Chapter Twenty-Three

It was the end of the year before I made it back to Christchurch. Even then I knew I’d have to go back to Oz in a couple of months to do promo work for the end of the series and my character’s tragic and implausible demise.

It was something we’d accepted while making our plans. I would always be going away, sometimes for months at a time. One of the jobs I was looking at was with a group touring Shakespeare through high schools. Huge fun, but I wouldn’t be home. So our arrangement just made sense.

I bought a little cottage in Woolston. It was a beautiful, quiet little pocket of an under-valued suburb, and the house itself was perfectly sound and easily improved with a bit of paint and putting in a garden. I moved in, and so did Laura and Rana. While I was away, there’d be someone living in the house. I could travel and work and do new and exciting things, and have a proper home to come back to. We could have a garden, and a cat. Some cats.

We’d already acquired a kitten by the time we had the housewarming. Rana had picked him out of the litter at the pet shop, and Laura and I had immediately caved to her. He was black with a couple of random white splotches, and after three days in the house, he was called Bastard.

“That,” Richard said thoughtfully, “might be the ugliest cat I’ve ever seen.”

“Fuck off, Uncle Richard,” said Rana. “He’s beautiful. And clever.”

Gillian, sitting on the grass playing with Rana and the cats, pursed her lips but didn’t say anything. She really looked like she wanted to, though. She looked, I realised, heavy and tired and stressed.

Still no Glen, so it was Darren I cornered when he went inside to fetch more beers. “What’s the deal with Gillian? She’s not her usual perky slightly annoying self.”

He shrugged, and I could see he was battling not wanting to tell me against really wanting to tell me. “She’s been a bit like that last couple of months. I think it’s ’cause she and Peter have been trying to have a baby. Nearly a year now and nothing.”

I turned away to refill my glass so he couldn’t see my face. Oh shit. And Laura and I were the only ones who knew. “Huh. That sucks. I didn’t know they were trying. I mean, Gillian’s young for it, she’s only just started working.” By the time I finished that, and put the cork back in the merlot, I reckoned I had my face back under control.

“Two years, she’s been teaching. But she really wants kids. Really really. I think Rana makes it worse.”

For a moment, we both watched Gillian and Rana out the kitchen window. “Yeah, I guess it would.”

We watched in silence for a moment, our minds too full of things we couldn’t say to find anything to talk about.

Laura didn’t even notice as she breezed through the door. “Darren, Richard says, and I quote, ‘Are you brewing those fucking beers yourself, get your arse out here, a man could die of thirst, etcetera.’ He wanted to send Rana in to tell you, but I thought Gillian might actually have an embolism, and as much as I’ve always wanted to watch somebody do that, this didn’t seem a convenient time. We haven’t lit the barbeque yet, and I’m getting hungry.”

Darren hefted the box of beer into his arms and grinned. “Did he actually say ‘etcetera’?”

She pushed past him and started taking plates of meat out of the fridge. Laura made the most amazing burger patties. I’d only just discovered, from living with her, that she could really cook. It didn’t seem right, somehow. “All right, yes, I stopped listening. To be fair on me, none of it was very original.”

As Darren went out to join Richard, Laura put the plates on the bench and started digging around in the back of the fridge for sausages.

“So,” I said, super-casually, “Darren said Peter and Gillian have been trying to have a baby.”

“That’s what I hear,” Laura said, her head in the fridge. “At least, that’s what I heard myself say while I was telling Darren.”

“And it’s not going too well.”

“It’s early yet. And I’m sure they’re enjoying the process and all that rubbish people say in situations like these.”

“Laura.” I waited until she turned to face me before I went on. “Remember Lynne. Peter doesn’t know about her trying to get pregnant. If Lynne couldn’t, and Gillian can’t…”

“You think it’s Peter?” Her face was carefully neutral. I couldn’t read a thing in it, which in itself told me something.

“Don’t you?”

She held my eye for a moment, then shrugged. “Does it matter? They’ll work it out in time, anyway.”

I shifted, uneasy. “I really think we should at least drop them a hint.”

Laura huffed air up through her fringe in a near-snort, and started gathering up food. She was done with me. “And what the fuck would you say, Hera? What wouldn’t be a massive invasion of their privacy? They’ll work it out.”

She went to walk out, hesitated on the doorstep, and turned. Her face was full of quiet pain. “Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. It’s hard. And it fucking sucks. I might not be Gillian’s biggest fan, or even her smallest fan, but I don’t want to see her tearing herself apart over this, thinking she’s broken when yes, you’re right, it’s probably Peter. She would make a great mother: she’s fabulous with Rana. But we have to let them work this out on their own, and then we can support them when they do find the answer.” She smiled wryly. “Trust me, Hera.”

 

She was right, of course. About a month later, Peter and Gillian decided to Get Help. Gillian went on the waiting list to be poked and prodded at Women’s, but in the meantime, they did the much simpler tests on Peter.

He was infertile. Low sperm count, low motility. No practical chance he could ever father a child.

They talked about it together. We all talked about it sans Gillian. Richard and Darren and I had drinks and talked about it. Then Laura took Peter out and got him completely smashed, just the two of them. I assume they talked about it.

I couldn’t handle knowing what I knew. The night Laura and Peter were out, I swore a bit and phoned Glen. It was a relief to find him in on a Saturday: for the last few months he’d been seeing this woman he worked with. They seemed to get on well enough, but she wasn’t moving in and he didn’t bring her with him when he came down. She occupied the part of his life where there was space for her.

After a couple of minutes of listening to me babble, he said, “Hera, are you drunk? I’m just asking, to see if I need to catch up.”

“No! Listen, I need to tell you something, and you absolutely mustn’t tell anyone, okay? Or say, ‘Oh Hera, how could you?’ or ‘I don’t know if you should be telling me this,’ or any of that sensible shit, okay?”

I heard the distant thunk of a cork coming out of a wine bottle. “Just tell me, love.”

So I told him, about Lynne’s note and Gillian’s no-babies and Peter’s infertility. In his momentary silence I heard everything I’d been thinking. I missed him with a sudden ferocity.

“Well,” he said slowly. “That makes everything look a little different, doesn’t it?”

“Does it what,” I said, a pressure slowly lifting from my chest. “Now we know. Peter can’t possibly be Rana’s father. He can’t be. So…”

“Who the hell is? That is, indeed, now the question. It’s a long time ago now, I can’t even remember who she was seeing. But no. If there’d been someone, we would have been talking about him at the time. If it wasn’t Peter, then it was someone we didn’t know about.”

I sighed, and listened to him drink. I could see him, sitting in a corner of his couch with his feet up, his hair falling over his eye, his forehead slightly creased. Gods. “I guess it doesn’t really matter. It’s just… I really thought it was true, Glen. I thought I knew. And I guess I thought… even if he was married to his stupid wife, being Rana’s father would… tie him to Laura. They’d be a family. I feel like, fucking hell, I feel like I lost something. I know it’s stupid. You can tell me it’s stupid.”

He laughed, softly. I could picture that too. “It’s not stupid, Hera, don’t be dumb. Mysteries we might never know the answers to are simply unacceptable.” I heard him hesitate. “I miss you, you know. I’ll be down soon.”

 

Over my first few weeks living with Laura, I got to know her new boyfriend, Ben. To my enormous and genuine surprise, he turned out to be a total cock.

She’d met him at the Gallery, when I’m guessing he came in to find some art to match his couch. He would have been Something Big in the City if we’d had that kind of city. So yes, he had money, but Laura had access to plenty of men with money if she was patient. I couldn’t see what had made her pick him. It never crossed my mind that he might have picked her.

He was certainly keen on her. Rather too much. She brought him to the Carnarvon a couple of times, so he’d understand that she ran this club and sometimes she had to work nights, and she wouldn’t be able to see him. She kept him well away from the House, though. And actually, now I think about it, she pretty much kept him away from our house as well, and away from Rana.

He was possessive. Controlling. He often rang wanting to know where she was. Sometimes, if they were at the bar or at a party and she was talking to a man, Ben would come and stand behind her, lowering over her. Once, when he found her friendly-snogging a guy at a party, he actually physically dragged her away. Tiny things seemed to make him unreasonably angry. None of us could understand why the hell she put up with it.

She came into the kitchen late one morning while I was making coffee. “I was thinking,” she said very casually, “that I might send Rana down to stay with my mother for a couple of weeks. She’d old enough now, and Mum’s always complaining that she doesn’t see enough of her.”

I hadn’t heard that, to be honest. What I’d noticed the couple of times I’d met Laura’s mum was her seeming a bit uncomfortable around Rana, as if she thought the kid was a Changeling or something. She’d raised Laura: you’d have thought she’d be used to it.

I poured my coffee and leaned on the bench, watching her. “Really? Why now?” Fuck it. “Because of Ben?”

She frowned at the coffee machine. “Well, I won’t deny the child sometimes… cramps my style with The Gentlemen. But Ben’s okay with her. It would be nice, though, if I didn’t have to worry about her the weekend of the MRH party. That promises to be quite the do. I’m really glad you and Glen are going to be there. I’d be so intimidated otherwise.”

“Like fuck you would, Laura. You’ll eat them alive.” Ben worked for MRH, which meant he worked for Michael Rogers, one of the country’s richest men. Laura had managed to wangle us invitations to the enormous fuck-off company party he threw every year. I’d only ever seen pictures of him in the news. It would have been understandable if Laura was nervous about it, but she wasn’t. Not Laura.

“You’re trying to change the subject,” I told her sternly, or as sternly as I could manage. “I think you don’t think Rana’s safe around Ben. And I wouldn’t blame you, because I don’t think you are.”

“What the hell, Hera? I can take care of myself.”

“Really?” I put my coffee down and grabbed her arm. She flinched back, but I held her, and pushed up the sleeve of her black satin dressing-gown. On the back of her forearm, a little round bruise was blooming. I rolled her arm, and there were four more, slightly smaller, on the pale skin just above her wrist. “Then what the fuck is this?”

She pulled away from me, eerily calm. “Hera, trust me. Please trust me. I’m not in over my head, I promise. We’ve not yet reached the day when I can’t handle some stripy-shirted ex-Christ’s boy who still thinks his Mercedes makes people think he has a massive cock, not just that he is one.”

I wavered. She seemed so very sure. Ben made my skin want to climb right off my body, but her being in a relationship she didn’t want to be in made no sense. “Do you have a plan?”

“Hera, darling, I always have a plan. Sometimes I don’t realise what it is until I start doing it, but it’s always there somewhere, the Plan. When are you picking up Glen from the airport?”

I looked at my watch, which it turned out I wasn’t wearing, and then at the clock on the coffee machine. “Shit, in about an hour.”

She grinned at me. “Better get changed then. And then changed again. And then do your makeup, and decide that’s too obvious and take it all off again.”

“Fuck you,” I said companionably. “It’s only Glen. But it will be good to see him again-”

“And by ‘see’ you mean ‘fuck’.”

“Pot kettle, bitch.”

“Hey, I’m not fucking Glen. I’ll leave that to you. He’s not my type.”

“What, rich and dumb?”

“These days I like my men like I like my coffee. Rich, smooth, and taken at my convenience.”

I rinsed my mug in the sink and sighed heavily. “Oh Laura. You’ve changed. I remember when you used to drink instant.”

I made her spill coffee all over her dressing-gown, which I took as a Win. I didn’t often get them.