Chapter Twenty-Four

Glen had been in my house about three hours before he started answering the door. To be fair people usually just walked in anyway. Laura was upstairs getting ready to go out, and I had Rana sitting on me while I read her a bedtime story, so it just made sense.

I was a bit surprised, though, when he came back with Peter. “What the fuck are you doing knocking, Peter?”

He shrugged, and took the glass of wine Glen had poured him. “I unexpectedly walk in on Laura doing things I don’t want to see but could probably film and sell for a healthy profit a lot less that way.”

“Peter,” Rana said sternly, “Aunty Hera was reading me a story. Why don’t you stop interrupting and go play with Uncle Glen?”

“Rana,” I admonished, “that wasn’t very nice. We talked about this, remember? Can you find a politer way of asking?”

“Sorry,” she said quietly, then thought for a moment and took a deep breath. “Peter, I’m sorry,” she said meekly. “Please could you fuck off? Just for a bit?”

Peter patted Glen’s back while he choked on his wine. “I can see you’re being a sterling influence there, Hera. Well done.”

“Thing is,” I said gloomily, “I kind of am.”

Eventually I finished Rana’s story and sent her up to join her mother. The boys were still only halfway through the bottle. I’d barely sat down, though, before there was another knock on the door. I’d nearly got all the way to standing up before Ben sauntered in, his jacket draped over his shoulder and his fucking sunglasses on his head.

“Evening, everybody!” he said, all ghastly fake-matey. “I’ve come to pick up Laura. She still mucking about upstairs making herself all pretty?” He grinned and rolled his eyes at the boys, inviting them to share his good-humoured exasperation with all things female.

I smiled at him. At some point, I’d learned to do Laura’s “you won’t even notice me rip out your liver until you see me eating it” smile. “Oh Ben. You’re so funny. We all know Laura rolls out of bed looking better than most women could manage with a live-in stylist. I don’t think you’ve met Glen before, have you? Glen, this is Ben. Ben, this is Laura’s old friend Glen.”

Ben extended a hand, and I watched him try to size Glen up. Glen was on holiday, so he was just wearing jeans and a shirt, no shoes. He’d had a couple of wines and his hair was sliding over his eye again. In my considered opinion, he looked fucking amazing. He was also missing all the indicators Ben would be looking for: no sign of his income or profession or school. I was pretty sure Ben hated him on sight.

Laura came down from putting Rana to bed, and Ben immediately turned away from us, kissing her and then tucking her under his arm. It was only after he’d done that that he seemed to look at her properly. His face went hard, and I saw his shoulder tense around her. “Is that what you’re wearing?”

She looked down at herself, and back up at him. “Yes, why?”

“I told you, love, we’re going to Carnegie’s. Did you forget?” His voice was calm and level and utterly terrifying.

“No, I remembered. I dressed up specially. Shall we go? I don’t want to make us late. I know how much you hate being late.”

His face sort of twisted, something really ugly sliding back behind a mask of frat-boy. “There’s still time. Come on, babe, let’s see if we can’t do a bit better than that.” He took her arm in a way I knew was going to leave those damn finger-bruises on her again, and pulled her back up the stairs.

One of the problems with old houses is that sound travels. The three of us sat in painful silence and listened to every footstep and muffled voice coming through the ceiling. I was braced for the sound of a slap, or a crash: something I would have to do something about.

They came back down the stairs a few minutes later, and Laura was tugging at the skirt of a dress so short and tight I couldn’t believe she owned it. She was pale and uncomfortable, and she wouldn’t look me in the face. Ben, grinning, made eye contact and cheery goodbyes at all of us. Look what I did, he was saying. I fixed her.

We waited until we heard the latch click shut behind them, and not quite until Ben’s car pulled away. I poured myself a wine. “That Ben,” I said, “is, and I’m pretty sure about this, an utter fucking cunt.” Rather unfairly, I turned on Peter. “How can you watch him treat her like that?”

He met my angry stare with a complicated expression I couldn’t read. “And what do you think she’d want me to do about it?”

“What’s Carnegie’s?” Glen’s question was quiet and reasonable, and as distracting as he’d intended.

“It’s a poncy French restaurant. Very expensive. The kind where they give you those little sorbet things between courses.”

“Then…”

I stopped myself from throwing my hands up, on account of wine spillage. “I know! He was right. She was dressed wrong. That was one of her work outfits.” I sat down, elbows on the table, and rubbed my forehead. “Laura doesn’t make mistakes like that. Dammit, there is nothing about this relationship that I understand.”

Glen ran a hand over my hair, soothing. “Will she be able to get away tonight, in time?”

Peter nodded. “She’s done it before. Rituals are late enough. She tells him she has to work at the Club. He takes her there, sits around for a while until he gets bored and leaves. She’s doing the books out the back and nobody else will talk to him. She’s usually got lots of time.”

“She did try telling him she had to go home to Rana a couple of times,” I said, “but he just said I could look after her.” I smiled wryly. “He’s incredibly uncomfortable around Rana, it’s hilarious. It’s so weird when she’s not here. I wish Laura wasn’t sending her away.”

Glen smiled warmly at me. “You like being an aunt.”

“You know, I really do. That’s enough, though. Just an aunt.”

 

Laura made it to the House in plenty of time for the ritual. Glen and I knelt together in the crowd and watched her and Peter and Darren on the stage. Afterwards we found Richard as well, but there was still this odd distance, as there had been since Marianne died. It was worse here, where they’d been so together.

It wasn’t really on, but I slipped backstage after the ritual to see if they needed any help. There were students up there now I barely knew, and it made me feel old and out of touch.

I came in to something of a scene. Peter, already out of the Osiris costume and in his shendyt kilt, was holding a topless Laura by the arm and trying to twist her around so he could see her back. Both of them were shouting, the general gist seeming to be enquiries as to what the fuck was.

They were the same height, had the same reach and weight, but he was stronger. He turned her by one of the mirrors, and the long ugly bruise across the width of her back confronted us all. He held her still, making sure she could see what he was looking at in the mirror, and then he let her go abruptly, shaking his head. “What happened, Laura? Was his beer too warm? Did you laugh at someone else’s joke? What was it? Table? No, even with him bending you, it’s a bit high. Bench. Kitchen bench.”

Laura reached for her shirt, the look she gave him dark and bitter. “What the hell do you care?”

“Don’t be bloody ridiculous, you know I care. You think I want to watch you go home with that idiot?”

She snorted, furious. “Now you know how I feel.”

They glared at each other. I wanted to step in, to make them stop, but I had absolutely no idea what to say. Gods, maybe this was really what it seemed. Maybe she was only going out with Ben to get Peter’s attention. If that was it, I should just butt the hell out and let her get on with it.

She huffed a long breath up through her fringe, her face dialling down a couple of shades of magenta. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

Peter gave her a half-smile. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have shoved you round and hurt your arm while trying to teach a valuable lesson about domestic violence.”

Laura snickered, and finished putting her shirt on. “Oh, I don’t know, I’m not averse to a little twisting and shoving. Still, not our finest moment, was it Hera?”

“Could have been,” I replied, “but then you stopped. Laura… maybe you should stay here tonight? Just to be on the safe side.”

Her eyes flicked to Peter. He always stayed at the House after rituals now, so he didn’t have to drive back over the hill. I had no idea how he swung this with Gillian, but she never objected. “Why would I do that? Come on, one last check over the place and we’ll head home.” She stopped just short of Peter, not touching. “I’m fine, love, I promise. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

We took Glen home with us too. When he was in town he stayed in a hotel to save disturbing his parents when he came home at four in the morning and having to dodge their questions about where he’d been and why he smelled so weird. That night, he slept on our couch. Next morning I took him back to his hotel, and we spent a couple of hours fucking on crisp white hotel sheets. That was our place and it had been for years. Christchurch, Wellington, Sydney: the hotels were always the same. They smelled and felt and looked the same. All of them were ours.

 

The night of the MRH party, I was braced for disaster from pretty early on. We went as two couples: Laura and Ben, Glen and me. That was unsettling enough. But also, Laura had Taken Pains, as I hadn’t seen her do since that night at the Club after Samuel’s death. A few months back, she’d found the most hideous dress in the most beautiful fabric, and had it completely remade. It was the same blue as her eyes, mottled with darker and lighter blue, shot with veins of white and black. She wore it with a gorgeous heavy lapis lazuli necklace and earrings. She’d put her hair up and put make-up on, two things she pretty much never did. She looked amazing. Beautiful. Like the word beautiful had just been invented to describe the way she looked. I was wearing the coppery shift dress I’d worn to Peter’s wedding: it was still the best thing I owned.

If we’d been in a movie, a hush would have fallen over the party as we walked in, followed by the jealous mutterings of hundreds of women in their very best identical black cocktail dresses. Heads would have turned, every eye following Laura in lust and spite.

Those dresses were all there, but nobody took very much notice of us at all. Ben seemed on edge: anxious that his job and his woman make good impressions on each other.

In a gathering like that, I found it interesting to notice what Laura was watching. As we neared the bar, her gaze was intent on a group of people sitting on couches not far away. There was a core of half a dozen, very comfortable with each other, and other people kept coming up, sharing a few fragments of small talk, and then leaving. After a moment I realised the still, dark-haired man in the middle was Michael Rogers himself. He didn’t speak much, but he listened to the others with pleasure, and paid genuine attention to those who came to pay homage to him.

While we were still gathered in a nervous little knot, one of the men detached himself from the group and headed past us on his way to the bar. He never made it that far: he paused, and then came back. “I’m sorry,” he said to me, “but you look awfully familiar. Have we met?”

Ben butted in before I could reply. “Drew, this is Hera Lawley, the actress. You probably know her from… that Australian thing, with all the horses.”

He’d been going to continue, but Drew interrupted in turn, effusively shaking my hand. “Of course! I’m sorry, I suppose you get this all the time. And to be honest? I couldn’t bloody stand that show, but Diane loved it, she’ll be so thrilled you’re here. Diane!” He raised an arm and waved at the only woman in the group around Michael Rogers, a gorgeous plump redhead, but she wasn’t looking. “I’ll go tell her in a minute. Brace yourself. I’m Drew Martin; Ben here works in my department.”

I extracted my hand with a smile. The guy was just so lovely. “It’s very nice to meet you, Drew, and to be honest? If I hadn’t been in it, I wouldn’t have watched it myself. These are my friends, Glen, and Laura.” I could just about feel Ben seething: he’d wanted to introduce Laura himself, as “my girlfriend”.

Drew shook hands with Glen affably, and then turned to Laura. If I hadn’t been watching for it, I wouldn’t have noticed him stop dead, just for a second. Then he was right back on form. “Ben! I have not been giving you enough credit. Where have you been hiding this?”

“Laura’s my girlfriend, Drew,” Ben said tightly.

“What, and you’ve left her standing here without a drink? What were you thinking?”

Ben’s face was a picture. I gripped Glen’s hand tightly to keep the giggles suppressed. “Good man, Ben,” I said. “I’ll have a glass of sav. Glen?”

Glen’s voice wasn’t terribly steady either. “Export if they have it, thanks Ben.”

He headed for the bar, and I poked Glen unfairly. “One of us should have ordered something more complicated. Though I suppose you were worried about looking like a girl in front of all the studlies.”

“You know me so well, darling,” he replied.

Drew looked us over and chuckled. “So. It seems three of us are in agreement about the Benster’s merits. What about you, beautiful Laura?”

She gave him a look up from under her heavy eyelashes, which was quite the feat given he was about an inch shorter. “Now, that’s hardly an appropriate question for you to be asking me, Drew. Perhaps he has… attributes you’re unaware of?” Her gaze flicked down to about crotch-height, and back up again.

Drew laid a hand over his heart in mock-horror. “No! Don’t even make me think about it. Still, there must be some explanation because otherwise, my dear, you are way out of his league.”

Laura laughed warmly. “That is also, if you don’t mind me saying so, completely inappropriate. If you keep on like this, sir, I shall have to spend quite a lot of this evening talking to you.”

Glen pulled me slightly backwards, and when I turned to face him, he gestured to a completely featureless spot of floor a few metres away. “That seems to be going very well,” he said quietly. “Why don’t we give it some space. Just in case.”

“In case she decides to dump Ben? That would be so awesome.” I wasn’t convinced: this was a perfectly normal level of Flirt for Laura. Still, any chance was worth taking. “Alright, we shall bend our heads close together and have an obviously deep and meaningful conversation it would obviously be churlish to inter- Hello, Ben.” I took the glass he offered, and ignored the thundery scowl. “Thank you. Isn’t this a lovely party? I expected people to be all snobby and standoffish, but they’re not at all. Don’t you think?”

He passed Glen his beer without taking his eyes from Laura and Drew. She had tipped back her head to laugh, and to be fair that was very pretty to watch. “Scuse me,” he said, and strode over to join them.

I tucked myself instinctively under Glen’s arm as Ben joined the others, handing Laura her wine and putting a proprietal arm around her shoulders. We couldn’t hear them, but the body language was a picture. Laura was still focusing her attention on Drew, barely giving Ben a careless glance as she talked and laughed. A slight frown appeared on Drew’s face, and after about five minutes, he gave Laura’s hand a squeeze, pointed at us, and left them.

The frown had deepened by the time he got to me and Glen. “I hope that didn’t seem rude,” he said, “but I had a feeling I might be getting her into trouble. Anyway, I said I’d introduce you to Diane, and she’ll never forgive me if I don’t, so… off we go, come on.”

We’d turned to follow him over to where Michael and the others were sitting, so unlike most people in the room, we saw the moment Ben hit Laura. It was a back-hand across the face, but she must have been off-balance, and she was wearing heels. She fell to the floor.

Without thinking at all, I ran. I reached her as she was turning back over, one hand clutching her cheek and her eyes wide with disbelief. I knelt next to her and put my arms around her while Ben stared at us, seemingly frozen with shock. His mouth moved, but he didn’t say anything. All around us, people were realising what had happened. Now there was hush, cut with the hiss of gossip.

A hand fell on Ben’s shoulder, and he turned. Dark-haired, quiet, dignified: Michael Rogers had what Laura would later tell me was gravitas. “Ben,” he said levelly, “Leave. Now. Come in tomorrow and clean out your desk. After that, I’m not going to see your face again.”

Ben’s mouth worked. “I didn’t mean… She…”

Michael’s face literally darkened. I’d never seen anyone do that before. “Out. Now.”

A couple of large men in dark, sharply-cut suits cut short any further protests from Ben, and escorted him out.

Michael turned his attention to Laura, that shadow lifting. “I’m sorry. Don’t think for a moment that I tolerate that kind of behaviour from my employees. Perhaps your friends would like to take you home?”

She accepted the hand he offered her, and got shakily to her feet. One side of her face was bright red and her eye wouldn’t stop watering. “Thank you, sir. And I’m sorry about that, I didn’t mean to make a scene. I mean, I knew he was… but I didn’t think he’d… not with all these people around.”

His eye twitched quite noticeably. “Do not apologise. None of this is your fault. There is no excuse for that. Ben is entirely responsible.”

Laura gave him a watery smile. “Well, then you’re not responsible either, are you? We’re both in the clear.”

Once they’d finished apologising to each other, Glen and I took Laura home. I kept having a nagging thought, though. I’d known Laura for years now, and I’d never seen her not mean to make a scene.