Page 45 of Together

This hotel was new and the only sound was of planes overhead, going somewhere else. Her fingers were numb.

He shut the door behind them. They stood, several feet apart, looking at each other.

‘What did you tell him?’ he asked her.

‘That I was out with my sister. What did you tell her?’

‘I didn’t tell her anything. I’m . . . often out.’

‘This is wrong,’ she said. ‘It’s wrong for us to do this.’

‘We’ve done it before.’

‘That was different.’

‘But you want to. Or else you wouldn’t have come.’

She nodded.

He reached out and touched the tips of her fingers. She shivered.

‘Emily,’ he murmured. ‘I love you. I still love you, all this time, since the first moment I met you. Nothing else can matter, can it?’

‘Please. Please don’t say anything.’ She stepped forward; close enough so that she could feel the heat from his body. ‘Please just kiss me.’

That last time in that hotel in Lowestoft, ten years ago, she had made him promise not to promise anything. She had not known if she was ever going to see him again. She had taken refuge in not thinking, only feeling. Living right here, now in the moment. Robbie was the only one who could make her feel that way.

He looked down at her. In the dark brown of his eyes she saw the decision that they had made, and that could not be unmade.

Then he bowed his head and kissed her.

It happened instantly. As soon as his lips touched hers, as soon as his breath touched her face, she was aflame, eager, desperate. She clenched her hands in his shirt and pulled him closer, as close as he could get, and he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her closer too. It had never been like this with Christopher, never like this. She didn’t have to close her eyes and she didn’t have to try to feel anything she didn’t. She felt Robbie’s body against hers and she tasted him with her tongue and touched him with her hands and everything felt monstrously, hideously, perfect and right.

She was clumsy with desire and could hardly negotiate the buttons of his shirt, but when she did and touched his chest and shoulders, his skin was hot and smooth and so entirely familiar and she remembered how she had dreamed about it, and woken herself up to try to forget. The memory of his skin had never left her, even though she had tried to make it disappear.

‘Emily,’ Robbie murmured against her lips.

They were hurting others. They were hurting themselves. He was close enough so that he was a blur of darkness and light, hair and eyes and skin, the scent of salt and tobacco. He smelled and he felt exactly as he had been ten years before, when they hadn’t hurt anyone, when all of the pain had lain in their future.

She tugged at his clothes and her fingers touched an unfamiliar patch of skin. Something she didn’t remember, something new. It was pitted and tight, at the top of his thigh, and when she drew back a little bit to look at him, he pulled her closer to kiss him again. He grasped her hand gently and put it on his chest, away from his scars.

Later, when they were naked, when they had made love and were lying side by side on the bed, the air conditioning cooling their skin, Emily ran her fingers over his scar again: the shrapnel wound from Vietnam. He never looked at it, made sure his shorts were long enough to cover it, but when she touched it, he glanced down. It was a burn and a puckered puncture and a smooth white line: the outward signs of everything that had happened to them while they were apart.

This time he let her touch it. He watched her face as she touched him and he felt her fingertips on the skin that was strangely both sensitive and dead, as if there were a thin and brittle sheet of glass laid over his raw nerve endings.

‘Did it hurt?’ she whispered.

‘They gave me a lot of morphine.’ It was his standard answer for when he talked about it, which was never.

‘But it must have hurt.’

‘It felt like a punishment that I deserved.’

She looked into his face, and he saw there were tears in her eyes. ‘Robbie, you could have died and I would never have known. I never would have found out.’

‘I was mostly numb,’ he told her. ‘I was numb my whole time over there. I had to be, to see what I saw. And do what I did.’

‘I can’t imagine you numb. You’ve always been the most alive person I know.’ Her touch on his scar was like a balm, warming and softening the tightened skin.

‘We were going up the Mekong River to rescue a patrol boat that had run aground. We stopped a sampan, a routine check. There were children in it. The man had a grenade. I tried not to . . . you couldn’t . . . if I felt the truth of everything that I saw then I would have . . .’ He swallowed. ‘I don’t talk about it. There are no words, anyway. Just a . . . noise. And a scent.’

A peppery scent, heavy, catching the back of his throat, making his tongue clumsy. Hammering of guns, the giant footsteps of shells exploding. Screams.

‘There’s a scent to the slums in La Paz,’ she said quietly. ‘There are all the normal human scents, cooking and sweat and urine and faeces, and another scent. Like rotting flowers left too long in a vase. Rotting funeral flowers. There was a girl . . . a pregnant girl with a rat-bitten foot. I couldn’t help her.’

Her sigh feathered on his skin. He put his hand over hers, both of their palms together covering the twisted skin on his leg.

‘I can still smell it now,’ she told him. ‘Even though I’ve left. Sometimes I can taste it.’

He nodded.

‘Bourbon drowns out the taste,’ he said. ‘For a little while.’

‘And what about the noise?’

‘I sail. When I can. It’s quiet on the water.’

‘Is it quiet now?’

‘Yes.’ He rolled on to his side, and kissed her. ‘With you, it is.’

‘You could have died,’ she said again, ‘and I would have never known.’

‘You would have known,’ he told her. ‘We’ll always know.’

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Christopher was asleep when she returned. It wasn’t late, hardly past midnight. Polly was still out. She had showered in the hotel, but she showered again before she went to bed.

Her husband didn’t stir as she climbed in beside him and turned her back on his sleeping form. Without moving, her hands rehearsed the way she had touched Robbie; her lips remembered their kisses.

She was exhausted, but she didn’t fall asleep for a very long time.

Marie was sitting at the kitchen table when he got home. She had a cup of coffee and a full ashtray. ‘Hey,’ he greeted her as he walked in and got a glass down from the cupboard to fill at the sink.

‘There isn’t any beer,’ she said.

‘That’s OK, I’m good with water.’ He took a drink and Marie lit another cigarette. She was staring at the wall, a line dug between her eyebrows.

‘Well, guess I’ll give him a kiss and turn in,’ he said, heading for the door.

‘I can’t do this any more,’ she said.

He paused.

‘Do what?’ Though he knew.

‘I can’t sit here and wait for you to come home, not knowing what state you’ll be in.’

‘I’m not drunk.’

‘You’re not drunk tonight, maybe. But you usually are. When you even come home at all.’

‘I didn’t know you waited for me,’ he said, knowing he was changing the subject unfairly. ‘I thought usually you were asleep.’