‘Tank you,’ said Pierre. His French accent always came out more when he was embarrassed or excited.
Robbie sat beside him on the bench. ‘Got a minute?’
‘Did you go down to Camden with Little Sterling last weekend?’
Pierre blushed again, more fiercely. He was a year short of drinking age, and his father Gill was notoriously strict with his sons.
‘I don’t really care what you got up to,’ Robbie added. ‘It’s your own business. I just heard a story about someone that Little met there, who’s got my name.’
‘Yeah,’ said Pierre slowly. ‘Yeah, we were talking about that. I was saying he looked a lot like you, but younger. Little was saying maybe you had a cousin. You know how him and his cousins are all the spit of each other.’
Robbie was conscious of his heart pounding again. Oh, Emily, please let it be, after all these years. Please. ‘What . . . was his first name, do you know?’
‘Charlie? No. Bill. William.’ Pierre rubbed his forehead ruefully. ‘We had a lot of beers.’
‘William Brandon. You’re certain.’
‘Yeah, pretty sure.’
‘And he was working for Harkers?’
‘Yeah, definitely. Good boats, those, eh?’
‘How old was he, do you think?’
‘Dunno . . . year or two older than me? He was a better drinker, anyway.’
Better, as in more accomplished. Robbie frowned into his coffee, and stood up. ‘OK. Thanks, Pierre.’ He put a hand on Pierre’s narrow shoulder and went to the office to turn on the lights.
Inside, he closed the door behind him and stood looking out the window at the boatyard. Yachts shrink-wrapped for the winter in white plastic like fat-bellied ghosts. There was a man in his early twenties called William Brandon, a boatbuilder and a drinker, working not twenty miles from here.
‘Oh God, Emily,’ he whispered. ‘What should I do?’
He knew the foreman at Harkers, had shared coffee and shop talk with him, and once had rafted up to his motorboat and done running repairs to his engine when they were both on their way to Matinicus Island. He found him overseeing work on a thirty-eight-foot sloop, every inch of it hand-built in this workshop. Harkers were among the finest vessels built in Maine, which meant they were among the finest built anywhere in the world: exquisitely crafted wooden boats made by men and women with rough hands and mostly bought by millionaires and billionaires as pretty toys.
Robbie paused in the doorway, looking around for a half-familiar figure, but he didn’t see anyone new, so he strolled over to the boat to stand beside George and admire it.
‘Wish I could afford one of these.’ He touched the sloop.
‘You don’t need one. How’s Goldberg?’
‘She’s fine. I need to recaulk her bottom before I put her back in the water.’
‘Boats and women. Always more work than you think they’re going to be.’
‘Labour of love, though. How’s Joyce?’
‘The same. Emily?’
‘The same,’ he answered. She would be well on her way to Norfolk, now. On their trip down to Boston he had told her not to drive if she didn’t get any sleep on the plane, but he suspected she’d ignore his advice if she felt she needed to. Be careful, he thought at her, across the ocean.
‘I’m set, thanks. Listen, George, I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m looking for an employee of yours.’
The promptness of the answer made Robbie’s heart thump and his stomach sink. ‘Yeah. Is he here?’
George shook his head. ‘Sorry, buddy, but I had to let him go.’
Robbie’s stomach sank further. ‘Can I ask why?’
‘He punched the head of the sales team in the nose.’
‘Ah. So . . . so he’s gone?’
‘That was yesterday. I don’t know how far he’s got. Is he family?’
‘He . . . might be.’
‘He’s a good boatbuilder, Bob. Very talented, and careful. When he’s sober.’
‘I understand. Where did he come from, do you know?’
‘South. Charleston, I think. He didn’t talk much about it. I get the feeling that he’s moved around a lot, and I can see why. But he picked up some skills somewhere.’
In that small workshop, built out of leftover wood and corrugated iron, under the palm tree in their back yard in Coconut Grove. Curls of wood at his feet and sawdust in his hair, turning over a carved dolphin in his hands.
‘Do you have his address?’
‘I’ve got it in the office. But you’d have as good a chance going to the Scupper.’
He tried the Scupper first. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and Robbie had to pause at the door before he opened it. He had not seen the inside of a bar for years. Not a real bar, where beer stained the floor and the smell of alcohol had worn into the plaster of the walls. He tested himself: it was bad, but not too bad. It was the thought of William that was bothering him, not the thought of a glass pushed across the bar, cold and wet with bubbles crawling up from the bottom.
Well, that thought bothered him, too. But mostly it was the thought of William.
He opened the door and walked into the beery fug of the bar. Hockey played on the TV on the wall and the place was mostly deserted, except Robbie didn’t notice any of that because sitting at the bar with his back to the door was his own self. Bent forward, shoulders shrugged down, dark hair mostly hidden by a baseball cap, feet in unlaced work boots propped on the rung of the stool. There was a duffel bag on the floor beside him. He was Robbie’s own self, twenty years ago.
He had never seen William as an adult, but there was no doubt in his mind that it was him.
He watched himself drinking beer from a bottle with the grim efficiency of a man on a mission. At three o’clock in the afternoon, William would have stopped keeping count of them already. Robbie would have lost count by now himself; the afternoon would have started to condense itself into mouthfuls taken, and lengthen itself into that no-time that started with the first drink and ended with forgetfulness.
Robbie swallowed hard, hung up his coat on a peg near the door, and walked up to the bar. He sat on a stool beside his son.
William was busy drinking. His eyes were on the hockey, but his concentration was on the beer in his hand. His profile was so familiar it hurt. Marie was in the tilt of his chin and the shape of his ears but the rest of him was like Robbie, down to the faint auburn in his unshaven beard. His hands had seen work and his clothes were the uniform of men all up and down the coast: plaid flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, worn jeans, untucked T-shirt. Robbie wore a version of it too, though his shirt was solid navy and he wore a sweater over it. The barman approached him, and he said, ‘A Pepsi, please, with plenty of ice. And another Geary’s for William here.’
At the sound of his name, William turned from the hockey and glanced at Robbie. The glance solidified into a stare. Robbie looked back at him.
It had been eighteen years. William had been a child of four. A child of four, and asleep. Now he had a man’s face, unshaven chin, bloodshot eyes, a bruise on his cheekbone. He looked older than twenty-two. He looked like the stranger Robbie used to see in the mirror every day.
‘Who are you?’ William demanded.
‘I’m the man who just bought you a beer.’