Chapter Five

The secret was surprisingly easy to keep. All my friends knew: there was really no reason to talk about it to anyone else. Anyway, it was delicious simply because it was secret, and I didn’t want to spoil it.

I did talk about it to Laura a few times. Not in a big-picture sense, nobody ever asked why, but there were details I was curious about. She explained that, Isis and Osiris aside, they used whatever gods there were appropriate people for. There was no Horus because she and Peter had never found anyone they were comfortable with as a son.

“And that’s the great thing about using this religion,” she said. “It’s supposed to be adaptable. Every time the politics changed, so did the gods. We’re using an Isis that’s integrated the mother aspects of Hathor, and of course we use their Greek names, because that’s how people recognise them. Osiris is strongest after the death-myth comes in. Isis is strongest after she takes on aspects of Aphrodite. Three hundred years after Rome conquered Egypt, Roman workmen refused to demolish the Temple of Isis there. She adapted, she survived. So however we have to adapt the mythology to make it work, to make it appealing, that’s okay. That’s traditional. This is how it’s supposed to be.”

That, in fact, was the chief danger in knowing about the rites: accidentally setting Laura off on one of her hobby-horses. She’d talk about how kingship was only for men, but could only be passed through women, about the idea that pharaohs had once been female, hence the make-up and fake beards. She had a previously-unsuspected ability to talk until your ears started making a weird buzzing noise in self-defence.

It was nothing like bad enough to stop me dreading going home for the holidays, though.

In my first year, I’d enjoyed going back to the family farm for a couple of weeks. Even things like feeding out, which I’d hated at high school, became familiar and comforting, a refuge from all the stress and strangeness. My dad didn’t seem quite as unbearable to be around. I could grit my teeth and take a deep breath, and know it was only for a while.

That year, I was starting to really hate it. Stuff might happen while I was away, and I wouldn’t know. I’d get left out of things. And gods but it was dull down there, so crushingly dull. There was nothing but watching television in the evenings, and the only variation was whether Dad stayed home to get drunk or went out.

I didn’t have an excuse not to go, and I wasn’t in the greatest mood when Mum picked me up from the station. It rapidly got worse. She let me know, in her quiet avoidant way, that my father was Not Happy. My sister had, according to him, “gotten herself pregnant”. Rather than being delighted by the miracle of such an immaculate conception, he’d gone off his nut at her. When Shannon told him she wasn’t getting married, he disowned her. The terrible sin of unmarried sex could have been forgiven if it could have been covered up.

I phoned Shannon as soon as we got back to the farm, while my mother stood unobtrusive lookout in the hall. There was nothing I could really do to help her; she was too far away. We agreed that there was no point in trying to argue with Dad, as always. Given time, he’d come around quietly on his own, and never admit he’d been wrong. He’d see some baby photos, he’d slip some money into one of my mother’s letters, and after a couple of years he’d come home and she’d be there, and he wouldn’t object.

It was hard, though, that evening after he came in. We sat in the lounge after dinner, my mother at her interminable knitting and my father loudly offering his opinions to the television. I kept wishing I hadn’t come, that there’d been some emergency to keep me home. The deep breaths didn’t seem as effective as they had been.

The next day was worse. I refused to go to church, claiming I was tired from the trip. My father never went of course, he was too busy, but Mum never missed and I was supposed to go. I don’t think Mum minded. By the time she got home I had the roast cooking and the spuds done, and she was grateful.

Then it rained, and we sat inside while Dad read the Sunday paper Mum had fetched for him and bitched about darkies and Asians and homos and how they were ruining the country. From long practise I could usually filter him out, but he just constantly grated on me. I wondered sometimes if he even really believed any of it, or if he just found the complaining comforting, like a mug of Milo and a biscuit. My grandparents were just as bad, all rugby and racism. It was how he’d been raised. I don’t suppose he could really help it.

I got Mum to help me find some wool, and went through her huge stack of pattern books looking for something to passive-aggressively knit for Shannon’s baby. I was just trying to annoy Dad, but having something to do seemed to help Mum too. By the time we sat down to watch the news, Dad was studiously ignoring the smallness of my knitting. Whatever I’d been after, the lack of reaction was irritating.

I can’t remember now what was that set it off. It might have been a story about a lesbian couple suing for the right to marry. Dad was livid, anyway. “I’m not saying they should go to jail or anything,” he said reasonably, “but there has to be a line somewhere. They want to live quietly, that’s fine, but they always seem to want to be out in the streets parading it, shoving their perversion in everyone’s face, and trying to make out they’re better than normal people, because they’re ‘special’. Why can’t they just keep their heads down like everyone else?”

I jabbed a steel needle into my knitting. “Why should they? They want to be able to marry the person they love, just like you can. You don’t have to shout in the streets because you already have rights. Good on them. Nothing’s going to change for you if they win.” I flushed, immediately regretting saying anything, but if I’d shut up any longer I’d have probably started bleeding from the eyeballs.

Dad emptied his second beer and passed the bottle to Mum without looking up. “This is what I’m paying for you to learn at that university, is it? I thought you were supposed to uphold the law, not side with the perverts.”

“Actually, Dad, what you’re paying for me to learn is Drama. I dropped Law last term, and I’ve been doing Performing Arts and Classics.”

The top of my father’s head and his ears went dangerously red. “What? What the hell made you think you could do that? Change back as soon as you get back up there. You are supposed to get a proper job, and be able to look after yourself, not like your sister. Acting? You’ll be living in the gutter!”

Mum returned with Dad’s full beer and a conciliatory tone. “Dear, it might be too difficult for her to change now, half-way through the year. Perhaps we could let her finish her drama course this year, and go back to Law next year? It might even be quite handy for in court, a bit of acting coaching.”

“Mum,” I protested, “this is what I want to do! I hated Law. I’m sticking with this, and I won’t change back. You can’t make me.”

“I’m not paying for it!” my father bellowed. “You’ll not get another penny from me, you hear me? If you want to waste your life on actors and deviants, on your head be it!”

I was so angry, and the simpering pleading looks my mother kept giving me from her station at Dad’s side didn’t help. I got up, and threw my knitting across the room. “Fine. I don’t want anything from you anyway. You’re an ignorant bigoted pig and what you did to Shannon was horrible!”

I stormed out while I was still angry enough to make it, went upstairs, and phoned Laura.

For all that she was about championing the underclasses, Laura kept enough people from overclass families around for convenience. Glen borrowed his mother’s car, and he and Laura drove all the way down to get me.

By the time they arrived I’d done my fury-packing. I’d been sulking upstairs for a couple of hours waiting. When the dogs started barking and I heard tyres splashing through the puddles in the yard, I grabbed my pack and went downstairs.

“I’m leaving,” I announced to the room in general. “I don’t think I’ll be back. You wouldn’t want me anyway.” I didn’t look either of them in the face, because I couldn’t bear it. I didn’t want to find myself apologising, and if I weakened even a little bit, I would.

There was a knock on the door, and before I could stop her my mother had gone to answer it, smoothing her hair on the way out of sheer habit. I made it into the hall as Laura greeted her with a warm smile. “Hello,” she said sweetly, “you must be Mrs. Lawley. I’m Hera’s friend Laura, and this is Glen. We’ve come to take her home.”

“Do come in,” Mum said. The inherent surrealism of it all made my head spin. “You’ve had a long drive, and it’s not very nice out. Would you like a hot drink? I’ve done some baking.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Laura said, stepping past her, “but we really must be getting back.”

She came into the hall, spotted me, and surged forward, wrapping her arms around me. She’d been in a towering bitchkreig on the phone, but now she was just… kind. It was unexpected, and embarrassingly I started crying against her shoulder. She stroked my hair and made soothing noises while my mother clucked uncertainly in the background.

“What the hell is this?” My father loomed in the doorway, glaring at me and Laura. “Who are you? Are you the one who’s been corrupting my daughter?”

Laura looked up, and I caught a glimpse of her face. Jesus. “Oh, I wish, frankly. But I’m not that lucky. I’m Hera’s friend, Mr. Lawley, and it’s just as well she’s got them. We’re going to take her home now, where people love her and respect her and take care of her. I have to say, you do seem to be running out of daughters. Strange you’re not more careful with them.”

Gently, she handed me off to Glen, without letting go of my father’s gaze. She was about six inches shorter than he and half his weight, and it didn’t matter. He seemed to be too indignant to speak. “Do you know what’s wrong with this country, Mr. Lawley? Petty-minded little fuckers like you, too terrified of change to actually achieve anything. I’m just grateful your daughter somehow managed to grow up with more sense.”

Dad managed to find his voice, his face practically burgundy. “Get out of my house! Don’t you ever set foot in here again!”

Laura, who had never raised her voice, shot a sympathetic look at my mother. “Goodness, he can really trot out a cliché, can’t he? I suppose that’s what happens when you never have an original thought. You really should stop enabling him. Still, it was lovely to meet you. I expect we’ll see you again.”

Glen drove us back to uni while Laura and I got mildly drunk in the back seat, and I never went back to the farm. I saw Mum from time to time, and the money from my parents simply quietly kept coming, but I didn’t see Dad again until he died. Honestly, I just forgot about them most of the time. It was easiest. After a couple of years, Shannon met a nice guy and they had a couple more kids. My brother Paul kept his head down and his golden-boy reputation, but give him his due, he took care of Mum after Dad died and he inherited the farm. I’d left the country by that stage, of course. I couldn’t really be expected to help. There were things I came back for, but not my family. Well, not that family.