‘Very good,’ said Robbie. ‘You’re doing great. Now it’s your turn. Keep it nice and loose, just like that. Let the boat tell you what she wants to do.’
He released her hands and scooted out from behind her, nimbly resettling himself in the passenger seat.
Emily’s hands tightened up on the line and jerked the tiller. The sail flapped loose, windless.
‘What do I do?’ she cried. ‘Robbie? What’s it doing?’
He leaned on the side of the boat, unconcerned. ‘Let her show you, Em. Trust the way she makes you feel.’
The boom swung towards her head and she ducked, but then it swung back to where it had been. ‘How do I get the wind back?’
‘It hasn’t gone. It’s waiting for you. Just find it, sweetheart.’
She watched the sail. And all it once, it happened. The sail bellied out in a perfect taut white curve and the tiller steadied, she tightened the sheet and they were flying over the blue water, flying faster than the sun sparkling on the waves. The boat was alive beneath her, the tiller an obedient animal.
Emily laughed. She felt the wind in her body. The sea was vast and endless, all possibility and freedom.
She caught Robert’s gaze and he was laughing, too.
And, just like that, she was in love.
Later, hours later, they returned the boat and sat on the beach with their shoes off, eating ice creams.
‘I can’t write you a poem,’ he said to her, ‘but I’ll build you a boat. Something small that you can sail yourself, but big enough to sleep on for a night or two. And I’ll write the name of it in gold.’
Emily wiggled her toes in the sand. She could feel that her nose and cheeks were burnt by the sun and the wind, and her hair was pretty much a snarl. The ice cream melted on her tongue and she thought, This moment can’t last, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
‘Don’t promise anything,’ she said to Robbie. ‘I don’t need promises. This is enough, right here.’
Robbie finished his ice cream and licked a drop off his hand. ‘That’s what I was saying to you last night, wasn’t it?’
‘I didn’t understand it then.’ She tipped the last melted bit of vanilla into her mouth, crunched the tip of the cornet, and leaned against him. In front of them, the sea stretched endlessly. Tomorrow Robbie would sail across it towards Italy and away from her, possibly forever.
He lay back with her on the sand and she rested her head on his chest. He ran his fingers through her hair and his heartbeat sounded as familiar as her own name.
‘I want to stay with you tonight,’ she said to the cloudless sky.
They checked into a hotel on the seafront: an Edwardian brick building with wide, tall windows. Emily kept her left hand tucked in her skirt pocket as Robert signed the register Mr and Mrs R Brandon, Cambridge.
‘Only visiting for one night?’ asked the desk clerk, and Emily was uncomfortably aware of their lack of suitcases, her tangled hair and sunburnt cheeks.
‘I’m sailing out tomorrow; early start,’ said Robbie, insouciant. ‘We thought the extra hours together were worth the price of the hotel. Newlyweds,’ he confided, winking.
‘You’ll want an en suite, then? We have one, sea view. It’s often used by honeymooners.’
‘We want the best,’ said Robbie.
He paid for it and they went up the stairs together, Robbie holding the key. Emily’s heart was pounding, her hands damp. This is 1962, she reminded herself, no one is going to force you to wear a scarlet A for being unmarried and checking into a hotel with a man.
Then she thought of what her mother would say, and thought she would probably prefer the scarlet letter.
The corridor was long and silent, lined with doors. ‘You’re a worryingly good liar,’ she whispered to Robbie.
‘It’s not a lie. It’s the truth, only told too early.’
He unlocked the door to room number eleven and opened it for her. Emily had to take a deep breath before she went in.
But once he’d shut it behind them, and they were alone in the room with the double bed, the pink ruffled bedspread, and the view through the window of the sea, she turned to him. ‘You have to stop talking about marrying me,’ she told him.
‘Because you don’t mean it.’
‘I do mean it.’
‘Nobody decides to marry someone else after only just meeting them.’
But then she remembered that feeling on the sea, her heart lifting with love, keen and dizzying.
‘I mean,’ she amended, ‘people do, but it’s not a good idea. I can’t get married anyway; I have to finish my degree and my training before I can even think about something like that. It’ll be years. And that’s not why I’m here, Robbie. You don’t have to promise me anything.’
‘Emily,’ he said, and took her into his arms. ‘I don’t have to promise it to you. I’m going to prove it. There’s something special about you. I never thought that I would ever want to get marr—’
‘Stop,’ she said. She put her hand on his mouth. ‘Stop it. I told you, I don’t want promises of the future or anything. I can’t worry about your sincerity or whether you mean what you say right now and that you might change your mind later. And I don’t want to marry you, anyway. I just want right now, the two of us, here.’
She stood on tiptoes to kiss him on the mouth.
Afterwards, he filled up the bathtub with hot water and they climbed in together. He took the tap end and she leaned against the other end and they faced each other, their legs bent. Emily wet a flannel and ran it over his chest and shoulders. He was slender but strong, and he had dark hair in the centre of his chest. She had never seen a grown man’s body so closely: the play of muscles underneath the skin, the frank shape of his shoulders and the hair under his arms.
He had touched her with such tenderness and eagerness. He had whispered her name in her ear.
She scooped up water in her hands and dribbled it on to his hair, slicking it to his head. Wet, it was glossy as one of the dark pieces of black flint on the Lowestoft beach. She massaged shampoo through it, feeling the soft strands in her fingers, the hard shape of his skull. He bent his head so she could reach him better and she saw the nape of his neck. There was a white line of skin where his hair had stopped him from tanning as much as the rest of his neck and face. It was vulnerable, somehow: secret.
‘That feels great,’ Robbie murmured. ‘Nobody’s washed my hair for me since I was a child.’
She lathered white foam through all of it, and then rinsed it with water scooped in her hands. She wondered if the future held a child with dark hair, who she would wash in warm water like Robbie’s mother had washed him. The slender, pure back of a child’s neck, untouched by the sun.
He raised his head and wiped water out of his eyes. ‘Your turn. Come round here.’
She manoeuvred herself around, splashing water over the side of the bath, so that her back was resting against his chest.
Nakedness was surprisingly easy. Any self-consciousness she’d had was erased by how Robbie appreciated her body, how he made room for her in his arms and against him. He was comfortable in his own skin and made her feel comfortable in hers. He wet her hair the same way she’d wet his and she felt his fingers rubbing in the shampoo. He teased out the tangles that the wind and the pillows had made.