The subject of your reverie
Mary hadn’t hesitated to tell Caroline better plans had come up, and that she would have to go by herself, or maybe bring Frances? The truth though was that she hadn’t admitted to anybody, and only tangentially to herself, how much she cared about the Ned Ordeal, as she had started to refer to it. The ordeal was of course how different they were and how doomed their little romance was: that, she had no problem talking about. The fact that it was, however, an Ordeal in capital letters, and that it should be mentioned always with a sigh, ultimately meant that she cared for him more than she would say. He was too serious for her, she could see how it could become boring, dating him, but right now it felt fresh; he was honest, beautifully honest, and strict, definitely too strict, but she didn’t see the need to worry about it yet. So, when a few hours ago, he’d written to her “would you like to go out for dinner today?” her pleasure had been endless. She’d smiled non-stop for at least twenty minutes and hadn’t been able to concentrate in the book she’d been reading. Ned was a reflective sort of person, but he was not generally shy. Once he’d decided on something, to act on it was the only right course—she was starting to see that. Part of her extracted some pleasure in the challenge ahead of her: to see if her influence on him would be able to thwart some of his more uptight tendencies. But she didn’t want to depend on it.
Afraid to spook him, she’d dressed more conservatively than if she’d gone to the pub with Caroline, but still less than she, who was going. When he’d rang the bell, it had been Frances who’d opened for him, Mary still going over her mascara, and she’d heard Ned trying to contain the excitement off his voice: Mary and I are going out to dinner, he’d said. She’d gone out of her room as if she hadn’t heard a thing: Oh, I thought I heard the door! They’d all said their goodbyes and have funs, and now Mary was walking by Ned’s side, a smile on both their faces. Ned suggested to walk to the restaurant (they hadn’t decided on one, but he knew the area he wanted to take her to), and when they’d been walking for a couple of minutes, he went ahead and held her hand. The moment their fingers interlaced, as if to distract the other of the fact, they both started talking. “I’ve just started this book” and “Were Frances and Caroline going out?” escaped simultaneously from their lips, as well as the consequent replies “Really? Which book?” and “Yes, with Caroline’s brother.” They laughed: Sorry, you first. Mary went first, but to explain her flatmates’ plan. Ned was intrigued: “What, Frances’ going to the pub?” And she: “No, of course not Frances.” He explained the way Frances was, though she’d already seen as much: It’s not that she’s shy, although she is, but that she derives no pleasure in superficial things or things people their own age do. Mary was adamant: “I adore her for it, she’s an original. I’d never met someone so” and for lack of a better word, she ended with “good.” Yes, he agreed. You know, she went on, “I’ve started to watch a series about a vicar.” “Frances said.” “I must say, I’m most reassured. It’s been illuminating, though I don’t know what’s the equivalent level of sinfulness to listening to jazz while drinking whisky in the twenty-first century.” He didn’t laugh, but he said tightly “I am not a vicar.” She lowered her tone of voice, still tinged though with a playful tone: “I’m joking, of course.” She held his hand tighter, and he smiled in return, looking back at her. “You know my sister says she knows you?” “What!” Mary was surprised, she didn’t think she’d heard the last name Bertram before. “Ballet summer school: can it be?” she said “What!” and “That was years ago!” She asked for his sister’s name again, and then: “Oh, dear! Mia, yes, of course. How I hated her,” and she laughed. He wasn’t surprised, Mia had said as much. They’d competed for the principal dancer position, but being much shorter and smaller, it had ended up going to Mary. He was more interested on what that said about her: “Do you still dance?” Mia had danced until she’d come to uni, quit only when she’d seen she wouldn’t make a career out. Mary remained quiet for a second, “No, not since my mother died.” That had been four years ago, she explained, so they really had only met as children: the only thing she remembered of Mia, who that summer had been fourteen to her thirteen years old, was how tall she was, and how she’d been the leader of a rather mean-girl clique. No, he wanted to know, but why did you stop? “I quit everything my mother had urged me to learn: ballet, piano, painting, I hated it all—though to be fair I was a terrible artist. And,” she added this more pensively “my father never came to the recitals or competitions, so I saw no point. I picked up piano again a couple of years ago, but not ballet.” He was quiet for a bit, and he was going to talk when she added facetiously, “I’m glad I didn’t get to develop the muscles though, so not attractive.” He was shut silent again. He was bothered by her apparent shallowness but could also not disagree, she hadn’t a single physical attribute he wished it looked differently. “Here’s the Italian restaurant I told you about,” he said instead, “and the Indian’s only a bit further away.” And before she could say anything: “I’ve checked both menus.” She was charmed by the way he remembered to make sure there’d be a vegan option, but of course, it had more to do with the fact he was used to do it for Frances.
Frances had been asked to the pub by Caroline, but since she was her back-up plan (she’d only asked her because Mary’d said no last minute, and when she’d asked her class-mate Lois, she’d said she had plans already), she didn’t feel obliged to say yes; not that she felt offended in any way for having been her third choice: it only made sense. She said no, however, No thank you, and couldn’t think of any other day she would’ve liked less to go out to a pub. To be honest, it was not a plan she would ever enjoy saying yes to, but she would consider it given the proper mood and the appropriate heads-up. She would probably need a whole week to prepare mentally about going out, at night, on a pub, on a Saturday. But today! It had to be she who opened the door for Edmund, who’d put something on his hair to make it shine (she liked it more when he did nothing to it) and was wearing a shirt under his sweater. She tried to look happy for him, as she could not really feel it, and despite what a bad actress she was, he had bought it. It was another of a list of hints he was missing: how could he not see how wrong Mary was for him? The other day they’d talked about their careers, she and Mary, who had believed Frances was training to become a doctor. She’d had to explain to her that what she was doing was learning to manage health, globally. She hadn’t decided what she’d do after, some of her classmates were aiming to become GPs. She tended more towards humanitarian work, of course, here in the UK, and the finish line was working for an NGO, though she wasn’t sure doing what yet. Mary’s situation was the opposite of hers, she had her next decade mapped out but was not enjoying her present classes at all. It was a necessary evil, is what she said. Had it always been her dream to become a lawyer? She’d laughed: No, not even close: I wanted to be first a witch and then a musician. But neither pays well, she’d said, or at least music doesn’t. Frances had pretended she hadn’t got the joke, even though Mary’d blinked ironically (she did everything ironically) as a cue for her to laugh. Frances questioned how could anyone do something they didn’t love only for money, and Mary’d said it was either that or marrying rich. Caroline had got home at this point and had agreed with Mary, even though she’d admitted to loving some part of what she was doing in class: “The only thing I know,” she’d said, “is that I expect to be wearing a skirt-suit by the age I’m thirty.” Mary’d said, “Make it a pant-suit and that makes us two.” Could Edmund be with someone who spoke so lightly of her future? And shouldn’t she be happier that he wasn’t, for what it meant in the long-term? She couldn’t, no: in the huge bag of emotions she was feeling these days happiness wasn’t one of them.
Caroline left late, afraid of getting there first and for people to think she had no friends. Imagine that! She’d rather stay at home than be in a pub by herself, thank you. Her ideal scenario included Charlie and Liam picking her up and then going together to a pub in the uni area, but all her hints had been ignored by Charlie, who was conveniently bad with subtlety. The actual plan included staying around their area, quite south from where she lived, and so it hadn’t even occurred to them to meet her half-way. She had texted Charlie to made sure they were in the pub when she got in the bus, so that when she got off, could ask her brother to come outside and wait for her by the door. He had. And now they went in together, the pub quite full, and in a style she appreciated a lot more than the one in the pub she’d been last week. Liam was there, and so were Frank and Ela. Now it was time to initiate the second phase of her plan: to be around Liam but to act as if she weren’t, as if she couldn’t care less. It was tricky, admittedly, to get his attention without being neither flattering nor opposing. Frances had simply suggested her to “be herself” and Caroline had known to do the opposite of that. She said hi to all of them and asked generally how they were doing. They all smiled, though none of them paid too much attention to her. Caroline went to get a drink for herself (she preferred it that way, nobody would now what she was dreaking and she would not be judged by her adolescent taste) and asked for rum and cola; she needed it more than wanted it. On her way back she sat by Ela’s and asked her if Mayra would be joining them: she wouldn’t, she was going out later with her flatmates. After a while, Frank and Charlie left to explore the pub and get more drinks, and seeing Liam looking at his mobile, Caroline spoke to Ela loud enough for him to hear: “You see, Ela, we’re not interesting enough, should we try talking about the last Leicester’s last game?” To her credit, Ela laughed, and Liam took the bait. “What would you say about it?” Caroline was not as helpless as one would think and was a pro at pretending to know what she was talking about—mostly because she had a lot of practice. “Well, despite everything, Mahrez did very well, didn’t he?” She hoped, though, that the conversation did not go further, as she would quickly run out of the information given in the 2-lines-long headline of the story-news in the free newspaper she’d read this morning. Quickly, she added: “So, how’s your sister?” and to Ela “Have you met her? She’s the sweetest thing ever.” Liam did finish writing his message, or whatever he was doing on his mobile (talking to his cousin Richard, was what he was doing), but then he pocketed it. Caroline couldn’t help but think she had never seen such a beautiful jaw. If she could only touch it once! But no, once was not enough, she wanted it to be hers or no-one else’s. He wasn’t even wearing his glasses today, which he always did, and she wondered if he wanted to impress someone or just was more comfortable that way. In any case, she was glad she could see his blue eyes undisturbed; they were meant to be seen. And the shirt he was wearing was not black, as it often was, but dark green, and wide, and overall hipster-er than usual. But he didn’t look either more or less handsome than any other day, because his looks were an objective determinate attribute. Ela had not met his sister, but she had met his cousin, she said. As Caroline had nothing to say on the matter, she ignored her comment, and waited for Liam to expand beyond a shrug on her sister’s well-being. She was well, everything was going well. Caroline asked if she had decided what to read in uni, and he said “No, not yet.” Frank and Charlie were back, and instead of getting a drink, they were saying, why don’t we go to the club? Caroline could not imagine Liam saying yes, but also: the lack of glasses, the shirt? She looked at Ela, who complained with an Already? But yes, she was in. Caroline was glad she’d dressed up (she would not make that mistake ever again, especially not when pretending to ignore while seducing Liam was on the agenda) with a mini-skirt and a crop top that exposed half her torso, meaning she’d been freezing on the way over with only a thin long coat over the outfit. She hadn’t been to a club in the city yet, and as they left to get the bus, Caroline believed for a second that life was good: here, at midnight, on the streets, Liam barely a few steps from her, sharing the same plan.