Husbands secret, p.8
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       Husband's Secret, p.8
 

           Liane Moriarty

  ‘You promised him that when I was ten!’ said Tess. She held the phone up, trying to decide whether to answer it or let it go to voicemail.

  ‘Is it Dad?’ asked Liam from the back seat.

  ‘It’s my Dad,’ said Tess. She’d have to talk to him sometime. It might as well be now. She took a breath and pressed the answer button. ‘Hi Dad.’

  There was a pause. There was always a pause.

  ‘Hello love,’ said her father.

  ‘How are you?’ asked Tess in the hearty tone of voice she reserved for her father. When had they last spoken? It must have been Christmas Day.

  ‘I’m great,’ said her father dolefully.

  Another pause.

  ‘I’m actually in the car with –’ began Tess, at the same time as her father said, ‘Your mother told me –’

  They both stopped. It was always excruciating. No matter how hard she tried she could never seem to synchronise her conversations with her father. Even when they were face to face they never achieved a natural rhythm. Would their relationship have been less awkward if he and her mother had stayed together? She’d always wondered.

  Her father cleared his throat. ‘Your mother mentioned you were having a spot of . . . trouble.’

  Pause.

  ‘Thanks Dad,’ said Tess at the same time as her father said, ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

  Tess could see her mother rolling her eyes and she turned away slightly towards the car window, as if to protect her poor hopeless father from her mother’s scorn.

  ‘If there’s anything I can do,’ said her father. ‘Just . . . you know, call.’

  ‘Absolutely,’ said Tess.

  Pause.

  ‘Well, I should go,’ said Tess at the same time as her father said, ‘I liked the fellow.’

  ‘Tell him I emailed him a link for that wine-appreciation course I was telling him about,’ said her mother.

  ‘Shhh,’ Tess waved her hand irritably at Lucy. ‘What’s that, Dad?’

  ‘Will,’ said her father. ‘I thought he was a good bloke. That’s no bloody help to you, though, is it, love?’

  ‘He’ll never do it, of course,’ murmured her mother, examining her cuticles. ‘Don’t know why I bother. The man doesn’t want to be happy.’

  ‘Thanks for calling, Dad,’ said Tess, at the same time as her father said, ‘How’s the little man doing?’

  ‘Liam is great,’ said Tess. ‘He’s right here. Do you want –’

  ‘I’ll let you go, love. You take care now.’

  He was gone. He always finished the call in a sudden, frantic rush, as if the phone was bugged by the police and he had to get off before they tracked down his location. His location was a small, flat, treeless town on the opposite side of the country in Western Australia, where he had mysteriously chosen to live five years ago.

  ‘Had a whole heap of helpful advice then, did he?’ said Lucy.

  ‘He did his best, Mum,’ said Tess.

  ‘Oh, I’m sure he did,’ said her mother with satisfaction.

  chapter eight

  ‘So it was a Sunday when they put the Wall up. They called it Barbed Wire Sunday. You want to know why?’ said Esther from the back seat of the car. It was a rhetorical question. Of course they did. ‘Because everyone woke up in the morning and there was like this long barbed-wire fence right through the city.’

  ‘So what?’ said Polly. ‘I’ve seen a barbed-wire fence before.’

  ‘But you weren’t allowed to cross it!’ said Esther. ‘You were stuck! You know how we live on this side of the Pacific Highway and Grandma lives on the other side?’

  ‘Yeah,’ said Polly uncertainly. She wasn’t too clear on where anyone lived.

  ‘It would be like there was a barbed-wire fence all along the Pacific Highway and we couldn’t visit Grandma any more.’

  ‘That would be such a pity,’ murmured Cecilia as she looked over her shoulder to change lanes. She’d been to visit her mother this morning after her Zumba class and had spent twenty full minutes she couldn’t spare looking through a ‘portfolio’ of her nephew’s preschool work. Bridget was sending Sam to an exclusive, obscenely priced preschool and Cecilia’s mother couldn’t decide whether to be delighted or disgusted about it. She had settled for hysterical.

  ‘I bet you didn’t get a portfolio like this at that sweet ordinary little preschool your girls went to,’ her mother had said, while Cecilia tried to flip the pages faster. She was going shopping for all the nonperishables in preparation for Sunday before she picked up the girls.

  ‘Actually I think most of the preschools do things like this these days,’ Cecilia had said, but her mother had been too busy exclaiming over Sam’s finger-painted ‘self-portrait’.

  ‘Imagine, Mum,’ said Esther, ‘if we kids were visiting Grandma in West Berlin for the weekend when the Wall went up, and you and Dad were stuck in East Berlin. You’d have to say to us, “Stay at Grandma’s place, kids! Don’t come back! For your freedom!”’

  ‘That’s awful,’ said Cecilia.

  ‘I’d still go back to Mummy,’ said Polly. ‘Grandma makes you eat peas.’

  ‘It’s history, Mum,’ said Esther. ‘It’s what actually happened. Everyone got separated. They didn’t care. Look! These people are holding up their babies to show their relatives on the other side.’

  ‘I really can’t take my eyes off the road,’ sighed Cecilia.

  Thanks to Esther, Cecilia had spent the last six months imagining herself scooping up drowning children from the icy waters of the Atlantic while the Titanic sunk. Now she was going to be in Berlin, separated from her children by the Wall.

  ‘When does Daddy get back from Chicago?’ asked Polly.

  ‘Friday morning!’ Cecilia smiled at Polly in the rear-vision mirror, grateful for the change of subject. ‘He’s coming back on Good Friday. It will be a very good Friday because Daddy will be back!’

  There was a disapproving silence in the back seat. Her daughters tried not to encourage deeply uncool talk.

  They were right in the middle of their usual after-school frenzy of activity. Cecilia had just dropped Isabel at the hairdresser, and now they were on their way to Polly’s ballet and Esther’s speech therapy. (Esther’s barely perceptible lisp, which Cecilia found adorable, was apparently unacceptable in today’s world.) After that, it would be rush, rush, rush to get dinner prepared and homework and reading done, before her mother came over to watch the children while Cecilia went off to do a Tupperware party.

  ‘I have another secret to tell Daddy,’ said Polly. ‘When he comes home.’

  ‘One man tried to abseil out of his apartment window and the firemen in West Berlin tried to catch him with a safety net, but they missed and he died.’

  ‘My secret is that I don’t want a pirate party any more,’ said Polly.

  ‘He was thirty,’ said Esther. ‘So I guess he’d lived a pretty good life already.’

  ‘What?’ said Cecilia.

  ‘I said he was thirty,’ said Esther. ‘The man who died.’

  ‘Not you, Polly!’

  A red traffic light loomed and Cecilia slammed her foot on the brake. The fact that Polly no longer wanted a pirate party was breathtakingly insignificant in comparison to that poor man (thirty!) crashing to the ground for the freedom that Cecilia took for granted, but right now she couldn’t pause to honour his memory because a last-minute change of party theme was unacceptable. That’s what happened when you had freedom. You lost your mind over a pirate party.

  ‘Polly,’ Cecilia tried to sound reasonable, rather than psychotic. ‘We’ve sent out the invitations. You’re having a pirate party. You asked for a pirate party. You’re getting a pirate party.’

  A nonrefundable deposit had been paid to Penelope the Singing and Dancing Pirate, who certainly charged like a pirate.

  ‘It’s a secret just for Daddy,’ said Polly. ‘Not for you.’

  ‘Fine, but I’m not changing the party.’

>   She wanted the pirate party to be perfect. For some reason she particularly wanted to impress that Tess O’Leary. Cecilia had an illogical attraction to enigmatic, elegant people like Tess. Most of Cecilia’s friends were talkers. Their voices overlapped in their desperation to tell their stories. ‘I’ve always hated vegetables . . . the only vegetable my child will eat is broccoli . . . my kid loves raw carrots . . . I love raw carrots!’ You had to jump right in without waiting for a pause in the conversation because otherwise you’d never get your turn. But women like Tess didn’t seem to have the same need to share the ordinary facts of their lives, and that made Cecilia desperate to know them. Does HER kid like broccoli? she’d ponder. She’d talked too much when she’d met Tess and her mother after Sister Ursula’s funeral this morning. Babbled. Sometimes she could hear herself doing it. Oh well.

  Cecilia listened to the tinny sound of voices shouting something passionate and German from the YouTube video Esther was watching on the iPad.

  It was extraordinary how tumultuous historical moments could be replayed right here in this ordinary moment, as she drove down the Pacific Highway towards Hornsby, and yet at the same time it gave Cecilia a hazy sense of dissatisfaction. She longed to feel something momentous. Sometimes her life seemed so little.

  Did she want something calamitous to happen, like a wall being built across her city, so she could appreciate her ordinary life? Did she want to be a tragic figure like Rachel Crowley? Rachel seemed almost disfigured by the terrible thing that had happened to her daughter, so that Cecilia sometimes had to force herself not to look away, as if she was a burns victim, not a perfectly pleasant-looking, well-groomed woman with good cheekbones.

  Is that what you want, Cecilia? Some nice big exciting tragedy?

  Of course she didn’t.

  The German voices from Esther’s computer tickled irritatingly at her ear.

  ‘Can you please turn that off,’ Cecilia said to Esther. ‘It’s distracting.’

  ‘Just let me –’

  ‘Turn it off! Couldn’t one of you children just once do what I ask, the first time? Without negotiating? Just once?’

  The sound went off.

  In the rear-vision mirror she saw Polly raise her eyebrows and Esther shrug and lift her palms. What’s with her? No idea. Cecilia could remember similar silent conversations with Bridget in the back of her mother’s car.

  ‘Sorry,’ said Cecilia humbly after a few seconds. ‘I’m sorry, girls. I’m just . . .’

  Worried that your father is lying to me about something? In need of sex? Wishing I hadn’t babbled on the way I did to Tess O’Leary in the schoolyard this morning? Perimenopausal?

  ‘. . . missing Daddy,’ she finished. ‘It will be nice when he’s home from America, won’t it? He’ll be so happy to see you girls!’

  ‘Yeah he will,’ sighed Polly. She paused. ‘And Isabel.’

  ‘Of course,’ said Cecilia. ‘Isabel too.’

  ‘Daddy looks at Isabel a funny way,’ said Polly conversationally.

  That was way out of left field.

  ‘What do you mean?’ asked Cecilia. Sometimes Polly came up with the strangest things.

  ‘All the time,’ said Polly. ‘He looks at her weirdly.’

  ‘No he doesn’t,’ said Esther.

  ‘Yeah, he looks at her like it’s hurting his eyes. Like he’s angry and sad at the same time. Especially when she wears that new skirt.’

  ‘Well, that’s a silly sort of thing to say,’ said Cecilia. What in the world did the child mean? If she didn’t know any better, she would think that Polly was describing John-Paul looking at Isabel in a sexual way.

  ‘Maybe Daddy is mad with Isabel about something,’ said Polly. ‘Or he just feels sad that she’s his daughter. Mum, do you know why Daddy is mad with Isabel? Did she do something bad?’

  A panicky feeling rose in Cecilia’s throat.

  ‘He probably wanted to watch the cricket on TV,’ mused Polly. ‘And Isabel wanted to watch something else. Or, I don’t know.’

  Isabel had been so grumpy lately, refusing to answer questions and slamming the door, but wasn’t that what all twelve-year-old girls did?

  Cecilia thought of those stories she’d read about sexual abuse. Stories in the Daily Telegraph where the mother said, ‘I had no idea,’ and Cecilia thought, How could you not know? She always finished those stories with a comfortable sense of superiority. This could not happen to my daughters.

  John-Paul could be strangely moody at times. His face turned to granite. You couldn’t reason with him. But didn’t all men do that at times? Cecilia remembered how she and her mother and sister had once tiptoed around her father’s moods. Not any more. Age had mellowed him. Cecilia had assumed that would happen to John-Paul one day too. She was looking forward to it.

  But John-Paul would never harm his daughters. This was ridiculous. This was Jerry Springer stuff. It was a betrayal of John-Paul to allow the faintest shadow of doubt to cross her mind. Cecilia would stake her life on the fact that John-Paul wouldn’t abuse one of his daughters.

  But would she stake one of her daughters’ lives?

  No. If there was the smallest risk . . .

  Dear God, what was she meant to do? Ask Isabel, ‘Has Daddy ever touched you?’ Victims lied. Their abusers told them to lie. She knew how it worked. She read all those trashy stories. She liked having a quick cathartic little weep before folding up the newspaper, putting it in the recycling bin and forgetting all about it. Those stories gave her a sick sort of pleasure, whereas John-Paul always refused to read them. Was that a clue to his guilt? Aha! If you don’t like reading about sick people you’re sick yourself!

  ‘Mum!’ said Polly.

  How could she possibly confront John-Paul? ‘Have you ever done anything inappropriate to one of our daughters?’ If he asked a question like that of her, she would never forgive him. How could a marriage continue when a question like that was asked? ‘No, I haven’t ever molested our daughters. Pass the peanut butter please.’

  ‘Mum!’ said Polly again.

  You shouldn’t have to ask, he’d say. If you don’t know the answer, you don’t know me.

  She did know the answer. She did!

  But then all those other stupid mothers thought they knew the answer too.

  And John-Paul had been so strange on the phone when she’d asked him about that letter. He had been lying about something. She was sure of it.

  And there was the sex thing. Perhaps he’d lost interest in Cecilia because he was lusting after Isabel’s changing young body? It was laughable. It was revolting. She felt sick.

  ‘MUM!’

  ‘Mmm?’

  ‘Look! You drove right past the street! We’re going to be late!’

  ‘Sorry. Damn it. Sorry.’

  She slammed on her brakes to do a U-turn. There was a furious shriek of a horn from behind them and Cecilia’s heart leapt into her chest as she looked in her rear-vision mirror and saw a huge truck.

  ‘Shit.’ She raised a hand in apology. ‘Sorry. Yes, yes, I know!’

  The truck driver couldn’t forgive her and kept his hand pressed on the horn.

  ‘Sorry, sorry!’ As she completed her U-turn she looked up to wave her apology again (she had the Tupperware name emblazoned down one side of her car – she didn’t want to damage the company’s reputation). The driver had wound down his window and was leaning almost halfway out, his face ugly with rage as he slammed his fist over and over into the palm of his hand.

  ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake,’ she muttered.

  ‘I think that man wants to kill you,’ said Polly.

  ‘That man is very naughty,’ said Cecilia severely. Her heart sped as she drove sedately back to the dance studio, double-checking all her mirrors and indicating her intentions well in advance.

  She wound down her window and watched as Polly ran into the studio, her pink tulle tutu bobbing, her delicate shoulderblades jutting out like wings beneath the straps of h
er leotard.

  Melissa McNulty appeared at the door and waved to indicate that as per their arrangement she was taking care of Polly. Cecilia waved back and reversed.

  ‘If this was Berlin and Caroline’s office was on the other side of the Wall, I wouldn’t be able to go to speech therapy,’ said Esther.

  ‘Good point,’ said Cecilia.

  ‘We could help her escape! We could put her in the boot of the car. She’s pretty little. I think she’d fit. Unless she gets claustrophobia like Daddy.’

  ‘I feel like Caroline is the sort of person who would probably organise her own escape,’ said Cecilia. We’ve already spent enough on her! We’re not going to help her escape from East Berlin! Esther’s speech therapist was intimidating, with her perfect vowels. Whenever Cecilia spoke to her she caught herself articulating all her syllables ve-ry care-ful-ly, as if she was doing an elocution test.

  ‘I don’t think Daddy looks at Isabel funny,’ said Esther.

  ‘Don’t you?’ said Cecilia happily. Good Lord. How melodramatic she was being. Polly made one of her peculiar little observations and Cecilia’s mind jumped straight to sexual abuse. She must be watching too much trashy television.

  ‘But he was crying the other day before he went to Chicago,’ said Esther.

  ‘What?’

  ‘In the shower,’ said Esther. ‘I went into your bathroom to get the nail scissors and Daddy was crying.’

  ‘Well, darling, did you ask him why he was crying?’ said Cecilia, trying not to show just how much she cared about the answer.

  ‘Nope,’ said Esther breezily. ‘When I’m crying I don’t like to be interrupted.’

  Dammit. If it had been Polly, she would have pulled back the shower screen and demanded an immediate answer from her father.

  ‘I was going to ask you why Daddy was crying,’ said Esther, ‘but then I forgot. I had a lot on my mind.’

  ‘I really don’t think he was crying. He was probably just . . . sneezing, or something,’ said Cecilia. The idea of John-Paul crying in the shower was so foreign, so weird. Why would he be crying, except over something truly terrible? He was not a crier. When the girls were born his eyes had got a shiny quality to them, and when his father had died unexpectedly he’d put down the phone and made a strange fragile noise, as if he was choking on something small and fluffy. But apart from that she’d never seen him cry.

  ‘He wasn’t sneezing,’ said Esther.

  ‘Maybe he had one of his migraines,’ said Cecilia, although she knew that whenever John-Paul was afflicted by one of his debilitating migraines the last thing he would do was have a shower. He needed to be alone, in bed, in a dark, quiet room.

  ‘Uh, Mum, Daddy never has a shower when he has a migraine,’ said Esther, who knew her father just as well as Cecilia knew her husband.

  Depression? It seemed to be going around at the moment. At a recent dinner party half the guests revealed they were on Prozac. After all, John-Paul had always gone through . . . patches. They often followed the migraines. There would be a week or so when it was as though he was just going through the motions. He’d say and do all the right things, but there’d be something vacant in his eyes, as if the real John-Paul had checked out for a while and sent this very authentic-looking replica to take his place. ‘You okay?’ Cecilia would ask, and he’d always take a few moments to focus on her, before saying, ‘Sure. I’m fine.’

  But it was always temporary. Suddenly he’d be back, fully present, listening to her and the girls with all his attention, and Cecilia would convince herself that she’d imagined the whole thing. The ‘patches’ were probably just a lingering effect of the migraines.

  But crying in the shower. What did he have to cry about? Things were good at the moment.

  John-Paul had once tried to commit suicide.

  The fact floated slowly, repellently, to the surface of her mind. It was something she tried not to think about too often.

  It had happened when he was in his first year of university, before Cecilia had begun dating him. Apparently he’d ‘gone off the rails’ for a while and then
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