Chapter Twenty-Eight

Glen never left my side. He took me back to the hotel: even after they took her away, the bar was a crime scene and we couldn’t get upstairs. Later, when we were sitting at a table across from a cop, they tried to take him away, and I think I freaked out a bit. They let him stay, anyway.

I also didn’t handle it very well when D.S. Forbes walked in. “No. Not her. I won’t talk to her. She was at the bar last night, she had it in for Laura, I don’t know why. Make her go away.” Apparently, I said all this a bit more forcefully than I thought I had. By the time I settled down enough for them to question me, they were treating me like I was mentally deficient.

Which was just as well, because it was hitting me how much I had to hide. Yes, I told them, I’d met Laura at the bar that morning. No. Nobody else was there. She was upset, because someone was trying to take her daughter away. We’d talked for a while, then she’d told me she wanted to go for a walk to calm down. She expected to be about half an hour. I’d left the bar not long afterwards.

“Do you know what time that was?”

“No, I don’t know, I didn’t notice.”

“Yes you did,” Glen said gently. “When she got to my room, I asked her the time,” he told the cop. “It was half past ten. It couldn’t have taken her more than ten minutes to walk over from the club. We were together then until we went back to the club and found Laura, just after twelve.”

“Can either of you think of anyone who’d want to hurt her?”

“Yes,” I said, again more forcefully than I’d intended. “Gillian Melling, Peter’s wife. She’s the one who was trying to get Rana taken away.”

“She’s Gillian Webster now,” Glen added for the cop’s notebook. “But I don’t think she’d hurt Laura physically. I really don’t think she would. Is that what… you think somebody killed her?”

“At this point I can’t say,” the cop replied. “It’s early days yet. Though… had either of you noticed anything wrong with the carpet at the top of the stairs recently?”

We both shook our heads. “Those fucking stairs,” I said. “I told her, when she first got the place, those stairs were dangerous. I told her to put in a godsdamn rail! I mean, if you were… there’s nothing to grab on to.” Glen and I had both been sitting in the stairwell long enough to notice the gouges in the wall from Laura’s fingernails. “But I never thought… not her. Some drunken idiot. Not Laura.”

 

Without the club to go to, a lot of us congregated at the House. All those people had come for the anniversary celebrations, and now it was all for nothing. A few of them left, but most stayed. People kept turning up with booze and food. There wasn’t a lot of eating going on, but bringing the food seemed to make people feel better.

Peter didn’t turn up. Glen called him and made sure he knew, but when he came back from the phone he looked worried. “He was calm,” he told me. “Absolutely, completely calm. At first I thought he hadn’t heard me. It hasn’t sunk in. I hate to think what will happen when it does.”

Glen stayed by me. I did see him have a brief argument with Darren at the House, though I wasn’t paying much attention. That night, he took me back to my house and slept in my bed with me for the first time. When he got up in the morning, I was sitting on Laura’s bed.

“What am I going to do with all her things?” I asked him, bewildered. “There’s so much. All her things. Her clothes and her books and her notes… Rana! What happened to Rana?”

He came and sat next to me and took my hand. “Rana’s with Michael. He picked her up and took her home. He’s told her what happened, though I doubt she can understand it.”

I shook my head. “Not Rana. She’s not going to be one of those kids who asks when Mummy’s coming home. She knows dead. Who… Laura’s mother, I suppose.”

“She’s coming up. She’s all the family Rana’s got now.”

“No. She’s got us.”

 

Accidental death. The carpet had come loose on the landing at the top of the stairs. They reckoned Laura must have tripped on it; maybe she was in a hurry. She’d sailed down those stairs with nothing to break her fall but the wall where they turned. Her head had hit the wall at just the wrong angle, and snapped her neck.

Stupid. Pointless. Wrong. Not Laura; Laura didn’t die like that. Laura should have died in some complicated passionate dramatic way.

Laura’s mother arrived and settled in at Michael’s with him and Rana. I hadn’t expected it, but it should have been obvious: they became Laura’s family. They were the ones who got to make the decisions. We were just her friends. We had no standing.

They had her funeral in a church.

It was a wake-up call for all of us. I sat down and made a will the day I heard. Damned if I was going to become my parents’ property again if I died. I made Glen my executor, and left him a wad of money to compensate for the shit my family might put him through. Everything else I left to Rana.

Laura’s mother and Michael might as well have had her body under guard at the funeral home. Whenever she was available for viewing, one of them was there, just being around. We couldn’t do for Laura what Laura had made sure we’d done for Marianne: Marianne, whose death was now my fault. Well, no, not my fault, but because of me.

Still, they were only doing what seemed right to them. Michael phoned Peter and asked him if he wanted to speak at the funeral. We knew because after he agreed Peter finally came to talk to me. He was still as Glen had said: utterly calm. The discussion we had was utterly matter-of-fact. Being around him like that was helpful from a keeping-my-shit-together perspective, though I had to keep stopping myself from apologising to him.

I ended up sort of in charge of our group at Laura’s funeral, on account of being one of the few Club members who’d been in a church before. It seemed impossible to me, but they had no idea how to behave: when to stand and sit, how to respond. The front pews were reserved for Laura’s ‘family’. As if we were at a wedding, we all sat on the same side of the church, in a block. We filled that side.

Rana was sitting between her grandmother and Michael in a brand-new frilly black dress, but she got down and came over when we arrived. I bent and hugged her. “Hello, darling, How are you?”

“I’m sad, Aunty Hera. Everyone is angry and sad. Will you come and see me soon?”

“Of course.” Gods. Most of her things were still at my house, but nobody had even come around to get them for her.

“Thank you. Excuse me. I have to see Peter now.”

She climbed up into his lap where he was sitting in the pew, and put her hand on his cheek. Then she said something, so quietly I couldn’t even hear her voice, let alone what she said. He must have, though, because he said, “Of course I will.” Then she climbed down and went back to her seat.

The service was excruciating. There were hymns. There were banal platitudinous tributes to a woman none of us had ever met. As it went on, there was more fidgeting and shifting in creaky wooden seats as the Club became restive. Then Peter got up to speak.

He looked beautiful, of course, in a classic black suit with his hair tied back at the base of his neck. He also looked kind of like Laura in drag: I heard her mother gasp as he took his place.

He spoke just to us. He talked about how we knew her, how we loved her, how she was our queen. How she was smart and commanding and clever with words. “She was the One Who is All, our Moon, and without her I cannot stand. We are here to pay tribute to Laura Selene Campbell, and tribute we will give her.”

I got up and walked forward, carrying the knife. He came to meet me next to Laura’s coffin. It was open: she looked peaceful and very dead. Peter touched her face with his fingertips. I saw him sway, before he knelt with his back to me. As we’d agreed, I wound his hair around my arm and sawed it off with the knife. It took longer than we’d expected, and an uncomfortable silence was pooling around us.

Then it was done, and together we placed his hair in Laura’s coffin, where it mingled inextricably with hers, the same colour and texture. They’d never get it out. The same couldn’t be said of the little ushabti figures we tucked into the coffin lining, but we couldn’t possibly send her off without them.

We kissed her, and then walked back to our seats, hand in hand. There was a long awkward pause before the minister stepped forward and took over again.

Another hymn and we were allowed to leave, though my boys had to watch a bunch of guys they didn’t know carry her coffin out.

As we stood around in the hall afterwards, holding paper plates and coffee cups and waiting for it to be polite to leave, I saw Peter approach Michael. I was stuck talking to Laura’s great-aunt, who had clearly already forgotten the whole hair thing, as well as the ends of most of her sentences. I only managed to get away from her by faking an urgent need to pee, and by then Peter had left.

“What was that about?” I asked Darren.

“He asked to see Rana,” he replied. “Michael hedged, but he said no. He didn’t want Rana getting confused.”

“That’s bullshit. I wonder why… Michael always used to be fine with Peter.”

“But now Rana is the only bit of Laura either of them have left to hold on to. I think Michael wants all of that to himself.”

 

We had a hell of a wake for Laura at the Carnarvon that night, now we finally had it back. We got utterly written and told wild Laura stories for hours. I was surprised by how many I hadn’t already heard. I slipped out unobtrusively while that was still possible, though, and walked home. It was a hell of a long way, but I needed to be alone, and breathe in the night.

I was woken about noon the next day by the phone. I thought about ignoring it, but I’d also kind of ditched Glen the night before, so… It wasn’t him. It was Gillian. She sounded terrible. I didn’t sympathise.

“Hera? I’m sorry to bother you, but… do you know where Peter is? He didn’t come home last night. I haven’t seen him since yesterday morning. I’m starting to worry.”

I sighed, loudly. “I don’t know, Gillian. Maybe he woke up with good taste?”

“Pardon?”

“Maybe he found out what you…” No. I was just too utterly soul-deep tired for this. I didn’t care any more why she’d done what she’d done. “I don’t know where he is, Gillian. If I did, I probably wouldn’t tell you, to be honest. He probably needs some time alone. You know what he’s going through.”

Her voice was all tight and strangled and high. “He’s mourning the woman he loved.”

“Of course. My guess is, like me, he can’t be bothered pretending to be nice to you any more. Goodbye, Gillian.”

It felt like one of those things I’d feel bad about later, when I could feel things again. I thought about it all while I showered and drank too much coffee, then I got in my car and drove to the House.

 

He was sitting on the floor in the front room, which surprised me. I’d expected to find him in the basement, but he was just sitting on what appeared to be a fairly random piece of carpet with his head resting on his knees. His hair was still all jagged and messy from where I’d cut it off. There was a mark on the back of his neck I’d never seen before. It looked like a chess piece: like an elongated rook, with four crossbars at the top. It was, I realised, the djed pillar: the symbol of Osiris. I wondered if Laura wore the tyet on the back of her neck. Surely they would both have got the tattoos together. Once, I would have been surprised that Laura hadn’t told me about it. Not now.

I sat on the floor next to Peter. He didn’t lift his head, but after a moment he spoke to me. “It was right here.”

“What was?”

He rolled his head to the side, so he was looking at me. “It still doesn’t seem fair, you know. I understand, but still. You’d think I’d be allowed to remember it. I’d wanted it for so long…”

He sat up then, and took a deep breath, steeling himself. “Do you remember the night we were downstairs, and Darren told us Doctor Bayes was here?”

I thought hard. It was a long time ago. “Oh. Yes. She was worried about Patrick’s parents.”

He nodded. He was pale, and his eyes looked bruised. I wondered when he’d last slept. “Laura and I went up, still in costume. Helen – Doctor Bayes – freaked out a bit to start with, but then she settled down. She couldn’t take her eyes off Laura. We talked for a bit, then we saw her off, and came back in here, and… I stumbled. That costume’s a bitch to walk in. Laura caught me, and…

“Gods, I’ve never felt anything like it. This jolt that went right through me, like something massive slamming into place. I kissed her, I couldn’t not kiss her, and she was pushing back at me, with her mouth and her hands and I felt… like I was filling up from the inside with molten light. Honeyed fire. I couldn’t stop touching her, and the more I touched her, the more this burning inside me grew… I’d missed her. I felt that clearly, how lonely I’d been for so, so long without her. She was the keeper of my ka. I was alive again with her, and the joy… Only the more I felt that, the more I started to slip away, like passing out. I remember holding her, and seeing that golden fire in her face, and then… nothing.

“I woke up the next morning feeling, gods, like utter shit. There wasn’t a bit of me that didn’t hurt. If I moved too fast my head was going to explode. I was cold. Because I was naked. Except there was one bit of my arm that was warm… She was there, right next to me. She was beautiful. So peaceful. I didn’t want to wake her up. I mean, apart from her being so perfect, when she woke up we’d need to talk, and I needed to work out what to say to her. I knew what I wanted, though. I wanted her.

“Anyway. I slipped quietly away from her, went downstairs and got our clothes. Then I went up and had a shower to sort my head out.” He smiled, warm with memory. “That’s how I found out I had some fearsome scratches all over my back, when the water hit. I thought, you know, screw everything. Take the chance. Tell her, everything. And when I came back down? She was gone. Just gone.”

He fell silent, and I joined him while I thought. “Oh Peter. Come on. You never thought… She woke up, and you were gone.”

He nodded wearily. “It took me… two days? To work that out. To start with I was just so fucked off, that she could just get up afterwards and walk away like it was nothing. Sneak away while I was in the shower so she wouldn’t have to face me. By the time I realised she thought that was what I’d done…” He shrugged.

I ground my teeth, fighting the urge to slap him. It was four years too late for that. “The two of you never sorted it out, did you? What, you just never talked about it? What the hell, Peter?” Another memory sparked. “You stopped touching. Both of you, you stopped touching each other for ages after that.”

“Yeah. I think we were both scared that if we did, it would happen again. And I mean, it wasn’t like… Things got more complicated. There was that night I sat there in the bar, with all of you, and she told us she was pregnant.”

I swore. It felt quite good, so I did it again. “That night the two of you had sex… That was the night Rana was conceived?”

He nodded again. “Right here. Right here where we’re sitting.”

I made a vague mental note to get the carpets cleaned. Then I reached out and smacked him over the back of the head. “And even after that, you never… You never said to her, “Hey, Laura, is that my baby?” She never talked to you about… No, of course. She told you with all the rest of us there so she wouldn’t have to.”

“I can’t have children, Hera.”

I snorted. “We talked about this, you know, me and Glen. We couldn’t work it out, who’d fathered Laura’s baby. But it was you, and it wasn’t. You might be infertile, but you’re Rana’s father.”

He sat up straight, stretching his spine til it popped, and took a deep breath. “I’m really glad you see it like that. Because I need your help. She’s my daughter, Hera. Mine. Not his.”

“Tell me what you need me to do.”

 

In retrospect, it was pretty simple. Michael was happy to let me take Rana for a day, especially because Rana insisted. Peter met us at my house. Laura’s clothes were still there, and so was her passport. I’d used her credit card to buy tickets to Sydney a couple of days earlier. I still had an apartment I used when I was over there: luckily, I hadn’t managed to sell it yet.

We trimmed Peter’s hair, made up his face, dressed him in some of Laura’s looser clothes, and I took them both to the airport.

By then I’d told so many lies a few more were utterly irrelevant. The next morning, I phoned Michael and told him Rana was missing: that she and a bunch of her clothes were gone.

It took days to officially discover that Peter was also missing. He’d stopped going home before Laura’s funeral. The usual checks were done, including at the airports, for a man with a small girl. By the time the police realised what had happened, Peter and Rana had moved on, as we planned.

I stayed in Christchurch a few months longer. There were things to do. I went through Laura’s offices, at the Club and at home, and winnowed out all the papers no-one else should ever see. A lot I gave to Thoth, but there were some I kept. All her meticulous plans to create a series of small, interconnected Isis cults – those I took with me, even all the pages in Demotic I couldn’t read.

I sold my house. It was too painful to stay there. With Laura and Peter gone, the Carter Club was crumbling. I’d helped, I suppose, by making absolutely sure Richard was unwelcome, cut off from the help the Club offered its ex-members. I thought about going to talk to Gillian, but she’d had the most poetic punishment. She had to live with the natural consequences of her own selfish desperation. As if taking Rana out of Peter’s reach would have changed anything. She’d wanted him to choose, and he had.

When my house sold, and nobody was really looking for Peter and Rana any more, I left Christchurch for Sydney, and I never went back. And that’s where the story ends. It’s Laura’s story: how could it go on without her?