By dint of not speaking much, they got through the next few days without allowing the atmosphere to contaminate the rest of the household. Peter was counting down the days to the end of term – so, no doubt, was Colette: Sunday (he went to chapel; she went to Wardle Street), Monday (that was all right; that was her heaviest day of lectures); Tuesday (although at some point they were going to have to meet to hand over the vice-presidential duties, damn it); Wednesday (there was no escaping AngthMURC, though he was very late, telling himself that the chapel needed a thorough sort-out after the last Evensong of term); Thursday (and then he had lots of reading to catch up with for his dissertation).
Thursday. Almost Friday: it was getting on for one in the morning. Peter had long since given up on Thomas Aquinas, and was alternating between an aimless wander through Wikipedia links in one browser window, and a ten-page argument about the role of women in the Church on the Stancesternet forums in another. He should, he supposed, go to bed, but he could not quite be bothered. The thought of traipsing upstairs to clean his teeth, and finding a clean pair of pyjamas – any pyjamas, come to that – was exhausting in itself; so he sat there, and clicked, and clicked.
He jumped when he heard a sound – small, scraping, metallic. A key, fumbling for, and turning in, the front door lock. Becky and Colette, back from clubbing. Becky’s attempt to take Colette’s mind off – whatever it was. Peter stood up and stretched the cramp out of his right arm. Better go out and make sure everything was all right.
In the corridor, Colette was leaning heavily on Becky. ‘’m gonna throw – up –’
‘No, you’re not. Not until I can get you upstairs.’
A bitter giggle. ‘Oo-er, missus.’
‘You didn’t throw up in the taxi. I’m very proud of you.’ Becky hoisted Colette’s arm around her shoulder, and they lurched up the stairs together. He could hear her saying, ‘Not on the landing, either.’
Ought he go and help? Becky seemed to have things well in hand; and he did not deal well with people throwing up. He compromised by calling, softly, up the stairs, ‘Need any help, Becky?’
‘If you wouldn’t mind finding a bucket…’ she replied.
A bucket. That was easy enough. He shoved his feet into slippers and went out into the back garden. There was a builder’s bucket out there, last used for dousing the sparklers on Bonfire Night. It would be far easier to clean than the mop bucket, should the worst come to the worst.
By the time he had tipped the slime out, rinsed it under the outside tap, dried it off, and hauled it upstairs, Becky had managed to tidy Colette up and put her into bed. She was standing over her, now, making her drink a pint of water before going to sleep. ‘You’ll thank me in the morning,’ she said.
Colette groaned faintly. Peter handed the bucket to Becky and retired discreetly downstairs. ‘Good night,’ he said, as if everything were perfectly normal.
He sat down on his own bed. He needed to think. This was not normal, not normal at all. Other students went out and got hammered and threw up, but not Colette. She knew when to stop. Other students dyed their hair outrageous colours, but not Colette. Her hair was a perfectly nice colour as it was. Other students – well, no, they didn’t, unless you counted Ali, last year – but nor was it at all like Colette to have thrown herself at him.
He had, he noted in passing, got it bad. A disinterested observer would have said that Colette was looking terrible – no, to be fair, she had looked passable enough when she went out, but she had come home with black circles under her eyes, smudged lipstick, the badly dyed hair falling lank around her face, and miserably unhappy – but he would have asked her out in a heartbeat, had he thought she was remotely interested. (Well, he supposed, she had been, in a way, but he had known then, and knew now, that it was false. He was too proud for that. He knew very well that her interest in him was merely a sign of her unhappiness. That just went to show that there was nothing to hope for there.) He rubbed his eyes. Thinking about her, a furious, longing, tightness spread across his chest, something that was not entirely sexual, but that was more than a friend’s vicarious anger.
‘I love Colette,’ he said to the empty room. It was the first time he had admitted it out loud; which did not make it any the less true, or serious. He loved her grey eyes and her deceptive vagueness; he loved her cynical smile and the way she would pounce on a flaw in an argument and maul it until only the bare bones of the truth were left. She would never love him back; he would never stop loving her. One day, he supposed, he would be grateful to have her simply as his friend – assuming they could be friends, now. One day he would have the grace to pray for that to be the case.
Somebody tapped at his door. ‘You still up?’
‘Becky. Come in.’
She sidled into his room, shivering in her skimpy top and miniskirt, and her hair looking greasy with the raindrops caught in it. ‘Well. That was a disastrous idea. I was trying to take her mind off it all, but I suppose you just take it with you, don’t you?’
Peter forbore to comment on the sense, or otherwise, of Becky’s plan. ‘She’s not herself,’ he said, jerking his head upwards.
‘No.’ Becky shut the door and leaned against it, arms crossed.
‘Do you -‘ he hesitated ‘- have any idea why?’
She nodded. ‘She’s trying,’ she said, with a pomposity that betrayed the fact that she, too, had been drinking a little too much, ‘to get back into the closet. And it’s too small for her. She’s a fucking butterfly. Of course she doesn’t fit back into the chrysalis. And it hurts so much that she’s drinking to stop it hurting.’
‘Why is she even trying?’
Becky gave him a look. ‘Oh, come on. You of all people should know. She’s head over fucking heels in love with fucking Christian Fellowship Lydia. Why you thought it would be a good idea to introduce them in the first place…’
Peter ignored the bait, and the sickening certainty that she was right. ‘Did she tell you that?’
‘No, but it’s obvious. It couldn’t be anyone else; there’s nobody else she’d pretend to be straight for. I’ll tell you something else, too: Lydia knows.’
‘Oh, no.’ Peter was fond of Lydia; he did not want to think that she might be capable of driving Colette to the edge, knowing that she was doing it.
Becky nodded. ‘I can’t make sense of it any other way. Think about it. If, in the ordinary way, you have a crush on someone you see a lot of -‘ her eyes flickered over Peter ‘- and you know it’s not going to go anywhere, for the perfectly reasonable reason that you’re pretty sure the other person isn’t interested, what do you do? You ignore it and hope it goes away. You don’t pretend to be someone completely different, someone who wouldn’t even think of fancying that person in the first place.’
‘That’s what you think she’s doing?’ Peter said, disregarding the too-accurate description of his own approach to things.
‘I’m sure of it. And who would she go that far for? Somebody who was bothered by her not being straight. For obvious reasons, she doesn’t hang around with too many people like that. I mean, even Lydia wasn’t bothered at the beginning, and I know Colette told her straight off, because she told me she had. So if she wasn’t bothered then, why is she bothered now? Because she knows that it’s not general any more, it’s specific, and Colette fancies her. Specifically.’
‘Somehow Colette’s worked out that Lydia knows – she might even have told her, it’s the sort of bloody stupid thing she’d do in a misguided attempt at being noble – and has freaked out and is trying to undo it all. Of course it’s not working, because that’s the toothpaste you can’t put back in the tube, but you try telling her that.’
It sounded horribly plausible. ‘Shit,’ Peter said. ‘What do we do about it?’
‘Hope she gets over it during the Easter holidays. Otherwise, buggered if I know,’ Becky said. ‘Buggered.’ She nodded morosely a couple of times, and left the room.