She’s got a whole hour to kill before Naomi’s philosophy class finishes. After a brief visit to the Library to drop off books, and ten long, torturous minutes in the common room, listening to Katie – feigning listening to Katie – as she tried to convince her to come home for the umpteenth time, telling her that ‘staying at Naomi’s is not fucking helping,’ She’s bored, lonely and rather surprised to see that she’s got forty eight minutes left before Naomi’s back, and everything’s alright again.
Its times like this that she wishes she’d had the forethought to drop AS History, and pick up something else instead that fitted better with Naomi’s timetable before they started back, but then, she didn’t plan for this year to be the year she was in a proper relationship, nevermind being in a relationship with Naomi. Up until the Love Ball, she'd been consciously thinking of ways to see less of her, reorganising her life to make sure their paths crossed less.
Fate's a funny thing.
She’s been in Blood’s office repeatedly in the last couple of weeks pleading her case, but he’s having none of it, saying he’s got no time ‘for the whimsy of adolescent romance,’ or something equally flowery and ridiculous. Now it’s week four, and he’s told her in no uncertain terms that it’s too late to swap now, despite her promise to make up the work she’s missed.
Stupid really, that she should feel this lost. It’s just an hour. They’ll have all lunchtime together when everyone goes down the White Hart to get pissed. They share every other class including tutorial, share a bed, and most recently, a house. It’s something she’s still getting used to, being there for everything; right next to her instead of watching from afar, piecing her together. A problem to be solved. It’s dangerous. It’s intoxicating. She’s beginning to forget what her life was like before. The remembrance of it burns less brightly.
The time they spend together was her mum’s go-to during arguments. It was unhealthy, she said, to be with one person; that she didn’t have any other friends outside of their group. What she really meant was she didn’t have any other friends that weren’t also Naomi’s friends, but saying that would involve acknowledging Naomi as a real presence in her life, and she’s never going to do that. In the end, even her dad had started to say he thought they needed to spend time apart, that people needed to miss each other from time to time. She knew he just wanted to keep the peace; that it was more about keeping her in the house and showing solidarity than saying things he actually believes, because he understands, he knows what she feels is real. Maybe that’s why his words stung. Comments like that make her feel like she’s clingy and suffocating, which isn’t the kind of girl Naomi wants given that she’s just shed herself, albeit unwittingly, of a stalker, but she doesn’t like to think of herself as being anything like that poor, fragile girl. Sophia’s a warning sign. Sophia’s the line she will never let herself so much blur, let alone cross.
When she spots Cook on the Green underneath a tree, it’s a relief. For one, she’s outside in the sun; and though it’s the weak late September kind, she’s the furthest away from that gossip-fuelled sweatbox of a Common Room she can get whilst still being on college grounds – it’s all about Sophia; they feed on it, full of morbid fascination. For two, he’s the one person who she can count on not to want to talk about Sophia, or indeed, anything at all if he doesn’t feel like it. She can just sit with him, silently, and it’s the least uncomfortable way to spend time.
Only, something doesn’t feel right. Today, he’s on his own, just sat there picking at the grass, with a can in his hand, a cigarette in his mouth and a plastic bag for company. As she gets closer, picking carefully through random couples spread out in various stages of kissing, boys playing football and girls industriously texting, she can tell he's not in that dreamy, blissful solitude she's forever reading about. No. Nothing like that at all. He looks fucking miserable, possibly even worse than she feels and that’s saying something. Cook might like to pretend he’s got no ties to people, that he’s Mr Independent, but he’s rarely alone either. Somehow, he’s always the centre of attention, chatting up the Beauty girls or joking about with Freddie, JJ or anyone else that’ll care to listen (or even those that don’t).
She can count the number of times she’s seen him like this on one hand with room left. JJ and Freddie are nowhere to be seen, and things have been awkward ever since Effy got back from Italy. There’s been so much other stuff going on, she’s had so much other stuff going on, that no one’s talked about it. Not even JJ, who’s obsessed with everyone getting along and being friends; keeping everything like it was when college first started. Too much has changed though, and he knows it. Most of it she’s glad about, like Naomi and finally starting to become her own person instead of Katie Fitch’s twin sister. Other things, like Effy, and Gobblers End, she wants to undo that, because it’s hurt Katie more than she lets on; in ways that have nothing to do with the scar left by nine stitches.
Cook has scars like Katie’s. Unseen and unspoken.
They’ve grown to like each other over the summer, are friends even. Yes, she’d call him a friend now. At first, he’d gatecrash her nights with Naomi on Brandon Hill, bring beer, spliff and plonk himself down unannounced. Eventually, it just became natural to invite him along – like a three-wheeled date, but without the weirdness – and they’d just sit there; smoke, drink, talk, people watch, and share chips on the way home. Seeing her kiss Naomi wasn’t a novelty anymore, and it barely warranted a mention when they’d hug or hold hands. She gets it now, why Naomi likes him so much. So, he’s loud, and annoying, tells stupid, filthy, jokes and he’s always scheming so can never seem to stay out of trouble, but he’s kind, and fiercely loyal too. Whenever there’s been shit at home or they’ve needed someone, he’s been there without question, even though he’s had enough of his own stuff to deal with.
Until now, she hadn’t really thought that he might’ve needed someone to talk to all this time.
By the time she reaches him, he’s lying down with his arms behind his head, eyes closed, with his cigarette – crushed, bent at an odd angle and definitely not the tobacco kind – hanging jauntily from his lips. She stands above him, just looking for a moment, taking him in. It’s comforting that his Fred Perry polo top’s not seen an iron, but his Farah’s have got the same knife-edge shop-fresh creases on the leg; that his shoes are have seen better days, but the famous Cook mane is immaculate – shorter than it was, blonder too in this light. Well, he looks alright if nothing else.
“Cook,” she says in the loudest whisper she can muster, giving him a nudge with the toe of her shoe. “Cook!” she repeats, louder, nudges again a little harder.
His eyes open and she breathes a sigh of relief, because the way things are at the moment, events at Syndicate with Sophia, it wouldn’t be that farfetched to find he’s slipped into some sort of alcohol-induced coma.
“Emilio Leztevez! My little muff monkey!” he bellows, shielding his eyes from the sun. “Lovely view from here, babe!” he exclaims, peering up at her, before sitting up and catching hem of her dress with his other hand, lifting it a little. “Naomikins buying you sexy knickers now, is she?”
“Fuck off!” she swats his hand away. “Cheeky sod!”
“Can’t blame a bloke for tryin!” he shrugs, and takes a drag.
“Actually,” she begins, purposefully pulling her dress down. “No, she didn’t, I bought them,” she smiles, ever so slightly smug.
He laughs loudly, eyes agleam. “You naughty little minx, Emilio!” after a moment he adds, “Where’s my other favourite lezzer then?”
“Ah. Pretentious Bollocks O’clock is it? Well pop yourself down, babe,” he says, patting the grass next to him. “I’ll keep you company until the misses gets back, don’t you worry!”
She smiles and drops her bag down, kneeling next to him.
“Consider yourself invited to my very special party,” he reaches for the plastic bag to his left. “Only ‘coz it’s you though.”
“What are we celebrating?” it’s a cautious question, even if she half knows the answer.
“Living. Life,” he replies, tossing her a can.
There’s a familiar bitterness to his voice that cuts through all the banter. She was right to be worried. Now she feels more than a little bit guilty she hadn’t taken more notice earlier. All Doug and Blood can talk about are ‘looking out for each other’ and ‘being a good friend to those around you,’ and she’s not exactly doing very well at either. Sophia’s made everyone sensitive, oversensitive even, as if she’s the start of some pact or other, like you read about in the papers or see on the news.
There are reminders of her everywhere. From the makeshift memorial, where the Beauty girls hang out (fake tears matching their fake nails), to the locker, no, the fucking Naomi shrine that’s a mere eight doors down from her own – the closeness unsettles her, they could’ve passed each other countless times – that everyone in the year saw the contents of when Blood cracked it open, while her poor mother, brother and everyone else looked on in disbelief.
Just when she feels like the entire thing will swallow her whole all over again, he cuts right through her thoughts, by going and saying the thing that no one else dares to.
“I dunno, celebrate that we aren’t as fucked as that Sophia bird.”
Maybe it’s the fact she’s more aware of her name – it makes her stop, recoil and inhale sharply, always – but she’s sure the two lads behind her turn round when it leaves his mouth. Her immediate reaction is shout at him, because the still vivid image of her on the club floor flashes up; then she wants to laugh and has no idea why; then she wants to tell him to fuck off, because she wishes she never knew Sophia’s name at all; and then she feels nothing, curiously numb. No, empty, she feels empty. That’s exactly the word Naomi uses whenever they’ve talked about it, holding each other as they lie in bed together, on the many nights they’ve found themselves wide awake at some odd hour, unable to sleep. Haunted.
In the end, she says nothing and just stares in his general direction.
“Drink up!” he leans forward, oblivious, cracking the can open for her.
She blinks, forcing herself to snap out of it, because she knows she’ll drown in those thoughts if she’s not careful, and that’s exactly what he’s been doing. It’s only when he’s closer that she can see his eyes and smell the alcohol on his breath. She wonders how long he’s been sitting here, stewing like this without anyone taking any notice. Suddenly, all her anxiety and pining for Naomi pales into insignificance.
“Are you drunk?” she asks, putting the can to her lips and taking a small sip.
“The fuck Cook, it’s not even lunchtime!” she hisses, and he laughs again.
“So, who cares?” he takes a long swig of his own can. “Come on, ‘ave a drink and a smoke with me! Everything’s more fun with two Emilio, I keep tellin’ ya!”
Maybe it’s the cheeky grin on his face that does it, or maybe it’s because the mischievous glint in his eyes isn’t as bright as normal, but she moves closer, takes the spliff from between his fingers when he offers it.
“Cheers,” he says, knocking his can against hers with a dull clink.
“Cheers,” she echoes, closing her eyes when she inhales.
She remembers the lake, rain, firelight, a soft blanket on her back, softer lips. It feels like a lifetime ago.
“Good stuff,” he drawls, and she hears him crush his can, and the rustling of the bag when he takes another.
“Only the best for you, kid.”
They’ve been quiet for a while, sipping idly on their beer and passing the spliff back and forth. Things were much clearer earlier on; before she started to take less notice of that it isn’t socially acceptable to be drunk before midday. It feels right, this, and maybe she’s just going along by just taking what he offers, but everything’s starting to dull. Everything’s less painful. That’s what he’s after, she thinks, resting against him a bit for support. He wants to hurt less.
“How come you’re on your own then?” the question slips out before she means it to.
“Needed some space, didn’t I?” he replies, popping open an old misshapen tin he’s fished from his pocket. “Too much, all this,” he gestures vaguely about them before sparking up another spliff and pulling on it hard, holding back before he breathes out, savouring it.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” she nods, looking down at her shoes.
“What? You’re sorted, you babe! You got the dream girl!” he exclaims, patting her on the back.
“I know. I’m lucky,” she replies, taking a long sip from her can.
“You are, but, if anyone deserves it, you do. Must’ve been hard sometimes, waiting.”
She nods. “It was. Sometimes I didn’t know if I could do it,” she glances away, not wanting to think about the alternatives. “She was worth it.”
“You always knew, didn’t ya? That you two were meant and all that. You think that everyone has that?”
“I think so,” she can’t help but smile then, and he smiles too. It fades quickly.
When he falls silent and looks away, it feels different. It’s not comfortable anymore. There’s something lurking under the surface. Something’s eating away at him. It’s like part of him is switched off or missing; mislaid, and no amount of looking will help him find it, because it’s not something you can easily label and carry around.
“How do you do it, Ems?”
“Not want to knock every girl out that looks at her? I mean, she’s yours ... you must’ve wanted to kill that Sophia. Probably would’ve if she weren’t already dead, wouldn’t you?”
At the mention of her, she can’t help but imagine facing her down. There are too many things she wants to know: like how much she knew about them both, how much she knew about Naomi, and if they’d ever spoken. She’ll never know, of course, all she’s got to go on is fragments of hearsay and imaginings, and those are nowhere near truth. Maybe that’s why it’s all so hard to deal with. There will never be a moment when she gets that truth; when they can draw a line under it all. Everything’s messy and unfinished. She can’t help but feel angry about it. Anger of a different kind.
It makes her wonder about her think about her own connection with Naomi, why it’s so strong and why it’s lasted. Why it’s lasting even now.
“Yeah,” it’s a quiet confession. One she didn’t ever expect to say. “I hate it. I hate her. I hate those girls.”
“See! We’re same you and me. Give everything. Go out in a blaze of glory, don’t we?”
When she looks up at him again, she sees something else in his eyes, something that she can’t quite name. He almost looks happy. Maybe he’s right, maybe they are just degrees on the same scale. Only, she knows when to stop, because if she doesn’t Sophia will have won, she’ll have taken Naomi from her just like she always wanted.
“But, I know I can’t, because it’ll ruin us. I have to trust Naomi. Trust what we have. I love her.”
He takes another long drag.
She wonders if Cook thinks about love the same way she does. If what he calls love has the same meaning. The look on his face is enough. He doesn’t need to explain. Love is weakness. That weakness makes him rage all the more, because he’s terrified of being destroyed. That’s what makes him fight. That, she understands.
“But,” he pauses, playing with the ring-pull on his can, spliff balanced between his fingers. “What do you do if the person you hate’s your best friend?”
“Oh Cook,” she says quietly, and puts her own can down.
“I should be happy, he’s my friend. He’s Freddie! But, he’s got her. He’s got everything. How can I be happy then?”
“You should tell her the truth,” she reaches over and puts her hand on his briefly. Even though he glances down to look at it, he doesn’t shirk it like she expects him to.
“Truth?!” he scoffs. “She’s made her choice. It doesn’t matter what I say.”
“That’s not true,” she exclaims, shaking her head. “She doesn't know how you feel. Not really.”
“She knows enough. You want some big confession, hearts, flowers, all that? Might work with you and Naomikins babe, but, that's not me. That's for soppy old Freds in there,” he nods toward the college.
“You can’t carry on like this,” she leans forward and tries to hold his gaze, but he avoids hers every time. “Keeping everything inside. It’s not right.”
“Who says there’s anything wrong?” he replies, feigning nonchalance, dragging on the last of the spliff for all it’s worth before he flicks it away, not bothering to see where it lands. “You do it. There’s things you keep in here too,” he continues, tapping his chest over his heart. “Doesn’t stop it hurting though, does it?”
“I just ...” he takes a big breath, rubs his forehead. “Sometimes ... you and Naomi, it's proper. I want that. I’m tired of all this shit.”
“You can. You will,” she says, earnestly, without so much as a moment’s pause.
The second leaves her lips and meets the air, she realises how naïve it makes her sound.
“Nah,” he shakes his head, sadly. “That won’t happen.”
“I got the dream girl, Cook, you said it.”
“Yeah, and now you have to hang on to her when you wake up. That’s the hard bit. I never could. They slip away easy Emilio, even if you never take your eyes off them.”
“So try harder. Try for Effy.”
At the mention of her name, he straightens, and she knows that the brief opening she had is gone. His guard is well and truly back up.
“I’ve got nothing to give.”
“Give you. Hang on and hope that love’s enough, Cook. That’s all you can do.”
“Love!” he spits out the word bitterly, shaking his head.
From his mouth, it sounds foreign, dangerous, something unreal and unreachable. Then, out of nowhere, he starts to laugh, big and loud, like she’s heard a thousand times before; only it rings that much more hollow.
“Suppose it’s summat though, 'ey?” he elbows her playfully.
“Pain,” he looks her right in the eyes this time. “Proves you’re still working, still living.”