Field Notes on Love(8)

“Give me the headlines,” Dad says now, as he does every night, and Hugo is quick to lower his eyes. But he doesn’t have to worry. Alfie chimes in about his rugby match, and Poppy has a story about her summer job at the cinema; Oscar made some progress on the football app he’s been coding, and Isla went to the park with her boyfriend, Rakesh. George, whose obsession with The Great British Baking Show led to a job at the local bakery, spent the day learning how to make a lemon meringue pie, and the biggest news is that he brought one home for dessert.

    “You didn’t drop a penny in there again, did you?” Poppy asks, and George gives her a withering look.

“One time,” he says under his breath.

“As it turns out,” Poppy says, “that’s all it takes….”

Afterward, everyone automatically turns to Hugo. Then, just as quickly, they look away again, making a forced and not-altogether-believable effort to pretend it isn’t his turn, so that he’s spared reliving the newsiest thing of all.

“Actually, I’ve got something too,” he says, and they all turn to him in surprise. “Despite, uh, recent developments, I’ve decided I’m still going on holiday to America.”

To their credit, nobody asks for any particulars on the recent developments. Dad simply raises his eyebrows. Mum presses her lips together and sits forward in the chair. Alfie says, “Well done you!” and reaches across the table for a fist bump. Then, sensing the mood, he slowly pulls his arm back again.

“Margaret wanted me to have the tickets,” Hugo continues, deciding to leave out the part about how they might be worthless to him. “And I’d like to go.”

“With who?” Mum asks in a way that seems maybe a little too calm.

Hugo avoids looking at any of his siblings. “By myself.”

“That’s a big trip to do on your own,” Dad says, keeping his face neutral. “You’ve never even gone to London by yourself, much less to another country.”

“I’m eighteen now,” Hugo points out. “And if we didn’t—if we weren’t—well, I could just as easily be going off to uni a lot farther away. I don’t see how this is any different.”

    “Honestly, it’s different because you can’t make it half a mile without losing your keys or your wallet,” Mum says, sounding both apologetic and exasperated. “I love you, Hugo, and you’re brilliant in a lot of ways, but you’ve also got your head in the clouds more often than not.”

Hugo opens his mouth to protest, but he knows she’s not wrong. When he was little, she used to call him Paddington because he was always getting lost from the rest of the group.

“I’m close to pinning a note to your jumper,” she’d say, her face still white with worry after finding him under a clothes rack at Marks & Spencer’s or in a completely different aisle at the local Tesco. “Please look after this bear.”

There’s a banner at the top of her blog, an illustration of the six of them lined up from oldest to youngest, a fairly ridiculous distinction, considering all that separates them is eight minutes. In it, they’re marching one by one toward the right side of the page. First George, who is carrying a fishing rod and strolling in that jaunty way of his. Then Alfie, a football tucked under his arm and a hint of a grin on his face. Poppy—always in motion—is skipping after them, and Oscar is whistling as he makes his way leisurely across the screen. Behind him, Isla’s head is bent over a book. And then, last of all, there’s Hugo, forever falling behind, perpetually trying to catch up with his brothers and sisters.

He’s always hated that image.

“Darling,” his mum is saying, her voice gentler now. “It’s okay to sleepwalk your way around here. But I’d worry too much about you being on your own in a place like New York or San Francisco. The truth is, you’re just not…”

    “Responsible,” Poppy offers.

“Ready,” suggests Oscar.

“Sensible,” says Isla, winking at him.

“Good-looking,” Alfie says. “Sorry, what were we talking about?”

Mum ignores them. “Can you not take one of this lot with you?”

“That’s not the point,” Hugo says, feeling the heat rise in his cheeks. He doesn’t know how to explain about the extra ticket without giving away his plan to find another Margaret Campbell. The rest of them know this, of course. They’re in on it too. But what they don’t know is this: even if he could bring anyone he wanted, he still wouldn’t be all that keen to choose one of them. Because this isn’t about his siblings. For once, it’s about Hugo.

“The point is to escape for a bit,” he says, sounding a little desperate. “To see what it’s like to be on my own. Especially since…”

“You’ll all be at uni together,” Dad finishes, and Hugo looks up at him gratefully. He’s spent the whole summer trying not to say this out loud. He’s not the only one who could’ve been accepted elsewhere, but he was always the one with highest marks, and because of that, the others have given him a pass for being so miserable about their lack of options. But what he hasn’t said—what he’s barely even let himself think—is that it’s about them too.

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