Husbands secret, p.7
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       Husband's Secret, p.7

           Liane Moriarty
 

  was a great one for smacking with the handle of the feather duster. Nobody uses feather dusters much these days, do they? Is the world a dustier place for it, I wonder?’

  ‘I think I remember Sister Ursula,’ said Tess. ‘Red face and caterpillar eyebrows. We used to hide from her when she was on playground duty.’

  ‘I’m not sure if there are any nuns teaching at the school any more,’ said her mother. ‘They’re a dying breed.’

  ‘Literally,’ said Tess.

  Her mother chortled. ‘Oh dear, I didn’t mean –’ She stopped, distracted by something at the church entrance. ‘Okay, darling, steel yourself. We’ve just been spotted by one of the parish ladies.’

  ‘What?’ Tess was immediately filled with a sense of dread, as if her mother had said they’d just been spotted by a passing sniper.

  A petite blonde woman had detached herself from the mourners and was briskly walking towards the schoolyard.

  ‘Cecilia Fitzpatrick,’ said her mother. ‘The eldest Bell girl. Married John-Paul, the eldest Fitzpatrick boy. The best looking one if you want my opinion, although they’re all much of a muchness. Cecilia had a younger sister, I think, who might have been in your year. Let’s see now. Bridget Bell?’

  Tess was about to say she’d never heard of them, but a memory of the Bell girls was gradually emerging in her mind like a reflection on water. She couldn’t visualise their faces, just their long blonde stringy plaits flying behind them as they ran through the school, doing whatever those kids did who were at the centre of things.

  ‘Cecilia sells Tupperware,’ said Tess’s mother. ‘Makes an absolute fortune from it.’

  ‘But she doesn’t know us, does she?’ Tess looked hopefully over her shoulder to see if there might be someone else waving back at Cecilia. There was no one. Was she on her way over to spruik Tupperware?

  ‘Cecilia knows everyone,’ said her mother.

  ‘Can’t we make a run for it?’

  ‘Too late now.’ Her mother spoke through the side of her mouth as she smiled her toothy social smile.

  ‘Lucy!’ said Cecilia as she arrived in front of them, faster than Tess had thought possible. It was like she’d teleported herself. She bent to kiss Tess’s mother. ‘What have you done to yourself?’

  Don’t you call my mother Lucy, thought Tess, taking an instant, childish dislike. Mrs O’Leary, thank you! Now that she was right in front of them, Tess remembered Cecilia’s face perfectly well. She had a small, neat head – the plaits had been replaced with one of those crisp, artful bobs – an eager, open face, a noticeable overbite, and two ridiculously huge dimples. She was like a pretty little ferret.

  (And yet she’d landed a Fitzpatrick boy.)

  ‘I saw you when I came out of the church – Sister Ursula’s funeral, did you hear she’d passed? Anyway, I caught sight of you, and I thought, That’s Lucy O’Leary in a wheelchair! What’s going on? So being the nosey parker that I am, I came over to say hello! Looks like a good-quality wheelchair, did you hire it from the chemist? But what happened, Lucy? Your ankle, is it?’

  Oh Lord. Tess could feel her entire personality being drained from her body. Those talkative, energetic people always left her feeling that way.

  ‘It’s nothing too serious, thanks Cecilia,’ said Tess’s mother. ‘Just a broken ankle.’

  ‘Oh no, but that is serious, you poor thing! How are you coping? How are you getting about? I’ll bring over a lasagne for you. No, I will. I insist. You’re not vegetarian, are you? But that’s why you’re here, I guess, is it?’ Without warning, Cecilia turned to look at Tess, who took an involuntary step backwards. What did she mean? Something to do with vegetarianism. ‘To look after your mum? I’m Cecilia by the way, if you don’t remember me!’

  ‘Cecilia, this is my daughter –’ began Tess’s mother, only to be cut off by Cecilia.

  ‘Of course. Tess, isn’t it?’ Cecilia turned and to Tess’s surprise held out her hand to shake in a businesslike way. Tess had been thinking of Cecilia as someone from her mother’s era, an old-fashioned Catholic lady who used Catholic words like ‘passed’ and would therefore stand back smiling sweetly while the men did the manly business of shaking hands. Her hand was small and dry, her grip strong.

  ‘And this must be your son?’ Cecilia smiled brightly in Liam’s direction. ‘Liam?’

  Jesus. She even knew Liam’s name. How was that possible? Tess didn’t even know if Cecilia had children. She’d forgotten her very existence until thirty seconds ago.

  Liam looked over, aimed his stick straight at Cecilia and pulled the imaginary trigger.

  ‘Liam!’ said Tess, at the same time as Cecilia groaned, clutched her chest and buckled at the knees. She did it so well, for an awful moment Tess worried that she really was collapsing.

  Liam held the stick up to his mouth, blew on it and grinned, delighted.

  ‘How long do you think you’ll be in Sydney for?’ Cecilia locked eyes with Tess. She was one of those people who held eye contact for too long. The polar opposite of Tess. ‘Just until you’ve got Lucy back on her feet? You run a business in Melbourne, don’t you? I guess you can’t be away for too long! And Liam must be in school?’

  Tess found herself unable to speak.

  ‘Tess is actually enrolling Liam in St Angela’s for a . . . short time,’ spoke up Lucy.

  ‘Oh, that’s wonderful!’ said Cecilia. Her eyes were still fixed on Tess. Good Lord, did the woman ever blink? ‘So let’s see now, how old is Liam?’

  ‘Six,’ said Tess. She dropped her eyes, unable to bear it any longer.

  ‘Well then, he’ll be in Polly’s class. We had a little girl leave earlier in the year, so you’ll be in with us. 1J. Mrs Jeffers. Mary Jeffers. She’s wonderful by the way. Very social too, which is nice!’

  ‘Great,’ said Tess weakly. Fabulous.

  ‘Liam! Now you’ve shot me, come and say hello! I hear you’re coming to St Angela’s!’ Cecilia beckoned to Liam and he wandered over, dragging his stick behind him.

  Cecilia bent at the knees so she was at Liam’s eye level. ‘I have a little girl who will be in your class. Her name is Polly. She’s having her seventh birthday party the weekend after Easter. Would you like to come?’ Liam’s face instantly got the blank look that always made Tess worry people would think he had some kind of disability.

  ‘It’s going to be a pirate party.’ Cecilia straightened and turned to Tess. ‘I hope you can come. It will be a good way for you to meet all the mums. We’ll have a private little oasis for the grown-ups. Guzzle champagne while the little pirates rampage about.’

  Tess felt her own face fold up. Liam had probably inherited his catatonic look from her. She could not meet another brand-new group of mothers. She’d found socialising with the school mums difficult enough when her life was in perfect order. The chat, chat, chat, the swirls of laughter, the warmth, the friendliness (most mums were so very nice) and the gentle hint of bitchiness than ran beneath it all. She’d done it in Melbourne. She’d made a few friends on the outskirts of the inner social circle, but she couldn’t do it again. Not now. She didn’t have the strength. It was like someone had cheerfully suggested she run a marathon when she’d just dragged herself out of bed after suffering from the flu.

  ‘Great,’ she said. She would make up an excuse later.

  ‘I’ll make Liam a pirate costume,’ said Tess’s mother. ‘An eye patch, a red and white striped top, ooh and a sword! You’d love a sword, wouldn’t you, Liam?’

  She looked around for Liam, but he’d run off and was using his gun like a drill against the back fence.

  ‘Of course, we’d love to have you at the party too, Lucy,’ said Cecilia. She was highly irritating, but her social skills were impeccable. For Tess, it was like watching someone play the violin beautifully. You couldn’t conceive how they did it.

  ‘Oh, well, thank you, Cecilia!’ Tess’s mother was delighted. She loved parties. Especially the food. ‘Let’s see now, a r
ed and white striped top for a pirate costume. Has he already got one, Tess?’

  If Cecilia was a violinist, Tess’s mother was a folksy, well-meaning guitarist trying her best to play the same tune.

  ‘I mustn’t keep you. I guess you’re off to see Rachel now in the office?’ asked Cecilia.

  ‘We’ve got an appointment with the school secretary,’ said Tess. She had no idea of the woman’s name.

  ‘Yes, Rachel Crowley,’ said Cecilia. ‘So efficient. Runs the place like a Swiss watch. She actually shares the job with my mother-in-law, although between you and me and the gatepost, I think Rachel does all the work. Virginia just chats on her days. Not that I can talk. Well, actually, that’s my point, I can talk.’ She laughed merrily at herself.

  ‘How is Rachel these days?’ asked Tess’s mother significantly.

  Cecilia’s ferrety face got all sombre. ‘I don’t know her that well, but I do know she has a beautiful little grandson. Jacob. He just turned two.’

  ‘Ah,’ breathed Lucy, as if that solved everything. ‘That’s good to hear. Jacob.’

  ‘Well, it was so nice to meet you, Tess,’ said Cecilia, fixing her again with her unblinking stare. ‘I must skedaddle. I’ve got to get to my Zumba class, I go to the gym down the road, it’s great, you should try it sometime, just hilarious, and then I’m going straight to this party-supply place in Strathfield, it’s a bit of a drive but it’s worth it because the prices are amazing, seriously, you can get a helium balloon kit for under fifty dollars, and that gives you over a hundred balloons, and I’m doing so many parties over the next few months – Polly’s pirate party, and the Year 1 parents party – which of course you’ll be invited to as well! – and then I’m dropping off a few Tupperware orders, I do Tupperware by the way, Tess, if you need anything, anyway, all that before school pick-up! You know how it is.’

  Tess blinked. It was like being buried in an avalanche of detail. The myriad of tiny logistical manoeuvres that made up someone else’s life. It wasn’t that it was dull. Although it was a little dull. It was mainly the sheer quantity of words that flowed so effortlessly from Cecilia’s mouth.

  Oh God, she’s stopped talking. Tess registered with a start that it was her turn to speak.

  ‘Busy,’ she said finally. ‘You sure are busy.’ She forced her lips into something she hoped resembled a smile.

  ‘See you at the pirate party!’ Cecilia called out to Liam, who turned from drilling his tree to look at her with that funny, inscrutable, masculine expression he sometimes got, an expression that painfully reminded Tess of Will.

  Cecilia lifted her hand like a claw. ‘Aha, me hearties!’

  Liam grinned, as if he couldn’t help himself, and Tess knew she’d be taking him to the pirate party whatever it cost her.

  ‘Oh my,’ said Tess’s mother when Cecilia was out of earshot. ‘Her mother is exactly the same. Very nice, but exhausting. I always feel like I need a cup of tea and a lie-down after talking with her.’

  ‘What’s the story with this Rachel Crowley?’ asked Tess as they headed towards the school office, she and Liam pushing one handle each of the wheelchair.

  Her mother grimaced. ‘Do you remember the name Janie Crowley?’

  ‘Not the girl they found with the rosary beads –’

  ‘That’s the one. She was Rachel’s daughter.’

  Rachel could tell that Lucy O’Leary and her daughter were both thinking about Janie while they enrolled Tess’s little boy in St Angela’s. They were both being just a little chattier than was obviously natural for them. Tess couldn’t quite meet Rachel’s eyes, while Lucy was doing that tender-eyed, tilted head thing that so many women of a certain age did when they talked to Rachel, as if they were visiting her in a nursing home.

  When Lucy asked if the photo on Rachel’s desk was her grandson, both she and Tess went quite over the top with compliments, not that it wasn’t a beautiful photo of Jacob of course, but you didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that what they really meant was: We know your daughter was murdered all those years ago, but does this little boy make up for it? Please let him make up for it so we can stop feeling so strange and uncomfortable!

  ‘I look after him two days a week,’ Rachel told them, her eyes on the computer screen while she printed off some paperwork for Tess. ‘But not for much longer. I found out last night that his parents are taking him off to New York for two years.’ Her voice cracked without her permission and she cleared her throat irritably.

  She waited for the reaction she’d been getting from everyone that morning: ‘How exciting for them!’ ‘What an opportunity!’ ‘Will you go for a visit?’

  ‘Well that just takes the cake!’ exploded Lucy and she banged her elbows on the arms of her wheelchair, like a cranky toddler. Her daughter, who had been busy filling in a form, looked up and frowned. Tess was one of those plain-looking women with a short boyish haircut and strong austere features who sometimes stun you with a flash of raw beauty. Her little boy, who looked a lot like Tess, except for his strange gold-coloured eyes, also turned to stare at his grandmother.

  Lucy rubbed her elbows. ‘Of course I’m sure it’s exciting for your son and daughter-in-law. It’s just that after all you’ve been through, losing Janie like – the way you did, and then your husband, I’m so sorry, I can’t actually remember his name, but I know you lost him too – well, this just doesn’t seem fair.’

  By the time she finished talking her cheeks were crimson. Rachel could tell she was horrified at herself. People were always worrying that they’d inadvertently reminded her of her daughter’s death, as if it were something that slipped her mind.

  ‘I’m so sorry, Rachel, I shouldn’t have –’ Poor Lucy looked distraught.

  Rachel waved a hand to swat away her apologies. ‘Don’t be sorry. Thank you. It does take the cake, actually. I’ll miss him terribly.’

  ‘Well, now, who have we here?’

  Rachel’s boss, Trudy Applebee, the school principal, floated into the room, one of her trademark crocheted shawls slipping off her bony shoulders, strands of grey frizzy hair floating around her face, a smudge of red paint on her left cheekbone. She’d probably been on the floor painting with the kindergarten children. True to form, Trudy looked straight past Lucy and Tess O’Leary to the little boy, Liam. She had no interest in grown-ups, and this would one day be her downfall. Rachel had seen three school principals come and go since she’d been secretary, and in her experience it wasn’t possible to run a school while ignoring the grown-ups. It was a political role.

  Also, Trudy didn’t seem to be quite Catholic enough for the job. Not that she went around breaking the commandments, but she had an unpious, sparkly-eyed expression on her face during mass. Before she died, Sister Ursula (whose funeral Rachel had just boycotted, because she’d never forgiven her for hitting Janie with a feather duster) had probably written to the Vatican to complain about her.

  ‘This is the boy I mentioned earlier,’ said Rachel. ‘Liam Curtis. He’s enrolling in Year 1.’

  ‘Of course, of course. Welcome to St Angela’s, Liam! I was just thinking as I walked up the stairs that today I was meeting someone whose name begins with the letter L, which happens to be one of my favourite letters. Tell me, Liam, out of these three things, which do you like best?’ She folded back her fingers with each item. ‘Dinosaurs? Aliens? Superheroes?’

  Liam considered the question gravely.

  ‘He quite likes dino’’ began Lucy O’Leary. Tess put her hand on her mother’s arm.

  ‘Aliens,’ said Liam finally.

  ‘Aliens!’ Trudy nodded. ‘Well, I will be keeping that in mind, Liam Curtis, and this is your mum, and your grandmother, I’m guessing?’

  ‘Yes, indeed, I’m –’ began Lucy O’Leary.

  ‘Lovely to meet you both,’ Trudy smiled vaguely in their general direction. She turned back to Liam. ‘When are you starting with us, Liam? Tomorrow?’

  ‘No!’ Tess looked alarmed.
Not until after Easter.’

  ‘Oh, live a little, I say! Jump right in while the iron is hot!’ said Trudy. ‘Do you like Easter eggs, Liam?’

  ‘Yes,’ said Liam adamantly.

  ‘Because we’re planning a gigantic Easter egg hunt tomorrow.’

  ‘I’m supergood at Easter egg hunts,’ said Liam.

  ‘Are you? Excellent! Well then, I’d better make it a superchallenging hunt.’ Trudy glanced at Rachel. ‘Everything under control here, Rachel, with all the –’

  She gestured sorrowfully at the paperwork, of which she knew nothing.

  ‘All under control,’ said Rachel. She was doing her best to help keep Trudy in a job because she didn’t see why the children of St Angela’s shouldn’t have a school principal from fairyland.

  ‘Lovely, lovely! I’ll leave you to it!’ said Trudy, and she wandered off into her office, pulling the door shut behind her, presumably so she could scatter fairy dust over her keyboard, as she certainly didn’t do too much else on her computer.

  ‘My goodness, she’s a different kettle of fish from Sister Veronica-Mary!’ said Lucy quietly.

  Rachel snorted in appreciation. She remembered Sister Veronica-Mary, who had been principal from 1965 through to 1980, very well.

  There was a knock, and Rachel looked up to see the tall imposing shadow of a man through the frosted glass panel of her office, before his head appeared enquiringly around the door.

  Him. She flinched, as if at the sight of a furry black spider, not a perfectly plain-looking man. (Actually, Rachel had heard other women call him ‘gorgeous’ which she found preposterous.)

  ‘Excuse me, ah, Mrs Crowley.’

  He could never get far enough away from his schoolboy self to call her Rachel like the rest of the staff. Their eyes met and as usual his slid away first to rest somewhere above her head.

  Lies in his eyes, thought Rachel, as she did virtually every time she saw him, as if it were an incantation or prayer. Lies in his eyes.

  ‘Sorry to interrupt,’ said Connor Whitby. ‘I just wondered if I could pick up those tennis camp forms.’

  ‘There’s something that Whitby boy isn’t telling us,’ Sergeant Rodney Bellach had said all those years ago when he still had a head full of startlingly curly black hair. ‘That kid has got lies in his eyes.’

  Rodney Bellach was retired now. As bald as a bandicoot. He called every year on Janie’s birthday and he liked to tell Rachel about his latest ailments. Someone else who got old while Janie stayed seventeen.

  Rachel handed over the tennis camp forms and Connor’s eyes fell on Tess.

  ‘Tess O’Leary!’ His face was transformed so that he looked for a moment like the boy in Janie’s photo album.

  Tess looked up, her face wary. She didn’t seem to recognise Connor at all.

  ‘Connor!’ He tapped his broad chest. ‘Connor Whitby!’

  ‘Oh, Connor, of course. It’s so nice to . . .’ Tess half-rose and then found herself trapped by her mother’s wheelchair.

  ‘Don’t get up, don’t get up,’ said Connor. He went to kiss Tess on the cheek just as she was starting to sit down again, so that his lips met her earlobe.

  ‘What are you doing here?’ asked Tess. She didn’t seem especially pleased to see Connor.

  ‘I work here,’ he said.

  ‘As an accountant?’

  ‘No, no, I had a career change a few years back. I’m the PE teacher.’

  ‘You are?’ she said. ‘Well, that’s . . .’ Her voice drifted, and she finally said, ‘. . . nice.’

  Connor cleared his throat. ‘Well, anyway, it’s very good to see you.’ He glanced at Liam, went to speak and then changed his mind and held up the sheaf of tennis forms. ‘Thanks for this, Mrs Crowley.’

  ‘My pleasure, Connor,’ said Rachel coldly.

  Lucy turned to her daughter as soon as Connor left. ‘Who was that?’

  ‘Just someone I used to know. Years ago.’

  ‘I don’t think I remember him. Was he a boyfriend?’

  ‘Mum,’ Tess gestured at Rachel and the paperwork in front of her.

  ‘Sorry!’ Lucy smiled guiltily, while Liam looked up at the ceiling, stretched out his legs and yawned.

  Rachel saw that the grandmother, mother and grandson all had identical full upper lips. It was like a trick. Those bee-stung lips made them more beautiful than they actually were.

  She was suddenly inexplicably furious with all three of them.

  ‘Well, if you could just sign the “allergies and medications” sections here,’ she said to Tess, jabbing at the form with her fingertip. ‘No, not there. Here. Then we’ll be done and dusted.’

  Tess had her keys in the ignition to drive them home from the school when her mobile rang. She lifted it from the console to check who was calling.

  When she saw the name on the screen, she held up the phone for her mother to see.

  Her mother squinted at the phone and sat back with a shrug. ‘Well I had to tell him. I promised him I’d always keep him up to date with what was going on in your life.’

 
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