Chapter Seven

I can’t remember now why I was with Peter that night. It might have been partly because of the reason Laura wasn’t: she was with Brian.

Laura’s relationship with Brian was odd. Not by normal human standards, but for Laura. He was a builder, which we’d been expecting given the work that needed doing on the Carnarvon, and when she kept on keeping him around we assumed it was because there was a lot of building to do. He was just getting a longer run than usual. She didn’t bring him round uni or the House, but he was at the Carnarvon a lot, so we got to know him a bit, and to see them together.

The weird thing was, Laura seemed happy with him. She was never really unhappy – at least, not back then – but with Brian she relaxed. Her laughter seemed edgeless and genuine. She smiled at him a lot. Either she wasn’t playing, or she was putting a lot more effort into it. Anyway, she seemed genuinely fond of him, and this particular night she was out somewhere with him while the rest of us were all drinking at uni. And something about Laura and Brian was making me keep a closer eye on Peter. Again, not a hardship. Maybe I just wanted an excuse I could give myself for hanging around him. He didn’t seem to mind.

So that night I walked back to his flat with him after we left the bar. We’d hung out at his place for drinks occasionally, but not since Lynne had moved in with him. It was sort-of but not really on my way, and it wasn’t far. I over-analysed it later, but at the time it just felt natural.

His flatmates were out drinking in the old armchairs on the porch, and they welcomed us with the expansive warmth of the comfortably pissed. Peter asked after Lynne, and one of them said she was inside.

So he went in, and I was sort of obliged to go with him because it would have been rude not to say hello. Peter bowled into their bedroom, half-cut from Happy Hour, saw her on the bed and started chatting away to her. And then he stopped, completely. Talking, moving, breathing, everything.

Coming round him, I saw why. She was really obviously dead. Nobody alive looked like that, or felt like that; so totally absent.

Seemed she’d laid herself down prettily on the bed, in her favourite dress, her hair draped across the pillow, and waited for death to leave her heart-breaking. Then whatever she’d taken had made her double up in pain and now her upper torso hung off the mattress, her head above a puddle of nasty greenish vomit. Her lips were blistered and her face dark with blood. It was horrible.

I couldn’t bear for him to look at it. I pushed past him and grabbed her shoulders, heaving her back onto the bed. “Call an ambulance,” I told him, even though we both knew it was far too late. He needed something to do, and both of us needed somebody else to tell us what happened now. What were you supposed to do with a dead body? I had no idea.

Stepping carefully, I laid her out like she’d intended, even pushing the hair back from her face. It seemed wrong for her to look so undignified. There was something crinkly and papery in my way, and without even thinking I put it in my pocket for later.

It felt wrong not to clean up any more, but I knew I shouldn’t. ‘They’ would need to be able to work out what she’d taken. It was hard on Peter, though, and that was the only reason I really cared. I was probably in shock, looking back, but at the time I just felt utterly detached.

I went out and found Peter at the phone, and took him outside. I have a very vague memory of telling the other guys what had happened, then leaving Peter with them and a very large drink. I went back inside and phoned his parents.

His mother answered, and once she understood what I was saying, she simply took over. She told me to stay with Peter – as if I’d do anything else – and she would call Lynne’s parents and then be right over.

I thought about packing him an overnight bag, because his mum would obviously take him home, but I couldn’t handle the idea of trying to find his pyjamas, if he had any, and his toothbrush, and go through his underwear… no. I wanted to help, but that was too much.

The next thing I really remember properly was sitting at the kitchen table talking to a policeman. We’d been waiting around a long time by then. I kept worrying that Peter really needed to go home, to get away from her horrible body lying there in their bed being all ghastly and disgusting.

I could tell the police officer was being all kind and patient, but he asked me questions that were irrelevant and made no sense. And he kept asking them, the same ones over and over. Yes, I’d been with Peter all evening. Yes, I knew what time we’d left the bar, and we’d come straight here, and phoned the ambulance as soon as found her. No, I didn’t know if Lynne had been unhappy. No, I hadn’t seen a note. Yes, I was sure Peter had been with us the whole time. No, I didn’t know anyone who didn’t like Lynne. Well, nobody who hated her. No-one.

Eventually, they let me go, but I waited until I saw Peter’s mother take him home. She was a teacher or something, she managed everyone magnificently. She coped, in fact, like Laura would have done in her position.

 

And that, of course, was where I had to go next. Laura wasn’t at her flat, and I didn’t know where Brian lived, so really the only other place I could try was the Carnarvon.

It was dark, but in the mood I was in, I didn’t feel like turning on the lights, even to go up those bloody stairs. I just kept my hand pressed against the wall, and felt my way through the reception area to the doors. Everything was quiet and still and dark, just the way it should be.

I went through to the dance floor, eerie when it was abandoned. The big doors to the bar were open, letting the light from the windows fall yellowy-gray across the floorboards. They were in there, Brian and Laura, standing pressed up against a window, their shadows stretched out in front of me. I stopped dead when I realised I could hear Laura’s voice.

His back was against the glass, and she was kneeling in front of him. Despite being in shadow I could see her, because she was naked. Her hair swallowed the light, but her skin sparked it. She looked graceful and comfortable. It was far too dark to tell that, of course, it was just my mind.

I could tell by her voice, though, that she was smiling, warm and teasing. “And I don’t know,” she said, running her hands slowly down his legs, “if you realise just how much what you’ve done is appreciated. How much I appreciate it. You and I, we built this together. We made it, us. For that, I think, you should be rewarded, don’t you?”

He said something in reply, but his deeper voice didn’t carry so well across the space. He shifted uneasily, and I realised she was undoing his jeans.

She laughed. “Oh, we can take care of me later. Like I’d forget.” She moved her head, making her hair wash and ripple across her bare back. “For now, let’s just think about you.”

She took his cock in her mouth. His head dropped back against the glass. He made another sound, but I was quite sure there weren’t any words in it I was missing.

I was just completely mortified. I felt my face go red, and my head started spinning. I’d have left, but if I’d moved they’d have heard me, and that would just be dreadful for everyone. Even in the dark it was obvious she was blowing him, and yet… for all that I was busy trying to die of embarrassment, there was something almost ritualistic about it. The way Laura had spoken, and especially the way she moved, it was like she was when she was being Isis. She was removed from herself, or more than herself, or extra-specially present. Something I couldn’t understand.

After what felt like a small epoch – enough time for one of the lesser empires to rise and fall – the rhythm of her head increased to the point where I figured neither of them would hear me tap-dance across the room, and I slipped out as quietly as I could. Back in the reception room, I sank to the floor, burying my burning face against my knees. I really wished I hadn’t seen that. It wasn’t like I’d needed a demonstration of how Laura kept them all dancing to her tune. Though, now that I thought about it because I couldn’t get it out of my head, I hadn’t expected her to be so sincere.

Sound seeped through the other rooms to reach me: laughter and thumping, moaning, actual screaming, and then a slow seeping comfortable silence. I waited for a bit until I realised that it could turn into not-silence again, then got to my feet and went back in.

I let the door bang behind me, my footsteps loud across the dance floor. I called her name as I walked towards the bar, obviously working to see in the darkness.

“Hera?” Laura seemed genuinely startled, thankfully. “Hold on, let me just…” There was scrabbling and rustling, and then the down-lighting over the bar came on. I made my way over, through the open double doors.

Laura was leaning up against the bar where she’d just reached over to flick the light-switch, wrapped in a dark robe. She looked flushed and dishevelled and generally sexy. Brian had stayed back in the shadows by the window. Even with the lighting difference she looked far more comfortable than he did.

“Hera,” she said, settling onto a stool, “don’t take this wrong, but what the hell are you doing here? What’s wrong?”

I sat beside her, promptly edited Brian out of my awareness, and slumped. All the shock, busyness, nervous energy and sheer mortification that had got me this far drained away. “It’s Peter… I mean, Lynne. Lynne’s dead. She killed herself. Peter and I found her when we got back from the bar.”

Laura didn’t move, just sat there getting paler until I was scared she was going to fall. Then she got up, walked around behind the bar, and poured herself a drink, a couple of inches of something clear. She drained that in one go, then started another. “Brian, honey?” she said, her voice thin in the darkness, “I really need to talk to Hera for a bit. I’ll catch up with you tomorrow, okay?”

Despite the obvious worry on his face, Brian came over and kissed her, gave me a wave, and wandered out without saying a thing. Maybe that also explained his longevity with Laura.

She watched the door drop shut behind him, and then her grip tightened on the glass so hard her fingernails went white. “That fucking bitch,” she growled. “That selfish fucking bitch! She did it at home, right? So he’d be the one who found her? That’s all she’d care about, making him miserable. Did she leave a note, blaming him for everything?”

“The cops kept asking me that, was there a note. I think that’s why they asked me so many questions about Peter, because she hadn’t…” I thought about it again. It was getting easier to think. “She wasn’t how she’d wanted to be found, she’d made a mess, she might have knocked the note under the bed, or…” I frowned. There’d been something…

I leaned back and went through my pockets, retrieving the envelope I’d taken off Lynne’s bed without even noticing it. “I forgot…”

Laura leaned across, snatched it out of my fingers, and tore it open. Then she winced in regret and smoothed the letter out on the bar where we could both see.

Some of it was pretty much as Laura had expected. Lynne felt she’d lost Peter, that he’d drifted away from her and he couldn’t even see her properly any more. She missed the days when they’d been at high school together and he’d loved her the way he couldn’t be bothered pretending to now. She’d been the most important thing in his life, and now she clearly wasn’t.

There was more to it, though. She had, she confessed, stopped taking her Pill a year ago. She’d thought if he got her pregnant, she could get him back. Having a baby would put his attention back where it should be. Only it had turned out she couldn’t even do that. She hadn’t been able to get pregnant. Her last throw of the dice had failed. No Peter, and no little piece of him to hold on to anyway.

She told him she knew he’d never bother leaving her, because he was already gone. I thought that was surprisingly perceptive of her. So she’d saved him the trouble and left him the only way she felt she could.

Laura turned her back, and I could hear her breath rasping through her teeth. It took her a good five minutes before she could show me her face again, and go back to drinking and swearing. “That is so… I have insulted selfish fucking bitches. That she could try to trick him like that… that’s not love! What the fuck he ever saw in her I’ll never know. I always thought she was better than she seemed, that there was a side to her that he saw and we never did. And it turns out there was, and she was a fucking bunny-boiler! And yet he’d still-”

She did a lap of the bar, came back again, and picked up the note. “He can’t ever see this. Hera, you can’t show this to Peter, you know what it would do to him. We have to get rid of it.”

It seemed wrong: it was a letter to Peter, it answered questions that would surely be bothering him. And yet… Laura was right. I couldn’t see it being anything but hurtful in the end. He’d know Lynne had lied to him, that she’d blamed him. And while Laura wasn’t mentioned by name, her existence was heavily implied. What if he couldn’t help giving some of the blame for losing Lynne to her?

I wavered. Laura watched me. “I… think we should keep it somewhere. Just in case. In case we ever need it, or it turns out to be important.”

She frowned. “I don’t know, Hera, that seems rather risky. What if he finds it? Then it would be even worse, because he’d know we tried to hide it from him. No, we have to destroy it. We can’t risk having something hanging around that can only make him unhappy.” She laughed, a short bitter sound. “Something else. And we’re shot of Lynne, at least.”

I ignored that, because it was clear she wasn’t thinking straight. She was in shock, like I’d been earlier. Later on, she’d be ashamed enough of that on her own without me helping.

I read the note again, trying to carve the words into my brain so they’d be there if they were ever needed, then I gave it back to Laura. “Okay. You’re right. Burn it.”

 

The night before Lynne’s funeral, Laura came to visit me at home. It was two in the morning, I was in bed with Chris, and the front door was locked, but none of those things slowed her down. I think I was asleep until after she actually started talking, so I missed some of it.

“…quite pretty without his clothes on, darling, just like you said. But listen, Hera my love, I need your advice. D’you think you could wake up?”

I scrubbed at my eyes, shoved my hair out of my face, and squinted at her in the darkness. She was really there. She was also shit-faced. “Laura, what the fuck? How did you get in here?”

She waved a hand dismissively. “Doesn’t matter. Wanna talk to you about the funeral. Fucking bitch’s funeral, how can I go to that? Everybody knows I couldn’t stand her. Fuck am I going to do, Hera?”

I sighed, rolled over, and kissed Chris’s cheek. “Sorry. I’ll deal with this, you get some sleep.” I pulled the covers up over what was, admittedly, a very nice chest, then got up and found my dressing gown. Wandering around naked in front of someone wasn’t something I’d have been capable of doing a year earlier. I took Laura’s hand and pretty much towed her out to the lounge.

Once I’d turned on the light, I could see how awful she looked. I hadn’t seen her since that night at the bar. “Laura, you’re wasted, how much have you had to drink? I’d make you some coffee, but you should really go to bed.” I looked at her again. “When was the last time you had anything to eat?”

The look she gave me was utterly baffled. “What? I don’t know, some time. You’re not listening to me, Hera, and I really need you to. I can’t not turn up tomorrow, because everyone will notice, and Peter…” She shrugged. “But if I do go, everyone will notice. They’ll know I didn’t like her, they’ll wonder how long I’m going to wait, whether I’ll have the decency to let the corpse get cold…” She collapsed backwards into a chair, utterly dejected. I’d never seen her look like that before. “I can’t win. This is all broken, Hera, broken beyond repair. I wonder, sometimes, if this is why she did it. Because she knew, with this hanging over us, that we could never…”

I went into the kitchen, dug out my secret stash of chocolate, and basically force-fed it to her while I dried her face, tidied her hair, and stroked her back. It all felt ineffectual and strange, that someone like Laura could need comforting. “Honey, it’ll be okay. You just need to give it time. We’ll all be there tomorrow to help look after you. And you have to go. For Peter. Afterwards… just give it time. After a while you’ll both start to feel normal again, and after that…” I smiled at her, and lifted her chin so she had to look at me. “Come on, Laura. You’re you. And he loves you, I know he does. There’s nothing you can’t have if you want it enough.”

She laughed, still over-wrought but much better than she had been. “Oh Hera, you’re lovely. If only you knew.”

I ended up spending the rest of the night talking to her and calming her down. She was my friend, and she needed me. Chris wasn’t all that happy about it.

 

Laura turned up to the funeral with Darren. It was a smart move: she wasn’t obtrusively alone, but she was with a gay guy, so clearly not attached either. I’d never even considered that she might bring Brian. Richard and Marianne were together, of course, and Peter with the families and carefully apart from us, so that left me with Glen, which was fine. I knew he was watching everyone in his own quiet, careful way. When we talked afterwards, I told him what seemed obvious to me. After a couple of months, Laura would ditch Brian, and simply stay single. Peter would work through his grief and his guilt, and let himself be where he was always supposed to be.

Glen wasn’t so optimistic, but even Mr. Righty-Pants didn’t foresee how it was going to work out. Really, everything that happened from then on, all the crap we all went through, was the result of what and who Peter did next.