‘Will you marry me?’
‘Robbie . . .’
A fat drop of water rolled off the umbrella and hit him on the forehead. He didn’t move: just held the ring up, gazed steadily into her face.
‘Oh for goodness’ sake, get up out of the mud. This is silly. If we’re still together in a year, then maybe we can talk about it, but . . . Can’t we just be happy in the time that we have?’
‘We can do that, too. But we’ll be happier if you promise to marry me. Please, Emily?’
His dark brown eyes, his mouth that was often smiling but now was serious. The haircut he’d got especially for her, the way the rain had soaked his shirt collar. The way he saw life as an adventure. The ring he’d bought for her many hundreds of miles away that she had never seen before but she had recognised, straight away, as the right one, the only one.
‘All right,’ she said. ‘Yes, Robbie. Yes, I will.’
Wonder broke over his face. Cleared the sky of clouds.
He slipped the ring on her finger and it fitted perfectly as she knew somehow that it would. Then he stood and held her and kissed her and it was some time before either of them realised that they had dropped the umbrella.
Robbie went up to the guest room to change his wet and muddy trousers, and Emily went into the kitchen. There was an aroma of cooking, which either meant that her mother was up, or that Polly had started on the supper herself. Either circumstance was cause for worry.
They were both there. Her mother was putting the lid on a pot of potatoes, and Polly was peeling carrots. ‘Are you feeling better?’ she asked her mother, beginning to wash the salad leaves.
‘A little. But it’s getting late, and people are hungry.’
‘You should have stayed in bed. I would have done all this.’
Polly came over to wash the carrots. ‘What is that?’ she squealed, staring fixedly at Emily’s hand. ‘Did he give you that?’
Emily curled her hand around the head of lettuce. She was tempted to slip off the ring, pretend that Polly hadn’t seen anything and swear her to secrecy later. But the ring was beautiful. And she had nothing to be ashamed of.
Her mother joined them at the sink. ‘Emily, is that a ring on your finger?’
‘Yes. It’s from Italy.’
‘Oh, it’s so romantic,’ swooned Polly.
‘Did you not listen to a single thing I told you, Emily?’
She lifted her chin. ‘It’s my life, Mother. I’m a grown adult.’
‘You’re twenty. You know nothing. You think the world’s arranged for your pleasure.’
‘Is it an engagement ring? It’s on that finger, is that what it is?’ asked Polly.
‘We’re not going to get married until we’re ready. I’ve got to finish my degree, and my training, and—’
‘So why even talk about it?’ her mother demanded.
‘Mother, I love him.’
‘Oh Mummy,’ said Polly, ‘they’re so sweet together, his letters, you wouldn’t believe—’
‘Polly,’ said their mother, ‘I would like you to leave the room please.’
Polly shut her mouth. Eyes wide, she left the kitchen, glancing over her shoulder at them. Emily heard her footsteps running upstairs.
On the cooker, the potatoes began to boil and rattle the pot lid.
Emily put the salad aside. ‘It’s my decision to make,’ she said.
Her mother clenched her jaw. ‘You are twenty years old. Some girls are grown up at that age but you are not. You’re still a girl. Everything, all your life, has been done for you. Your father and I have bent over backwards to make sure you’ve had an easy life. So you think everything will just work out. You want something, and it happens.’
‘Mother, that’s not true. I’m grateful. And I’ve worked very hard.’
‘But you’ve known him for five minutes. He’s written you some letters. And you expect to jump right into some sort of happy ever after? You expect him to wait?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘Men aren’t like that, Emily.’
‘Your father is . . . you can’t expect to meet a man like James every day.’
‘I don’t. I expect to meet one, and fall in love with him, and marry him. In a few years, Mother, when we’re ready.’
‘How do you know he’ll wait? How do you know he’ll come back?’
‘He says he will.’
‘But how do you know?’
‘How do we know anything?’ she asked, exasperated. ‘I trust him and I’m willing to take the risk.’
‘You don’t know what can happen. You’ve been kept so safe you have no idea.’
‘Mother, you haven’t even met Robbie yet.’
‘Um . . . is this a bad time? It’s a bad time, isn’t it?’
She whirled round. Robbie stood in the doorway, a sheepish, appealing smile on his face, and she marvelled at his cheekiness. He fully expected to charm her mother into liking him, even though he must have heard at least part of their conversation.
And she loved him for that. Chancer, full of sunshine and self-belief.
‘Can I help with the dinner?’ he asked. ‘I’m a decent cook as long as you tell me what to do.’
Emily smiled at him and was about to reach out to take his hand when his expression changed rapidly to surprise and concern.
‘Mrs Greaves? Ma’am? Are you all right?’
He started forward, and Emily turned to see her mother, who was standing with her back to the cooker. All of the colour had fallen out of her face. As Emily watched, she dropped the spoon she’d been holding and it clattered to the flagstone floor.
Her mother’s face was a ghastly mask, white with holes for eyes and mouth. Behind her, the potatoes boiled over with a hiss, spilled on to the cooker and put out the gas flame. Her mother continued to stare at Robbie.
‘Get out of my house,’ she said. Her voice a rasp.
Emily touched her mother’s arm. She shook her off.
‘Get out,’ she said to Robbie. ‘Get out of my home. Don’t come back.’
‘Mrs Greaves, I—’
She shouted it, screamed it, with her face that mask of horror. A fury Emily had never seen before.
James rushed into the room. ‘Charlotte, what’s wrong?’
‘Get him out. Get him out of here. Get him—’
Robbie backed quickly away. Emily heard the front door close. She stared, wide-eyed, at her mother and her father, who had put his arm around her. Then she ran after Robbie.
He was outside on the drive, in the rain. He looked terrified, which matched how she felt. ‘What just happened?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Why did she tell me to leave? Did I say something wrong?’
‘If you did, I don’t know what it was. She wasn’t . . . she didn’t like the idea of our getting engaged, but this seems . . . ’
‘Is she well? You said she had a headache.’
‘My father’s with her. He’ll look after her. Robbie . . . ’
She stepped into his arms and clung to him. Her mother had been an entirely different person. Completely out of control of herself, gripped by some strong hatred that Emily couldn’t begin to explain.