I hadn’t been around for First Party the year before. Turned out it was something of an epic production. Laura fairly glowed organising it.
I took my turn on the desk at Clubs Day. Normal clothes, but we wore some of the jewellery, kept some of the props lying around. We dropped hints. It was pretty simple with the reputation the Carter Club had. We let everyone who showed an interest sign up and pay their sub. Like most clubs, we’d always get a few people who’d sign up but never turn up. That helped. Then the initial cull would be done at the party, which was long enough after Orientation to let the dust settle. The ones who remained would be told about The Carnarvon. A few of those would eventually be selected for admission to the House. Given the layering between the Clubs desk and the sanctum sanctorum, we could afford to take money off any fucker who’d give it to us.
So First Party, where we had to scare off the Mundanes, was a Big Deal. Once I got my head around that, I tried to get Laura to give me some instructions, but she was completely unconcerned. “Honey, we won’t put you on Special Ops this year anyway, so just have a good time like you normally would. That’ll freak enough people out in itself. For special jobs, I have Darren loom over people in his special Enormous Beardy Gay fashion. That gets rid of belligerent stripy-shirted engineering students better than calling the cops.”
Glen, who was theoretically writing a history essay next to us, snorted. “That’s nothing. You should see Laura’s ‘somebody’s being a dick to the ladies’ technique. Last year she made a boy cry just by coming on to him.”
She shrugged easily, but there was a pleased little smug smile on Laura’s face. “He appeared to want some sexual attention. I gave it to him. His balls have probably climbed back out of his body by now. Women who behave like cocks are much harder to deal with.”
For all we were just Being Ourselves, we were stage-managed right from our arrival. The Carnarvon members went in first to greet the newbies, then the House members started to trickle in, but the ‘Committee’ waited until the place was really filling up before we started to appear. We wore the dressed-down versions of the costumes that we used after Ceremonies, the ones you could actually move in. For me that was a straight red shift like Marianne’s, though mine covered my chest. We were all in either red or white, and in rooms full of black we caught your attention from the corner of your eye. Nobody explained why we were dressed the way we were, and nobody had the nerve to ask. We drank, we danced, we talked and laughed, just as we normally did, but there were times I’d look round and one of the others would be standing in a corner looking across a group of people with a deadly expression on their face… it was just a little bit unnerving.
There was only one group we had any trouble with, and that was probably just because they were a group, so they lent each other courage. They were friends from the Teachers’ College, dragged along by the enthusiasm of one of the guys, who thought the Carter Club might be a good place to meet chicks. He was right in a way; it was, but only if you were up to scratch.
His technique wasn’t bad, to be fair. He hung out being all dark and deep and philosophical. Sensitive. Floppy hair, big eyes. There are a lot of places that works. Four inches in front of Laura is not one of them.
I’d been watching with growing amusement for a bit, and wishing I could actually hear what he was saying, when Peter sidled up to me. “How much longer is she going to let him carry on like that?” he asked in an undertone. “It’s excruciating. Laura’s the only person I know who actually does understand existentialism.”
I grinned at him. He’d been a bit subdued tonight, but he was holding up okay considering. The quiet broodiness was hardly doing him any damage aesthetically. “You could always go and rescue him. Like taking a mouse away from your cat. Always best to get in before bits start coming off.”
He grimaced, but there was humour underneath it. “I just hope she starts with his tail. And if she’s too horrible to him his back-up might get upset.”
Looking over the crowd I could see the rest of them clustered together against one of the walls, watching. Peter had a point. I sighed in mild annoyance. “Alright then. You probably should go and extract him. Not that she’ll thank you for it.”
He gave me an odd look. “It’s Laura. She never thanks me for anything.”
I watched him walk over to join her, and I was struck, not for the first time, by his total failure to look ridiculous wearing just a white skirt. I’d joked once about how much time he must have spent on hair removal, but Laura assured me his smoothness was natural. I did wonder how she knew.
If anything, her mood just got more expansive after Peter joined them, at least from what I could tell. I didn’t really feel the need to go experience it any closer: I’d seen her get her jollies like this before. Nothing was funnier than a joke that went over someone’s head.
So Peter put his arm around her waist and kissed her on the cheek, and she couldn’t not let him do that. Nobody could. Them both being dressed in white probably emphasised the insinuation that they belonged together.
I turned back, and found one of the girls from the Teachers’ College group pretty much right on my elbow. She was completely unprepossessing: average-looking, with an odd air of gentleness and kitten-rescue about her. She seemed vaguely familiar: I might have signed her up myself.
“Your friend,” she continued, “the guy with the long hair. Is that his girlfriend?”
Ah, here we went, as they say, again. A strange person was striking up a conversation with me in order to access the LauPetra. Last year I’d have totally wound her up and sent her off just to see what happened and laugh. Not since Lynne died. “Um, no, they’re friends. Not ‘just’ friends. Actual friends. If someone were to hurt him, she’d be the one pounding their head into the ground.”
She blinked at me, wide-eyed. Jesus. She was, for the stage of the evening, pretty damn drunk. “So, does he have a girlfriend at the moment? I just… he’s very… Don’t you think?”
I did think, not that it was any business of hers. A glance back the other way told me Laura was sending her new suitor off to the kitchen to find her another drink, and she and Peter were laughing together. I wasn’t going to let anybody stuff that up. “Listen, whoever you are. No, he doesn’t have a girlfriend. A couple of months ago, his girlfriend died. He’s not over it yet. He just needs to be left alone, okay? His friends will look after him.”
Those big eyes welled with tears. I was going to need some more deities to blaspheme. Luckily, we weren’t short. “Oh, that’s terrible! Poor boy. He shouldn’t just be left on his own. Is anyone taking care of him? Someone should be taking care of him.”
I grabbed for her, but she was slippery in her determination, and she was bearing down on Peter like a jet-powered iceberg. Crap. If she got started, Laura would eviscerate her.
Looking round in a panic, I recognised one of the girl’s friends, and pushed my way through to him. “Hi, you don’t know me, but see that girl? You’re her friend, right? She’s about to get herself into a lot of trouble. Peter, that guy there, his girlfriend died…”
“Oh shit,” he said, “and Gillian’s going to make him feel all better, right? Dammit, why don’t they ever put good hearts and good brains in the same bodies?”
I trailed in his wake as he caught up to her, just as she reached Peter and Laura and started in on her spiel. “Gillian, what have I told you about psychoanalysing people you haven’t been introduced to? I’m sorry. This is my friend Gillian, and I’m Patrick. You’ll have to forgive her, she’s just very concerned.”
Behind their backs, I pointed to Gillian and grimaced. Laura raised an eyebrow, so I pointed at Gillian, then Peter, and mimed sticking my fingers down my throat and puking all over the carpet. It wasn’t possible for me to notice Patrick watching before I’d straightened up again anyway.
Peter smiled at Gillian. It only glanced by me and my legs still went shaky. “I think that’s sweet. People try to be so cynical, it’s refreshing to meet someone who’s not ashamed of their feelings. Are you alright, Laura? You’re supposed to drink through your mouth, love, not your nose. I’m Peter, lurking behind you is Hera, come on Hera, and this is my sister Laura.”
He crumpled very attractively when Laura punched him in the stomach, but regaining her Cool Points meant she couldn’t afford to watch it. “Peter will have his little jokes when he hasn’t been taking his medication. Ignore him: nobody else can manage it, but I’m sure it’s perfectly possible.”
The five of us chatted for a while. Laura’s little friend somehow never returned. I heard later he’d got cornered by Darren and a lithe young First Year he’d taken a fancy to, the word ‘fags’ had crossed his lips, and he was basically never seen again. It was made perfectly clear to Gillian and Patrick that if they wanted to stay around, they had to stay away from him. They did, and they did.
As the night progressed, I noticed something odd about Patrick. He didn’t seem all that enthralled by Laura. He talked to me as much as he did to her, and I didn’t once catch him staring mindlessly at her. It was possible she just wasn’t his type, but then he wasn’t mooning over Peter, either.
Gillian, on the other hand… Laura and I increasingly exchanged significant glances. There was nothing really wrong with her, but after about half an hour either of us would have cheerfully hit her over the head with a shovel. She had no pretence, no artifice, she said whatever went through her head. She thought we were all wonderful and beautiful and clever, and it was incredibly wearing – for, let’s be clear, me and Laura. We even stopped distracting her from telling Peter how terribly awfully sorry she was to hear about Lynne, and still Peter seemed to think she was sweet. And to be fair, she was. Sweet.
Somehow, we were still with them when the music went off and the gong started ringing through the party. We excused ourselves and headed out into the yard, where the committee was wordlessly gathering. Although no-one had told them what was going on, word spread quickly through the newbies and within about ten minutes the yard was full of people craning to see what was happening. We hadn’t provided any kind of platform because we actually didn’t want them to be sure what was going on. We were pretty much winging it.
We gathered around a large brazier in an oval, Peter and Laura together at one end, Darren as Thoth standing alone at the other. Even at this time of year it was a bit nippy if you were sober enough to feel it, especially for those of us not exactly dressed for the climate, so the fire was appreciated. Also, it threw a flickering indistinct light over all that red and white costuming. Even though I was part of it, the tableau made me feel shivery and odd.
Glen rang the gong a last time, and near-silence settled over the gathering. Darren opened the heavy book he was carrying and started to read out loud. It was a pity, I thought, that nobody could see it properly: it was a beautiful book. Laura had made it, text and pictures lovingly copied from various Books of the Dead. Those Egyptian funerary texts had all been different anyway, so Laura had no problems with just picking out what she wanted.
The text was also in Demotic, which most of the Committee themselves didn’t understand, so Darren kept the reading short. There were enough familiar-sounding words and proper nouns in there to pique the interest of the right people. When something happened that people didn’t understand, they either tried to make sense of it, or mocked it to make themselves feel superior. We wanted the ones who’d rather have some mystery in their lives.
When the reading was over, we all threw our little offerings into the brazier: flowers, spices, a little opium resin. The smell was actually pretty appalling, but that didn’t seem to matter. What mattered was that we showed no flicker of emotion as well did it, and then as we filed out: Peter and Laura first, of course, then Richard and Marianne, then Glen and me, and Darren last, with the book. The others would tidy up after us.
And we left: walked right out of the party and didn’t go back. It was hard to stop the other Carnarvon members from talking too much, but we still figured we kept an air of mystery about us, and if people thought we were pretentious wankers, that was okay too. And not entirely wrong.
We went back to the House, sat on the floor in the lounge, and talked and drank and smoked for a couple of hours. About three a.m. Glen and I looked at each other and got up and went, leaving Peter and Laura by themselves, arguing over how much a ritual could change without losing its essence. I didn’t think either of them would make it home, but that was okay. That was one of the reasons we kept beds in the House.
Glen was looking at me as we picked our way across the very dark lawn. I remembered the first time I’d seen him out there. Disconcerting. Also quite attractive, in an understated kind of way. I kept forgetting how handsome he was. “What?”
He shrugged, and helped me through the hedge. “I was just thinking how easily you’ve fit in. Yours has been the only spare role Laura’s let us fill in… two years now? And I don’t think anyone tonight would have picked you as any different from the rest of us.”
I walked the narrow bridge, then held out a hand for him as he followed. I was kind of glad he couldn’t see me properly, because I didn’t know how I looked or what I felt. “Is that how it looks? Cause it doesn’t feel that way. I’m terrified I’m going to cock something up and make a total idiot of myself.”
He laughed quietly. “We all are, Hera. All the time.”
I grinned back at him as we started down the path. “Not Laura, surely?”
I was teasing, but he looked like he actually thought about it. “Yes, I think, sometimes even Laura.”