The next few days were odd, but not in a bad way. I still wasn’t sleeping well, so I’d wake up before Glen and watch him sleeping next to me. Ridiculously, he still looked good first thing in the morning, just attractively tousled. It struck me, watching him and wanting to push that fall of hair back from his eyes, that he was far and away the most physically beautiful man I’d ever slept with. If you’d have shown me a photo of Glen when I was at high school and told me I’d get to see him naked, to watch his face when he arched and came inside me, I’d have laughed in your face and then reported you as some kind of weird time-travelling pervert.
“What are you thinking?”
I flicked my gaze from around his hips to his eyes, softened from their normal pale blue sharpness by sleep. “How pretty you are. Way too pretty for me.”
He snorted, reached over and flicked the sheet down to my waist. “I don’t think I’m even the prettiest one in the bed, frankly.”
I blushed, because you couldn’t not. “Look, I know… a guy who looks like you? And smart with it. I know you’re just being kind. Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate it, but I’m not going to… try to hold on to you.”
He sat up, leaning his arms on his knees, and looked at me. “Hera, gods, you’re my friend, okay? And you’re still my friend. I’m not doing you a freaking favour. I’m not going to try to hold on to you, either. We help each other out, that’s what friends do.” He pushed a hand through his delightfully floppy hair. “Look, there’s nothing I can say that will convince you. Luckily, I don’t have to.”
Rolling onto his side, he took my hand, kissed the palm, and then wrapped it around his cock, squeezing. His flesh was hard and hot. “See? Tell me I don’t want you now.”
“Tough. I win. As my reward, you’re going to keep doing that.”
I laughed, and did, and indulged in a morning of thoroughly pleasuring my friend: feeling his touch, seeing him smile, and coming my brains out.
Which was why we didn’t manage to get out of bed before Laura turned up. The first we knew she’d arrived was the sound of her voice about two feet away. “Knock, knock!”
“You’re supposed to do that with your hand,” Glen said, without rolling over. “From outside. And then we say, ‘Fuck off!’, and you do.”
“I never do, Glen, surely you’ve learnt that by now. Hera, I’ve got something to show you, you’ll love it. I’ll go make some breakfast for everybody. Did you buy milk, Glen? We’re getting low. Well done, by the way. You look lovely. And it sounds like it’s going very well, too.”
She wandered out, leaving the door open behind her, and I buried my face in Glen’s chest. “Oh fuck,” I said, in a somewhat muffled fashion.
“What, you don’t think she already knew? Of course she did. And that’ll be it. She’s had her moment of glory, she won’t mention it again. She’s alright, really. Laura’s a lot kinder than she seems.”
I frowned. “What? Laura’s always been really kind to me. Hugely. She’s gone out of her way for me so many times. She gets a bit carried away sometimes, but she’s lovely.”
Glen shrugged, untangled himself, and climbed out of bed. “I shall be lovely now, and get dressed and go out and keep her busy. You take your time.”
There wasn’t really all that much time I could take, knowing they were both up and about, and wondering what they were saying. Not so long ago, I wouldn’t have cared. I couldn’t have cared.
So after about ten minutes I hauled myself up out of bed and went to have a shower. That way I wouldn’t be able to hear them, or anyone else arriving. It was my time to myself, every day. And just like every day, I opened the bathroom cupboard to check on the sleeping pills. I just liked to know they were there, to look them in their non-existent face every day and know that I could, if it all got too much.
That morning, they were a whole lot more non-existent than usual.
The bottle was gone, just gone. I stared at the empty space for a while, pole-axed. They weren’t behind anything else, they hadn’t been moved, they were just gone. Someone had goned them.
Glen? Probably. It was his house. Who else would? I hadn’t thought anyone even knew, but if it was Glen… I’d laughed. For a few hours, I’d even Forgotten. Maybe he’d decided it was time, and thrown them away. Which meant he’d been consciously leaving me the option the whole time.
I didn’t know what to do with that, so I had my shower, got dressed, and by the time I headed back out, I’d pushed it firmly to the back of my mind and locked it away.
Laura was sitting at the table with a flat parcel in front of her. “Hera, darling. I made you eggs. Then I got bored waiting and ate them. Glen’s making more. He’s very well trained. While we’re waiting, have a look at this.”
She reached into the bag and drew out a canvas, about a foot square. “When he did this, he couldn’t afford to work on a proper scale. I’ve fixed that, at least. But look. Look.”
She didn’t need to tell me: I couldn’t stop looking. The canvas was drenched in colour: rich reds and blues and a tide of greens. It was a simple painting in composition – a woman lying asleep in a forest. She was naked, and something about her colouring or the way she was drawn made me think she was a figure out of myth, Greek or Roman. The landscape around her was all New Zealand, ferns and beech trees and scrubby bushes, but interwoven with ridiculous tropical flowers: hibiscus and cannas and orchids and other things I didn’t recognise that might not even have been real. The little painting pulsed with a bright, sensual energy. “It’s beautiful.”
“Isn’t it? I saw it at a gallery opening about a month ago.” That was one of the odd things about Laura. She was constantly getting to go to exhibitions and openings and private parties and nobody really had any idea how she wangled it. It wasn’t like she had any connections. “I loved it so much, and I said to Lance, this is amazing, I don’t even want to look at anything else. And he introduced me to the artist. Samuel Siuta.”
Darren emerged from the lounge. I hadn’t even realised he was there. “So how long have you been boning him for?”
“Don’t be crass, Darren. Leave that to Richard, he’s the expert. And have some cultural respect. You know perfectly well you don’t just fuck nice Samoan boys. And he’s a very nice Samoan boy.”
He eyed her from the doorway. “So… about three weeks?”
“Closer to two. Anyway, I found him some work, nagged an acquaintance into lending him some studio space, and I’m working on getting him an exhibition space. I mean, even if I wasn’t… there has to be more of this, his work.”
I mulled, still staring at the painting. She’d been quiet about this for a very long time, for Laura. This went back far enough that… well. Complicated. “How did you get the painting?”
“That? Oh, Lance bought it for me. Said he found the expression on my face completely priceless. Sweet of him, really. He misses you, by the way, Darren. You really should go and see him.”
Darren made a face, but he didn’t seem as annoyed as he wanted us to think. Basically, Darren’s poses were too numerous to be very convincing. I think he wanted to be nice and settled and ordinary, but he simply couldn’t resist the attention.
“Anyway,” Laura said, turning back to me as Glen put a plate of scrambled eggs down in front of me, “how would you like to meet him? Because he’s down at the Carnarvon right now, doing a little spot of work for us.”
Ah. That was what Laura wanted me to look at.
Peter was in the dance room when we arrived, with a bemused expression on his face. “You could have told me,” he said to Laura as we came through the door. “I thought we’d been struck by some kind of painting reverse-burglar.”
On the other side of the room, a tall, broad-shouldered man was sketching on the doors to the toilets, the connecting door propped open with a brick. There were pictures on the floor he glanced at occasionally, but his movements were smooth and bold and I couldn’t see any plan to it all.
Laura went over and joined him, putting an arm around his waist and chatting to him in a low voice. He glanced back over his shoulder at us, and sort of shrank into himself. Meanwhile, Peter came over and joined Glen and me. He pulled me into a quick hug and kissed my hair, and I couldn’t look at him.
By the time I got my shit back together, Laura had coaxed Samuel over to join us. She introduced him round, but he barely looked away from her. At first I thought it was just because he was painfully shy – and he was – but then I saw his face. He was utterly fascinated by her. Captivated.
“I’ve asked Samuel to do a spot of work for us,” she said. “Just a small job to start with. But I know he can make a real difference to the feel of the place. Look.”
She showed us the sketches Samuel had been working from. Even rough, they were brilliant. Iconic images: the Nefertiti head on one, the Tutankhamen mask on the other. But the features of the faces were Polynesian. Nefertiti sported moko on her chin. There was rich colour and life and laughter pouring from both pictures. “They’re amazing,” I told Samuel, watching him blush and try not to look at me. “You’re incredible.”
“So, wait,” said Darren. “These are for the bogs?”
Laura nodded. “Yes, well done.”
Peter gave a short laugh and shook his head. “That’s brilliant, Laura. I mean, I’m assuming this is your idea, because it has to be. And it’s brilliant. Well done.”
He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, and I saw the briefest flicker of what looked like bitter rage on her face.
“It wouldn’t have worked without Samuel,” she said warmly, smiling up at him. “It’s all in the execution, otherwise it would just have been tacky.” She gave a satisfied sigh. “And I suppose I’d better let you get back to work, or you’ll never be finished. That’s the most difficult part of all this, you know. I love him for his art, but I have to leave him alone while he does it.” She kissed him, which he clearly would have resisted doing in public if he could possibly have raised the will, and then she slipped an arm around my waist and we all wandered through to the bar. When I looked back, he was watching her with longing hunger.
At the time I simply assumed it was lust. We’d all seen it on enough of their faces before. It took a while to realise that it was a creative hunger, at least in part. She saw herself as his manager. He saw her as his Muse. A couple of weeks later, they consummated their dearest mutual desire: he painted her. For the next few months, he’d paint nothing else.
Going out that day, leaving Glen’s house without really thinking about it, was the start of a string of changes for me. His parents were coming back, so I needed somewhere else to live. Luckily Laura had taken all that in hand: she found me a flat with some other Club members, and had all my stuff moved over from my old flat. She’d known without being told that I could never go back there, never.
The first night I was there, I slept alone. A couple of days later, hanging out in our common room, I looked over at Glen, he raised an eyebrow enquiringly, and I nodded. He spent the night. And that was how we managed it: no promises, no steady arrangement, but we’d sleep together a couple of nights a week. We both seemed to just know when the time was right. For me at least, it was all the relationship I could cope with.
And I went back to uni, back to classes. A lot of the time, I was playing the part of Hera Who is Okay. As she wanted to be an actress, she did Actress Things. She went to auditions a lot more than Hera from Before. She got a couple of minor parts in professional productions. She learnt all her lines perfectly and kept herself busy and professional. She worked hard, and was tirelessly helpful around the Carnarvon and the House. And if she was a bit quieter than Previous Hera, nobody mentioned it.
I suppose it sounds like everything was easy. I was very well looked after. Without my friends, without the Club, I would have died. But still… Patrick never turned up, as Laura had expected him to. Nobody knew what had happened to him. There were public appeals and what seemed like a fairly half-hearted investigation, but no-one could place him after the fight in the bar. He’d wandered out into the night and disappeared.
And I never stopped being afraid. I’d lie awake at night trying to work out how he’d find me. It wouldn’t be difficult: he’d just need to follow me home from uni. He knew where the Carter Club hung out. Any time he wanted to, he could find me. And there was nothing I could do about it, not when Glen wasn’t there. I still had nightmares, too, even when Glen was there. The only way I could make any commitment to my life was by pretending it was a part. Poor traumatised Hera, pulling it together and walking tall and getting on. Good on her.
It was difficult for Peter, too. Gillian was, once I had the space to notice her, clearly upset by Patrick’s disappearance. She made a couple of snide remarks that made it clear she thought Laura was behind it, that she’d run him off, even though Gillian couldn’t have had any idea why Laura had actually done that. She seemed to take it personally.
Laura, in fact, appeared to barely notice Gillian’s presence in her life. Rather than the bitter cattiness with which she’d treated Lynne, Laura just didn’t seem to be able to register Gillian. She didn’t like her, but it was too much effort to hate her. Apart from her surfeit of niceness and slight deficiency of brain, there wasn’t really a lot to object to in Gillian, and she clearly adored Peter. Our group was finding a new even keel that could accommodate Gillian, just as it shaped to take in Glen and I sleeping together and Laura and Samuel’s growing mutual obsession.
That’s what it was like for most of the rest of the year. We all adapted in small ways. I worked, I had sex with Glen occasionally, I went to parties with my friends. I was Bastet in rituals where I could, blessedly, put myself aside completely for a night. Those times in the House were bliss. I was becoming, more and more, Hera Who is Okay.
And then, around the same time as the year before and in the same way, everything went to shit.