Laura didn’t go to Samuel’s funeral. She didn’t want to intrude on his family when they hadn’t known she existed, and also I think she felt she’d be out of her depth. Not something Laura enjoyed. So I stayed with her, and Peter and Darren went, sitting unobtrusively near the back. If she ever changed her mind and wanted to hear what it had been like, they’d be able to tell her. I was pretty impressed with them. They both came back very pale and quiet. They’d found it really hard, but for her, they’d done it.
Laura calmed down, too, but while there were no more outbursts, she wasn’t her normal self either, not for a couple of months. She seemed fragile, and I didn’t want to burden her. After exams, I found I had some stuff to think about that normally I would have got her advice on, but I kept it to myself. She got better slowly, just like I had.
With the summer came another Shakespeare, As You Like It this time. I’d made first reserve from the auditions, but then the girl they’d cast to play Celia came off her bike and broke her ankle. It was a good part for me, Rosalind’s gentle and supportive companion. There was a lot of sitting around and quietly watching important things happen with other characters, which I was pretty used to.
Without a point ever really being made of it, one of the boys would usually pick me up after rehearsals. Glen had got himself a part-time job that finished a bit earlier, and he’d come and sit and watch until I was ready to go. It was comforting. I wasn’t up to walking home in the dark by myself and I couldn’t afford to take taxis. If it wasn’t for him, and occasionally Peter or Darren, I probably would have had to give up the part. They never made me feel as idiotic and neurotic and helpless as I felt I was.
Anyway, it took a while for the rest of the cast to realise that I wasn’t attached to any of the guys, and once they did, it was clear even to me that the guy playing Jacques – I can’t even remember his name now – was pretty interested. Late one night, after we’d had a few cast drinks, he kissed me in a hallway. All I felt was fear. Every instinct just screamed “no” at me. It didn’t matter who he was or what he was like. I wasn’t ready. Not for a stranger. I pushed him away, made some stupid excuse, and we both pretended like it hadn’t happened for the rest of the run. There was nothing wrong with him, he never pushed, but I just didn’t have the kind of trust with him that I did with Glen. He wasn’t one of us.
Laura had come to the initial audition with me, as support. It was pretty demoralising to walk in, see the director’s face light up, and realise he was looking at her. To be fair, she’d have made a fabulous Rosalind. For the first time I wondered, why didn’t she act? It had always been my area, my own, but she seemed such a natural for it. The Classics department workshopped plays and sometimes put on productions under the guiding hand of one of our mutual lecturers, Dr Bayes. Laura could have walked into a lead in any of them.
I asked her about it once, that summer, and she sort of shrugged and picked at her skirt. “Funny you should say that. Dr Bayes has agreed to be my thesis supervisor next year, when I go for my Masters. I know her work, I guess I just never really thought about… I get enough, you know? With the rituals.”
“But you’d be so good! I’m sure you would. And it’d be fun. We could do it together.” I had no idea if I meant it. It was just the right thing to say.
She looked at my face for a long moment, then smiled slightly. “Okay, yeah. Next year, maybe. We’ll see. Anyway, you should be concentrating on one play at a time, love. You know we’re all going to come on opening night and hoot and holler and basically embarrass the fuck out of you. If it’s easier for you, you can pretend we’re not. But we are.”
Anyway, we followed what was by now the sure tide of every summer. We dispersed for Christmas, reassembled just before New Year’s, when the Carter Club had one of the parties of the year at the Carnarvon. I danced and drank and hung out with my friends, and loved it. There was something really nice about the fact that I could just be with the people I enjoyed being with, and still get laid. There was no pressure. Sooner or later, Glen was bound to get a girlfriend, but I just didn’t think about it, and the issue kept on not coming up.
Laura stumbled off into her office in the wee hours with some guy I’d never seen before. Turned out his girlfriend was the drummer in the band, and she spent about half an hour furiously looking for him before she tracked them down. She went into the office, and she hadn’t come back out by the time I left with Glen. Whether she was back on emotional form or not, Laura was certainly doing the maintenance on her reputation.
The other thing she was doing, oddly, was spending quite a bit of time with Peter and Gillian. They were living together now, in a flat by themselves, and they’d have her over for a meal every couple of weeks. They seemed to have worked out some kind of odd accommodation between them that I couldn’t quite work out, but I did wonder if maybe Gillian was smarter than I’d given her credit for. Smarter than Lynne. And I was sure Laura hadn’t changed her mind about Gillian, it was just that she was prepared to pay the price to keep seeing Peter.
As we all geared up to go back to uni, something unexpected happened. Patrick’s parents turned up, trying to revive the search for their son. Well, his body: they seemed sure he was dead, and that his death had been the result of him being “led astray”. I knew they were around, but the others kept the details from me, and I was happy to let them. I didn’t want to think about it again. I’d even had a couple of days when I hadn’t thought about it at all, what he did, and then they came back and dragged it all up again. Rehearsals became the easiest place to be – nothing there to remind me. But then, inevitably, the show run ended and I had to go back to my life.
One evening about mid-February, we were at the House working on a new ritual, just the committee. In the cellar, even not completely in character, Laura was much more her old self, sure and full of life. When we were blocking out a new ritual or rehearsing, it was like we had one foot in our characters, their shadows hanging over us all the time, but we were still ourselves. I liked it, probably too much. It was like toying with darkness, balanced on the edge of letting go. It was almost sexual, like playing with desire without ever giving in. Maybe that had helped me get my body back as much as Glen had.
We were pretty much finished, and a couple of people had wandered off upstairs to wash up and get us something to drink. I was still on the stage with Peter and Laura, going through their walk in, seeing how far we could slow down the rhythm of it to accommodate his lack of movement. There was a pleasant hum in the back of my head: maybe we’d burned so much opium down here over the years that it hung around in the dust all the time.
“This would be a lot easier,” I told Laura, “if we just slit the back of his costume. You could pull off a kick-pleat, right Peter?”
Laura laughed, warm and throaty. “She’s got a point, darling. Turn around, let’s see… I do see things there I could pull off, don’t you, Hera?”
I snorted. “Oh no, you’re not sucking me into this. If you want… his arse is astonishing, isn’t it?” I sat, leaning back on my elbows, and Laura joined me. “I mean, just from a purely aesthetic point of view.”
Peter looked at us over his shoulder, fighting back a grin. “Are you two quite finished objectifying me?”
“Not even close,” Laura said comfortably, wrapping her arms around her linen-clad legs. “But seriously, love, if it’s really making you uncomfortable, Hera and I talking about you like this, we can pretend not to. We’ll just talk about you behind your back. Wait, that’s what we’re doing.”
“On account of the view,” I added helpfully.
“No but seriously. We’ll use code-words or something. We’re nothing if not hugely considerate of your feelings.”
He fake-pouted. It was adorable. “Now, how would you like it if I got together with the guys and we just… never mind.”
Laura grinned, toothily. “Sat round talking about my breasts? I’d fucking love it, which is what you’ve just realised. Also, you totally do, and I fucking love it. I mean, what’s not to love about breasts, they’re awesome. My only regret is that I have but two to-”
“Guys?” It was Darren, slightly out of breath from running down the stairs. “I don’t know how this happened, but that lecturer is upstairs. Dr Bayes? And she wants to talk to Laura.”
“Helen? What the hells?” Laura held out a hand, and Peter helped her to her feet. She gave the rest of us an apologetic grimace. “She… kind of knows about the House. Not what we do here, gods, but that it’s ours. Someone in the Classics department always knows. It’s complicated. But she wouldn’t come here unless it was really important. Shit… Okay. We need to throw her off balance. I mean, she’s very… fond of me, obviously, or I wouldn’t be using her, but even so… Peter, you come up with me and we’ll talk to her. Don’t change. Don’t explain, but stay in costume. Where did you put her, Darren?”
“She’s in the lounge. So she can’t see the door down here. She saw that painting, though, Laura, there wasn’t fuck all I could do about that.” Despite the near-panic in the room he gave us a lop-sided smile. “‘Fond’ doesn’t cut it. She was practically drooling on her shoes.”
Laura spared him half a grin, but she was preoccupied. “Okay, good. You and Hera sneak everyone else out the back way. If she does manage to resist our charms, there’s no point it taking the rest of you down with us. Well, I mean, obviously, change first. Dammit, you have brains, I’ll stop talking now.”
That didn’t really seem likely, so Peter took her hand and gave her a tug, and the two of them hurried out of the cellar. I looked at Darren and shrugged. “Fuck knows. But I can’t wait to hear why Laura thought it was a great idea to tell her thesis supervisor where we were.”
Darren, the keeper of the records, shrugged. “She’s right. Somebody on staff in Classics always knows. Bayes might have been Club once. I’ll look it up when I get home. Anyway, I guess it’s come in handy sometimes. Right. You change and round up the ones down here. I’ll go up and get Marianne and Richard out of the kitchen.”
I went back to our dressing room, where Glen was doing an inventory of costume, still in his shendyt. “Help me get out of this, will you?” I said. “We have to get going.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Really? Even by your standards, that’s not the most subtle come-on.”
We caught each other’s eyes, sniggered, and chorused, ” You’re going to come with me, now.” It had become something of a running joke, and one I wasn’t in a hurry for Laura to find out about, because I was really the only one of us who knew every word she’d said to that poor guy that night in the Carnarvon. Laura couldn’t even have picked him out of a line-up the next day.
I shook my head, reaching for the fastenings on my gown. “No, we don’t have time right now. There is a reason we urgently need to take our clothes off.”
I explained quickly while we put on our normal clothes and slipped out the back door. Running across the back lawn, in the dark, holding hands and trying not to make a sound… we went back to my flat and had quite a lot of overly-adrenalised sex. It was awesome.
I found Laura in our common room at uni the next morning. She was reading and looking sort of pensive and pre-occupied. I dropped into a seat opposite her and leaned in. “So, spill. What happened last night?”
“What? What do you mean, I just went home.”
I frowned. She was worried about something. “Laura, what’s wrong? What happened with Dr Bayes last night?”
“Oh, that.” She pushed a hand through her long loose hair and leaned back. “Um… it’s not terrible or anything, I just… Patrick’s parents went to see her. They’ve worked out that he was part of the Club, and they think… they think we know what happened to him.They asked for… well, everything. For the Club to be barred. For us all to be expelled. Arrested. Interrogated. They wanted to know who belonged, where to find us. Helen thought we should know, before they start turning up here, and at our houses, and at the Carnarvon. They don’t look like giving up in a hurry.”
“Oh fuck.” I sort of collapsed in my chair, and rubbed my hands over my face. “What do we do? How do we make them go away?”
“You don’t do anything, darling. We’ll keep them away from you, no matter what. I just wish the arsehole would call them. Not that I would if they were my parents, I mean, holy shit, apparently his father actually used the word “fornication”. That takes a whole truckload of sexual repression, that does. So I suppose…”
It took me a minute to work out what she meant, even with the expression on her face. “Oh Laura, no, come on. You can’t. Not Patrick’s father, that’s gross.”
She raised an eyebrow at me. “You think I have to draw a line somewhere? It’s a popular theory, I guess I could try it. It’s… quaint. Anyway, last resort. I’m just not taking it off the table. So to speak. And he’s probably gay. But I will get out in front of it. I’ll go talk to them before they come looking for us.”
For all that Laura was talking a good game, she still seemed a bit off. Distracted and uncertain. I nudged her under the table with my foot. “Hey. It’ll be okay. All they can really do is be annoying. You’ll bring them round. And if it comes right down to it… Laura, you can always tell them the truth. That you asked him to leave and he did.”
She shook her head sadly. “I’d have to tell them why, and they’ll never believe it. Who’d believe that of their son? That they could have gone so wrong as parents, that he could have been such an arsehole and they never noticed. Simpler to call us liars. But yes. I’ll talk to them, and they’ll go away.”
And that was what happened. They hung around for another week or so, although I never saw them. They talked to Laura, and to Peter and Glen, and apparently Richard had to drag Marianne away from screaming abuse at them, and they gave up and went away. They never found a trace of Patrick. Of course not. They were looking in the wrong place.