The next couple of years were actually pretty good for me. That summer, Brenda was written out and I lost that job, but my luck just kept playing out. Someone had left a kid hanging around the set on my last few days, and I spent some time amusing him. His father, as it turned out, was looking for someone to help host a children’s program over the holidays. He asked me to audition, and I got it. When that came to an end, he introduced me to a friend of his. That guy was looking for a new character to introduce into an Australian drama that had been running for a couple of years. They wanted to bring in a new station hand, a Kiwi. They were after a pretty, down-to-Earth woman who could ride a horse and was comfortable around animals. What with my having grown up on a farm, I was pretty much what they were looking for. I flew over and auditioned, and I got that too. It was an incredible piece of luck. I just kept being in the right place at the right time.
Anyway, by the time Rana was six months old, I was moving to Sydney. It was harder being further away, and I still didn’t seem to be able to put down roots anywhere else like I had with the Carter Club. But it was also easier: we filmed intensively for months, and then I had months off. I had to be pretty careful with money, but I could come home every summer. On the up side, also, when I was in Australia I never thought about Patrick. I never had a day when I felt like I could walk round a corner and just run into him. It was losing a weight I hadn’t really been aware I was still carrying, even in Auckland.
Being gone for so long, every time I went home I could see things that had changed. And it wasn’t just Rana growing and Laura getting back on her feet. Glen and Gillian both finished their degrees. He moved to Wellington, so I saw even less of him, and she went teaching. Rana seemed to spend about half her time with Peter and Gillian, who adored her. Richard and Darren both started working. There was no reason any of them should have been around uni any more – except Peter, who was still finishing his post-grad – but the ones who stayed in Christchurch just never seemed to move on. And they kept their roles in the rituals, which should surely have caused more bitching and carping than it did. Glen and I had both been replaced, but there didn’t seem to be so much as a murmur that anyone should take over from Peter and Laura. Maybe it just seemed unthinkable. They’d made their gods their own.
The next year, Peter finished at uni, and he and Gillian moved to Akaroa where she’d been teaching. Once Peter started working they bought a ridiculous house where we could all go for barbeques and hang out all weekend through the summer. Those days were glorious, especially when Glen was down on holiday.
Meanwhile, I was more secure in my own role on the show, and it was getting to the stage where people would recognise me on the street, in Australia at least. Glen shifted to Foreign Affairs and managed to swing himself a couple of working trips over. And I started having an affair with one of my co-stars.
It began by accident, of course, like these things always do. I knew he was married, though we never saw his wife on set and she didn’t come with us when we were on location. Stephen’s wife was more an abstract concept than a person. I can’t blame the acting thing: he played the love interest of one of the main women. We didn’t even have all that many scenes together, and none that were intimate. But we hit it off. When we all went out for drinks, we’d find ourselves sitting together and chatting more and more. Then a couple of times we sort of forgot to take the others with us, or got separated during the evening. Perfectly natural.
By the time I actually kissed him, it had been coming for a while. It couldn’t really have been more obvious if it had driven up in an ice-cream truck with the chimes playing. I apologised, he kissed me back, we fogged up all the windows in the taxi on the way back to my flat, and then we pretty much wrecked said flat by having sex all over it.
In the morning, I made him actually talk to me about it. That, he clearly hadn’t been expecting. I told him I didn’t expect him to leave his wife, and I didn’t want him to do that. I told him about Glen, which rather surprised him. When I made the offer, Stephen agreed that yes, he would quite like to keep having sex with me on an uncommitted casual basis. I couldn’t work out why he seemed quite so disconcerted by the whole conversation. Things had been like this my whole adult sexual life. Still, it all seemed to be working out okay, so I wasn’t going to complain. He was lovely. I liked being with him, and I felt safe with him.
Which makes it kind of interesting that we kept on taking more chances. A couple of weeks later our relationship was an open secret on set. A couple of weeks after that a photo appeared in one of the women’s magazines: Stephen and I having breakfast in a waterfront café, heads together, laughing. It was accompanied by a few stills from the show, anything they could find with Stephen and I both in the same shot with any kind of significant facial expression.
The implication was clear: we were having an affair. The fact that it was true didn’t make me any less indignant. The show’s publicist was pretty ripped too. Yes, the attention was great, but a divorce would be pretty catastrophic in our family-oriented target audience.
I phoned Laura. Once she stopped laughing, or at least in the pauses between bouts of laughing, she was incredibly helpful. “Oh Hera, darling. Well done. Stephen Callahan is a hottie, if you like that tanned outdoorsy slightly disreputable look, which frankly is not the kind of admission that would get you kicked out of the Perving Association. Right. So. The publicity is good for the show, this particular publicity could end up very badly, especially if someone starts needling Stephen’s wife into thinking she could get a hefty divorce settlement and the cover of the Women’s Weekly. The story mustn’t go that way. But it would also be nice if the story didn’t go away completely. So. We need a distraction. I know just the man for the job.”
The next day, I outlined Laura’s idea to our publicist, though I let her think I’d come up with it myself. I never would have. I don’t know who could possibly have thought of this for themselves. Well, except Laura. It did all seem a bit vain.
Diane, the publicist, was really taken with the idea, asked me a few questions, and then started making phone calls. While I listened to her talk, I imagined her in the same room as Laura, and made a mental note to ensure that never happened.
I took Stephen aside and told him what was going to happen. He wasn’t happy about it, but his wife had been getting phone calls from journalists pretty much constantly, and he was willing to give it a go. Even though we were on set, someone got a photo of us having the conversation, looking serious and sad.
Three days later I left my flat and drove to the airport. The traffic was heavy and I wouldn’t have been able to tell if I was being followed. I met Glen in arrivals with a hug and a kiss, and we held hands while we went to pick up his bags. Possibly that was a bit much.
On the drive back into the city I kept looking behind me, watching to see if we were being watched. I circled the block before pulling in at Glen’s hotel.
The photos of us on the balcony were remarkably sharp and unobstructed for long-lens work. We could clearly be seen kissing. Glen looked very handsome, as he always did, without his shirt. Despite the obvious intimacy of the shots, there was nothing too salacious. Nothing that could get me into trouble with our target demographic. (Actually, there absolutely was, but we got to keep those ourselves.)
The accompanying story was full of nudge-nudge wink-wink about Hera Lawley’s mysterious New Zealand boyfriend. So handsome, so manicured and suit-wearing and briefcase-carrying. There were rumours he worked for our government in a “sensitive capacity”. I could attest to his sensitivity. And his capacity. A “friend of the couple” was quoted talking about how hard it was for them to have to be apart so much, how devoted they were to each other even so, how important it was for Hera to have friends to talk to. Friends like Stephen Callahan, who knew what it was like, what with how much he had to be away from his wife.
The effects for me were mixed. My utter refusal to talk to the media about my relationship played very well, especially when there were other “sources” happy to do it for me. The show’s stars got to come out and say how much they deplored the magazines’ intrusion into my private life, and how dreadful it all was. Our ratings went up. I got a pay rise out of it.
I lost Stephen.
Partly it was because his wife put her foot down. She was perfectly happy with them both having entirely separate lives. She was not happy about being publicly humiliated. Mostly, though, it was about Glen. Stephen had known there was another man in my life, theoretically, but it wasn’t like he was around. Like Stephen’s wife was to me, Glen hadn’t been a real person to Stephen. Suddenly he was looking at photos of an expensively-groomed elegant man who, let’s not forget, looked like Hugh Grant, twisting his fingers in my hair, kissing the back of my neck. He couldn’t handle it.
He didn’t tell me any of that, of course, but he broke it off, and I knew. He was edgy, bitter and occasionally nasty. He started flirting quite hard with one of the other women in the cast until she told him where to shove it. He wanted to hurt me. I tried to get him to talk to me, to agree that we should be civil to each other, but he wouldn’t. It destroyed our friendship. He did calm down after a while: we had to keep working together after all, but it was an ugly few months. The summer gave us a break from each other, and he was much better after we came back.
That summer I also found out about Laura’s new living arrangement. In the first place I got it from Richard, so I was quite surprised when it turned out to actually be true. She’d moved in with a couple who had a daughter about the same age as Rana. That was unusual enough, but it made a certain kind of sense. She seemed to be trading working as a sort of nanny-cook-housekeeper for her room and board. I expressed some doubt that any woman could be entirely at ease having Laura actually living under the same roof as her husband.
Richard laughed. “She’s fine about it. As long as Laura’s careful to spend as much time with her as she does with her bloke.”
I frowned. “But why would that… I mean, is Laura sleeping with him? And his wife’s, what? Turning a blind eye to stay friends?”
“Oh Hera. You’ve met Laura, right? She’s sleeping with both of them. I don’t know exactly what the arrangements are, if they alternate or they all pitch in together at once, but it’s a three-way.”
I raised an eyebrow at Darren, who nodded quietly. “It’s true. Seems unlikely, yeah, but Richard isn’t shitting you. About this. Right now.”
I frowned, and drank some more while I thought about it. Yes, Laura had slept with couples before, but she’d never had a relationship that way. It seemed awfully fraught and complicated. Surely someone had to feel like they were missing out. I couldn’t help thinking that the wife surely must be unhappy, and just covering it up to keep everyone else happy. After all, if it was good for the kids – being too little to understand – and obviously good for her husband, that’s what you’d do, right? Keep your head down and your mouth shut. And Laura wouldn’t even notice. As much as I loved her, I knew she could be a little bit myopic about other people’s feelings. And I thought she probably genuinely wouldn’t understand how difficult it would be for any woman to share with someone as… naturally and confidently attractive as Laura. She didn’t even know she did it.
I should have been happy for my friend, to have found herself a situation that worked out this well for her. It just didn’t seem right.
I was grateful Laura had the support, though, when the next piece of news came along. Peter and Gillian decided to get married. We were all a bit surprised, to be honest. Nobody bothered getting married any more. We would have expected it if he’d stayed with Lynne: she’d have pushed him into it, the whole huge tacky society wedding. Gillian I couldn’t see pushing Peter into anything he didn’t want to do, and why would he want to get married?
Laura seemed remarkably unbothered by the whole thing. The only thing she complained about was not being able to be Peter’s best man. It made sense, really: she was clearly his best friend. If she’d been male, there’d have been no question about it. Instead he chose Glen, with Darren as a groomsman to number up against Gillian’s bridesmaids, and Laura was relegated to making occasional suggestions about fabrics and place-settings. Nobody was trying to humiliate or sideline Laura, it just seemed to be playing out that way.
She never complained, though, even to me. She smiled and laughed and never grimaced even at the most excessive of the twee. And the weekend before the wedding she took all the guys to a strip club.