The gods were angry. A terrible plague was rife in the Kingdom, and now the Queen was dying. It was whispered that a curse lay upon the land and the people were afraid.
‘Ally, are you busy?’
I had been preparing my equipment for that morning’s shoot when the phone rang, but I was happy to hear my sister’s voice.
‘Not too busy to talk to you. I’ve been leaving messages all week.’
‘I’ve been working on something.’
When Elaine became immersed in a project she went around in a state of absentmindedness, passing her best friends in the street without seeing them!
‘I’m not sure yet. I’ve been told there’s a package waiting for me at customs. I’ve got to go in and sign for it. Apparently, it’s too valuable to let go without filling in all kinds of forms.’
My clever sister was an Egyptologist, the brilliant author of several books on the subject, and a research adviser for at least two museums that I knew about. She was passionate about her work, so passionate that it had led to the breakdown of her marriage. Simon Norton had decided he wasn’t prepared to play second fiddle to a load of long dead mummies, and had found himself a tall, slender and very leggy blonde who was clearly very much alive.
‘Very mysterious. Do you know what it is?’
‘I’m not sure. I’ve been promised a couple of things so it might be either one. Both are equally interesting in their own way.’
‘Something for your exhibition?’
Elaine was preparing an exhibition at a prestigious museum in New York, where she lived. She had a small apartment overlooking Central Park. It was always untidy, littered with piles of her notes and anything she might be working on, which could be a piece of stone bearing inscriptions or paintings, or perhaps ancient manuscripts written in ink so faded they were barely decipherable. Elaine was known for being rather good at reading hieroglyphics and had gained quite a reputation amongst the staff of museums all over the world.
I stayed with her as often as I could manage-- she had given me a key so that I could come and go as I pleased. Since our father’s death and the sale of our family home in England a few months previously, I had been more or less on the move, living out of a suitcase most of the time and storing the rest of my personal stuff in Elaine’s spare bedroom. It suited me, because I travelled a lot in my work and spent most of my life in hotel bedrooms.
‘I might use it,’ she said in answer to my question. ‘We’ll see. How much longer are you staying in Paris, Ally?’
‘Oh, a couple of days, I should think. We’ve finished all but one last shoot for the magazine, but I want to take some pictures for myself. Artists on the Left Bank, that sort of thing.’
‘For your exhibition. You should have one, Ally. I know you make a good living as a fashion photographer, but some of your other stuff is wonderful. I loved those pictures you took when you were in London last summer – those kids living rough on the streets. One girl had the face of an angel.’
‘Don’t be deceived by her looks. She was one tough kid,’ I said and laughed. ‘Fashion photography for glossy magazines pays the rent. My other work is just for personal satisfaction.’
‘I’m not so sure about that,’ she said. ‘Besides, if you stopped living in hotels and got your own place you might be able to afford to ease up a bit. You could use your share of Dad’s money to put down a deposit on an apartment. There’s one going near me…’
‘You could have your spare room back then.’
‘You know I didn’t mean that, Ally. I love having you to stay, but you need somewhere of your own – roots.’
‘Yes, I know, love. Maybe I’ll take a look when I get back. It would be nice to buy something near you. We might get to spend more time together.’
‘That’s the idea,’ Elaine said and there was a slightly wistful note in her voice. ‘I often wish I’d spent more time with Dad. He always said he was busy and we’d plan things for the future.’
‘I know. We none of us thought time would run out that fast…’
Michael Rowlinson had been a successful businessman for most of his life, taking care of his daughters single-handed, because our mother died soon after I was born. He’d had a succession of housekeepers and minders for us, of course, but he had given us love in abundance and he had never remarried. He was always too busy for that – but not too busy to keep in touch. He had been so proud of Elaine, just as I was, but he had taken an interest in my work too.
‘You take after me,’ he’d told me once. ‘You like life and being with people. Elaine is studious like her mother. Helen could have done anything – been a brilliant scientist if she hadn’t fallen in love and given it all up to have kids. She was going to write a book when you and Elaine were grown up.’ He’d sighed and looked sad, and I knew that he had never ceased to mourn the wife he loved. ‘It was a shame she never lived to see it, Ally.’
‘Yes, I wish she had,’ I’d told him, giving him a quick hug. ‘I’ve often wished I’d known her, Dad, but we’ve had you and each other. We’ve been lucky.’
‘I’m the lucky one,’ he’d replied. ‘It’s been a satisfying life – making money to look after my girls.’
He’d always seemed to be rushing from one place to another, then, when he was fifty-six, he’d suddenly decided to retire and spend the rest of his life playing golf.
Since his death, I’d wondered if he’d somehow guessed he only had a couple of years left to him. The cancer had been swift, taking us all by surprise. I’d been on the verge of leaving college and Elaine had been going through the aftermath of her divorce. She was now thirty-three, and I was twenty-two. There had been a big gap between my sister and I, and perhaps the unexpected arrival of a second child had contributed to the heart problem, which had killed my mother at such a young age.
Losing Dad had hit both Elaine and I hard, bringing us up with a start. It had made us aware that life was fragile and could be lost all too quickly. Sometimes, I thought Elaine had taken it even harder than I – perhaps because she seemed to have settled for life without a husband or children, and that left her with only me and a few good friends. And her work of course. Work was very important to my sister.
‘I’ll see you the day after tomorrow,’ I told Elaine, realising that she was probably feeling a bit low. It wasn’t like her to call, especially if she was working. ‘We’ll look at the apartment together. And I have a couple of weeks free now – if you can manage it we can spend some quality time together.’
‘Yes, I would like that,’ she said, sounding more cheerful. ‘I’ve been working hard on the projects for the exhibition – and something else I’ve been researching – but I shall take a few days off and we’ll do something relaxing. Maybe even go away…’
‘That’s a promise,’ I told her. ‘I’d better go now or I’ll be late.’
‘Yes – and I want to collect that parcel. If it’s what I think it might be … but it probably won’t be authentic. Most people think they have something that is far more ancient than it really is, but I do have hopes…’
‘You are sounding very mysterious.’
‘I’ll tell you all about it when I see you. There’s really a curious story about this…’ the line crackled and she laughed. ‘Do you think someone is warning us we’ve talked enough? I’ll see you when you get back, Ally.’