He shook William harder. ‘William! What number apartment do you live in?’
No answer. Robbie regarded him. Sleeping, in the passenger seat of his truck, lit by the streetlamp down the road, he didn’t look much like the child he’d been. His mouth was open, his face rough with stubble, his eyebrows thick and dark. He’d lost his baseball cap somewhere between the stool and the booth. Robbie reached across him and opened the door to the truck, hoping the cold air would revive him again, enough for him to tell Robbie where he lived, but he didn’t get much more than a grunt.
‘Great,’ said Robbie, and got out of the truck. He climbed the stairs to the front porch. One of the bottom windows had a light on inside; he took a guess which apartment it was and pressed the doorbell marked ‘Apt 1.’ He had to wait a while and was considering pressing it again before someone opened the heavy inside door, leaving the screen one closed. It was a woman, wearing a terrycloth bathrobe and bed hair.
‘Sorry to disturb you,’ said Robbie. ‘I know it’s late. I’m taking William Brandon home and I don’t know which apartment he lives in, and I think he’s lost his keys. Do you know anyone who has a spare one?’
The woman ran her hand through her hair. ‘He doesn’t live in any of them. Dean, that’s the owner, evicted him . . . I want to say last week? He said he hadn’t paid the rent for a few months.’
‘Where’s he been sleeping, then?’
The woman shrugged.
‘OK,’ said Robbie. ‘Thanks. Sorry for getting you up.’
Back in the truck, he turned up the heating, put on the windshield wipers to swipe away the snow, and looked at William. One duffel bag. He didn’t even have a coat. Or anyone to call except for the unwelcome number Robbie had written on the back of a napkin.
He made a decision.
She didn’t think she would sleep, but she did, dreamlessly and without moving, until six. For a moment when she woke up she didn’t know where she was and she reached out her hand for Robbie, thinking sleepily that he’d got up to go to work already, and then she remembered and she sat up.
It wasn’t the same hotel room in Lowestoft; it wasn’t even the same hotel. She hadn’t been back here since 1962, and she hadn’t been sure she’d recognise the hotel where they’d stayed that one night, but when she’d parked her car in the seaside car park and walked along the esplanade, she’d known which building it was straight away. It was flats, now, with dirty windows and missing curtains.
The seafront had been nearly deserted, and many of the hotels were closed for the season. She’d found this one further up the street. The corridors were carpeted in patterned swirls of green and brown and she could smell all the ghosts of all the bacon and eggs that had been fried for all the breakfasts ever made here. But the room itself was clean and the owner, an auburn-haired woman with a strong Suffolk accent, had made her a sandwich and a cup of tea after Emily admitted she hadn’t eaten all day.
She lay in bed and remembered a pink ruffled bedspread and a view of the sea. It was too early to ring Robbie, but she remembered what he’d said about looking across the ocean at her. Emily used the kettle in the corner of the room to make herself a cup of tea, proper strong tannic English tea, and poured in two little containers of milk. She didn’t usually take sugar but today, she put in a packet. Back in bed, she listened to the seagulls arguing with each other outside. They sounded exactly the same as the ones on the other side of the world.
She missed Robbie and Adam so badly that her whole body ached.
Later, the landlady put an enormous plate of breakfast in front of her. Eggs and bacon and sausage and mushrooms and beans and tomatoes, a rack of toast, a metal pot of tea. Emily looked down at it. ‘I haven’t eaten this much for breakfast in years.’
‘You get that down you,’ said the landlady. Janie, she was called. ‘You didn’t have a proper tea last night, only a sandwich for supper.’ She hung her tea towel over her forearm; Emily was the only guest in the dining room. ‘Where’s your accent from, anyway?’
‘I’m from Blickley, in Norfolk.’
‘Don’t sound like it.’
‘I’ve lived in America for nearly twenty years.’
‘That’s it. You sound American.’
‘In America, they tell me I sound English.’
Janie laughed. ‘You can’t win, can you? I’ve always wanted to live in America. You’re lucky.’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I am.’
‘Still, though, I imagine it must be hard sometimes. Like you don’t know exactly where you belong. Accent not here nor there, past in one country and future in another. My gran came from Ireland and she said she never really fitted in here or back there. Never lost her accent, though.’
After breakfast, walking along the beach, she thought about her mother and her father and Polly, and about Robbie and Adam. She skirted the waves foaming on the pebbles and weighed up the two emptinesses in her heart. The two lonelinesses.
If she could have anyone with her right now, here on the beach where she had, for the first time, fallen in love, who would she choose: her new family, or her old one?
A gull swooped by her head, crying its plaintive cry, and she remembered that time in Old Orchard Beach in Maine when the gull had stolen Adam’s slice of pier pizza and he had cried until Robbie bought him a new slice. She remembered the way she and Robbie had laughed and made a protective circle around Adam with their arms as he ate it, to keep the gulls away.
She smiled. There was nothing to weigh, nothing to wonder.
She wanted to go back home, to see her real family.
‘Who’s in the guest bedroom?’
Adam’s hair was wet from his shower and he reached into the fridge for the orange juice. He poured himself a big glass, drank it off, and refilled it.
Robbie was on his fourth cup of coffee. ‘Did I wake you up when I came back?’
‘No. I just heard the snoring. Whoever’s in there is sawing logs. Want some toast?’
‘No, thanks. It’s your brother.’
Adam put down the slice of bread he was holding. ‘It’s . . . William?’ A huge smile broke out on his face. ‘He’s here? He’s really here? You found him?’
‘He’s really here. But—’ Robbie saw the excitement of his younger son and he tempered what he had been going to say. ‘He needs to sleep, so don’t go running up there and bursting through his door.’
‘When can I meet him? When do you think he’ll get up?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I could stay home from school. We’re not doing anything important today, there are no tests or anything, and it’s snowing, maybe they’ll cancel school anyway.’
‘There aren’t more than a couple of inches out there. School won’t be cancelled.’
‘Can I stay home?’
‘But he’s my brother, and I’ve never met him. I’ve only ever seen that one picture. It’s way more important than school.’
‘Your mother would kill me if I let you stay home from school.’
‘She doesn’t need to know?’
‘No. You can meet him after you get home.’ If he’s still here. ‘Now have breakfast and get ready or you’ll miss the bus.’