Page 5 of Together

‘Oh. Oh, yes, I did. Daylight robbery.’ Robbie looked around at the boats in slips, the boats in the yard, the white-painted workshop. Pierre and Little Sterling had disappeared into the building, presumably to give them some privacy.

‘Why am I here?’ he asked Emily.

Her heart wrenched in her chest. ‘I . . . you don’t remember?’

‘Maybe I wanted to do some work on Goldberg Variations?’ He looked around again. ‘But she’s on the mooring, isn’t she?’

‘We could take her out today.’

Robbie nodded, seemingly relieved. ‘I’d like that. Let me . . . let me put away these tools.’

‘I’ll go ask Pierre if we can use his dinghy to get out there so we don’t have to go into town.’ She kissed him on the forehead, and went up to the workshop. Pierre and Little Sterling were standing by a mobile hydraulic lift, talking quietly. They looked up when she entered.

‘It’s all fine,’ she said. ‘Thanks for calling me. We’re going to go out on the sailboat; I wonder if we could borrow a dinghy?’

‘Fourth will give you a lift,’ Little Sterling said. ‘You just call him when you want to come back.’ He reached into his pocket for his cell phone. ‘I could have sworn Bob thought he was still working here, when I saw him this morning.’

‘It’s all OK,’ Pierre said quickly. ‘He’s welcome here any time. Far as I’m concerned, it’s still his place. He built it up from scratch.’

Emily nodded, and swallowed, and tried to ignore the burning, sick feeling of shame in her stomach.

Fourth – real name Sterling Ames, the Fourth, the son of Little Sterling who was the third of that name – drove his motor dinghy up to the end of the slip with the careless competence of a person who has been piloting boats since childhood. Robbie hopped in and helped Emily. He still had that look on his face: that lost look, almost helpless, almost as if he were desperately searching for some meaning.

It was not an expression that sat well on his face. Robbie had always been able to do anything. This expression made him appear almost a stranger.

Their sloop was on a private mooring in Clyde Bay proper; Fourth steered them to it without having to ask where they were going. People around here knew each other’s boats as well as they knew each other’s children. She watched Robbie’s face as they approached their boat and saw his lost look gradually being replaced by pleasure. He’d made that boat with his own hands: shaped it and sanded it, rigged it, varnished the teak, painted its decks white and its hull a deep green, lettered the name on the stern himself. It was countless weekends and afternoons and mornings, this boat: time and memory made visible.

‘That’s a fine boat,’ said Robbie.

‘Pops says there’s no better wooden sloop in the state of Maine,’ said Fourth.

‘There isn’t,’ Emily said. ‘She takes a lot of care, but she’s worth it.’

‘Like a woman,’ said Robbie, automatically, and she smiled and squeezed his hand.

‘I always meant to ask,’ Fourth said, ‘is Goldberg your maiden name, doc? Is that why you called her Goldberg Variations?’

‘No,’ said Robbie. ‘It’s . . . it’s a . . .’ He snapped his fingers. ‘Goldberg, it’s a . . .’

‘It’s a piece of classical music,’ said Emily, to Fourth rather than to Robbie, though she was saying it for him. ‘By Bach. It’s an aria, followed by a series of variations in different tempos and moods, which ends with the same aria. Sort of like a circle.’

‘That’s it,’ said Robbie, reaching out for the railing on the stern. ‘I knew I’d remember.’

‘Have you talked about it with him?’ asked Sarah. She and Emily were sitting at her kitchen table, having lunch. Most Wednesdays they had lunch, sometimes out, sometimes at one of their houses. Sarah had made a chicken salad and iced coffee. Her eldest daughter, Dottie, was bringing a pecan pie later on, from the Clyde Bay General Store where she worked.

‘No. Not yet.’

‘Isn’t that sort of strange, in itself?’

‘But . . .’ Emily stirred her coffee. ‘There’s a lot we don’t talk about.’

‘You two are always talking. You talk all the time.’

‘Yes, but there are things . . . we’ve known each other so long, we’ve been with each other constantly. There are things we don’t need to talk about, because we know.’

‘I can see why none of my marriages ever lasted,’ joked Sarah. ‘I’m always asking the questions. Where were you last night? How many beers did you drink? When did you get home? Whose perfume is that on you?’

Emily laughed despite herself. By any logic, she and Sarah shouldn’t be friends; they were entirely different, from completely different backgrounds. There were nearly thirty years between them. Emily was a retired obstetrician and Sarah worked as a cashier in the supermarket up in Thomaston. Sarah was a native Mainer, and Emily, even after forty years in Maine, was what they called ‘from Away’. They had become friends, purely by chance, and then over the years their roots had intertwined. For a while, she’d been Emily’s daughter-in-law, though that hadn’t lasted long.

Sarah was the only person she could talk to about this. She couldn’t mention it to their family, not until it was something to actually worry about.

‘People are noticing,’ she said. ‘Pierre and Little Sterling, after what happened at the boatyard the other day. And Joyce at the pharmacy said he’d come into pick up my prescriptions twice in one day.’

‘That’s the thing about a small town. People notice. But they look out for you, too.’

‘Robbie’s such a proud man. He’s so self-sufficient. If he thinks that people are pitying him . . .’

She trailed off.

‘Or if they’re pitying you?’ said Sarah. ‘Are you worried about that, too?’

‘Of course not. This isn’t about me.’

‘I know you pretty well by now, Em. And I know you like helping people. It’s your role around here. How many people in Port Clyde have you delivered as babies?’

‘About eighty per cent of the population between forty and ten years old. There are quite a few families here where I brought both the parents into the world, and then I’ve delivered their children.’

‘You brought Dottie into the world. I wish you’d deliver her baby, too. She’s about ready to drop.’

Emily smiled. ‘Retired.’

‘Robbie has helped people too. He’s given people jobs, fixed people’s boats. He did all of that for William. I know he’s done a few jobs for people who couldn’t afford it. He did a lot of rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy came through here. You don’t need to feel bad about people noticing, or wanting to do something.’

Once upon a time, Sarah had taken help from her, and Emily had wanted to give it. They’d done each other many kindnesses over the years. But Sarah didn’t know everything. She didn’t know why Robbie and she needed to be self-sufficient, a completeness of two. No one knew now, except for her and Robbie.

‘My father,’ Emily said, ‘was the town doctor. Everyone respected him. He’d helped everyone in the village, at some point or another. All I ever wanted was to be like him.’