Again, I don’t know how Laura got into my flat that night. She was just there, in the doorway of my bedroom, staring at me. I don’t know how long she’d been there before I noticed her. I couldn’t hear anything over the roaring in my head.
I hadn’t moved since he’d left. I was facing the door, and I could see her face in the light coming through the open curtains from the street. She knew. I didn’t have to say anything, she just knew from looking at me. The look on her face was unbearable, but I couldn’t move my head or shut my eyes. All I could do was lie there like a big slab of nothing.
She came and sat on the bed next to me, and slowly and deliberately took my hand. I would have flinched away, but she wouldn’t let me. I didn’t want to be touched, but that didn’t matter. “Hera, darling. It was Patrick, wasn’t it? Fucking arsehole… It’s okay, you don’t have to say anything.”
She lifted me up, and cradled my head against her chest, stroking my hair like I was a child. I couldn’t really feel it. I was a doll in her arms, not really real. Not real. None of it was real.
When she spoke to me again, the sadness was gone. She was just determined. “Right. You can’t stay here like this. I’m going to run you a bath. You understand, Hera? I’m going to wash you.”
There was something significant about this, but it wouldn’t come to me. I didn’t want to move. It was far too much effort. Besides, if I got up and started moving again, the world would start again too. Things would be real. Time would move, and I would feel. I wanted to stay here, still, hardly breathing, and keep the pain at bay.
There was no keeping Laura still, though. She laid me gently back down on my bed, and I could hear her moving around the flat: running water, rummaging in the kitchen. She came back with a glass, and lifted me up again. “Here, Hera, drink this. It’s gin, sorry, it was all you had.”
She held the glass to my mouth, and when the liquid washed against my lips I drank it. It burned my nose and made me cough, but Laura seemed pleased.
“Okay, come on now, up you get, we’re going to put you in the bath.”
Without her will, I could never have moved, never. I’d have laid there til I rotted. But somehow I was in the water, with the glass in my hands and Laura washing my hair, and it did feel kind of better. Brittle. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be clean as that I knew I would want it, once I could want anything again. My skin felt strange; brushing up against the edges of a world I wasn’t a part of.
Once she’d scrubbed me down, she gave me a long, assessing look. “Okay. Have a soak for a minute, I’m going to make some phone calls. You can’t stay here.”
After a bit, Laura took me back to my room to get dressed. She’d stripped the bed down and opened the windows. I put on the clothes she’d picked out, took the bag she’d packed for me, and got in someone’s car with her. I didn’t care where we were going, just away. Away would do.
She drove me to Glen’s parents’ place. They were away, somewhere in Europe, and he was house-sitting for them. At the time I really didn’t give a shit, or even notice much, but when I thought about it later it was the perfect place. It was safe and comfortable and there was lots of space, and nobody would ever think to look for me there. I think Laura told me that at the time, and I just didn’t take it in.
They sat me down and gave me a hot chocolate, which made me feel like barfing, and then made me feel better. Laura kept touching me: I wasn’t hugely comfortable with it, but after a while I stopped wanting to flinch. There was no point, anyway. They were talking quietly, but I wasn’t listening. There’d be little silences, and I could feel them looking at each other over the top of my head. It was kind of annoying, but I couldn’t be bothered doing anything about it, or saying anything.
After a while of fog, Laura lowered her face in front of mine. “Hera, darling, I need you to listen to me. Listen, Hera, you’re in shock, alright? You need to rest, so your body can recover.” She prised the mug out of my fingers and replaced it with a glass of water, then lifted one of my hands and put a little blue pill on my palm. “Take this. It will help you sleep. You need to sleep. It will all go away, just for a little while.”
They put me to bed in the spare room, and for a while afterwards I was half-aware of sounds: cars, doors, voices. They faded into a hum of insignificance, and I slept.
I woke in the morning with an appalling taste in my mouth and a sense of total despair. I stared at the wall in front of my face and knew there wasn’t a thing in the world that could induce me to move. I couldn’t possibly face anyone. I couldn’t even look at myself.
After a while, out of the heavy grey pushing down on me, I made a plan. They’d given me a sleeping pill. That meant there were sleeping pills in the house, and there was bound to be alcohol. All I needed was access, and some time alone, and I could make it all stop. It was the only possible course of action. The only thing worth making an effort for.
The problem being, of course, that Glen and Laura weren’t going to just leave me by myself if they didn’t think I was alright. So the first step was going to be convincing them that I was coping. That might take a bit.
Behind me, the bedroom door opened, but I couldn’t summon up the will to roll over. There was a gentle whumping sound, the side of the bed went down, and a moment later a cat wandered into my field of vision. She was short-haired and a sort of indistinct sandy colour, with darker markings on her ears and nose. She sniffed delicately at my hands, then curled decisively against my stomach and went to sleep. Her warmth slowly seeped through into my body. Her fur was soft and sleek and patting her was comforting. Eventually I curled up and went back to sleep too.
Later, Glen woke me up to bring me coffee. He was bemused. “That’s Mum’s cat, Sartre. He hates people. Never lets anyone touch him: he barely tolerates her.”
“He’s a she,” I told him wearily. “That’s a girl cat.”
In response, Sartre lifted her head and gave Glen a heroically jaded look. It was clear he was only allowed in here on her sufferance.
He shook his head, then put the mug down on the table next to me. “Laura just phoned, she’s on her way over shortly. I figured you’d rather be up and awake before she got here.”
I didn’t want to, but he was right. I had to, to make her think I was alright. So I nodded and sat up and drank the damn coffee.
Glen gave me a hesitant smile. “Alright. I’ll make you some breakfast then, while you get dressed.” He reached over to stroke the cat; she hissed at him. He valiantly withdrew his hand.
I thought he was going to go, and perhaps so did he, but then he stopped. “Hera? I know… I figure you don’t want to talk about it. But it wasn’t your fault. You need to understand that. None of this is your fault. It’s not even because of you. It doesn’t change who you are. I know how… You’re not to blame yourself for this. Laura brought you here because… I’ve been where you are. I know how you feel.”
He fled out the door, and I sat and stared after him like a complete idiot. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t even make sense of it. Not Glen. I couldn’t imagine him ever being helpless, being lost and beaten and utterly broken. And it didn’t make me feel any better about myself. Nothing could.
The cat was waiting for me when I got out of the bathroom, and she headed to the kitchen with such utter presumption that I couldn’t not follow her. Glen was making pancakes, his little floppy wave of soft brown hair falling in his eyes as he leaned over the pan. It made him look like Hugh Grant again. I’d got used to just thinking of him as Glen, and stopped seeing it. Sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I would see a shadow about his face, a glossy black muzzle, but not here. He was perfectly at home in the kitchen, just that little bit rumpled and untidy. He was also keeping his face turned away from me.
The cat leapt gracefully up onto the bench, made a sort of mrrping noise, and hooked a single egg out of the carton by Glen’s elbow. Descending again, she lapped at the resultant mess with obvious smugness. The resignation with which Glen swore at her suggested this sort of thing happened a lot.
“Why’s she called Sartre?” I asked, settling at the table because it was the only place to sit. The other times I’d been in flash houses they’d felt like show-homes. Glen’s parents’ place was a home-home, where people cooked and made messes and had pets. I’d have liked it if I could have felt things.
“My mother has a peculiar sense of humour,” Glen replied. He flipped the last pancake onto a plate and brought them over, obviously intending to sit and eat with me. “When Sartre was a kitten he had some weird stomach thing. He used to puke everywhere.”
“I… don’t get it.” The smell of frying butter had made me feel a bit sick, but Glen’s pancakes were really nice: light and plain enough to be easy on my stomach. Also, they did something about the really fucking horrible taste I still had in my mouth.
“That’s okay, it’s not very funny. He likes you, though. I mean it: that’s really weird. He hates people. He bit my niece in the face once.”
“Your niece isn’t Bastet,” Laura said. Apparently she let herself in here as easily as she did at my place. I hadn’t realised charisma was a skeleton key. She’d leaned down and hugged me from behind before I’d really registered that she was in the room.
She dropped into a chair and started idly eating off of Glen’s plate. She didn’t appear to know she was doing it. “Listen, Hera, I don’t want you to feel like I’m taking over your life or anything.” I thought I heard a snorting noise, but Glen’s expression was his normal coolly jaded amusement. “But I have to do something about this. It can’t be allowed to just happen. I’ve talked to Patrick. He’s agreed to leave town. You’ll never have to see him again, I promise.”
I put down my fork and stared blankly at my plate. I couldn’t make any sense out of it. It seemed impossible that Patrick would simply agree to fuck off permanently just because Laura told him to, and equally impossible that Laura could make such a demand without being obeyed. She must have threatened him with something. I didn’t doubt she could make his life unliveably shitty if she put her mind to it. He was friends with Peter’s girlfriend, it would all be horribly complicated…
But if he didn’t leave, I’d have to see him again. That utter contempt that had been on his face… I got up slowly from the table, wandered out to the bathroom, and threw up. Dimly, I could hear Laura shouting in the background. She was angry: maybe she was angry at me for not being stronger. I was probably messing up her very tidy plans.
Eventually, I got back up and washed my face. Ferreted through the medicine cabinet. There they were: blue pills. I wasn’t doing a very good job with the rest of my plan, though. I had to go back and make Laura think I was going to be okay.
I couldn’t imagine how.