She was flirting hard, in a very uncharacteristic way, and her heart was pounding like crazy. And of course she had no intention of marrying him. She’d known him for no time, and he was going away tomorrow. But Robbie had something that made her feel as if she had stepped slightly out of her real world, into a world where things were sharper and riskier.
‘Well, for one thing,’ he said, ‘it doesn’t matter how clever and beautiful she is; I could never marry a girl who didn’t know how to sail.’
They’d stopped walking, because they were at the end of the pontoon, and Emily started to turn around, but he stopped her and pointed to the boat moored on the end. It was a little sailboat, toy-sized, compared to the yachts around it, wooden, with two seats, a tiller, a single mast. The name painted on the bow was Serendipity.
‘I’ve borrowed her for the afternoon,’ he told her.
‘You’re going to take me on a sail?’
‘No, you’re going to take me on a sail. I’m going to teach you. I told you, I can’t marry you unless you know how.’
‘You can’t marry me anyway, Robert.’
‘If you don’t learn how to sail, we’ll never find out, will we?’ He hopped lightly into the boat, which hardly rocked as he landed in it. ‘Come aboard.’
It tilted when she stepped on, and she would have stumbled if he hadn’t been holding on to her. ‘I can’t sail this.’
‘I’m going to teach you.’
‘I don’t even know what all the ropes are called.’
‘They’re called lines, not ropes. And this is a catboat so there are only two: the main sheet and the mooring line.’ He pointed to each in turn. ‘You only have to worry about the main sheet. This is the mast, this is the boom, this is the tiller. The front is the bow and the back is the stern, left is port, right is starboard. That’s pretty much it.’
‘I can’t be in charge of a sailboat, Robbie.’
‘Of course you can. I’m going to show you exactly what to do.’
‘I’ll run us aground, or into a container ship or something. I’ll sink us.’
‘No, you won’t. I have complete faith.’
‘When we met I was dangling from a punting pole!’
‘And you looked adorable.’ He kissed her forehead. ‘Don’t worry, Em. I’ll get us out of the harbour, and once we’re in open water there’s nothing you can hit.’ Deftly, he unwrapped the line tethering the boat to the pontoon. ‘Help me raise the sail, and then you’ll learn how to do it.’
Raising the sail, at least, was easy. But Emily had time to get nervous as Robbie navigated the little boat with ease out of the marina, up the narrow strip of water into the manmade harbour, formed by a jetty made of stone blocks. The air had been still and foggy this morning, but now, with the sunshine, there was a breeze even in the shelter of the harbour. A fishing boat passed them coming in, its engine loud, stinking of fish and followed by a cacophony of gulls. Robbie waved to the captain who waved back.
‘What if I crash into one of those?’ she asked.
‘You won’t. And anyway, for your information, a craft under sail has right of way over a motor craft.’
‘What if they don’t know that?’
‘They do.’ Robbie handled the line, sail and tiller as if they were extensions of his own body. As if he’d been born to do it. And she liked this about him, too: his self-assurance here was well earned. He built boats, he sailed them, he lived on them. This was his world, as, she supposed, hers had been Cambridge and Bach and heavy textbooks. When you met a person you only saw the flat edges of them, their appearance and the scant facts you could glean from conversation. You never really knew them until you’d entered the sphere where they lived and been surrounded by it.
And this was her chance to touch Robbie’s world, the whole rounded swell of it, if only for an afternoon.
Outside the jetty, the wind was stronger, and the water dipped and waved the little boat. Her hair whipped around her face and she wished she’d brought a scarf. Looking towards shore, she could see the sandy beach with its layer of shingle on top, and the buildings of Lowestoft behind in colours of brick red and white. It looked very far away.
‘Ready?’ Robbie asked her.
‘We’re in open water. I don’t think this is a good idea. Maybe we should go back to the harbour, where it’s safer.’
‘It’s safer out here. There’s less to hit. And the wind won’t be swirling so much.’
‘Don’t you think it’s a little windy for a beginner?’
‘I think it’s perfect for a beginner. Come here.’
He scooted back on the bench a little bit and patted the seat in front of him, between his legs. Reluctantly, holding on to the side of the boat, she staggered to the back. She meant to sit down daintily, leaving space between her body and his, but the movement of the boat ruined her balance and she ended up practically falling into his lap. Robbie laughed and put his arms around her.
‘You’ll get your sea legs soon,’ he said into her ear. He took her right hand and put the rope into it, and then put her left hand on the tiller handle. ‘We’ll do it together until you get the hang of it.’
She kept her hands loose and let Robbie do the work. ‘OK,’ he said to her. ‘We want to tack now. That means we’re going to turn the boat. Ready about?’
‘That’s what I say to warn you I’m going to tack. So that you don’t get hit by the boom as it swings around. Loosen up the main sheet – keep it around that cleat just once so it doesn’t fly out of your hand, that’s right – and steer the boat into the wind.’
‘Where’s the wind?’
‘Look at the sail. See the way it’s bellied out now?’
‘I think so.’
‘Then the wind’s coming from the direction to fill it. Go ahead and do it. Hard a-lee.’
‘What?’ she said, half-panicked, but she pushed the tiller anyway in the direction Robbie had told her. The sail flapped, losing the wind.
‘Take the line off the cleat now,’ he said. ‘Watch out for the boom, sweetheart. Lean back to let it pass. Good. Now – see how it’s catching the wind on the other side? Tighten up the sheet again on that side. Here.’ He helped her tighten the rope and secure it to the cleat. They were now going more or less at a right angle to their course before.
‘Good work.’ He beamed at her.
‘But what if I want to go that way?’ She pointed along the coast. ‘Can’t I?’
‘You can, eventually. But in sailing, the distance between two points is rarely a straight line.’
‘What do I look at? The sail, or around us, to make sure we don’t hit anything?’
‘You watch the sail to learn how it behaves. I’ll keep a lookout where we’re going, though it’s not like driving. We have all the space in the world. Just keep it nice and loose, feel the boat and where she wants to go.’ He kissed her cheek and she became aware of what she’d been too panicked to notice before: his thighs on either side of hers, his arms embracing her. The strength of his body behind her. Protecting and guiding her.
She’d have thought that sailing would be windy and noisy, but it was almost entirely silent. She heard the liquid sound of the bow cutting through the waves, the flap of the sail, a distant gull, Robbie’s calm, quiet explanations of what they were doing. They tacked twice, each time her movements getting smoother. Despite the flimsy boat, the vastness of the ocean, the mystery of the wind, Emily felt herself relaxing back into Robbie’s arms. She felt . . . safe.