Husbands secret, p.4
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       Husband's Secret, p.4

           Liane Moriarty
 

  walked out into the hospital car park, she’d been able to see colour seeping back into the world.

  ‘We’re hoping you’ll come and visit us,’ said Lauren.

  Lauren was a ‘career woman’. She worked for the Commonwealth Bank doing something very high up and stressful and important. She earned more than Rob. This wasn’t a secret. In fact, Rob seemed proud of it, mentioning it more than seemed necessary. If Ed had ever heard his son showing off about his wife’s pay packet he would have curled up and died, so it was lucky that he had . . . well, curled up and died.

  Rachel had also worked for the Commonwealth Bank before she got married, although this coincidence had never come up in their conversations about Lauren’s work. Rachel didn’t know if her son had forgotten this fact about his mother’s life, or never knew it, or just didn’t find it that interesting. Of course, Rachel understood very well that her little bank job, the one she gave up as soon as she got married, bore no similarity to Lauren’s ‘career’. Rachel couldn’t conceive what Lauren actually did each day. All she knew was that it was something to do with ‘project management’.

  You would think someone so good at project management could manage the project of packing a bag for Jacob when he came to stay the night, but apparently not. Lauren always seemed to forget something essential.

  No more nights with Jacob. No more bath time. No more stories. No more dancing to the Wiggles in the living room. It felt like he was dying. She had to remind herself that he was still alive, sitting right here on her lap.

  ‘Yeah, you’ve got to come and see us in New York City, Mum!’ said Rob. He sounded like he already had an American accent. His teeth caught the light as he smiled at his mother. Those teeth had cost Ed and Rachel a small fortune. Rob’s strong straight piano-key teeth would be right at home in America.

  ‘Get yourself your first ever passport, Mum! You could even see a bit of America if you wanted. Go on one of those bus tours. Or, I know, do one of those Alaskan cruises!’

  She wondered sometimes whether, if their lives hadn’t been divided so cleanly as if by a giant wall – before 6 April 1984, after 6 April 1984 – Rob would have grown up differently. Not quite so relentlessly upbeat, not quite so much like a real estate agent. Mind you, he was a real estate agent, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when he behaved like one.

  ‘I want to do one of those Alaskan cruises,’ said Lauren. She put her hand over Rob’s. ‘I’ve always imagined us doing one when we’re old and grey.’

  Then she coughed, probably because she remembered that Rachel was old and grey.

  ‘It certainly would be interesting.’ Rachel took a sip of her tea. ‘Maybe a little chilly.’

  Were they mad? Rachel did not want to do an Alaskan cruise. She wanted to sit on the back step in the sunshine and blow bubbles for Jacob in the backyard and watch him laugh. She wanted to see him grow week by week.

  And she wanted them to have another baby. Soon. Lauren was thirty-nine! Just last week Rachel had told Marla that there was plenty of time for Lauren to have another baby. They had them so late these days, she’d said. But that was when she’d secretly thought there was going to be an announcement any minute. In fact, she’d been planning for that second baby (just like an ordinary, interfering mother-in-law). She had decided that when the baby came, she’d retire. She loved her job at St Angela’s but in two years she’d be seventy (seventy!) and she was getting tired. Looking after two children two days a week would be enough for her. She’d assumed this was her future. She could almost feel the weight of the new baby in her arms.

  Why didn’t the damned girl want another baby? Didn’t they want to give Jacob a little brother or sister? What was so special about New York, with all those beeping horns and steam billowing oddly from holes in the street? For Pete’s sake, the girl went back to work three months after Jacob was born. It wasn’t like having a baby would be that big an inconvenience for her.

  If someone had asked Rachel that morning about her life, she would have said that it was full and satisfying. She looked after Jacob on Mondays and Fridays, and the rest of the time he was in day care while Lauren sat at her desk in the city, managing her projects. When Jacob was at day care Rachel worked at St Angela’s as the school secretary. She had her work, her gardening, her friend Marla, her stack of library books and two whole precious days a week with her grandson. Jacob often stayed overnight with her on the weekend too, so that Rob and Lauren could go out. They liked going out, those two, to their fancy restaurants, the theatre and the opera, do you mind. Ed would have guffawed over that.

  If someone had asked, ‘Are you happy?’ she would have said, ‘I’m as happy as I can be.’

  She had no idea that her life was so flimsily constructed, like a stack of cards, and that Rob and Lauren could march in here on a Monday night and cheerfully help themselves to the one card that mattered. Remove the Jacob card and her life collapsed, floated softly to the ground.

  Rachel pressed her lips to Jacob’s head and tears filled her eyes.

  Not fair. Not fair. Not fair.

  ‘Two years will go so quickly,’ said Lauren, her eyes on Rachel.

  ‘Like this!’ Rob clicked his fingers.

  For you, thought Rachel.

  ‘Or we might not even stay the full two years,’ said Lauren.

  ‘Then again, you might end up staying for good!’ said Rachel, with a big bright smile, to show that she was a woman of the world and she knew how these things worked.

  She thought of the Russell twins, Lucy and Mary, and how both their daughters had gone to live in Melbourne. ‘They’ll end up staying there,’ Lucy had said sadly to Rachel one Sunday after church. It was years and years ago, but it had stuck in Rachel’s head, because Lucy had been right. The last Rachel had heard, the cousins – Lucy’s shy little girl and Mary’s plump daughter with the beautiful eyes – were still in Melbourne and were there for good.

  But Melbourne was a hop, skip and a jump away. You could fly to Melbourne for the day if you wanted. Lucy and Mary did it all the time. You couldn’t fly to New York for the day.

  And then there were people like Virginia Fitzpatrick, who job-shared (in a manner of speaking) the school secretary’s position with Rachel. Virginia had six sons and fourteen grandchildren, and most of them lived within a twenty-minute radius on Sydney’s North Shore. If one of Virginia’s children decided to go to New York, she probably wouldn’t even notice, she had so many grandchildren to spare.

  Rachel should have had more children. She should have been a good Catholic wife and mother and had at least six, but no, she hadn’t, because of her vanity, because she’d secretly thought she was special; different from all those other women. God knows exactly how she’d thought she was special. It wasn’t like she’d had any specific aspirations of career, or travel, or whatever; not like girls did these days.

  ‘When do you leave?’ Rachel said to Lauren and Rob as Jacob slid from her lap unexpectedly, and bolted into the living room on one of his urgent missions. A moment later she heard the sound of the television start up. The clever little thing had worked out how to use the remote control.

  ‘Not till August,’ said Lauren. ‘We’ve got lots to sort out. Visas and so on. We’ll have to find an apartment, a nanny for Jacob.’

  A nanny for Jacob.

  ‘Job for me.’ Rob sounded a little nervous.

  ‘Oh, yes, darling,’ said Rachel. She did try to take her son seriously. She really did. ‘A job for you. In real estate, do you think?’

  ‘Not sure yet,’ said Rob. ‘We’ll have to see. I might end up being a house husband.’

  ‘So sorry I never taught him how to cook,’ said Rachel to Lauren, not especially sorry. Rachel had never been much interested in cooking or that good at it; it was just another chore that had to be done, like the laundry. The way people went on these days about cooking.

  ‘That’s okay,’ beamed Lauren. ‘We’ll probably eat out a lot in New
York. The city that never sleeps, you know!’

  ‘Although, of course, Jacob will need to sleep,’ said Rachel. ‘Or will the nanny feed him while you’re out for dinner?’

  Lauren’s smile wavered and she glanced at Rob, who was oblivious, of course.

  The volume of the television suddenly increased, so the house boomed with cinematic sound. A male voice shouted, ‘You get nothing for nothing!’

  Rachel recognised the voice. It was one of the trainers on The Biggest Loser. She liked that show. She found it soothing to get caught up in a brightly coloured, plastic world where all that mattered was how much you ate and exercised, where pain and anguish were suffered over no greater tragedy than push-ups, where people spoke intensely about calories and sobbed joyfully over lost kilos. And then they all lived happily, skinnily ever after.

  ‘You playing with the remote again, Jake?’ called out Rob over the noise of the TV. He left the table and went into the living room.

  He was always the first to get up and go to Jacob. Never Lauren. Right from the beginning he’d changed nappies. Ed had never changed a nappy in his life. Of course all the daddies changed nappies these days. It probably didn’t hurt them. It just made Rachel feel awkward, almost embarrassed, as if they were doing something inappropriate, too feminine. How the girls of today would shriek if she was to ever admit to that!

  ‘Rachel,’ said Lauren.

  Rachel saw that Lauren was looking at her nervously, as if she had a large favour to ask. Yes, Lauren, I’ll take care of Jacob while you and Rob live in New York. For two years? No problem. Off you go. Have a lovely time.

  ‘This Friday,’ said Lauren. ‘Good Friday. I know that it’s, ah, the anniversary –’

  Rachel froze. ‘Yes,’ she said in her chilliest voice. ‘Yes it is.’ She had no desire to discuss this Friday with Lauren, of all people. Her body had known weeks ago that Friday was coming up. It happened every year in the last days of summer, when she felt that very first hint of crispness in the air. She’d feel a tension in her muscles, a prickling sense of horror, and then she’d remember: Of course. Here comes another autumn. A pity. She used to love autumn.

  ‘I understand that you go to the park,’ said Lauren, as if they were discussing the venue for an upcoming cocktail party. ‘It’s just that I wondered –’

  Rachel couldn’t bear it.

  ‘Would you mind if we didn’t talk about it? Just not right now? Another time?’

  ‘Of course!’ Lauren flushed, and Rachel felt a pang of guilt. She rarely played that card. It made her feel cheap.

  ‘I’ll make us a cup of tea,’ she said, and began to stack the plates.

  ‘Let me help.’ Lauren half-stood.

  ‘Leave that,’ ordered Rachel.

  ‘If you’re sure.’ Lauren pushed a lock of strawberry-blonde hair behind her ear. She was a pretty girl. The first time Rob had brought her home to meet Rachel he’d barely been able to contain his pride. It had reminded her of his rosy plump face when he’d brought home a new painting from preschool.

  What had happened to their family in 1984 should have made Rachel love her son even more, but it didn’t. It was like she’d lost her ability to love, until Jacob was born. By then, she and Rob had developed a relationship that was perfectly nice; but it was like that dreadful carob chocolate – as soon as you tasted it you knew it was just a wrong, sad imitation. So Rob had every right to take Jacob away from her. She deserved it for not loving him enough. This was her penance. Two hundred Hail Marys and your grandson goes to New York. There was always a price, and Rachel always had to pay it in full. No discounts. Just like she’d paid for her mistake in 1984.

  Rob was making Jacob giggle now. Wrestling with him, probably, hanging him upside down by his ankles, the same way Ed used to wrestle with him.

  ‘Here comes the . . . TICKLE MONSTER!’ cried Rob.

  Peal after peal of Jacob’s laughter floated into the room like streams of bubbles and Rachel and Lauren both laughed together. It was irresistible, like they were being tickled themselves. Their eyes met across the table, and at that instant Rachel’s laughter turned into a sob.

  ‘Oh, Rachel.’ Lauren half-rose from her seat and reached out a perfectly manicured hand (she had a manicure, a pedicure and a massage every third Saturday. She called it ‘Lauren time’. Rob brought Jacob over to Rachel’s place, whenever it was ‘Lauren time’, and they walked to the park on the corner and ate egg sandwiches). ‘I’m so sorry, I know how much you’ll miss Jacob, but –’

  Rachel took a deep shaky breath and pulled herself together with all the strength that she had, as if she was heaving herself back up from a cliff edge.

  ‘Don’t be silly,’ she said so sharply that Lauren flinched and dropped back into her seat. ‘I’ll be fine. This is a wonderful opportunity for you all.’

  She began stacking their dessert plates, roughly scraping leftover Sara Lee into a messy, unappealing pile of food.

  ‘By the way,’ she said, just before she left the room, ‘that child needs a haircut.’

  chapter four

  ‘John-Paul? Are you there?’

  Cecilia pressed the phone so hard to her ear that it hurt.

  Finally he spoke. ‘Have you opened it?’ His voice was thin and reedy, like a querulous old man in a nursing home.

  ‘No,’ said Cecilia. ‘You’re not dead, so I thought I’d better not.’ She’d been trying for a flippant tone, but she sounded shrill, as if she was nagging him.

  There was silence again. She heard someone with an American accent call out, ‘Sir! This way, sir!’

  ‘Hello?’ said Cecilia.

  ‘Could you please not open it? Would you mind? I wrote it a long time ago, when Isabel was a baby, I think. It’s sort of embarrassing. I thought I’d lost it actually. Where did you find it?’

  He sounded self-conscious, as if he was talking to her in front of people he didn’t know that well.

  ‘Are you with someone?’ asked Cecilia.

  ‘No. I’m just having breakfast here in the hotel restaurant.’

  ‘I found it when I was in the attic, looking for my piece of the Berlin – anyway, I knocked over one of your shoeboxes and there it was.’

  ‘I must have been doing my taxes around the same time as I wrote it,’ said John-Paul. ‘What an idiot. I remember I looked and looked for it. I thought I was losing my mind. I couldn’t believe I would lose . . .’ His voice faded. ‘Well.’

  He sounded so contrite, so full of what seemed like excessive remorse.

  ‘Well, that doesn’t matter.’ Now she sounded motherly, like she was talking to one of the girls. ‘But what made you write it in the first place?’

  ‘Just an impulse. I guess I was all emotional. Our first baby. It got me thinking about my dad and the things he didn’t get to say after he died. Things left unsaid. All the clichés. It just says sappy stuff, about how much I love you. Nothing earth-shattering. I can’t really remember to be honest.’

  ‘So why can’t I open it then?’ She put on a wheedling voice that slightly sickened her. ‘What’s the big deal?’

  Silence again.

  ‘It’s not a big deal, but Cecilia, please, I’m asking you not to open it.’ He sounded quite desperate. For heaven’s sake! What a fuss. Men were so ridiculous about emotional stuff.

  ‘Fine. I won’t open it. Let’s hope I don’t get to read it for another fifty years.’

  ‘Unless I outlast you.’

  ‘No chance. You eat too much red meat. I bet you’re eating bacon right now.’

  ‘And I bet you fed those poor girls fish tonight, didn’t you?’ He was making a joke, but he still sounded tense.

  ‘Is that Daddy?’ Polly skidded into the room. ‘I need to talk to him urgently!’

  ‘Here’s Polly,’ said Cecilia, as Polly attempted to pull the phone from her grasp. ‘Polly, stop it. Just a moment. Talk to you tomorrow. Love you.’

  ‘Love you too,’ she heard him say as Polly
grabbed the phone. She ran from the room with it pressed to her ear. ‘Daddy, listen, I need to tell you something, and it’s quite a big secret.’

  Polly loved secrets. She hadn’t stopped talking about them, or sharing them, ever since she’d learned of their existence at the age of two.

  ‘Let your sisters talk to him too!’ called out Cecilia.

  She picked up her cup of tea and placed the letter next to her, squaring it up with the edge of the table. So that was that. Nothing to worry about. She would file it away and forget about it.

  He’d been embarrassed. That was all. It was sweet.

  Of course, now she’d promised not to open it, she couldn’t. It would have been better not to have mentioned it. She’d finish her tea and make a start on that slice.

  She pulled Esther’s book about the Berlin Wall over, flipped the pages and stopped at a photo of a young boy with an angelic, serious face that reminded her a little of John-Paul, the way he’d looked as a young man, when she’d first fallen in love with him. John-Paul had always taken great care with his hair, using a lot of gel to sculpt it into place, and he’d been quite adorably serious, even when he was drunk (they were often drunk in those early days). His gravity used to make Cecilia feel girly and giggly. They’d been together for ages before he’d revealed a lighter side.

  The boy, she read, was Peter Fechter, an eighteen-year-old bricklayer who was one of the first people to die trying to escape the Berlin Wall. He was shot in the pelvis and fell back into the ‘death strip’ on the Eastern side, where he took an hour to bleed to death. Hundreds of witnesses on both sides watched, but nobody offered him medical assistance, although some people threw him bandages.

  ‘For heaven’s sake,’ said Cecilia crossly, and pushed the book away. What a thing for Esther to read, to know, that such things were possible.

  Cecilia would have helped that boy. She would have marched straight out there. She would have called for an ambulance. She would have shouted, ‘What’s wrong with you people?’

  Who knew what she would have done really? Probably nothing, if it meant the risk of being shot herself. She was a mother. She needed to be alive. Death strips were not part of her life. Nature strips. Shopping strips. She’d never been tested. She probably never would be tested.

  ‘Polly! You’ve been talking to him for hours! Dad is probably bored!’ yelled Isabel.

  Why must they always be yelling? The girls missed their father desperately when he was away. He was more patient with them than Cecilia, and right from when they were little he’d always been prepared to be involved in their lives in ways Cecilia quite honestly couldn’t be bothered. He played endless tea parties with Polly, holding tiny teacups with his little finger held out. He listened thoughtfully to Isabel talk on and on about the latest drama with her friends. It was always a relief for them all when John-Paul came home. ‘Take the little darlings!’ Cecilia would cry, and he would, driving them off on some adventure, bringing them back hours later, sandy and sticky.

  ‘Daddy does not think I’m boring!’ screamed Polly.

  ‘Give the phone to your sister right now!’ yelled Cecilia.

  There was a scuffle in the hallway and Polly reappeared in the kitchen. She came and sat down at the table with Cecilia and put her head in her hands.

  Cecilia slid John-Paul’s letter in between the pages of Esther’s book and looked at her six-year-old daughter’s beautiful little heart-shaped face. Polly was a genetic anomaly. John-Paul was good-looking (a ‘spunk’ they used to call him) and Cecilia was attractive enough in low lighting, but somehow they’d managed to produce one daughter who was in a different league altogether. Polly looked just like Snow White: black hair, brilliant blue eyes and ruby lips: genuinely ruby lips; people thought she was wearing lipstick. Her two elder sisters with their ash-blonde hair and freckled noses were beautiful to their parents, but it was only Polly who consistently turned heads in shopping centres. ‘Far too pretty for her own good,’ Cecilia’s mother-in-law had observed the other day and Cecilia had been irritated but at the same time she’d understood. What did it do to your personality to have the one thing that every woman craved? Cecilia had noticed that beautiful woman held themselves differently; they swayed like palm trees in the breeze of all that attention. Cecilia wanted her daughters to run and stride and stomp. She didn’t want Polly to bloody sway.

  ‘Do you want to know the secret I told Daddy?’ Polly looked up at her through her eyelashes.

  Polly would sway all right. Cecilia could see it already.

  ‘That’s okay,’ said Cecilia. ‘You don’t need to tell me.’

  ‘The secret is that I’ve decided to invite Mr Whitby to my pirate party,’ said Polly.

  Polly’s seventh birthday was the week after Easter. Her pirate party had been a popular topic of conversation for the last month.

  ‘Polly,’ said Cecilia. ‘We’ve talked about this.’

  Mr Whitby was the PE teacher at St Angela’s and Polly was in love with him. Cecilia didn’t know what it said about Polly’s future relationships that her first crush was a man who appeared to be about the same age as her father. She was meant to be in love with teenage popstars, not a middle-aged man with a shaved head. It was true that Mr Whitby had something. He was very broad chested and athletic looking and he rode a motorbike and listened with his eyes, but it was the school mums who were meant to feel his sex appeal (which they certainly did; Cecilia herself was not immune), not his six-year-old students.

  ‘We’re not asking Mr Whitby to your party,’ said Cecilia. ‘It wouldn’t be fair. Otherwise he’d feel like he had to come to everyone’s parties.’

  ‘He’d want to come to mine.’

  ‘No.’

  ‘We’ll talk about it another time,’ said Polly airily, pushing her chair back from the table.

  ‘We won’t!’ Cecilia called after her, but Polly had sauntered off.

  Cecilia sighed. Well. Lots to do. She stood and pulled John-Paul’s letter
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