Here is the thing about living a secret: you have to have the stomach for it. Some people thrive on the little charge they get from doing something illicit, something not even those closest to them would suspect. When Grace thought about it, she knew that her father must have been such a man. Grace, however, was not a woman who could live a secret. It was one thing to leave the past where it belonged, but when it came back in the form of letters and people? No. Those kinds of secrets were too heavy for her, and the thing at the bottom of her bag, the thing which had now doubled its danger with the scribbling of a few digits on its surface, gnawed at her. She could not quite believe David had said nothing when her face must so clearly have spoken of her guilt. The knowledge of what lay in her bag pulled her spirit down; made her wonder what the hell had possessed her to keep this thing, the defining thing about herself, from David.
Her father was a murderer. He had murdered her mother, yet her husband had no idea. The father of David’s wife, the grandfather of his daughter, was a killer. What if this thing was genetic? What if Grace had it in her too – didn’t David have the right to know? Would David still love her if he did? There was not only that, the murder, but also the lie. She had told him that her parents had died in an accident. Even if she came clean about it now, what would it say about her that she had been with David for years and had not entrusted him with the truth? David was a lovely man, a gentle man.
Grace had known, instinctively, that if she had told the truth before their marriage, it would not have changed his feelings for her. He loved her deeply, this she knew. The facts of her childhood would probably have made him even more protective of her. This struck Grace as his weakness: his goodness, and his belief in the innate goodness of others.
David had not seen the ugly side of life as she had. The childhood he’d described to Grace was happy and uneventful. The worst trauma he’d experienced was his father dying at too young an age, of a heart attack. That loss had sealed his relationship with his mother, Gwen. She was one of David’s primary confidantes. He did not know the propensity for violence that lay just beneath the surface of every human being, even those closest to us; had no idea of the intimate cruelties that could inhabit the architecture of a life. He had not been hurt in that way, ever, by those he held dearest. It made him vulnerable. He trusted and depended wholly on Grace, a trust unreciprocated by his wife.
Although she loved David as much as she had loved any other person in her life, Grace had never fully surrendered herself to him. She carried within her the silent knowledge that she would beable to walk away from him at any moment if needed. Grace had had a backup plan since the day they promised fealty, a plan she could execute if she ever needed to leave: a bit of money stashed in a bank account he knew nothing of, extra sets of clothing for her and Sindi in a drawer she could empty in one minute with the sweep of a hand; ID book and bank card securely stored; cash tucked in an envelope at the bottom of another drawer. If needed, Grace could disappear with Sindi in less than ten minutes, and never have the need to look back. Or so she thought. David was innocent of these things she kept in shadow. Although he was very much the head of the household, the back door from the marriage that Grace left ajar gave her a sense of control, a feeling of having the upper hand. A woman should always be with a man who loves her a little more than she loves him. Grace could still hear the authority in Mary’s voice as she’d imparted this bit of advice. Grace believed it, even though Patrick’s brand of love had gotten her mother killed.
Sometimes this need for control shamed Grace, but she needed it all the same. It gave her a measure of comfort with being owned, in that peculiar way marriage allows, by a man. Aunty Joan’s advice had contradicted Mary’s. As always, they had different approaches to the question of men. Joan had drummed it into her: never be dependent on a man. Make part of your life your own, so that you’ll be able to walk away if you need to. She didn’t have to say the unspoken, that Mary would still have a life had she been able to do this.
The weight of Grace’s old and new secrets grew daily, strangling what little vitality she had left out of her and waking her in the middle of the night. Should she tell David about her father? What would he think of her? And what about Johnny? In her mind, Grace’s life had been sharply delineated by her mother’s death. Everything she knew before that line had inexorably been drawn through it had disappeared or been taken away from her: her mother, her home, Johnny, even her clothes and little treasures collected as a child. On the other side, she had spent most of her life longing for these things: Mary, Johnny, a feeling of home. She had gone some way in creating a home and a family with David, but there was always the ache of some essential part of her missing. Her mother, obviously, but Johnny was tangled into that loss in ways Grace couldn’t always unravel. Now he was there. It was just like him to walk back into her life on an unassuming night. And although she didn’t want her life disrupted by what was done and buried, she longed to see him again. God, he had survived those desperate years. Grace wanted to know how. She felt an excruciating need to know his story, and to share hers with him; to stand their stories side by side and enmesh them like the twin helix of a strand of DNA.
She thought about how to welcome Johnny into their lives. Invite him for tea? Introduce him to David? The thought of them meeting was like a brick to her stomach. How would she explain Johnny? If she introduced him as a childhood friend, David would bustle with questions about what she had been like, what they’d done together, which parent she most strongly resembled. David had tried a few times after they were married to excavate some happy memory, surely she must have had some – but she refused to speak about her parents at all. The few pictures she owned of them revealed young, smiling faces unaware of what life held for them, entranced with each other. She had offered these reluctantly to David along with a portrait of Mary which had been prized while she was alive. In it, Mary shone. David had remarked on Mary’s beauty, stirring the old discomfort in Grace. There was the gold cross, Mary’s, which always dangled around Grace’s throat. David had never seen his wife without it.
If Johnny came onto the scene, old questions that had been laid to rest would start churning again, burning their way through the placid surface of Grace’s new life. No, she could not afford to let the two men meet.
But she needed to see Johnny again. She wanted to hear everything she’d missed, wanted to know whether she’d left a hole in his life the way he had in hers. A week after their reunion on the station, Grace felt herself digging in the bottom of her bag for the envelope, soft by now from her pawing. She had touched it often, feeling it again and again for some kind of reassurance that Johnny was real, that she had not just imagined him on that train.
One afternoon she waited until after thework day, when everyone was gone from the office. She pulled out the envelope and smoothed it out. Then she lifted the phone and dialled the number that was written on it. A woman answered. Was it Rowena? Of course not – he wouldn’t still be living with them after all these years. The voice on the other end of the line called his name and there were muffled sounds as distorted voices floated to Grace’s ears. She almost slammed the thing down. What was she doing? What did she want from this man? Then his voice came through, clear and immediate, and she smiled, happy to hear it.
“It’s good to hear from you,” he said, after preliminary greetings. “I was hoping to hear from you.”
“It’s good to hear your voice too,” she said.
Then what? They were happy to hear from each other, happy to once again be within reach of each other, but what else was there to say, beyond that? A tenuous past bound them, much of it belonging to the territory of the unspoken.
Johnny broke the silence. “It’s hard to talk like this. There’s a lot I want to say.”
Grace nodded in assent into the receiver, as if he could see her. She liked his directness.
“Let’s meet, Grace. Can you meet me for a drink one evening? Tomorrow?”
No, she couldn’t. Not so soon. Grace wanted to see him but needed time to think. All of a sudden, it felt wrong to be making arrangements for a drink with what was after all a strange man. “Next week then. How about next Thursday?” Johnny said.
She was surprised by his insistence after all the years of doing nothing to find her, but she agreed – next Thursday would be good. That gave her enough time to think about what she needed to hear from him and enough time to change her mind, even though she knew at the moment of agreement that she wouldn’t. They decided on a pub in a suburb close to her home. It would just be one or two hours, long enough to talk uninterruptedly and find what was to be found in one another. She would explain to him about David, how he didn’t know about her past and how she’d like to keep it that way, paving the way for an introduction of the two with her secret still intact. It didn’t occur to Grace that in setting this plan in motion she might be entering into a conspiracy of silence against her husband with another person.
Grace’s week passed in a flurry of work and caring for Sindi. The baby was teething and kept her up every night that week. David was preparing his students for the June examination and worked late into the night, often collapsing into sleep on the couch in the living room. Grace hardly saw him and their communication dwindled to truncated conversations over hastily prepared dinners. Exhaustion cloaked her shoulders, but resting her tired mind on Johnny provided respite – a sweet savouring of the anticipation of seeing him again.
Grace was aware of a deeper stirring; this pleasure was not entirely innocent, but she convinced herself that it was okay to be happy about retrieving such a large part of her lost childhood. Wasn’t that what she wanted – to go back and rewrite her broken childhood? She shut off these meandering thoughts which became, after a few days, like treacle flowing through her brain, reassuring herself that it was her right to be happy to see an old friend. Grace smoked more, inhaling every doubt that crossed her mind with the diaphanous bands of smoke. Fear and guilt about Johnny and the past gathered into her throat, lungs and blood vessels, spreading like a drug through her body, along with the excitement at the thought of seeing him again.
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