Moving back home was something I thought over for a long time. I talked about it with Laura too, of course, and she agreed. Neither of us could see my show surviving more than one more season. That last season would be, as they always were, bloody awful. Best to gracefully depart before that happened.
So a couple of months after Peter and Gillian’s wedding I was back. The plan was to put out a few feelers with people I knew in local theatre while my name was still recognisable. I really wanted to get back into live theatre, and I could afford to do that, at least for a while.
My first sign something was wrong was that no-one came to pick me up from the airport. It was a Sunday: no reason Laura couldn’t have bullied someone into it, even if she couldn’t make it herself. It kind of upset me, to be honest, like they’d forgotten about me.
Anyway, I took a taxi to The House, which wasn’t exactly on, but I was too tired and grumpy by that stage to really care. Walking in, I noticed there’d been a few changes since I was last there. Most noticeably, the lounge was full of the old couches from the Common Room. They were a bitch to sit on and a couple of decades too orange even back then, but if you pushed them together they made a pretty comfortable bed.
More surprisingly, Laura was there, in the kitchen, on the phone. Rana was sitting at the table, drawing. I sat beside her, not mad enough in either sense to disturb Laura’s call.
“Hello, Aunty Hera.”
“Hello, habiba. What’s up?”
“Nobody can find Aunty Marianne.” The girl’s voice was tinged with a respectful awe. “I looked under all the beds and behind the fridge. She wasn’t there.”
I bit my lip, anxious. Marianne had gone missing before. She got an idea in her head and wandered off, came back a couple of days later, and had no idea why everyone was so upset. Even Richard had really stopped worrying about it. So why the concern this time? “How long has she been hiding, Hera?”
Her blue eyes got big and she chewed on the end of her felt while she thought. Sometimes it was hard to remember just how little she was. “She was gone when Laura got home from work on Friday. She didn’t turn up here on Saturday.”
She’d missed a Ritual. I couldn’t remember that happening before.
Laura turned, her fingers tangled in the phone cord, caught sight of me, and grimaced. “Sorry,” she mouthed, before she went back to her conversation. “Yes,” she said, calm but insistent, “I understand that. And we don’t call you every time she’s late home. But she missed an appointment, and that’s really not like her. Could you just… Thank you. We’re very grateful.”
She hung up, and took one of the other chairs at the table, running a hand across her daughter’s hair. “Sorry,” she said again. “I forgot you were coming today. Marianne’s gone off again, and I don’t know… This time I just…” She shrugged.
“You have a bad feeling about this?”
She flashed me a quick smile. “Something like that, yeah. Anyway. We’d better get over to Richard’s. The police are sending someone round. And I could hardly have them here.”
“What with all the stolen couches?”
She looked at me blankly for a minute, then laughed. “Oh, no. They redecorated the Student Union. They were throwing those out anyway, honestly. We just repurposed them. Well, no, they’re still couches, obviously… We saved other people from having to look at them. It’s a public service, really.”
At Richard’s, we found Darren and Peter. They were mostly sitting around in awkward silence, and our arrival didn’t really help. For people who saw each other all the time, there seemed to be an awful lot of uncomfortable. Laura’s gaze skittered to and from Richard the same way Peter’s did from her.
He was rescued by Rana climbing into his lap with a level and serious, “Hello Peter.” Equally seriously, she started showing him her picture.
Empty-armed, Laura went to Richard, and if I hadn’t been looking for it I probably wouldn’t have noticed the slight hesitation before she hugged him. “There’s no sign of her at The House, love. The police are sending someone around, okay? She’s going to be pretty pissed off about that when she gets home.”
Richard gave her a brief, tight smile, and it was obvious he didn’t find the comfort she offered believable. “Thanks.”
Darren stepped into the awful hanging silence. “She hasn’t phoned. We checked a few places she goes sometimes, up on the Hills, down at the beach, bars and stuff. There’s no sign of her.” He paused briefly, and then said, “She must have found somewhere new to go be moody.”
Richard got up and walked out. Through the windows we could see him sit down on the front porch. We all felt bad, but the tension in the room eased considerably. “This time is different?” I asked. “Why?” I really felt the lack of Glen. He was the one who would have known.
In his absence, it fell to Darren. “I dunno, usually when she wanders off she’s been really hyper. She goes out drinking and dancing and ends up wandering off to commune with nature, turns up a couple of days later all surprised that people are worried because she just never thought. This time, before she went, she was really…”
“Bleak,” Laura supplied. “Dark and bitter, the way she got sometimes.”
“Gets,” Peter said quietly. “Gets. Not got.”
We set a new benchmark for Awkward in a Silence.
Which at least meant we heard the footsteps as the cops came up the driveway. They stopped outside and one of them started talking to Richard. The other, a woman, dropped back, looking around. After a minute she was casually looking through the window at us. She had her head cocked to one side, as if something was bothering her she couldn’t quite put her finger on. I knew the feeling. She looked vaguely familiar.
Oh crap. “Laura,” I said quietly. “Look. Isn’t that the woman who interviewed you when Samuel died?”
She looked, and made a visible effort to work it out. “Maybe. Yes. Yes, I think it is. That’s a coincidence. She won’t remember us, at least. I mean, how many people must she interview in a couple of years?”
Given the general mood, I decided not to mention that none of those other people were Laura. She tended to leave an impression.
They did look for Marianne a bit, but it wasn’t the cops who found her. It wasn’t us, either: it was some poor kids out playing with a boat in the river. She’d fetched up under a bridge not far from uni. Her body had sort of wedged, completely out of sight.
Cause of death was drowning. There was a big bruise on her head the coroner said was “perimortem”, which seemed to be Latin for “fuck knows”. She’d been drinking. Best theory, she’d got pissed, fallen off a bridge and hit her head going into the river, and drowned. It was all theory, though. Nobody would ever know.
Richard took it hard. We tried to look after him, but he was all long periods of black silence punctuated by sudden burst of terrifying rage. Into that void, Laura stepped. She was the one who got in touch with Marianne’s family while they were down for the inquest. They were going to have her funeral in Wellington, of course, where they were from, but Laura managed to talk them into having her sort of Lie in State at the undertakers’ before they flew her body up, so we could drop by and pay our respects. Then she was the one who smiled and fluttered and teared up appropriately to persuade the undertakers to let us do that the way we wanted. She even presented it as an issue of Religious Freedom, and I still don’t know how much she meant it.
The evening of Marianne’s wake, I went and picked up Laura from work. I’d rented a car; with all the running-around I had to do, it was just too inconvenient to be without. Most of that should have been related to my work, but I’d already ferried Rana around a few times. It was a Saturday, so Gillian was looking after her at their place while Laura did one of her days at the Gallery.
A few months back, the same guy who’d introduced her to Samuel had taken her on to fill in while one of his staff was away sick. She did so well he kept her on, though she only did a couple of days a week, because of Rana.
I made my way through the foyer, and then paused before the heavy glass doors to the main gallery. I could see Laura in there, with a customer. She was simply and elegantly dressed in a cream suit that hugged her arse, her hair in a neat French roll; just enough wisps escaping, just enough cleavage showing. She was showing him a massive painting that looked like the classic view of Santorini, except the sky was boiling with storm, heaving black clouds tinged with burgundy that stained the white walls beneath with bloody shadows.
Carefully, I pushed the door open enough so I could hear what she was saying. She was speaking with a deal of animation, her face alive and tilted up towards him, inviting him to share passion. “… subverting that tradition, and echoing back through the palettes of the Pre-Raphaelities, but also all the way back to the Venetians, Tintoretto and Titian, works that make you uncomfortable, where you can almost see the picture you were expecting underneath, and in the way is all this… pain and darkness. You see that, don’t you, Dan?”
“Yes,” he said, not taking his eyes from her face. “Pain and darkness. It’s beautiful. Strong, though. I’m not sure how it would sit at home, a work of that obvious strength.”
She smiled, and though I couldn’t see it I knew her lashes had lowered, and… well, I could picture her facial expression. I’d seen it enough times. “You’re right, of course. It has strength. But I think you can handle it.”
When she went to run her fingers up his arm, she turned enough to see me in the doorway. So I didn’t get to find out if she had a special room for dragging them off into, or if they went through the whole Dinner Dance first. It was always possible she just sold them the thousand-dollar painting and let it go at that… but not this time, I didn’t think.
Anyway, she waved me in and I shook hands with Dan, and they sealed the deal in a more credit-cardly fashion and he went on his way. I figured he’d be back.
“You seem to have found your vocation,” I suggested.
She looked startled. “What, this? Well, it’s easy, but it’s not… what I want to be doing. It’s just a job. What I really need is to not have to work. It gets in the way. Anyway, we’re running late now, aren’t we? Come on, I’ll get changed in the car.”
I wasn’t sure how that was going to work, but I also wasn’t going to argue. She took her hair down as I pulled out, shedding hairpins all over my car. “Gods, that’s a relief. Keeping my hair up makes my neck hurt like a bitch.”
“Laura,” I said, as she wriggled out of her jacket, “could you put your seatbelt on? I’d hate for you to go through the windscreen on your way to a wake. It wouldn’t be right.”
She snorted, clearly incredulous, like I’d asked her to use some kind of Safety Armadillo. “That is never going to happen, darling. I’m obviously invincible. And if I put my seatbelt on I can’t-”
“Laura! Please, leave your shirt on. If you won’t get killed, someone else will. And I don’t want to be responsible for transporting your lethal cleavage.”
Laura laughed warmly, so pleased she did up her seatbelt and kept her clothes on for the rest of the trip.
There were a few other cars already at the funeral home when we arrived. People were wandering in, carrying bags, not chatting much. I kept Laura company while she went over and soothed the feathers of the young guy who was keeping the place open for us. He looked like someone had set his tail on fire. I could see why he was so nervous. People kept going into the loos in street clothes and coming back out in costume.
Anyway, Laura thanked him profusely, did that hand on the arm thing, told him they wouldn’t be long and everything would be just fine. He sucked it up so he’d look cooler with her, and we went to get changed. I just wore a plain white dress now, not being Bastet any more, but with the brooch Laura had made to mark ex-Committee members. Still, when I knelt to tie the Tyet knot in her girdle, it was all so familiar, washing back over me like no time had passed at all.
Then we went into the room where Marianne’s coffin stood. She’d been in the river a couple of days, and then there’d been an autopsy, so it was a closed casket. There was no sense of her presence at all, though that wooden box was weighty.
There were a lot of faces in the room I didn’t recognise. People who’d been House members were Committee now, wearing masks I’d known sit over other faces. The new Anubis was taller and narrower than Glen. Darren would be the next to go: Laura had told me he’d be giving up Thoth at the end of the year. We tried to drip-feed the replacements to give some continuity. Still, Peter and Laura didn’t look like they were going anywhere soon.
The air was heavy with incense, and while we couldn’t put things in her coffin, lots of people had brought gifts. One of the younger girls was quietly playing a lap harp in the corner: not really appropriate, but a lot pleasanter than a sistra.
Peter was already there, sitting in one of the two chairs. Sitting in the other was Rana, who got up as soon as she saw her mother and came over to join us. She was wearing a simple white shift and a grave expression. Laura took her hand and they walked together to join Peter. Laura sat next to him in the other chair, and Rana sat on her lap, her spine perfectly straight and her chin lifted. I’d seen that pose before. I had a little reproduction statue of Isis sitting with Horus on her knee. The child sat just the same way Rana was now, just as unnaturally.
A silence gradually settled over the room, and the new Anubis walked forward. He placed the balances on Marianne’s coffin, and turned to face Laura.
With utter detached calm she said, “Who seeks to pass over?”
There was the slightest waver in Anubis’s voice, but you could hardly blame the poor bastard. ” Marianne Bradburn comes. She seeks to pass from this life to the next.”
Peter raised a hand, and Anubis placed the little jar in one side of the scales. “She passes judgement. Her heart is light.”
Darren made Thoth’s notation in our Book of the Dead as Laura said, “She passes. Be welcome, Marianne. Go from our people, and be in peace hereafter.”
There was a tight, high sob somewhere in the room, and then Darren closed his book. “The passing is complete. The court is dismissed.”
It wasn’t, though: no-one really moved. Beers were passed around, as was appropriate to Nephthys, and Darren read some translations of hymns to the Lady of the Bed of Life. At some point during the evening, the reality of Marianne, her sadness and her mania, her darkness and impulsiveness, softened into the myth of Nephthys, of necessary destruction and comfort in death. It helped: I honestly think it did, even for Richard.
Richard accompanied Marianne’s body to Wellington, where Glen and Charles took care of him. They all went to her funeral. I wished I could have been there – it had been too long since I’d seen Glen, for a start – but I had to go back to Sydney. I’d over-stayed as it was. Leaving this time was harder than it had been for a couple of years. Still, soon I’d be coming back to stay.