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Authors: Stephanie Butland

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BOOK: The Secrets We Keep
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Mike,

I do know it can't be you, leaving flowers by the gate. (Winter pansies, silver ribbon, so pretty. And when I picked them up, I thought, it was you who taught me all the names of English flowers, and it was your mother who taught you, when you were so young that knowing about flowers was no different from playing with trains or poking ants with a stick. So you didn't think it was unusual for a man to go plunging through the undergrowth because he thought he'd seen the first of the bluebells. I love that in you. I'll tell your mother when she comes around.)

But I still think it is you.

I haven't told anyone about this. I know they'll think I've lost it. Patricia will shake her head and Mel will make a joke because she's uncomfortable and Andy will talk to me about grief and depression and how drugs aren't an admission of defeat. And then it will be spoiled.

Standing in the garden with the posy in my hand this morning, I wondered about all of the myths and stories there are in the world, about ghosts and visitations and that sort of thing. I thought about how many people have told me that when someone they love has gone, they've smelled their perfume, or heard them singing, or that their favorite book keeps falling out of a bookcase when there's no one there. And not the people you'd expect to say those sorts of things, not the fluffy people. Your mother's friend from the library, the one whose shortbread she complains about, who's as sensible as the day is long. The man in the paper shop. Susan-next-door's daughter. They've all got a story like that, that they've told me, when they've come here to tell me how sorry they are, and I've had to stop myself from asking them to tell me again, like a child with a favorite bedtime book.

So I think maybe this is just an extension of those stories. Maybe there is a way you can bring these things to me. Maybe you're telling me that everything is going to be all right.

I love you.

E xxx

Every night, Patricia tells herself that she won't get the photo albums out again. Every night, she does. She runs her fingers over the faces of her two men, and she smiles, and she cries, and she tells herself not to be so silly. She looks at the pictures of Michael on his birthdays—the plain sponge with jam and cream in the middle, his name iced in blue on the top; nothing like the cakes they have now, but Michael always liked them. She tries to remember what he got for birthdays. Every now and then there's a photo of him standing proudly next to a bike, slightly too big for him. She remembers
Star
Wars
, but not when that started or stopped. There's no one to ask now.

She'd asked Elizabeth and Melissa what they did for birthdays when they were small. They had looked at each other, pulled faces, and said “joint parties,” explaining that there was a year and two days between the two of them, so they could have either a joint party or no party at all. Patricia had said, “But you have each other, and you always will,” and she'd meant it as a good thing, but it had come out sharply.

She knows that if John were here, he would tell her kindly that she just needs to get on with it, that the fact that it's terrible now doesn't take away from the good there was before. She knows that if Michael were here, he would tell her that he had loved his life and that she should be glad of that.

But they're not here. Unsure of whether she is angry with them for their sudden, terrible absences and their misplaced ideas of her strength, or with herself for this nightly indulgence, Patricia resolves to put the albums away.

Opening the bottom drawer of the dresser in the back bedroom, she finds the hand-knitted sweaters Michael wore as a toddler and a boy, lovingly made and kept, once Michael had outgrown them, in readiness for a grandson. Not that there will be one now. Patricia thinks of Elizabeth, childless, wearing Michael's sweater, refusing to let it be washed, claiming it holds a trace of him although it smells only of her own sweat and sleeplessness. She closes the drawer, gets to her feet, and shuts the bedroom door behind her
. I'm the last twig on the family tree
, she thinks.

And then, resolutely:
After
the
inquest, we will start to find a way. We must.
Although Patricia had had a hard time accepting the love of her son's life, she wasn't going to let her fade away.

Patricia had been unsure of what to think when Michael had come home from his great adventure full of talk and photographs of a pretty brunette who worked in a hotel and had, as far as she could see, taken advantage of her boy. “Who paid for all of this?” she asked halfway through the pictures of the pair of them at Luna Park, and Michael had said, “Oh, Mum,” which Patricia took as confirmation of her suspicions. First, she waited for the whole thing to fizzle out. Then, she awaited Elizabeth's visit—Michael could talk of nothing else—sure that the girl was still taking him for a ride, and they would hear no more from her once she'd had her chance to visit England. Worried for her son, she'd cautiously aired this view to Michael, who'd laughed and said, “Mum, she's paid her own airfare and anyway, much as we love Throckton, I wouldn't have thought it was that much of a target for international gold diggers.”

She'd said nothing else. There was no talking to him when he was in this mood—joyous, flippant, excited. Patricia hoped out loud that it wouldn't all end in tears, and hoped, to herself, that it would, and sooner rather than later, because it couldn't possibly work in the long term. Although Elizabeth had sounded nice enough. She looked pretty in the photographs, and the stories Michael told about her suggested that she was nicely brought up and good-mannered. If she worked as a hotel receptionist she must be polite, and well organized, qualities that Patricia valued very highly. What she really couldn't see was how such a girl could be so much more special than any of the ones Michael had grown up with. Girls whose history she knew, girls whose mothers she'd chatted with at school concerts and church services for almost thirty years.

But she had seen how he had been after that first trip to Australia and known that here was something new, something greater than her son having had his eyes opened to a different way of life. And she had understood that here was something she had no power over.

One night, she took a deep breath and asked the question that she didn't want to know the answer to. She asked Michael whether he thought he would move to Australia.

“Well,” he said, “if it comes to it I was thinking I would ask Elizabeth to come here. To marry me. To settle.”

“Oh,” Patricia had said, then “Oh” again. And she'd thought,
Well, that will be something. Better than something else. Better than him being all the way over there.
She'd thought of one of her library regulars, always reading the same books as her daughter who lived in California as a way of keeping in touch with her. Frances is constantly counting down to Christmas or Easter or summer—with brittle excitement if her daughter is coming home, or stoic good humor if the flights are too expensive. “You get used to it,” Frances had said when Patricia had asked her how she managed with her child so far away. Patricia hadn't believed her.

• • •

Since the conversation with Andy, Elizabeth can think of nothing but drowning. Of the feel of water filling your body, the moment when you know, if you do, that you can't get out of the water. About how water muffles vision and stems sound and so there might be something dreamlike about the whole thing. About the remembered panic of being a child slightly out of your depth in a bright, clean swimming pool, and how darkness and dirt would multiply that feeling. About how it must feel to be truly unable to breathe, rather than trying to make it happen, the way she does sometimes in bed or in the bath as she tries to see how serious she is about wishing she was dead too.

But the medical details aren't enough. It's a taste of what Elizabeth needs to know. She thought talking to Andy would stop her from wondering, but it's made her want more details, more understanding. Now that she knows she can talk about it without falling apart, she looks for opportunities. So, when Blake comes around to talk about the inquest, she asks him to tell her what he knows about drowning.

She can see by his face that he's shocked.

“Are you sure you want to know?” he asks, and she nods. After looking into her face to make sure, he begins.

“I've been to six drownings in about twenty-five years,” he says, “and every one of them has looked calm, although of course it depends if you get to them in reasonable time”—Elizabeth winces, and he reminds himself that he's not talking to a new recruit here, warns himself not to say
body
or
corpse
or
it
—“and people's faces are usually unmarked, so they just look like themselves, sleeping or dreaming.”

“I didn't think Mike looked as though he was sleeping,” Elizabeth says, “but he did look calm. Yes.” Blake isn't sure whether she is talking to herself, or to him, or if she even knows that she is speaking out loud.

“The first death I ever attended was a drowning,” he says, then stops, thinking through what he might say to make sure it's safe. He decides that it is.

“It was a little boy, a nine-year-old, who'd gone too far out to sea. It should have been terrible—it was terrible—but everyone who came to look at him—the police officers, the forensics people, the parents—just paused for a minute and drew in their breath because there was something about him. A serenity. It was—it was—” He can't find the words, but finds another way to explain it. “A month or so later, I went to my second fatality, which was a road accident, and I remember driving home thinking that if I had to go suddenly, violently, I'd take the water over the road, any day.”

“Really?” Elizabeth hasn't considered the desirability of drowning before. She's thought about the unnaturalness, the choking and the dread, the coldness and the fear. She is drowning in another way, in love that has nowhere to go and memories that won't wait until she is ready for them. She considers the idea of drowning as the best option, shakes her head.

“Really. I still think that,” Blake says. “I think it would be”—the first word he used is still the best—“calm.”

Calm. Elizabeth rolls the word around her mouth like a marble. Calm. “I would like to think he felt calm,” she says, and then she is anything but, howling again. Mel comes downstairs and settles herself next to her sister, resigned, routine, sad.

Mike,

I never should have given your mother a key. Every time she scratches it in the lock, there's a moment when I forget that it won't be you, and my heart bounces, and then it splatters back down again, like a watermelon on a hot pavement. Although I've forgotten what heat is, really. Mel says that being in England is like being trapped in a big, clammy, leaky cave, and that's why so many Brits are miserable and weird. I told her she's oversimplifying. I thought about how, if you were here, the two of you would have gotten into one of your endless England v. Australia arguments and I would have left you to it and gone to have a bath.

So. The inquest. Your mother offered to take me to the hairdresser, which I refused, but I did let her choose my clothes (dark green dress, black belt to gather it in as it hangs on me a bit these days but there's no way in the world I'm going shopping) and talk to her about whether the navy blouse went with her maroon suit, or whether she should stick with the ivory blouse she usually wore with it. We decided on the navy. I'm trying to be a good daughter-in-law. If that's what I am now.

I've agreed to the dress, and a lift from Blake, and Andy coming here for lunch afterward. I've had a grim conversation about “misadventure,” which means that you knew that what you were doing was dangerous but you didn't mean for what happened to happen. Which is you, in a nutshell: so ready to help, to solve, to save that you wouldn't have seen another option.

Of course, they won't just say “misadventure”; they'll say “death by misadventure.” I will think about how I used to think badly of your mother for still talking about your dad as though he'd just popped to the allotment when he'd been dead for twenty-five years, and how now I wonder how she's gotten through all of those years of it, when just these two months have been so bloody, bloody awful.

And Blake says the Micklethwaite family will be there, which means I might look up at a wrong moment and catch an eye, or see the girl you saved. And I don't know what I'll do. I'd like to think I'll be glad, and gracious. But I really don't know.

Mel says I have to remember that the inquest won't change anything. We know what the postmortem said and we know what the verdict will be. I say yes. Everyone thinks I'm worried about it but I'm not. What I'm worried about is what will happen afterward. Once the inquest is over, what will happen to us? You will be part of the past, dealt with and explained away, all tidy and neat. People will start telling me, out loud, that I have to move on, instead of just implying it and congratulating me whenever I do anything that isn't sobbing or staring at a wall. Soon it will be Easter and the hotel will be in touch to see if I want to work the summer again this year, and if I say yes, then I will have to put mascara on and smile at strangers all day, and your mother will smile at me in turn and say, “You see?” And I can't bear the thought of any of it.

E xxx

BOOK: The Secrets We Keep
11.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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