Emily left the kitchen with her heart pounding and her fingers slick on the vase.
Emily huddled in her mac on the platform. The train was late. He might not have caught this one; his letter had been sent from France three days ago. Were winds predictable in the English Channel? Could you get lost there? Were the trains running properly from Portsmouth? Why hadn’t he rung her when he’d arrived in England? Maybe he wasn’t here yet. Maybe she’d spent three days in a frenzy of nerves for nothing; maybe she’d had her hair cut and bought a new lipstick and a new dress for no reason. Maybe it had all been a waste: all the careful preparation of the spare room, the flowers in the vase, the endless assurances to her mother that there wouldn’t be any extra trouble, that she didn’t know how long he was staying but it was going to be fine, that she was sure that he liked whatever she cared to cook, that yes, perhaps it was odd to have a strange man to stay but he had been writing to her for months, Mother.
She had not told her parents about how he told her in his letters that he loved her and he was going to marry her. She couldn’t quite believe those parts, anyway. They seemed a bit too much. She read the parts about Robert’s journey over and over again, picturing them in her mind. But the declarations of love she skimmed through, almost embarrassed, and then a sort of hunger would seize her minutes later and she had to reread them and murmur the words to herself, over and over again, until they were lodged in her mind. My sweetheart my darling my beautiful girl my love my only my treasured. Mine. I love you.
She touched the words with the tip of her finger and smudged the pencil and then saw how the smudge stayed on her finger. Words from his hand transferred to her skin.
Forty-eight hours, they had spent together.
Maybe he wasn’t coming. Maybe her mother was right.
She turned up her collar.
Polly was convinced that Robbie was coming. The letters came in packets, posted from whatever port Robbie happened to be at, and since Emily had been down for the summer holidays, Polly insisted that Emily read them to her as soon as they arrived. ‘From that man who rescued you in the river? That’s so romantic, Em. He was so swoony.’
Emily read Polly the descriptions of the journey and the places Robbie was visiting. She left out the words of love, even though Polly kept on pestering her to read out ‘the smooshy stuff’. She strongly suspected that if she hadn’t hidden the letters, Polly would have read every one. She had to make sure she intercepted the postman, or else Polly was liable to open them herself.
Emily checked her watch and then peered down the track. The train was fifteen minutes late and there was no sign of it.
Her father was in the car outside the station, waiting. He would have lit his pipe and be reading the paper. Would he like Robbie? He had to like Robbie. Dad liked everyone; he was a popular GP. He could hardly walk down the High Street without him being hailed by half a dozen people, at least, eager to talk to him, pass on news, chat about the weather. Sometimes they thanked him. When Emily was by his side, she felt, by proximity, that glow of being liked, of having well-earned respect. You didn’t get that by not liking people.
But she had never brought a boyfriend home before. Well, Christopher. Her father and mother both adored Christopher. But Christopher hadn’t visited this holiday. He had gone to the south of France with his family and she had only received very cautious letters. Very polite.
Polly hadn’t clamoured to read those.
Faintly, the sound of a train. Emily’s heart thumped and she started forward, leaning, desperate for the sight of the train. It was there, a black shape in the rain, growing too slowly bigger.
She stood on tiptoes and searched the windows as it pulled up to the platform. Where was he? The pause between the train stopping and the doors opening was years long, unbearable. An elderly couple alighted, tugging luggage: a mother with a child held by the hand, three men in suits, a woman carrying a small dog and then, at last, sure-footed, easy in movement, dark-haired, wearing the same battered jacket, same bag slung over his shoulder. It was him.
He spotted her at the same moment and they ran towards each other and then she was in his arms.
Why was this so familiar? When she’d spent so much more time away from him than with him? Two days, two nights, and he was imprinted on her forever?
He kissed her and all that rain fell on them and neither one of them noticed.
Her father got out of the car when they approached, Robbie’s arm around Emily’s waist. He knocked the plug out of his pipe.
‘Dr Greaves,’ said Robbie, holding out his hand. ‘I’m pleased to meet you, sir. I’m Robert Brandon.’
They shook hands heartily and Emily was relieved to see that her father’s smile was genuine. ‘Emily didn’t tell us you were American.’
‘Didn’t she? Afraid that you wouldn’t open your doors to a Yank?’
‘Not at all,’ said Emily’s father. ‘Let me take that bag for you.’
‘Wouldn’t consider it.’ Robbie stowed it in the back seat and made to get in after it, but Emily shook her head and pointed to the front seat.
Sitting behind him, not dizzied by his gaze or his touch, she could see that he was more tanned than he’d been the last time she’d seen him, and he’d had a haircut recently. Perhaps even since he’d come to England, in order to meet her.
He turned around and grinned at her as her father started up the car and she smiled back at him, her whole body beaming.
‘So you’re a sailor?’ her father asked, pulling away from the station.
‘A sailor and a boat builder, sir. I’m not good enough for your daughter. I’m sorry about that.’
‘Well, I think she can decide that for herself. You met her in landlocked Cambridge, I gather?’
‘Yes, sir. I was a tourist. We had a stop off in Suffolk on our way to Italy to deliver a yacht.’
‘And what are your plans for the future?’
‘That very much depends on Emily.’
She half-listened to their words as they chatted in the front seat about Robbie’s journey, the places he’d seen, recognising names from his letters. Her eyes were drinking in glimpses of Robbie, and her mind was listening to the tone of their voices, rather than what they said. She was her own woman; she was going to be a doctor; she should not care whether her father approved of her choice in boyfriends. But she did, a great deal. And her father was so habitually polite and friendly to everyone that it was impossible to tell whether he really approved of Robbie, or whether he was just being himself.
Her mouth still burned from his kisses. She wanted to reach over the seat to sink her fingers in his hair, trace the outline of his ear. She woke sometimes thinking he was beside her in bed. She was glad she was riding in the back seat, so her father couldn’t see this desire lighting her up from within. She had no idea how she was going to hide it from her family.
She wondered if she’d be able to sneak into his room during the night. It was next to hers, at the end of the corridor. But the floor squeaked; she’d tried it already.
‘What a beautiful home,’ Robbie said from the front seat and she came back to her surroundings. They’d pulled up in front of their house, a Victorian flint and brick building with white-painted sash windows and a glossy green front door. She looked at it from Robbie’s point of view. It must seem boxy to him, clumsy, maybe, after spending months on board a sleek, elegant sailboat.