‘I’ve never washed a girl’s hair before,’ he said. Drowsy with warm water and his skin and pleasure, she thought of asking him how many girls he had taken to bed before her. He was clearly experienced. But the thought didn’t bother her as much as it could have, not nearly as much as it had bothered her when she’d first met him. She’d had no desire for her first time to be with someone clumsy and awkward.
It would have been that way with Christopher, she thought, and the idea was uncomfortable enough that she bit her lip. They both would have known the mechanics, and none of the reality.
‘What are you thinking?’ Robbie asked her.
‘I was supposed to be on a date tonight,’ she told him. ‘My best friend Christopher wanted to take me to dinner.’
He twisted her clean hair into a soft rope and laid it on her shoulder. ‘Oh no. I’m sorry.’
‘It’s all right. I’d rather be here.’
‘I wasn’t really sorry.’ He kissed her cheek and settled her back against him. ‘Is he in love with you?’
‘No, he’s . . . ’
But was he? Why would he ask her out, why risk their friendship, if he wasn’t?
‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘I’m here with you.’
‘What’s he like?’
‘He’s sweet and kind. He’s studying medicine, too.’
‘Sounds like I’ll have to fight him when I get back from Italy.’
She laughed. ‘No. Please don’t.’
‘What was he like when he asked you out? Was he all cool and casual, or was he nervous?’
‘He was nervous. Unlike you, when you asked me to come here with you.’
‘I was nervous when I asked you. I’m just really good at hiding it.’
She hit his arm, splashing water. ‘You weren’t nervous at all. You’re a cocky sod.’
‘Cocky sod,’ he repeated, imitating her accent, badly. Then he kissed her ear. ‘I was nervous,’ he whispered.
Desire filled her, melting and new and clean. She leaned back against him as his hands smoothed down her body.
When she awoke she knew she was alone before she opened her eyes or stretched out her hand. They had fallen asleep wrapped around each other, his breath in her hair and his heartbeat in her ears, and he had become entwined in her dreams: bright sea, kind wind, warm skin, the soft touch of his mouth.
Sun leaked through the crack in the curtains. She sat up. His clothes were gone from the chair, his shoes from the floor. But there was an emptiness in the room that told her anyway. She reached for her watch on the bedside table to see what time it was, whether she could go after him to say goodbye before he sailed, and saw the piece of paper, carefully folded, beside it.
It was hotel stationery, written in biro. She’d never seen his handwriting before but she would have recognised it anywhere as belonging to him: it was neat and confident, with bold downstrokes and full stops that dented the page.
Emily, my sweetheart,
You are a beautiful sleeper. I didn’t want to wake you. And it’s better to leave this way anyway – this way I get to set off remembering you in this bed, with that sleeping smile on your face. Instead of watching you disappear behind me in the distance.
I’ve left some money on the dresser for your ticket back to Cambridge. I don’t think you’ll have as much fun hiding in the lavatory without me. Besides, in only two days, you’ve made me into a reformed character.
This isn’t goodbye, though. I’ll be back. I know you don’t want promises but this is one. I am not going to say goodbye to you, Emily. Don’t forget me.
I love you.
August had rained and rained. Emily hung up her hat and shook the flowers she’d cut in the garden out the front door, to get rid of the worst of the water. In the kitchen, her mother was sitting at the table frowning at the crossword. She glanced up when Emily entered.
‘Men don’t care about flowers,’ she said. ‘You’re wasting your efforts, and my dahlias.’
‘You always put a bud vase in the spare room when Christopher comes to visit.’ Emily went to the sink to fill a vase.
‘Christopher is different. He appreciates the finer things.’ Mum put down her pencil. ‘You don’t even know this boy, Emily.’
‘I know him well enough. He’s only coming for a visit, anyway.’
‘You’re too young to throw yourself away on someone. All that work you did to get into Cambridge—’
‘I have no intention of throwing myself away. It’s a visit, Mother. He’s been in Italy and Malta and the Maldives and he’s coming to England for a little while.’
‘You don’t even know how long. He didn’t say, did he?’
Her cheeks flushed at this. ‘He won’t be any inconvenience to you. I’ll do all the extra housework.’
‘You’re dropping everything for him already. You have work to do, don’t you? For your medical degree that you’re so proud of? If you’re going to be a doctor, the summer isn’t meant to be gadding away with boys. Your father has been very generous—’
‘I’m not gadding. I’m not running away with him. He’s coming to visit. I’ve plenty of time to study.’
‘Because women get trapped, Emily. If they’re not careful. You can find all of your dreams disappearing, just from making one mistake.’
‘Mother.’ Her cheeks flushed harder. ‘I’m not an actual fool.’
‘Well. I hope not. Because it’s not just your career that’s at stake, it’s your entire future. You could throw away your reputation – everything. You hardly know this man, and after he’s gone you could find that no decent man would want to—’
Her father came into the kitchen, whistling, and Charlotte broke off. She picked up her pencil and went back to her crossword.
Emily wished that she’d stayed in Cambridge for the summer. Some of the other girls from her college had rented flats and found jobs. She could be preparing her own room for Robbie’s visit, purely happy, instead of arguing with her mother about it. But Polly had wanted her home for the summer, and her father had offered to let her sit in with him on his practice.
He filled a glass of water from the tap. ‘Two o’clock, is it, the train?’ he asked Emily.
‘I’ll be ready with the car.’ He glanced at the crossword over Charlotte’s shoulder, and left the room again. Emily, rearranging the flowers, didn’t dare say anything to her mother. She finished and picked up the vase to leave.
‘It’s that you hardly know him,’ her mother said suddenly. ‘You know nothing about him. Whereas Christopher—’
‘Christopher is my friend. A very good friend, but nothing more.’
‘You’re both going to be doctors. You have so much in common. And he’s got wonderful connections, which—’
‘I don’t care about connections.’
‘You may not, but people do. He could make everything so much easier for you. It’s not something to be underestimated, Emily.’
‘I could never marry Christopher. Not even to please you.’
‘Oh well,’ said her mother, ‘perhaps all of this is for nothing, and this Robbie won’t even show up. From what you’ve told me, he doesn’t seem horribly reliable.’