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Dear Lula

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It is nothing but the heat

 

When Mary saw him she just walked straight to him and hugged him hard with a laugh. Caroline was startled, she'd never greeted Charlie like that. Could not, in fact, remember hugging him since they were, what, ten and twelve? Apart from that, both the pub and the brother turned out to be a bit of a disappointment: the pub was dirty and dark and Henry Crawford wasn't in any way handsome—short, pale, downward tilted eyes—she would have even said that he was plain. Though it could be in contrast to Mary that he appeared so. Still, he seemed happy to finally meet them, her and Mayra, and with an arm still around his sister's shoulder, he smiled at both of them with all his teeth. He won Mayra over when he said:

“Honoured to make your acquaintance, ladies.”

And so from the beginning Henry introduced himself as the half gentleman half rascal he happened to be. And they all laughed, Caroline just half-faking it. Once they’d all been introduced, he pointed behind the counter towards his friend, flatmate and “voice to my words” (“the singer to his songs,” said Mary), and both Mayra and Caroline stopped breathing for a second. He was so handsome it hurt: lean and tall, with high cheeckbones, brown skin and thick lips. He approached them after taking care of the customers in front of him—only then they remembered to exhale.

“Hi guys.”

Mayra gave him her hand to shake over the bar, and instead he kissed it with a smile—they all laughed about it a good deal. But then Caroline could hardly do the same, could she? She just smiled and greeted him from afar. Ian, was his name. Caroline looked at Mary confused, and then to him she said: “I thought she said Will?” and regretted it in case she'd said something she shouldn't have. But he smiled and explained: “Yes, I'm that too. My last name's Willoughby. Ian, Will, it’s all the same.”

Before they realised it, they each had a beer in their hand—Caroline was sort of horrified to think they expected her to drink hers, but also glad that she had something to do with her hands. After that, Ian would continue to serve them all night, coming and going from the bar to the booth the four of them had settled in.

Still with the first beer, right after they sat, Henry asked her sister: “So, no vicar?” and she kicked him under the table with a “Shut up.” Mayra knew something about it but wanted to learn the details (“What happened, what happened?”), and laughed when they gave them to her. Yes, Ned was not only studying religions, but had said that religion was “a huge part of his life”. Caroline hadn't known that, and asked “So, is he like, a Catholic?” Mary explained it better: “Apparently he was, but he had a crisis of faith a few years back. He says he believes in God but cannot agree with any organised religion,” here Henry snickered “Tell me something new,” and Mary gave him a look. “Like, he wants to learn about other religions, and wants to learn to be critical and theoretical about his, before—” Henry looked at her unconvinced, inviting her to go on, but she didn’t until Mayra said “Before what?” and then she finished with: “Committing to any church.” They were all startled (Caroline, in fact, gasped out loud), but Mary quickly added “He’s not becoming a vicar!” although she was not completely, one hundred percent sure about that. What she meant really was that he hadn’t mentioned anything about becoming a clergyman, and she hadn’t wanted to ask him in case he said it was on the cards. After the odd silence, Mayra said “Well, I think it’s romantic.” So that when Ian got there he just heard the last words, not knowing what they were talking about but intrigued enough to look at Mayra intensely with his blue-green eyes. “What is?” Caroline also wanted to know: yes, exactly, what is? She just thought it was very impractical career-wise to become a vicar, to be honest, and almost as much to date one. But Mayra explained: “That guy Mary’s seeing, the way he’s so open about his feelings and stuff.” It was obvious that Ian wanted to agree with Mayra, but he could see in all their faces something was off: “His feelings about Mary?” In Caroline’s answer they got the biggest laugh of the night: “His feelings about Jesus Christ,” she said simply and not wrongly. All clear, Ian sat by Mayra's side, pushing her towards Caroline, and looked at Mary in front of him: “So, you're gonna date that guy?” Mayra's skin tickled a bit where it brushed with his, but he seemed too distracted by what Mary had to say to notice. Mary just said “No,” and Ian insisted “but he’s keen,” and she raised both her hands, giving up. “You should bring him here next time,” said Henry, and it sounded as if it wasn't the first time either. Ian agreed with a nod, looking at his friend knowingly, “yeah, yeah, we need to see him.” But then he got up and asked “More drinks?”. Caroline shook her head, her half-pint still there, and the Crawford siblings did too, they'd got their second pint already. Only Mayra said “Yes, please” and Caroline could have sworn she'd beaten her lashes.

Then there was only the four of them again, and it hadn't been a second yet that Mary said “What's that?” pointing to the ceiling and looking at her brother. Caroline didn't knew what she meant, but Mayra said “Is that The Libertines?” and Henry shook his head: “Trudy or something: derivative but alright.” Still no idea. Then he talked about their own upcoming gig, for an event at the Student Union in a couple of weeks. They had recorded some new songs and were looking forward to playing them with an audience. They'd be there, they all three swore.

Ian came back with a beer and said “On me” while he left it in front of Mayra, leaving before she had time to say anything. She acted nonchalantly after that, but Caroline noticed she started to play with the ends of her long wavy hair nervously. She also noticed her chocker, which she liked but couldn't see herself pulling off, and her short vintage-looking dress. Caroline was a very good dresser—dressing well was one of her strengths—but she managed to be over-dressed half the time. Mary had warned her that the pub would be shabby, and as they'd arrived she'd been happy to be wearing a simple outfit (skinny jeans and a cami top with ruffles, plus a cardigan), but now wondered if Ian would have given the free drink to her if it were she with the mini dress. Not that she liked him, but he looked like a Burberry model, and a girl wasn’t immune.

Henry told them anecdotes and silly stories of other times they had played in the pub, and how the last time they had participated in an event at the Union, the light had gone off and had messed up Ian's mic, so that his hair had raised like a porcupine's. It was an exaggeration, of course, but they laughed all the same. Caroline appreciated the incongruity in him: confident but self-deprecating, cerebral and silly. Yes, she could see his appeal. A look from him made you feel strangely interesting—and he looked at her with curiosity, that was true. What Caroline had no way of knowing was that, once she left for the loo, Henry looked at his sister and asked: “So, what's the deal with Caroline? Is she—smart?” Mary defended her “Oh, she's smart, just physically incapable of thinking outside the box. She speaks four languages, the bitch.” And then she'd added, with a tint of regret, “and her heart got broken recently, so sh,” and shushed at them both with her index finger on her lips.

When Caroline got back Henry was not sitting with them any more. She sat by Mayra's side, who was saying: “Now really, what do they sound like?”

“Hm, he likes to say their main influence's Radiohead.”

“But?”

“Well, they are obviously not there. And they do sound a bit more dirty. Unless with the slower songs, they sound a bit pop-y in those. But if you ever repeat that to him I will forever deny saying it.” They all laughed and looked at the boys.

“Does Henry write all the songs?” Caroline asked, because that was a question she felt safe making.

“Yes, though they make changes together. I think he never stops tweaking them.”

“Are they like, love songs?” She regretted saying it as soon as the words left her lips, but luckily they didn’t laugh at her.

“Not generally, though there's the occasional one.” Mary looked at Mayra knowingly before adding “Though even those are more about what a good lie that girl was and not how much he loved her.”

“Of course,” Mayra nodded. “Would you say—is he really a good singer?” and by He they understood she meant Ian.

“Yes, unfortunately.”

“What? Why?” they both asked simultaneously.

“That voice in that body? What do you think?”

A silence followed. Was it a warning for them, for Mayra, who looked ready to print his face on her top? More than a Burberry model, now in the context of the band, Caroline could see him as the next Zayn Malik. Oh, how she missed seeing Zayn in her wall everyday as soon as she woke up, but 1D posters weren’t something one brought to Uni, she suspected.

“I mean…” Mayra let the sentence fall before she even started it, and silence followed for a few seconds.

“Well, and where does the name Buveurs Désolés come from?” Asked Caroline, who was still waiting to see someone pronounce it right.

“It's form Rimbaud.”

“Oh, really?” Mayra's eyes had gone shiny again (Mary was saying “Henry chose it,” so that Mayra didn’t get any ideas), but then she looked at Caroline, as she'd just remembered there was something she wanted to ask her: “Do you really talk four languages?”

“Well, three fluently counting English,” no way she would admit she could also read a couple more, “I'm getting there with Russian.”

“Russian!” Mayra laughed, “if I were you, the first thing I'd do is pick up War and Peace in the original!”

Mary laughed and warned Caroline, as if she were telling her a secret: “She's a total freak. She’s doing English.”

But English is our language, she wanted to say. Instead: “To become a teacher?”

“Not really—I’m leaning more towards: person who gets paid for being a Brontë expert.”

“Heathcliff, it's me!” sang Mary out of the blue, with an extravagant face and gesture. Mayra laughed really hard and unexpectedly.

“Oh my god, yes!” And they sang together for a bit, raising their arms as if they were talking to the sky.

Caroline took her mobile and wrote, pretending it was a message to someone: War & peace, Brontë, Radiohead, Libertines, Trudy & something (?), Heathcliff, it's me, Cathy, come home, I'm so cold!

 

This had been the first time that Edmund had even thought about asking Frances to pick him up and not the opposite, but he’d really wanted to show her their house, and all in all, it was less than 10-minutes away—his house and her hall both being within the Victoria Park area. After that, they’d go to a tea shop he had been looking forward to taking her since his first year. She arrived exactly on time, as he’d expected, after having studied the directions on Google Maps for fifteen minutes—just in case her data failed her in the last minute. He opened the door with a ready-smile, and she wished, she really wished, he stopped doing that. Looking so happy to see her! Frances pushed the feeling deep deep down, with the rest of them. And she smiled too, if more demurely, and went in when he invited her to do so. Despite the fact their mothers liked to jokingly call each other sister—or maybe precisely because of that—Frances was glad they looked nothing alike and would never be accused of being blood-related. Ned was tall, and had a broad even if slim back, dark eyes and hair, and a thin long face. If he exercised more, he would look like an athlete, and if he spent more time outside, his naturally tanned skin would glow—instead, the hours in his room and in the library showed in the lack of muscles and pale, even if darker-than-British, skin. Frances, on the other hand, was short, slim—petite, in fact, was the world that described her best—had a round face and curly unruly brown hair that she struggled to restraint in a low buns or a braid. She went out even less than him due to her sickly disposition—her low pressure often resulted in migraines and her iron deficiency on permanent tiredness—but exposure to sunlight wouldn't have any affect on her naturally dark-brown skin anyway. It had been a struggle, sometimes, to look so different from her adoptive family, but it had also made it easier for her to recognise herself in her parents when she looked at the only picture she had of them, now tucked inside her wallet. Life with the Norris hadn’t been what she’d describe as happy, but it had been easy. And easy was all she’d wished, already at ten.

 

Unlike her, too, Ned lived in a house his father had bought the first time the Bertram’s eldest, Tom—already graduated—had moved to study in Manchester. Back then, when Tom was in his third year for the second time and Edmund in his first, they’d rented the two empty rooms to other students and Tom had kept the fee for himself. Now, with Ned’s sisters occupying the higher floor, there’d been only one empty room, and opposed as Ned was to renting it for his personal profit, he’d offered it free of charge—minus the wifi, which they all paid—to his best friend and classmate, who was now coming from the sofa to say Hi to Frances and ask for her health. If it weren't for him, Frances might have been able to move to the house with her long-time neighbours, but she didn't resent him this fact at all. After meeting Hal last year, Frances had made the mistake of believing she’d find friends as charming and genuinely kind as him, like Edmund had, but now the moment had come, and she had Mary and Caroline instead.

Ned’s sisters didn’t honour her with their presence, and Frances did not feel proud of being glad of it. Still, she asked about them and Ned informed her the music coming from upstairs was theirs:

“They’re getting ready for tonight. I know: three hours in advance.”

Hal sat on the sofa again to read (Frances was not a gossip, but she couldn’t help but notice that it was a comic book), and Ned showed her the kitchen and living room (skipped Hal’s room, of course), and his own room and study in the second floor. She realised that although part of her wished she’d been lucky enough to live with Edmund, part of her was also glad of being apart from them, and to have the opportunity to become someone other than the person they had assumed her to be: a wallflower, Edmund’s lapdog, a goody-two-shoes.

Before leaving, Ned yelled towards the stairs:

“Frances is here! We’re going out for tea!”

And, though nobody left their room, they did get a: “Hi Frances!! Bye guys!!” from Julia and a much less emphatic “Have fun!” from Mia.

In two minutes they were out of the door, walking towards the bus stop:

“So, how was your first day at the shop?”

“Very good. I mean, tiring. But good.”

“I think it’s such a fantastic idea that you do some volunteering. I hope you don’t work many hours, though, Uni work really has nothing to do with school work…”

“Oh no, of course. I’ve only signed up for ten hours a week.”

“Ten hours! That’s alright, not bad at all.” Ned had been volunteering last year at the food bank, and now was looking into some other opportunities. Frances had been quick to find a Barnardo’s shop in the city that was looking for an unpaid store assistant. “I’m proud of you, Franny.”

This would come back to her tonight in bed, trying and failing to fall asleep. Why did he say such things? She was so enthralled in the thought that they travelled for most of the bus drive in silence. Only once they had got off at the last stop and they started walking towards the tea shop did he start a new conversation.

“So, how’s it going at the flat…?”

“Well. Very well…”

“Yeah? It looked a bit chaotic last time I came.”

“Yes, you’re right. Caroline and Mary… they’re not the most organised people in the universe.” She smiled at him, jokingly. Caroline’s room was, in fact, as tidy and organised as a hotel’s, but it turned out her neatness did not translate to shared spaces. Mary’s was a crime scene.

He cleared his throat and she could see the question forming in his brain as well as if it were her own.

“So, what do you... think of Mary?”

Much more direct that she’d predicted, in fact, which meant that he was much involved than she’d suspected. That she might have, in fact, already lost him. Albeit temporarily.

“I like her very much.” There was something about her: Caroline was nicer and generally more proper, qualities she (and Ned) valued highly, but Mary had something that was difficult to describe. Something that drew you to her: somtimes Frances didn’t realise she’d been looking at her until Mary caught her staring. And it wasn’t only that she was so pretty, it was this energy she emitted. Something that commanded your attention and made you want to comand hers.

Anyway.

“Yes?” He looked relieved. “She’s quite charming, isn’t she?”

“Yes, and witty.”

“Yes.” That, he seemed not to appreciate as much. Or it reminded him of something else, “she does say things sometimes that…”

“I think she enjoys shocking people.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean: I believe she says worse than she thinks.”

He seemed to like that, but then he added:

“She drank quite a lot at the party.”

And that, she could not refute.

“Are they going out tonight as well?”

She shook her head: “Earlier, they were leaving right after me.”

“Really?”

“Yes, they’re going to the pub Mary’s brother works in. No, his friend works—I think he doesn’t work at all. Is that—are we in the Northern Quarter?”

“Yes, why?” He added quickly, pointing towards a building across the street: “See, that there’s the tea shop.”

“Oh, how exciting!” Frances smiled from the heart: she looked forward to a late afternoon tea with scones and Edmund.

“Was the pub nearby?”

Then she remembered: “Oh, yes, I think so.” And she saw it in his face, which looked now almost as her heart felt—bitterly disappointed: “Would you like to pop in and see if we find them?”

“Not now, not now. We came to have some tea, and they close in an hour.”

 

Mary’d received a message:

Hi, Frances and I are in a teashop in the NQ and she said you might be nearby.

And she asked the rest of them: “So, what do I tell him?” Ian and Mayra had agreed: Tell him to come, tell him to come. Henry’d had some qualms: he’s not gonna stay long, is he? He frankly sounded like a bore, and though he looked forward to meeting him, he didn’t necessarily feel like meeting him now. Caroline had said: Frances, to a pub? Maybe it’d feel a bit like having an ally, like at the party.

So they had invited them, and now Edmund was seating by Caroline’s side (so that he could look straight at Mary when they talked), and Frances by Henry’s (because it was the only spot left). Ian was still working, and when he’d asked them what they wanted to drink they hadn’t disappointed: sparkly water for him, tap for her. Henry’d asked for another beer.

Caroline could see perfectly well how awkward Frances was feeling, but she was more intrigued about the way the Crawfords looked at Ned. She could not see Ned’s eyes well, but she imagined how his gaze contorted from looking admiringly at her and reprovingly at him.

The boys conducted each a sort of two-way interrogation on each other:

“So you live in halls?”

“No, a house—”

“Shared house?”

“My father bought it.”

“Nice. We live in a flat here—so much noise I practically don’t get any sleep until the morning.”

“You don’t work?”

“He’s working with the band.” Mary said, still more protective of his brother than her maybe would-be boyfriend.

Mayra asked to be left out to go to the loo, and Caroline and Edmund got up to let her pass, both distractedly.

“And I’ve started going to the gym,” he joked. Mary laughed and Edmund smiled.

“Oh dear, I should do that too,” agreed Caroline.

“I hate the gym, nobody looks as ugly as they look in the gym,” Mary said, to which her flat-mate said what the rest of them were thinking: “You couldn’t look ugly even in a gym.”

“No: I meant the others.” They laughed, but then she added: “Seriously, I hate gyms. I’d like to play tennis or ride a bike, but don’t have either my racket nor my bike here.”

“Oh, I was gonna buy a new bike, I can give you the old one once I have it, if you want?”

“Really?” Mary could not kid herself: he was a prig, maybe, and a god-fearing Christian. But he was dreamy. His smile, his eyes, the way he bit his lips nervously before talking to her. And how serious he looked when he did not agree with something: too polite to say anything against it, but too honest to pretend he agreed in any way.

Caroline turned and saw Mayra had taken the opportunity to sit in one of the stools by the bar top. She was openly flirting, and Ian couldn’t have looked more pleased about it. Caroline took the chance to invite Frances to their side, as neither she nor Henry had said anything to each other other than Nice to meet you.

“So how was your first day of volunteering?” She asked her across Ned’s back once she changed seats.

“Well, very well.” Frances looked ill, now that she looked at her.

“Are you sure? You don’t look so well.”

Ned was pulled back to the real world and looked at his friend worryingly:

“Is there something wrong, Franny?”

Having all eyes on her, she felt compelled to say: “No.” But still, Edmund knew her well enough to know this only meant she didn’t want to become a nuisance. “Do you have a headache?”

“Just a little bit.” She was no liar and when asked directly could not help but to tell the truth.

“Oh, dear!” Mary regretted, having caught the way he’d called her Franny instead of the usual Frances.

What a pity, having just arrived a second ago! But they had to leave, they could not possibly stay if Franny did not feel well, and he could not send her home like this by herself. Caroline felt an unspoken weight on her shoulders, as if everyone were expecting her to offer herself to walk Frances home instead of Ned. She did certainly owe her for the party last week, but she didn’t want to leave yet.

“No: no, I’ll leave by myself.” This caused an uproar. “Not if you’re dizzy!” and “What if you faint?” were uttered, echoed by an incredulous “Faint?” from Henry. He certainly did not know her at all.

“It’s not so bad as all that, it’s just that the teashop was too hot.”

Henry offered to ask for a glass of wine for her: it would help with her blood pressure. But she refused, not even looking at him in the eye. She left by herself, and Ned was gloomy for as long as five minutes after she’d disappeared out of the pub.

It did Frances good. She wanted to be by herself, she didn’t want Edmund to comfort her right now—the source of her laments. She still remembered how happy he’d made her when he’d promised his old bike to her, barely a month ago, once he’d bought a new one.

“Frances, she’s the kindest person I’ve ever met,” promised Mary, both speaking her thoughts and hoping to ingratiate herself with Ned. It seemed to work in way of a smile, and they all agreed.

“And the best baker,” added Caroline, to which Mary asked: “Right? You reckon she could get on the Bake off?”