Laura slept late the next day. I was a bit edgy: Glen was leaving and I needed to take him to the airport, but I didn’t want to leave her alone. I fully expected Ben to come visit.
I thought about it for a bit, paced around the house annoying Bastard, and then I caved and phoned Peter.
He arrived after Laura got up, but before I’d managed to tell her he was coming. Awkward. He stood in the lounge doorway for a moment, looking at her sitting at the table in her dressing gown. She was holding her mug gingerly because she’d hurt her wrist when she fell, and her left cheek was dark with bruising. Without speaking, he turned around and walked out. A couple of minutes later, he came back. Later on I found the hole he’d punched in my fence.
She argued, but she stayed, and Peter stayed with her. By the time I got back from bonking Glen goodbye and putting him on his plane, they were both gone. So I was the only one there when Ben did turn up.
I answered the door because I figured he’d just keep banging on it and yelling for Laura. “She’s not here, Ben. Get out.”
He’d been drinking. “Course she’s here, Hera. Dammit, I just want to talk to her, she has to fix this.”
“I said, she’s not here. I wouldn’t let you near her if she was, but she isn’t. I’ve asked you to leave. Now you’re trespassing. Piss off, or I’ll call the cops.”
“No, listen!” He tried to push his way in the door, but there wasn’t space past my body, and I wasn’t moving. Anger was stopping me getting too scared, but some of it was seeping through anyway. With most people, you just can’t believe they’d actually hurt you. Not Ben. “I’m going to lose my job because of this! And she knows I didn’t mean it. It wasn’t that bad, I’m not one of those guys. It’s just Rogers, he over-reacts to that stuff. He’ll never forgive me, not with all that money he gives to Refuge and shit, not unless she explains what happened!” His agitation calmed suddenly, and he looked me straight in the eyes. Calm, he was way more terrifying. “Tell her, Hera. That bitch is not going to cost me my fucking job.”
I’d never needed my voice to not come out all high and shaky and scared so much. It wasn’t happening. “No. And you couldn’t be one of those guys more. You’re the king of those fucking guys. Get off my property.”
His face went dark red, and he shoved me, hard. I fell, and he charged straight over me, and up the stairs. I could hear him thumping around the house, calling Laura’s name.
I dragged myself up to my knees and crawled over to the phone. Dialling made me realise how much I was shaking. When they answered I couldn’t speak for a minute or so because I couldn’t get my breath back from all the crying I wasn’t doing. Ben came back down the stairs while I was still trying to explain what had happened. He leaned over, took the phone back out of my hand, and hung up. “Fuck you, Hera. I’ll be back.”
I was still lying on the hall carpet crying when the cops turned up.
Laura phoned the next morning. Peter had taken her back to spend the night with him and Gillian. Which was a good idea, but it would have been nice if someone had told me. Anyway, she wanted me to meet her at a café in town that, so far as I knew, neither of us had ever been to before.
She was already at a table when I came in, facing the door. She was even wearing ridiculous enormous sunglasses, though she took them off when I sat down with my coffee. The bruising had come up something wicked overnight.
“I’m sorry, Hera,” she said, taking my hand across the table. “I never thought he’d go to the house. Or if he did, he’d leave when I wasn’t there. I never thought…”
I shrugged. “It’s okay.” It wasn’t. “But you need to do something about him, Laura. You should go to the police.”
She shook her head. “I can’t do that. And like they’d take it seriously anyway. All I can prove is that he hit me once. And who are they going to believe, the stripy shirt with the nice car and the good job? Or the solo mother from the shit background who was clearly asking for it by being such a whore?”
“You could at least try!” I said, utterly exasperated. “I mean, gods, what happens next week? How are you going to be safe on your own?”
“Laura, isn’t it?” Jesus. Right next to our table, with a concerned frown, Michael Rogers. That was a hell of a coincidence. He was holding coffee in a carry-out cup, and there were a couple of other guys stopped a few feet away, obviously waiting for him. All of them were wearing beautifully-cut dark suits and hand-painted silk ties like it was nothing. “How are you doing?”
Laura reached for the sunglasses, then realised it was too late and stopped. She kept looking up at him and then looking away, like she couldn’t quite bear it. “I’m fine, Michael. It was just a misunderstanding.”
He smiled, but he was obviously still worried. “Well, I’m glad to see you’ve got a friend to look after you.”
I snorted. “For a few days. Sorry, I mean… Laura and I live together. Yesterday Ben came to the house looking for her. And at the end of the week? I have to go to Auckland for at least four months for filming.”
Michael actually looked at me while I was talking, which was the only time he took his eyes off Laura’s face. “Can you get someone else to stay with you?”
She scowled. “I don’t need a babysitter. I’ll be fine. I mean, Hera has to go, that’s how it is, but it’ll be fine anyway. I don’t need help.”
Michael put his coffee down on the table and crouched down beside us. Well, beside her. “Laura, everyone needs help sometimes. It’s okay. It’s not weak, it’s just human. What’s not okay is not asking for help, or accepting it, when you really need it. And I’d hate to see you die from Stubbornness.”
He got to his feet, and took a card out of his wallet. He wrote something on the back, and passed it to Laura. He seemed like a man who never had trouble finding a pen. “That’s my cellphone number. If you need help, and you can’t go anywhere else, call me. Tell me you’ll do that.”
She looked away in embarrassment, but she nodded. “All right, yes. But I won’t need to.”
We didn’t see anything of Ben before I left. I’d taken out a trespass order on him after his visit, but I wasn’t going to get anywhere trying to charge him with assault, and I couldn’t stay around to do it anyway. At least there was a record of my complaint if Laura ever chose to make one.
Then I went back up to Auckland to help make a deservedly short-lived sitcom about a lesbian butcher, and missed all the fireworks. I heard about it from Laura in a series of phone calls, but most remarkably, I heard about it from Michael one day when I was down for a visit. Laura had cooked dinner for a bunch of us at his place, and he and I ended up out on the balcony while the others did the dishes. In an unusually mellow mood, even after a few wines, Michael Rogers told me all about how he fell in love with my best friend.
Ben must have been watching the house. He knew when I left for the new job. The first night I was away, Michael got a phone call about eleven at night. It was Laura, her voice breathy and rushed. She’d just heard the back door open, she was sure Ben was in the house, she could hear him moving around downstairs. Please, she said. Help.
He was nearly at her house before he wondered if he should have called the cops, and it was too late by then. There was a light on in the lounge, and he could hear Ben shouting. He slipped in the back door, with no real idea what he was going to do, but knowing he couldn’t do nothing.
Laura was inexpertly tied to a dining chair in her nightgown. There was blood trickling down her face – some from where Ben had hit her and some, Michael discovered later, from him dragging her down the stairs by her hair. She was crying soundlessly, and Ben was pacing back and forth in front of her, yelling. She was a slut, and a whore, and she’d made him do these things to her. He’d been fine before he met her. She got inside his head somehow, and made him do things he never would. She was trying to destroy him.
“Ben!” Michael called, bringing the other man to a halt. “Leave her alone. Get out. I’ve called the police, and if she won’t lay charges I will.”
Ben turned, looked between the two of them, and rounded on Laura. “You’re fucking him! Aren’t you? How long, cunt? How long have you been knocking off my boss behind my back?” He lashed out, kicking the chair over sideways, and Laura screamed.
Michael barrelled into Ben and shoved him through the door. He wasn’t thinking, and the shakes wouldn’t set in until later. But probably reality was starting to set in for Ben too, and Michael managed to bundle him out of the house, banging into every wall and every bit of furniture on the way, and lock the door.
When he got back to the lounge, Laura was trying to extract herself from the rope around the chair. It was, he noticed, standard orange tow-rope; Ben must have had it in his car. In places, it had cut braided patterns into her skin.
Michael bent to help her get free, then hugged her against his chest, sitting on the floor. She kept saying she was sorry, over and over again.
When she’d calmed a bit, he got up and poured her a whisky, holding the glass for her while she drank. Then he pushed her wet bloody hair out of her face and got her to look at him. “I’m going to go upstairs, alright? And pack you some things. And then I’m going to take you home.”
It took him a while; for a start he had to work out which bedroom was hers and which was mine, and I’m sure in that process he got his first clue that there was a child. Then he had to find a bag and go through the drawers of a relative stranger, and from what I know about the contents of Laura’s drawers that wouldn’t have been the most soothing experience. But he did it, and then he went downstairs, wrapped her in her coat, and carried her out to his car. He put her to bed in his spare room, gave her a pill, and watched her fall asleep.
He got up the next morning without waking her, and spent a particularly fractious day at work. That evening, for the first time in his adult life, he came home to a house that was warm and brightly lit, with a home-cooked dinner under way in his kitchen. Laura was working away in seeming contentment, only the mass of bruising all over her face suggesting something might be amiss.
She gave him a rueful smile and apologised for still being there. He told her it was absolutely okay and insisted she didn’t have to cook for him. She told him it was no bother at all, and she wanted to repay his extraordinary kindness, and did he have a colander. He opened them a bottle of wine, they sat down and ate, and they talked.
He was surprised by her wit and her intellect and her frankness. He found himself telling her things he never told anyone, about what his mother had been through with his step-father, and how it had shaped him. She listened intently, and sympathised, and understood the things that were complicated. She told him about her daughter, and he insisted that she Do Something About Ben for Rana’s sake. She looked sad and tired, and told him that really she knew that. She was just scared, and hoping that maybe it would all go away.
They did the dishes together, then sat on the couch and drank more wine. They watched night fall over the city on the plain beneath them and talked about striving to get free of their pasts. She told him about the gallery, and the Club, and the Better she wanted for her daughter. He told her about his work, and how important it was to him that it Mean Something, and how hard that was to keep sight of in the enormous grinding dailyness of it.
At some point, she leaned in and kissed him. It was a warm kiss, soft but determined. Michael wasn’t someone who’d exactly had a lot of time for women in the last decade or so. He was fifteen years older than she was. He explained to her that she absolutely in no way had to offer him sex out of gratitude.
She smiled wickedly and told him she just wasn’t that nice a person.
Relationships had never been that big a thing for Michael. It wasn’t that he deliberately avoided them or anything, but he was busy, and when he’d had girlfriends, he hadn’t really found them that compelling. He was always forgetting dates and gifts and on the whole, he’d rather grab a quick dinner in town with his friends and then get some sleep.
Laura took him to bed. The next day, Michael Rogers called in sick for the first time in his life.
A couple of weeks after I arrived in Auckland, I got a call from Laura telling me to expect a call from the police. She was the most shaken I ever heard her.
“It took them a long time to find him,” she said. “He left his car up on the hills, and some kids stole it and crashed it into a wall. The cops couldn’t get hold of him at home, and when they rang his work they were told he wasn’t there any more… By the time they found his body he’d been up on the hill, in a paddock, in the sun… Ben’s dead, Hera. He shot himself.”
It didn’t make any sense. By the time a local officer came to see me, on set, I still couldn’t get my head around it.
He asked me to tell him what had happened at the MRH party, and when Ben had forced his way into the house when Laura wasn’t home. I told it as honestly as I could, and he nodded and wrote it all down. I couldn’t help wondering how the hell it could matter now.
“Thank you,” he said. “And… tell me, what was your general impression of Mr Hastings? What was he like?”
I grimaced, quite openly. The cop made a ‘please carry on’ gesture with his eyebrows. “Well, I mean, clearly I didn’t like him. He was beating up my best friend. But he was, well, Ben was a cock. Arrogant, shallow, self-absorbed.”
“The Christchurch police, they spoke to his friends, and to his ex-girlfriends. Before your friend, he had no history of violence. Bit of a temper, yes, but they all said, he’d never hit anyone.”
I frowned. “You’re implying what, now? It wasn’t just the times I saw him hit her. Or him shoving me around. She was covered in bruises. All of her friends will tell you that.”
“Did he ever strike you as the kind to commit suicide?”
Bollocks. “No. Never. I thought he might kill Laura. I never thought he’d kill himself.”
He consulted his notes. “My colleague thinks… Where they found him, well, he was on the hill overlooking Michael Rogers’ house. And he had binoculars with him.”
I winced. “He was watching them?” To say that Laura was ‘something of an exhibitionist’ would make everyone who knew her collapse under the weight of the understatement. I could, unfortunately, vividly imagine what he might have seen. “Yes. Yes, if he knew she was safe, beyond him… that would do it. I don’t think he had the imagination to, you know, plot vengeance or anything.” I shrugged. “Though I suppose we don’t have to understand why.”
He nodded, and got to his feet. “No. It seems pretty clear-cut. It was his gun. There was no note, but lots of them don’t leave notes.”
I got up to show him out. “I’m just… relieved, honestly. I mean, I should be sorry, but I’m just glad Laura’s safe. As long as Ben was still around, I don’t think she’d ever have felt safe.”