when this is all over we’ll find ourselves
in a big room with wooden floors walls & ceilings
a stone hedge outside & the dogs
barking hard at the threshold
— betrothal / the bride’s lament; by Olga Broumas
The water chops against the sea-wall, brusque but lazy, like only water can be. The waves are impatient to eat the land, James thinks; impatient to lick wet tongues beneath the fundamentals of earth and dust and dry-boned roots. So much older, this land, than the cities they’ve crowded at its edges. There is a different kind of age, too, to the pale-stoned buildings that spread behind him, their colour a dusty cousin to the familiar gold of home. Behind him, then, the city; before him, the river-bay, pushing back and forth and out to the sea beyond. It’s unexpectedly cold, wind hearty and stung with ice, here in this southern winter, and James pops his collar higher around his ears. He leans into the bluster, though, and studies the mountains across the water. Their blue lines are blurred beneath low-skimming clouds. Ediacaran, he’d read; five hundred and eighty million years old, the stone beneath those peaks.
Age, on his mind, and in this land around him. Do close the shutters, the drawers, the cupboard doors. They remind me of open graves—will you die before me, my bundle of flesh?
“No cappuccinos,” Lewis says from behind him. “Machine’s buggered. I’d have found somewhere else but the lass looked so depressed about it. Hot chocolate all right?”
“All right,” James agrees. He takes his cup as Lewis steps down beside him; low huff of air as Lewis settles. The corrugated cardboard is familiar beneath James’s fingertips. He cradles it, slight barrier against the cold, the heat of it pleasant on his palms but nothing compared to the steady assurance of Lewis’s shoulder against his own. Lewis’s new coat – a gift from Lyn, hint dropped by James, Lewis torn between a sigh and a smile at their obvious coalition (“I said she’d take to you,” whispered words in her kitchen, warm breath against James’s ear lobe) – is soft against James’s wrist.
The chocolate is rich. James listens as he drinks it. Listens to the burble of the city behind him. The jangle of rigging against rope and metal. A child squealing. A woman talking into her camera as she points it at the bay; lush voice, deep, wants to sound like Attenborough. A tour guide, young man, eager expression, talking from the plank of a sailboat a little way down, handing out brochures, and charming tourists. She’s a replica, the sailboat, James knows; he’d looked her up on his phone while he’d been waiting. The original had been the first to sail the Bass Strait. This one does river tours and honeymoons. James wonders if Lewis might like it.
Beep of Lewis’s phone, text from Lyn, they’ll be at the waterfront in fifteen.
Hush-shush-shoosh of water against stone. Cupping the land like a saucepan lid, James thinks. He looks sideways, takes in the gentleness of Lewis’s expression and, ah, Lewis has been watching him all the while, hasn’t he.
“Penny for them?” Lewis asks mildly. He has his own drink in one hand, is putting his phone back in his pocket with the other.
“On this exchange rate?” James quirks a smile.
Lewis’s elbow nudges him, just a small touch. “He’ll like you, love,” Lewis says, “and, if he doesn’t, he’ll not be game to say so, for fear our Lyn’ll take him to task for it.”
“That, I will believe,” James says, because it is true. James knows that he will be forever grateful for Lewis’s daughter, and for the way that she’s allowed herself to be their Lyn, really their Lyn. How many years, since James had had family, and now here he is having it wake all around him. He had had to look away, overwhelmed, when she’d introduced Robbie’s granddaughter to him – small and wrinkly and wrapped in a hospital blanket – and had asked if James would be godfather: the look in her eyes, younger echo of her father’s, had assured James that she knew just how much that would mean. She isn’t even religious. James knows.
James lifts his cup to his lips, and realises it’s empty.
Lewis is still looking at him.
James sighs, and folds the cup between his fingers; smiles wryly. Lyn had been simpler. James had felt as though he already knew her, by the time they were finally face-to-face. He says, “It doesn’t stop me being anxious when it comes to meeting the family, sir.”
“You call me that in front of Mark and it’ll be the sofa for you.”
James raises an eyebrow. “Does our room even have a sofa? I was distracted by the beast of a bed.”
“Someone must have warned them how impossibly tall you are. And I haven't the faintest, I was distracted by your distraction. You and beds, James, who’d have thought.”
“Well you know what they say about we quiet ones.”
“Oh, I’d know all right.”
Lewis is wonderful when he laughs.
James grins. Brushes his knuckles against Lewis’s thigh.
“Excuse me.” It’s the woman with the camera, expression shy. “I was just wondering, you know, if you could take a picture for me?” She’s holding her camera out to Lewis. James has to chuckle, has to save his partner from the trouble of facing it down. He stands, photographs the woman with her arms outspread, old-young city rising behind her. She’s pretty, in a quiet kind of way, curls slipping from her hat to cover her eyes.
“Do you have a camera?” she asks, thumbing over the screen when James hands hers back to her, inspecting the photographs, and tucking her hair up beneath her woolly hat. “I mean, I could take one of you, if you’d like? Turn and turnabout or whatever?”
“Yes,” says Lewis, and he’s standing too, has his arm around James, is pulling him close. “That’d be lovely, we could do with some holiday snaps.” Lewis is holding out his own camera. Laura had bought it for him as a retirement gift – she’d laughed at the expression he’d pulled, had told him, it’s okay, Hathaway can make sense of it for you, and James had coloured at that, there, in the office, tie at his throat and Jean Innocent looking worryingly indulgent. That had been their last day, and James hasn’t seen the camera since then. He’d thought it was back home somewhere, tucked away in a box. Now, though, here it is, and James finds himself smiling not at it, but at Lewis, who is smiling right back up at him. They’ve never really done this, this public display, this affection on film, but James can feel the joy on his face and it’s like being a kid again, like finding out that everything can be perfect if you simply wait long enough. Whoever should behold me now, James thinks, and his mind goes to the mantel back home, back home in a house waiting with boxes in the hallway. He populates it with pictures, new pictures, to set alongside Val-and-Robbie. James-and-Robbie, here, to go with the past, to go with the future, to settle down and grow old with the photographs of Lyn’s daughter, growing up and cluttering the place in a way James finds himself impatient for. Impatient like the sea, he thinks, as he has permission to grin and to hold and to let the camera record it.
Age, then, but the years before it, too.
“Lovely,” the woman is saying. She’s smiling, bright spots of pink high on her cheeks, as she hands Lewis’s camera back to him.
Sometimes James’s lungs fill with sentimental nonsense, words so wrapped up in themselves that they make his ribs ache. Oh, but if you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you; adjust the days, adjust the years, his heartbeat declares, you can be a hundred and ten and I’ll settle for eighty. He thinks of the photographs now tucked in Lewis’s pocket, and listens to the water. Hush-hush-shoosh, and Lewis’s arm is still around him.
This is the easiest that James’s life has ever been. Not the simplest; it had been simpler before, with God above and hell below, black and white, yes and no. But this is the easiest. Lewis takes care of that.
“How does it feel,” James asks, finding his words and placing them in order, “to be a free man?”
He’s watching Lewis. He can see the way that Lewis considers him from over his drink. “I could be asking you the same, I reckon,” Lewis says.
“I’m not the one who’s retired, Robbie.”
“Wasn’t what I meant.”
James knows that, too. Knows it, as well as he knows words and age and the familiarity of this unfamiliar sea. Knows it, and brushes his thumb against Lewis’s jaw to prove it.
Lewis grins. Those teeth that James likes to touch his tongue against. Not unlike the sea at all, he decides. He thinks of the bed back in their room, thinks of burying himself in it with quilts and pillows and Robbie. Greedy. Fit into me like a hook. Keep me always.
Lewis shifts against him, attention caught by something the other side of James. “Ah,” Lewis says, face lighting up, “here they are then.”
He motions, and James sees Lyn, pram before her, brother at her side – his face is familiar from photo albums, but older, a touch of Lewis and a touch of Val, expression caught on something akin to startled, but leaning towards a smile.
Age, James thinks, then startles, himself, at Lewis’s fingers against his wrist, against his hand, slotting together; a and b, one plus one. Solid grasp as their hands entwine, and the land is steady beneath him, steady beside him, Robbie-and-James, James-and-Robbie; wait, and their family open in embrace.