‘What do you figure our chances for the playoff?’ said Isaac Peck, before giving an exaggerated comic double take and adding, ‘Oh that’s right, Brandon, you’re Cleveland Cavaliers. I forgot you’re a flatlander.’
It was rendered flatlandah, in the broad Downeast accent.
‘Isaac,’ said Robbie, ‘you’ve been forgetting I’m a flatlander every morning for the past ten years at least.’
‘Not on Christmas or Thanksgiving,’ Isaac said phlegmatically. ‘On them days I stay home and look at my family instead of your ugly face.’
Perry filled his travel mug with coffee and Robbie drank half a cup, scalding hot, before holding it out for a refill.
‘You need the buzz this morning?’ Avery Lunt asked, shifting his skinny backside on the wooden stool.
‘Drove Emily down to Boston last night for her plane. Didn’t get back home till two and figured there was no point going to bed.’ And he wouldn’t have been able to sleep without her, anyway. The bed was too empty, her side too cold and smooth. He had not been apart from her at night for a very long time.
‘Ayuh, she going back home to Limeyland for a visit?’
‘This is home,’ said Robbie. ‘How long do we have to live here, anyway, before you stop calling me a flatlander and my wife a Limey?’
The lobstermen and Perry exchanged glances. ‘Give it another thirty years,’ said Avery at last.
‘Are you going to be right here in thirty years, Avery?’ Robbie guessed that Avery Lunt was seventy-five if he was a day, though as he had the leather face of someone who’d spent every day of his life on the ocean, he could be anything up to a hundred and ten.
‘Plan to be.’
‘Thirty years probably isn’t long enough though,’ said Isaac, considering. ‘You still got that accent for a start. Your boy, he might make a real Mainer.’
Re-yul Mainah. They said it as if it was the pinnacle of achievement, and Robbie, to be honest, couldn’t disagree. From the minute he’d set eyes on the Maine coast he’d felt it was his: the rocky shore with its intricate crenulations, the way the pine trees spiked up from the land. The islands crouching in the sea like hunched porcupines, countless – some of them inhabited, some no more than seal-strewn rocks. The old white lighthouses, the dead calm fog, the raw power of a Nor’easter. Right now, though the calendar said it was early spring, the water was still a slate grey, almost black at times, whipped into ice crystals, and the snow lay thick on the shore.
‘I hope he will,’ Robbie said. ‘He already refuses to believe that any team exists except for the Red Sox.’
Sterling Ames put down his half-chewed doughnut and spoke for the first time. He had powdered sugar on his grey moustache. ‘Where you from again, Bob?’
‘Ohio, with a detour via the south as far up as Maryland.’
‘Ever see the ocean before you grew up?’
‘Not until I was sixteen, and then I was hooked. I fell in love at first sight twice in my life, and that was the first time.’
‘You got any relatives in these parts?’
‘Because Little was down Camden on the weekend, got talking to some fella called Brandon in the Rusty Scupper.’
Robbie’s hand tightened on his plastic mug. ‘Yeah?’
‘Said he looked just like you, ’cept twenty-five years younger. Little came back with a head on him like a sore grizzly, ’cording to his father.’ Sterling took another bite of doughnut, scattering powdered sugar.
‘There are a lot of Brandons around,’ said Robbie.
‘Boat builder, this one. He’s been working over there for Harkers.’
‘Huh,’ said Robbie, his heart pounding as if he’d just sprinted a mile at full pelt. ‘Well, got to get to work. It’s been a pleasure being abused by you guys, as always.’
‘Get the hell to work,’ said Avery. ‘Stop bothering us old folk, we got stuff to take care of.’
Brandon’s Boatyard was only about five miles from Clyde Bay General Store, off Route 1 and down a twisting access road to the coast, which was lined with snowbanks from October to April. Gravel crunched under the tyres of his truck but Robbie wasn’t listening to that or to the 1960s oldies station that was pumping from the radio. He was thinking about how he wanted to go home and see Emily: to tell her about this, to try to work out what it might mean. To feel the touch of her hand on the back of his neck, see the furrow between her eyebrows as she thought.
But Emily was most of the way across the Atlantic by now. She was reading her book, or fast asleep, or most likely, looking out the window at the clouds over England and thinking about who she would meet there and what they would say. Maybe she was thinking about him, too. They hadn’t been parted from each other for more than a night, for years.
Suddenly, fiercely, he wished he’d gone with her. Adam couldn’t come, of course, but he could have stayed with a friend for a week – his best friend Luca’s parents would have been glad to have him. Adam had been away from home that long this past summer for soccer camp and he’d been fine. They had missed him badly, him and Emily, but Adam had come home exhilarated from the freedom and the new friends he’d met.
‘Separation is how they grow,’ Emily had said, that night in bed, her hand seeking his, wanting not to be separate.
But Emily had left in such a hurry, to get to England in time for her mother’s funeral that he’d had no time to think about how he’d feel when she was gone.
Surely this was a coincidence. Brandon was a common name. For all he knew, William wasn’t even using his name. It was unlikely that he’d turn up in Maine. Emily would say all these things, if she were here. She’d also tell him to find out more.
He parked the truck in the lot. The lights in the workshop were already on and the sound of the radio came through. When he opened the door, the scents of diesel and bottom paint greeted him, wood shavings and pine tar. At the far end, he saw a figure in a flannel shirt and baseball cap bending over his work. Robbie put on a pot of coffee in the kitchenette near the office and poured two cups as soon as it was done. He added creamer and three sugars to one of them before bringing it over to Pierre L’Allier.
The young man glanced up from the piece of cap rail he was fixing to the bulwarks of a wooden yacht. He’d been trying to grow a beard for the past few weeks; so far it was a bit of wispy hair on his chin and on the corners of his lip, which startled Robbie a little bit every time he saw it.
‘Oh yeah, good morning,’ Pierre said, his accent flavoured with Québécois. ‘My brother dropped me off on his way to work. I hope it’s OK to let myself in?’
‘Course it is. Wouldn’t have given you keys if it weren’t.’ Robbie nodded at the joint on the cap rail. ‘That’s a nice nibbed scarf.’
Pierre flushed. Despite the wisp on his chin, or maybe because of it, he only looked about sixteen. He’d been even scrappier and younger-looking when Robbie had taken him on as an apprentice, two years ago, straight out of school. Robbie hadn’t been looking to take on anyone else – he already had three full-timers, five part-timers, and Pierre hadn’t ever even worked on a boat before. His family were loggers – his father was the best tree surgeon Robbie had ever seen; he’d taken down that big spruce in front of the Methodist church as if he were dancing a ballet with chainsaw and ropes. But Pierre had walked into the boatyard and as Robbie had talked to him, Pierre had touched the cedar planks waiting to be riveted on to the oak frame Robbie had built. He touched them almost reverently. Almost as if his hands could see the shape that the wood should take. And Robbie had taken him on that very day.