‘No,’ he said.
‘Daddy isn’t my real father,’ she said, so quietly he could hardly hear her.
‘It’s not true,’ he said. ‘It’s got to be . . . some other . . .’
‘He was an American volunteer pilot stationed here, she said. She said . . .’ Emily swallowed hard. ‘She said he looked exactly like you, at your age. She said that when you walked into the kitchen she thought for a minute that he’d come back.’
He was never the same after he came back from the war, said his mother’s voice in his head, and the truth hit Robbie like a sledgehammer between the shoulder blades. He nearly staggered with it.
‘It doesn’t have to matter,’ he heard himself saying. ‘Why does it matter? Why should anybody care?’
‘Robbie . . . we’re . . . you’re my brother. We have the same father.’
She said it with revulsion, and it made him speak more quickly.
‘I don’t believe it.’
‘It’s on the birth certificate.’
‘It’s a lie. Your mother doesn’t like me. She wants to keep us apart.’
‘She hasn’t faked this.’ Emily pointed to the paper he still held. ‘It’s evidence, Robbie. It’s the truth.’
‘We don’t look alike, at all.’
‘I look like my mother. You look like your – like our father.’
‘You’re very quick to accept this.’
She choked on a sob. ‘I haven’t . . . I haven’t accepted it at all. I’m just trying to understand what we’ve done.’
‘We’ve fallen in love.’
She turned her back on him and started walking rapidly down the bank. Robbie followed her. ‘Don’t,’ she said.
‘We didn’t know.’
‘We know now. My parents know. Your father would know. It’s on my birth certificate.’
‘I love you,’ he said desperately. ‘I refuse to believe that this is true.’
‘It’s true. We’re related. It’s illegal, it’s immoral.’
‘It doesn’t feel immoral. It feels like the best thing I’ve ever known.’
‘Robbie,’ she said, ‘don’t you think that’s why we fell so quickly? There have been studies – I’ve read about them. Siblings separated at birth, they encounter each other years later, as adults, and there’s a-an affinity. Suddenly. Like they’re . . .’ She choked, but forced the words out. ‘Like they’re meant to be together.’
‘We didn’t know. We’ve done nothing wrong.’
‘Yes, we have,’ she whispered.
‘We can go somewhere no one will know us. Somewhere far away, just the two of us.’ He reached out to touch her cheek and she stepped back quickly.
‘No. We can’t. Maybe it’s not our fault, what happened, but we can’t continue. Not now that we know. It’s wrong.’
He felt as though he couldn’t breathe. ‘Please, Emily.’
She shook her head. Deliberately, her mouth firm, she slid the ring he had given her off her hand. She held it out to him.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I gave it to you. I won’t take it back.’
‘I can’t wear it.’
‘Maybe we can never get married. But we can still be together. We’re – we only have one life. We’re not responsible for where we came from or what our parents did. We have to do what we feel is the right thing, no matter what anyone else says.’
‘But this is wrong. Robbie, the shame on my mother’s face . . .’ She sobbed, suddenly, and a tear fell from her eye. ‘If we stay together, that is how we are going to feel. All the time. Even if we go away, even if I give up all of my dreams to be with you, and you give up all of yours to be with me, even if no one knows, we are going to know. It’s going to poison everything we do.’
‘It doesn’t have to.’
‘Please. Please. Take back your ring.’
‘Then I’ll throw it in the river.’ She drew back her hand to throw, and he caught her wrist.
‘Don’t do that. I’ll keep it.’ He took the ring from her hand. It felt small and warm in his palm. ‘But I won’t . . . I’ll only be holding it for you. Until you decide you can wear it.’
She pulled her arm away from him. ‘Robbie, don’t you see? We can’t ever meet again. Not ever. After this conversation, I need to take you to the train station and we need to say goodbye forever.’
‘Yes. It’s the only thing we can do.’
‘I could never, ever feel ashamed of being with you.’
She only bowed her head. Another tear ran down her cheek and Robbie wanted nothing more, had never wanted anything more, than to wipe it away. To take her in his arms and whisper that everything was going to be all right.
‘I don’t care who we are,’ he told her.
‘I do,’ she said.
She drove him to the pub to pick up his bag, and then to the railway station, in silence. Emily was still, every movement deliberate. Tears were in her eyes but very few of them fell. Robbie was restless, hand-clenched furious. The ring he had taken from her was in the pocket of his shirt and he felt it there like a red-hot coal.
He wanted to find the words to make this right. He wanted to talk and talk and explain everything away. He wanted to run, to punch something, to jump into water and swim, some sort of physical struggle that he could win.
He couldn’t do anything. Without meaning to or wanting to, they had become something shameful.
The car pulled up outside the station. He’d only arrived six hours ago, and he’d felt the happiest he’d ever been in his life. He’d thought he was finally sure of his purpose and his direction. Finally with some sort of meaning to his life other than the passing joy of the moments on the sea.
‘There’s a train every half hour,’ she said. Her voice was scratchy with unshed tears. She sat behind the wheel of her father’s big car, gazing down at her bare hands, waiting for him to leave.
He wanted to run, wanted to swim. Wanted to wrestle the facts into some sort of shape that made sense, harness the wind in a sail, control the uncontrollable, do something that meant that they could be together.
‘Emily . . . Will you please kiss me? One last time.’
She shook her head.
‘Then look at me, at least.’
Her eyes, that shade of ocean blue. Troubled and beautiful. He remembered the first time he’d seen her, hurrying across the station in Cambridge. How as soon as he’d seen her, he felt as if he’d known her forever.
He looked into her eyes for as long as he could, committing them to memory, until she looked away.
Then he opened the car door, got out, and retrieved his bag from the back. He bent and looked at her one last time. She was fragile and small and much, much stronger than he was.
‘I’ll never forget you,’ he said.
And then he walked away.
Clyde Bay, Maine
I often think about the first time we met.
Sometimes we don’t know the moments that are going to be significant to us, not until later when we look back and reflect. But when I first saw you I knew, even though I didn’t want to, that my life had changed.
Today is a glorious autumn day, one of those days when the sky is so blue it nearly blinds you. I went out sailing this morning, to Monhegan Island and back. I met the lobster boats coming back into harbour, each one surrounded by a cloud of gulls. Some wheeled away up into the sky, and I watched them. The other sailors call them rats with wings but you always looked up at them, tilted your hat back and squinted into the sun to watch the way they circled and flew in spread-out Ms, like a child’s drawings of birds.