(The title of this short story is a homage to one of my favourite writers and biggest inspirations, Maggie Stiefvater – I’ve never found better than her when it comes to characterisation. The 3rd book of her outstanding quartet The Raven Cycle is named Blue Lily, Lily Blue, that I changed here to Lilly with two L.)
By the river, you could have spotted our main characters sitting in a circle, moving restlessly and chatting noisily in English – an unusual detail in this crowded French city. They were young and they all wanted more. It was a two thousand degrees pandemic summer where nothing could be planned ahead and every day outdoors was a miracle – miracles that they started to take for granted again. They had known each other for several sweltering nights now, students with studies on hold, most of them English – Wes, Aaron, Jenn and Nikki -, two others French – Malik and Lilly. This story will mainly be told through Lilly’s point of view, and when I say that they had been knowing each other for a few nights only, I’m simplifying things a lot: Lilly had been friends with Malik for years, and she had met Aaron and Nikki separately last year at the University of Bristol. If Aaron was still studying there, Lilly and Nikki had both moved out from the UK to come and study in France. That’s when Nikki had met Jenn and Wes, the two of them having moved out from Manchester. As for Aaron, he was only here for a summer trip – and Lilly. A more exact way to explain the group they were forming, this unexpected and fascinating constellation, would be the following: they had met again after lockdown two weeks ago and they were truly seeing each other for the first time.
One month ago, their lives were on hold. The borders of their world disintegrating into a living room, suffocating into a bedroom, phone calls and perfectly scheduled meal hours. Now, they were partying for the fifth night in a row by the Garonne; Jenn rolled cigarettes for Lilly, Aaron and herself while Malik made a series of strange jokes to make Nikki and Wes laugh. Behind them, a fiery sunset of furious pink and dark blue seemed to swallow the city lights, and on the large brick bridge, the streetlamps leaned in as if to catch their conversation below. It was 10pm and Lilly’s favourite time of the day. The heat was melting away gently, thrill and excitement rising from the ground and echoing between buildings as pretty girls in tight dresses ran the streets with confidence and by the river the night grew, big and maternal and secretive and dangerous, full of promises. Freedom captured in empty gin bottles.
Malik changed the tune, the notes switching to a familiar song that twisted Lilly’s heart instantly: Our Last Summer, by ABBA. ‘That song is a banger,’ said Nikki.
Turning to Wes, Lilly asked, ‘Do you like it?’
He was pulling fistfuls of burnt grass, sitting with his legs spread out and his arms thrown out lazily on his bent knees.
‘It makes me want to goddam cry,’ he uttered before changing the tune instantly to a cool, rhythmic rap.
Lilly started to shake her blonde curls on the beat which made Wes smile, moving his body unconsciously closer to hers, so she flashed him with her world-eating grin, full of hope and sparkling confidence. Did she like Wes? Yes, like she liked new friends. But with these top two layers more, the one of blissful and purposeless desire, and the one of instant connection, of getting along without any expectation. Sweet, perfect summer fling.
‘Do you want to come back to mine tonight?’ she asked him privately, looking at his features that he seemed unaware of.
Wes was the kind of guy to let himself get carried by life, never wallowing in nostalgia, or regret, or loops of overthinking, just living with whatever came at him.
‘Definitely,’ he smiled brighter, ‘I was waiting for you to ask.’
Nikki poured them all a new glass and they sang along to Skepta – Shutdown, with their soft faces that had never done anything wrong but getting too drunk or stealing something from the corner shop. Jenn stood up in her long slit Fushia skirt contrasting with her dark skin, her long braided hair brushing her slender back. ‘Lilly, wanna take a walk?’
Physically, the two of them had nothing in common but their slim, tall silhouette. Aaron looked at them both as they were already walking away and wondered if they were aware of their power. Their full, unlimited potential.
They walked along the river, passing behind other groups of friends chatting and getting drunk on the burned grass and the dirty ground, when Lilly turned her head towards Jenn in a feminine, youthful-like motion that could be compelled in the little details that made her, her.
‘I like it when we escape the party for a little while.’
‘Me too! Literally my favourite moments. We can talk about us, and writing, and men and women and our future life in London…’
They were shining with dreams and ambitions in the loud night.
‘I’m so excited about this. About everything, actually. There’s so much to look forward to,’ said Lilly.
‘I’m excited about anything when I’m with you,’ said Jenn, her braids moving around like hypnotic waves, ‘To go to bars and flirt with strangers and dance all night and go write in coffee shops and have dinner with friends, or take stupid pictures by the Tham…’
Two men in their early thirties brushed past them on their bikes, whistling and catcalling them. The girls jumped and Lilly’s face went from bliss to rage in half a second. ‘Dégage!’ Get the fuck out! she shouted in French.
They silently agreed to walk back to their friends, their freedom instantly crushed – being a woman is feeling free on a lovely summer night before getting chocked by some stranger’s possessive hands. ‘Yo, we talked to you!’ shouted one of the guys. ‘Come with us!’
‘No!’ shouted back Lilly.
‘Whores! Yeah, fucking whores!’
‘Yeah, yeah, we know the song,’ sighed Jenn.
When the catcallers went away, Lilly and Jenn stopped their walk and let off some steam. Sometimes Lilly hated being a woman in this world. She hated it, and so did Jenn, and so did Nikki.
‘I’m still down to take over the world, mate,’ said Lilly.
Jenn laughed, ‘Two years from now, we’ll be in London and men like them will have drowned in the Garonne.’
‘Trust me, this river handles rubbish pretty well.’
They spent the next few days at Malik’s who was living with his parents, rich parents always at work leaving a whole house with palm trees, a terrace, a huge outdoor swimming pool and a packed fridge with good food and expensive alcohol bottles. Martini (always Nikki’s personal choice), gin, rosé, dry white wine (Jenn’s preference), honey whiskey (which Aaron could never go without) and brown rum for mojitos (Lilly’s favourite type of day-drinking). They were dizzy by 4pm in the subdued afternoon light, listening to Nina Simone – My Baby Just Cares For Me, and playing outdoor games, their bodies in small bikinis or colourful bathing suits. Wet and tanned, with tired eyes and their laughs reverberant.
They were playing darts in the kitchen when Lilly hit the red target. She screamed in victory and checked the time on the oven’s clock. 18:18. ‘That’s a sign,’ she said to Aaron, this one nonchalantly leaning against the counter, a half-empty beer in his right hand.
‘Signs don’t exist,’ he stated.
‘I forgot you didn’t believe in anything.’
‘I believe in good old-fashioned science,’ grinned her friend.
Nikki broke in, her silky dark hair stroking her round shoulders. ‘Malik has plants,’ she said.
‘Plants?’ repeated Aaron.
Lilly giggled in sheer delight. ‘Oh yeah. Those plants.’
‘I’m never leaving this house. Or this town,’ said Jenn, more to herself than the rest of the group.
‘Yeah,’ approved Aaron who always heard what others didn’t. ‘Fuck England.’
The nights were all booming music, long lazy swims and loud jumps in the pool, consumed cigarettes, drawling voices and secret chats under the palm trees. A bottle of Martini only reserved to Nikki, Jenn and Lilly, and Aaron’s blue gaze swaying above the candles to look at a face he had known for two years and was now seeing more and more differently as the days were passing by – an uncomfortable, addictive, startling feeling. The kind that grabs your throat, twists your guts, sets your lower-body on fire, makes it loose. Impulses of unlimited tenderness and absolute violence shaking the hands, blurring ones vision. Wes leaned in towards Lilly, a playful grin across his face, and whispered something. Impulses.
‘Would you rather…’ read Jenn on her phone. ‘Be beautiful but stupid or intelligent but unattractive? Hands up for the first one, down for the second.’
Lilly couldn’t have told you what the boys had voted for, because all she paid attention to were Jenn’s, Nikki’s and her own response. Hands up.
‘Why?’ laughed Malik. ‘Mate, I’m surprised.’
‘That’s what Daisy Buchannan says to Gatsby,’ explains Lilly. ‘She talks about her daughter and says something, like, I hope she’ll be a fool, that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’
There was a beat. Nikki nodded and downed her glass of Martini. ‘I used to not understand what she meant by that. Now I do. Gives me la flemme of everything.’
Lilly thought there was something gorgeous about this sharing of cultures, of words, of expressions, of her English friends using French words and herself speaking more often in her second language than her first. Something that made everything possible – colourful and precious, a perfect suspended summer that would eat them alive.
Later, Malik was teaching boxing to Nikki while Aaron and Lilly were smoking at the window, the view opening on the slanting hills wet with dew, the dark blue sky turning purple on the line of the horizon – the world silent, listening.
‘You know, I hadn’t told you last time I was up in England but… I felt bad when I came back to Bristol,’ confessed Lilly. ‘Like, fucking anxious. Because no matter how much I love it, I’ve outgrown it, you know what I mean? I don’t know, it was weird.’
There was a silence, a comfortable one. They weren’t expecting anything from this moment or each other.
‘I understand,’ Aaron said, crushing his cigarette on the windowsill. ‘I can see it now.’
‘Who you are and what your life looks like, outside of Bristol. I hadn’t expected this discovery to be so disturbing and eye-opening.’
‘What do you mean?’
Jenn made her way to the two of them, squeezing herself between their bodies. ‘Tu as le feu?’ You got the lighter? she asked in French – she was almost perfectly fluent now.
‘Si, aqui,’ Yes, here, replied Lilly in Spanish, handing it to her.
She let Jenn and Aaron and went with Wes, Malik and Nikki, who were drinking rum and chatting loudly. She listened to them and laughed at Nikki and Wes fake-arguing – even at her sassiest, Nikki was swearing like a greeting card. Lying down on Malik’s lap, the cat was the most dramatic. Nikki showed something to Lilly on her phone and this one tried to focus on it, but Jenn and Aaron were still at the window.
The four of them went dancing on a song by a nineties band whining feverishly about their youth. Jenn and Aaron were still at the window. Wes turned up the volume, and it was now shaking the walls and the dawn was rising around the house, making the place holy and electric. Jenn and Aaron were still at the window, and Lilly was seething. Why?
‘I think I’m gonna go to bed, now,’ she said to Malik, taking him apart.
He didn’t need her to say more. ‘Hey, everyone, Lilly and I are probably going to sleep a little now, we’ll see you all for lunch?’
‘Yeah! Have a good night!’ exclaimed Jenn with a big bright smile. ‘Sweet dreams!’
Nikki stretched and yawned loudly. ‘To be fair, I might be next.’
Lilly ignored the heavy gazes of Wes and Aaron and ran away with her best friend to the top floor. Only the basses of the music were coming up to them now, and Lilly felt like she had more space to breathe and think. They undressed in different rooms and Malik came back a couple of minutes later with two cups of tea – mint, Lilly’s favourite. Malik sat on his bed, pillows behind his back, and Lilly let her head rest on his lap. He started to touch her hair, kindly, massaged her skull, as she was keeping in her hands the warm cup of tea, more for the sake of comfort than to drink it.
‘So, do you like them?’ she asked.
‘Yeah, they’re cool.’
‘It’s crazy, isn’t it? I feel like we’re living everything side by side.’
‘That’s true, together in all of our lives.’
And suddenly Lilly wasn’t seething anymore. Her breathing went back to normal and her anxiety melted away with the night. They fell asleep later, holding hands next to each other’s head.
The next day, they nursed their hangover by the pool, wallowing in the sadness of the upcoming departures of Aaron, Nikki and Wes. They had to go back to England, after weeks here in heaven. They had to come back to reality and the bubble was about to be pierced, and as Lilly was swimming in the waters, her shoulders and collar bones burned by the sun, she watched the three of them and felt like she was missing them already.
‘Bonjour,’ Hello, said Malik’s dad who had just arrived – a tall Algerian man with tired brown eyes and greyish hair.
They all greeted him with warmth, and Malik’s dad smiled before going to his house without another word. Malik and Lilly exchanged a glance, speechless. They had never seen him smile at any of their other friends before.
When they said goodbye at the airport, there were no tears as expected, just a long silence in the fiery sunset, quick, painful hugs as not to break each other, see you soon thrown out in the air without any certitude – would the world they were living in allow it so easily? And so they watched them go, walking away from the sun, before Lilly jumped on the passenger’s seat of Malik’s car and declared: ‘I give us two hours to feel sorry for ourselves. After that, Jenn, we’re going out.’
Malik dropped the girls in town and left for his summer job. They waved at him as the car was going away, their large packed bags weighing on their shoulders. These violent delights have violent ends…, thought Lilly, quoting Shakespeare. That motherfucker knew what he was talking about. She was aching of the ephemerality of things. She didn’t care about poetry. She didn’t care that they were all under the same sky. She didn’t give a damn that people who are meant to be together always meet again. She couldn’t care less that love was supposed to feel beautiful and easy. She didn’t give a fucking damn about it all; it just sucked.
‘We’ll meet by the Garonne in an hour?’ asked Jenn after a moment.
‘Top chrono,’ approved Lilly.
They had never run so fast. Two comets in a big city. Shooting stars under the untrimmed trees of the boulevard bending down at the mercy of the violent wind that could have almost lifted them both up from the ground. Jenn and Lilly were running in the storm, eternal-like; they were adrenaline encased in skin and pretty eyes. They weren’t running to escape the storm, but to be a part of it. The thunder was rumbling over the buildings, lightning shredding the sky in electric rage. The rain was starting to fall, heavy and warm. Staining the ground in a messy pitch-black, and as everyone in the streets was rushing back inside, Jenn and Lilly were heading right to the river.
‘I feel! So! Alive!’ shouted Jenn, out of breath.
Tremendously alive, thought Lilly, sizzling with the thunder.
You couldn’t feel when you ran under a storm. You couldn’t feel, you couldn’t break.
The storm calmed down and the rain stopped when they reached the troubled waters. Everyone was gone but them. Soaked, out of breath. ‘Holy shit,’ uttered Jenn. ‘That was awesome.’
‘That was awesome,’ repeated Lilly, her heart racing – alive, alive, alive.
They took each other’s hand and squeezed strongly as the sky was breaking into a surrendering pink. They did nothing but let themselves get carried in contemplation.
‘You’re one of the most beautiful things that happened to me in a while,’ said Jenn.
‘You are too.’
By the river, you could have spotted our main characters standing still, sharing a precious silence. They were young and needed nothing more than what they had. It was a two thousand degrees pandemic summer where nothing could be planned ahead and every day outdoors was a miracle – miracles that they weren’t taking for granted anymore, but cherishing, immensely.
Photo courtesy of Cyril Mazarin