Page 53 of Together

Had she been the only one who was actually laughing?

‘Christopher . . . ’

‘I know,’ he said fervently. There was a spot of pink on each of his cheeks. ‘I know, you’ve never thought of me that way, but I can’t – I can’t carry on as we have been without at least trying.’

His hand was less than an inch from hers on the table. She could feel the warmth from it. His blue eyes were wide and almost . . . fearful?

‘Can we try?’ he asked. ‘If it doesn’t work, we can go back to how we were. We can pretend it never happened. But can we please try, Emily? Please?’

This was Christopher. Christopher who had gone with her to choose a new second-hand bike when hers was stolen, Christopher of the late-night revision sessions in the library, reciting Latin names together, Christopher who liked to line up his scalpels during dissections so that the bottoms of the handles were perfectly even, Christopher who knew just how she liked her tea with half a sugar in it, on whose safe chest she had rested her head on lazy summer term afternoons on the Backs, listening to his heart beating whilst she made daisy chains and drilled him on neurobiology.

He was handsome, when you thought about it. He had a narrow face, blue eyes, a straight nose, a strong chin to offset his glasses. He was always smartly dressed. He was public school to her grammar school, and unlike most men she knew, he didn’t resent the fact that Emily was better at their subject than he was. Her friend Laura had had a crush on him this autumn, though nothing had ever come of it.

Perhaps this was why.

Polly arrived at their table, a little breathless. ‘I need more money,’ she demanded.

Emily turned to her, glad of the interruption. ‘I gave you plenty.’

‘Yes, but I wanted a Chelsea bun too.’

‘Polly, don’t be—’

‘Use this.’ Christopher handed Polly the tortured pound note. ‘And order a bun for me too, will you? Do you want one, Emily?’

She shook her head.

‘I might have another coffee after,’ said Polly in triumph, bearing away the money. Emily watched her go and wondered how to answer Christopher.

‘Well?’ he asked her.

Emily looked at his mouth. She’d seen his mouth eating, talking, chewing on a pencil, smiling, pursed in worry. She’d never particularly thought about it as a mouth in its own right. He had smooth lips and his teeth were a little crooked, but in an endearing way.

She tried to imagine kissing that mouth, where their noses would go, how Christopher would look that close up. Where they would put their hands, which were used to not touching each other.

She didn’t have a lot of experience to base it on; she’d only been kissed once before, in sixth form, by Edward Norris, and as he’d been eating pickled onions it wasn’t particularly pleasant. Despite all the propositioning from the male medics, Emily wasn’t really the kind of girl that boys thought about kissing. She was too studious, too serious. She didn’t spend much time thinking about kissing.

Though she hadn’t had to imagine kissing that man at the station, the one in the blue jacket. His gaze had felt like a kiss in itself.

But that was a single glance from a stranger. That was silliness, a bit of fantasy, hormones running wild, too many times watching Brief Encounter. A little bit of madness that sent her running into book shops after a glimpse of blue.

Real love wasn’t like that. She’d seen her mother and her father; she’d studied biology and psychology. Real love was based on mutual respect and trust, on shared goals, things in common. Real love lasted a lifetime, not a split second.

‘All right,’ she said to Christopher. ‘Let’s try.’

‘Let’s try it,’ he said to the girl with him. ‘I’ll push if you pay.’

The shadows were getting long, later than they would where he was from; they were fifteen or so degrees further north here. Robbie liked how the buildings were all scrunched tight together and how they seemed to grow bigger as the day progressed. They had an hour or two till sunset, and the weather was warm enough that Robbie had abandoned his jacket on the grass as he lay here beside the girl, enjoying the sunshine, relaxed and a little sleepy from the beer.

The girl screwed up her face. ‘I paid in the pub.’

‘So you did. OK then, it’s my turn.’ He jumped up and helped her up, too. She was cute, blonde with an hourglass figure, wearing a flowery dress, worked mornings in the newsagents on St Andrew’s Street and hadn’t taken much persuasion to join him for half a pint of bitter shandy, and then a few more halves, while she told him about how much she hated her job and that she lived in a flat on the Huntingdon Road with two other girls and that she had her own room.

The room of her own was the key, of course.

She clung on to his hand, a little unsteady on her feet, and giggled. Her name was . . . it was . . .

‘Cynthia,’ he said, and he knew he’d got it right, mostly because she didn’t slap him. ‘Don’t fall over. I need you to talk to the guy watching the boats.’

‘Talk to him?’ She wrinkled up her nose. It was a common thing with her; she’d have wrinkles one day if she wasn’t careful.

‘Flirt with him. You’re good at that.’ He nudged her and she giggled. ‘I only need five minutes and then I’ll meet you—’ he pointed upstream, under the bridge— ‘that way. OK?’

‘Kiss me first.’

He checked to make sure the boy with the punts wasn’t watching and then kissed her swiftly on her lips. They tasted of lipstick and beer. ‘Now go. Turn on the charm, will you?’

She wiggled her hips in an exaggerated fashion as she went down the bank to the place where the punts were moored. He watched as she approached the boy. He couldn’t hear her from here, but he knew what she was saying: she was asking him for a cigarette, which was exactly the same line he’d used on her earlier this afternoon. It worked, because the boy got a hopeful look on his face and dug into his breast pocket for a pack.

While he was bent over her, lighting the cigarette with matches that kept going out, Rob slipped behind them and around to the bank. The punts were moored to each other, side by side. He jumped on to the first one lightly enough so that it hardly rocked and swiftly made his way across them like stepping stones until he’d reached the one on the end. He stashed his duffel back in the bottom, threw the line off and pushed away downstream, free. He waited until he was several yards away to get up on the back and use the pole, ducking under the bridge. Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw that Cynthia was still deep in conversation with the boy, who hadn’t noticed a thing.

He’d never been on this particular type of boat, but he pushed the punt with efficient jabs of the pole, getting into the rhythm immediately: into the water, push away, use the pole to steer the craft like a rudder. The punt was simple, shallow and wide-bottomed. It was sturdily made, which it had to be; although the river was shallow here, the current subtle, the prow and sides of the boat were covered in dents and scrapes from poor handling. It was well enough looked after, though, probably re-varnished earlier this spring.

Robbie steered it past colleges made of warm red brick and yellow sandstone, windows, under a willow and a mullioned medieval-looking bridge. Everything here was so old. And the buildings . . . he’d never seen anything like it. Seen from the river, they seemed even taller but more like human dwellings, with moss growing on them and windows open to the air.