she thought. No, no, no. Absolutely not.

  She saw her mother appearing at her bedroom door. ‘Daddy and I want to talk to you about something.’

  It would not happen to Liam the way it had happened to her. Over her dead body. Her beautiful, grave-faced little boy would not feel the loss and confusion she’d felt that awful summer all those years ago. He would not pack a little overnight bag every second Friday. He would not have to check a calendar on the refrigerator to see where he was sleeping each weekend. He would not learn to think before his spoke whenever one parent asked a seemingly innocuous question about the other.

  Her mind raced.

  All that mattered now was Liam. Her own feelings were irrelevant. How could she save this? How could she stop it?

  ‘We never, ever meant for this to happen.’ Will’s eyes were big and guileless. ‘And we want to do this the right way. The best way for all of us. We even wondered –’

  Tess saw Felicity shake her head slightly at Will.

  ‘You’d even wondered what?’ said Tess. Here was more evidence of their talking. She could imagine the enjoyable intensity of these conversations. Teary eyes demonstrating what good people they were, how they were suffering at the thought of hurting Tess, but what choice did they have in the face of their passion, their love?

  ‘It’s too soon to talk about what we’re going to do.’ Felicity’s voice was firmer suddenly. Tess’s fingernails dug into her palms. How dare she? How dare she talk in her normal voice, as if this was a normal situation, a normal problem.

  ‘You even wondered what?’ Tess kept her eyes on Will.

  Forget about Felicity, she told herself. You don’t have time to feel angry. Think, Tess, think.

  Will’s face went from white to red. ‘We wondered if it would be possible for all of us to live together. Here. For Liam’s sake. It’s not like this is a normal break-up. We’re all . . . family. So that’s why we thought, I mean, maybe it’s crazy, but we just thought it might be possible. Eventually.’

  Tess guffawed. A hard, almost guttural sound. Were they out of their minds? ‘You mean, I just move out of my bedroom and Felicity moves in? So we just say to Liam, “Don’t worry, honey, Daddy sleeps with Felicity now and Mummy is in the spare room?”’

  Felicity looked mortified. ‘Of course not.’

  ‘When you put it like that –’ began Will.

  ‘But what other way is there to put it?’

  Will exhaled. He leaned forward. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘We don’t need to work anything out right this second.’ Sometimes Will used a particularly masculine, reasonable but authoritative tone in the office when he wanted things done a certain way. Tess and Felicity gave him absolute hell about it. He was using that tone now, as if it were time to get things under control.

  How dare he.

  Tess lifted her closed fists and slammed them down so hard on the table that it rattled. She’d never done such a thing before. It felt farcical and absurd and somewhat thrilling. She was pleased to see both Will and Felicity flinch.

  ‘I’ll tell you what’s going to happen,’ she said, because all at once it was perfectly clear.

  It was simple.

  Will and Felicity needed to have a proper affair. The sooner the better. This smouldering thing they had going had to run its course. At the moment it was sweet and sexy. They were star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet gazing soulfully at each other over the purple Cough Stop dragon. It needed to get sweaty and sticky and sleazy and eventually, hopefully, God willing, banal and dull. Will loved his son, and once the fog of lust cleared, he’d see that he’d made a ghastly but not irretrievable mistake.

  This could all be fixed.

  The only way forward was for Tess to leave. Right now.

  ‘Liam and I will go and stay in Sydney,’ she said. ‘With Mum. She called just a minute ago to say she’s broken her ankle. She needs someone there to help her.’

  ‘Oh no! How? Is she okay?’ said Felicity.

  Tess ignored her. Felicity didn’t get to be the caring niece any more. She was the other woman. Tess was the wife. And she was going to fight this. For Liam’s sake. She would fight it and she would win.

  ‘We’ll stay with her until her ankle is better.’

  ‘But, Tess, you can’t take Liam to live in Sydney.’ Will’s bossy tone vanished. He was a Melbourne boy. There had never been any question that they would live anywhere else.

  He looked at Tess with a wounded expression, as if he were Liam being unjustly told off for something. Then his brow cleared. ‘What about school?’ he said. ‘He can’t miss school.’

  ‘He can go to St Angela’s for a term. He needs to get away from Marcus. This will be good for him. A complete change of scenery. He can walk to school like I did.’

  ‘You wouldn’t be able to get him in,’ said Will frantically. ‘He’s not Catholic!’

  ‘Who says he’s not Catholic?’ said Tess. ‘He’s baptised in the Catholic Church.’

  Felicity opened her mouth and shut it again.

  ‘I’ll get him in,’ said Tess. She had no idea how hard it would be to get him in. ‘Mum knows people at the church.’

  As Tess spoke, images of St Angela’s, the tiny local Catholic school she and Felicity had both attended, filled her head. Playing hopscotch in the shadows of the church spires. The sound of church bells. The sweet rotting smell of forgotten bananas in the bottom of school bags. It was a five-minute walk from Tess’s mother’s ho
me. The school was at the end of a tree-lined cul-de-sac and in summer the trees formed a canopy overhead like a cathedral. It was autumn now, still warm enough to swim in Sydney. The leaves of the liquidambars would be green and gold. Liam would walk through puddles of pale pink rose petals on uneven footpaths.

  Some of Tess’s old teachers were still at St Angela’s. Kids who Tess and Felicity had been at school with had grown up and turned into mums and dads who sent their own children there. Tess’s mother mentioned their names sometimes, and Tess could never quite believe they still existed. Like the gorgeous Fitzpatrick boys. Six blond, square-jawed boys who were so similar they looked like they’d been purchased in bulk. They were so good-looking Tess used to blush whenever one of them walked by. One of the altar boys was always a Fitzpatrick. Each of them left St Angela’s in Year 4 and went off to that exclusive Catholic boys school on the harbour. They were wealthy as well as gorgeous. Apparently the eldest Fitzpatrick boy now had three daughters who were all at St Angela’s.

  Could she really do it? Take Liam to Sydney and send him to her old primary school? It felt impossible; like she was trying to send him back through time to her childhood. For a moment she felt dizzy again. This wasn’t happening. Of course she couldn’t take Liam out of school. His sea-creature project was due on Friday. He had Little Athletics on Saturday. She had a load of washing ready to go on the line, and a potential new client to see first thing tomorrow morning.

  But she saw that Will and Felicity were exchanging glances again, and her heart twisted. She looked at her watch. It was six-thirty pm. From upstairs she could hear the theme music for that unbearable show, The Biggest Loser. Liam must have switched off his DVD and changed it over to normal TV. In a minute he’d flick the channel looking for something with guns.

  ‘You get nothing for nothing!’ shouted someone from the television set.

  Tess hated the empty motivational phrases they used on that show.

  ‘I’ll get us on a flight tonight,’ she said.

  ‘Tonight?’ said Will. ‘You can’t take Liam on a flight tonight.’

  ‘Yes I can. There’ll be a nine pm flight. We’ll make it easily.’

  ‘Tess,’ Felicity said. ‘This is over the top. You really don’t need to –’

  ‘We’ll get out of your way,’ said Tess. ‘So you and Will can sleep together. Finally. Take my bed! I changed the sheets this morning.’

  Other things came into her head. Far worse things she could say.

  To Felicity: ‘He likes you on top, so lucky you lost all that weight!’

  To Will: ‘Don’t look too closely at all the stretch marks.’

  But no, they were the ones who should be feeling as sordid as a roadside motel. She stood up and smoothed down the front of her skirt.

  ‘So that’s that. You’ll just have to deal with the agency without me. Tell the clients there’s been a family emergency.’

  There certainly had been a family emergency.

  She went to pick up the row of Felicity’s half-full coffee cups, linking her fingers through as many handles as she could. Then she changed her mind, put the cups back down, and while Will and Felicity watched, she carefully selected the two fullest cups, lifted them up in the palms of her hands and, with a netballer’s careful aim, threw cold coffee straight at their stupid, earnest, sorry faces.

  chapter three

  Rachel had thought they were going to tell her that they were having another baby. That’s what made it so much worse. As soon as they’d walked into the house she’d known there was big news. They’d had the self-conscious, smug expressions of people who know they are about to make you sit up and listen.

  Rob had been talking more than usual. Lauren had been talking less than usual. Only Jacob had been his normal self, tearing through the house this way and that, flinging open the cupboards and drawers where he knew Rachel kept little treasure troves of toys and things she thought might interest him.

  Of course, Rachel never asked Lauren or Rob if they had something they wanted to tell her. She wasn’t that sort of grandma, not her. She took meticulous care when Lauren visited to be the perfect mother-in-law: caring but not cloying, interested but not nosy. She never criticised or even made so much as a suggestion about Jacob, not even to Rob when he was on his own, because she knew how much worse it would be for Lauren to hear, ‘Mum says . . .’ This wasn’t easy. A steady stream of suggestions ran silently through her head like those snippets of news that run along the bottom of the TV on CNN.

  For one thing, the child needed a haircut! Were the two of them blind that they hadn’t noticed the way Jacob kept blowing his hair out of his eyes? Also, the fabric of that dreadful Thomas the Tank shirt was much too scratchy on his skin. If he was wearing it on the day she had him, she always took it straight off and dressed him in a nice old soft T-shirt, and then madly re-dressed him when they were coming up the driveway.

  But what good had it done her? All her careful mother-in-lawing? She may as well have been the mother-in-law from hell. Because they were leaving, and taking Jacob with them, as if they had every right, which they did, she guessed, technically.

  There was no new baby. Lauren had been offered a job. A wonderful job in New York. It was a two-year contract. They told her at the dinner table when they were having dessert (Sara Lee apple custard turnover and ice cream). From their breathless elation you’d think Lauren had been offered a job in bloody paradise.

  Jacob was sitting on Rachel’s lap when they told her, his solid, square little body melting against hers with the divine limpness of a tired toddler. Rachel was breathing in the scent of his hair, her lips against the little dip in the centre of his neck.

  When she had first held Jacob in her arms and pressed her mouth to his tender, fragile scalp, it had felt as though she was being brought back to life, like a wilting plant being watered. His new baby scent had filled her lungs with oxygen. She’d actually felt her spine straighten, as if someone had finally released her from a heavy weight she’d been forced to carry for years. When she’d
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