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Beautiful things are fragile

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Charles, by his own volition, can occasionally be as spontaneous as he is impulsive. He’d been working on a paper for days, and just when I thought he was on the verge of asking Henry for help, he announced he was cooking and we were all going on a picnic. It was the kind of buoyant, ambitious plan that often peppered our mid-term routine, got us edgy and exhilarated, too much sugar and the inevitable crash.

I’d been staying with the twins that summer, and when the agreed day finally arrived, we all got up before nine to make fiddly sandwiches and skewer cheese onto toothpicks. Camilla’s butter cake sank in the middle, but my olive bread looked promising, and Charles had even gone to the trouble of microwaving whipped egg-whites into meringues. When Henry arrived he presented us with two bottles of Côté Tariquet- one for later, one for now- and we were flushed with high spirits by the time we arrived at Francis’s place. Henry killed the engine, and the ash from Camilla’s cigarette burned a mark in her skirt.

-

“Hello?” Francis peered round the doorway, still in his dressing gown. His hair was flattened on one side, his eyelids dark and puffy. My first thought was that he’d been in a fight, but when he ran a hand over his mouth, I saw his knuckles were smooth and intact.

“Alright, Francis?” said Charles, as taken aback by his appearance as I was.

Francis blinked at us, then, the realisation dawning on him, swallowed in dismay.

“Oh blast, the picnic,” he muttered, then cleared his throat into his fist. “I’m so sorry, Charles, I might need a raincheck.”

There was a silence, followed by Charles raising a suspicious eyebrow.

“It’s not raining.”

His tone implied little sympathy for Francis’s hangover, though in my experience, it was more often Charles who cancelled on account of such things.

“Well, no.” Francis tried a laugh, which led to a series of dry-sounding coughs. “But I’m feeling a bit under the weather.”

Charles crossed his arms, gathering stamina for what I felt was brewing toward a row. I glanced anxiously toward Henry’s car, surprised to see Camilla already making her way toward us, her hair whisking over her face. She raised a hand to Francis, who looked somewhat relieved.

“Overslept?” she asked kindly, and Francis stopped his nervous coughing to give her a hug.

“I think I’m coming down with something,” he murmured, and Charles rolled his eyes as Camilla patted his back.

“You’ll feel better with some fresh air,” she said consolingly, drawing him back inside the house for a change of clothes. “I'll make you a cup of tea while you get ready.”

I thought I heard Francis sneeze as they shut the door, but Charles had made an exasperated noise at the same time.

“She always does this. Encourages him.” He fished a pack of Lucky Strikes from his blazer and shook them at me. I barely ever smoked in the daytime, but I took one and struck a match in an act of commiseration.

“I thought he looked a bit off.” I shrugged, but Charles only dragged on his cigarette, exhaling a dull stream of fog toward the sun.

“Everyone looks a bit off after Thirsty Thursday,” he said.

-

It was a quiet trip northward, not made any easier by Francis’s renewed attempts at conversation.

“It’s stuffy in here,” he volunteered, knotting and unknotting his necktie. “Is the air conditioning working, Henry?”

Henry didn’t offer a response, adjusting something on the car dashboard whilst taking a corner rather sharply. I was used to Henry’s driving, but somewhere between the wine and nicotine, I had begun to feel slightly queasy. Francis fumbled a book from his satchel, but he barely made it through a page before sniffling audibly.

“Ugh, I can’t look down for more than a second,” he said, pressing his wrist beneath his nose and smiling apologetically.

“It’s probably all the air conditioning,” Charles snapped.

“Let’s have the wireless, shall we?” said Henry, and turned it on before anyone had the opportunity to read that as a question.

There was nothing except news and advertisements, and, after waiting for the weekly forecast, Charles decided to rummage through the glove compartment for a cassette.

“Simon and Garfunkel,” he announced brusquely, holding up the tape. “Any special requests?”

A Hazy Shade of Winter,” Camilla said fondly, unperturbed.

Bridge over Troubled Water,” Francis muttered, then chain-smoked the rest of the journey without saying a word.

-

To no-one’s surprise, Francis barely ate anything from the hamper. When we started shuffling cards for a game of euchre, he made some excuse about stretching his legs and wandered off.

“You’re being awfully harsh on him,” Camilla said to Charles after a while, trying to steer some ants from our blanket with a leaf. “It’s just one of your procrastination picnics, not the Golden Jubilee.”

“No, that’s the point though,” Charles answered, with a quickness that made me think he’d been waiting for such an opening. “It doesn’t matter what it is. I ask him for coffee and he’s got heat rash. Study group and its heart palpitations. Why bother?”

“The mind is an extraordinary thing,” said Henry, inspecting the coffee-thermos like he’d never seen such an item. “Sometimes I wonder if Francis wouldn’t benefit from keeping a sort of diary, if only as an exercise in self-reflection.”

I got the feeling Henry was trying to be helpful, but whether from my newness to the group or a general aversion to all that was personal, I suddenly felt very guilty for sitting in on the conversation.

“I think I might go for a walk too,” I said lightly, and Henry gave me a telling glance.

-

I found Francis by the river, trousers rolled-up and his ankles sunk gloomily among the reeds. Whether by association or some hope I had failed to fulfil, his glare told me I had fallen out of favour.

“Finished already?” he enquired cattily, well aware of my weakness in games of strategy. “Did you even last the first round?”

“I quit while I was ahead,” I returned. “In other words, before we started.”

Francis snorted a laugh, caught off-guard by my clemency. “Would you like to sit down?” he sighed after a moment, the venom gone from his tone. “I can’t say much for my company, but the water’s nice.”

I struggled out of my oxfords, placing them far enough away that he wouldn’t notice their shabby condition. I liked the river, it ran shallower here than up at the house, pebbles at the shore instead of dirt.

“Do you want an aspirin?” I asked eventually, guessing from the way Francis squinted that he had a headache.

He shielded his eyes from the sun to look at me, faintly cheered by this question. The expression rapidly faded as he cupped a hand over his mouth, eyelids fluttering in a panic before he sneezed.

“Pardon,” he mumbled, coursing his pockets for a tissue. He coughed hoarsely, stricken for a second, then exhaled. “I’m sorry.”

He’d misplaced his tissues- odd, as Francis was never without them, and reluctantly fussed with an expensive looking handkerchief instead. He gave me a vague smile when he was done.

“Francis, you haven’t been buying from Cloke have you?” I blurted, the rawness of his features striking a familiar chord. I knew it was the wrong thing to say as soon as the words left my mouth, but it was too late, and his watery sniffling was quickly replaced by a sneer.

“No, Richard,” he said pointedly, getting to his feet. “I can afford better.”

-

We were supposed to be staying at Francis’s aunt’s house, though if I’d had enough for a cab I might’ve made my excuses. Charles had clearly taken Francis’s walk as a sulk for attention, and matters worsened when he overheard a snippet of conversation with Camilla.

“Will you feel my forehead, please?” Francis whispered to her, rolling down the window as soon as he got in the car.

“Oh Francis, really,” Charles interjected, twisting over me with a glare. I was already regretting sitting between them, my hopes of inciting neutrality plainly naive. “It’s a hundred degrees and you’ve been laying in the sun all day. What on earth do you expect?”

“Who knows?” Francis shot back. “Since it’s me, God, I might expect anything! Perhaps it’s smallpox -oh oh, no, cholera! A papercut, carsickness, you name it-”

Charles gave him a sharp glance and Francis bit his lip, anxious. Camilla looked round from the seat in front.

“Do you feel that ill?” she ventured. A quirk of Camilla’s, which was well-known and acknowledged little, was her tendency to experience sympathetic nausea whenever the subject of being sick to one's stomach was broached.

“No,” Francis said quickly. “Really, I don’t, I was just saying that. I was being stupid.”

“It’s alright,” she said faintly. A few seconds passed, and then, “Henry, do you mind pulling over here? We’re so close now, I might just walk the rest of the way.”

“Oh Camilla,” Francis said, and he sounded close to tears, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it at all. I promise, I’m not going to-”

Camilla reached behind and squeezed his hand.

“I know,” she said sadly. “The worst thing is, I honestly do believe you.”

“Would you like me to walk with you?” said Henry. “Richard can drive.”

“No, no, please, it’s nothing,” she said, and kissed him on the cheek.

I watched her from the rear window, her straw hat fluttering away over the asphalt.

“Well,” said Charles. “That was nicely done.”

Francis stared blankly at her empty seat, then kicked the floor of the car and thrust his head in his hands.

-

In a break from the customs we so habitually followed, I came downstairs that evening to find Henry preparing the dinner, and Francis nowhere in sight.

“Richard, would you mind crushing some garlic?” Henry asked, drying his hands on a dishtowel tucked in his apron. I saw he had already laid out a knife and wooden board for the task, and beside were five quails prepared in oil.

“Of course,” I replied, and was dismayed at how anxious I became in executing this simple request. I had some idea that Henry was reading a great deal into the manner with which I helped him, though he was nothing but courteous when I finally presented him with the chopped cloves.

“Perfect,” he said, arranging his potatoes around the meat. “I might do a broth after this.”

He gave no further indication that he was aware of my presence, and it was only through my self-conscious tidying that I came upon a better idea for making myself useful.

“Do you know where Francis keeps the lavender tea?” I said whilst filling the kettle.

“Probably in the tin by the windowsill. That’s where I would keep it.”

Henry went outside to cut fresh chives from the garden, and when I looked in the tin by the windowsill, I saw he was right.

-

“Knock knock,” I called, feeling a little foolish for hovering outside Francis’s bathroom. Camilla had told me he was doing something involving steam, but it had been at least an hour, and Francis typically disliked being alone when the rest of us were over.

“What do you want?” came a husky voice, though I imagined I heard a hint of relief.

“Can I come in?” I said.

“If you must,” he sighed, not in the mood for dragging it out.

I pushed open the door, my eyes immediately tearing with the scent of mint and menthol.

“Good grief,” I spluttered, taking a deep breath and immediately letting it out. Francis was reclining in an overfilled bath, fully clothed, empty bath-salt packets on the floor and a half-bottle of fragrant oil resting by his elbow.

“Too much?” Francis sat up worriedly, reaching a dripping hand to help me open the window. “I’m so congested, I thought I’d go all-in.”

“I feel like I’m breathing toothpaste,” I affirmed, and Francis humoured me with a laugh. The echo of the bathroom may not have helped, but I was surprised to realise he did actually sound congested.

“I made you a hot drink,” I said quietly, jerking my chin to the mug I’d brought. “Sorry for earlier.”

Francis raised an eyebrow, and for a moment I felt quite ridiculous, certain he was going to make some magnanimous forgiveness speech. To my surprise he burst out laughing- a real laugh this time- pulled the bath plug and stood up in his soaked clothes, holding out his hands to me.

“Come on, help me out of here,” he grinned, “I’m feeling better already.”

-

Camilla lit the fire after supper, choosing the spot next to Francis instead of her usual armchair by the mantelpiece. He seemed grateful for this small comfort, cuddling into her shoulder, and then, when she offered it, her lap. Charles and I had washed the dinner plates, and though he initially seemed in better spirits, his chattiness only further convinced me that something was amiss.

“Can you hear that?” asked Camilla, sensing a lull in concentration as we drifted through our books. I listened, and there it was. The first crickets of summer.

Henry smiled at her with a severity that struck me as gentle, and Charles put down his coffee and closed his eyes. Francis had pulled his scarf over the lower half of his face, and I was about to ask if he’d like an extra jumper when he jerked away from us with a sneeze.

Henry took off his suit jacket and offered it to him, perhaps thinking the same as me.

Francis shook his head and sneezed again, cringing and apologising when this didn’t come out nearly as subdued as the first.

“Shhh, there’s nothing to be sorry about,” Camilla reassured him, and she offered him a tissue from her cardigan pocket. Camilla never carried any, and I wondered if this occurred to Francis too.

“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” said Charles, having regarded the scene rather coolly, “because there’s nothing wrong.”

I chose the wrong moment to try and reposition myself in my chair, one of the legs grating across the floorboards with a resounding screech.

“No?” said Francis, his tone dropping several degrees. He leant forward, his trembling hands the only tell that he wasn’t nearly as calm as his manner would suggest. Charles’s mouth twitched in scorn, and for a second I had a horrible image of them leaping at each other, Henry and I having to jump to our feet. Instead, Francis took a shuddering breath, spitting his next words with surprisingly good aim. “Because it seems to me, Charles, that you really know a fucking lot about what is and isn’t wrong with me, for someone who can’t be bothered with the courtesy of asking.”

Francis waited a second, now shaking badly enough that I saw Camilla give Henry a concerned glance. He acknowledged it with a dip of his head, patient and curious. When Charles only sat looking shocked, Francis made a noise of disgust, stood with as much grace as he could muster and stalked toward his bedroom.

“Wait,” said Charles, strangely pale for all his shadows. “What’s wrong?”

Francis managed another scoff, his eyes hard and vicious. The whole thing had impressed me deeply- my own spats typically fizzled into artless silence, while here Francis stood like some wounded wraith sinking back to the underworld.

“Francis, okay, hold on…”

Francis made it out of the library, not a word back to Charles. The curtains had swung closed before we heard him coughing in the hallway, the sound heavy and unfamiliar. Charles had been getting out of his armchair when it started, and he collapsed back down like he’d been shot.

“I’ll take him something,” Camilla said softly, but when an indiscernible signal passed between her and Henry, she looked to me instead.

“Let me check the medicine cabinet,” I said, understanding. While Francis was clearly the ailing party, Charles was by far the more volatile one, and Camilla had a better chance of bringing Charles around than I did.

“There’s some NyQuil behind the Bisquick,” said Camilla.

Upstairs, we heard a door slam.

-

“Francis,” I ventured, then waited for a break in his coughing. “It’s me again.”

He didn’t throw anything or issue any more curses, which I chose to accept as an invitation.

“Hi,” I said, closing the door behind me. He was sitting cross-legged on his bed, hugging a pillow to his chest. His eyes were bright and bloodshot, and I wondered if he’d been crying after all. I pretended to look away, but he gave me a bitter smile.

“Yes, Richard,” he said quietly. “Yes, I’m that much of a mess.”

“I brought you some medicine,” I tried, holding the bottle of NyQuil limply in one hand.

“That’s nice,” he said evenly. “Thank you. But I don’t want any medicine.”

“Well don’t make yourself sicker just to spite Charles,” I replied, harsher than I intended. I was worried about him.

“No,” Francis agreed, but made no move to take it. “No, I suppose I won’t.”

I shifted my weight, hoping he might ask me to sit down. Instead he doubled over coughing again, muffling the worst of it into his pillow.

“Here, here,” I said, dropping the syrup cap as I looked around for a water glass.

“I’m ruining your evening,” he croaked. The fight had all but left him, and his brow was damp with sweat.

“And just when I was getting stuck into Plotinus too," I tried. We both knew the volume Henry had lent me would remain happily bookmarked, illness or no.

“Worse and worse,” Francis said weakly, and we shared a guilty grin. When he could breathe without wincing, I placed an extra pillow behind his back, straightened him up and took his pulse. There was not much practical reason for this last measure, but my year of pre-med afforded me a degree of wisdom in his eyes, and these doctorly acts never failed to appease him.

“Do I have a cold?” he murmured, tapping my wrist to warn me of an oncoming sneeze.

“I’d say so,” I said gently. We waited, but Francis simply blinked and shook his head, sniffling wetly into his sleeve.

“I’ll take the cough syrup,” he said eventually. “It’ll probably help me sleep.”

“Do you want me to stay with you awhile?”

“If it doesn’t bother you,” he answered, and I thought he sounded sad. In truth, I had expected Charles to have followed me by now. Francis swallowed the medicine in one, and, contrary to my belief that he must enjoy such things, pulled a dreadful face.

“Ugh,” he sniffed. “Cherry.”

He shuffled under the blanket and lay on his back. I assumed a far more rigid position as I lay next to him, and he flashed me a cagy grin, amused. He spared me the comment, but I heard it anyhow.

You needn’t worry, we'd need far more NyQuil for that.

-

Several hours passed before I woke, I hadn’t meant to fall asleep in the first place. Francis was wheezing softly, rearranged face-to-pillow, and my mouth felt dry and tacky. He reached for my empty spot when I got up, and I felt oddly torn about leaving him at all. But it had been hard enough slipping out the door, I couldn’t exactly go back now.

-

I found Charles in the library, still in much the same position I had left him.

“I suppose you think I’m the fucking devil,” he slurred, and I realised he was fairly drunk.

“No,” I answered slowly. “If you need to hear it, I don’t.”

“You wake up for drinks of water a lot,” Charles mused, swirling his whiskey. “You should keep a water jug by your bed.”

“I keep forgetting,” I said, and I was holding a vodka tonic anyhow.

“Hmm.”

There was still half a bottle of Westland on the table beside him. I reluctantly settled on the sofa, charcoal from the fireplace still warm on the air.

“I don’t even blame him, you know,” Charles said dully. “Not when I think about it. What’s Francis afraid of, in the end? Dying?”

“Is that what you’re afraid of?” I said quietly.

“No.” He laughed, and for a second his smile was manic. “God, no.”

“I think you should apologise,” I said after a time. “You know Francis, he won’t hold it against you.”

“Well maybe he should,” Charles muttered.

He pinched the bridge of his nose between his finger and thumb, just below his eyebrows. I saw his face had crumpled, and he was trying very hard not to breathe.

“The stupid thing is,” Charles said thickly, “I do actually take him seriously.”

My fingers had gone numb from the ice in my vodka, the glass wet with condensation. It slipped from my grasp as I tried not to move, made a heavy, splattery noise on the rug. Charles didn’t notice.

“I drove him to the hospital once, I thought he was having a seizure. Then when we got there, the doctors wouldn’t even let me in the room. I threw up in the bathroom in the foyer, I was that terrified.”

He stopped for a gulp of air. I’d never heard this story.

“And you know what they said it was? After all that?”

I shook my head, his silhouette fading in and out of focus.

Anxiety.” Charles laughed, but it sounded more like a sob. “He had made himself that sick, just from worrying.”

“It’s a real condition,” I said softly, trying to reassure him that Francis had not, in fact, somehow chosen to bring this on himself. “Panic attacks can be very serious.”

“Oh, what I saw was real, believe me,” said Charles, low and strangled. “And it’s not something that goes away.”

He looked so defeated, then, with his silent tears and his sorrow, that I began to wonder why I’d never read more into these long spells of melancholy. Charles was far more enigmatic than I, and often markedly perceptive where even Henry missed a trick. But, when I stopped to consider it, I was convinced of nothing other than him being deeply, essentially, unhappy.

Charles offered me a smile, though I rather felt I should be the one consoling him.

“I’ve had too much to drink,” he sighed, “don’t listen to me.”

Charles squinted over my shoulder, at first I thought he was looking at the grandfather clock. When I turned too, I saw Francis was standing in the doorway, all long arms and unforgiving angles. I had no idea how long he’d been there.

“Can I get you a drink?” Charles said blankly.

“I probably shouldn’t,” said Francis. If this had been me, I feel Charles might’ve poured one anyway. Charles set his unfinished whiskey down on the table.

“Alright,” he said.

Francis made his way over to us, and Charles grazed the heels of his hands beneath his eyes.

“It’s late,” Francis murmured.

Charles sunk his head toward his chest, for a moment he seemed to forget our presence entirely. Francis reached to rub his back, and Charles leant into him.

“Do you want to go to bed?” Francis asked gently. “Sleep it off?”

He helped Charles out of the armchair, and they clung to each other for a moment, unsteady.

“I think we should all go out somewhere,” Charles mumbled. “Maybe tomorrow. I could cook something.”

“Yes,” said Francis. “Yes, that would be nice.”

-