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Dear Lula

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We do not suffer by accident

 

Getting on the right car mattered only to those who knew there was a right car, which was why, when Henry pointed to his car and said, I can fit four, it took less than thirty seconds for Mia, Mayra and Julia to get inside. Mia even threw her keys at Ned, offering him her car with just a: Just don’t adjust the fucking sit Ned, we’re the same height. Mary took the keys instead, though, and she was more than a head shorter than them, probably even two. Don’t let her drive it! As if Ned could ever stop her. Caroline realised she was expected to choose (Henry, Mia, Julia and Mayra vs. Ned, Mary, Frances and Hal), and wasn’t anywhere close to making a decision when Mayra opened the back-seat window and yelled: Get in, loser, we’re going hiking!

 

The drive itself had been somewhat anticlimactic, or maybe it was just that Caroline should’ve adjusted her expectations of road-trips with near-strangers at nine o’clock on a Saturday beforehand. It turned out to consist mostly of sleeping. Despite Mia’s complains, Henry had turned the music on (a carefully curated list) as soon as they’d reached the National Park, claiming they were Getting there, and Christ, don’t you wanna enjoy the views? But they did, especially the castles (they’d seen two, so far), especially Mayra, who had asked each time to stop for a Really, really quick visit, though no-one had bothered to answer her either time. Once they got to the meeting place, the others had already been there for some minutes, and Mary declared victory to the undeclared race. And then, it was time for the walk. That’s why they’d come here, though none of them remembered much how or why it had been decided (Julia did, it was she who’d said that she loved hiking and started talking about it with Ned and Hal, and then Hal had said, Have you been to the bit around Great Langdale? And Mayra, Are you talking about the Lakes? I love the Lakes, and Ned, We could plan something. And Mary had pretended to be interested for Ned’s benefit and then the whole thing had just planned itself). “The walk is not gonna take more than four hours total,” Hal said: He was in charge of the map—albeit virtual, and he was the only one who had done this particular hike before. Frances was excited they’d planned a healthy, harmless activity, but of course, she didn’t know that half of them had come for the afterwards, for the shared-rooms and bunk-beds and town-pubs.

The route was circular and quite striking from the beginning, though each enjoyed different details: Mayra was fascinated with everything old, taking in the bridges in ruins and the old farms she imagined were once inhabited by the likes of Heathcliff and Rochester; what Frances liked the most was the flora, she walked slowly, not caring about falling behind, and took mental note of all the flowers and plants she saw, marvelled at the ones she recognised and the ones she didn’t, even more if there was a butterfly or a ladybug on them; Ned didn’t stop saying Would you smell the fresh air!; and Caroline was, once she’d got over the fact that there were bugs, actual bugs, quite overtaken by the general view. Not like Hal, who kept taking pictures of the horizon with his huge Nikon, but the view as a whole in front of her: Being a city girl, it was the amount of green and orange and blue that always astonished her. “It’s so silent it’s creepy,” quipped Mia, “I feel like this is missing a motorway somewhere.” Mary caught up to Ned and took his hand, looking around her and, finally, happy to have come here. Henry started rolling a cigarette and Frances couldn’t help but to grunt softly, it didn’t matter that he said, It’s organic, and that it was true, Julia still laughed and was compensated with a smile from him, and Frances still resented him. Henry’s cheeks produced dimples when he smiled, making it the best feature of his asymmetrical face. Frances saw it now but couldn’t appreciate it: she had always been bad at hiding her disapproval, imagine now that it was so deep. Hal took a picture of her, which took her mind of the subject (she hadn’t forgotten about that image of Henry and Bel kissing on the top of the stairs—to her chagrin, flashes of his left hand right over her bum came back to her in the most unexpected moments and made her blush). Though the others saw it, and now Hal would be asked, for the rest of the weekend, to take pictures of them every half an hour—what a grave error of judgement on his part!

A little more than an hour in, some of them were already complaining, so Hal offered an alternative. Some of them could stay there, resting on a rock at the actual circuit, while those who cared to join him could take a short detour to a small lake a few yards from there. He was surprised to find that most of them wanted to come see it, though probably their motivation differed as much as their taste in the outdoors. He walked at the front of the line, the cross-country path being rather narrow, with Julia by his side (frustrated that Henry and Mia had decided to stay once she’d already agreed to go), and Mayra and Caroline closely behind them. Mary, Ned and Frances were a few steps behind, distracted by both mother nature and their own conversation. And although the three of them were engaged on a conversation regarding a film that had recently come out (but I don’t care if the film is good, he’s an abuser—But the film is not abusive, it’s just really good—But I don’t wanna give my money to him!—You’re not really, he’s been paid already) Frances (who, strangely, agreed with Mary more than Ned in this case, which is why she didn’t say anything), found herself increasingly omitted from the dialogue, each step being less looked at or expected to offer her views. Which turned out not to be so bad since, as it always happened with these two, the conversation turned gradually mushy (I’m sure you’re right, is how Ned ended half of his discussions with Mary, not so much out of conviction but of the knowledge that he’d be rewarded with her heart-stopping smile—Crawford smiles!). When they realised that Frances was a couple of yards behind them, and Caroline and the others barely visible at the front, it had already been a few minutes.

“Frances, are you all right?”

“Yes, just, my feet hurt. I think I’ll get back now.”

They seemed to believe her, so what was another little white lie? Really, she was being irrational: They were in love, her epiphany the other night (that she and Ned belonged together) had clearly been false. And anyway, the fact her heart ached didn’t mean that her feet didn’t too, even if so little in comparison. She let them go, saw them go, and once they disappeared behind the plants and the trees, she exhaled loudly and turned back. Not looking forward to being alone with Henry and Mia, she sat by a rock and closed her eyes, chin up, letting the cold air embrace the skin of her face. Instinctively, she took a hand to the cross hanging from her necklace and held it softly.

Caroline told all about her Tinder date to Mayra, who was fascinated and at the same time dismissive of it. “It’s just the first one, you’ll have better ones.” Caroline’s eyes turned tentatively to the front, hoping Hal and Julia could not hear them. Or that they did. Or that they didn’t. She hadn’t dared swipe either way, in the end, when Hal had appeared on her screen. It wouldn’t be fair to swipe left, since she actually found him attractive, and swiping right would have put her in an awful position either way: if they were not a match, it would mean that he was just another guy who was not interested in her after having met her—something her ego was not ready to take—and if they turned out to be a match: well, they would’ve turned out to be a match. At the end she had decided it was best to turn off the app, put the mobile some place she couldn’t reach it from her bed, and hope for Liam to be a bit more out of her system the next time Hal came out on her Tinder rotation. After that, she’d only opened the app when warned of a match, to regret the rashness of her actions that night and unmatch all those undesirable guys, mostly.

“Yes, you’re right, I’m not gonna meet him again.”

“What are you gonna tell him?” Mayra was excited again at the prospect of some hearty drama.

“Nothing, I’ll just ghost him, see?” She took her phone out, opened the app, and theatrically unmatched the match.

“Cold!” Mayra was nothing less than impressed.

Caroline too. She hoped they didn’t meet around uni. Hoped she’d made the right decision. After all, half the reason she had done the whole Tinder thing was to have a date and be caught in it by Liam, and she hadn’t yet.

Once they got to the lake, which was more like a pond and didn’t even have a name, but was, admittedly, beautiful, they decided to wait there for Ned and the girls. Hal saw Caroline looking intend on the horizon and took a picture of her. When she turned around and looked at him, he smiled and said: For your Tinder profile. And she didn’t turn red, but maybe burgundy. Luckily, she found the will to laugh, even if it was out of nervousness, and he laughed too. “Sod off.” They sat on a bench and he finally took the camera from around his neck. “Tired?” “Not yet.” After ten minutes, Mayra offered to go and look for the others. A couple of minutes later, they could imagine what must have happened when they heard yelling and laughing, which Mayra had confirmed later: She had interrupted Ned and Mary in a session of snogging, had tried to leave the scene discretely and had instead fallen on her arse, revealing her position and embarrassing all present. The three of them arrived laughing.

On the way back, they found Frances where they had left her, though her eyes were open and fixed on a small tome (the first of Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire). She joined them on their way back to the main hike, where Henry and Mia had fallen asleep, his head resting over her stomach. They made a beautiful picture, and so Hal took it.

 

Lunch was three hours later, once they’d walked back to the pub where they’d left the cars by the Cumbria Way, and it would have been safe to say they were all knackered. After that, they drove twenty minutes in silence (nobody cared in which car they did) to the town they would spend the night. As the night was for partying, it was then, in the middle of the afternoon, that they all decided to take some rest or even a nap. At six, as if victim of the same enchantment, they all started to recover her senses and activate themselves, except Frances, who had been resting on the shade of a tree outside, reading, and Henry, who didn’t wake up until ten to seven. They had three rooms in all, boys in one, girls divided in two. Caroline and Mary, alone in theirs, had gossiped, been absorbed by their respective mobiles, and listened to some music (Caroline was growing accustomed to Mary’s taste, and maybe she was going mad but didn’t this weird French band sound actually kind of amazing?). When Frances got there to wash her face and change jackets, they tried to convince her to make herself up a bit.

“But why?” She asked, sensibly.

“To look pretty.”

Frances, still not getting it, repeated: “Why?”

“What do you mean why?”

Mary dismissed Caroline with a brush of her hand: “No, I get it, Frances, why the fuck should we worry about being pretty, right, why don’t men? And also, who’s to say you’re not pretty already as it is?”

(Caroline, Caroline was to say! But she didn’t say anything: It was not that Frances wasn’t pretty, it was just that her clothes were so ugly, and she never even wore make up, at all! And why would she always wear her hair in one or two braids?).

Frances looked at Mary suspiciously, the fact that all she’d said up till that point made (somewhat) sense meant that the nonsense was coming now. As it did:

“But don’t you wanna enjoy the power of being looked at?”

“No,” it was a shriek more than an actual response. How had Mary not realised this already was beyond her. “Not at all.”

“Fair enough. But then, you could do it for you: it makes me feel better, to know I look good, right?”

Caroline agreed: “And we’re not saying you should cover your face with foundation. It looks great as it is,” also: we don’t even have foundation of your skin tone, “but what about mascara?”

“It’s not that I oppose to it,” Frances started, making her sentence one of the longest they’d heard her utter that day, “I’m not against make-up. It’s just not for me. I’m not bothered about it.”

Caroline, who’d realised that she needed to take this humorously or she’d have a heart attack, simulated precisely that, and squished her heart, over her left breast, and sat on the bed pretending to be badly hurt. “You’ve killed me.” Frances laughed, and so it was worth it.

“All right, you win,” Mary gave her permission to do what she was gonna do anyway, “But what if you let us dress you?”

Frances would very much not like to dress like either of them, and they could see that in her terrified face.

“In your style, obviously, we’re not gonna make you wear anything you’re not comfortable with.”

Begrudgingly, she agreed.

 

When they got downstairs to the inn’s pub (first stop of the night), the rest were there talking animatedly, so they got robbed of their great entrance. And plus, if they looked at anyone it would be Mary, like always, who even in mom jeans and a knitted sweater looked ravishing (her face was all made up, she would have to admit). Something must have happened because the air among them was weird, weirder than it had been this morning, at least. Mayra was at times infuriated and at times worried because Ian wasn’t returning any of her texts, afraid simultaneously that he was in his deathbed and that he was flirting with a girl (many girls) at the pub. They’d chosen this weekend precisely because it was Ian’s weekend off, and still, he was not there. Some stomach flu, he’d claimed, such an unglamorous illness none of them suspected him of having made it up. Julia was not talking nor looking at her sister Mia, who was wearing red lipstick and kept yawning between sip and sip of wine, and Henry was talking about this time they’d gone to the Peak district during first year, and they’d got lost and since it was night a rescue team had had to come and collect them, but it had taken a few hours, so they (he and his mates of then) had been all ready to drink their piss if necessary, to the point one had peed in one empty water bottle (always to defend he hadn’t reached the point to actually drink it), and Ned was laughing the loudest, even if he would still resent his friends if such a thing had happened to him, today or ten years ago, and then recounted it in a pub. Mary accused her brother of making things up (So what, it makes the story better) and recalled a time when he made up a story about having escaped his boarding school, and she had been so impressed by it that when it had been her turn to go, she had really escaped, had been found a mile from there (backpack full of bread) and had been grounded for weeks. It was they that held the group together, both liked to think separately, or at least, the ones that kept the silence from creeping in. Which was less of a problem as the night progressed and they moved from the pub’s inn to a pub near the town centre, crowded with locals and hikers, old and young people alike. Ned didn’t see anything different with Frances, but kept an eye on her whenever he remembered, making sure she was having at least an all right time. She seemed to be: Even if he had caught her by herself at times, there was a contended look in her face he was not accustomed to. If he was looking at her now, though, it was because Mary was nowhere to be seen. Mary was outside, with Henry. Henry having exited quickly after a bad face off with Julia: he’d gone to wrap her waist, as he’d done many times before, and kiss her neck, and she’d pushed him away with one “Do not dare touch me.” If she’d wanted him to fight for her, he hadn’t, he’d just said “What did I do?” And when she’d looked at him with raised eyebrows, he’d raised his hands in unison, “All right,” and left.

“What haven’t you done, really,” laughed Mary jokingly when he explained it to her.

“Yeah.”

She stood right by his side, rested her head on his shoulder and took his arm, even if he was smoking and she hated to get the smoke on her face.

“They’re nothing like Ned.” She meant his sisters, Mia and Julia, of course.

He was about to joke (They’ve got tits) but didn’t, because he knew what she meant.

“You don’t like them.”

“Julia’s so bland.” There were a few seconds of silence before any of them said anything, and when they did, it was the same thing at the same time:

“And Mia…”

Mary laughed and, without letting go of his arm, moved her head away from him to look him in the face.

“She’s a bitch, isn’t she.”

“Ha!” He laughed, “Yes.”

“So, what’s all this will-they-won’t-they?”

Now Henry looked at her with raised eyebrows: “What?”

“I don’t get why you like her. I mean, she’s hot, I know. But she’s not funny, she’s not smart.”

“She is funny, actually. Don’t know. Nothing always has to be so deep, or serious, you know?”

Mary gave her brother a look. “Cut the crap.”

“Seriously. I like that she’s just so transparent. Even if she thinks she’s not. And that she’s sort of conservative.”

“You like her being conservative?”

“Not talking ‘bout politics. I mean, socially. Behaviourally.”

“Oh, right, so you enjoy shocking her.”

“Of course.”

“Why don’t you get off with her already, then?”

Henry first coughed and then laughed.

“What? She worships you.”

“Mary, christsake, of course she worships me, who bloody doesn’t? But she’s also gay.”

“What?” Mary jumped, startled. Her feet didn’t touch the ground for a full two seconds, probably.

“Gayer than Kristen Stewart gay.”

“The fuck?”

“Gayer than Cara gay.”

“Now you’re just listing St Vincent’s girlfriends.”

Henry laughed. “How did you not know that? I thought you knew?”

“How would I know?”

“She was sucking face with that girl at the club the other day!” Henry found the whole thing hilarious.

“When?! She wasn’t there last week!”

“Not last week, the other.”

“I didn’t see?”

“Well, she was.”

“So, what’s up with that? Does it turn you on?!”

“Not at all. She’s not my type.”

Mary was still assimilating the fact that Mia was gay, rearranging all she knew about her and had said to her around the fact. Still, Henry’s words made her chuckle.

“Yeah right.”

“For a mate, she is.”

“C’mon, she’s everybody’s type.”

“Not mine.”

“I thought you didn’t have a type, though?”

“I don’t. But you know.”

Henry’s type was mostly Human Beings. But it was true that the girls he’d been infatuated the most hadn’t been anything like Mia. Neither their appearance (stunning as she was, she was sort of lanky) nor their personality (Mia seemed to be all bark, and Henry enjoyed a good bite—metaphorically and not).

“So here I was, thinking you were getting off with the two of them, turns out you’re not getting any.”

“Well, not any more at least.”

He took it well, he was smiling at her, threw his cigarette to the ground and stepped on it with his shoe.

“You need an honest girl.”

“I do not.”

“You need a girl that is actually nice.”

“But then, what would a nice girl do with me.”

“Listen to me.” She said, before falling silent.

From where they stood, they could see the door of the pub, from which Frances was exiting. She hadn’t let them style her hair, nor put on mascara, nor accepted to wear most of the clothes they had selected for her. They’d compromised: She was wearing a knitted grey sweater (hers) and black opaque tights (hers) with a short denim mini-skirt (Caroline’s) and black ankle boots (Mary’s). It was just a small change, but seeing the shape of her eternally covered knees (usually hidden inside wide and long skirts) and ankles was revolutionary to those who knew her. She was fastening her jacket and then covering her neck with her self-made scarf.

They both found themselves looking at her. She was quiet, so quiet, and kind. But so unswayed by peer-pressure, so determined, that when she decided she was not having a good enough time, she simply left.

“You could seduce her.”

“What? Her?” His incredulity would have sounded much more convincing if he hadn’t been still looking at her.

“You need a nice girl. She needs company.”

“I don’t need a nice girl, I told you.”

Frances saw them looking and approached them.

“Hey.”

She barely looked at Henry, wanting to make sure (every second of every moment they spent together) how much she disliked him.

“You’re leaving?” It was Mary who asked, and him who stared.

“Yes, I’m tired. Hope you don’t mind.”

“We don’t,” said Henry, and she still didn’t look at him. She took him to mean he didn’t care at all if she stayed or left or got murdered on the way. Instead, he said: “Want me to walk you?”

This time she did look at him: “No.” And then back at Mary: “Enjoy the rest of the night.” Mary smiled at her, and Frances answered in kind.

“Text me when you get to the inn, will you?”

And she was out of there. Mary looked at her brother knowingly, half-smiling and with raised brows. “Want me to walk you.” She repeated, her deadpan delivery already a commentary.

“What?”

“She actually hates you.”

“She does not.”

“Suit yourself.”

When they got back inside the pub things had got worse than one would had been able to imagine: Ned and Mia were shouting at each other, Julia with a satisfied look in her face she didn’t even try to hide, Hal and Caroline nowhere to be seen and Mayra, with her mobile in her hands, was sitting on a stool by herself. “What’s happened?” Mary really hoped it was nothing to do with Henry. Not that she would ever scold him, but she would prefer it if he helped maintain a certain harmony within their group of friends, not the opposite. Ned approached them, red with anger: “Mia’s dropped out!” and Mia followed him: “How is this your business?!”

“Dropped out of what?”

“Uni! What do you think!?”

Ned finally looked at Henry: “Since when do you know this?” Henry just shrugged, and Mia scoffed nosily while taking her bag and jacket, and then left with an “Unbelievable.” Mary took Ned’s hand in one of hers, and placed the other one Henry’s shoulder: “Ned, what’s happened? Should we go out to talk?” “No, there is nothing to talk about. Mia hasn’t been to classes the last two weeks: hasn’t taken a single test this semester. Father will kick her out of the house when I tell him.” Mary was startled, didn’t say anything. “Mate that’s easy, don’t tell him.” “You’ve already offered her a place in your flat.” Ned was accusing him, and Henry shrugged again: “If she needs it, of course.” “Wait a minute,” Mary tried to make peace: “Isn’t that her decision?” Ned looked at her as if she’d betrayed him, pursed lips and a full frown. What, isn’t it?

 

Caroline had seen the preceding scene, the one Mary had missed by being with Ned on the booths earlier. When Julia had finally exploded to her sister, with one: “If you don’t want him, why can’t you let me have him?!” And Mia had just laughed it off, asking, “Can’t you see he doesn’t want you?” Extra-harsh, Caroline thought, especially coming from a sister. She was not sure what Lula’d do if they both liked the same guy and the guy preferred her, but what she was certain of is that she’d never say that or laugh about it. It even made less sense when Hal told her Mia was only interested in girls, so that what Henry and she had was neither romantic nor sexual. “Does Henry know?” “Of course he knows.” And Hal told her this because as the whole thing had been unfurling, she’d seen him disappear quietly to the back, with a save-me-please face. “What’s wrong?” He hadn’t said, but she’d been able to see it for herself a few minutes later and put two and two together: every time Julia fought with Mia, or Henry or even Ned, she turned to Hal to console her. And he was nice, yes, but he wasn’t anyone’s consolation prize. They saw Julia approach them, and Hal chose this moment to put a hand on Caroline’s face, placing some hair behind her ear. Julia retreated and went to look for Ned, and Hal removed his hand, a bit shy: “Sorry.” “No,” she said, “it’s fine.” And then he looked at her, and she went red, and he approached his face tentatively to hers, looked at her lips, and she thought, Damn he’s pretty, and such beautiful eyes, almost as beautiful as Liam’s—and then she moved her face away, her mouth dry: Sorry.

 

For the ride back, half of them didn’t talk to the other half: Henry drove his car with Mary, Mia and Mayra in it, Ned drove Frances, Hal and Julia. Caroline was forced to make a choice, and she chose to sit by Mary’s side, take her hand, and clasp it hard.