‘Oh,’ she said. She’d half got up, but now she sat back down. ‘Thank you.’
There was a hammering sound from Polly’s direction. ‘How do you muddle mint?’ she asked no one in particular.
‘Muddle?’ asked her mother. ‘As in confuse?’
Polly grunted and poked mint into the glasses. She poured rum and soda and tried a sip. ‘This just tastes of rum. How come they tasted so good in the bar? Maybe they need sugar, do you think?’
‘Don’t ask me,’ said Emily. ‘I’ve never had one.’
‘I’ll go get the sugar bowl. But then the ice is going to melt. Oh, bother.’
‘Put the glasses in the freezer,’ suggested Emily.
Polly snapped her finger. ‘My genius sister.’ Balancing four glasses in her two hands, she went into the house.
‘Do you think your sister will ever settle down?’ her mother asked. ‘You were married at her age.’
‘She’ll be fine,’ said Emily, wondering at this idea: her mother asking her for advice or reassurance.
‘I suppose she hasn’t met a Christopher yet.’
‘Perhaps she doesn’t want a Christopher.’
Emily glanced at her husband: tall, lean, his legs pale in his shorts. She hardly ever really looked at him; he had been a fixture of her life for so long. Here by the side of the pool, holding a Cuban cigar he had no intention of smoking, he looked so very English. Much more English than he’d ever looked in Bolivia, where he’d always had a purpose and didn’t wear things like shorts. He laughed at something that her father said: his polite English chuckle.
He adored her. She knew that he did, although he never said anything of the sort. She caught him looking at her, sometimes, late at night when she was lying beside him in bed reading a book, when he thought she wasn’t paying attention. He loved her so very much and had loved her since they had met when they were students together at Cambridge, although he had gone for a long time without telling her. Bolivia had been her idea, not his.
And yet he didn’t know what was in the corners of her mind. The way she could still feel Robbie’s lips under the pads of her fingers.
Christopher didn’t know. He was going on loving her, without knowing. He had gone on not knowing for ten years.
‘Will you speak with her?’ her mother asked her.
‘With who?’ she asked, surprised.
‘Your sister. She won’t listen to me, or your father. I worry that she’s so . . . frivolous.’
‘She admires you so much though. She’s always hero-worshipped you. You could have a word.’
Polly came back outside with the bottle of rum and an empty glass. ‘I can’t make it taste good,’ she announced. ‘We might as well drink it straight.’
‘All right,’ said Emily. ‘I’ll speak with her.’
Polly leaned on the sink, peering in the mirror as she applied a thick swoop of black eyeliner.
Emily shut the bathroom door behind her, speaking quietly. ‘I told Mum and Dad and Christopher that I’m going out with you tonight.’
‘You are?’ She grinned and started on the other eye. ‘That’s fantastic! All you’ve wanted to do since we’ve got here is sleep in the evenings. I was beginning to think that Bolivia had sucked all the fun out of you.’
‘Are you . . . you’re thinking of staying out quite late, aren’t you?’
‘It’s not a night out unless you’re on the beach when the sun rises. I’m excited you’re coming with me!’
‘The thing is, Polly, I’m not.’
Polly put down her eyeliner. She reached for the cigarette she’d left burning on the side of the sink and took a puff from it. ‘You’re not coming out with me? Then why did you say—’
‘I need you to cover for me.’
‘Cover for you?’
‘You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want. I’ve already told Mum and Dad and Christopher. You don’t even have to agree. We’ll go out together, and I’ll call a cab to pick me up on the corner.’
‘Em, why do you have to—’ Understanding dawned in Polly’s eyes. ‘Oh no, you’re not seeing him, are you?’
Emily didn’t reply. But her cheeks flushed bright red.
‘You can’t. You can’t! He’s . . . what about Christopher?’
‘Christopher will never know,’ she whispered. ‘You can’t tell him. It would make him very upset.’
‘Don’t do it, then! Emily, this man is bad news. You’ve been fine without him for ten years.’
‘You don’t understand.’
‘I do understand. I understand completely!’ She ground out her cigarette in the sink. ‘Bloody hell, Em, he told me he just wanted to see you to apologise. I shouldn’t have given him the phone number.’
‘It’s not your fault. It has nothing to do with you, Poll. I just need to see him.’
Polly looked hard at her. Emily did her best to look steadily back.
‘You’ve seen him already, haven’t you?’
‘You don’t understand. I need to see him again. I need to, Polly. Only once, I swear.’
‘I’m not going to lie for you.’
‘You don’t have to lie. You don’t have to say anything at all. Just go out and have a good time. I’ll be back home before you are.’
‘But Christopher,’ Polly said. ‘He’s a bit of a bore but he loves you, Em. He really really loves you.’
‘He will never know,’ Emily repeated. ‘Not unless you tell him. And even if you won’t help me, I’m going out tonight. I’ve made my mind up. All you’re doing by agreeing is helping Christopher not to get hurt.’
Polly frowned at her. ‘This doesn’t even sound like you. You’re not manipulative, or secretive. You’re not like this.’
Emily thought of the love for Robbie she’d kept secret in her heart, every day for ten years. Secret, most of the time, even from herself.
‘I’m like this now,’ she said.
The hotel was out near the airport: a newly built box, squat and ugly. They signed the register as Mr and Mrs Smith and they took the lift to the top floor. There was an elderly couple in it with them, not saying anything, and Emily shifted from foot to foot, certain that the couple knew that they weren’t married to each other, that they should not be together, that they were here to do something wrong. It was in the way the man of the couple stared at the closed doors, careful not to catch their eye. The lift stopped on the third floor and the couple got out before them and Emily walked beside Robbie in the other direction, glancing back over her shoulder to see if the other couple was watching them. They weren’t.
Her skin itched, her heart pounded. She couldn’t catch her breath. It was the way she had first felt at altitude in La Paz, arriving from a place where the air was normal to a place where it was rare and thin.
She’d got used to that eventually. Would she get used to this?
This was against everything she believed in. She had worked so hard to make her life a good one.
Robbie held the hotel room door open for her and she went in first. Ten years ago they had done this. A different country, a different decade, an old hotel with a pink ruffled bedspread and the sound of seagulls outside the window. Back when there had been no one else, just the two of them. They had joked with the desk clerk and used Robbie’s real name. Her cheeks had tingled with sunburn and excitement.