Husbands secret, p.6
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       Husband's Secret, p.6

           Liane Moriarty


  chapter six

  Cecilia spent most of Sister Ursula’s funeral thinking about sex.

  Not kinky sex. Nice, married, approved-by-the-Pope sex. But still. Sister Ursula probably wouldn’t have appreciated it.

  ‘Sister Ursula was devoted to the children of St Angela’s.’ Father Joe gripped both sides of the lectern, gazing solemnly at the tiny group of mourners (although, truthfully now, was anyone in this entire church really mourning Sister Ursula?) and for a moment his eyes seemed to meet Cecilia’s as if for approval. Cecilia bobbed her head and smiled slightly to show him that he was doing a good job.

  Father Joe was only thirty and not an unattractive man. What made a man in this day and age choose the priesthood? Choose celibacy?

  So back to sex. Sorry, Sister Ursula.

  She first remembered noticing that there was a problem with their sex life last Christmas. She and John-Paul didn’t seem to be going to bed at the same time. Either he’d be up late, working or surfing the net, and she’d be asleep before he came to bed, or else he’d suddenly announce he was exhausted and go to bed at nine o’clock. The weeks slipped on by, and every now and then she’d think, ‘Gosh, it’s been a while’, and then forget about it.

  Then there was that night back in February when she’d gone out to dinner with some of the Year 4 mums and she’d drunk more than usual because Penny Maroni was driving. Cecilia had felt amorous when she’d got into bed, but John-Paul had brushed her hand away and mumbled, ‘Too tired. Leave me alone, you drunken woman.’ She’d laughed and fallen asleep, not at all offended. The next time he initiated sex she was going to make a jokey remark, like, ‘Oh, so now you want it.’ But she never got the opportunity. That’s when she started to register the days ticking on by. What was going on?

  She thought it had probably been about six months now, and the more time that passed, the more confused she got. Yet whenever the words started to form in her mouth, ‘Hey, what’s going on, honey?’, something stopped her. Sex had never been an issue of contention between them, the way she knew it was between many couples. She didn’t use it as a weapon or a bargaining tool. It was something unspoken and natural and beautiful. She didn’t want to ruin that.

  Maybe she just didn’t want to hear his answer.

  Or, worse, his lack of an answer. Last year John-Paul had taken up rowing. He’d loved it, and come home each Sunday raving about how much he enjoyed it. But then he’d unexpectedly, inexplicably quit the team. ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ he’d said when she’d kept asking, desperate for a reason. ‘Give it a rest.’

  John-Paul could be so odd at times.

  She hurried over the thought. Besides, she was pretty sure all men were odd at times.

  Also, six months wasn’t actually that long, was it? Not for a married middle-aged couple. Penny Maroni said they did it once a year if they were lucky.

  Recently, though, Cecilia had felt like a teenage boy, thinking constantly about sex. Mildly pornographic images flickered across her mind as she stood at the check-out. She chatted in the playground with the other parents about the upcoming excursion to Canberra while simultaneously remembering a hotel in Canberra where John-Paul had tied her wrists together with the blue plastic band the physio had given her for her ankle exercises.

  They’d left the blue band in the hotel room.

  Cecilia’s ankle still clicked when she turned it a certain way.

  How did Father Joe cope? She was a forty-two-year-old woman, an exhausted mother of three daughters, with menopause right there on the horizon, and she was desperate for sex, so surely Father Joe Mackenzie, a fit young man who got plenty of sleep, found it difficult.

  Did he masturbate? Were Catholic priests allowed, or was that considered not within the spirit of the whole celibacy thing?

  Wait, wasn’t masturbation a sin for everyone? This was something her non-Catholic friends would expect her to know. They seemed to think she was a walking Bible.

  Truth be told, if she ever had time to think about it, she wasn’t sure she was even that enthusiastic a fan of God any more. He seemed to have dropped the ball a long time ago. Appalling things happened to children, across the world, every single day. It was inexcusable.

  Little Spiderman.

  She closed her eyes, blinked the image away.

  Cecilia didn’t care what the fine print said about free will and God’s mysterious ways and blahdy blah. If God had a supervisor, she would have sent off one of her famous letters of complaint a long time ago. You have lost me as a customer.

  She looked at Father Joe’s humble smooth-skinned face. Once he’d told her that he found it ‘really interesting when people questioned their faith’. But she didn’t find her doubts all that relevant. She believed in Saint Angela’s with all her heart: the school, the parish, the community it represented. She believed that ‘Love one another’ was a lovely moral code by which to live her life. The sacraments were beautiful, timeless ceremonies. The Catholic Church was the team for which she’d always barracked. As for God, and whether he (or she!) was doing that great a job, well, that was another matter altogether.

  And yet everyone thought she was the ultimate Catholic.

  She thought of Bridget, saying at dinner the other night, ‘How did you get to be so Catholic?’ when Cecilia mentioned something perfectly ordinary about Polly’s First Confession next year (or Reconciliation as they called it these days), as if her sister hadn’t been quite the little liturgical dance queen when they were at school.

  Cecilia would have given her sister a kidney without hesitation, but sometimes she really wanted to straddle her and hold a pillow over her face. It had been an effective way of keeping her in line when they were kids. It was unfortunate the way adults had to repress their true feelings.

  Of course, Bridget would give Cecilia a kidney too. She’d just groan a lot more during the recovery process, and mention it at every opportunity, and make sure Cecilia covered all her expenses.

  Father Joe had wrapped things up. The scattered group of people in the church got to their feet for the final hymn with a gentle murmur of suppressed sighs, subdued coughs and the cracking of middle-aged knees. Cecilia caught Melissa McNulty’s eye across the aisle; Melissa raised her eyebrows to indicate, Aren’t we good people for coming to Sister Ursula’s funeral when she was so awful and we’re so busy?

  Cecilia gave her a rueful half-shrug that said, But isn’t that always the way?!

  She had a Tupperware order in the car to give to Melissa after the funeral, and she must remember to confirm with her that she would be taking care of Polly at ballet this afternoon, because she had Esther’s speech therapy and Isabel’s haircut. Speaking of which, Melissa really needed to get her colour redone. Her black roots looked dreadful. It was uncharitable of Cecilia to notice, but she couldn’t help but remember being on canteen with Melissa last month and hearing her complain about how her husband wanted sex every second day, like clockwork.

  As Cecilia sang along to ‘How Great Thou Art’, she thought about Bridget’s teasing remark at dinner and knew why it had bothered her.

  It was because of the sex. Because if she wasn’t having sex she wasn’t anything else except an uncool, middle-aged, frumpy mum. And, by the way, she was not frumpy. Just yesterday, a truck driver had given her a long slow wolf-whistle when she was running against the lights to buy coriander.

  The whistle had definitely been for her. She’d checked to make sure there hadn’t been any other younger, more attractive women in sight. The previous week she’d had the disconcerting experience of hearing someone whistle when she was walking with the girls through the shopping centre, and she’d turned to see Isabel looking resolutely ahead, her cheeks flushed pink. Isabel had suddenly shot up, she was already as tall as Cecilia, and she was starting to curve, in at the waist, out at the hips and bust. Lately she’d been wearing her hair up in a high ponytail with a heavy straight fringe hanging too low over
her eyes. She was growing up, and it wasn’t only her mother who was noticing.

  It’s starting, Cecilia had thought sadly. She wished she could give Isabel a shield, like the ones riot police held, to protect her from male attention: that feeling of being scored each time you walked down a street, the demeaning comments yelled out of cars, that casual sweep of the eyes. She’d wanted to sit down and talk to Isabel about it, but then she hadn’t known what to say. She’d never quite got her head around it herself. It’s no big deal. It is a big deal. They have no right to make you feel that way. Or, just ignore it, one day you’ll turn forty and you’ll slowly realise you don’t feel the eyes any more, and the freedom is a relief, but you’ll also sort of miss it, and when a truck driver whistles at you while you’re crossing the road, you’ll think, Really? For me?

  It had seemed like a really genuine, friendly whistle too.

  It was a little humiliating just how much time she’d devoted to analysing that whistle.

  Well, anyway, she certainly was not worried that John-Paul was having an affair. Definitely not. It wasn’t a possibility. Not even a remote possibility. He wouldn’t have time for an affair! When would he fit it in?

  He did travel a bit. He could fit in an affair then.

  Sister Ursula’s coffin was being carried from the church by four broad-shouldered, tousle-haired young men in suits and ties, with careful blank faces, who were supposedly her nephews. Fancy Sister Ursula sharing the same DNA as such attractive young boys. They’d probably spent the whole funeral thinking about sex too. Young boys like that with their roaring young libidos. The tallest one really was particularly good-looking with those dark, flashing eyes . . .

  Dear God. Now she was imagining having sex with one of Sister Ursula’s pallbearers. A child, by the look of him. He was probably still in high school. Her thoughts were not only immoral and inappropriate, but also illegal. (Was it illegal to think? To covet your third-grade teacher’s pallbearer?)

  When John-Paul got home from Chicago on Good Friday they would have sex every single night. They would rediscover their sex lives. It would be great. They’d always been so good together. She’d always assumed that they were having better quality sex than everyone else. It had been such a cheering thought at school functions.

  John-Paul couldn’t get better sex anywhere else. (Cecilia had read a lot of books. She kept her skills up to date, as if it were a professional obligation.) He had no need for an affair. Not to mention that he was one of the most ethical, rule-following people she knew. He wouldn’t cross a double yellow line for a million dollars. Infidelity was not an option for him. He just would not do it.

  That letter had nothing to do with an affair. She wasn’t even thinking about the letter! That’s how unconcerned she was about it. That fleeting moment last night when she’d thought he’d been lying on the phone was completely imaginary. The awkwardness over the letter was just because of the innate awkwardness of all long-distance phone calls. They were unnatural. You were on opposite sides of the world, at opposite ends of the day, so you couldn’t quite harmonise your voices: one person too upbeat, the other too mellow.

  Opening the letter would not result in some shocking revelation. It was not, for example, about another secret family he was supporting. John-Paul did not have the requisite organisational abilities to handle bigamy. He would have slipped up long ago. Turned up at the wrong house. Called one of his wives by the wrong name. He’d be constantly leaving his possessions at the other place.

  Unless, of course, his hopelessness was all part of his duplicitous cover.

  Perhaps he was gay. That’s why he’d gone off sex. He’d been faking his heterosexuality all these years. Well, he’d certainly done a good job of it. She thought back to the early years when they used to have sex three or four times in one day. That would really have been above and beyond the call of duty if he was only faking his interest.

  He quite enjoyed musicals. He loved Cats! And he was better at doing the girls’ hair than her. Whenever Polly had a ballet concert she insisted that John-Paul be the one to put her hair in a bun. He could talk arabesques and pirouettes with Polly as well as he could talk soccer with Isabel, and the Titanic with Esther. Also, he adored his mother. Weren’t gay men particularly close to their mothers? Or was that a myth?

  He owned an apricot polo shirt, and ironed it himself.

  Yes, he was probably gay.

  The hymn finished. Sister Ursula’s coffin left the church and there was a sense of a job well done as people picked up their bags and jackets and got ready to go on with their day.

  Cecilia put down her hymnbook. For heaven’s sake. Her husband was not gay. An image came to her of John-Paul marching up and down the sidelines at Isabel’s soccer match last weekend, calling out encouragement. Along with a day’s worth of silver stubble, he had two purple ballerina stickers stuck on each cheek. Polly had put them there to amuse herself. She felt a surge of love as she remembered. There was nothing effeminate about John-Paul. He was just comfortable in his own skin. He didn’t need to prove himself.

  The letter had nothing to do with the sex lull. It had nothing to do with anything. It was safely locked away in the filing cabinet in the red manila folder with the copies of their wills.

  She’d promised not to open it. So she couldn’t, and she wouldn’t.

  chapter seven

  ‘Do you know who died?’ asked Tess.

  ‘What’s that?’ Her mother had her eyes closed, her face lifted to the sun.

  They were in the St Angela’s primary school playground. Tess’s mother was in a wheelchair they’d hired from the local chemist, with her ankle propped up on the footrest. She had thought that her mother would hate being in a wheelchair but she seemed to quite enjoy it, sitting with perfect straight-backed posture, as if she were at a dinner party.

  They’d stopped for a moment in the morning sunshine while Liam explored the schoolyard. There were a few minutes to spare before they saw the school secretary to arrange Liam’s enrolment.

  Tess’s mother had arranged everything this morning. There would be no problem enrolling Liam in St Angela’s, Lucy had told Tess proudly. In fact they could do it that very day if they liked! ‘There’s no rush,’ Tess had said. ‘We don’t need to do anything until after Easter.’ She hadn’t asked her mother to ring the school. Wasn’t she entitled to do nothing but feel flabbergasted for at least twenty-four hours? Her mother was making everything seem far too real, and irrevocable, as if this nightmarish practical joke was actually happening.

  ‘I can cancel the appointment if you like,’ Lucy had said with a martyred air.

  ‘You made an appointment?’ asked Tess. ‘Without asking me?’

  ‘Well, I just thought we might as well bite the bullet.’

  ‘Fine,’ sighed Tess. ‘Let’s just do it.’

  Naturally, Lucy had insisted on coming along too. She would probably answer questions on Tess’s behalf, like she used to do when Tess was little and overcome with shyness when a stranger approached. Her mother had never really lost the habit of speaking on her behalf. It was a little embarrassing, but also quite nice and relaxing, like five-star service at a hotel. Why not sit back and let someone else do all the hard work for you?

  ‘Do you know who died?’ said Tess again.


  ‘The funeral,’ said Tess.

  The school playground adjoined the grounds of St Angela’s Church, and Tess could see a coffin being carried out to a hearse by four young pallbearers.

  Someone’s life was over. Someone would never feel the sunshine on their face again. Tess tried to let that thought put her own pain into perspective, but it didn’t help. She wondered if Will and Felicity were having sex right at this minute, in her bed. It was midmorning. They didn’t have anywhere else to go. The thought of it felt like incest to her. Dirty and wrong. She shuddered. There was a bitter taste at the back of her throat, as if she’d had a night out drinking cheap
wine. Her eyes felt gritty.

  The weather wasn’t helping. It was far too lovely, mocking her pain. Sydney was bathed in a haze of gold. The Japanese maples at the front of the school were aflame with colour; the camellia blossoms were a rich, lush crimson. There were pots of bright red, yellow, apricot and cream begonias outside the classrooms. The long sandstone lines of St Angela’s Church were sharply defined against the cobalt blue of the sky. The world is so beautiful, said Sydney to Tess. What’s your problem?

  She tried to smooth away the jagged edge of her voice. ‘You don’t know whose funeral it is?’

  She didn’t really care whose funeral it was. She just wanted to hear words; words about anything, to make those images of Will’s hands on Felicity’s newly slender white body go away. Porcelain skin. Tess’s skin was darker, a legacy from her father’s side of the family. There was a Lebanese great-grandmother who had died before Tess was born.

  Will had called her mobile that morning. She should have ignored it, but when she’d seen his name she’d felt an involuntary spark of hope and snatched up the phone. He was calling to tell her that this was all a mistake. Of course he was.

  But as soon as he spoke in that awful new, heavy, solemn voice, without a hint of laughter, the hope vanished. ‘Are you okay?’ he asked. ‘Is Liam all right?’ He was speaking as if there had been a recent tragedy in their lives that had nothing to do with him.

  She was desperate to tell the real Will what this new Will, this humourless intruder, had done; how he’d crushed her heart. The real Will would want to fix things for her. The real Will would be straight on the phone, making a complaint about the way his wife had been treated, demanding recompense. The real Will would make her a cup of tea, run her a bath and, finally, make her see the funny side of what had just happened to her.

  Except, this time, there was no funny side.

  Her mother opened her eyes and turned her head to squint up at Tess. ‘I think it must be for that dreadful little nun.’

  Tess raised her eyebrows to indicate mild shock, and her mother grinned, pleased with herself. She was so determined to make Tess happy she was like a club entertainer, frantically trying out edgy new material to keep the crowd in their seats. This morning, when she was struggling with the lid on the Vegemite jar, she’d actually used the word ‘motherfucker’, carefully sounding out the syllables, so that the word didn’t sound any more profane than ‘leprechaun’.

  Her mother had pulled out the most shocking swear word in her vocabulary because she was ablaze with anger on her behalf. Lucy saying ‘motherfucker’ was like a meek and mild law-abiding citizen suddenly transformed into a gun-wielding vigilante. That’s why she’d got on the phone to the school so fast. Tess understood. She wanted to take action, to do something, anything, on Tess’s behalf.

  ‘Which particular dreadful little nun?’

  ‘Where’s Liam?’ Her mother twisted around awkwardly in her wheelchair.

  ‘Right there,’ said Tess. Liam was wandering about, checking out the playground equipment with the jaded eye of a six-year-old expert. He hunkered down on his knees at the bottom of a big yellow funnel-shaped slide and poked his head up inside as if he was doing a safety audit.

  ‘I lost sight of him for a moment.’

  ‘You don’t have to keep him in sight all the time,’ said Tess mildly. ‘That’s sort of my job.’

  ‘Of course it is.’

  At breakfast this morning they’d both wanted to take care of each other. Tess had had the advantage because she had two working ankles and had therefore been able to get the kettle boiled and the tea made in the time it had taken her mother to reach for her crutches.

  Tess watched Liam wander over to the corner of the playground under the fig tree where she and Felicity used to sit and eat their lunch with Eloise Bungonia. Eloise had introduced them to cannelloni. (A mistake for someone with Felicity’s metabolism.) Mrs Bungonia used to send enough for the three of them. It was before childhood obesity was an issue. Tess could still taste it. Divine.

  She watched Liam become still, staring off into space as if he could see his mother eating cannelloni for the first time.

  It was disconcerting, being here at her old school, as if time was a blanket that had been folded up, so that different times were overlapping, pressed against each other.

  She would have to remind Felicity about Mrs Bungonia’s cannelloni.

  No. No she wouldn’t.

  Liam suddenly pivoted and karate-kicked the rubbish bin so that it clanged.

  ‘Liam,’ remonstrated Tess, but not really loud enough for him to hear.

  ‘Liam! Shhh!’ called her mother, louder, putting a finger to her lips and pointing towards the church. A small group of mourners had come out and were standing about talking to each other in that restrained, relieved way of funeral attendees.

  Liam didn’t kick the bin again. He was an obedient child. Instead he picked up a stick and held it in two hands like a machine-gun, aiming it silently around the schoolyard, while the sound of sweet little voices singing ‘Incy Wincy Spider’ floated out of one of the kindergarten classrooms. Oh, God, thought Tess, where he had learned to do that? She had to be more vigilant about those computer games, although she couldn’t help admiring the authentic way he narrowed his eyes like a soldier. She would tell Will about it later. He’d laugh.

  No, she wouldn’t tell Will about it later.

  Her brain couldn’t seem to catch up with the news. It was like the way she’d kept rolling towards Will last night in her sleep, only to find empty space where he should have been, and then waking up with a jolt. She and Will slept well together. No twitching or snoring or battling for blankets. ‘I can’t sleep properly without you now,’ Will had complained after they’d only been dating a few months. ‘You’re like a favourite pillow. I have to pack you wherever I go.’

  ‘Which particular dreadful nun died?’ Tess asked her mother again, her eyes on the mourners. Now was not the time to be pulling out old memories like that.

  ‘They weren’t all dreadful,’ reflected her mother. ‘Most of them were lovely. What about Sister Margaret Ann who came to your tenth birthday party? She was beautiful. I think your father quite fancied her.’


  ‘Well, probably not.’ Her mother shrugged as if not being attracted to beautiful nuns was yet another example of her ex-husband’s failings. ‘Anyway, this must be the funeral for Sister Ursula. I read in the parish newsletter last week that she’d died. I don’t think she ever taught you, did she? Apparently she
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