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Dear Lula

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No one who has ever seen you together can doubt his affection

 

It wasn't a party, and it really wasn't a party. It was a nice, adult-like dinner, which is why all guests—not many—were asked to bring something to eat, not to drink. Ultimately it didn't matter, Charlie knew that people who wanted to get drunk would bring the goods, and was counting on it: that was what his wink emoji after his written "Just food!" had meant, if anyone had bothered to translate it. He was now in an apron and half squatting in front of the oven—Ela’d joked that he looked like a Bake Off contestant and had taken a picture—making sure the shepherd's pie he’d cooked didn’t get burn. He'd seen Joana barely a few hours ago but was nervous for her to arrive anyway. He'd cooked something elaborate for the first time in his life, had bought her a gift, and had curated a playlist that Frank had deemed absolute shite and, If you don’t mind, I’ll be in charge of the list from now on so no one has to suffer though that. He hadn't minded, because he'd been focused on cooking the beef. Don’t worry so much, she'll love it anyway, is what Richard had said—and Charlie'd answered, “That's no reason to not try make it perfect,” and the rest had clapped only half-jokingly. Richard was Fitzwilliam's cousin, and though both cousins agreed fundamentally on most things, his manners were so different than no-one would have said so: Richard always offered his opinion, even when unasked, but in such a way that no-one ever took it badly. He was great fun, and having him around the flat was always nice. He had also offered to peel the potatoes and chop the onion, which had sort of helped Charlie with his nerves.

Fitzwilliam, meanwhile, was reading in the living room—Why not? He was very nervous too, though only those who knew him well could appreciated it. He'd been on edge since Bet had finally accepted his friend request on Facebook—after almost four months! four months!—even though she'd accepted it only after having accepted Richard’s, which she'd just met before Christmas and had got along with really well really quickly. Fitzwilliam was a very—euphemism—private person, and hadn't shared his feelings towards her with anyone, not even Charlie or Richard—and yet, the latter had intuited something, and by getting along with her so well (yet never flirting) he had conveyed his approval—Or that was how Fitzwilliam had taken it. Anyway, today was Joana's farewell party, so he had asked everybody to not make a big deal of his birthday, and he hadn’t invited anyone. Ela was talking to her sister on the phone, who wasn't coming—not in the mood—and Frank was still playing with Charlie's iPhone when the bell rang. Charlie wanted to open the door but worried because, Was it golden already? or not enough yet? should he put some more cheddar? (“Given the choice, always put more cheddar”). So Fitzwilliam went instead and opened the door for Bet. And also Joana and Lidia—the Italian girl that unfortunately sometimes joined them. He stared a bit before saying anything, but they all said Hi anyway and sort of dodged him to get inside—it was too cold, hellishly too cold, to be outside one more minute than necessary. He'd decided he'd say something to Bet—though he wasn't sure of when he'd do it, what he’d say had been indeed planned. He'd tried to forget about her during the holidays, but he hadn't. He'd thought about her almost every day, and because now he had access to her Facebook profile, he'd done something he'd never believed himself capable of: he had stalked her. Only superficially. Had only looked at the most recent pictures, most recent entries—which weren't many (it was good, that she wasn't addicted to it—would have been a turn off—or maybe it wouldn’t, at this point, who was to tell?). An amateur stalker, in all accounts, but still a Facebook stalker. Even in pictures, he was hypnotised by her eyes—big, round and dark brown, long eyelashed—and what he could see in them, possibly what he knew was true and was in fact projecting: her intelligence, her wit, her honesty and her—despite seldom used for his benefit—kindness and generosity. She walked past him and went towards the kitchen, she had cooked omelettes with Joana (one Spanish with potato and onion, one with artichokes), and where should she leave them? Only Caroline was missing now, no-one else having invited anybody else: Joana felt weird already bringing two people in a house that wasn't hers, even if it was her farewell dinner. Fitzwilliam went upstairs to let Edward know that he could come down, if he felt better—he had the flu and had been sneezing all day—and then went to the kitchen with the others.

When the bell rang again, it was Ela who opened for them: “Hey girls.” It was the girls, maybe Mayra'd feel bad now that she hadn't come. “Is it Caroline?” Charlie yelled from the kitchen. “Yes, it's the girls”—and everyone knew who the girls were, of course, even though the previous guests had also been girls. Caroline, who came both as a friend of Joana and—allegedly—Fitzwilliam’s, was nervous about being there again after the horror that had been the Christmas party. It was also, however, her chance at redemption, which she hoped was apparent she was intend on from both the desert she brought and her appearance. They said you had to cut your hair when you’d had your heart broken, so this haircut had been long overdue. She had it now in a single layer right over her shoulders, and she had also decided against the highlights: much too high-maintenance, somewhat fake. She'd dyed it all her natural colour, which was a shade darker, but still blonder than Charlie’s and Lula's. She'd also taken the chance—amends plus insane cold—to wear for the first time that dress she'd bought months ago that Lula hadn't liked, mostly because it was the opposite of what she'd worn at the other do: a long-sleeved, high-necked dress, short but combined with opaque black tights and flats. But who knew, they were men—boys—so maybe they didn’t see any of that. And that's what the desert was for: Frances and she had made tiramisu together, a first for both, although Caroline was sure that Frances’ baking skills would make up for their lack of expertise. If anyone thought anything about her bringing two people, no-one said anything. The table wasn't set yet, though they'd made the effort to bring enough chairs and to join what must have been the dinner table with a bedroom desk.

Frank greeted them effusively, and Ela took what they'd brought to the kitchen (the tiramisu, plus Mary's salad), while Edward got downstairs, eyes and nose red, rest of him grey-white. They said Hi, Frances asked "How can we help?" and Frank answered "What's a good song you like?" but she gave him a look before ignoring him and went instead to the kitchen, Mary did laugh, though, while Caroline took her coat off, leaving it on the sofa. She didn't wanna see Liam, but she did want to see him. Charlie came out with Frances, she with the tablecloth, him with some plates. "Hi girls!" Of course he didn't even notice his own sister’s change of look. She'd cut five inches of hair! More from behind. "Hi, Charlie, you alright?" He looked nervous, and that made her feel better. "Yes!" uncharacteristically for him, he put an arm around her shoulders after he'd unceremoniously left the plates on the table, "Yes! Heard your exams went well?" "Who knows?" She said, also uncharacteristically. Frank asked Mary: "So, you're back with the vicar, aren't you? Too busy now to join the band, I’d wager", to a "Join the band?" from Ela, coming back with more plates and cutlery. "Let me help you" jumped Mary in, ignoring him, while Frances set the ones Charlie'd brought. "Mary’s singing would tip the genre balance to pure punk." "What?" Ela said at the same time as Caroline, Charlie and Edward did. Mary rolled her eyes, in her best impression of a cynical lady from an Oscar Wilde's play. "If you must know: I am the worst singer Frank's ever heard, and he has fun reminding me." "It's uncanny, the never-seen. Heard, I mean. Just fucking awful" Frank admitted, and Caroline laughed, because despite how much she loved Mary, she was glad to find out she didn’t excel at everything. "I thought you were serious, man!" Ela complained, but Mary cut her: "The actual good singer here is Frances, you should ask her." Plat-mid air, Frances looked as if she'd seen a ghost—or worse, as if someone had asked her to sing in public. Frank looked interested, he approached her and sat on a chair nearby: "Oh, really?" Charlie, bored, dragged Caroline towards the kitchen, which smelled wonderful even from there: "You want something to drink? You have to congratulate Liam!" They crossed paths with Joana and Bet and the other girl, all of them carrying glasses, covered dishes, and more glasses. "Joana!" Caroline half-hugged her carefully, not the others (though she graciously smiled at Bet when she said Hi, from the high-road she'd decided to take today) and then they left and it turned out that in the kitchen there was only Charlie, Liam, and another guy. She started making up excuses in her head for being there—glasses, cutlery, food! Surely there was food that needed to be brought to the table—not realising it had been Charlie who'd brought her there.

They were looking at the open oven, but Liam turned around when he heard her, unlike the other guy, which was joined by an over-excited Charlie, "It's done, it's done! looks brilliant!" He looked nice, Fitzwilliam did, but she felt more nervous about how daft he must think her than of anything else. She would be an ice queen, baby, and it helped that she felt so comfortable in her prettiness today, a bit more herself than she would've thought: "Liam, hi, happy birthday." In the coolest voice. So proud of herself. "We've brought tiramisu, it's there, somewhere." Liam sort of smiled, said thank you. She would not apologise again for getting sick on his Fred Perrys, she had already, many many times, that night. "Frances said," he said, kindly enough. And then, quickly followed it with "This is Richard." And Richard, who’d turned to them a few seconds before, was already smiling at her when she looked at him: familiar. Confirmed suddenly for what he said next, which was what she last expected, "So it was you." It was the accent that did it, most than his looks: though maybe his pink cheeks... But she placed him immediately and perfectly at the centre of Arndale’s, looking at her leaving. It would haunt her in future days that he’d said what he’d said the way that he’d said it: What had his tone meant, had she imagined the emphasis on was? Had he suspected it at the time? And why did he have this look now, this look that said he was not surprised that she turned out to be Caroline, or not that, maybe disappointed—wait, no—satisfied? And, worst of all: What had Liam said to him about her? Charlie broke the ice asking the only askable question, which was “Wait, have you met each other?” And then she finally focused on the present moment, and nodded, “Why yes, he was rude to me on Waterstones.” Of course she was joking, it was better than to say he’d flirted with her—especially because in light of this new information she’d started to think that maybe he really hadn’t. Charlie laughed, Richard laughed, and Liam looked at her with some sort of interest—a look so rarely directed her way, her smile fell when she realised. “But I wasn’t, really” Richard contributed, excusing himself to Charlie in case he felt like defending his sister, which he didn’t. “He’s my cousin” Liam said, providing the information everyone already had. Still, Caroline’s stomach did something weird. “Oh, really? Well, nice to meet you—formally.” Was he a Darcy or a Fitzwilliam? There was so much she didn’t know about Liam—and would never know. And it was alright. It was alright. “You go to school here as well?” “Cambridge,” he said quickly, but because he didn’t consider it interesting, continued with the subject he’d been meaning to since the beginning, “Have you finished your book, then?” She blushed a bit. “Yes.” Quite a long time ago, too. “What book was it?” asked Charlie, still fanning the casserole to cool it down, his apron finally off. Caroline ignored him, and in perfect timing, Joana took this moment to come in and say: “What else do we need?” The conversation broke in response, Charlie brought the casserole to the living-room, Caroline was asked by Fitzwilliam to carry some cut bread, while Joana took the two salads and Richard the drinks. Fitzwilliam brought the sushi he’d bought, as they all tried to fit all the food, cutlery and drink on the table at the sound of post-punk band Viagra Boys, which wasn’t the most conversation-friendly background music there was but try telling Frank that.

Caroline ran to her friends’ side before they all started sitting, so that she didn’t end up by Liam’s side, or worse, Bet’s. Counting hosts and attending guests—invited and otherwise—they made a dozen, and so they sat very closely together, Caroline between Frances and Ela, with exactly Bet and Liam’s cousin in front of her. They passed the plates, each serving themselves to what they wanted, and Charlie also Joana. Caroline filled her and Frances’ glasses with water, noticing how Liam had surreptitiously changed places at the last moment to avoid being by Lidia’s side, even if that also meant losing the spot beside Bet. Ha! But Bet wasn’t contented with having stolen Liam’s attention, no, she also had to get Richard’s: Caroline looked at them while they all joked about Charlie having cooked, which wasn’t working because he looked so proud of himself. She, Bet, was wearing a knitted sweater and had her long wavy brown hair all down to one side, while Richard, now that she looked at him unobserved, looked the same he had at Arndale. If she’d been asked to describe him a day ago, she would have barely remembered any of his features, but now that he was in front of her, she was able to recall and recognise them. He didn’t look like Liam, except for stature and maybe hair colour, but not their face, not their built, and while Liam wore a nice wool sweater over a dark shirt (always so well put together), Richard was wearing a green shirt open with a white t-shirt underneath, almost surely food-stained, from what she could see. Caroline tried to communicate with her friends with nods and raised eyebrows, but Mary was laughing at something with Frank—Mary was even making Liam chuckle—and Frances thought it impolite to gossip about people in front of them. Caroline noticed Charlie’s pie was a success, as she didn’t even get a chance to try it. She was happy for him—really thought about it, and decided that yes, she was very happy for him.

 

After an hour, all of them were full and none had the sensation of having eaten too much. There were only a couple of pieces of maki left, and some of the vegan salad—figures. The awkwardness of the beginning had started to fade mid-dinner, with some conversations overtaking the whole table—some people just had power of attention—and others being divided into smaller groups, though when those from one heard the other laugh loudly, always asked to be looped in. None of them felt left over, even if each of them enjoyed the night differently and in different degrees. For Mary it was a fun, standard night—she liked most of them, but not as much as she used to enjoy the company of Henry, and Ned, and even the other Bertrams, and she missed Mayra. Frances also missed someone, namely Ned, but enjoyed this night much more than the ones in the pub (even if she’d only been there a couple of times), or that any of the parties: None of them were drunk here—though of course some had gotten tipsy through the course of the meal—and she felt brave enough to talk to people other than Mary and Caroline, even Ela and Edward, even Fitzwilliam—she definitely could see why Caroline liked him, though she also thought he was a bit too serious for her, who already took things too seriously. Joana felt like a queen, bestowed by everyone’s attentions and constantly addressed by Charlie, of whom she couldn’t get tired of. Her shyness had been melting away these past weeks, and now when he said some of his cheesy lines—in public or not—she laughed instead of blushed, agreed instead of denied.

Once they’d eaten the deserts, half of them leaned back on their chairs, and the other half sat on the sofa, looking for comfiness in a full stomach. Frances tried to clean up the table, but wasn’t allowed to by anybody present, they all claimed they’d do it afterwards. The sofa full, Caroline sat on Mary’s lap, who hugged her and continued to talk to Frances and Ela about a travel book she’d read and strongly recommended. Edward had gone upstairs to rest, still very much ill, and Ela left to bring him some medicines and take his temperature: “Are they a thing or not?” asked Mary, in a low voice: “That, my dear, is the question” answered Frank, in jest, but then denied it. When Charlie was allowed to play some of the music he wanted, mainstream as it was, they all thought it good, and Mary jumped to dance, leaving her spot to Caroline. From there, she looked at Fitzwilliam, who still sat at the table, trying to convince Frank of something, and then at Bet, who was standing up and talking to Richard about a tv series. Admonished by both Frances and—to a lesser but more explicit degree—Mary, she was trying to be less superficial, or at least to accept that beauty took many forms: But she couldn’t see it, Bet wasn’t at all attractive—despite how much everyone liked her. She looked around. At the other side of the room, Frances talked to Joana and Charlie. Also dancing, Lidia was trying to convince Mary—thinking she’d found in her a kindred spirit—to go to a club, but Mary wasn’t having it, I mean, are you kidding? It’s bloody cold outside. And what about games? That wasn’t a bad idea, Mary tested it with a loud “Should we play a game?” directed towards the whole room. As they turned to look at them, the ones that been standing realised it was snowing. Charlie announced it, and they all gathered around the main window behind the sofa: Oh my god! Finally! Joana laughed “I have seen everything I wanted.” Bet nodded “We can scratch that from our list.”

Soon they were sitting in a circle, some on the sofa, some in chairs, each with the drink of their choice in hand. They all complained, apparently no-one wanted to play Never Have I Ever, but they all assumed it was gonna be played anyway. How was it that these things worked? Caroline wondered: because she really didn’t want to play—the possibility of all these embarrassing facts about herself being made public!—but was also very excited to see what other people did and said, which was what she imagined happened to everybody. At least Liam, who Caroline had never thought would partake in anything like this, must have felt the same, as his expression was unreadable but he still stole quick glances at Bet. Oh dear! Only Frances had shown real opposition, but Mary convinced her to play with water—Caroline had switched to white wine by then—and to simply quit if a question bothered her, “The questions usually escalate anyway,” Mary comforted her, “you’ll see disaster coming.” The first one was asked by Ela and was quite innocent—Never have I ever been attracted to a lecturer: she drank, as well as some of the others—and then it was followed by more questions, including one that seemed to refer to an inside joke only some of them got—Never have I ever not showered in three days—before the first attempt at a racy one was made, obviously by Lidia: “Never have I ever taken a sexy selfie.” Define sexy selfie, Bet had asked. “You know what I mean, not the kind you’d put on instagram, the kind that would get you in trouble if you got hacked.” “Then no,” said Bet, sort of resigned but also dignified. Only Mary drank, and Caroline laughed out loud while pointing at her, sitting at a distance: “Want the story later.” From there they went to an embarrassing one, with Richard asking, “Never have I ever fallen in love at first sight,” obviously looking at Charlie, who blushed and laughed, wrapping Joana in a half-hug: “Well, it worked out, so.” Caroline also drank quietly, hoping no-one would see her (how hadn’t she realised before just how one-sided her crush on Liam was?) but of course to no avail. Frank yelled “Fuck, the Bingley’s are wild!” And Caroline ended up laughing and high-fiving Charlie, something she had probably never done before. Frances took this chance between questions to drink some of her water, she was thirsty. “Have you ever—” everyone cut Bet so that she did it the right way “Sorry, I meant: Never have I ever been on a Tinder date.” Of course Caroline had to drink even if it had only been this one time, but to her relief she wasn’t the only one, Frank had too, and Lidia, and even Richard, so it wasn’t that bad. Frank asked the question that everybody had been fearing, with a “Never have I ever fancied someone right now” and Fitzwilliam complained “That doesn’t make grammatical sense”—“This game doesn’t make any kind of sense,” agreed Caroline, even if she didn’t want to keep agreeing with him, it had came out naturally. “Well?” Frank asked “thirsty, anyone?” and then drank from his whiskey, between Mary’s appreciative roaring. Everybody pretended not to care too much about what the rest were doing (drinking or not), though obviously without success. It was only those in a relationship that had no problem taking a sip: Mary, of course, Charlie and Joana. But half of the others drank as well, apart from Frank: Ela (to raised eyebrows), Lidia, and (very very quickly) Fitzwilliam. Caroline blushed on his behalf, experiencing some sort of second-hand embarrassment, and looked at Frances. Frances had her glass of water raised, but before brining it to her lips, she shook her head almost imperceptibly and moved it away—she’d had a revelation, it seemed. And Caroline, Caroline was not drinking because, despite having still some inappropiate feelings for Liam, she didn’t imagine herself with him anymore, was in the process of de-fancying him. “Aren’t you seeing someone?” Charlie complained to Richard, who hadn’t drunk: “Well yes, but, fancy’s a strong word.” Charlie laughed loudly “It really isn’t, mate.” Bet was looking at Fitzwilliam in a weird way, until she realised she was doing it and stopped: What sort of person would it take to be fancied by him? Maybe not Caroline, it was obvious now that there was nothing between them—but someone similar? Maybe it was Mary, or someone like her? Oh. She could see him fancying a teacher, hadn’t he drunk at the question? More difficult was to imagine what kind of girl would fancy him: ha, ha, certainly not her. Dammit, so dumb, and yet so handsome—not a bad kisser to be honest. Rather a good one, to be even more honest—and also clearly not dumb, just infuriating and—“Alright, alright,” Caroline tried to make herself be heard over the laughs. “Never have I ever flirted to get something I wanted,” basically half the girls (not Frances, Ela or Bet) drank, plus Charlie. Mary high-fived him, and said, “now Frances, now Frances”, Frances, who hadn’t drunk yet, took it seriously and thought it over before declaring “Never have I ever kept a big secret,” and subsequently drinking. “Damn, girl,” Mary herself also drank, though, and some others. Not Caroline, her only secret was that she’d been in love with Liam for the better part of three years, and it seemed like a lot of people knew that already. But Fitzwilliam drank, Bet drank, Frank drank, Ela drank, Richard drank: Charlie, Joana and Caroline, the only ones that hadn’t, looked at each other and laughed. “We’re boring,” he joked to his sister. Mary quickly got over it: “Now me, now me: Never have I ever snogged someone in this room.” For some reason, they all stopped what they were doing. Frank laughed, not drinking, and asked her, though he clearly knew the answer: “Have we ever, Joan Jett?” “You wish” She poked him in the shoulder, towards Fitzwilliam. Then she talked quietly to Caroline’s ear: “That’s Henry’s type of question.” But Caroline was distracted, looking at Fitzwilliam. And something weird—in capitals: Something Weird—happened. While Charlie and Joana drank, then kissed and drank again, Fitzwilliam looked for a nanosecond at Bet, who looked, for a nanosecond, at him, and then, neither of them drank. What? Fitzwilliam did it for chivalrous reasons: if they drank, everybody would know they’d kissed each other, no-one else was drinking, and it was not gentlemanly to kiss and tell. Of course, he was the opposite of embarrassed to have snogged her, but if she didn’t want to make it public (yet) it wouldn’t be him who outed them. And as she made no gesture to drink, he followed suit. Bet’s reasoning was the complete opposite: She had no problem acknowledging they had kissed (he had many faults—how was she to know that at the time—but being physically repulsive wasn’t one of them), but she looked at him, saw he wasn’t making a move, and assumed he did: that he was embarrassed to be found out, that people would know he’d kissed her. And she felt her blood boil. Oblivious to their inner monologues, Caroline was witness to everything and, then, looking at Mary but speaking loudly, complained: “Well, it’s no fun if people just lie.”

 

An hour or so later, Ela’d gone to sleep, Charlie and Joana were talking privately at one side of the kitchen—he was waiting the perfect moment to give her his present, both the necklace and the plane tickets to London in a month, were they would meet—Lidia was drunk-napping on the couch, and Caroline, Frances, Mary, Bet and Frank were playing a simpler version of charades—Frances had just guessed Mary’s Titanic in less than a second, and they were celebrating with lots of giggles, the both of them. Richard and Fitzwilliam were talking about something that looked serious, when the latter realised Bet was leaving the group and decided to follow her. To him, all night had led to this exact moment. Bet, and her round brown eyes and her round full lips, and her round everything, in fairness. Bet, and her fluent English with a weird accent no-one was able to place. Bet, with her quick answers and open-mouth laughs. He was lost, completely lost, and so he followed her—to the corridor: She was going to check something on her phone, which was on her jacket at the railing of the stairs, “Shit, you scared me.” He apologised but walked even closer. He felt an irresistible urge to kiss her, and she, she just wanted to punch him in the face. In addition to his whole snob personality, his rudeness, his lack of awareness, some distressing news she’d heard at uni by one of his ex-class-mates, and the fact he had said he would never go on a date with her after having kissed her but had gone in one with Caroline, were added to tonight’s new offences: that, she found out via Richard, he had advocated against Joana when Charlie was deciding on asking her out, and that he was embarrassed for people to find out he’d snogged her. And it was then that he told her that he had drank at the fancying someone question because he did, and it was her. It had caught him by surprise, but he couldn’t stop thinking about her, couldn’t go on about his day without thinking of her. She apologised for inconveniencing him that way, seeing as he would never date her. He didn’t remember saying anything of the sort—his brain hadn’t been working very well, at the time—and so he didn’t realise she was quoting him and took it as a real question. Meaning that, instead of asking further clarification or just pre-emptively apologising, he said: No, I would date you, that’s what I was trying to say, that we can date. Did he think that was some When Harry Met Sally shit and she’d been waiting for him to confess his feelings all along? The audacity. We can? She was red, he thought from embarrassement, actually from rage, As in, you’ve overcome your issue with dating foreigners? In fairness, Fitzwilliam’s opposition to Charlie dating Joana had been based both on the idea that she didn’t like him as much as he did and that long-distance relationships were a recipe for disaster (Charlie had been cheated on before), and not out of disregard for people from other countries—he believed that to be obvious, so instead of explaining himself he just said: Well, you could always transfer here, since you’re reading English. Her face was redder than red, and her hands clasped in a tight fist: “I fucking think not.”