The following morning, Hapu arrived later than he usually did and then struggled to stay awake while Heni sat talking with him.
“What is it with you today?” she asked at last. “Am I really so boring that you need to close your eyes when I tell you about my new gown?”
“No, no,” said Hapu in-between yawns. “I don’t know what it is. I went to bed a little later than usual last night but maybe I’m coming down with something or it could be the weather. I always get tired easily when it is muggy like this.”
“Maybe. My sister couldn’t stay awake this morning at breakfast either. She said the same thing. However, she’s got an excuse; she’s a potgirl after all so her body is more sensitive to the temperature. You, on the other hand, should be more resilient.”
“Seni is tired too?”
“Yes, so you won’t be able to invite her to play Monopoly with us today and then side with her once again so that I lose.”
“To be honest, I don’t think I could stay awake for a whole game of Monopoly.”
“I know. Maybe I’m being too hard on you. Why don’t you put your head on my lap and have a little snooze… no, don’t resist, we’ll be married soon and we can do this every night…”
Hapu did actually doze off on Heni’s lap as she stroked his hair, the first act of real intimacy that he had allowed and one that had made her suspect that a proposal must surely be coming soon. When he woke up though, he made his excuses and returned home where he then slept for several hours, waking up as the sun was starting to set in the west. He then had several excruciating hours of waiting until the time when all the Ankhkhaf household retired, before dressing in black once again and making his way over the garden wall, across to the banana palm, up its trunk and in through the window. This time, when he came in, Seni was already wide awake, her dark eyes sparkling in the flickering candlelight. They did not kiss on the lips, only the forehead as friends should, although, once again, those kisses lingered far longer than was appropriate for a purely platonic relationship.
They fell into talking about Seni’s future in the temple. She told him about the training that she had received, that all potgirls were expected to memorise lengthy prayers and repeat them on behalf of the devotees who would come and leave generous donations for the priests. She told him about the room that she had visited where the potgirls lived, the ornately-carved stone shelf on which the vases with their human occupants stood. And as she spoke, tears welled in her eyes and she struggled to get her words out.
“Seni, what’s the matter? Why are you crying?”
“Oh Hapu,” she wept, “when I think of it… it is too terrible. I know that it is my fate, my destiny and a great, great honour, but I do not want to go there, I really don’t. To think of spending my life just standing on a shelf repeating prayers ad infinitum, with no friends, no family, no joy, no sunshine, no…”
She broke down completely and her head started to convulse as the tears flowed down her face. Without thinking, Hapu when over to her and hugged her tightly. “Don’t worry my dearest friend, it will be alright, I promise you, I’ll do something, I don’t know what but something…”
But she did not hear and instead merely cried in his arms, her tears wetting his shoulder as they soaked into his tunic.
Eventually, they dried up, the sniffling stopped and Seni whispered, “I’m alright now, truly I am. I just need to pray to the goddess more. Thank you, thank you so much, you’ve been a great help, you’re a wonderful friend, you truly are.”
Hapu stepped back and, taking out a handkerchief, wiped the tears from the young potgirl’s face. He smiled at her and she smiled back. And then, a look of absolute horror passed over her face.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
Seni darted her eyes to the right and he turned. No word of explanation was needed.
“I’ve been standing there for a full five minutes,” said Teo, Seni’s maid and dearest companion. “I couldn’t bear to break up your embrace, no matter how wrong it may be.”
“How did you know?” asked Seni. “You normally sleep at this time.”
“Hmm, let me think. Ever since he started coming to this house, there’s been a distinct change in you. A good one, it is true, but a change nonetheless. Before you were despondent and sad; now you seem full of the joys of spring. And then this morning you struggle to wake up and spend most of the day dozing, whilst he arrives at the door looking like the walking dead and spending half the day snoring on your sister’s lap? Then I realised what was going on. Then I knew that, despite your piety, what was causing the change in outlook was not excitement at your imminent entry into the temple when that trollope gets married.”
“Teo! I’ve told you before; she’s my sister! You shouldn’t say things like that!”
“A true sister would look after you and love you better, but she only cares about herself. You too young man, you Casanova! One Ankhkhaf daughter is not enough for you; you want to seduce both of them!”
“It’s not like that, I…”
“I know exactly what you are! I’ve heard of men like you; men with an obscene fascination for potgirls. Will you have the same done to her sister once you’ve wed her? Not that it’d be a bad thing mind, it might bring that cow down a peg or two, but I’ll not have you hurting my mistress, no, that I will not! Coming in here so you can kiss and do worse to a totally defenceless and innocent young potgirl, you…”
“Teo, it is not like that at all!” whispered Seni. “As you are my dearest friend, believe me! Hapu has had ample opportunity to do whatever he wants to me multiple times and he has acted the gentleman throughout. Apart from anything, I think he is too shy to molest a girl, that is one of the reasons why he is such an absolute darling, but there are many more. He is kind, caring, he listens to me and he knows exactly what to say!”
“By Holy Mother Isis, this is worse than I thought! You are in love, Miss Seni, you are totally besotted with him!”
“No! No! We’re not in love, we’re just friends!”
“Yes, Miss Teo, just friends!”
“Just friends my arse! I can see it in your eyes… and his. By Ra! You do not even realise it yourselves, but you are smitten, the pair of you! That is so terrible, so awful… and yet… yet so wonderful at the same time! Oh Miss Seni, this changes everything! I am so happy for you, you who deserve joy more than anyone and who has continually been afflicted by hardships! This is marvellous news, I feel like dancing with joy, I…”
“Shh! You’ll wake the others!”
Teo quietened down immediately and nodded her head. “No, we can’t have that; it would solve nothing. I came here today to expose you and get you banished from this house, but seeing the joy in my mistress’s eyes, I cannot do that now. How this will end I can’t say, probably in tears, but I shall not be the one to force the hand of fate. However, you need to promise me, Mr. Nebet, that you will not mistreat nor do ill by my mistress, for if you do, I shall hunt you down and kill you, honestly I shall, for she is my life and…”
“Miss Teo, I promise, I promise! Have no fear, I could never do ill to her, she is too precious to me.”
“Very well, and promise me one more thing too.”
“What is that?”
“That you shall not marry Miss Heni. You do not love her and she does not… can not love you, and if you two were together whilst Miss Seni spent her life in the temple alone, then it would break her heart. And I would have to kill you, did I mention that?”
“Teo, you cannot expect Hapu to…” Seni interjected, but Hapu was resolved.
“No, I promise. I shall not wed Heni, but I need to keep up the courtship as it is the only thing that allows us to be together.”
Teo nodded and then approached to kiss her mistress on the cheek. “Go girl,” she whispered, smiling, “seek happy nights for happy days!” and then, with a passing glance at Hapu, she left them all alone.
In the candlelight, Hapu gazed at Seni and Seni gazed at Hapu. “We’re not smitten are we?” he said.
“Not at all. Just friends.”
And then, he leaned his head in towards hers and, cradling the back of her hair with his hand, pressed his lips against her. Again, their mouths opened and their tongues explored one another intimately. This time though, she did not withdraw.
And so Hapu entered a period of absolute bliss. By day he would visit one Ankhkhaf sister, pretend to court her and be interested in her, whilst at night he would creep into the room of the other and they would talk for hours with the connivance of her maid. They would talk and they would kiss but they never did any more, even though Hapu’s rod ached to do so and, the moment he got into his bed, he would bring himself to ecstasy within seconds, the image of Seni’s heavenly face hovering before him in his mind’s eye.
Some days, Heni would agree to Seni being brought down to join them and she would stand there in her pot whilst they drank tea or played a game and, whenever Heni’s back was turned, she would wink at Hapu and they would both smile at the secret that they shared.
But even though the period was like a perfect summer’s day, over it hung a cloud. At the back of both of their minds was the awareness that it was only temporary, that it could not last and that the ending would be cruel, for it would mean Hapu unable to visit the Ankhkhaf residence and, after Heni’s marriage, Seni being sentenced to this life and the afterlife in the gloomy confines of the Isis temple.
And then, one day most unexpectedly, the clouds broke and the rain gushed down in torrents.
Bleary-eyed, Hapu knocked on the door of the Ankhkhaf residence. As usual, a servant let him in and showed him to the sitting room. As usual, Heni was sitting there waiting for him, a smile on her face, wearing a revealing and expensive gown. Unlike usual, next to her sat her dad and, next to Mr. Ankhkhaf sat someone else.
“Good morning, Hapuneseb,” said Unasankh Ankhkhaf.
“Good morning, Hapu,” said his own father.
“Dad… err… Mr. Ankhkhaf… g-g-good morning.”
“Please sit, Hapuneseb,” continued Unasankh Ankhkhaf. “Now, I know that seeing us here today is not what you expected; instead you were looking forward to more time together with my daughter Hentmereb here. However, that is why we need to talk with you today.”
“Yes Hapu. You’ve been courting with Miss Ankhkhaf for more than a month now and, if you continue visiting this house without making a marriage proposal, then it will become questionable in terms of propriety and people will begin to talk. Now I know that you have always been a trifle shy around young ladies, but a month is more than enough to know if you are attracted or not and, what is more, the festival of Sokar is almost upon us, recognised since ancient times as the ideal time for a a wedding to take place. So, I must ask you to make a decision, son, and, I must say, Miss Ankhkhaf is certainly a charming and well-bred lady whom, if I were your age, I would not hesitate to propose to.”
“Lord Nebet, you are too kind!”
Hapu sat there. He looked from his father to Heni, from Heni to her father and from Mr. Ankhkhaf back to his dad. This was the moment of truth; this was when it would all end, when the greatest friendship of his life would be destroyed and only an abyss of misery could be seen before him. He had promised never to marry Heni – a girl whom he would have stopped seeing after the first day under normal circumstances – and he would keep that promise, but to do so would mean that his name would be mud to the Ankhkhaf family and that Heni would marry someone else and Seni would be taken from him into the temple forever. He pictured his beloved, entombed in her pot on that dark and dusty shelf amongst all the others, chanting prayers for all eternity, that joyful smile and sparkling eyes dimming with a crushing and hellish life. No! No, he could not let that happen! Yet what could he do? One couldn’t marry a potgirl after all, could one… could one?
He turned to Unasankh Ankhkhaf. “Sir, if I am to understand you correctly, you desire me to marry your daughter?”
“Nothing would make me happier, Hapuneseb.”
“And Father, if I am to understand you correctly; you do not want me to leave this house today without proposing first to Miss Ankhkhaf.”
“That is correct, Hapu.”
“So be it. I shall do it, but under one condition. I would like the whole family gathered here as I do it.”
“That is a strange request, but I shall honour it, Hapuneseb.” Unasankh Ankhkhaf clicked his fingers and the servant waiting by the door came over. “Man! Bring my wife here and also Miss Senisonbe!”
Around a minute later, Mrs. Ankhkhaf came into the room and, a confused look upon her face, sat down on the couch beside her daughter. Soon after that, Teo entered carrying Seni in her pot. She laid her down carefully on the small table by the couch and then stood back looking as bemused as the lady of the house. Hapu stood up and addressed the room:
“Today my father and Mr. Ankhkhaf have asked me if I am prepared to marry Miss Ankhkhaf and that, if she accepts, they will too. I am willing to marry her. Therefore, I have brought you all here so that you may witness my proposal and her response.”
Then, turning to the small table by the couch, he went down on one knee and said quietly yet firmly, “Senisonbe Ankhkhaf, do you agree to become my lawfully wedded wife?”
Seni’s eyes lit up. “I do,” she replied, tears of joy running down her face.