For a few weeks after we got back, Laura kept me busy. She kept needing my help and my advice, with costumes, props, the garden at The House. I knew what she was doing, but I didn’t mind. It was nice to be useful, to be included.
So I wasn’t all that surprised when Peter came up to me in the common room one afternoon and said, “Laura just phoned. She wants to meet the two of us in town. She says she has a surprise.”
I closed the play I’d been reading and tucked it into my bag. “Do you know what it’s about?”
He shrugged, smiling warmly. “Nup. You know what Laura’s like. She’s so delighted having a secret, I didn’t want to spoil her fun.”
I gave him a Look, which he’d seen before enough times to ignore. “Of course you don’t. Okay… what about the others?”
He shot a look around the room. Of the House people, the only ones there were Richard and Marianne, who were sulking off one of their usual fights. They looked like really shitty company. “Wait about five minutes,” he said, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “then come down. I’ll meet you by the car. Oh gods… I’m parked out the front, down the far end. Near the bus-stop.”
“I’ll find it,” I reassured him. “You go.”
He wandered out all casual-like, and I watched him go, which was no great hardship really. Then I mucked about with my stuff in an unobtrusive fashion for probably about forty-five seconds, and followed after him.
Still, by the time I found his car, Peter was leaning on the bonnet chatting to some girl. Typical. I could stand pretty much anywhere I liked and be left alone, but the same thing would have happened if it was Laura.
As I walked up, Peter turned to greet me, his ‘hey babe’ smile still on his face. “Hera. This is Rachel, she’s in my invertebrate zoology tute. She’s just missed her bus, do you mind if we give her a ride into town?”
The girl smiled at me, and frankly I was impressed she could drag her eyes that far off Peter’s face. Well, except in a ‘straight down’ direction. “I’m sorry, I feel so stupid. But I arranged to meet a friend in town, we’re going to a movie, and if I wait for the next bus we’ll miss it.”
I gave Peter a brief quizzical ‘what the fuck are you playing at’ look, then smiled back, with a terribly cool wave of my hand. “No problem. Glad to help. Hop in.”
She cut round me and headed for the passenger seat with a determination that would have been unhindered by having to trample a mound of fluffy bunnies to get there. I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing out loud, and quietly tucked myself into the back seat.
From there I could keep giving Peter amused smirks in the rear-view mirror as he played with Rachel. They talked about their courses to start with, and people they both knew slightly, and then quite naturally the subject of clubs came up, and Peter was drawn to reluctantly admit his ties to the Carter.
“It’s not as bad as everyone makes out,” he said insincerely. “Wish it was. But we have some fun, and it’s mostly harmless. You should drop by. I mean, I know Classics really isn’t your thing, but that’s mostly just a front for the drinking and talking. I think you’d like it.”
Her cheeks had gone quite pink, her gambit paying off better than she could have hoped. “No,” she protested, “I love all that… Classical stuff, I’ve always found it interesting since I was a kid. It’s just, y’know, hard to fit it in around my labs. But… I’d like that. If it would be okay.”
Peter chuckled, giving her the full dimples. The dimples, to be fair, were bloody impressive. “Oh, I know. Arts and sciences, it’s like they make the timetables clash on purpose. And then of course, with arts, no-one wants to be up too early in the morning, or miss lunch, or cut into Happy Hour, so there’s not a lot of wiggle room left.”
“Hey,” I protested. Then, “Fair point.”
“But seriously,” Peter said, looking serious. And hot. “Nobody would mind. There’s always room for one more: that’s practically the Carter Club motto.”
I fell over sideways in the back seat and muffled laughter against the upholstery.
Peter braked abruptly at a red light, just to spite me. “And we’re always short of girls. I don’t know why, you’d think, Classics, it’d be the guys who were hard to find. But no. I think Laura scares them off on purpose.”
“Not all of them,” I got out against a chronic lack of breathing.
Rachel elected not to hear me, which was clearly going to be something of a lifestyle choice for her. “Alright then, I will. Maybe after our tute tomorrow, I could walk over with you.”
“I’d like that,” he said, weighting it with significance he didn’t mean. “I really would. This is your stop, isn’t it?” He pulled over smoothly, and turned towards her in his seat. “So I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She coloured, and fumbled over her seat-belt. “Yes. Tomorrow. Thank you so much for the ride.” Obviously summoning up courage, she lunged forward and kissed him on the cheek, then fled the car.
I climbed over the passenger seat as we pulled out into traffic, and waited about half a block before bursting out laughing. “Jesus, Peter, how do you do that with a straight face? That poor girl, she’s going to be utterly crushed.”
He shrugged, but his expression was slightly embarrassed and rueful. “She’ll be okay. A lot of them stay, obviously, or we wouldn’t do it. They make friends, they take lovers, they’re fine. Rachel’s not a delicate little flower, I mean, you saw that, right? I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think she could cope.”
“I still want to see her face when she sees Laura for the first time. It’s like a car accident, I guess. I could look away, but I don’t want to. Where are we going, anyway?”
“Laura just gave me an address, and of course in the middle of town with all the shops, nobody has a damn number. Keep an eye out, will you? Find me a street number.”
We narrowed down the block, found a park, and once we were walking and asking we worked out where we were supposed to be. It was just a fairly unprepossessing doorway between an “Irish” pub and a souvlaki bar.
“This isn’t Laura’s idea of a joke, is it?” I said dubiously as we stood staring at the solid wooden door, its paint slightly bubbled and peeling.
Peter grinned, and it was a secret smile like he’d forgotten I could see him. “No. I’ve seen Laura’s jokes. She wouldn’t find this funny. But she does like surprising people. I do know what she’s been looking for. I guess she’s found it.”
He pushed the door open, and we squeezed into a tiny lobby at the bottom of a steeply raked flight of stairs. No hand rail, and seemingly no light either. After the sharp winter sun outside, it was gloomy and threatening.
We climbed the stairs, and while Peter seemed completely unconcerned as always, I kept one hand flat against the wall, terrified of slipping and falling. At the top was another door, leading into what seemed to be a reception area. No windows, just a shabby counter and another door.
Through that we found Laura, standing in a large dark open space. It looked like it had once been open-plan office space, but had long been unloved and abandoned. Laura’s rapt expression suggested that was all about to change. “You made it. What took so long?”
“Peter was picking up some trash,” I said, leaning my head back to look around. “Something that looks like it needs doing here. What the hell are you up to, Laura?”
“It took a while to find the place,” Peter said, with a note of exasperation. “You’re directions weren’t exactly… existent. This is going to need a lot of work, Laura, are you sure?”
“Absolutely,” she said, taking his hand. Her face was alive with enthusiasm. “We’ve got reception for taking money, this room for dancing once we take out all the partitions. It’ll be dark enough we don’t even need to really paint – I’m sorry, Hera, I forgot you didn’t know. We’ve been looking for a place for a while, and given no-one wants to take office space right now this is dirt cheap. Fine for noise because of the pub. This is going to be The Carnarvon. Our very own nightclub.”
I stared at her. “For real? Why do we need… How can you afford it?”
She shrugged, and ushered us towards the far end of the room. “We do have quite the income from ex-members we keep quiet, and once we get set up it’ll start paying for itself. Members get in free, we discount the booze from normal club prices, nobody has to worry about neighbours or Noise Control. Toilets that way, already all plumbed though we might need to put in a bit more. Little back office over there that was probably the manager’s, we’ll keep that.” She didn’t have to say who for. “And through here…”
She opened the double doors in front of us, and we were flooded with light. It was a long narrow room with full-length old-fashioned arched windows the whole way along, looking out onto the street. “This is where we put the bar. Booths for quiet drinking, leather, brass, palms – like a Victorian club. Like the Explorers’ Club.” She let go of Peter and climbed up onto one of the broad window ledges. Sitting there, she was silhouetted from the street below. “People will see us. They’ll want to know what’s going on up here. We don’t advertise, we keep everything quiet, we just let ourselves be seen. In no time at all, people will want to be in here. And we’ll charge them through the nose to get in.”
She jumped down and stood in front of us, her eyes bright, her whole face lit with enthusiasm. “What do you think?”
I figured she wasn’t asking me.
Peter turned slowly around. “We put the bar at that end, long and curved, brass rail. Your guy can-”
“Yes. Materials won’t be a problem. And everyone will pitch in, with the sanding and painting and decorating.”
“And the rent is…”
“We can manage it. Nobody wants it for offices any more since the bust because of the noise from the pub. And they want to shift it before it gets any more run-down.”
He turned back to face her, and caught her eye just like he had with Rachel in the car. “Then I say we take it.”
She actually clapped with delight, then lunged forward and kissed him. It was, from outside observation, just like he’d been with Rachel, and yet it wasn’t. He cared whether Laura was happy. That was perhaps, I thought, all you could hope for from Peter. He was too self-sufficient for anything else.
I also figured neither of them remembered I was there.
For weeks, the Carter Club was entirely dominated by The Carnarvon. Most of us were down there every evening, and every weekend was a huge working bee powered by souvlaki runs. We cleaned and sanded and stripped, and then Laura’s current boyfriend, who was a builder, took walls down and put them up, and trailer-loads of building materials would turn up at odd hours.
I cut squabs out of foam and sewed endless fake velvet covers for them, long after my shoulders ached and my eyes hurt. Once they were fitted into the booths in the bar, I painted and polished and occasionally held things while men said “left a bit”. We were all exhausted, but it was fabulous. We ate god-awful takeaways at three a.m. sitting on the windowsills, together. The whole Club pitched in, even those who weren’t through to the House.
After three months, we opened. I had a galloping suspicion Laura had been doing “things” to get extra money through that time, but I didn’t want to know, and more to the point I was sure Peter didn’t want to know, so I just minded my own business. Opening night completely went off, of course, because we all wanted it to. Laura had persuaded an up and coming DJ to play for us, the booze flowed, and about five o’clock the next morning half a dozen or so of us tumbled out into the cold grey morning light. “Gotta do something about those stairs,” I told Laura. “Put up a rail or something, they’re dangerous.”
She waved a hand between our faces dismissively. Also vaguely, because she was utterly written. “Be all right. Want people to feel like, y’know, they’re climbing into a tomb, pyramid or something. Dark, dangerous. Be fine. Scares people, so they’re more careful. Like the dark.”
With a happy sigh, she thanked us all, kissed us all, and staggered off up the road. You just left Laura to it when she was leaving, possibly because we never knew where she was going.
The other thing that happened about that time was that I fell in love.
Looking back now I can’t think where I found the time, but I’d auditioned for the Outdoor Shakespeare, which was The Tempest that year. I was lucky that was the play: the director liked my innocence and the way I seemed younger and more vulnerable than most of the other actresses my age, and cast me as Miranda. I might not even have got that, but he’d decided to make Ariel and Prospero both female, so the better actresses had something else to do. It was interesting, actually. It made some of the scenes, like the one where Caliban has tried to rape Miranda, completely different, with Propsero being her mother instead of her father.
Anyway, obviously the most important thing was the guy playing Ferdinand. And he was lovely. When we were doing introductions and I told him my name, he was impressed.
“That’s really your name? Wow, you’re so lucky! That’s a great name for an actress. I’m just Chris.”
“Well, what’s that short for? Christopher? Christian?”
He grimaced. “It’s not short for anything. Just Chris. I was born on Christmas Day. It’s my parents’ idea of, well, a good idea.”
I managed not to laugh, and ostentatiously pondered the idea. “Really,” I said, “you’re very lucky. You could have been born a day later. Then they’d have called you Box.”
That was the moment that sealed it, I think, though we didn’t start sleeping together for another couple of weeks. We were complimented on our chemistry, and only slightly ironically, because it must have been entirely obvious we were screwing. And over the run of the show, it became more than that.
Chris was lovely, and simple, and uncomplicated. His eyes crinkled up when he laughed, and he had an actor’s charisma. He knew I was in the Club, and I took him to a couple of parties and the guys gave him a hard time, but mostly I kept the bits of my life separate. He didn’t ask any questions, and it was nice to have someone I could talk to about acting. He was comfortable to be around, and the whole thing worked. We’d go back to his flat or my flat after rehearsals, and he never asked where I was on the nights I couldn’t make it. He was good in bed, and what I’d learned from sleeping with guys in the Club made him great. After the play run ended, we started talking about maybe moving in together.
All that ended when Peter’s girlfriend Lynne killed herself.