“Someone phoned for you,” Beth said as I came through the door. She sounded slightly annoyed, like I’d been getting phone calls just to piss her off.
I was pretty tired. It had been a long day, and I’d had to do a bunch of scenes with this guy Adam who could never remember his bloody lines. “Can you be more specific?”
She rolled her eyes and got the phone pad, squinting in puzzlement at her own writing. “Marianne? And then Glen. Oh, your friend Glen, the cute one.”
There, I thought, spoke someone who’d never met Peter.
I put the jug on for coffee and tried to work out what the hell was going on. Marianne would never have phoned me during the day, and Glen should have known I was at work. So whatever they were trying to tell me, it was really important.
It was after six, so once I’d made coffee, I phoned Marianne. No answer. That wasn’t really surprising: it’d be just like her for something to be lethally urgent, and then five minutes later, completely forgotten about.
Glen wasn’t home either, and his mum said she hadn’t seen him all day, which probably meant he hadn’t called me from their home. Odd: where else would he have made a peak-rate toll call from?
I chewed on my lip, tapped the receiver against my teeth for a while, took a deep breath, and called Peter and Gillian’s place. Gillian answered, sounding tired. Laura had said she was on section, finishing up her teaching degree.
“Hera? Oh, of course. Peter’s not here, he’s off with the others. They tried to go into the hospital, apparently, but they weren’t allowed in the birthing ward. I’m not sure where they went to wait. The Carnavon, probably.”
Wearily, I tried to make sense of what she was telling me. “Laura had her baby?”
“Not yet.” There was something in Gillian’s voice, some kind of pain. “She’s been in about… what time is it now? About five hours. The last I heard it sounded like it could still be a while.”
I sighed. If I’d been down there, I’d have really wanted to be with her. I wanted some way I could help, but there simply wasn’t one. Given that, there didn’t seem to be much point in fretting. “Okay, well, look. If you hear from them, get one of them to give me a call. Even if it’s late. I’ll be in all night.”
Nobody phoned that night, though, and the next day I had to go back to work. I made a tentative enquiry about getting a couple of days off. It went much as I’d been expecting. They needed me, and the machine couldn’t stop for one cog. I had to keep reminding myself that this was what Laura would have wanted me to do: look after myself.
Glen rang a couple of hours after I got home. “What the hell?” I told him, unfairly. “You lot just leave me hanging all day? What happened?”
He sounded tired, as if he were the one who’d been working all day. “Hera, she only just had the baby. About half an hour ago. She was in labour for thirty-four hours.”
“Hells.” I tried to imagine Laura going through that, utterly exhausted and in terrible pain. I couldn’t. I did think about how we didn’t have a Tawaret, the goddess of childbirth. She’d never really seemed important to us. “Sorry. Is Laura okay? And the baby, is he okay?”
There was a long pause at the other end of the phone, long enough to scare the hells out of me. “I think she’s alright. We weren’t allowed to see her, her mother came out and talked to us after Laura was moved up to a ward. But I think… The baby is fine. She looks just like her mother, apparently.”
“I wonder if that means she looks just like… wait. She?”
“Yeah. Hera, Laura had a girl.”
“Huh.” I stopped for a minute while my brain tried to redraw all those mental pictures. Laura with a daughter. Laura’s daughter with a mother who was capable of being wrong. “How’s she taking… you don’t know. Of course. You told me that, you haven’t seen her.” I took a deep breath and pushed my hair off my forehead. It had been getting hot lately, and the humidity made my brain stop working. “I’ll come down when I can, but it won’t be until Friday.”
Again, Glen was quiet for a moment. I knew he was like that, deliberate, like he rehearsed everything he said before he said it, but this felt different. “I’m sure everything will be alright, Hera. And she has her mother to look after her. You don’t have to –”
“You’re not sure, are you? Are you?”
He sighed. I could suddenly picture him vividly, leaning his forehead on the wall, closing his eyes. “I’ll see you on Friday.”
In the end, I managed to fix it so I could go down on the Thursday night. We didn’t really talk about it, but Glen just came and picked me up from the airport and drove me to his flat. We sat on his lounge floor drinking cask Liebestraum and I gave him shit about finally having moved out of his parents’ house. He was living by himself now, in a tiny flat partitioned out of a massive old villa. It wasn’t quite right, but it wasn’t as wrong as Glen sharing a flat with other students would have been.
We’d already had sex on the floor once by the time we got around to talking about Laura. I was lying with my head on his stomach, listening to him breathe. He drew in a long breath, making my head rise and fall. He used his diaphragm when he breathed, like a well-trained performer.
“I haven’t seen Laura since her Mum left. And she’s not answering her phone.”
“She’s probably tired,” I said, absently drawing patterns on his thigh with my finger. “And trying to sleep when you call. We’ll go tomorrow.”
He stroked my hair languidly. I’d had to cut it to play Brenda, and I still missed it long. His touch made it feel pretty even short. “She’ll see you, anyway. She won’t turn you away. Who would?”
I snorted, wriggled my head out from under his hand, and bit his stomach. He grabbed for me, and we rolled around the floor for a while before fetching up against the couch. Once he had me cornered, and laughing uncontrollably, he pinned my hands above my head and fucked me, still full of laughter. I’d missed him far more than I’d realised.
It was afternoon by the time we headed over to Laura’s. There’d been a certain amount of fucking around, some of it literal. With the baby coming, she’d had to move out of her flat and into a tiny bedsit in the middle of town.
Glen knocked, and there was no answer. He tried again, and called Laura’s name. The little frown line between his eyes deepened. I moved him aside gently and gave it a go myself. “Laura? Laura, it’s Hera.”
I heard someone move inside, and an odd noise, like an angry kitten. I exchanged a worried glance with Glen, shrugged, and just opened the goddamn door.
The room was a mess. There was stuff everywhere, in mounds all over the floor. In the far corner there was a mattress, and on it was a woman I couldn’t recognise. She was naked, her hair tangled around her face, which was… blank.
Next to the mattress was the only nice thing in the room: a wooden bassinet, draped with netting. I picked my way across the room and leaned over it. The baby was fretting slightly, making those odd kitten noises, so I picked her up. She had a lot of jet black hair, and her unfocused eyes were very blue. Delicately, holding the baby against my chest, I knelt on the mattress next to my friend. “She’s beautiful, Laura. Have you thought of a name for her?”
She looked up at me, from the bottom of a deep well of exhaustion. There was more to it than that, though, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. “Hera. No, I thought… I had a name picked out, but…”
That seemed to be all she could manage, so I made my way over to Glen. “Look,” I said cheerfully, “isn’t she beautiful? We shall have to think of a suitably beautiful name for our little fake-niece. What do you think? Sharon?”
He touched the baby’s forehead, between her eyes, in an oddly ritualistic gesture. “I don’t know, what about… Darelle? Britnee? Tiffany?”
“Fuck off,” Laura said wearily. She hauled herself upright, shoving her hair back from her face. “I don’t care what you call her.”
“Oh you say that,” I said, knowing I was pushing it, “but then we call her Dwayne and you’re all ‘What the fuck were you thinking?’ No, you’ll just have to make the decision yourself. Um… she’s sucking on my finger, Laura, is she due for a feed?”
She shrugged, but held out her arms, and I passed her daughter to her. Her expression didn’t even flicker.
I half-turned my back and muttered to Glen, “Jesus, we can’t leave her like this. What’s Peter said?”
Again, Glen was awkward. “He… he hasn’t been to see them. He went home after he heard they were both okay, and he hasn’t visited, or asked about her…”
I got an odd feeling, like suddenly it was hot and I couldn’t think properly. “Right. We’ll fucking see about that.”
I went and got Laura a drink of water, given there was almost nothing in her fridge, and sat beside her while she fed the baby. When they were finished I offered to take her, and Laura handed her over, again without a flicker.
“Listen,” I said gently. “Why don’t I change her, and wrap her up, and then Glen and I can take her for a drive, and you can get some sleep. We’ll bring her back in a couple of hours: she’ll be fine.”
Twenty minutes later we were standing on Peter’s doorstep, Glen hovering behind me with a pinched look on his face. We hadn’t spoken on the drive over, but on the other hand I hadn’t had to tell him where we were going.
Peter opened the door, and before he’d got over his surprise at seeing me, I thrust the baby at him. Out of pure reflex, he took her. I folded my arms over my chest and just looked at him, unblinking. It might not have really been in public, but he was still holding Laura’s baby. Cleopatra’s maid Charmion had taken Caesarion to Caesar, and Julius had held him, in public, for everyone to see. Without words, he had said, “This is my son.”
Peter looked at me in confusion, and then down at the baby. It hurt me to look at his face, like I’d shoved his hand in broken glass. “She doesn’t have a name,” I said, surprised by how quiet and firm my voice was. “Laura hasn’t bothered giving her a name. I think you should do something about that, don’t you?”
He shifted his grip so he was supporting her better. “But I don’t… It’s not for me to… It’s not my place.” He didn’t shift his gaze from the baby’s plump little face, his expression pained and hopeless.
“It’s no-one else’s place. She can’t do it alone, Peter. She’s not coping. And the longer you leave it, the worse it’s going to be. Unless… were you planning to completely abandon her?”
He looked from the baby to me and back again, lost. I felt a growing urge to slap him.
“Peter, honestly, what the fuck? Forget about everything else. She’s your friend, isn’t she? If you can’t be anything else, can you at least be a friend to her?”
He shrugged, gently, trying not to disturb the baby. She hadn’t grizzled at all while he held her, just lain quietly in his arms. “Maybe I am. Maybe this is for the best, if I just stay out of her way.”
“Peter.” Glen’s voice was level and calm. I wondered sometimes if I was the only one who’d ever heard pain or anger from him. Effortlessly, he took both my attention and Peter’s. “Stop being such a cock.”
I looked at Peter, and saw the same expression I could feel on my own face: taken-aback flummoxedness. It was ridiculous. I sniggered. So did Peter. It was so good to see some life in his face again.
That was when Gillian came up the hall behind him. “What are you all doing on the doorstep? Oh, is that…” She leaned over Peter’s shoulder and pushed the blanket back from the baby’s face. “She’s beautiful! Oh Pete, isn’t she lovely? Can I…”
She gathered the baby out of Peter’s arms and bustled back inside. “Come on, you lot. You shouldn’t have the baby out here in the cold wind like that. Honestly, sometimes I don’t know what you people are thinking.”
We spent a good hour sitting with Peter and Gillian while she clucked over the baby and made us all coffee and biscuits. It should have been incredibly uncomfortable: with his girlfriend there, we couldn’t talk to Peter properly. And yet somehow it seemed okay. Maybe not talking about it was actually the best approach. I couldn’t imagine, anyway, how I would actually make myself say, “Peter, is this your baby?”
When we went back to Laura’s, though, we took him with us. Laura was awake, and dressed, and the room was a little cleaner than it had been. There was no trace of that pain I’d seen in Peter’s face now. He got her onto a couch I hadn’t even seen when we’d arrived, sat with her, talked to her, engaged her, and gradually I saw the Laura I knew move back into her body. She was still exhausted, mentally and physically, but she was at least present.
It was probably slightly mean of Glen and I to sneak off and leave him there when we were his ride, but I was okay with it. He had been, as Glen had pointed out, a cock. No matter how we poked at it – and on the drive, we did – I couldn’t decide if his uncharacteristic dickishness made him more or less likely to be the baby’s father.
“My problem,” I told Glen, “is that I think you were right. Not that that’s a problem in itself or anything, I’ve got used to it. But if they’d actually fucked, surely, it should have been noticeable from quite a distance. There should be a debris field. Guttering flames.”
“A single empty shoe,” he agreed. “Or smoking boots. But again, that leaves us with a problem. Which is that it’s completely impossible to imagine Laura allowing herself to get pregnant to anyone else.”
I tried it. “Rob Lowe?” I said doubtfully. “Oh, Kurt Russell!”
“Hera, you’re not helping. And I say this because I know they haven’t been in the country. I think we might just have to accept that we’re never going to know.”
I tried that, too. “Nope. Not happening.”
Anyway, over the next couple of days, I made a bunch of phone calls and ran errands. Peter took Laura and the baby – which, before I left, she’d named Rana – out while Glen and I went in and did her laundry and cleaned and stocked her fridge. I had a word with Darren, who had a word with Dr Bayes, who jacked up a part-time job for Laura doing some tutoring at uni. Marianne and Gillian did the rounds of markets and garage sales and rustled up some more baby gear for her. It was, quietly, made clear to Laura that almost all of her friends would just love to spend some time looking after Rana. Not Richard, of course, but that hardly mattered.
By the time I flew back to Auckland, I had at least a hope that things were going to be okay. I was pretty sure we’d made things harder on Peter, but he wasn’t trying to raise a little baby on his own. Some of his time and attention hardly seemed too much to ask.