He wanted another drink.
Coconut Grove at night was music and lights, small bars spilling out on to the sidewalks, guitars and pot smoke and rum.
In JB’s, he ordered a beer and a chaser, lit a cigarette, and gazed around the crowded room to see if there was anyone he recognised. He saw a couple of familiar faces, but none of his usual drinking buddies. A few tourists had made their way here, judging from the clothes and the sunburns. In the corner, two Cuban guitarists improvised a fast, complicated melody.
He’d just have one. Maybe two. And then go home. Marie would be none the wiser.
Except she would be. And William didn’t know yet about his father’s drinking, but he would soon. He had to know it, deep inside, in that childish part that picked up on adult complications. William had to know that his mother and father argued, that sometimes his father spoke too loud, laughed too long, had trouble keeping his balance. How old had Robbie been when he’d realised that about his own father? Seven? Eight?
He raised his glass to his lips.
A voice caught his attention over the talk and music, made him swivel his head quickly in its direction. The accent, the tones . . .
‘Emily?’ he said, half off the stool to go to her, his eyes scanning the crowd for the source.
‘But where can we see a crocodile?’ demanded the voice, English and clear, and Robbie saw it came from a young woman in a red and orange sundress. She stood with a group of other young people with several empty pitchers of beer on the high table in front of them. She had dark curly hair and hoop earrings, red lipstick, nose and cheeks stained pink from the sun. As he watched, she tossed her head and grinned in a way that he knew. ‘Or OK, are they alligators? What’s the difference, anyway?’
It was a bad idea. He picked up his bourbon and walked over to her table anyway. ‘Paulina?’ he said.
She was still half-laughing from her conversation, and he saw her take him in. She was drunk enough and he was sober enough so that he could almost read her thoughts: He’s a bit old, but cute . . . why not?
‘Oh, hi,’ she said, moderating her smile to a flirtatious one. ‘Have we met?’
‘Are you Emily’s sister? Emily Greaves?’
‘Yes! Yes, we’re on holiday together in Miami Beach. Do you know my sister? And why did you call me Paulina?’
‘Polly. I’m sorry. You asked me to call you Paulina once.’
‘We’ve met?’ She scrunched up her nose and eyes in an exaggeration of remembering.
‘A couple of times, though you were much younger. I’m Robert Brandon.’
She frowned, and then she remembered and her eyes got wide and angry. ‘Wait. You’re Robert? You’re that Robert? I thought you looked familiar.’
‘It’s nice to see you again.’
‘It’s not nice to see you. You broke my sister’s heart! You’re a wanker.’ She turned to her friends. ‘This is the bloke who broke my sister’s heart. He got engaged to her and then he left her. Like that.’ She wheeled on him again, to the tune of general disapproving muttering from her friends. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘I live here, in Coconut Grove. Listen, Polly, I saw Emily in the airport today – yesterday. I only recognised you because I knew she was in Miami. Can I . . . let me buy you a drink and talk to you for a few minutes.’
‘No! You’re a creep.’
‘It was a long time ago. Please, I just want to know how she’s doing. As an old friend.’
She was clearly not happy about it, but she nodded. He bought them each another beer and they went to a corner booth together, still in sight of her friends.
He could see the resemblance to her sister. When she’d been twelve, it hadn’t been so apparent: he remembered her as skinny and a bit wild, all mouth and wide eyes. But she had the same nose and almost the same lips as Emily, and the same shape face. He caught himself staring, trying to trace Emily in her, and looked down at his beer instead.
‘How is she?’ he asked her.
‘What is she . . . what is she doing? Is she a doctor?’
‘She’s an obstetrician. She’s amazing. She’s been working in South America with poor people, helping them. With her husband, Christopher.’
He’d known she was married. He’d known that man was her husband as soon as he’d seen him. The confirmation was still a stab in the gut.
‘I liked you,’ she said, suddenly and vehemently. ‘I thought you were a really nice bloke. God, I remember telling Em that she should marry you.’
‘I wanted her to.’
‘Well, it’s a good thing she didn’t.’
‘Maybe it was,’ he mumbled, and drank his beer.
‘She doesn’t even talk about you. She never mentioned you again. She burned all your letters and everything. I saw her doing it one night. God, how long ago was this?’
‘Ten years. It was ten years ago.’
‘Wow. Well, whatever you did, you fucked it up.’
‘You don’t know?’ he asked involuntarily. ‘She didn’t tell you?’
‘I told you, she never mentioned you again. Believe me, I asked her.’ She regarded him over the rim of her beer glass. ‘What did you do?’
He shook his head.
‘It must’ve been something bad. I remember my parents sent me to my friend’s house for a couple of days, and when I came back it was like you’d never existed. Except Emily was miserable. Did you cheat on her?’
‘It was something like that. Yeah.’
‘Dickhead.’ She took a drink of her beer.
‘I need to see her,’ he told her urgently.
‘I don’t think she’d be keen on that.’
‘I need to know she’s all right. That’s all, Polly.’
‘You want to apologise to her for being an ass, ten years ago?’
‘I . . .’ He bit his lip. ‘Yes.’
‘I don’t know. What did she say to you at the airport when you saw her?’
‘We didn’t get a chance to talk. Please, Polly. Can you give me the address of where she’s staying, or a phone number, or something?’
‘I’m not sure she’d want to hear from you. I should ask her first.’
If she asked Emily, she’d refuse.
‘Polly, it was a long time ago, as you say. A lot of water under the bridge. I just want to get in touch with her, for one last time, to see how she’s doing. And to say sorry.’
‘She’s happily married now.’
‘I’m married too. I’ve got a little boy. I’ll just call her, once, and then that will be it. For old times’ sake.’
‘Well . . .’ She screwed up her mouth, thinking, and in that moment, despite the make-up and the beer in her hand, she looked like a kid again. ‘I suppose it can’t do any harm. She can always hang up on you.’ Polly pulled out a pen from her handbag and paused. ‘Are you going to promise not to be a wanker?’
‘Say it. “I won’t be a wanker”.’
‘I won’t be a wanker.’
‘Cross your heart.’
‘All right. Wait, there’s nothing to write on.’
He held out his hand, fingers curled, palm down. She scowled, but she wrote the number on the back of his hand.