We all have secrets . . .
Jodie Garrow is a teenager from the wrong side of the tracks when she falls pregnant. Scared, alone and desperate to make something of her life, she adopts out the baby illegally – and tells nobody.
Twenty-five years on, Jodie has built a new life and a new family. But when a chance meeting brings the adoption to the notice of the authorities, Jodie becomes caught in a nationwide police investigation, and the centre of a media witch hunt.
What happened to Jodie’s baby? And where is she now? The fallout from Jodie’s past puts her whole family under the microsope, and her husband and daughter are forced to re-examine everything they believed to be true.
Potent, provocative and compulsively readable, The Mistake is the story of a mother and the media’s powerful role in shaping our opinions. With astonishing insight, it cuts to the heart of what makes a family, and asks us whether we can ever truly know another person.
Jodie was surprised by Angus’s response. She had imagined he would have been hurt – not by the infidelity itself, how could he be – but by her failure to confide in him, a betrayal of a far more serious kind. The two days of awkwardness, with Angus a polite but cool stranger, the separate sleeping arrangements – this is what she had expected. But his almost airy dismissal of the events, his determination to leave the past in the past, though a great relief, had been thoroughly unexpected. And though she’d had to stifle an initial urge to laugh, she’d found Angus’s awkward avowal of unconditional support and steadfast affection incredibly moving. They had made love that night – more fiercely than they had for years – and had talked, though not about anything in particular, nothing serious, until the early hours of the morning. Angus had eventually drifted into sleep, had turned on his side, away from her, snoring gently, but Jodie lay rigidly awake, trying not to think, not to remember. Wishing there was some way she could un-remember – or even better, some way to undo the whole thing – to make it untrue.
But the past looms larger than the present, larger than Angus likes to imagine, throwing its shadow over everything, like some sort of terrifying temporal eclipse.
The act itself was singularly meaningless; indeed, she has so little memory of it that she would be hard-pressed to remember more than a few disconnected details about the man – the boy – himself. Was his hair brown? Or was it reddish? He was dark, rather than fair, surely? His hair was long, of that she’s fairly certain, held back from his face in a ponytail. She thinks he may have been tall and thin – but no, she might be thinking of someone else. He could just as easily have been short, stocky – even slightly pudgy. Oh, God. He had been a boy, that’s all she really remembers. Just a boy. She thinks of her daughter’s male friends: at sixteen, seventeen, even eighteen, the boys’ features are still not quite defined; they seem closer to their toddler selves – their brows smooth, jaws soft, eyes clear – than the men they’re on the brink of becoming. And that’s what he had been: just a boy, a long-haired, denim-clad, beer-drinking boy she’d sat next to in the pub. That he was the father of her child, the father of any child, was simply unimaginable.
She’d gone out that night with her flatmate Sharon. Angus had been in London then for more than two months and in all that time she’d dutifully stayed at home on weekend nights, watching videos, reading, or writing long, forlorn letters that she could never bring herself to post. Sharon, impatient with Jodie’s shyness, her excuses, had finally talked her into coming out to the pub.
‘Oh, come on, Jodie, you’re like a bloody old woman. You’re eighteen, aren’t you? Not eighty. You need to get out a bit, see some life. I’m sure your Angus won’t give a shit. You don’t really think he’s staying home night after night in London, pining for you, do you? Come out and have some fun.’
And so she’d gone with Sharon to some pub in Newtown, not expecting fun, not expecting anything much, really. It was the Sandringham, she thinks, and there’d been a band, a bit of a crowd, and he’d been there – was it Gibbo or Hendo or Sheppo or Stevo? A friend of a friend of a friend of Sharon’s, up from Melbourne or over from Adelaide or down from Brizzie. He’d bought her a drink, two, three, six, and they’d danced – it had been some sort of a punk outfit as she recalls, though they were already at the tail end of that particular musical scene. What she does recall is the sense of risk – it wasn’t the sort of place Angus would have taken her: the pub was dark and seedy, hazy with cigarette smoke, smelling of dope and dirty carpet, crowded with long-haired students, half of them stoned out of their brains, all of them pissed. And Jodie, despite everything, had found herself enjoying it. The dark, the dirt, the heat, the pounding music, the sense of being out of it, being out of herself. She had found herself embracing, for once, the sensation that nothing more than the here, the now, was of any consequence.
And she’d drunk more, and he’d drunk more, and they’d gone outside to share a surreptitious joint – not quite her first, but still, to Jodie a joint was daring, forbidden, vaguely indecent. As the night wore on she’d lost track of Sharon, and had eventually staggered back to the flat, accompanied by this boy, after closing, in the early hours of the morning. They had clutched one another, giggling and swaying, in order to stay upright, had climbed the stairs and collapsed onto her bed. And so they had fucked – drunkenly, clumsily, not out of any real desire, but almost as a matter of course. Because, in those days (and in these days too, she supposes) that’s what you did.
Jodie remembers nothing of the sex, really; the only detail she can summon is her dope-induced wonderment at the way a starburst of small black freckles adorning the boy’s scrawny shoulder kept dilating and contracting in her vision as he juddered above her.
And that was the end of it. They’d lain there together for a while, not touching, not talking. He’d lit a cigarette (you did that, too, in those long-ago days), ashed on the floor, and then, muttering something about having a train to catch, had pulled on his Levis and his T-shirt and left. He’d gone without so much as a goodbye or a thank you, let alone a telephone number, a name. Jodie had fallen asleep and hadn’t woken until late in the afternoon – sick as a dog, vaguely regretful. It was only later that the regret had sharpened into disgust, a mild self-loathing at her weakness, her betrayal of Angus, but she’d resolved that it would never happen again. And it hadn’t.
The one thing she does recall quite clearly, all these years later, is that the disgust, even the guilt, though real enough, had dissipated almost immediately. The encounter hadn’t really touched her, had left no lasting impression. It was a no-strings-attached sexual experience – unexceptional for a girl of her age, her generation, her culture. There’d been no intent, no preparation, not even a condom in those reckless post-pill, pre-AIDS, abortion-on-demand days of her youth.
So, it was a one-off. Some fun, a notch on her bedpost, perhaps, if she was the type to mark such events, but eminently forgettable. And there was no reason that Angus, that anyone, would ever have to know, was there? No need for confessions, recriminations. There was no need for anyone to get hurt, ever.
‘Is there someone you want me to phone?’ Sheila asks. ‘I’d be happy to call for you if you’re too exhausted.’
Jodie would like to sleep, but somehow sleep won’t come. She still feels suspended, disoriented – even the discomfort in her buttocks, her lower torso, the muscular ache in her thighs that feels as though she’s run a marathon, seems distant – as if her body isn’t back yet, isn’t quite her own.
Sheila seems reluctant to leave her alone, has brought flowers left by some discharged patient, is arranging them fussily. ‘There must be someone, sweetie. It’s a huge event, a baby. Maybe the biggest in a woman’s life. There must be someone you want to tell. What about the father? Your parents? Shouldn’t you let them know?’
‘I don’t want it.’ Jodie is amazed to hear her own voice – so certain, so substantial – is surprised that there are still words, and a way to say them.
‘I don’t want it.’ More confident, louder; this time there’s no mistaking what she’s saying.
Sheila’s eyes widen. She stands still for a moment, considering, then goes back to rearranging the flowers, casually. ‘What do you mean you don’t want it, sweetheart?’ The woman’s words are careful, quiet, unstressed. ‘I thought you said you had a fellow, that your parents knew all about this?’
‘It was a lie. There’s no one.’ Jodie’s voice is flat and expressionless. ‘I don’t even know who its father is. And I don’t want it. I was on the pill – none of this should’ve happened. If I’d known earlier, I would’ve had it . . . aborted.’ It seems slightly obscene to utter that particular word here, in this place created to welcome and nurture new life.
‘What about your parents? Won’t they support you?’
‘It’s a hard thing, lovey, having a baby when you’re so young and all alone, but you know, there are ways, these days. It certainly wouldn’t be impossible. There are pensions – not much, I know, but it’s possible to live. You’d get help with rent and all the services. I’ve seen girls younger than you take their little ones home and make a go of it. Often as not, they make wonderful mums.’
‘No. I can’t have it.’ She swallows, steels herself. ‘I really need to talk to someone about having it taken away. I want to – to give it up for adoption.’
Jodie glares defensively, trying to conceal her wretchedness, and fearing the woman’s objections, her judgement. But her expression hasn’t altered.
‘Well, it’s not a simple decision – not one a girl as young as you should be expected to make so quickly.’
‘But who organises these things? I need to find whoever it is that can arrange things.’ Now that the words are out, the idea made concrete, Jodie is beginning to feel the air fill her lungs again; her limbs seem as if they might be attached to her body, her body to her mind. ‘Isn’t there something I can do, something I can sign? I know there are people desperate to adopt out there. You hear all these stories about how hard it is.’ She speaks in a rush, as if that will somehow move things along faster.
The woman sits on the edge of her bed. ‘Now, Jodie. Hold up a bit. It’s not as simple as you think – they won’t just let you give the bub away like that.’ She takes hold of Jodie’s hand, almost absent-mindedly. ‘You’ll have to have some sort of social worker talk to you, and then she’ll refer you on to a psychologist to make sure it’s not an impulsive decision, or just a symptom of post-natal depression, for instance – something you’ll come to regret. They’ll want you to spend some time with the child now – to make sure. Then they’ll put the baby into foster care for a while, so you have an opportunity to reconsider. It might be quite a while before it’s all finalised. Adoption’s not something you can do lightly – there are consequences for both the mother and the child, you know. And it can come back to haunt you down the track. You need to take time and see how you heal, how you think later, when you’ve recovered. You might feel like there’s no way you can deal with it all today, but believe me, so many first time mothers feel just this way straight after they’ve given birth. You’re exhausted, terrified, can’t see how you’ll cope. What you’re experiencing isn’t unusual at all.’
Jodie pulls her hand out of the woman’s warm clasp, pushes herself up to sitting. ‘I’m not depressed, and I’m not terrified – well not in that way.’ She speaks slowly now, carefully, wanting the woman to believe that she is thinking clearly, that she means what she says, that it’s not spontaneous, a momentary consequence of pain and exhaustion. ‘I’ve had months to think about this, and I don’t want it. I really just want someone to take the baby away now. Can’t I just sign something and go home and get on with my life? I’m not going to change my mind. Truly.’
Sheila sits quietly, thinking. Jodie can’t read her expression. ‘Look, you’ve just been through something huge – even a straightforward birth is an ordeal. You need a good sleep, a proper meal. I’ll arrange to have someone come and talk to you then. You haven’t even seen your little girl, yet. You really need to —’
‘No. Please.’ Jodie’s voice is sharp with panic. ‘Don’t you understand? I don’t need to see her. I don’t want to see her. I don’t want to touch her. I want her – I want her to be gone. Oh, God.’ She turns away, closes her suddenly stinging eyes. ‘Isn’t there someone who can just make it all go away? This is like some sort of crazy nightmare.’ Then, like the child that she is: ‘I wish I was dead.’
The woman takes Jodie’s hand gently between her own again, rubbing them as if trying to warm her. ‘Now, it’s not that bad, surely?’
Jodie says nothing, pushes her face into the starchy hospital pillow, tries hard to swallow her sobs.
The woman sits quietly for a moment, then moves closer, strokes Jodie’s hair gently, her voice a soothing whisper.
‘There is . . . there may be something, if you’re quite certain you don’t want her. There might be some sort of private arrangement that can be made more quickly, without all the fuss.’ Her voice drifts, but Jodie, attentive now, waits for the woman to continue. ‘The rules for adoption are very . . . rigid, and there are sometimes good people out there who can’t adopt through the official channels. They might be too old, or not married – just some silly rule that means they’re deemed less suitable. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t make perfect parents, given the opportunity.’
Jodie turns to her now. ‘Does that mean . . . Do you think you can help me?’
‘Well.’ The woman is stroking her hand with a vague, unfocused tenderness, as if her mind is far away. ‘I might just be able to help you, sweetheart. I might be able to find a solution.’
The woman sighs, and lets go of Jodie’s hand, patting her on the shoulder. ‘Now, you just sit up and wipe your eyes. I’ll bring something to eat and then see if you can have yourself a good sleep.’ She plumps up the pillows behind Jodie’s back. ‘I’ll get them to keep the baby in the nursery for a while longer – make sure you’re not disturbed. And when you wake up, Sheila will have found you a solution. Is it a deal?’ She holds out her hand, and Jodie grabs it, clings on. It’s a deal.
Number Of Pages: 308
Published: 29th January 2014
Country of Publication: AU
Dimensions (cm): 20.0 x 12.8 x 1.9
Weight (kg): 20.0
Edition Number: 1
With strong characterisation and a whack of psychological suspense, it is the kind of novel that will have you second-guessing your own reactions and skilfully exposes the troubling expectations we resort to in the absence of hard evidence.
Angela Savage - Author
The Mistake is a knockout read … with a plot that will haunt you long after the final pages.
James has written a compelling, gut-wrenching novel that is not easily categorised. Part family drama, part psychological thriller, it pushes the boundaries of the crime genre, equally intent on revealing consequences of a crime, or mistake, for the suspected perpetrator and her family as it is on resolving the case.
As in the public narratives we devour with tea and toast in the morning, there is nothing to convict Jodie upon except our own judgment of her character; we relish or condemn her according to our sense of moral distance from her. We take part as armchair jurors, comfortable in our own safety, never suspecting that buried secrets of our own may one day be uncovered.
A stunning novel, the tension builds as James moves both the story and the characters towards an uncertain conclusion. This is a thought provoking novel that explores themes that provide and insight into contemporary life. Part psychological/crime thriller, part family drama, The Mistake defies genre conventions and simply delivers a compelling story.
Great Aussie Reads
An amazing book. The storyline hooks you early one and keeps you turning the pages as fast as you can, hungry to devour more of the narrative. It works on so many levels – including that of the moral dilemma and how we treat people accused of things before they are proven guilty.
James … won the Ned Kelly award for first crime fiction six years ago – and she tells not just a tense and involving story, but also raises important questions about the role of the media, as the missing baby story becomes a runaway train. The Mistake, credible and accomplished, also asks what happens when family members begin to doubt each other, to wonder how well they know each other.
James’s pacing of her plot is masterly. From less than half way through the novel the reader has to fight an overwhelming urge to flick to the end, to take a quick test of their intuition and to assuage the escalating suspense. Resist the temptation: the end has its poignant surprises and James knows exactly where and how to reveal them.
The Mistake is an expertly written, compulsively readable novel that repays the reading with rich reflection. There are no easy answers here and the multiple ‘truths’ of the novel are continually called into question. Everyone is culpable. There are plenty of parallels between Jodie Garrow’s life and those of other real-life women who have been caught up in a media frenzy and judged based on appearance. Nevertheless, the psychological implications go beyond a political statement. This is a powerful book with broad appeal.
Great Aussie Reads
…an amazing book that had me hooked from start to finish…
This novel is not an entirely pleasant experience, but it’s an incredibly satisfying one. I’d recommend it, if for no other reason than that it will help you to look at rumour-mills, small towns and the media in a slight different light. It’s an interesting, challenging point of view, but an important one.
…compelling, well-paced and suspenseful to the end.
Good Reading Magazine
James is masterful at seamlessly ratcheting up the tension…. Unputdownable.
Brilliant, haunting and disturbing, with a twist that will leave you gasping, this is both a subtle and closely-observed portrayal of a family under stress, and a gripping thriller that leaves you guessing to the very end.
Wendy James has written a powerful novel examining the way that the media circus can become a maelstrom, and by putting a mother at the centre of the story, a story that has echoes of Lindy Chamberlain and Kate McCann, she plays a gripping psychological game. You are never certain if you should be supportive of Jodie, or not – after all, what if it was you in her place?