‘But we’ve got years, yet,’ Emily was saying. ‘There are things we can do to try to slow it, and you know your father is a fighter. And we are going to do everything together.’
‘We’ll help,’ said Shelley immediately.
‘But Dad,’ said Adam, and it was funny how you could see the past in the faces of your children, how their younger selves were overlaid on their older selves so you were both surprised and not surprised to see them grown.
Emily had been right, the other day. Adam was sure in his skin. He was one of those kids who carried the fact that he was loved with him everywhere he went, and it protected him. That was the gift he and Emily had given him, he supposed. And Robbie could see that gift more clearly now, because Adam’s face was blank with grief in a way that it had never been before.
And he saw what Emily had meant. If they took away Adam’s sense of himself, they might end up taking that gift back from him, too. He might learn to doubt their love for him. And with that gone, Adam might start to doubt everything.
‘I’ll be fine, son,’ he said. ‘I don’t mind relying on your mother. I’ve been relying on her since the day I met her. She’s a good person to rely on.’
He meant what he said, but he heard the ring of untruth in his own voice as he spoke it. You could talk and talk and talk sometimes, and speak the truth the whole time, and never get to the truth at all.
Robbie wasn’t sure when he’d made the decision: only that it was sometime in the bright spaces between forgetting. Maybe it was this morning, waking up from the dream of fear and death; maybe it was here, right now, in the safety of his family.
He thought, though, that he’d made it before. Maybe he’d made the decision and forgotten it and made it all over again.
He almost hoped that was it, because if he decided the same thing over and over again, then it had to be the right decision. Like Emily’s hand in his.
‘You can rely on all of us,’ said Shelley firmly. ‘We’ll all do whatever we can. Do you want us to let William know?’
‘We’ll tell him,’ said Emily.
‘Dad,’ said Adam again. Robbie stood up and Adam stood up too and they hugged. Adam was a little taller than he was. Robbie closed his eyes. Remember, remember.
‘You’ll need to take care of her for me,’ he murmured into his son’s ear. He felt his son nod and he felt Emily behind them, watching them, and without looking he knew she had tears in her eyes.
Without looking, he knew he had made the right decision.
Remember. It never ends.
Clyde Bay, Maine
Emily was dreaming about a crowd. She was rushing through it, pulling a heavy, clumsy suitcase behind her, bumping into people. She had to get a train, it was about to leave and she was going to miss it and she couldn’t find the platform, she’d forgotten the tickets. Heavy voices boomed from the tannoy, announcing departures and arrivals in words she couldn’t understand. It sounded like English, but all the words were blurred together.
She felt lips on her cheek. The scent of roses. A gentle kiss. Robbie’s voice.
‘I’d never have forgotten you.’
There he was, standing on the platform, wearing his denim jacket, rucksack over his shoulder, a smile on his face. And everything was starting from here. From right now, this moment, and it was all going to be all right.
She reached out her hand for him and he was gone.
Emily opened her eyes. The first thing she saw was the rose, pink and yellow. There was a note underneath.
She smiled and sat up. He said he was no poet, but she had all the letters he’d written her since they’d been together. Birthday cards, Valentines, little notes he left on her bedside table for her to find when she woke up.
And then there were the letters from before: the letters he wrote to her from Italy and on board the Nora Mae. That first note he’d ever written her, left on the bedside table in the hotel in Lowestoft. She’d destroyed all of those, but she still remembered every word in them.
Emily opened the letter. She read it, stock-still in bed, the dawn light filtering pink and gold through the open window.
Then she pushed herself out of bed and ran, barefoot and stumbling in her nightgown, through their house, down the stairs, out the front door and across the wet lawn, seeing his footprints in the dew. Left minutes ago. Across the road and on to the black and grey rocks, pain lancing up from her feet. She slipped and fell and barked her knee and forced herself up again, old legs frustrating and slow, because she saw his shoes on a high rock. His shoes and his shirt and his trousers, carefully folded and dry.
Not like this, not all at once, not forever. Please, no.
And the sun was up now and the sea was empty and vast before her and kept on crashing, landing and splashing on the shore as she called out his name, over and over again, without stopping.
Clyde Bay, Maine
She had been looking for it for so long that when it arrived, she hardly realised it was there. It had slipped between the pages of DownEast magazine, and when she was walking back from collecting the post from their mailbox at the end of the drive, hurrying because it was cold and she hadn’t put a coat on, her boots crunching on the ice and salt, the envelope slipped out and fell to the ground. She scooped it up without looking at it, automatically turned it over, and stopped dead still in the drive.
The card was heavy, good quality, and the address was written in fountain pen. The name on it was Dr Emily Greaves, and even if she hadn’t recognised the handwriting, she would have known by the fact of her maiden name.
A flake of snow fluttered down and landed on the envelope, and then another. Emily’s breath came out in clouds and she stared at the envelope. The handwriting had a shake to it. The person who wrote it would be nearly eighty: retired, spending his time in the garden and with his books, walking around the village as he always had, speaking to everyone he met, asking about their health and their families.
Emily felt a wave of homesickness so strong that she nearly slipped on the ice underfoot.
She tucked the other mail underneath her arm and carried the envelope into the house. Belladonna, their black Lab, met her at the door with her lead in her mouth.
‘Not now, Bella,’ she said, dropping an absent caress on the top of her head and taking the envelope into the kitchen. Adam was at soccer practice, due back any time now; he’d left a peanut-butter smeared knife and crumbs on the counter from his snack this morning. Robbie was in his workshop in the garage. The sound of the radio reached her faintly.
She sat at the table and opened the letter. The handwriting alone took her back to afternoons visiting the surgery as a little girl. Looking at the notes he wrote to himself, things to remember to do, lists of patients, his signature on the prescription pad. The surgery always smelled of antiseptic and the roll of flimsy paper they used to cover the examination table, which he kept behind a silk screen embroidered with nightingales. It smelled of his pipe tobacco and his receptionist, Hilda’s, perfume. Emily lifted the letter to her nose to try to catch the scent of tobacco, but there was none there. Perhaps he didn’t smoke a pipe any more. Most people had given up smoking.
Eighteen years. A lot could happen in eighteen years.
Dear Emily, began the letter, and Emily’s eyes filled with tears, to see her own name next to the word ‘dear’.