The Summer of Secrets
Sydney journalist Chloe Brown is painfully aware that her biological clock isn’t just ticking, it’s booming. When her long term boyfriend finally admits he never wants children, Chloe is devastated. Impulsively, she moves as far from disappointment as she can – to a job on a small country newspaper in Queensland’s far north.
The little town seems idyllic, a cosy nest, and Chloe plans to regroup and, possibly, to embark on single motherhood via IVF. But she soon realises that no place is free from trouble or heartache. The grouchy news editor, Finn Latimer, is a former foreign correspondent who has retreated after a family tragedy. Emily, the paper’s elegant, sixty-something owner, is battling with her husband’s desertion. Meanwhile, the whole town is worried when their popular young baker disappears.
As lives across generations become more deeply entwined, the lessons are clear. Secrets and silence harbour pain, while honesty and openness bring healing and hope. And love. All that’s needed now is courage…
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The Summer of Secrets
Friday night was going perfectly to plan for Chloe.
The faded flat in Coogee looked almost romantic by flickering candlelight and Jason was in a particularly mellow mood. He’d achieved some sort of coup at work and the chief marketing consultant had been full of praise. Now, with his glass refilled with his favourite shiraz, Jason’s smile for Chloe across the dining table was fond and playful.
He even raved about the deliciousness of the fall-off-the-bone slow-cooked ribs she’d prepared. A huge relief. This night was incredibly important for her, so it had been worth getting up early to start the spare ribs and then rushing home from work at the end of the day to thicken the sauce and make Jason’s favourite dessert.
She would wait until she served the choc pot before she shared her news.
At least, that had been Chloe’s original plan, but just as Jason plunged his spoon through the chocolate brownie topping to the warm, gooey pudding, she wondered if it wasn’t foolhardy to jump in too soon. She didn’t want to spoil the pleasant mood they were enjoying. It might be wiser to wait till the meal was over and they were snuggled on the sofa.
Of course, she knew she shouldn’t wait till they were actually in bed. By then, Jason might be too impatient to listen to her point of view, and it was important to be completely honest with him before she found herself pregnant.
With that thought, a thrill, both excited and nervous, shimmied through Chloe. Parenthood was a touchy subject in this household, but tonight it was the Very Important Subject she needed to raise with her boyfriend. In another week she would turn thirty-seven and her biological clock wasn’t just ticking, it was clanging louder than bells on New Year’s Eve.
Chloe didn’t want to wait any longer. She couldn’t wait any longer. She wasn’t going to wait.
The time had come.
After all, she and Jason had been together for seven and a half years and almost all of their other friends were parents. Some of their friends had even married, although Chloe wouldn’t push Jason to go that far. The subject of marriage had never surfaced, actually. It hadn’t been necessary. They were perfectly happy as they were.
Or rather, Chloe would be perfectly happy once they’d cleared the air regarding the other, more pressing, subject.
Sadly, in the past, whenever she’d tried to bring up the possibility of starting a family, Jason had shrugged and yawned and fobbed her off with some lame excuse. Usually, he complained about the timing, or the costs of children and how they would need a bigger flat or a move to a less desirable, but more affordable, suburb.
The last time he’d thrown up one of these excuses Chloe had burst into tears and suggested that he mustn’t love her.
She had to admit he’d been incredibly sweet then. Taking her in his arms, he’d vowed that of course he loved her. He was crazy about her, but he was simply too busy to think about babies at this point in time. Too overworked and stressed. He couldn’t consider parenthood during the next few months.
But now Chloe’s patience had finally run out. She’d reached the end of her rope two weeks ago when she visited their best friends Josie and Zac and their new baby girl, Eve.
She’d bought the sweetest little growsuit for Eve and wrapped it in pink tissue paper, and she’d called at their house in Ashfield after work. It was dusk and as Chloe mounted the steps, a golden light had shone out into the twilight through the glass panels in the front door.
Chloe could see through the glass to inside the house. Zac was in the lounge room, dressed in jeans and a shabby old T-shirt and walking slowly with his back to her.
Over his bulky shoulder peeped his tiny baby daughter. Eve had a fuzz of dark hair as black as Zac’s and beady little eyes that stared unseeingly towards the porch where Chloe stood. Zac was jigging the baby gently and whispering to her as he paced slowly, patiently, across the room. With one big masculine hand he supported her bottom and with the other he patted her back gently. He might even have been singing softly to Eve and twice he pressed the gentlest of kisses to the side of her little head.
The scene was so cute, so heartbreakingly poignant, Chloe’s throat tightened painfully. There was no sign of Josie, and she imagined that her friend must have been resting in bed, or taking a bath while her thoughtful partner cared for their baby.
In that moment, it was all too easy for Chloe to see Jason in a similar role, to picture him being equally sweet with their own little one. So easy to imagine Jason fondly holding their tiny blanketwrapped bundle, offering gentle pats and soothing whispers.
Chloe was so touched by that thought she was blinded by tears. Horrified that she couldn’t stop their flow and afraid she might break into noisy sobs, she had set her gift on the doorstep and turned and quietly scarpered. The very last thing she’d wanted was to cause an embarrassing scene.
Josie had rung her the next day to thank her for the gift and Chloe had made up an excuse about being in a dreadful hurry. But the beautiful possibilities inspired by the sight of Zac with tiny Eve had haunted her ever since. For the past two weeks these possibilities had filled her head, kept her awake at night and in a daze of fierce longing during the day.
And now, as Jason rose from the table and took his replenished wineglass to the sofa, she knew the time had arrived. She had to speak before he switched on the TV and tuned in to his latest Netflix obsession.
With the remote in one hand, his glass in the other, he looked up at her with a somewhat distracted, but good-natured, frown.
Chloe ran her tongue over suddenly dry lips. ‘Before we start watching TV, there’s something I need to tell you.’
Jason’s frown deepened. ‘What is it?’
‘I —’ Chloe swallowed. ‘I thought you should know I’ve stopped taking the pill.’
‘You’ve what?’ The question exploded from his lips.
Defensively, Chloe threw up her hands. ‘Don’t be angry. Please.’
‘Don’t be angry?’ her boyfriend echoed sarcastically and he was scowling at her now. ‘You’ve made a drastic decision like that behind my back and you expect me to stay calm?’
He made no attempt to hide his anger as he dropped the remote and thumped his wineglass on the coffee table so roughly it was a wonder the stem didn’t snap. ‘It’s bloody Friday night, Chloe, and I’m trying to relax. You can’t drop a bombshell like that on me.’
‘Well —’ Chloe swallowed, tried again. ‘You know I’ve tried to talk about starting a family plenty of times in the past, but you’ve never been prepared to discuss it. Not seriously.’
Jason thrust his jaw stubbornly forward. ‘That doesn’t give you the right to make such a huge decision without telling me.’
She knew he had a point, but for once she wasn’t prepared to back down or to start apologising. Instead, she lifted her chin. ‘Well, I’m telling you now.’
Jason shot her a narrow-eyed, piercing glance. ‘When did you stop taking them?’
She swallowed. ‘Not quite two weeks ago.’
‘Fuck.’ His attractive jaw dropped in appalled disbelief. ‘You mean we’ve been screwing and you’ve known —’
‘It’s okay,’ she jumped in quickly. ‘I couldn’t get pregnant straight away.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes,’ she responded stoutly, even though, in truth, she wasn’t absolutely sure – although most websites claimed that pregnancy was highly unlikely to happen so quickly. ‘The thing is, Jason, I might not be safe for much longer. Tonight – for example – there could be a remote possibility —’
Jason swore again as he glared at her.
‘That’s why I wanted to tell you now.’
‘After priming me with food and wine first?’
It was true that Chloe didn’t normally put in such a big effort on Friday nights. If Jason wasn’t going to the footie, they often opted for pizza or some other takeaway. Perhaps she had been a tad unsubtle.
Then again, desperate times required do-or-die measures.
She spoke as steadily and carefully as she could. ‘I really, really want to have a baby, Jason. And as you know, I’ll be thirty-seven next week. When it comes to pregnancy, I’m already considered geriatric. I’m running out of time.’
She had hoped for signs of sympathy, but Jason’s face remained scarily hard and tight. ‘And what if I really, really don’t want a kid?’
Chloe flinched as if he’d hit her. She stared at him in shocked dismay, wondering if she’d heard him correctly. ‘Not – not yet, you mean?’
Jason didn’t respond.
‘You don’t mean —’ Chloe fought off an urge to whimper. ‘You don’t mean . . . not ever?’
Jason still didn’t give an answer to this.
Horrified, Chloe forced out the appalling but necessary question. ‘You have to tell me. Don’t you ever want to be a father?’
‘No,’ her boyfriend said simply and without a hint of apology.
A wave of dizziness swept over Chloe. She reached for a dining chair and managed to sit rather clumsily. Now she didn’t care if her voice sounded plaintive. ‘Why haven’t you ever told me this?’
He shrugged. ‘I thought you must have worked it out by now.’
Fighting tears, she blinked as a nightmarish picture of their childless, empty future loomed before her. Impossible. She’d been prepared to go to any lengths to start a family. IVF, whatever it took.
She might have sat for ages in a miserable daze, but her own anger was gathering steam. ‘We’ve been together all this time. More than seven years. And you knew I wanted a family.’
Jason simply let out a sigh, as if he was already losing patience.
‘You know this isn’t fair.’ Chloe made no attempt now to curb her pleading tone. ‘It’s not fair to me at all.’
He merely scowled. ‘So it’s fair to lump kids on me? Have you given any serious thought to how our lives would change? No more relaxing dinners like this, or trips to Bali – just a whole lot of crying and sleepless nights.’
‘Only for the early months.’
‘And what about the expense? We can’t even afford to buy a bloody house. Why would we want kids as well? We’d never get ahead.’
This probably wasn’t the moment to remind him that they would pay much lower rent if they moved away from Coogee to a less trendy suburb of Sydney, or that Josie and Zac were still renting half a house in Ashfield and were perfectly happy.
‘I’d be prepared to keep working,’ Chloe said instead. ‘I could freelance, or maybe I could do a deal with Tina Jenkins and keep working for Girl Talk from home to save on childcare.’ She crossed her fingers. Surely Jason would relent when he realised that she’d thought this through and was totally prepared to pull her weight?
The look he sent her, however, was chilling. There was a protracted, awful silence before he spoke. Then, in an icy voice: ‘What makes you think you’d be such a great mother?’
Chloe couldn’t have gasped louder if Jason had punched her in the stomach. The cruelty of his question shocked the breath from her. She was appalled that he could ask this. Stung to the core by the truth it revealed about his feelings for her.
What makes you think you’d be such a great mother?
Such a knife twist to the heart. How could he say something so brutal? Wasn’t her longing for motherhood evidence enough that she would do her utmost to be the best mother ever?
Was the love she’d imagined – no, the love she’d believed in – a lie?
Chloe sat there, dumbstruck, agonisingly aware of the suffocating death of her dreams, of her hoped-for babies tumbling into the huge abyss that had opened up between herself and her boyfriend.
How could she have been so dumb? How could she have missed all the obvious clues to her boyfriend’s true feelings about fatherhood? Which, ultimately, included his feelings about her?
Behind her, on the dining table, a candle spluttered and went out. She caught a faint whiff of smoke as Jason, stony faced, pressed the remote. The television flashed on with a bright ad for cheap flights to America. And already, a distant but persistent voice was whispering in Chloe’s ear.
So this was what breaking up felt like. This was the beginning of the end.