She who drives off the foes,
Who stops the deeds of the disturber
By the power of her utterance.
The clever-tongued whose speech fails not,
Effective in the word of command,
Mighty Isis who protected her brother,
Who sought him without wearying.
Who roamed the land lamenting,
Not resting till she found him,
Who made a shade with her plumage,
Created breath with her wings.
Who jubilated, joined her brother,
Raised the weary one’s inertness,
Received the seed, bore the heir,
Raised the child in solitude,
His abode unknown.
Who brought him when his arm was strong
Into the broad hall of Geb.
Excerpt from the Great Hymn to Osiris
On the Stela of Amenmose, Louvre D 286
I knew this would happen. However famous I got, no-one was ever going to ask my friends to dish the dirt on me. But one day someone was going to sit right there and say, “Tell me about Laura.” That’s my story: the story of Laura. The only story I have, like everything else, has always been hers.
It wasn’t supposed to be you doing the asking, of course. You should never have needed to.
I was in my second year at university when I met Laura Campbell. That year was so much easier than the one before. I was through the sheer white terror of total ignorance, I had a flat and a few friends and some points under my belt. I’d rashly decided to do some Classics with my Law, and for the life of me I couldn’t find my damn tutorial room.
It’s odd how much I’ve forgotten now. There’s a big glass display room on the top floor of the Classics Department where they have all their artefacts and stuff, and I can’t remember what it’s called. That’s the sort of thing I never thought I could forget. But that’s where she was, all surrounded in glass and light like she was on display herself. She swallowed that light up, thick black hair falling loose to her waist. I didn’t see her eyes then, but they were dark too, blue with black in it. She was taking photos of one of the red-figure bowls. She had a focus and grace that caught the eye. That and she seemed to be the only person around anywhere.
She looked up and smiled, came out through the heavy glass door and asked if she could help me. I guess I must have looked like some deer in the headlights first-year. I told her I was after the tute for Dr Elworthy’s Hellenistic Egypt course, and she laughed. She had, I don’t know, something about her that just made you want to like her. Anyway, turned out she was tutoring the course, and we got to talking. I don’t remember much of what we said. And then we hit what I guess I was too stupid to see she was working up to all the time.
“If you’re going to be round Classics this year, you should drop by the Carter Club. Have you heard of them?”
Had I heard of them? Okay, they weren’t the Engineering Society, infamous for their piss-ups and falling in the river, but almost everyone had heard something about the Carter Club. They were officially a Classics club, but all they seemed to really do was have parties. Pretty much like every other uni club, really. “I’ve heard a bit. There was something last year about a donkey?”
“Exaggerated,” she said dismissively, but with a smirk. “I’m actually the President this year. You can tell no-one else wanted the job. I’m about to head over to our room now, you could come with me if you want. Oh, rude of me, we haven’t even been introduced. I’m Laura Campbell.”
I always hated this bit, or at least I did before the Carter Club. “Hera Lawley.”
Her eyes widened, and she just out and out sniggered. “Hera? Really? And you haven’t slaughtered either of your parents? I’d understand. Have you got any brothers and sisters?”
“One of each. Shannon and Paul. I’m the youngest. Think they were done with being responsible by then.”
She picked up her bag, pushed back her hair, and just took my hand like we were best friends. “I have to show you to Peter, he’ll love it. Come on.”
And that was it. I never really had a chance. I think she’d made up her mind right then what I was for, and once Laura made up her mind, you were done. You’d do whatever she wanted and think it was your idea. Maybe that sounds unlikely. I wouldn’t have believed it myself, back then.
She took me back to the Students’ Association, up the stairs and round the side to the room the Carter Club had taken over. In theory, it was open to everyone, but if the Club didn’t want you there, you didn’t stay long. She breezed through the door like she was a queen, with me trailing along in her wake. “Peter! Look what I found, isn’t she great?”
The guy who looked up then threw me off my stride some more. I thought it was because he was, quite clearly, the best looking person I’d ever seen in real life. Later I realised that, okay, I was right about that, but it wasn’t the whole story. He looked like Laura. Not like he was her brother, because I’ve never seen two siblings look that much alike. I suppose because she was female and he was male you didn’t notice the resemblance straight away. The hair was the same: heavy and black and waist-length. Their eyes were the same, too: not just the colour, but the expression, which was a sort of delightful but irritating knowing laughter.
He smiled at me, holding my eye for just a little bit too long, then got up and hooked an arm around Laura’s waist. “That’s so typical of you, Laura. Send you out for five minutes and you’re picking up strays. Still, that’s why we keep you round, so we can play with your left-overs.”
She poked him in the stomach, then pointedly ignored him. “Pay no attention to the man who’s always in front of the curtain, Hera. Peter’s a pathological attention seeker.”
“Takes one to know one,” he replied, tugging on her hair, “That and five minutes in PSYC 101.”
I must have mumbled something, but they didn’t really seem to need me. No, they did; they needed an audience, but they needed to look like they didn’t. I was busy trying to work out if they were friends or siblings or lovers or what. I’d never seen people behave like they were.
After a minute, Laura noticed I was still there. “Alright, Hera, let’s introduce you around.” She took my hand with the same ease she’d just bitten Peter’s nose, and ushered me over to a table where three guys were sitting. I honest to God hadn’t noticed them when we came in.
“Alright, Hera, let’s see… The big guy with the beard is Darren. The tall skinny one with the red hair is Richard. Ignore the scowly thing, that’s just his face. And Glen’s the one who looks like… who is it you look like again, Glen?”
“Piss off, Laura.”
“Hugh Grant.” I hadn’t meant to say it. I hadn’t meant to say anything, but it was true. He was small for a man and had soft brown hair that flopped down into his face. Once you pointed the resemblance out, it was obvious. And obviously annoying.
Laura was delighted. “See, it’s not just me and everyone else, it’s Hera too.” Her attention was caught by something over Glen’s shoulder. “I’ll leave you guys to get acquainted,” she said absently, already moving off.
Richard craned his head back to look where she’d gone. “Oh Christ, it’s Mouse. What do you think, Glen, how long has she got?”
They all turned, and formed a completely unselfconscious gallery watching the entertainment. Laura was hugging a smaller woman, taking a bag from her and exclaiming in delight. She pulled a long white dress out of the bag, her face lit up, and she swept the other girl up, kissing her. The kissing went on for a good couple of minutes. I was totally failing not to blush. I’d never actually seen two women kiss like that before. I kept thinking how horrified my father would be.
Darren made an odd snorting noise. “Looks like she’s finished the dress. I’d give it a couple of days before Laura rolls out the old ‘it’s been great’.”
It wasn’t helping the state of my face that Laura had passed the dress to Peter and was briskly stripping off her clothes.
Glen shook his head. “Give the woman some credit, Darren. Mouse hasn’t even started on Osiris yet. Laura’s not stupid, she’ll put up with the squeaking for a couple more weeks for that. I don’t know about the other costumes, but she’ll get Isis and Osiris for sure before ‘it’s not you it’s me let’s stay friends’.”
Laura had the dress on, but there was some kind of girdle that went with it that was giving them problems with the tying. She was laughing and holding her arms out of the way while Peter and Mouse fussed over it.
“I can’t call her Mouse,” I said, easily because I hadn’t realised I was speaking out loud to start with. “What’s her name?”
Darren blinked. “Good gods, I can’t remember. Anna? Emma? Richard, what’s Mouse’s name?”
Richard looked up, elaborately bored. “You can’t expect me to remember all their names. Laura doesn’t. That’s why she calls everyone ‘darling’ and ‘love’,” he told me. “So she doesn’t get their names wrong.”
Darren laughed. “Mostly she gets around it with that ‘it’s rude to talk with your mouth full’ thing.”
Glen shrugged and gave me a lop-sided smile. “I think her name’s Amy.” He paused as Laura’s companions stepped away from her. “My gods, look at her.”
He wasn’t talking about Amy. Laura now stood in her costume, the tight white dress girdled around her waist and tied with an elaborate knot. She was imperial. “That’s without the headdress and the wig,” Glen murmured. “We are all absolutely sure she’s not actually Isis, right?”
“Tits are too big,” Richard opined helpfully. “Isis was skinnier than that. Also I believe nobody ever did shots off Isis’ stomach, but I could be wrong.”
Laura made her way over to join us. Her gait was stately in the long skirt. She looked like a cat that had just eviscerated something under your bed. “What do you think?”
“You look amazing,” I said, because it was clearly expected, and also because it was true. “What’s it for?”
“Oh, you know,” Laura said airily, “playing dress-ups. We shall have to find a role for you, too, in our little game. What shall we do with Hera? Marianne is Nephthys… Sekhmet? No, Bastet, I think. Cats. Do you like cats, Hera?”
It was one of those moments that could have gone so wrong. I raised an eyebrow, turned to Glen, and said, “What the hell is she talking about?”
Whatever he was going to say was lost under a torrent of Laura’s laughter. “I knew I was right!” She stroked my hair, and for a moment her face was still, thoughtful. Then she flitted away again. “Better get this off before I muss it. We need to measure up Peter properly, which should be a bunch of fun and then, my dear, we’re going to a party. You have to come. You wouldn’t say no to me, surely. The boys will look after you, won’t you boys? Make sure Hera gets there okay?”
She walked back over to where she’d left Peter and Mouse, and you could see her getting used to the hobble of the skirt, owning it instead of just wearing it.
Glen shrugged. “She’s right. People don’t say no to her. Though I’m pretty sure she’s careful about what she asks for. If Laura asks you something, she probably already knows what you’re going to say.”
We watched them help Laura out of the costume and into her street clothes in silence for a moment. I sucked up some courage during the break. “Why me? Why did she pick me out?”
“I don’t know,” Glen said, in a voice that said he did, but he really didn’t want to talk about it.
“Bet you anything Laura does, though,” Darren added chirpily. “What do you reckon, Hera, are you next after Mouse?”
I watched Peter peel off his shirt for Mouse’s measuring tape. Holy shit. “No. No, I like men.”
“It’s a popular view,” Darren said, and I was pretty sure I was missing a joke. To be fair right now I was missing everything other than breathing in and out. Laura was kneeling in front of Peter and arguing with Mouse about how far down the end of the tape should come. “That chest is not a cliff you want to dash yourself to pieces on though, love.”
Richard snorted. “Too much poetry, that’s your problem, Daz. Why don’t you just say something like ‘stay away from him, he’s trouble’ and make absolutely sure she falls for him? Come on Hera, let’s go get a couple of drinks and something to eat, and then we’ll take you over to Marianne’s for the party.”
We got some food in a tiny Chinese restaurant in Riccarton I’d never seen before that did a fabulous Combination Fried Rice for just a couple of bucks, stopped by a bottle store for a couple of casks of bloody awful wine, and then walked down to the party, huddled against a wind that was already bitter in March.
The party was at a creaky old two-storeyed house that had clearly seen better days, and many of them. Music, light, and people spilled out across the lawn, and there was a general air of boozy good nature. I might have felt intimidated on my own, but by that stage the guys and I had already exchanged the usual uni greeting – city and school of origin, courses of study – and they seemed perfectly happy to look after me, even if it was just because Laura had told them to. No-one said no to her, after all.
She was there when we arrived, tucked under a tree in the front yard, talking earnestly to an older guy who looked vaguely familiar. I started over, and Darren grabbed my arm. “Leave her for a bit, Hera. She’s… busy.”
Richard rolled his eyes, a gesture that somehow involved his whole body. “That’s Neil Symes, he’s on the city council. She’s doing business at parties, Darren, that’s supposed to be a no-no.”
Darren replied with a raised eyebrow I was starting to recognise as one of their many expressions of over-played ironic detachment. “I’m pretty sure you can’t expect Laura’s rules to apply to Laura. Well, you could, but you’d be surprised and disappointed a lot, and eventually we’d have to start mocking. Besides, I think she actually likes him.”
As we watched, Laura leaned over to get some light on her watch, they had a brief conversation, and then she kissed Councillor Symes heatedly on the mouth before they parted ways. He headed around to the back of the house, and she came over to join us, smiling broadly. “Hera, you made it! Excellent. Someone should find you a glass. By which I mean a paper cup. Darren? We need to consult our Talent Base. I have a job needs doing. But that’s for later. No business at parties!”
That party was odd. Don’t get me wrong, I had a really good time, even if Laura kept disappearing. There was just a lot to get used to. There were long-haired men wearing more eyeliner than I’d ever owned. There was a lot of very loud, very dark music I’d never heard before. There were conversations full of in-jokes I was out of.
At one point, I stepped out into the back yard to get some air and a bit of a break. There was an old gazebo slowly falling down out there, and I was wandering over to have a look when I heard a sound that, luckily, made me stop. It was a woman’s groan, warm and full of laughter. Laura. The deeper murmur of a man’s voice replied, and then she gasped sharply and said, “Neil!”
Laura and the councillor. Business at parties. I went back inside.
But also, I drank and I danced and I laughed more than I remembered ever doing before. In the morning I felt worse than I could remember ever feeling before too, but I knew it was totally worth it. It was what I wanted.