Ariana Hennessy was not one for grand entrances, her birth had seen to that. She ghosted into the cavernous lecture theatre, head down,
focus entirely on finding an unoccupied seat and disappearing into the welcoming anonymity of the student body. This was her third week at the University of Ulster and she was just another disorganised fresher trying to make her way around the sprawling campus without getting lost. Nobody knew, and that suited her just fine.
She slid into an empty seat four rows back and began unpacking pens, pads and textbooks from her bag. The lecture was scheduled to be on the Boston Tea Party, her love of all things American having drawn her to select this module as part of her first year studies. Yes, three decent ‘A’ level grades and here she was, a Modern History student, finally free of the stifling prison that was Monksbridge. There she was a pariah to some, an oddity to others. Here she was just plain old Rebecca Hennessy. Her home town and the university were no more than sixty miles apart but, to Ariana, they could have been on opposite sides of the world.
Rebecca was her middle name after her Granny Hennessy, a more neutral, traditional Irish name. People didn’t bat an eyelid when you told them you were called Rebecca, although annoyingly some of her fellow students insisted on abbreviating it to Bex. She could live with that, though. Had she told them her real name, then brows would have furrowed and distant memories surfaced. For, despite the arrival of her namesake Grande on the music scene in recent years, to the best of her knowledge there was only one other Ariana in the country.
She had battled the stigma her entire life. To be associated with the largest terrorist attack in Northern Irish history hung around her neck like a rotting, stinking albatross. Every anniversary the press pack descended from the city, eager to pick at old scabs and draw fresh blood. What had become of the tiny baby, born at the very moment a car laden with explosives devastated the town. There was no point in correcting them that she arrived almost an hour after the explosion. Why let the truth get in the way of a good story, right?
‘Settle down, folks.’ The booming baritone of Dr. Lancaster, their American Studies lecturer, cut through Ariana’s thoughts and the surrounding babble of her fellow students. She risked a glance over her shoulder and saw the theatre was two thirds full. Not bad for first thing on a Wednesday morning, although this was the ‘big night out’ on the campus so many of her contemporaries had arrived early, planning to be in the Student Union bar by lunchtime.
She caught the eye of a distinctive short haired girl, who waved enthusiastically at her. Tess Cartwright, the one person she had confided her dark secret to since arriving, after a night of cheap cider at the Freshers Ball two weeks ago. Ariana had woke up the next morning with a horrific hangover, kicking herself at having allowed her toxic past to seep so easily into the new life she was hoping to build at college. She had pleaded with Tess not to breath a word of it to anyone and, to date, her newfound friend had kept to her word.
Dr. Lancaster began to speak, his deep, melodic tones allowing Ariana to blissfully slip away from the jagged memories to tales of valour and derring do as the plucky colonists rose up in arms against the might of the British Empire. She scribbled copious notes, keen to soak up as much knowledge as possible, not allowing a date or reference to pass her by. This degree course was a lifeline, a step away from the shackles of a life she no longer wanted to be a part of; good A level grades were a stepping stone to university, a better degree and….well the world was hers for the taking.
‘That’s it for today folks,’ concluded Dr. Lancaster. The hour had breezed past. ‘Remember, your first assignments aren’t due for another month, but now is the time to start preparing. You have your reading lists. Organisation is key, remember.’ With that, the stampede for the exit commenced. Ariana was caught up in the rush and carried through the double doors where the large majority of her peers swung left, towards the stairs leading to the coffee bar on the mezzanine floor above. Ariana started to turn and fight the flow, back towards a lesser stream of students heading for the library in the opposite direction. She fully intended to heed Dr. Lancaster’s advice and make serious inroads into the extensive reading list the lecturer had circulated at the same time as the assignment title.
‘And where do you think you’re going Becky Boo Boo?’ Ariana felt herself being spun around and led back into the human tide heading towards the mezzanine stairs. Tess Cartwright, all silver haired pixie cut and sparkling teeth, hooked her arm beneath Ariana’s and guided her away from her original path. ‘An hour of that drivel and I’m on the verge of lapsing into a comatose state. I need a cappuccino to return me to the land of the living….’
‘But Tess I….’ spluttered Ariana, vainly gesticulating with her free hand back towards the library.
‘But Tess nothing. I have a busy day planned for the two of us and it most certainly does not involve sitting in a musty old library reading boring books about dead men who wore wigs and tucked their trousers into their socks.’
‘I don’t think that’s strictly accurate,’ protested Ariana but she knew she was fighting a losing battle. She had only known Tess Cartwright a short time but already learnt one thing. Here was a young woman who was used to getting her own way and rarely took no for an answer. She was already carving out a reputation amongst the student population with her striking looks, vivacious personality and seemingly bottomless capacity for 2 for 1 drinks promotions at the Union bar.
‘Well I guess one coffee then,’ surrendered Ariana meekly. ‘But after that I really must study.’
‘Yeah, Yeah. We’ll see.’ Tess bounded up the steps to the mezzanine two at a time, her designer leather jacket flapping at her sides as Ariana struggled to keep up. Everything was designer where Tess was concerned as she carried the expensive student scruff look off to a tee. Ariana permanently felt the poor relation when they were together, and wondered what their peers thought of her dowdy appearance compared to her glamorous companion. Tess didn’t seem to mind though and for reasons unknown to Ariana had adopted her as university bestie. They had nothing in common but somehow it was working. So far….
Tess paid for two coffees, and a gigantic blueberry muffin, before commandeering a booth in a far corner of the bar. Floor to ceiling windows afforded them a view across a sleepy river to the halls of residence where they first met, during a hectic registration day. A concrete walkway connected the halls to the main campus, a campus Ariana hadn’t left since arriving. No weekend trips home for her like the majority of the other students, hungover, laden down with dirty laundry and desperate for a proper meal. Home was the last place Ariana wanted to be.
‘So here’s the plan,’ the forever chirpy Tess interrupting Ariana’s thoughts, her mouth crammed with muffin. ‘Finish these, back to the halls, make ourselves even more beautiful than we already are and then hit the Union. ‘What say you, Becky with the good hair?’ She smiled sweetly and fluttered her eyelashes before slyly adding, ‘Or should I say Becky Bomb Girl?’
‘Shut up,’ hissed Ariana, looking all around. ‘You call me that again and I’m never speaking to you again, Tess. You swore you wouldn’t tell anyone.’
‘Oh relax,’ sighed Tess, rolling her eyes and leaning back. ‘As I’m consigned to this hellhole for the next three years, I need a project. And I see no greater challenge than changing the most socially awkward girl alive into a reasonably functioning human being. Although I admit I may have bitten off more than I can chew, you enormous dork.’
‘Alright, alright.’ Ariana sipped her coffee, admitting defeat, an all too common feeling since she fell under the spell of Hurricane Tess. ‘But can I at least have a couple of hours this morning in the library. Then I promise I’ll head out with you.’ Tess clenched her fists and squealed with delight, attracting a few curious glances from adjacent booths. ‘It’s a deal. I’ll see you outside the Union at three. Do not be late. Organisation is key, Rebecca.’
With a final peal of laughter, Tess stuffed the remainder of the muffin into her mouth and bounced out of her seat, a flurry of long limbs and immaculate cheekbones. Ariana stared gloomily into her coffee. Was this a case of out of the frying pan, but into the fire? Yes, she was no longer Bomb Girl but buying the confidence of Tess was doing her plans of keeping her head down and studying hard no favours. Nor her modest bank balance.
She drained the last dregs of the coffee and, slinging her bag over a shoulder, made her way back to the mezzanine and down towards the library. Nobody looked at her twice. No whispering, no people going out of their way to avoid eye contact. Just another unremarkable eighteen year old, going about her business. Ariana blew out both cheeks and allowed herself a slight smile. She forced herself to relax. Tess was the friend she had been craving for years. Her new life didn’t have to be all books, books, books. She could balance that by occasionally letting her hair down. Couldn’t she?
Maybe then, this could work out after all.