The house was silent. In the kitchen, the pot of potatoes still sat on the cooker, cool now. ‘Mum?’ called Emily. ‘Daddy?’
Emily followed her father’s voice to the sitting room, where both her parents were on the sofa. They were holding hands. Their faces were grim, and Emily felt a heavy weight of dread in her stomach. She twisted her ring around on her finger.
‘Where’s Poll?’ she asked.
‘She’s gone to Margaret’s house,’ said her father. ‘She doesn’t need to be part of any of this.’
‘Part of what?’
They didn’t answer, only exchanged a long glance.
‘Part of what?’ she repeated. ‘Mum, you kicked Robbie out of the house for no reason. He’s at the Royal Oak wondering what on earth he did wrong. I understand that you didn’t want me to get engaged to him, but this is . . . inexplicable. You don’t even know him.’
‘I do,’ said her mother, quietly. ‘I do know him.’
‘Emily, you’d better sit down,’ said her father.
She perched on the chintz armchair. For the first time, she noticed that her mother held a long white envelope. Emily stared at it.
Whatever was about to happen, whatever the explanation, that envelope held it.
All at once Emily felt sick. Heart beating fast, gorge rising. She wished she could go backwards in time, back to the lane and the raindrops and the mud, back to the wet railway platform. Back to Lowestoft and to Cambridge and to the first time she had seen Robbie, dark eyes and denim jacket.
‘What is it?’ she asked, though she didn’t want to. Didn’t want to move forward in any way.
‘Emily,’ said her father, ‘you know that I love you very much. Both your mother and I do. And we are so proud of you. I couldn’t have asked for a better daughter than you are.’
‘Thank you,’ she said automatically. This praise made her even more anxious.
‘But,’ said Mum, ‘James isn’t your real father.’
‘He’s not your father. He’s your stepfather.’
‘You were a year old when Charlotte and I married,’ said Daddy.
‘A year old? But I don’t . . .’
‘James took us both on. An unmarried woman with a daughter. There weren’t many men who would have done that.’
‘And I have always, always considered you my own daughter, just as much as Polly is.’
‘But . . .’ She looked from her mother to her father. She took after her father. She got her medical brain from him, her interest in science, her meticulousness, her care. Everyone in the family said it over and over again: Emily looked like her mother, but in personality and mind she was the spit of James.
She had never wanted anything but to be just like him.
‘But – but if you’re not my father, who is?’
‘I was a fool,’ said her mother, eyes narrowed, teeth gritted. ‘I was twenty years old and I believed every promise he made. There was a war on. I hardly knew him, but I thought I was in love. I thought he loved me. He said he’d come back for me. But he never did.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I was an unmarried mother! I want to forget all about that time in my life. I never want to think about it. He was transferred. I waited for him. And then one day, when you were a few months old, he wrote to me to tell me he was already married and had a child. He’d been married all along, and never told me.’
‘Who was he?’ she asked again, touching the clasped hands on her finger, warmed by her skin. An old ring, worn by other fiancées and brides, who knew how many of them, through the years from love to death.
Her mother swallowed hard, shook her head, and so her father took over.
‘He was an American pilot, a volunteer with the RAF. Based at Duxford. It wasn’t . . . there were a lot of war babies at that time. You can’t blame your mother.’
Emily stared at her mother. She felt more than sick, now. She felt as if she were falling.
‘What was his name?’ she asked.
Her mother held out the envelope.
As if she were watching herself, Emily took the white envelope. She saw her hands opening it. Taking out a folded piece of paper.
It was her birth certificate, long and printed with red ink, with the details handwritten in fountain pen. Emily Ann, a girl born on 15 June 1942. Mother’s name: Charlotte Atwell.
Father’s name: Robert Edward Brandon. Occupation: Pilot.
When she arrived to pick him up at the pub, she was white-faced, tight-lipped. She would not look him in the eyes.
Robbie had had two more pints after she left, but he was far from drunk. The alcohol had barely touched the sides. He’d been pacing in his room since then, round and round the little bedroom with the slanted walls and the low ceiling and paned glass windows. He’d have found it quaint, if he hadn’t had other things on his mind. When he’d seen her car pulling up below, he didn’t wait for her to come into the pub; he’d run straight down and got into the passenger seat beside her.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked her immediately, and tried to take her hand. But she pulled it away.
‘Let’s go somewhere else,’ she said quietly. And didn’t say a word as she drove.
It had stopped raining, but the trees were still dripping. She drove out of the village and down an empty lane, finally pulling off into a muddy parking lot.
He’d been rehearsing arguments. Things he could say to convince her that her mother was wrong. That for every example she could come up with of people getting engaged too quickly, he could come up with a better example of love at first sight lasting forever. Or maybe it was that her mother didn’t like Americans. Or people with brown eyes. Or men in general.
The thing was, he had no idea what he was arguing against, really. He had never seen anyone react so violently to anything as Mrs Greaves had reacted to him. The closest he could think of was his mother’s reaction the time his dad had been brought home by the police, still drunk and with his head split open forehead to ear, but even that had been more resignation than shock.
Or when he himself had seen Emily for the first time and that bolt of recognition had struck him, the knowledge that he didn’t just want her, but needed her.
‘Emily?’ he said, but she just shook her head and got out of the car. He followed her.
Down a grassy bank, there was a wide, flat river, grey in the grey afternoon, choked with reeds at its margins. Emily walked down to stand beside it. It had a green, muddy smell after the rain, and insects danced up and down on its surface. He realised that she had chosen this spot because there were no other people here to see them or hear them.
He was more afraid than he’d ever been in his life.
‘Emily, you have to tell me what’s going on or I’m going to go crazy.’
She still didn’t meet his eyes. She reached into the pocket of her coat and pulled out an envelope, which she gave to him.
He saw it straight away, like how you could instantly recognise a boat you’d worked on yourself, even from a distance. His own name glared up at him from Emily’s birth certificate and yet he didn’t understand the significance of it, and he was about to ask why he was listed as her father when he wanted to be her husband, and then . . .