They chose a boat and carefully plonked themselves down on it. Unwinding the fishing rod they’d hired from one of the obliging fishermen, they baited it and threw it in the water. Kicking off their sandals they rested their feet on the edge and sat back, ready for a morning of relaxation. They’d clicked at the party last night and getting up a few hours later at dawn hadn’t been too much of a problem. Good company stimulated them. They knew the fatigue would hit them like a sledgehammer later but they liked to live for now. Soon they’d be too old for all of this.
They meandered through topics of conversation, finding out that they had a lot in common. Getting on a plane to a hastily picked country, exploring regional spots, roughing it with the locals and sampling the food on offer were interests of theirs they could talk about for a long time.
Sipping tea (her), coffee (him) and water from the various bottles and flasks they’d brought, they kept a comfortable silence between them every so often. Sometimes they’d start a topic that they’d not normally bother with so soon. Bill drained his cup and let his mouth run away with him.
‘I last came here twenty one years ago. It’s not changed so much.’
Rosie nodded. ‘I remember you.’
Bill was caught out. He didn’t actually remember either of Donna’s friends and cautiously said so. Rosie laughed.
‘We remember all three of you.’
She shared their brief recollections of Headbanger Harry and posh architect Sam. She omitted the exclamation of bastard that Tanya had given him earlier but Bill guessed. He thought Donna thought of them all asuch and told Rosie. He felt like he could tell her anything.
Rosie’s raised eyebrows and smile confirmed it. From Donna’s reaction at the party last night, it was clear she thought that he was irresponsible and reckless. He couldn’t tell if Rosie thought the same way and it gave him an inconvenient stab of anxiety. He tried to shake it off. He’d never bothered with caring what people thought of him before but he was beginning to care about what she thought. He thought about risking it and telling her. He was no stranger to risk, he thrived on it. But this was a different one to take. Not one he would have with Donna. Or any woman for that matter.
His hesitation alerted her to the possibility that he might tell her something. She waited, rearranging the fishing line. They hadn’t caught anything yet.
He kept going round in circles in his head, a thing he always tried to avoid. Act now, think later was something he did often. Fuck it, he was just going to go for it.
‘I didn’t intend on coming back here.’
Here it was. The reason for the unease that had suddenly pervaded the previous easy going atmosphere.
‘Why did you?’ She kept her eyes to the distance. He didn’t seem comfortable with too much eye contact right now.
‘The opportunity came up and I took it. Sold my editor the idea of childhood haunts and got here. Didn’t realise I’d be keeping company with guys I’d never met or be dragged into the wedding like this.’
She waited for elaboration on that front but there was nothing. Maybe it was nothing to do with Sophie. He would talk when he felt like it. She didn’t have long to wait.
‘My mum asked me to come here. I was travelling a bit of Europe for the first time and she wanted me to make a quick stop. Her family came from the mainland and she grew up here. She wanted to see her aunt Sophia one last time but she couldn’t go. She sent me instead. I took her back a letter, some keepsakes and some photographs.’
‘Did it make her happy?’
‘She cried, she was so happy.’
Bill face was turned away and she couldn’t his expression but she could see the tense of his shoulders and sense the tears unshed, like glass.
‘She knew she was dying. When I came back she didn’t have long left. But she loved everything I came back with. I didn’t mention Donna. It wasn’t important.’
He realised how that sounded and tried to think of another way to say it but she understood.
‘Of course Donna wasn’t on your mind. It was just a fling’ Rosie reassured him. How was he know what was to happen twenty years later?
He felt relieved. She saw it on his face and didn’t blame him. She would have felt the same way and told him so.
‘Well I can’t honestly say I thought about her much over the years. I didn’t know she was still here and I don’t know if I would have wanted to come back so soon. It would have reminded me of mum. Especially when we heard that Sophia had died a few years later. We were told her money had gone to family.’
Rosie dropped her bottle. He knew! Bollocks. She tried to act normal. She needn’t have bothered. Oblivious to it, Bill stared out forlornly out to sea, unaware of the slip of the tongue. He’d only told Sophie that.
‘Never thought I’d be coming back at all. There wasn’t anything here for me.’ He thought about it further. ‘I don’t think…’
‘That there was anything left for you there either’ she finished.
She guessed that he meant Australia, the place he should have called home. He started to see that she understood. The hollow ache intensified in his heart and threatened to spill over and overwhelm. Rosie could see it, whirling in the humid air and trapping its host in an unbreakable web. She knew this feeling. Like being pulled into a swamp and feeling like you’d never get out. It paralysed you and shut you down to automatic. You had to find a way to carry on somehow.
‘I thought I might be able to see her if I came back. But she’s not here.’
‘She won’t be back.’ Rosie told him gently, confirming something he knew already.
She rested her hand very lightly on his shoulder, anchoring him back in from the shadows. He wasn’t sure how to acknowledge it but he appreciated it. The new day spread out before them in a glorious haze of pink and yellow. Beyond it, there was the shadow, hovering underneath, an underlying spot of melancholy. There would always be shadow.