Page 63 of Together

There were several paperbacks on the shelf beside the bed: three thick mystery novels, a well-thumbed guide to Italy. A photograph had been Sellotaped to the lampshade. It was battered, like something precious that had been carried around in a pocket. Emily lifted up a corner of it so she could see it better. It was a black-and-white snap of a pretty dark-haired woman and Robbie; he had his arms around her and was gazing at her with open adoration.

His expression was exactly the same as it had been when he’d gazed at her this morning, when she’d awoken near to him.

She pulled her hand away as if she’d been burnt. She’d been right; Robbie was a charmer who’d been feeding her lines.

‘Does your girlfriend back home know what you’re up to whilst you’re away?’ she asked, not bothering to keep the crossness out of her voice.

‘My girlfriend?’

‘Forgot about her already, despite the picture you keep by your bed?’

‘I haven’t – oh, that.’ He sounded relieved as he joined her by the bedside. ‘That’s my mom and dad. Before he volunteered as a pilot and went off to Europe to fight.’

She lifted it again, unsticking the Sellotape so she could hold it closer to her face. Though the expression was the same, there were a few subtle differences between the man in the photo and the man who stood beside her. The man in the photo had a cleft in his chin; his face was rounder, his hair Brylcreemed back. Now that she looked, she saw the wedding ring.

‘Oh,’ she said, relieved. ‘You – you look a great deal like him.’

‘I told you: I’m a chip off the old block,’ he said, though he sounded not entirely pleased about it. ‘I’m even a Robert Junior.’

She remembered what he’d said about his father being a drunk. ‘Your parents look happy in this photograph.’

‘I suppose they were, once.’

‘Do you have any brothers or sisters?’

‘Just me. I was born before he went to Europe, and when he came back, he was different. That’s what Mom says, anyway.’ He took the photograph from her and stuck it back on the lampshade. ‘I’m not even sure why I keep it.’

‘Because they look happy?’

‘Yeah. I sort of think – maybe this is crazy – that one moment of pure happiness like that, might make everything else worth it.’

He looked sad, and she’d never seen him sad, so she kissed him on the cheek.

‘Whatever you’re doing in there,’ called Dennis from the main cabin, in his flat drawl, ‘it’s not getting these eggs cooked. Also, Bob, I saved bilge in the engine room for you to clean out since you’ve been gone for the past three days.’

‘He always likes to spoil my fun,’ Robbie muttered, kissing Emily swiftly on the cheek in return and disappearing back up the ladder.

‘I’ve never cooked on a boat before,’ she told Dennis, who was leaning against the worktop with a box of eggs in his hand, waiting for her. ‘This kitchen is pretty impressive, though.’

‘It’s called a galley. And the bathroom’s called a head. You can find all the stuff you need for cooking in the cabinets. Bud has the thing tricked out like a gourmet’s dream, though we rarely eat anything fancier than Boston baked beans on board.’

She opened cabinets, revealing pots and pans and cooking implements, all held in place by wooden dowels and mesh nets, presumably so they wouldn’t rattle around in rough seas. She found a bowl and began to crack eggs. Dennis settled into a seat and watched her with the air of someone who wanted to make sure he was getting his money’s worth.

‘Does Robbie often bring girls on board?’ she asked, tentatively.

‘Bob? Never. He’s got a girl in every port, if you don’t mind my saying – sometimes two or three – but you’re the first he’s ever brought on board.’ He pronounced the last word as ‘boar-award’.

‘That’s because I’m going to marry this one, Dennis,’ called Robbie from above. His face appeared in the hatch, backlit, grinning.

‘I don’t give a tinker’s cuss who you marry as long as you fix that pump and I don’t float away in my sleep,’ replied Dennis, making himself more comfortable in his seat.

Art returned before she’d actually started cooking, with a wheelbarrow full of boxes of supplies, and like Dennis, he accepted Emily’s presence without much comment. He was ridiculously slender, looked about twelve, with red hair and a face that was more or less one big freckle from the sun. Emily helped him stow away the food he’d brought, following his instructions: everything had its place, and was arranged for ease of access according to frequency of use. As Dennis had said, the pantry’s contents were skewed rather radically towards baked beans, but there was fresh food too, to be packed carefully in the icebox.

She managed to make cheese omelettes, toasting bread under the gas salamander, and they all ate lunch together below, around the polished table on plates that had rubber attached to the bottom to make them less slippery. Robbie opened a bottle of beer for each of them and the three men performed like a triple act, teasing each other and regaling Emily with stories about their sailing trips that were sometimes incomprehensible because of the amount of jargon in them. Sometimes they finished each other’s sentences. When they were through eating Dennis got up to make coffee and Art started doing the washing up as though this were their habit after every meal.

Robbie held out his hand to her. ‘Now, since Dennis and Art have volunteered to do the rest of the prep for tomorrow, you and I can go have some fun.’

‘I didn’t volunteer—’ Art began, but Dennis elbowed him, slopping water out of the sink.

‘She cooked for you, now hush,’ he said. He held out his hand to her again. ‘It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Emily. I hope to see you again.’

‘You will,’ said Robbie, and after she had also shaken Art’s distinctly wet hand, they climbed the ladder on to the deck.

The sunlight dazzled her for a moment. As Robbie had predicted, all the fog had burned away, leaving her with a view of boats clustered around wooden pontoons. Nora Mae was one of the largest, but there were sailboats and motorboats, some with people working on them.

‘They liked you,’ Robbie said, helping her off the deck and on to the pontoon.

‘I liked them.’

‘You can see why I can’t leave them in the lurch. They could manage with two of them, but it’s easier with three.’

‘Yes.’ And she liked him better for it. She liked that he was the type of person not to let his mates down. ‘You’re all good friends.’

‘It helps.’

‘Even in such a big boat, you still must be on top of each other all the time.’

He shrugged. ‘You get used to it. You learn to be aware of each other so you can work together, sometimes without talking about it. But you learn to ignore each other, too, when you need some space.’

‘Dennis said . . . he said you’d never brought a girl on board before.’

‘Nope.’

‘And you said it was because you were going to marry me.’

‘Yup.’ His eyes twinkled in the sunshine.

‘You should probably ask me before you start telling your friends.’

‘Oh, I will. But we have to sort out a few things first.’

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