It was more pleasant than prudent
Half hour past the official meet up time, they were all there except from Ian Willoughby, generally known as Will. Mayra was in her apron, cutting carrots and pretending that she didn’t care her boyfriend—they’d put a label on it, in the end—was late. The rest were all there, with only one new addition to the group: a pretty girl that introduced herself as Bel to all present before anyone had a chance to ask. To replace Frank, who had bailed at the last minute—as was his style—Ela had invited another one of her flatmates, who they had all met already: her best friend Edward, and a great addition to any party, in her humble and possibly controversial opinion.
Caroline stood by a cupboard, legs crossed and hands on her back—she didn’t know what to do with them at all, but she couldn’t bear to drink any alcohol right now. Mia was on the sofa, in a look that made her outfit at the concert an obvious costume: No dark makeup, no floor-length dress, just skinny jeans and long red nails. Henry was sitting with her and they were rather too scrunched together, for a guy who had something with the girl in question’s sister. “But have you texted him?” Ned asked, sitting in one of the chairs, in direct line of sight of Mary, at the other side of Henry. “Will? Yes,” Henry answered, forgetting what Mia was saying to him (he liked Ned quite a lot) “hasn’t read it yet, though…” Mary had known Ian longer than any of them, except for Henry, and couldn’t say she was surprised. If anything, she was more surprised at the fact he had made it as a decent boyfriend that long (one month and some days, Mayra was saying earlier). The truth was that she wouldn’t, in a million years, have imagined Ian being in a stable relationship—and it wasn’t so much his loyalty that she questioned, although that too, but his ability to focus in someone other than himself: he was the flakiest, more egotistical person she’d ever met. Hell, if he weren’t, she wouldn’t have turned him down last year after that BD gig. Although the fact he shared a flat with Henry had also weighted down on her decision. And they had still snogged, but that wasn’t something she was gonna share with any of her present company (Caroline, yes, she liked a good gossip: she would tell her on their way home tonight—if she didn’t spend the night here with Ned as she hoped). Anyway: Ian Willoughby was still not there. Hal was; Hal, who later that night explained to Caroline that he got the nickname via Shakespeare, because practically nobody, when he was little and went home to Seoul every summer, pronounced “Henry” the way the English did, and his mother, who was a fan of the Henriad—much on the vein of a cultured socialite—came up with this shortened and much more phonetically-friendly version for him: Hal. He’d liked it a lot and kept it, saying that one-syllable names and last-names (Hal Tae, was his) were very trendy in his home country. At this, Caroline explained (although he obviously knew, of course he knew) that in Britain the opposite was true: the longer your lastname, the fancier you were. But that was later, at the moment Hal was sitting in a chair too, drinking beer, and feeling guilty for not helping in the kitchen, though the Deshmukh sisters had turned his help down twice, and so he now offered hospitality in other ways he could think of: “Sure you don’t want to sit?” he asked Caroline and Bel, both of them standing up. Bel took it as if he were talking exclusively to her, and smiled and nodded “Yeah, you’re right” and sat on the other sofa, by Edward’s side. Edward had had no idea she’d existed until a few minutes ago, but Bel had been hearing about him through Mayra (Mayra didn’t understand what Ela saw in him, he was a total nerd), and was curious. So finally, when Julia, who was setting the table, offered her a glass of water, Caroline said yes and sat with Hal and Ned. “Now: he’s read it!” said Henry, referring to the text he’d sent Ian. They celebrated with a unanimous “Wo!”, until he quickly added, “aaand he’s disconnected again.”
By the time Ian got there the scene had changed quite a lot, starting with the fact that they were all over 0 in the drunkenness scale to 10 (some, like Caroline, Julia, or Edward, were closer to 0, whereas others, like Mia, Mayra or Mary, were closer to 10). After dinner, they had mostly stayed in their chairs around the table, only Mary and Ned having moved to the sofa, all entangled limbs—Mia and Julia were repulsed but also fascinated to see their brother so amorous, they wouldn’t have recognised him in a million years. For the past while, they had been each discussing, in sort of incoherent sentences and same-side arguments, their most amazing holidays abroad (Mary: South Africa is the most beautiful country on earth, Ned: that’s because you haven’t been to Mexico) and had afterwards moved to Brexit, only Caroline and Mayra not having been old enough yet to vote, and all the rest having voted Stay. You could easily presume some of them had lied about it out of embarrassement, but then they all had started retracing their ancestry and only Caroline and Edward were as boring as to have all four of their grandparents be White British. Through all this, Henry (descendant of Greek gods—his words) had been flirting with Bel (daughter of Pakistani immigrants) and making her laugh, and of course Bel had proved to have the most tinkling laugh there had ever been, one of these crystalline laughs you saw described in books but did not actually believe existed until you heard them with your own ears, and even then you were sure it was practised, fake. Julia (half-British half-Mexican) had been suspicious of them, but every time she’d directed her attention to Henry or had asked him something, he’d been nothing but attentive and charming to her—it was torture, really. Julia, then, had sought refuge in Hal, who was always kind to her but had at the moment other things in mind—Hal had been, in fact, selflessly trying to cheer Mayra up with the help of Caroline, and because he was actually funny it was working rather well. Mayra had almost forgotten she hated her marble-carved high-cheekboned god-like boyfriend until he rang the bell and they all started yelling like savages. When Mayra suggested “Let’s pretend we’ve left and there’s nobody here!” they all laughed because the idea was preposterous: they were being too loud. In the end, it was Mia who got up and opened the door for him: “Congratulations, mate, you’re only two hours late.” She didn’t know him that well, but she knew the type. Ian had a bouquet of flowers with him, because of course he did. They all yelled more, the girls giggled, and Henry took it as a sign to turn the volume of the music up. In ten minutes, Mayra had forgiven Ian and was sitting on his lap while he finished the leftover meatless lasagne and the chocolate birthday cake. He’d offered his apologises and a thousand of sweet words but not, Caroline recalled later, an explanation.
Mia wanted to dance, so they moved the table and the chairs to one side. Mary dragged Caroline to her side on the sofa to ask her, not as inconspicuously as she believed, what she thought of Hal. Caroline said half the truth: “He’s cute” and kept the other half to herself: “He’s not Liam”. But then they both got up and danced, and Julia joined them too, as Henry took charge of the playlist and Hal offered Ned another beer, sitting by his side on the couch. Ela made her excuses and left a bit before midnight with Edward, after having shared a very-tight hug with Mayra (who immediately afterwards went back to sit on her boyfriend).
Frances was sulking at home. It was different from the other nights she’d stayed at home while the others were outside doing things because this time she was mad at Ned, and she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d been, if ever. She could not believe he had not only allowed, but helped throw a party in his house, disobeying his father’s rules without much second-thought. It was especially egregious because it had been an explicit order his father had given him, after the disastrous party Tom had thrown there, well before their time, and the enormous trouble they had got in with the neighbours and (even) the firemen. Frances knew about it because Ned had told her, of course, jokingly: Not throwing parties? That’s a rule that’ll be easy to follow. And then, after only some days of dating Mary, he’d gone and broke it. It was not the party itself that bothered her, it was the trust he’d broken, such an un-Ned thing to do. She knew it wasn’t fair, but she blamed Mary. Frances had tried to talk him out of it, even if less emphatically than she’d planned in her head, and he’d excused it saying it was not a house party, but a dinner party: Just a dozen people having a meal. Nothing out of the ordinary, really, because where do you set the limit? would you consider a dinner of four a party? And of six? Then, what was a dozen? And in this perilous train of thought she’d recognised Mary’s logic all too well. Why would you try to change a person, if you loved them? And why would you let yourself be changed? The only good thing about being angry at Ned was that it threw her mind off how sad she was. The feeling deep down in her chest was so awful, she felt lonelier that she’d felt in years. But no, she was not crying in bed a Saturday night with Middlemarch in her hands and a brew on the bedside table, that was for sure.
She was reading the same paragraph for the third time when her mobile started ringing. Startled at the sound—who called at this hour?—she got even more anxious when she identified the caller: Mr Bertram. She could tell he was infuriated, but he knew her well enough (not much, but enough) to make sure to keep that anger from filtering into his words. “What is this, have you any idea what is happening?” He’d been calling Ned for twenty minutes with no response. The neighbours had complained to him and would call the police if the noise didn’t stop soon. He’d hung up before Frances had had any chance to say anything, but still, she would have agreed to all of it. She got out of bed quickly and put on her jacket, but she was about to tie her shoes when she decided she was not in such a hurry that she couldn’t change into her jeans before leaving the house. Still, it only took her two minutes to leave the building, her head full of Edmund. All her anger had suddenly left her and there was only worry for him left: she still wished the best for him. Somehow, she managed to get there in under five minutes, but it was only after ringing the bell that she realised what she’d done. Fuelled by adrenaline and anxiety, she was interrupting a party in her flannel flower-patterned shirt and her untied hair all curled up around her face; she wrapped her jacket tightly around her bust and tried to unsuccessfully flatten her hair with her hands. At the other side, it was Julia who came through and opened the door for her. She didn’t have time to say anything before Frances blurted: “Where is Edmund?” Julia let her in, not used to the commanding tone in her voice and not questioning her presence. “What’s wrong, Frances?” The rest of them saw her come in and both Mary and Caroline ran to her side: “Are you alright?” Fraught in the middle of the living room, Frances looked everywhere without moving, not comprehending why Ned wasn’t there. Finally, after Hal turned down the music and Mia complained about it and turned it up again, Frances talked: “Your father called, he said the neighbours complained, they’re calling the police”. You could tell from everybody’s expression that they were expecting something far worse: that someone had got into an accident, that someone had attacked her. They all relaxed a bit, but still understood that something had to be done. Mayra and Mia complained loudly, but finally agreed to turn off the music. Ian soothed Mayra into a hug, and she ended up laughing instead of crying. Julia started cleaning everything, though in a completely impractical manner, probably more out of stress than any desire to clean up. Still, the rest started helping her at least get rid of the bigger mess, putting the chairs and table back where they belonged. Frances, when she finally reacted, when she realised that, after all, they had understood the urgency of her message, decided to look for Edmund. She wouldn’t have done it if Mary had been missing too (she was the least interested in walking in on them, especially after having come close to it once already), but she was here, filling a bin bag with trash while singing a bit too-drunkenly to the song she’d interrupted. She, Frances, climbed the stairs to the first floor, her face in a grimace. She didn’t have a chance to look before she saw them, so it was not that she was not careful and followed the suspicious noises, no, she just saw them because they were in the middle of the upstairs corridor: this girl that she didn’t know and could barely see and Henry, who she could recognise as much for his profile as for the act itself. They were just kissing, but it was not just a kiss. Frances stumbled back towards the stairs, feeling tainted just for having witnessed it, but it was too late, she’d been spotted. Henry said: “Frances?” (she would’ve sworn he didn’t even know her name) the same time Edmund did, at the bottom of the stairs: “Frances?” It was towards the latter that she ran: “Edmund!” And told him about his father’s call, so fast and incoherently that if he understood it was only because he’d just talked to him himself, from Hal’s room. Frances felt instantly better, even if a flash of what she’d just seen crossed her mind very very quickly—the exact same act and embrace, but with her and Edmund, instead of Henry Crawford and that girl—and then vanished, leaving her hot and confused. Blushing, she followed Edmund to the living room. His calm demeanour was much more effective than her nervous gesturing, and they all (maybe not Mia) contributed to cleaning everything out, at least superficially. When Ian exclaimed that “A party is not a party without the impending doom of police arrival” it made all of them laugh, and although they had turned the noise down a few calibres, Ned didn’t settle for anything else than putting an end to the night (But it’s barely 1 am, Ned).
This that should’ve happened organically through decisions that would have been explained by the hour and the alcohol levels in their blood was now forced out in the open: Where each stayed, who left with whom. If Mary had even considered staying here with Ned, her plan was clearly thwarted when he claimed he would walk them home (he meant the three of them, of course: Frances, Mary and Caroline). Ian and Mayra were a done deal, and quickly left together for the bus to the city centre to get to his flat, whereas the Bertram girls and Hal stayed were they were, their house. In an unprecedented act of chivalry, and despite Julia’s attempts to make him stay, Henry opted to walk the girls with Ned, and included Bel, who was also in one of the University Halls, in the group. This was not all. In their way to the halls, Ned had his arm around Frances, and Henry, the last of the line, followed Caroline and did the same with her, even if from a safe distance: “Did you have fun, Caroline?” “Of course,” she was always eager to please when she wanted to belong to a group, a person, and so she said it without thinking. But it was true, she realised: She’d had fun with a group of friends! Her group of friends! The thought made her happy. She remembered to add “Don’t think as much as you, though” and then, because she was quite good about noticing these things, she raised her eyebrows and gestured slightly towards Bel, walking by Mary’s side in front of them. She hoped she hadn’t imagined the chemistry between the two. “Oh, don’t be cheeky” his tone was fake-offended, and Caroline laughed loudly. “Me? You’ve got a nerve, you, you—turnip!”, he laughed too, “Turnip! I like this one, I’m gonna keep it.” Mary and Bel turned around to look at them, see what had made them laugh, and Caroline beamed. The truth was, she had never had a guy friend. At least not since puberty hit, of course, but since then never without an ulterior motive (usually from their part, not hers). She liked the feeling of being made to laugh and making a guy laugh knowing that he had no romantic interest in her, nor she in him (like, at all). She would have never thought it, but she did: it was refreshing. On the other hand, Mary had always had as many guy as girl friends, especially in high school, which always tried to get the worst of girls, pitted them against each other in a fight for something they mostly didn’t even want. This was exactly the sort of behaviour she believed she’d identified in Bel, and the reason why she didn’t like her one half. Or she wouldn’t, if she cared, but she didn’t. Henry could take care of himself. Bel was trying to get personal, asking her things, and Mary, who couldn’t be bothered, just glared at Ned and Frances in front of them. Until she could not help it and interrupted them. They weren’t saying anything anyway. Which was exactly why Frances was so extremely happy, she would have her know. This was the Ned she knew! This was her Edmund! The one that didn’t need to say the thing to know you knew the thing. He was embarrassed and was thankful to her, he loved her and was worried for her. He didn’t say it, but she knew. She had smiled at him warmly and he’d understood that she’d understood it. Words, what were words! Their mere use was a sign of a lack of understanding. They were not enough for Edmund and her, they were too much! Despite not having been at the party nor having drunk anything (ever), Frances felt dizzy, weightless, bright, as if she’d had an epiphany. Which was also why part of her didn’t mind Mary interrupting them and returning her to the real world. “I’m really sorry things turned out like this.” Mary extended her arm and wrapped it around Frances waist, who felt herself forgive her a little bit.
Bel took the chance to take off, turning left when they turned right, and thanking them all for having had her tonight, which had been so much fun. Henry let go of Caroline more quickly than you said Bingley, though he was sure to wink his goodbye to her, and he followed the new girl unapologetically. “I’ll walk you there”, he said loudly, as a way of explanation to the others, and when he got to her side she said, “You’ll only walk me there, though.” He couldn’t tell if she was being serious of not: “Of course.” He took a last look back at them (he’d left Caroline by herself, now, and she looked rather pretty in the moonlight) and waved them goodbye.
Caroline and Frances got inside first, and each got to their room in silence. It took almost fifteen minutes for Caroline to have all her face cleaned up and her pyjamas on, and still she hadn’t heard Mary come in. She knocked on Frances’ door and got inside before hearing a response, Frances now wearing the trousers that went with her flannel shirt: “Were you asleep when he called? What a scare, to be honest!” Frances confessed she’d been reading, and she was about to continue doing so now. “You were gonna read now, at almost 2 am?” she laughed, Why Frances, you’re a full of surprises. “It helps me sleep, even if it’s 4 am I need to read a few pages. Although I don’t think I’m on the right mindset right now.” “Of course you’re not,” Caroline agreed, “what you need is a dose of abs, Jacobites, and rebellion!” Frances laughed merrily, not un-happy despite everything, and Caroline detected the faintest shadow of a blush on her cheeks. When Mary got in ten minutes later, she found Frances’ room’s door kept open by her chair, and Caroline and Frances ready to press play on their next episode. She didn’t think it twice, she only kicked her sandals off her feet and sat down between the two of them in her high-waisted ripped jeans (which she unbuttoned) and a full face of make-up—except for the lipstick, of course: no trace of it any more.
In bed, later that night: Caroline’d had a good night, and happiness lingered about her while she thought of the party and the good friends she’d made here. And then, without even realising how, darker thoughts started to invade her. What was wrong with her? Why was it just assumed that all boys saw her as just a friend? She didn’t like Henry, at all, but why hadn’t he tried to seduce her, as he’d tried with everyone else? Oh, she’d noticed, she’d noticed alright. He’d tried with everyone except for herself and Frances, and you could barely count Frances. And what about Ian? He hadn’t even looked at her that way. Nor Ned, nor Frank. In a wave of fury and self-affirmation, and with as much pity as hatred for herself, she got her mobile from her night-stand and opened her dating app. Unless it was a picture taken in a bathroom mirror, she swiped right: This chubby pasty boy in a hat, right! this long-haired one skating, right! This one in a fake-posh party with a girl in his arm, right! And then, suddenly, there was Hal, right there on her phone screen, with a picture that was not embarrassing (he was hiking, but his face was unhindered from the usual stuff in these pictures: sun, sunglasses, hats) and a one-sentence bio (“Student at UM, would like to meet new people”).