‘How do you know? We might be. We could be. This might be the first day of a very, very long life together, did you ever think that?’
‘No, I did not,’ she said. ‘Because you are a charmer, and I can tell that these are lines that you use on every poor unsuspecting girl whom you meet.’
‘Whom. I love it. I’ve never met anyone who says “whom”.’ He lay back on the grass, his feet dabbling in the water, his arms folded behind his head, and he looked so delicious and carefree that she took another gulp of wine.
‘I can’t talk with you if you do that,’ she said.
‘Flirt with me so much. I can’t take you seriously.’
‘OK,’ he said. ‘I won’t flirt with you at all.’ He stretched his arms out as if he wanted to embrace the world. ‘In fact, I’ll pretend that I’m not even slightly attracted to you and we can talk like two entirely genderless human beings, on a spiritual level. Is that better?’
‘You’re missing out, though. I’m better at flirting.’
‘I don’t mind.’
‘So, what made you want to be a doctor?’ he asked.
‘My father’s a doctor.’
‘That’s lucky. My father’s a drunk.’
Robbie shrugged. ‘It’s OK. He’s a happy drunk. He spends all his wages in the local bar buying rounds, and everyone loves him. Except for my mother. They say I’m a chip off the old block.’ He closed his eyes for a moment, a line appearing between his brows. ‘Are you sure I can’t talk about how beautiful you are?’
‘That’s too bad, because I’d much rather talk about that than my parents.’ He opened his eyes. ‘Actually, I’m here because of Dad. He was here in the war, an American volunteer pilot in an RAF Eagle Squadron. He flew missions over France. He was stationed at Duxford at first.’
‘I think it’s the reason he drinks. Or one of them. It can’t be easy living your early life in constant fear.’ He shrugged. ‘Anyway, he doesn’t talk about the war, or what he did in it, and I was curious, so I hitchhiked up to the base.’
‘Did you discover anything?’
‘It’s closed. So no, not really.’ He propped himself up. ‘I’ll trade you the wine for a strawberry.’
He pulled the stem off a berry for her, and put the fruit in her hand. It was warm from the sun and when she put it in her mouth, it burst into sweet juice.
‘Look at that,’ he said.
She swallowed. ‘Look at what?’
‘You. I can tell how delicious that strawberry is just from the expression on your face. And now you’re blushing.’
‘I’m not flirting. I’m stating facts. You have a very expressive face. Saying that isn’t flirting.’
She punched him on the arm, and he laughed and took a swig of wine.
‘You’re about a hundred times more clever than me,’ he said, ‘and you’re resorting to violence to prove a point?’
‘Shall we talk about the weather?’
‘Is this what English people do?’
‘It’s what we say to subtly insinuate that the topic of conversation should be changed. When we don’t want to resort to violence.’
Was it the wine that was loosening her tongue, or was it him? She’d never been any good at witty banter. At flirting. Maybe he was contagious. She felt fizzy, as if she were drinking champagne instead of warm red wine.
‘The weather,’ he said. ‘Skies are mostly clear, visibility good, it’s about forty-nine degrees Fahrenheit, high pressure with a light wind from the south-east. A low should come through in the next six hours and there’ll be rain.’
‘What are you, a meteorologist?’ she asked, impressed. Of course, he could be making it all up.
‘I’m a sailor. That’s how I got to England.’
He looked like a sailor. That tanned skin, his whipcord-thin, strong, agile body, and his hands were capable. She could picture him shinning up a mast, or whatever it was that sailors did.
‘You’re a long way from the sea here.’
‘I can’t help noticing the prevailing conditions, even as far inland as this.’
‘You can really tell the temperature without a thermometer?’
‘I’ll admit I may have been a little bit too precise to impress you. It could be fifty degrees.’ Absently, he hulled two more strawberries for her. ‘Anyway, Emily. Tell me about you. I know hardly anything about you, except for the things I’m not supposed to mention. I keep on asking, and you keep on changing the subject.’
‘Actually, I think you keep on changing the subject.’
He thought. ‘Yes, you’re right. OK, I’ll shut up. Tell me about yourself. How long have you wanted to be a doctor, what’s your favourite colour, what’s your favourite film?’
She counted off the answers on her fingers. ‘All my life, blue, Brief Encounter.’ She met his eyes when she said that, startled at herself, because her real favourite film was The Wizard of Oz. She’d seen it with Christopher last month.
‘A romantic,’ he said. ‘Good. And I like blue, too. For example, the colour of your – but I’m not allowed to mention that. Favourite book? Let me guess – Romeo and Juliet?’
‘Romeo and Juliet isn’t all that romantic, actually, and it’s a play. It’s mostly about two foolish people being in the wrong place at the wrong time.’
‘Isn’t that what romance is? Being foolish at the wrong time?’
‘My favourite book is The Hound of the Baskervilles,’ she said firmly.'It has no romance in it whatsoever.’
‘I like dogs. I’ll read it.’
‘Moby Dick.’ He reached for his bag, which was lying beside him on the riverbank, and took out a thick, battered paperback, which he handed to her. ‘It’s about whales and obsession.’
She turned it over. It was soft from handling, with a creased cover, and bits of paper stuck between the leaves. ‘It’s a big book.’
He held his hands to his chest, feigning heartbreak. ‘You seem so surprised. There’s a lot of time to read on a boat, and there’s only so much Jack Kerouac. Have you read it?’
‘Keep that one, then. I can pick up another.’
She reached for the wine, and when she drank from it she was surprised to find that it was nearly all gone. And the sun had gone behind Clare College, making it suddenly significantly cooler than forty-nine-or-fifty degrees. She rubbed her arms, which were bare in her short-sleeved blouse, and Robbie immediately sat up, took off his jacket and put it over her shoulders.
It smelled of him. Up till that moment she couldn’t have said what he smelled like, but this was him. Hair oil, an undertone of sweat, beer, cigarettes, grass, mint, teak. A hint of salt and sea air. It was the same scent she had breathed in when he had carried her across the river.
If you had asked Emily what her favourite smell was – if Robbie had included it in the questions that he’d asked her ten minutes ago – she would have said lilac, or a cake fresh from the oven. She would not have said: a jacket warm from a man’s body, a jacket that had not been washed for a week at least and probably much longer, with a worn collar and cuffs.