Page 43 of Together

‘He’s lovely,’ she managed. ‘The spit of you.’

‘Chip off the old block.’

She gave back the photograph. Her fingers had left smears on its glossy surface, near the child’s dark head.

‘Do you have children?’ Robbie asked, replacing the photograph in his wallet.

‘No.’

‘You’re probably too busy.’

She didn’t answer that. Her diagnosis seemed too clinical; too much of an excuse for her failure, the failure of her marriage. Just kept walking along the beach. The wet sand was cooler than the air. In the distance, palm trees hung their fronds like limp scarves. They could be on a different planet from the one they’d been on the last time they had spoken, the last time they’d really spoken, on the silty bank of the river, with mist rising up from the water because of the rain.

‘What else have you been doing?’ she asked at last. ‘How are Dennis and Art?’

‘I don’t know. I haven’t spoken with them in years.’

‘What did you do after – after we said goodbye, the last time?’

‘I got on a boat out of Bristol to New York. I travelled around a little while and then joined the Navy.’

‘Did you go to Vietnam?’

He nodded.

‘You . . . you never seemed like the armed forces type to me.’

‘I didn’t know what else to do. I had to do something.’ From studied nonchalance, his voice had gone curt. ‘I was there for two years. Took some shrapnel in the thigh, so they sent me home.’

‘Robbie.’ She stopped walking, and he did too. ‘You were hurt?’

‘It’s fine. I was one of the lucky ones. Then down to Florida, got a job in a marina here. Marie’s a snowbird from Wisconsin. Nobody in Miami is originally from here.’

‘I can see why they come here,’ she said automatically. ‘It’s beautiful, though too hot for me.’

‘Are you happy, Emily? Are you really happy?’

‘Yes.’

‘I want you to be happy,’ he said. ‘It’s all I’ve ever wanted. You were right. I had to keep thinking about that, after I left. You were right. We hardly knew each other after all.’

‘Are you happy?’ she burst out.

‘No.’

He bent down and scooped up a handful of wet sand and threw it at the pink and yellow surf. It dissolved from a lump to a scattering of pieces and didn’t make a single ripple at all.

‘No,’ she repeated. ‘No, me neither.’

‘Why did we do it, then?’

‘Robbie, please don’t ask me that.’

‘You’re the only person who calls me Robbie.’

‘Please,’ she said, though she didn’t know what she was asking him to do, or not to do.

He touched her cheek with a sandy finger. She breathed in sharply.

‘Please,’ she said again.

‘This isn’t enough, is it?’ he whispered. ‘It isn’t what either of us wants.’

‘I don’t know what I want. Yes, I do. I want everything to be the same as it was before I saw you again.’

‘I don’t. That moment when I saw you in the airport was the most alive I’ve felt for ten years.’

She touched his lips with her fingers. She couldn’t help it. She didn’t want to and she knew she shouldn’t but her fingers, his mouth. His lips were firm and warm and she remembered what it was like to kiss them. She remembered them on the back of her sunburned neck and how they had tasted in the Cambridge rain.

‘We can’t do this,’ she whispered.

He nodded. ‘But we’re going to anyway.’

She didn’t trust herself to speak. She nodded.

Chapter Twenty-Five

After he watched her walk away through the dunes, he didn’t go to work. He rode his bike back over the causeway and rode around until he found a liquor store that was open. He bought a fifth of Beam, took it to the waterfront, and sat, watching the waves, drinking.

Water always ran in the path of least resistance first. It would take the easiest way. But then when the easiest way was full, when the water pressure was too great, when it had to flow, water would eat through rock. It would push aside mountains to get where it needed to go. It would break apart the earth into sand.

It just needed time, and sufficient pressure.

He thought of her face when he had told her about being wounded.

When JB’s opened, he went there for a beer.

They had cocktails by the pool before they went to dinner: Christopher was very good at making dry martinis, and Polly had a bottle of Cuban rum and wanted to make a cocktail she’d had at one of the bars she’d visited. She’d also procured several Cuban cigars, probably highly illegal. One of them was clenched between her teeth, emitting puffs of smoke as she filled four glasses with rapidly melting ice. Christopher and her father were sitting at the patio table, chatting about cricket, each with their own cigar, although Christopher was only holding his, not smoking it. Emily perched on the edge of a sunlounger.

No one had noticed. They hadn’t noticed she’d been gone that morning, and they hadn’t noticed the seismic change in her since she had agreed to see Robbie again. As far as her family knew, everything was normal.

Robbie had been the same and yet so different. He was sadder. He had a quietness to him that he’d never had before. He spoke less quickly and smiled less often.

She had done that to him. She had done at least some of that to him.

Her mother joined her, stretching out on a neighbouring sunlounger. She had a martini glass in her hand. ‘It’s a bit cooler, at least.’

‘Maybe people get used to the heat,’ Emily said. ‘When they live here for a while.’

‘The palm trees, though,’ said her mother. ‘With real coconuts. It’s like being on a film set. I have to pinch myself to believe I’m here. Oh, Emily, look!’

She pointed at a small dun-coloured lizard on the cement near the pool. It paused, absolutely still, in a ray of sunshine, long enough for them to see its pinpoint black eyes and its legs parallel to the ground, and then it darted off, fast as thought.

‘In La Paz we knew a man who’d trained a tegu. They’re these big black-and-white lizards. He would ride on a bicycle, and it would ride on his shoulder, like a parrot.’

Her mother nodded, and this was normal, too. As long as she could remember, Emily had been offering her little interesting facts, conversational gifts. Hoping to please her. Impress her. As a child, she used to read the encyclopaedia in her father’s study, starting from the middle of the alphabet, and she would memorise lines and find her mother in the kitchen and recite them. Watching her nod, hoping for a smile or a ‘Well done,’ the kind of easy praise that her father could always give her and that her mother never did.

The habit was difficult to break.

‘Well,’ Emily said, starting to get up, ‘I’d better powder my nose before—’

‘Look at you,’ said her mother suddenly. ‘Look at you, Emily. A doctor, married to a surgeon. Helping the poor in a foreign country. I never thought . . .’ She trailed off and took a sip of her drink. Christopher’s martinis were quite potent, and she was on her second one, though she never normally had anything stronger than a single sherry.

‘I’m very proud of you,’ her mother said. ‘Very proud indeed. There was a time when I was worried. But I shouldn’t have been. You always knew how to find your way.’

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