I came home from uni a couple of days later, and there was a note in my letterbox. It was in a plain envelope with my name and address, but no stamp: a single sheet of paper with a rough sketch map on it. I recognised enough of the map to realise it started on the edge of campus, by the river, but not where it ended up. In the corner, someone had written ‘1a.m.’.
And yeah, I was tempted to head straight off then, while it was still light, and find out where I was supposed to go. Of course I was curious. But I thought about what Charles had said that first night we met, and I stayed home.
This was my test, my journey. It wasn’t about where they wanted me to go. The adventure meant being in the right place at the right time. The only way to have it was to play by the rules.
So I made myself some food, watched telly, tried to study for a while, gave up, had a bath, then stood in front of my wardrobe and wondered what to wear to a something somewhere in the middle of the night. Even with the time it took me to settle on the obvious practical clothes, I still left the house half an hour early, because I couldn’t bear to sit still any longer.
I walked as slowly as I could, along the path by the river and then across the water where the map said – not at the bridge, but further up along a heavy plank I couldn’t remember seeing before. It was dark – no lights and not much moon – and I had to navigate the map from memory because I couldn’t see it any more. There was a hint of a rough path through the grass on the opposite bank, so I went up even though I was heading straight for a hedge about twice my height.
A bit of fumbling investigation and I found a gap in the massive hedge, cut on an angle so it was almost impossible to see. I pushed through the macrocarpa, the sharp piney scent right in my face, and out into a garden.
I was standing on a lawn bordered by trees, behind a squat wooden house. It was a solid forbidding structure, two storeys and then dormer windows in the attic, and its bulk threw the lawn into deep shadow. I picked my way cautiously across the grass, anxious not to trip and make an idiot of myself. I was at the end of my map, and I had no idea where to go next. The house was utterly silent and in total darkness.
Then a movement caught my eye, and in what light there was I saw a figure moving towards me. As I got closer, a cloud must have shifted from over the moon or something, because briefly I could see. I knew what I was looking at, I understood it, but part of my brain was still utterly terrified.
It was a person wearing a mask, of course. I even recognised the heavy jackal features, glossy black and gold: Anubis. I was looking at a bare-chested man wearing a white shendyt skirt like an ancient Egyptian, and a full-head mask of Anubis. It must have been heavy and uncomfortable, but there was simply a sense of profound gravity and agelessness to him. The head was slightly cocked to the side, watching like a curious dog.
As I got closer, he held out a bowl in front of him. I took it, uncertain, my fingers finding roughly-hammered metal. It was cold and weighty. I looked back at the man, Anubis, and he said, “Drink.”
It was Glen. I recognised his voice quite clearly, but I’d never heard him speak like that before. I did think about leaving, I did, but there was something in his voice and besides, this was my adventure. If I left, I’d never know.
So I lifted the bowl and drank from it. The liquid was blood-warm, smelled bitter and tasted worse. Like drinking coffee-soaked pine needles. I took a couple of swallows and looked back at Glen. The mask looked impassively back at me, but I knew what he was saying. I drained the bowl.
He took it back, nodded and said, “Come.”
I followed his pale figure across the grass to the house, where he opened a door, then took my hand and guided me down a steep darkened staircase. Underground. His skin felt cool and unyielding, like he was made of wood or stone. In the close space of the stairs he smelled odd too, resiny and dry.
He took me down a short hall, lit only by a dim wall-mounted candlestick, and opened a door into a small room. He handed me in, like he was helping me into a Regency carriage. There was another candle and a bench, on which there was a pile of white fabric. “Change,” Glen said levelly. “Wait.” Then he left, and shut the door behind him.
I sat down in a heap, and tried to laugh. It was ridiculous. I’d gone to a house right next to uni, where my friends were playing dress-ups in the cellar. It wasn’t funny though; it was fucking eerie. Also, my head was starting to spin. I could hear my pulse in my ears, strong and fast, and I would have done quite a lot for a glass of water. Well, except leave. I wasn’t leaving.
Once I’d made that decision, everything else was easy. I stripped off my sensible clothes and put on what they’d given me: a long loose white dress. Just what you’d give a virgin sacrifice, except I knew enough to recognise it as everyday wear for an Egyptian woman. Also this was never going to be virgin sacrifice territory.
Then I sat, and waited. I was there an age, or about five minutes: by then I really couldn’t tell. When Glen came back, I was so glad to see him I wasn’t bothered by him carrying a knife and a small jar.
“You are ready,” he said, with the same heavy flat intonation as before. “Give me your arm.”
He must have done this many times before: he found a vein in the dim flickering light with no trouble at all, and held my wrist steady when my arm tried to jerk back at the pain. Ignoring my gasp and my resistance with an impassivity helped by wearing a massive painted mask, he tilted and squeezed, running my blood into the jar. He only took a little, then stoppered it and held it out. “Hold. It will be asked for.”
I took it dumbly, because what the hell else was I going to do, and stood there while Glen cleaned my wrist up and stopped the nick from bleeding. I knew it was Glen, but it didn’t feel like him. It felt like I was alone with something… else. It didn’t move like a person, it didn’t respond to me at all. Its face was all cruel sharpness and shadows. It wasn’t threatening, because it didn’t care enough to be. Its detachment from me was utterly profound.
Then he was leading me again, down the hall which turned a corner, past other doors, and ended in a heavy curtain. He pulled it aside, and brought me in behind him. We were in a tiny alcove, facing another curtain. He touched a cord hanging to the side, and then I could feel him waiting, sense the counted heart-beats.
On cue, the curtain was opened, and we walked through. I squinted against the light, sharp after the darkness, hurting my brain. I couldn’t see properly, but there was a lot of white, and out of it a voice said, “Who seeks to pass over?”
Familiar, but I couldn’t place it. A man, again, in front of us, dressed like Anubis except that his mask was the head of a bird, and he was holding a pen and a book. Thoth, the last functioning bit of my brain supplied helpfully.
Anubis spoke on my behalf. “Hera Lawley comes. She seeks to pass from this life to the next.”
Even before she said anything I knew, my head turning to the side. There was a raised dais there, with two thrones side by side. On them, inevitably, Peter and Laura. She was in her Isis costume: translucent white dress, heavy knotted girdle, huge crown shaped like a stylised lotus. Her hair gleamed, bright with beads, and she wore heavy make-up, the kohl around her eyes stretching out to her temples. Her expression was benevolent but remote, never quite focused on what was in front of her.
Beside her, Peter sat with his arms folded over his chest, holding the crook and flail of his office. Osiris. Despite the high white crown, the make-up, and the fake wooden beard stuck to his chin, he utterly failed to look ridiculous. Regal, yes, and even beautiful.
They were so unmoving they looked carved, alabaster and gilt. Then Laura spoke, and if she’d been one of the masked ones, I’d not have been able to place her voice. “Hera Lawley. Is this true? Do you submit to judgement, freely?”
That was when I clicked. There was a table next to Thoth, and sitting on it was a beautiful antique set of balances. On one side sat a feather. I was at the weighing of the heart, the traditional passage to the ancient Egyptian afterlife. If my heart was heavy with sin… ah yes. There was a crocodile mask, on a crouching shadowed figure. The Devourer. I didn’t know who it was, but opposite the very royal couple stood Marianne, in a narrow red dress that left her breasts bared, so the man next to her in the shendyt, pectoral and black animal mask was probably Richard. She was Nephthys, so he must be Set.
I was terribly pleased with all my deductions, and then I realised I was supposed to do something now. There’d been a question… “Yes. Yes, I do.”
My busy brain was still hard at work, even as Anubis stepped in front of me, held out his hand, and took the jar I was carrying. I was in a cellar. On this side, a stage and a tableau of deities. Then a deep ditch bisecting the room, and on the other side, across a low bridge, people. Dozens of kneeling people, all dressed in white, all utterly silent. Dotted around the walls were torches, more on this side than the other, and the smoke they gave off smelled unpleasantly sweet, like rotting flowers.
Anubis put the little jar on the balances, opposite the feather, and they swung freely. Ridiculously, I felt a moment of very real fear. Then they settled, the feather balancing the jar perfectly.
Thoth wrote. Anubis said, “She passes judgement. Her heart is light.” I wondered where Horus was. My knowledge of the ritual was sketchy, but I was pretty sure he should have been there.
“She passes,” Isis said, her voice rich and low and warm. “Be welcome, Hera. Walk among our people, and be free from judgement hereafter.”
Anubis took me to the bridge, and I crossed over by myself. The smoke was making my head spin. A hand came up out of the crowd and gently pulled me down to my knees, to sit with the rest of them.
I watched someone else go through the ritual after me, everything exactly the same. After he crossed to join the rest of us, Peter and Laura got to their feet – smoothly, at exactly the same time. Thoth walked to the front of the stage and said, “The passing is complete. The court is dismissed. Welcome our new fellows.”
Then he turned, and they all formed up into a column and left through the back where I’d come in. Laura took Peter’s arm as they walked. It looked loving and affectionate, but I thought she was also helping him balance. The Osiris costume was tight enough to leave very little to the imagination.
Once they were gone, people starting getting to their feet, leaning on each other and complaining as they stretched cramped legs, brushing clay dust from the floor off dresses and jellabiyas. The air of vague menace left with the gods, as did the gravity of the occasion. Most of the faces around me I vaguely recognised from parties and around uni, but some were complete strangers. This was a slightly different club. Someone crossed the bridge the other way and sat down to play a lyre. The tune was naggingly familiar, but it took me a couple of minutes to recognise “Smoke on the Water”.
Charles came over, wearing the full-length jellabiya rather than the shendyt, and kissed me. “Glad you could make it, Hera. Laura was borderline on bringing you in at the last gathering, so I’m glad she waited until I could be here.”
“So am I, I guess. This is all a bit… hard to take in.” I rubbed a hand over my forehead. I still felt weird. “I could really do with something to drink, I think the smoke is making me thirsty.”
He smiled, archly. “The smoke is making you stoned. There’s a little opium resin on the torches. What’s making you thirsty is the ephedra. The tea you had. We do like everyone to have nice clear sinuses. Come on, they’ll be setting up the drinks table down the back, let’s see what we can find you.”
I took his hand and followed him, but I was frowning. “Drugging me without my permission? Isn’t that a bit off?”
“We wouldn’t have done it if we weren’t absolutely sure you’d cope. That’s part of the assessment. It’s all right, we’re responsible hosts.”
I was pretty sure there was something wrong with that thinking, but I couldn’t work out what it was. So I took the water he gave me, and sat in the chair he took me to. “This house. Who owns it?”
“We do,” said Marianne, walking over to kiss me on the cheek. She’d taken off her headdress and some of the make-up, but she was still wearing the tight breast-baring red dress. I was hard pressed for places to look that didn’t strongly feature nipples. “The Club does. We got it ages ago, even before Charles’s time. Something about a will?”
Charles’s smile was tight: I couldn’t tell whether it was Marianne he didn’t like or the subject. “Our members can be most persuasive. And loyal. The previous owner was very happy with the arrangement. We take good care of the house and we’re very quiet and considerate neighbours, all things considered.”
Suddenly I was being pulled out of my chair and hugged, and the spicy scent of Laura’s hair enveloped me. “Hera, darling! It is so good to have you here!”
She pulled back far enough to kiss me exuberantly on the mouth. She’d shed most of her costume too, and was just wearing the white dress, ungirdled. “I’ve hated keeping all this from you. And I meant it too, I want you up there with us.”
Peter came to join her, wearing a shendyt, which if anything was a bigger problem for my imagination than the Osiris costume. He passed Laura a drink, and she kissed him. Deeply. Properly. But then I already knew: nothing that happened down here counted in the world outside. This was separate. Once they were back in the real world, that kiss would never have happened.
Someone called for Peter across the room, and he gave Laura a farewell squeeze and walked away without a shade of regret from either of them. Even down here, they could love but they still weren’t lovers.
In my peripheral vision, Marianne and Charles weren’t giving that impression. Turned out it probably wasn’t her he didn’t like. Nobody seemed at all bothered, not even Richard.
Laura took my hand. “Come on, I’ll show you around the house. I think maybe you could do with some fresher air too.”
She took me through the underground halls, which seemed maze-like and confusing that night, but were actually pretty simple. Other than what I’d already seen,
there was a large room that looked exactly like any number of dressing rooms I’d been in backstage, littered with masks and make-up and bits of costume. The resemblance made me giggle.
Then she took me up a different set of stairs from the one I’d come down, and we were standing in a huge darkened hallway, underneath a large staircase. Once we’d closed it, the door to the cellar was pretty much invisible in the panelling. “And this is The House,” Laura said happily, the capital letters clearly audible. “You can come here any time you like now; just be discreet and don’t bring anyone from outside. The Club’s had to sell most of the furniture to pay for the upkeep of the house, but you can still get a bed and a coffee when you need it.”
It was actually kind of eerie, though to be fair not in comparison with the rest of my night. The house was beautiful, grand, slightly run down, and dotted with the sort of furniture you found in “furnished” flats. Obviously over the years members had donated things they didn’t need any more: sagging armchairs and wire-framed beds, a Formica table and wobbly kitchen chairs. It was surprisingly clean, though: people obviously cared enough to wipe down benches and wash sheets. In my state of mind, its ordinariness was creepy, more out of place than my masked and costumed friends in the cellar.
There was something eerie about Laura, too. She sounded like herself, mostly, but sometimes I’d turn around after she’d shown me a room, and see her standing in the doorway with the light from the hall behind her, and she wasn’t just herself. She stood straighter, her expression was kind but distant. Whatever had been with her in that underground room was still there around the edges.
Finally, she took me back downstairs and we stood in that massive entrance-way, with her still smiling at me like that. “Are you going to come back downstairs? It’s not that you have to, but you’re kind of one of us now. This is the place where you’re always welcome. We like to take care of our own.”
I’d passed over. This was my life now, and there was a room in the cellar full of kisses that would never have happened. “Where else would I go?”