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Dear Lula

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The present always occupies you in such scenes—does it?

 

It was so crowded, Caroline doubted they’d met anybody, and she was secretly glad. There was music coming from the stage, but it was not the music they’d come to listen to, there was Mary at her left side and Frances at her right, there was a bad smell part sweat part humidity part alcohol, there was a ton of people. She’d had a dream last night, a very strange and embarrassing dream she hadn’t mentioned to anyone. It had been about Liam, it had been about Liam meeting her on the street and asking her forgiveness and saying that it was such a pity that things had turned out this way, because he was in love with Bet now, but he’d been all the years prior in love with her, and he’d said “Shame our timing sucked”, and Caroline said it hadn’t sucked at all, because she’d fancied him since they’d first met, even though technically she’d had a boyfriend at the time and then another one for some four months, and what was he talking about and maybe it wasn’t too late, but he said No, it definitely was too late, and then his face changed, as faces do in dreams, and he became Ian, Mayra’s boyfriend, who did not look like him at all, was less handsome, but still she knew him to be Ian, and he was suddenly saying to her “maybe it takes two years, maybe fifty, but love will find you, dear” and Caroline, wanting to appear nonchalant, said “yeah, I can wait fifty years. I can wait fifty-two, even. Not fifty-three, though, that’d be barbaric”, and everybody had shook their heads at her wise words, and then Mary appeared out of nowhere and said, Well, it’s been fifty years now, Caroline, you can finally date whoever you want, and Caroline said “you mean ‘whomever’”, and then someone she didn’t know but everybody said was Hal, Ned’s house-mate who she hadn’t met yet, had put his arm over her shoulders and said, “it’s been worth the wait, my love” and kissed her, and Caroline had woken up with an intense feeling in her chest that she’d never felt before, which more than love, although it had been that too, it had felt like the relief of finally having found the meaning of everything, finally understanding what she was doing, and she had been to the point of tears in waking up and realising the epiphany was gone, none of it had been real, and nothing meant anything. That was the place Caroline’s head was at right now: all sense of logic gone, self-pity at full power. She also felt inevitably a weird attachment to someone she hadn’t met yet, and who in her dream had been black, but that in reality she knew to be Korean. She had no fifty years to spare, she didn’t even have two. Part of her hoped that this Hal guy turned out to be handsome, single and not gay, a trifecta she didn’t felt lucky enough to bet on. Part of her couldn’t stop thinking about Liam Darcy however much she tried. Still, she’d find out today, if they finally managed to meet everyone they were supposed to meet.

 

Mary had ironed her dark hair and cut the irregular bits to make it look more like a wig (Caroline had called her mad), had drawn an exaggerated but beautiful black line under and over her eyes, over some blue eye-shadow, and had asked Caroline help on gluing some fake lashes. It was unofficially Halloween, and Mary, still wearing a normal outfit as per Mary’s standards (had borrowed Caroline’s crop-top from last time but had paired it up with a long golden pleated skirt, plus a black faux-leather jacket), was Cleopatra. It couldn’t have been any other way. Frances had passed on the suggestion to dress up as anything and was going instead as Casual Frances (which included jeans, a first since they’d met her), and Caroline had only one whimsy element in her, which was a cat-eared headband from Poundland. Ned had wanted to come to their halls and pick them up, but his sisters had still been getting ready and he’d finally agreed to go with them and meet Mary and Frances (and, incidentally Caroline) at Uni. Charlie had said to Caroline they’d meet there, as the whole of their flat (did that include Liam? Who knew?) would also be there to support Frank. Caroline didn’t know anything about Joana and hadn’t asked either. Mayra was there already, Where were they? She was sending texts to Mary and asking them to meet outside.

And so Mary, holding Frances hand as if afraid she’d get lost otherwise, led them through the still-manageable crowd, opening the way for them. Outside, by the grass, were all the smokers. And they hadn’t even walked ten steps that Mayra found them, and then she started yelling behind her, and all the Bertrams appeared as well. They all hied and hiyaed each other, shier than one would have expected. “Oh, Caroline, you don’t know them, do you?” had said Mary, and Ned had intervened, not before giving his girlfriend the most adoring look Frances had ever witnessed on Ned’s face (Caroline was familiar with it, just surprised to see it in someone who was not Charlie). “Yes, that’s Caroline, and these are Julia,” Julia looked a lot like Ned, though shorter, and had a cute long bob that had probably taken her two hours to style, “Mia,” Mia was tall, and she looked like someone that ought to be famous should look like—not pretty, like Mary, who was petite and feminine despite how much she tried not to be—Mia was simply intimidating and, to top it all, she was wearing a floor-length black dress, black eye-shadow and dark-purple lipstick. Caroline wasn’t able to hold her gaze (was she a goth?) at all before turning to: “Hal, our house-mate”, who turned out to be as tall as her (that had been a concern: it was a struggle, to be 5’9” tall and a girl) and, honestly, nice, though obviously not half as handsome as Liam. They all nodded and shook their heads, and asked about the band: They haven’t started, yet, no. Mayra said they were backstage, getting ready, and wouldn’t be coming out for forty minutes or more. So it was decided that they’d wait there, and groups were formed quickly. Ned approached Frances and asked about her and her volunteering and her society, but when Mary said, “Would anyone like to get a drink?” Ned forgot to wait for Frances’ response and went to her side. To be fair, Mary looked as infatuated with him as he did with her, and the only ones who didn’t observe the exchange with a half-smile in their face were Frances, who was looking at her feet to hide the burning sensation in her eyes, and Mia, focused on her mobile. Mayra approached Caroline, saving her from starting a conversation with her new acquaintances (good), and started talking unprompted: Oh my god, you went to see An Ideal Husband, right? How was it? I also wanna go. Maybe Ian… No, no, I don’t know what we are, we’re not labelling ourselves as anything yet but… And what about you? Didn’t you like that Liam guy? And how is Russian going? Have you listened to the band yet? After a while, Caroline caught her rhythm and started enjoying herself, even if it took a bit of an effort: No, how would I? Don’t tell me they’re on Spotify! Had no idea, looked for them on YouTube but… No, of course. And Liam? Oh nothing, I didn’t even like him that much.

Frances was still looking at her feet, and Julia and Hal were laughing about something. Mia texted like a maniac while smoking a cigarette. Ned and Mary were visible again in the distance and they were kissing: not indecently, just short kisses and side-hugs. Before they got there, Hal took the chance to approach Frances, who was by herself, and asked generally: “So, honestly, is that band good or what?”, to which Frances, a bit relieved, shrugged. Mayra pretended to be offended, with a “They’re marvellous, alright?” counteracted with a “What is she gonna say, she’s sleeping with the front-man,” from Mia. Mayra blushed, but she still laughed. “So, no-one else has listened to them,” concluded Hal, who had a tiny bit of an accent, if you were intent on noticing it. “Wait,” Caroline started, fake-confused, “I thought we’d just come to see if they looked hot.” They all laughed. “Is your brother coming as well?” asked Mayra, and Caroline pretended not care either way: “Yeah, I think so.” Mary and Ned came back, and it turned out they were sharing a pint—still, they offered a sip to anyone who was interested. No-one even answered, Frances much too shocked, but Mia, who snickered “Yes, that’s what that beer needs, a third person’s spit.” Mary attacked her with a “What are you dressed up as anyway?” and Mia had to open her hand, careful not to drop her cigarette, to show them a fake set of plastic teeth she was holding: she was going as a vampire. Not a goth, then. Ned returned to Frances side, Caroline thought about approaching Hal but felt she lacked either courage or real interest in him, probably both. Mary joined Mayra and Caroline and they talked about their favourite songs from the band: Mayra had listened to one of the new ones and Mary hadn’t, and she was appalled by that fact. “Actually,” Julia said, “I have heard it too.” Yes, they’d gone to band practice the day before. Right, that’s what Mary had said, that Julia was interested in Henry. Was it mutual then? It hadn’t been half an hour of that, that Mayra was already nervous, asking them to get inside and find a spot near the stage. They agreed, eager for a change of scenery.

 

The first band was still playing, so they didn’t get too close. Caroline thought she saw Charlie and pretended she hadn’t. Approached Frances, linked her arm with hers. Mary noticed and looked at her significantly: “Have you seen him?” Him was Liam, of course. Caroline shook her head and focused on smiling more. By the time the band got on the stage, she had already found them with her eyes. They were a couple of rows behind them, Charlie and Liam.

They weren’t speaking to each other yet unless strictly necessary. Their house-mates Ela and Edward were between them, talking over the identifiable and unidentifiable noises. They hadn’t seen Caroline’s group in front of them, and neither had anyone of Caroline’s group seen them, or the Deshmukh sisters would have said hi to each other. It was only Caroline, then, who was aware of that unwelcome proximity. She hoped to get over Liam soon, but was afraid that she would never do as long as she kept seeing him and he kept being so fit. He’d gone back to his dark shirt, but wasn’t wearing glasses: it was weird, now that her own lenses were not as pink-coloured as they’d used to be, she could see that, despite his eyes being more noticeable like this, his face did look different, his nose too straight, maybe. Who would’ve thought that glasses had made him look less serious? Or perhaps it was only that he was in a bad mood: he had a two maybe one-day stubble that didn't do him any favours. Focus, Caroline.

Charlie couldn’t see his sister because he couldn’t look away from his phone. He was tired of people taking him for a fool and had decided that today would be the day. It hurt more because he trusted Liam’s advise and considered him to be wiser than him, despite what he’d said about him not knowing anything about relationships. It hurt, also, because he was afraid Liam was right. But it was different, with Joana, first, because he knew she liked him (though he was unsure of the extent to which she did), and second, because he had never liked a girl as much as he liked her. It was cheesy to admit it, but he knew it had been love at first sight, which did not stop to grow the more he knew her. And today he’d asked her to come to the gig, and to make sure he wouldn’t back down at the last minute, he’d told her he needed to ask her something. So yes, today was the day, if Joana ever got there.

 

Then, several things happened at once: The Buveurs Désolés walked on stage; Charlie received a message from Joana, saying she’d just got there and was outside the door; and Liam caught Caroline looking at him before she had time to look away.

They got a big applause, they looked too dashing for anything less than some whistling and yelling. The four of them, different-sized smiles in their faces, crossed the stage towards their respective positions: Jamie, in his green cap and the tiniest of smiles, they could barely have seen, though, quickly hidden in the back of the drum-set; Frank in his punkest gear (suspenders and all) walked determinately to the bass and hung it from his shoulder with a sort of menacing smile: just wait and see; Ian jumped suddenly to the front and centre of the stage, eager for the attention, with a smirk more than a smile, and a leather jacket over a white tee; only Henry, in a loose patterned shirt and black jeans, took his time to walk to his spot, and then hold the guitar and strap it around himself as if he had all the time in the world, his smile the most relaxed one: he did everything deliberately, fake-casual or casual-casual, who was to know. Caroline focused all her attention on them, Mayra held her breath, and Mary looked at Ned to see how he reacted. Ian introduced the band simply, all-natural sex-appeal, and gave a sign to Jamie to set the rhythm with the drum only after running a hand through his short top afro. His voice, as soon as he started to sign, turned out to be much smoother and melodic that anyone would have guessed. So, Mary had been right: a deadly combination. You could also hear Henry on the chorus, and it was also a nice surprise: too low a register for a main singer, maybe, but the perfect amount of sexy for a backup. She wasn’t sure at first, but soon Frances realised she hadn’t expected to like the song but did. Caroline was looking forward, but it would be a mistake to think she heard anything that went through her ears.

Charlie went outside, walking against the current, he left for the door at the opposite side of the stage. It took him a few minutes to find Joanna, who was standing by Bet’s side, looking nervously around them. When their eyes met, they both realised what was gonna happen next. They three, in fact, as Bet also happened to have eyes. She approached Charlie and said: “Where is Ela?” He told her: “Mid way to the stage, towards the right,” and she left. Joana and Charlie, they were left by themselves. Finally. Finally! He approached her with sweaty hands and smiled and said Hi. “You alright?” Everyone kept asking her that, here in Manchester, did she not look alright? “Yes. Of course. You?” He didn’t hear the question, but not for lack of interest: he couldn’t take his eyes of her. She got shy and started looking around them, at her hands, his shoulders, everything. Neither of them had dressed up as anything, though Charlie didn’t tend to pass up the opportunity to wear a costume. “Can we…” Realising his voice did not carry, he took her hand (warning her with a look) and walked her a few steps further away from the crowd. She stepped on him and apologised, red like a tomato. He was embarrassed too, but he laughed: “It’s fine.” And then he went on to declare his admiration for her: “I wanted to talk to you after the show, but I was so nervous, I thought: Better get it done.” Another person would’ve found this admission less than romantic, but not Joana, who was discretely wiping his sweat off her hand with her jacket. With a nod, she urged him to go on. “I… I know you’re leaving in a few months, but I’d still like to go out with you. I mean—I like you, a lot, as I’m sure you’ve realised, and, do you think we could like, date?” Charlie had felt his face burn before saying it, but now that he had, he felt a lot better; better than ever. Just the fact that he was admitting he liked her a lot and was asking her to date officially, instead of just kissing her or assuming they’d be dating if he asked her to go out a couple of times more, made Joana happy. He was that rare breed of romantic men that some films would have you believe was the rule in England. “Yes!” And the enthusiasm in which that one-syllable word was uttered told Charlie much more than Liam could’ve ever heard. He laughed, she laughed, and then he kissed her lightly, holding her cheeks with his hands, and she kissed him back eagerly.

Fitzwilliam had seen Caroline, and by the way she looked away he realised he’d wronged yet another person. He would have to admit, sooner rather than later, than Charlie was right, that he was not the best at reading people, and that he’d have to make a conscious effort to not make people angry for reasons he couldn’t even start to comprehend. But no, he was aware he hadn’t behaved very well at the theatre. Up until that point he believed his behaviour to have been irreproachable, despite hints to the opposite (why wasn’t Bet accepting his friend request?), but he would have to admit that he hadn’t been fair to either Charlie, Caroline or Joana. He didn’t really know if Joana returned Charlie’s feelings or if Charlie would end up with a broken heart, but he couldn’t help but worry at his naiveté and to be protective of him. His intentions were not at fault, only his methods, right? And Caroline? He’d talked about it with his cousin at Cambridge, who one day after reading the comments she’d left Fitzwilliam on Facebook (some of them more blatant than others), had taken to ask him from time to time “how were things with his number one fan.” Lately, more seriously, he’d warned him that he might be leading her on, and Fitzwilliam had believed him mad. But he must have had, now he realised, just by accepting to go on that double date. Even if he'd only done it because Charlie had begged so incessantly. So, to do: Maybe talk to Caroline, apologise for the night at the theatre, while making it clear he was not interested in her romantically; talk to Charlie once he could find him, and, hopefully, talk to Bet and try to bring the conversation to similar territory than the night at the party. Sometimes he thought about that kiss and wondered if he’d imagined it. Was he being a hypocrite? Trying to dissuade Charlie from dating Joana, while he kept thinking about Bet, who would also be leaving soon? He was. But ah, the band, now that he listened to them, they were a lot better than they’d been at that gig last year, though they hadn’t had Jamie then. No, they weren’t bad at all.

 

They had this gift not every new band has, which is that each song sounded different from the one they’d just played, even if they shared a few similarities. And although they were all too cryptic for anyone who’d only heard them that night for the first time to have any idea what they were about, they were also accessible enough for some people to hum them on their way home. Caroline thought they could have done with more ballads, Frances, that it all would have come together better if they had rehearsed more, as they had sounded too raucous to her ears. Neither offered their opinion to the rest, and instead they all lauded the absent band, sort of surprised that they had been good. And despite what Mary had said that day at the pub, it was Henry who attracted the most glances: the less handsome of the four he might have been, but he was the most charismatic, the better dressed, and the most obviously musically gifted. Even though the ones who knew more about music and could hear the difference between a good and a great beat knew to appreciate Jamie, silent and in the back, but never less than perfect. Who was he? Jamie Fashanu, everybody! They’d be glad to know he was bookable as a DJ—but not as much as him: He needed the money.

That was the last of it for the night, unless they decided to go somewhere else. People scattered, left the building and the room became gradually empty. As they were waiting for the members of the band, they waited for them there. Fitzwilliam considered approaching Caroline, waited for a second to be dissuaded by external circumstances, and when he wasn’t, went to her side. She was not expecting him and blushed red against her wishes when she saw him so close. And he’d come to her: Caroline could count with the fingers of one hand the amount of times he’d done that, and she would still have fingers left. “Hey,” he said, and she blushed more. Why did he have to be so handsome? Mary saw them and winked at her, which Caroline hoped Liam hadn’t noticed. She would have still fallen for him if he hadn’t been so fit (maybe), but the fact he was made it harder for her to get over him. She just said “Hi,” trying to regain some composure. “Everything alright? They were good, weren’t they?” Was he rambling? Caroline couldn’t say. She just nodded, and he took it as her being mad. “About yesterday: I wanted to apologise...” Trying to get to her sister Ela, Mayra pushed Liam towards Caroline. He avoided any contact, to her dismay, but inevitably looked back to see what had happened and who’d been. Instead, he saw Bet, right behind him and looking at them both. He could not help but say: “Hi.” All the nonsense about his handsomeness left Caroline’s brain, and she remembered who she was (Caroline Bingley!) and what she’d come to do (get over Liam Darcy!). “Oh,” Bet said, “hi.” Caroline hadn’t even had time to answer her that Liam asked: “Where’s Charlie?” Liam only had eyes for her, and she supposed she should’ve been glad he’d had time to apologise to her before Bet had got to them. Why did the three of them seem to always work themselves into conversations no-one wanted to be a part of? “With Joana. I guess.” She made a gesture, as to indicate that they were not there with them. Bet didn’t want anything more than to leave, but she should at least say bye to Ela. “What, together?” Caroline couldn’t help but ask, and Bet looked at her with what she would’ve sworn was hate. “Yes, I guess we can say the double date was a success.” There was no way for her to know what that date had really meant for Caroline and Liam, and so she was not being mean on purpose. “Yes.” Liam said, and she answered quickly, as she’d already known what she wanted to say: “And I who thought that double dates were an antidote to love.” Liam said something, Caroline guessed, about him believing the opposite, but she didn’t hear. Not because she couldn’t, but because she wouldn’t. She turned around, noticing quickly that neither of them had realised, and went towards Mary.

 

Mary went with Caroline to the loo, she could see she was not well, and because she was, exceedingly, didn’t mind sharing some of her happiness with her. Unexpectedly, though, her friend looked composed and far from on the verge of tears. When she tried to hug her, Caroline shrugged her off: “Henry’s amazing, Mary, now I see why the Bertram sisters fight over him.” She laughed, had no idea if they were fighting over him or him over them, but it was the first thing that had come out of her mouth. Mary accepted the change of topic. “Yeah, I don’t know, I heard Hal say something about Mia being out of the question, but I’m not sure he likes Julia.” It suddenly dawned on Caroline: “And Frances?” Mary frowned: What? Frances and Henry? “I mean: Where is she?” That made more sense. “She was there, with Ned and Hal and the others!” And added “But they were amazing, honestly, the best show I’ve seen them perform.” “Yeah, I mean, they could really become famous or something.” They smiled at each other. “So: Do you have to pee or not? Because I have to.”

 

At the green room, they all changed into clean clothes and dried their sweat in a towel they passed around. They congratulated each other, but also admitted their mistakes: “Yeah, I repeated a whole section,” “I totally forgot a line,” “Yes you did,” “What was that thing you did, Jamie? That was amazing, wasn’t it?” “It was!” “Did you think I was going too fast in ‘Blackout’?” “Of course you were, you always are.” Ian got out first, knowing a pair of honey-coloured adoring eyes would be expecting him outside, and dying to burn the remaining adrenaline in more pleasurable activities. Henry considered washing his hair on the sink, but didn’t, just tried to dry it off with the towel. His black curls were too pretty to just fall wet on his forehead. “You should’ve come to rehearsals yesterday.” He said it candidly, but Frank was annoyed anyway. “I know I know, I told you Thursdays were no-good for me, though.” Henry sighted and left, after one last look on the mirror. Only after they’d heard the door closing after Henry, did Frank allow himself to smile at Jamie, beaming.

When Henry got to the arena it was empty but for his friends, and they were all laughing and talking over each other. Mary, who was laughing a lot at something someone had said, disentangled herself from Ned and Frances to come and kiss him quickly on the cheek. He saw all eyes on him, except Ian’s and Mayra’s, who were standing apart from the rest and were whispering into each other’s ears. (Ela, Edward, Bet and Liam had left a bit earlier.) He considered them all: Ned, who he hadn’t planned on liking but like him he did; Caroline, distracted and just looking at him because everyone else was; Mia, with a knowing half smile; and Julia, with her cheeks blushed. Hal and Frances, he didn’t even register.