‘But who the fuck are you?’
‘My name’s Robert Brandon.’
The look on William’s face wasn’t surprise, but anger. He narrowed his lips and his eyes and Robbie knew this was the expression he’d had right before he punched Harkers’ sales manager in the nose.
‘What are you doing here?’ he demanded.
‘I told you. I’m buying you a beer.’
The drinks appeared next to their elbows on the bar and Robbie picked his up and had a sip. Cold bite, not enough to quench the thirst, but good enough. It was all he needed. William didn’t touch his.
‘Is your mother Marie?’ Robbie asked.
‘Don’t give me that,’ William said. ‘Not now, this is a fucking joke.’
‘It is,’ agreed Robbie. ‘And I didn’t expect it either. George told me to look for you here. He said you’d more likely be here than at your apartment.’
‘My apartment.’ William snorted. ‘Why were you looking for me?’
‘Because if Marie Doherty is your mother, then you’re my son. I haven’t seen you since you were four. And I didn’t know where to find you until now.’
‘You’re an asshole, is what you are.’
‘Yeah,’ said Robbie. ‘I probably am.’
‘If you’re my father, where have you been?’
‘Right here for the past thirteen years. In Clyde Bay. Before that, I was in Florida, waiting for you.’
William’s fist crashed down on the bar. ‘I don’t believe you.’
Robbie took his wallet out of his pocket. He put a bill on the bar to pay for the drinks, and he drew a photograph out of the back of it. It was creased, yellowed, and worn to the shape of his back pocket from being carried around in a succession of wallets over the years. He put it on the bar, next to William’s fist.
The boy in the photograph smiled up at them both. He was missing one of his front teeth and his hair needed a cut, even by the standards of 1972.
‘Get. The fuck. Out of here.’ William’s voice was wet and furious.
‘This is my phone number.’ Robbie grabbed a pen and a cocktail napkin and wrote it down. His writing was unsteady, and so were his words. ‘I’d like to get to know you, William.’
‘Get the fuck out of here! Get out!’ William slid off the stool, knocking it over.
‘Hey,’ said the barman, ‘whoa now, what’s going on?’
‘Get out!’ William’s hands clenched.
‘I told you, Bill,’ said the barman, ‘it’s your last chance. No more fighting.’
‘I’m going,’ said Robbie. ‘Don’t worry. I’m going. Call me if you want to. Please. Or find me. Brandon’s Boatyard in Clyde Bay. I’ll be there.’ He stuffed his hands in his pockets and left the bar. The air outside was cold, colder than the drink he’d ordered, and he breathed great gulps of it to try to quench his thirst.
There were new houses on the outskirts of Blickley, crowded together behind cramped gardens; the tiny school where she and Polly had gone as children had a new, ugly extension on its side. But the church was the same, squat and grey, exactly as it had been for hundreds of years before Emily was born. After the dirty snow of a late Maine winter, the green of an English spring was almost shocking. Daffodils bobbed around the edges of the car park, which was full; she saw mourners, wearing suits and dresses, walking up the path into the church. Some of them she recognised, but she didn’t see her father or Polly. Not yet.
She was late. After twenty years away, she had not expected the traffic in England to be so bad. The M25 had been stop and go, and she’d been stuck behind a tractor for half an hour on the A-road, pounding her hands on the steering wheel, trying not to look at the clock on the car dash. Her mouth tasted of awful airline coffee and she still wore the clothes she’d travelled in: a wrinkled shift dress, dark tights, a jumper, a winter coat that was more suited to Maine’s icy temperatures than England. She turned the car around and found a space to park on the side of the road. Then she hurried up to the church, looking frantically for her father’s slender build, her sister’s curly hair.
The man she saw at the door of the church was not who she expected to see at all.
She came to an abrupt halt. ‘Christopher.’
He was wearing a grey overcoat. His glasses were round, without frames. His sandy hair had receded, and although Emily was a parent, a doctor, and forty-eight years old, she was shocked for a moment that this person from her youth was a middle-aged grown-up.
Christopher’s eyes widened. ‘Emily?’
‘I . . . didn’t expect . . .’ She stopped. ‘Of course you’re here. My mother loved you very much.’
‘And I loved her. It’s . . . good to see you again, Emily.’
She knew he was lying, or at least as close to lying as Christopher ever got, but this was typical Christopher, typical politeness. Because it wasn’t good to see him again. It was strange, as if this person she knew so well had been dug up and replaced by someone else, someone nearly twenty years older whom she didn’t know at all.
What was it going to be like to see her father?
‘It’s good to see you,’ she said.
‘This is Lucy,’ he said, and for the first time she noticed that a woman was standing next to him. She also wore a grey coat, and glasses, though she couldn’t take in many more details than that. ‘My wife.’
‘Oh. It’s – it’s nice to meet you.’ She put her hand out to shake, because that seemed the right thing to do, and Lucy took it.
‘It’s nice to meet you too.’ And Lucy actually sounded as if she meant it, so she couldn’t possibly know who Emily was. Christopher couldn’t have told her everything.
She stared at them both, with too much to say to be able to say anything safely.
‘I think it’s time to go in,’ said Christopher.
‘I’m so sorry about your mother,’ said Lucy.
‘Thank you,’ she said automatically, thinking that this was how both English people and New Englanders dealt with uncomfortable situations: falling back into polite truisms and a catechism of courtesy.
They both stood back to let Emily enter the church.
The pews were nearly full. The air smelled of damp stone and lilies. In the front of the church was the coffin, wreathed with flowers, containing her mother.
She had not understood, not truly understood, that her mother was dead until that moment. That her mother was dead and not coming back. Forever.
She felt her mother’s hand in hers, as she had when she was a child and they used to walk to the shops. She smelled the scent of her mother’s hair. She saw her mother one of the last times they had spent together, sitting near the beach on Key West with the orange sunset gleaming off the glass she held in her hand. How she smiled. How she laughed.
And now she was gone, and what did anything else matter at all? All the other things that had happened between them?
At the back of the church, Emily reached her hand out, touched open air, thought about touching the coffin’s polished wood. She thought about her mother inside. Her mother was beyond her reach in a way that she had not been for the eighteen years that Emily had not seen her, nor heard her voice.
Once upon a time, it had only been the two of them. She was the first person Emily had ever known.