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Dear Lula

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Excuse my interference—it was kindly meant

 

Frances had seen it from the beginning, that this couldn’t last. She’d only questioned it when she’d seen how sad Mary’d been after the first fight and had realised that it was not that she was bad, but that she was completely unaware of her own faults. She’d found it difficult to remain impartial these past two weeks, so she hadn’t, quite: With Ned, she tried to disguise how much she agreed with him by trying to make him see things from Mary’s perspective, often failing; with Mary, she would just try to comfort her with her silence and bakes, afraid her words would reveal her true thoughts. Though she mustn’t have been as conspicuous as she’d expected, she realised now, when Mary shot her that hurt look, that look that very clearly said: I know you hate me.

Before that look, Frances was in her room, thinking about the previous night and what must have happened between Ned and Mary. She’d talked to him before, but not after, so she knew what he’d wanted to say but not if he’d said it. Not knowing if dreading a reconciliation made her an awful person (but suspecting it did), she had sort of been avoiding seeing Mary all morning, having had breakfast stupidly early and now delaying lunch unpractically late. As far as she knew, Mary hadn’t talked to Caroline either, not yet, and she’d heard the latter go out, so it had been Mary who had ordered food and had opened the door a few minutes ago, and it must have been Mary who was in the kitchen eating it. Frances considered delaying their meeting a while longer, even if both reason (she had to go to the shop in a bit, needed to have lunch first) and heart (needed to know) told her it wasn’t a good idea. What she would do was that: She’d wait ten minutes, and then she’d come out of her room, if Mary’d returned to her own, well, she would miss her. The ten minutes passed, Frances sitting on her bed, and she hadn’t heard a noise. She took a deep deep breath, collected her empty mug, and walked to the kitchen. The surprise of what she found there could not be easily concealed from her face: Mary was in her pyjamas, remains of mascara still in her face, the hair a mess. This wasn’t the worst of it though, no.

It wasn’t even that look, that look, that look with the words that accompanied it:

“Come now, say it, Frances.”

Mary eating pizza was what was worse. A pizza with cheese, cow cheese most certainly, and bacon, definitely pig bacon.

Frances couldn’t even move, and just stared at her mid-way to the sofa, eyes open wide.

“You’re as judgemental as him, aren’t you? Just nicer about it.” Mary’s tone was meaner than she’d ever heard it, but as mean as she’d always been afraid it could get. It was both a disappointment and a relief to hear it.

Which was maybe why it didn’t put Frances off, or not as much as the rest of it:

“You’re eating bacon, Mary.”

“No shit.”

“Stop then!” Frances finally snapped out of it, walked the few steps that separated her from Mary and took the slice of pizza from her hand.

“Why? Who cares?” Mary’s voice became less defiant then, more self-pitying. Something inside Frances twisted, and she left the mug and the slice by the pizza box, without stopping to look at her friend.

“You care!”

“Oh, do I?” Mary snorted, or tried to snort, her guilt, or sadness, or both, catching up in her throat.

But truth be told: Frances had always suspected Mary was into veganism hugely because of its social appeal. It made her appear alternative, rebellious, caring. But was it all for show? Part of her, even in that moment, thought it was, and couldn’t help but imagine that this hadn’t been the first time she’d eaten meat in secret since she’d started labelling herself a vegan. The other part of her realised she was being as judgemental as she was being accused of and made her stop.

“So, that’s how it is?” Frances tried to collect her nerve as best as she could, that nerve very little people suspected she had, until she used it. “It only takes a guy for you to throw your values out the window?”

Mary gaped at her, and as some silent tears started rolling down of her cheeks, Frances heart stopped. She approached her quickly, saying “Sorry, sorry” at the same time Mary shook her head, “You’re right, you’re right” and covered her face with her tomato-stained hands. After some hesitation, Frances wrapped both her arms around her. It was enough for Mary to start crying in earnest, and then, to become quiet for a second, move away, and retch. After that, it was a race to the loo.

 

Caroline had never been one to read novels other than those made compulsory in school. If asked, however, she would have never admitted she didn’t like them, she would have simply given a non-committal “I don’t have the time.” This way, you were not saying you never read or that you didn’t like books—frankly, that sounded ignorant even to her—you were simply stating that you had more interesting things to do. Even though everyone might suspect this not to be entirely true, it would still be considered acceptable coming from a young rich girl’s mouth. Even so, when Mary had said, that many weeks ago after the disaster that had been their first university party, “Read this, it’ll take your mind off things”, to say that she didn’t have the time would’ve been an obvious lie. They were sharing a flat, after all, Mary saw her lying on the sofa, mobile in hand, often enough.

Still, she hadn’t been tempted at first, never having made the time to read, it was in a way true that she didn’t know which of her usual activities she was to sacrifice for it. Even if those included watching old episodes of The Apprentice and stalking half her class on Facebook. In her mind, reading was still too associated with school, and Dickens, and Shakespeare, and Chaucer. And so she left the book on her table and forgot about it. What is more, she covered it with her newest shirts, and then a wore-once dress, and then all the flyers they gave out at the student union. The book had been there for five weeks before Caroline even read the title. And now, another five weeks later, she was so immersed in the universe of Outlander that found it difficult to even concentrate in class. Why hadn’t Mary forced her to read it before? With whom had Mary exchanged theories, gushed over Jamie? Why had nobody ever told her that you could love characters in a book almost as much as some of your friends, and certainly more than most of your acquaintances? On the one hand, she felt she’d discovered a new world beyond all that she’d known to be interesting, on the other, she worried no other book or characters would ever matter to her that much. Mary’d said: Don’t you worry about that.

Once they’d finished season one (and oh my god what an ending), Mary’d wanted to start season two, but Frances and Caroline hadn’t allowed it. Caroline wanted to read the second book first, and Frances had just started the first. They agreed they’d wait: problem was, Caroline had just finished the second last night, and she knew Mary didn’t have the third—lent it to a friend from school who had never read it, never returned it. What a fool! It was this girl’s fault, and the fact no-one had plans for the weekend other than obsessing over deadlines or being mad to other people, maybe also that her fundamentals of management article was so bloody dull, that Caroline had to walk to the Waterstones. Must. Like, are you kidding? She hadn’t really planned it, despite having it said to Lula the night before, she hadn’t even changed clothes or put on make-up: she’d took her wallet, her coat, and suddenly found herself in Arndale in her Adidas and a sweatshirt (Hollister, granted). And for a book!

She looked for the book in the historical fiction section, was surprised, a few minutes later, to discover a section entirely dedicated to romance, and within it, to historical fiction romance, with the book she was looking for set in a prominent spot by the table. What a strange feeling, to see it so public! She took it with her and walked directly to the line, which being a Saturday, was rather long. The book in her hand, she couldn’t not open it while she waited: after how the other one ended, how couldn’t she? There was a Prologue, which she skimmed and then skipped, and then the first chapter, the awaited first chapter. She almost gasped but didn’t. She’d known Jamie would be alive (so many books left in the series, he better be), but was still amazed to see it confirmed so clearly: Jamie alive! She wouldn’t have liked to know she was smiling by herself, at nothing, at a book, at a fictional character. She liked being interrupted even less, especially with such a commentary:

“They’ll let you take it home if you pay for it, you know.”

She looked first in front of her, and finding no one, looked back to find the guy who’d talked to her. Again, she looked at the front and realised it was her turn in the line. Still, the cashiers were ringing the previous customers, so it wasn’t that bad. She looked back at the guy and distractedly flipped her hair to the side with one hand, in a gesture she hopped to be both sexy and menacing.

“Don’t say. My plan was to bat my lashes well fast at them.”

She said, lightly pointing to the clerk at the till. Jamie’s survival in Culloden had emboldened her in a way she didn’t believe possible, and so after delivering her send off, she went on to ignoring the guy (not handsome), though not to reading the book. It was killing her though to remain dignified, she had distinguished a ‘Claire!’ in there. Of course the first thing Jamie would think of was Claire. Her face must have given her out: she heard him chuckle behind her, apparently amused. Maybe he hadn’t been mean, which is how she had taken it, and he’d just been flirting. Could it be? As the two tills became empty, they each moved to one. While the clerk rang her, Caroline took the chance to look at the guy and confirm what she’d suspected: nothing special. He was tall, maybe as tall as Liam (comparing men to Liam: an habit that needed getting rid of), and broad (neither athletic nor fat, broad), flat nose, short hair, pink cheeks. She couldn’t see much more from there, not without making it obvious, but she didn’t need it to know she didn’t care. She got her money and her bag and turned around towards the exit.

“You know there’s a TV series?” She was startled and looked around to find him by her side.

“What?”

“About that book you got.” His voice was nice though, and his accent too, a mix of northern (definitely northerner than Manchester) and something else, which she couldn’t identify.

“I know.” She knew about Sam Heughan.

“Oh, fair enough.”

So, it must have been true, that he hadn’t been offended by her slowing the line but that he had liked what he’d seen. Well, this had never been a problem for her, had it? He smiled at her a broad smile, which mixed with his pink cheeks and big blue eyes made him look a bit like a puppy (not Milo though), but didn’t say anything. She could see he wanted her to say something, but he would have to work harder for it, as she had no interest in making this into anything other than what it was: an interruption. She shook her head and said, kinder than before:

“Well, goodbye.”

It took a few seconds for him to realise he’d missed his chance, and then he just said, not moving from where he was:

“Yes. Bye.”

At that moment she was already thinking on how many minutes it would take her to get in the bus and start reading that chapter.

 

Mary was sitting in her bed, her head resting on Frances’ shoulder. The worst had ended, and now Mary looked much better: not that it was difficult. Her fringe had never been the same since she’d cut it for Cleopatra, on Halloween, but now it was almost as before, and she had at least her face clean. Also her insides, as she’d been sick two times—she was unsure if it had been the knowledge of what she’d eaten, or the half bottle of wine she’d drank with it that had made the trick.

“I cannot believe I ate corpse.” Even if Frances was glad she was not crying anymore, she couldn’t help but be startled at the graveness of her words and gestures. How had it happened, how had Mary become her friend? She’d known from the beginning that Mary considered her one, but she had always suspected that half the reason was to ingratiate herself with Ned. Had she judged her wrongly the entire time? Was, after all, she, who had a wicked mind, heart?

Maybe, but, still: She cared about Mary. Even when she’d tried to resist it, at one point she had started to return all of Mary’s smiles and had started to laugh at her jokes. And now she was sad for her—not only for Ned or for herself, but for Mary too.

“Don’t worry about that.”

Mary sighed loudly, for the thousandth time this day, and apologised, also not for the first time “I’m sorry Frances, I feel awful.”

“It was just one pizza. Half a pizza.”

Mary lifted her head and gulped down her second glass of water since they’d been sitting there, as if she hadn’t heard what she’d said. Or as if she’d heard it and had wanted to cleanse her mouth once again.

“Ah. I really don’t know what’s happening, Frances. I’m sure you do. I know you do. But you’re not gonna say anything cos you’re on Ned’s side.” She raised her hand. “Don’t deny it, it’s fine.”

Frances didn’t say anything, because she was on Ned’s side. She let a second go by, then another, and then asked what she had been dreading to hear (it was easier since she couldn’t see her eyes):

“What happened yesterday?”

Another loud sigh, and then Mary moved a bit away from her.

“I don’t even know, to be honest.” The words left her as if she’d been waiting to be asked this exact question all day, and so she let it all out like the air from a punctured balloon: “I don’t understand why he got mad at me on the first place. I get why he’d be mad at Mia, though it’s honestly her decision, and I could even sort of understand it if he were angry at Henry, though he was only trying to be a good friend. But what did I do? Anytime I say something I make it worse, it seems. First, he started talking, yesterday, as if he’d had everything rehearsed, and I thought, right, we’re on the same page, and then he got mad at me! Again! I just said that I would support him if he quit uni, right? He actually said ‘You would like that, wouldn’t you’ and of course I said yes, which maybe I shouldn’t. But it’s not like what he’s doing is useful. And he’s planning about telling on Mia, can you believe it? The brotherly thing would be to keep the secret! No question! He can pretend not to know, if that makes him feel better. But then he says that she’s spending their father’s money, like they are poor, you know! And so, she was doing Art History! Actress is definitely a safer career choice than vicar, isn’t it? And turns out she’s living with Henry and Ian, which I didn’t even know until Mayra said it the other day. Isn’t that good news? That’s what I said to Ned when he told me: Well, at least I’m glad someone treats her better than her brother! What is this machismo that makes him think he has any say on what his sisters do? It would have been better if he’d never found out and each had kept to their thing.”

And it continued, and then it stopped, and Frances could see that she mixed thoughts and sentiments that were valid and good with others that were really not. She tried to think about her life, as she’d told Ned to do, how different it was from theirs. He’d been raised in a big conservative catholic family: Mary only had Henry.

“Mary.” She finally cut her: “I think—I think that you’re very different.”

The only good thing was that the monologue had made Mary more angry than sad, and now her face was red instead of green and her eyes were dry instead of wet.

“Yes. That’s what he said.”

Frances looked at her with pressed lips, not sure she had said the right thing. Didn’t they say love conquered everything?

“And now?”

Mary let herself fall on her back on the bed, as dramatic a gesture as could be. “Who knows?! I said some awful things to him. And he to me.”

Frances would find the second part difficult to believe if he hadn’t seen him angry herself a couple of days ago.

“But you love him?”

Mary laughed at the word: “Love! What do I know?” But then she sighed noisily and sat upright again. “I do like him a lot. Butterflies and all. But I am so mad, Frances. And I think he’s right.”

Frances held her breath.

“I mean, he’s studying Theology and I am Law. His favourite band is Coldplay—He thinks Olly Murs is good music, for fuck’s sake.”

Frances laugh startled Mary and, feeling bad, Frances covered her mouth with her hands.

“What are laughing about?!”

“He doesn’t have the best taste in music.”

Now it was Mary who laughed. “What is this thing I hear you singing by the way?”

Frances blushed, it was true she sang sometimes in her room, and that she had a beautiful singing voice. And she guessed what Mary wanted to know because she had been listening to Hasta la Raíz obsessively these past weeks.

“She’s, hum, a Mexican singer, I’ll show her to you if you want.”

“I do.”

 

When Caroline got home Mary and Frances were on the sofa watching Mulan. The remains of the pizza had disappeared by then, and so no-one would ever have to know what had happened, apart from Frances and Mary herself. Caroline looked at them, considering either to stay or to go to her room and read for a bit. At the end, she sat in between them, even though they’d been sitting close together, and warned them: I’ve got the third book, so after this you’ll have seen enough of me for today.