Page 3 of Together

‘Not me,’ said Chloe.

‘Your parents have just as romantic a story,’ said Robbie. ‘They met over the photocopier.’

‘Your father,’ said Shelley, ‘was never prepared for his morning American History class and always got to school early to copy worksheets, just at the time when I was trying to photocopy poems for Honours English.’

‘It took her half a semester to figure out I was doing it on purpose,’ Adam said.

‘Ugh,’ said Chloe. ‘Nothing romantic ever happens in a school.’

Emily saw Adam and Shelley exchange a look – the complicity of married couples, communicating without words.

Bryan, aged eight, ran up. He was breathing hard. ‘Grandpa, Rocco wants to go for a swim. Can I take him?’

‘Not here,’ said Adam. ‘The current’s too strong in front of the house.’

Robbie stood up. ‘I’ll walk you down to the bay,’ he said. ‘You can throw a ball all you want for him there down by the landing. You won’t all fit in the dinghy but I can borrow Little Sterling’s launch and give you a ride if you want. Want to come, William?’

‘I’m Francie,’ said Francie.

‘Well then, do you want to come, Francie?’

The little girl hopped off her daddy’s lap and put her hand in her grandfather’s. ‘Can I have an ice cream at the store?’

‘You just had ice cream,’ said Shelley, but Robbie winked at the little girl and said, ‘Shh, don’t tell your mother.’

‘I’ll come too,’ said Chloe. ‘Mom, can I borrow your phone?’

Shelley rolled her eyes, but handed over the phone.

‘Are you coming, Em?’ asked Robbie. ‘I’ll buy you an ice cream too. The biggest ice cream you ever saw, for my sweetheart.’

‘Adam will come with you, won’t you, Adam?’ Adam nodded, and Emily kissed Robbie’s cheek. ‘I’ll stay here and do the dishes. Dry the dogs and kids off before you let them back into the house.’

He kissed her and she watched him go, accompanied by their son, surrounded by grandchildren and dogs. Other than the grey of his hair, from the back he could still be the man she’d first met all those years ago, before they’d imagined any of this was possible.

He’d called Francie ‘William’.

In the kitchen the two women filled the dishwasher, working in an easy rhythm. Some of Emily’s friends had problems with their daughters-in-law, but Emily knew she was blessed. Shelley told her about their plans for the rest of the Fourth of July holiday weekend, taking the kids up to Rangeley where Shelley’s family had a camp on the lake. They’d stay up there a couple of weeks, so the kids could play with their cousins and Shelley could catch up with her extended family. ‘It’s the best part of being a teacher,’ she said, wrapping up the remainder of the cake. ‘The summer holiday.’

‘I don’t believe that for a minute,’ said Emily. ‘You love your students.’

‘You could join us. You and Robbie would be really welcome, and we’ve got an extra bedroom. You could bring the dogs; they’d love the lake. My brother has a little sailboat he doesn’t even know how to use.’

‘I’d like that. I’ll have to ask Robbie. He’s doing some work around the house this summer.’

‘Adam said that, from the looks of it, he’s got about six projects going at once. He was complaining because Robbie had always told him to finish one job before starting the next.’

‘Is that so?’ said Emily vaguely. ‘Well, he must have a lot of repairs to do. It was a hard winter. Have you heard from William lately, by the way? He hasn’t called since last month.’

‘He sent an email last week with some photos of the kids. I’ll forward it to you, if you haven’t got it.’ Shelley opened the refrigerator to replace the jug of milk, and paused. ‘Er . . . what’s this?’

‘What’s what?’

Shelley took something out of the refrigerator and held it up. It was Robbie’s wallet.

‘He’s going to have trouble buying ice cream without this,’ said Shelley, beginning to laugh.

Emily turned away quickly, back to the dishes, before her daughter-in-law could see her face. ‘One of the kids must have put it there as a joke,’ she said, indistinctly, rinsing a glass. Though she knew it had not been one of the kids.

Fireworks exploded in the distance, over Clyde Bay, around the point a quarter mile from their house. Some years they watched them from the boat, with a view of the lights on the shore and the fireworks reflected on the water. This year the kids had left too late and Emily had been too tired to bother with getting the boat off their mooring. The main problem with being older: being tired. And this afternoon, happy though it had been, had been a strain, too, with watching Robbie and watching Adam and Shelley to see if they noticed, if they understood.

William had called late in the afternoon to wish them a happy anniversary. It was only three o’clock where he was in Alaska. He’d called her phone instead of the house phone and from the look that Adam and Shelley exchanged when she answered the call, she knew that one of them had sent him a text to prompt him to ring. She pretended not to know as she chatted with him, told him about the cake and the sunshine and how the dogs and kids had tracked half the beach into the house with them. William’s laughter, a continent away, sounded just like Robbie’s.

‘Your father would love to speak with you,’ she said, and passed the phone to Robbie. ‘It’s William.’

She watched as Robbie took the phone. ‘Hello, son. Yes, thank you. All good there? Good, good.’ A silence, and Emily tried to hear if William was speaking on the other end.

‘You probably want to talk with your brother.’ Robbie handed the phone to Adam, and Emily drew the familiar sigh.

Now, from the spare bedroom they used as an office, Emily could see flashes through the window, though she couldn’t see the fireworks themselves. Wrapped in a dressing gown she sat at the desk and checked her email. As promised, Shelley had forwarded her William’s email as soon as she’d got home. Emily opened it and gazed with pleasure at the photographs of William’s two children. It was tough for him, splitting custody with their mother; but he only lived a couple of miles from her and saw them almost every day.

The girl, Brianna, most resembled what William had looked like as a child: gap-toothed, dark-haired – even a haircut much like William had had in the 1970s. Emily supposed everything came back into style, eventually. Brianna posed with her older brother John in front of a lake and pine trees, with fishing rods in their hands. Alaska looked a lot like Maine, though William said that they had even more vicious black flies there.

She was about to call Robbie to come in and look when she saw that she had another email as well, from someone called Lucy Knight. The subject was Christopher.

Dear Emily,

I hope you don’t mind my emailing you out of the blue like this.

I thought you would probably want to know that Christopher passed away last month. I would have told you sooner, but everything seems to take so much more time for me since he’s been gone. He didn’t suffer; he died in bed, suddenly, of a heart attack. I woke up and he was gone.

I know we never met bar the once, but Christopher often spoke of you, as a colleague and a friend. He regarded his time in South America as – he never said in so many words that it was the happiest, because, as you know, he could never be anything but kind – but he spoke of it as one of the most productive times in his life, as the time he felt he did the most good. He was a fine man and I was very lucky to have him. I miss him very much.