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.