Laura had decided we needed to have rituals more often, more than just when there were new recruits to bring in. I think this was partly because she wasn’t very happy with the new intake that year: all the drama aside, not many of them made the grade. They just couldn’t be trusted that far. Perhaps it was just as well that Gillian was so… one-dimensional. There couldn’t be any argument about her suitability for The House. There was no way she could keep a secret; even Peter could see that.
Laura also wanted to keep me busy, which was fine with me, so I ended up spending hours with her and Darren, digging through text-books and art books and designing new rituals. Laura was finishing up an Honours degree in Classics that year and planning her Masters – including picking out her intended thesis supervisor and making sure their relationship would be… productive. As Richard had said once, what Laura didn’t know about the island of Delos in the Hellenistic Period wasn’t worth knowing. The down side was that none of what she did know was worth knowing either.
But Darren was just about her equal. She was certainly prepared to ask his advice and then actually listen to it. And it was flattering that both of them would listen to me when it came to staging and costuming and using our space.
We started having rituals every full moon. I loved them. The process of costume and make-up and walking onto the stage was about giving myself over to Bastet, emptying Hera out for her. Her uncomplicated hungers, her fierce protectiveness and lazy sensuality, were so easy. Don’t get me wrong, I knew it wasn’t real, but it was a part I could easily lose myself in and love it.
Meanwhile, Laura had Samuel painting the Carnarvon. The job he did on the toilet doors was brilliant, and everyone commented. We started calling the men’s the Little Pharaoh’s Room. She moved him on to doing a frieze around the bar: side-on hieroglyphic-style views of scenes from Egyptian and Polynesian mythology, all mixed together. Sometimes when he was working, he forgot we were there, and he just glowed with a studious joy.
Walking into the office one day looking for Laura, I also discovered he was sleeping there. She’d moved in a fold-out couch, and by the looks of things he’d been living there for a while. He was in bed, too, and I think Laura had tumbled out from next to him not too long ago. The poor guy was mortified, and even while I was apologising I couldn’t stop laughing. “Oh, Samuel, look, I’m sorry, right, but you know you’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about? And honestly… You think Laura doesn’t have some quite high standards?”
“It’s true.” Jesus. I hadn’t even heard Richard come up behind me. “People who sleep with Laura are no longer allowed to have shame. Well, I guess, unless she thought it was cute. But it should wear off over time. The same way ice melts next to a furnace. All those years your family and your church spent drumming modesty into you were completely wasted.”
Samuel let go of the sheet far enough to lean over and grab his shirt. “My family don’t speak to me any more. Partly because I won’t go to church.”
I elbowed Richard in the stomach. I didn’t want to grab him by the balls, but if he didn’t shut up, I was perfectly prepared to. “My family doesn’t speak to me, either, if it helps,” I told Samuel. “I mean, if it helps you. I know it helps me.”
He shot me a shy but genuine smile as he pulled his shirt on. “Does a bit. Thanks.”
I dragged Richard away to the bar, where he got to gleefully tell Laura what had happened. So when Samuel turned up, we were all falling about laughing, which went down a treat. Still, I made a bit of progress with him over the next few days, especially after I caught him sketching me on a discarded piece of refill. It should have been embarrassing, because what could I say? I couldn’t compliment his work, because that would be like complimenting myself. He was embarrassed enough for both of us, so mostly I was just trying to make him feel better.
“I would have thought,” I said, “that with Laura to draw you wouldn’t be wasting time with anyone else.”
Involuntarily, he looked across the room to where Laura was standing by the window with Peter. She was pointing something out to him, her hand resting on his arm, their heads leaning together. “She is interesting to draw,” he said quietly. “But not all the time. You have… something about you. So much sadness. But also…” He shrugged. “I’m not good at talking, I don’t know the words. Something like…” He leaned over the sketch he’d done, and with a few strong strokes, gave the picture whiskers.
Behind me, somebody muttered “fuck” under their breath. Darren. “You mind if I borrow that, mate? I need to see a woman about a cat.”
He took the sketch and charged over to Laura, grabbing her by her free arm. They had a short, violent, and very quiet argument. Samuel gave me a worried look. “Did I do something wrong?”
I took his hand to reassure him, which was exactly what it didn’t do. I forgot, all the time, that other people didn’t touch as much as we did. “No, it’s okay. I don’t know what’s got under Darren’s skin. He’s a bit weird that way.”
I did, though, and later, we had a sort of meeting about it at uni. Darren was convinced Laura had been telling Samuel stuff she shouldn’t, to help with his painting. She swore she wasn’t, that he just saw things, but that she wanted to.
“He could paint us all in costume. Except not really in costume, as them. The others. Think about it, with his talent? They’d be amazing.”
“Right,” Darren said flatly. “And then when you get bored with shagging him? And he tells everyone? It’s not just us we have to worry about, but everyone else, all the others before us. Some of them would be more than just embarrassed.”
He had a point. Part of Darren’s job as Thoth was keeping the records of the Carter Club’s previous members, and who and where they were now. Some of it was a bit of an eye-opener. It shouldn’t have been, of course: there was no reason well-educated people shouldn’t get high-paying powerful jobs, it was just difficult to imagine for anyone who’d stood in that cellar.
“I won’t tell him everything,” Laura protested. “I’m not stupid. He doesn’t need to know about the House, or the rituals. And he sees. He drew cat whiskers on Hera. The other day when we were talking to Glen, he drew a dog. He wasn’t even looking at what he was doing.” Her lips twisted in a grimace, and I realised just how desperate she was. She was actually upset. “Let him paint me as Isis, at least. We can put that down to my vanity.”
It probably was, too. “Laura,” I said gently, “what happens after that, when you ask him to paint Peter as Osiris?”
Peter turned away on reflex. Glen took my hand under the table. Laura looked at me in utter bafflement. “What? What’s wrong with that?”
Richard rolled his eyes ostentatiously. “He’ll think you’re fucking. If he doesn’t already. You’re not thick, why is this so hard for you to get your head around?”
“But we’re not!” she said petulantly. “We’ve never and we wouldn’t, it’s not, this is like-” She stopped herself abruptly, and I wondered what she’d been going to say, and if it was about Lynne. Peter was finding something very fascinating on the other side of the room.
“That’s not the point,” Glen said calmly. “The point is, what will he think, and what will he do because of it? Maybe we should leave it for a while. Until we can get to know Samuel better.”
That was where we left it, in the end. Well, all of us except Laura, but she didn’t argue any more.
Laura found Samuel a flat in town not long after that. It was cheap, and shitty, but in an old attic with a fabulous view over the city. She also got him his first solo exhibition, which went really well, at least according to her. Samuel didn’t seem to much like the stress and attention.
She started bringing him to parties, too, which was probably what we noticed more than anything. She’d arrive with the best of intentions, dance attendance on him for half an hour, then wander off and forget him, leaving him sitting in a corner surrounded by people he didn’t know.
Oddly, it was Darren who took Samuel under his wing then. Not so odd, really, I guess. More than ever now we tended to split into couples: Richard and Marianne, Peter and Laura, me and Glen now… which left Darren. We never intended it to happen, and once I realised, Glen and I started spending more time with Darren and Samuel. Not too much. Together they got a bit quiet and introspective, or “dull”, as it’s more commonly known.
Peter and Laura. In spite of the other people in their lives, it wasn’t letting up. And why should it? They were best friends. One party around this time, I’d been to fill up my glass and wandered back round the edge of the dance room to see Peter and Laura dancing together. Well, we didn’t do couples dancing, but they were next to each other, angled together. She yelled something at him, he leaned over to catch what she said over the noise, she grinned, lunged forward, and licked his nose. He grabbed her and shoved her against the wall behind her, both of them laughing, and I stopped breathing, waiting for the kiss.
I sound kind of obsessed, I know. But it was like constantly rumbling distant thunder. After a while, you just wanted the storm to break. It might be awful, but at least it would be done.
“Hera! Have you seen Pete?”
Oh gods, Gillian. Shiny-faced and bouncy, and her boyfriend had Laura pinned against the wall and was licking her whole face while she laughed so hard I thought she might pee. “Um. Yeah, he’s over there.”
There was a brief pause, then Gillian laughed. “Those two. They’re adorable. Honestly, I can’t take Pete anywhere. He really should watch himself now she’s towing around that massive Samoan, though. He might take something the wrong way.”
She started working her way across the room to interrupt, which I didn’t much feel like watching. Turning away, I ran straight into Samuel, right behind me. He had an uncanny ability to sneak for someone who was built like a loose forward. “Sorry,” I said on reflex.
He shrugged, looking over my left shoulder. “She loves him very much. That’s okay.”
It was possible he meant Gillian. Possible.
A few months later, I came home after a ritual. It was getting warmer, but not exams yet. Maybe October. It had been a really good, relaxing night that I didn’t remember large portions of even at the time. And it didn’t matter anyway. That was one of the ways that what happened in the House stayed in the House. Sometimes we just didn’t remember afterwards.
I fell into bed, and it took the phone a while to wake me. I’d had maybe a couple of hours’ sleep. None of my flatties so much as moved, but it was a fair bet that if the phone was ringing at four a.m. it was for me.
Laura’s voice was tight with strain. She was down at the police station. Could I come and sit with her. She had to be interviewed, and she wanted me there. There’d been an accident.
I got dressed and got on my bike and headed down, and it only took me about half the trip to wake up. I had no idea what had happened, and I couldn’t stop myself trying to work it out. “An accident” was awfully vague, and kept making me think Laura had stabbed somebody. Several times. In the face. Gillian. Oops.
She got up when I walked into the interview room and hugged me. She was deathly pale, but she hadn’t been crying. They fussed a bit finding me a chair, and then went on.
“Okay,” the woman interviewing her said, “so he used to go up on the roof quite often?”
“Yes,” Laura said. Her voice was tiny, thin, not like her at all. “It was one of his favourite places to draw. Good light, he said, and a fantastic view. And I think he found it easier to work out in the air.”
“You didn’t worry about him up there?”
“What kind of a fucking question is that?” Laura replied, perfectly calmly. “I did a bit. There wasn’t really anywhere to sit, he was just perching. But after he did it a few times, I stopped really thinking about it. I thought, screw it, he’s much more likely to get hit by a car, and I don’t worry about him walking.”
“And tonight… you’d been at a party, without him. Is that normal?”
She nodded, tightening her grip on my hand. “Yes, when he wanted to work. He needed peace, and he wasn’t really into parties anyway. Hera was there.”
The policewoman looked over at me. “Yes? Ms. Campbell was with you tonight? You understand, we’re just trying to get it clear, what happened to Mr. Siuta.”
I’d have quite liked to do that myself, but I didn’t want to upset Laura any more. “Yes. We both left about… three? I’m not sure. I think, about then, anyway.”
She made a note, then turned back to Laura. “And you went straight home?”
“Yes, of course. It was late, and cold, and I was tired. And when I got home, there were people and lights everywhere, and I couldn’t work out what was going on. I went over to see, and… There he was. All broken.”
“Ms. Campbell, have you taken any drugs tonight?”
Laura took a deep breath, and her shoulders dropped. “I don’t have to answer that question. And I’m not going to. It’s not relevant. Samuel was already dead when I got home. You know that, you guys were there.”
Oh fuck. Samuel had fallen.
The officer rolled her eyes. “Honey, I’m not looking to charge you. I’m worried about you. You’ve had a huge shock, and I think, by your eyes, and your… you, that you’ve taken maybe morphine? Heroin? And when you come down and this hits?”
Laura shook her head, pushing her hair out of her eyes with her free hand. “I’m not wasted. I might be once I get back home, but I’m not now.”
I leaned in between them. “Laura, honey, you can’t go home. It’s okay, I’ll take her home with me. I’ll keep an eye on her.”
When they were done I took her home, although I had to leave my bike at the station and get a taxi, and I tucked her up in my bed with me. She lay there, awake and unmoving, all night. She only said one thing.
“We have to get the painting. Tomorrow. We have to go back and get the painting. His family will want all his things, and they’re mine.”