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Never One of Us

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Time and chance happeneth to them all, and things might have gone either way; still, the likelihood had always been that Robbie would leave James a widower. If James had been given a choice, that was the option he’d have preferred anyway, because the thought of Robbie enduring a second bereavement was not to be borne.

He got through the eulogy, mentioning God only to quote Robbie’s “None of your bloody priests, all right?,” which made everyone laugh, and then to say, “But he would never have begrudged his friends any comfort,” which made them cry, and then, dry-eyed, sat down hard and spent the rest of the memorial — emphatically not a memorial service — reminding himself that he had prayed to outlive Robbie and also that, after such a late start, to have had twenty-one years with him was no small gift. 

One wasn’t supposed to indulge in intercessory prayer, but James had been unable to stop himself.

The hall was full. That was nice. James would have liked to seal himself into a soundproof room and howl till he tore his throat out, but Robbie for all his prickle had had the enduring unbreakable loyalty of any number of people, coppers and gardeners and even some academics. After the memorial came their hugs none of which James could feel, and their tender words none of which he could hear. It was a relief to spot Laura last in the line, because he could count on her to say something bracing and impious. Also she had always been his chief source of information about Robbie’s earlier life. “B.H.,” she said: Before Hathaway, because (she said) for Robbie to take up with a man, even if that man was as dishy as James, was at least the epochal equivalent of the advent of Christ.

“Well, I dunno,” Robbie had said once, after a couple of whiskeys. “Could be all along I was heteroflexible — that’s the word, James, isn’t it?”

“Sir!” Robbie’s more startling utterances often produced this effect, of making James revert to his sergeanthood. Probably he had been branded forever by the time Inspector Lewis laid low a snooty cleric by delivering a flawless technical definition of ecumenicism.

Laura had slid down in her chair, laughing.

James collected himself. “My goodness, sir,” he said admiringly, “you have come a long way from the era of rumpy-pumpy.”

Remembering that evening, James smiled at Laura now with brief but real happiness. She smiled back, wet-eyed, and sat next to him, settling her cane between her knees. Together they watched the last of the stragglers leave the hall. “God,” James said, “what a relief.”

Laura hooked her hand into his elbow and squeezed. “I’ve been waiting for the last hour to talk to you. There was a story I remembered, I don’t think I ever told you. Do you know when I realized Robbie was in love with you?”

James turned to gape at her. “You’ve been holding out.”

“Well, I’ve got to have a store of fresh anecdotes, don’t I? Lest my company stale.”

James had been ready to continue in this vein but abruptly the lightness abandoned him and he wanted the story urgently, wanted to imagine Lewis giving himself away to his most perceptive friend — “Tell me,” he said.

“It was during that horrible case — oh, I don’t remember the name, that lord, the child molester. You got shot.”

“Mortmaigne.” It had been horrible, in so many ways. James had, in all reason, to put his argument with Robbie on the lawn of Crevecoeur far down the list, but he could feel the misery of it as keenly as he had that afternoon. The gunshot wound had seemed like the merest beginning of penance.

“That's it. Anyway, Robbie hauled me out for a pint. To talk about you, because something had happened that worried him. He didn’t say what, exactly, he gave me to understand it was personal, but I think he’d told you to take some time off.”

More like kicked me off the case and told me to make myself scarce. Robbie must have put it to Laura more gently.

“And he said — this I’m sure I remember exactly — ‘He’s an awkward sod at the best of times, but he’s my awkward sod.’ But it wasn’t the words so much. It was his tone, James. It was so tender. Yearning, almost. I know it took him a good few years longer to work it out for himself, but he was in love with you then.”

***

They stayed in the hall a while longer, first because James needed to compose himself, and then because Laura did; afterward, James saw her home and went to sit by the river. He was thinking of a different moment in the Mortmaigne case, the moment when he had handed Scarlett into the police car and paused to ask her his own, private questions about herself, and about herself and him.

She had reminded him, the evening before, of how they had wed each other one day when they were, perhaps, just old enough for the first wisps of romance to appear. The ceremony had been a grand affair. Scarlett wore a garland of white flowers that James had picked for her — his father had shouted at him later: “What were you thinking, taking the flowers from his Lordship’s beds?” — and Paul Hopkiss had married them, with a square of white paperboard at his throat.

 

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

 

James had been trying so hard not to love Lewis; seeing Scarlett again had stirred all his childhood longings and delights, and if she had proven to be someone other than she was, he would have thrown himself into a relationship that was grossly unfair to her. But when it came down to it, she was her father’s daughter, and “You were never one of us,” she said.

She might as well have sliced a riding crop across his face, he had felt then.

Mortmaigne must already have had his hands on Paul, that wedding afternoon in the greenwood, when James took Scarlett’s hand in his and touched his lips in eager terror to her cheek. The stink of corruption would have been everywhere. Maybe he had sensed it without knowing it for what it was; maybe the promises, the white flowers, Paul raising his hands in blessing amounted to a protection spell cast by ten-year-olds.

A failed spell, because they were ten-year-olds, and of course because there was no such thing as magic. 

You were never one of us, Scarlett had said.

Now, sitting by the river so many years later and covered in fresh grief, James thought: No, I wasn’t one of you. For all my faults, I was never one of you. I was Robbie Lewis’s, only Robbie Lewis's, all along.