The cottage came into view at the end of the road that curled through the Irish hillside. They had had to continually put off this trip as spring faded into summer, which was threatening to fade into autumn. What was meant to be an Easter time get-together turned into an early August gathering at Edwin Fitzpatrick’s grandparents’ old cottage, scarcely used now. Away from the bustle of Belfast, Edwin sighed contentedly. There was freedom in the air, a freedom he only otherwise felt at sea. He loved his work, and thought himself fortunate to do it, but he was equally glad to put aside his steward’s uniform and leave the White Star Line behind for the weekend in favor of a countryside escape. When he thought of the people with whom he would spend the weekend, he grew downright ecstatic.
Eleanor Dugan and her mother sat on the front porch, fanning themselves as they chatted happily in their rocking chairs. Edwin hopped down from the carriage, paid the driver, and waved to his soon-to-be bride and mother-in-law as he hurried up the dusty path to the wooden house.
“I hope I haven’t kept you waiting too long,” Edwin said, stooping to kiss Eleanor’s cheek, then nodding at her mother.
“Not too long,” Eleanor said. She regarded her future husband with all the warmth and innocence of a young girl. She rested her hand, covered in a lace glove, on her abdomen, which was only just beginning to show signs of a new life growing inside—the reason for the couple’s impending nuptials.
“We’ve just been enjoying the sunshine,” Eleanor’s mother said. “Sometimes, it goes so long without making an appearance, I start to think it was something invented by the poets.”
“Ah, sure, they are to blame for most things, eh?” Edwin said with a good-natured chuckle, twirling his straw hat lazily around in his hands. Mrs. Dugan stared at the hat, clearly bothered by his fidgeting. He placed the hat on the banister and asked, “have Albert and Julia arrived?”
“No, not as far as we know,” Eleanor said.
“Right. Well, I’ll go unpack,” Edwin picked his hat back up, cocking it lightly atop his head as he entered the cottage and inhaled all the scents of childhood summers spent here. If only his Gran were there to see him, standing at the stove cooking a fry-up or a stew, singing songs or ranting and raving about the English. She was a long time gone now, but her spirit was such a force that it was sure to inhabit that little cottage—and indeed all of County Antrim—for eternity. The old floorboards creaked beneath his feet as he trod them to his little bedroom overlooking an endless field and a bog just near the horizon. A few sheep grazed around the field, content to laze about in the summer sun—just what Edwin and his family would be doing for the weekend, he thought with satisfaction. He tossed his suitcase on the bed and threw his hat on the desk beneath the window before glancing at his pocket watch. He frowned, thinking Albert and Julia should really have been there already. He pulled Albert’s birthday gift out of the suitcase, leaving the rest haphazardly thrown in his bag, and put the gift atop the desk, then went to the kitchen to put a kettle on.
Albert Francis and his elderly Cousin Julia arrived at the Fitzpatricks’ cottage by the time the kettle whistled. The crunch of gravel alerted Edwin to their presence, and he turned the stove off and rushed out to meet them, unable to contain his bright smile.
“Did you have a pleasant crossing?” Edwin asked as he helped Julia down from the car. She was English, and had just arrived in Belfast the previous day from her Southampton home. Julia kept a firm hold on Edwin’s hand and answered with enthusiasm that, yes, the crossing was lovely.
“All right, Albert?” Edwin nodded as Albert Francis got out of the car, removing his hat as he did so. He nodded at Edwin, and a secret smile passed between them, the same private smile they offered one another each time they crossed paths at Harland & Wolff, the Belfast shipyard where Albert worked as an engineer. Edwin took in Albert’s gray eyes, shyly darting from Edwin to Eleanor to her mother. As always, he dressed impeccably, looking as though he had just emerged from a shop window in a perfectly pressed pinstripe suit, his chestnut hair combed and gelled back, untouched by sun or rain. Edwin drew back, cleared his throat, and turned to his fiancée and her mother. Introductions were exchanged, with Eleanor’s mother exclaiming in surprise when she heard Albert’s American accent.
Back inside, the women exchanged pleasantries while Edwin showed Albert to his guest room. Looking over his shoulder to ensure no one was within earshot, Edwin leaned into Albert and whispered,
“You’re not feeling too glum, are ya?”
“Don’t mind me. I’m always glum, you know that,” Albert said, placing his boater hat softly atop his desk. He smiled as he looked around the room. “This is a charming little place.”
“Isn’t it? It’s nice, getting away from the city,” Edwin said. He clasped his hands together and looked down at his shoes.
Albert nodded. He unlocked his suitcase and began removing his clothes, one by one, all neatly folded and pressed. Edwin watched him as he put his clothes away in the chest drawers.
“And the drive down? It was fine?” Edwin said.
“Yeah, fine,” Albert glanced over his shoulder, barely making eye contact with Edwin.
“Albie—” Edwin began, but approaching footsteps caused him to keep quiet. A light knock came on the slightly ajar bedroom door, and Eleanor’s voice sang out. Edwin opened the door to admit his future wife, who smiled warmly at the two men.
“Supper’s on,” Eleanor announced. “Whenever you two are ready; we’re all at the table.” She turned to leave, but took note of Albert’s unpacking and said, “Sure, you could learn something from him, Edwin. This fella won’t unpack the entire weekend, I guarantee.”
“Only I don’t see the point, seein’ as we’re here but three days,” Edwin said. Eleanor shook her head, chuckling, and walked away. Once she was gone, Edwin whispered Albert’s name, but Albert brushed past him, saying,
“We shouldn’t keep the ladies waiting.”
After supper, Eleanor and her mother set to washing the dishes while Julia retired to her bedroom to read. Edwin and Albert went out for a walk.
“It’s a beautiful night,” Albert commented as they strolled away from the cottage, toward the bog at the far end of the property.
“Aye, it is,” Edwin said. “I suppose you don’t get summers like this in America.”
“No. They’re dreadful,” Albert chuckled. “Especially where I’m from. Can’t sit outside for five minutes without wanting to jump in the nearest body of water.”
“I’d like to visit someday,” Edwin said. He clasped his hands behind his back and studied the tall grass around them.
“You’ve been multiple times,” Albert said.
“Ah, sure, to New York,” Edwin shrugged. “But only on trans-Atlantic crossings. It’s not as though I’d get to explore much. Besides, New York is hardly America, is it? No, I’d like to see Mississippi.”
“Why in God’s name should you like to see Mississippi?”
“It’s where you grew up,” Edwin said. “I should like to visit every place having to do with you.”
The men followed a path to the edge of a wood, glancing over their shoulders to ensure that the cottage was out of sight before they sat on the dewy grass.
“I’ve got you a birthday present,” Edwin reached into his pocket for the package and extended it to Albert.
“My birthday’s not ‘til the thirteenth,” Albert said as he took the package.
“I can’t very well give you a gift on the thirteenth, though, can I?” Edwin said.
“Right,” Albert nodded, his eyes flitting down as he slowly began to unwrap the gift.
“I am dreadful sorry about that, Albie. Things kept comin’ up, and we kept havin’ to change the date, and, really we can’t wait any later. It has to be the thirteenth. Eleanor’ll start showin’ soon, and—”
“It’s fine. Do you hear me complaining?” Albert asked.
“No. But I see ya hurting. You’re not so good at hiding that, you know,” Edwin said, cocking his head and speaking softly. Albert offered a sad smile and continued opening the gift. “You will come, won’t ya? To the wedding?”
“I suppose it’d look strange if I didn’t,” Albert replied. He removed the gift from its wrapping, revealing a gold-plated pocket watch with his initials engraved on the front. “It’s lovely. Thank you.”
“There’s an inscription inside,” Edwin nodded at the watch. Albert opened it and read the inscription: To my Albie, with love and best wishes for a happy birthday. -E.
“Thank you,” Albert said again, then put the watch in his jacket pocket.
“I wanted to do somethin’ special for you,” Edwin smiled as he placed his hand on Albert’s knee. Albert returned the smile, but sadness remained in his eyes. Edwin kissed him, then situated himself behind Albert so he could wrap his arms around him. Albert leaned back, resting his head on Edwin’s chest.
“I suppose this is it for us, then,” Albert said.
“Does it have to be?” Edwin muttered into Albert’s hair.
“Yes. It does,” Albert said. Edwin inhaled deeply, taking in the dusty, faintly sweaty scent of Albert’s hair. He closed his eyes and imagined it was 1909, just he and Albert, in the early innocent days of their relationship, before Eleanor. Before he had behaved like an idiot in the early months of 1910, a dumb decision that would lock him down in marriage for the rest of his natural life. He wrapped his arms around Albert’s chest and kissed his cheek and his neck, letting his lips linger on Albert’s ear lobe.
“You won’t be alone, will you? On your birthday, I mean.”
“No. I’ll have Cousin Julia. She’ll come to the wedding, too.
“That’s good. You deserve a celebration. It kills me—”
“You’ve apologized enough, Eddie,” Albert reached up to press his finger against Edwin’s lips. “Anyway, I don’t feel much like celebrating. Once I turn thirty, all the questions will start. Why haven’t I found some nice girl to settle down with? Don’t I want a family? Is there something wrong with me?”
“It wouldn’t be so terrible, you know. Finding a nice girl,” Edwin said.
“It would be dishonest. To her, to myself, to any children we might have.”
“Oh, quit being so bloody moral,” Edwin said, gently. “Hey. I love you. You know that, eh?”
Albert flashed his small, sad smile again, his chest rising and falling slowly beneath Edwin’s arms.
“You’re the only person who’s ever said that to me,” Albert said. Edwin hugged him tighter and rested his chin atop his head.
“And do you believe me?” Edwin asked.
“Against my better judgment, yes,” Albert smiled up at him. “And I love you, too.”
They lay there under the cover of night a while longer, happy to be in one another’s presence. Edwin was gripped with anxiety about his future, knowing this could very well be the last time he and Albert could be with each other like this. He cursed the world for being the way that it was, and he cursed himself for being the way he was. He did love Eleanor, in his own way, but their relationship had been a farce to avoid questioning. They were old friends, he got drunk one night, and he gave into lust. Thus came a baby, thus came a bride, and there went his own, dear Albie, who had been in England visiting his cousin at the time. He had tried so many times before to say what he truly believed: If things were only different, if the world would only let us be, if the Catholic Church didn’t care about unwanted pregnancies, then he would leave Eleanor to her own devices and cling to Albert for the rest of their days. He justified this fantasy with the fact that Eleanor wouldn’t be terribly heartbroken over their separation, anyway. She didn’t love him any more than he loved her. That is to say, they enjoyed one another’s company. One night, they enjoyed one another’s company a little too much, and now they had a responsibility to one another and to their baby.
“I have a thought,” Edwin said, his voice startling Albert slightly. “What if I told Eleanor about us?”
“You what?” Albert sat bolt upright and turned to face Edwin.
“Well, hang on, just hear me out, yeah? What if I took Eleanor aside one day and explained about you and me—thing is, I really don’t think she’d mind. She and I would go on with the marriage, right, to keep up appearances and all, but—”
“Edwin, are you hearing yourself right now? Next you’re gonna suggest we go fornicate outside the nearest prison!” Albert said in a hushed yell.
“Need I remind you what happened when my father found out about me?” Albert snapped.
“No,” Edwin lowered his eyes to the ground. Memories of the scars on Albert’s back flitted through his mind, accompanied by the stories of Albert’s father and brothers beating him before tossing him out on the street. In addition to the scars, the damage left Albert deaf in his right ear. Edwin remembered, with a pang, that he had promised Albert that he would protect him from harm, that no one would ever hurt him the way his family had. Then Edwin turned around and slept with someone else. Boredom, drunkenness, and loneliness were a lethal combination, indeed. “No, my pet. Of course you don’t.” Edwin pulled Albert back toward him, and Albert resumed his position lying against Edwin.
“What do you suppose your soon-to-be mother-in-law would do if she found us out here like this? Shoot us both?”
“Ah, don’t be daft. She hasn’t got a gun. She’d hack us both to death with an axe,” Edwin said. Albert chuckled. “Let’s not think about any of that outside stuff, yeah?” Edwin said. “Let’s just enjoy ourselves this weekend. It might be the last chance for happiness.”
“But, we were happy. Weren’t we? I know I was, anyway,” Albert said.
“Aye, so was I, lovie, but it couldn’t last.”
“I don’t see why not.”
“No, I’m serious,” Albert sat up again and turned to face Edwin. “I would have been perfectly content living out my life in the shadows with you. It doesn’t matter to me what people say or think about me. It used to bother me, but it doesn’t anymore. As long as they can’t prove anything, as long as they don’t have anything tangible to bring to the authorities, we’d be fine. I never minded pretending. I never minded having to hide out with you, having to rendezvous in the dark with all the windows and doors locked. What’s it to me, if I have you there with me? That’s all that ever mattered.”
“You are a romantic bugger.”
“I can’t help but feel you’ve given up on us. That’s all.”
“Hey. None of that,” Edwin whispered. He ran his thumb along Albert’s jawbone, then along his lips. “Let’s just enjoy the time we have together. And I’ll just remind you that you’re the one insisting our relationship come to an end. You know I want to be with you.”
“I can’t assist you in adultery. It’s bad enough sneaking around out here like this,” Albert said, only sounding half-convinced.
“For an atheist, you’re quite concerned about right and wrong,” Edwin said with a chuckle.
“For a Catholic, you’re quite unconcerned about right and wrong,” Albert replied.
“Right, fair point. If you ask me, though, people put an awful lot of words in God’s mouth,” Edwin rose with a groan. “Getting old,” he said, helping Albert to his feet. The two men returned to the cottage, walking arm in arm until the old house came into view, at which point they separated, following the old familiar dance they had performed for over a year now. Back inside, the four sat by the fire, talking and playing parlor games until it was time for bed.
Two days later, Albert and his cousin departed. Edwin and Eleanor waved them off, watching as their car disappeared around the drive.
“I’ll go tidy up the guest rooms,” Edwin said as he and Eleanor made their way back inside. Eleanor stopped in her tracks and gawked.
“You are going to tidy up?” she asked. Edwin laughed, shaking his head as he went into Albert’s room and closed the door behind him. Once alone, his smile faded and he heaved a heavy sigh. The room was, of course, impeccable. There was no evidence that anyone had spent any time there at all. Edwin sat on the bed, kicked off his shoes, and buried his head in the pillow. Albert’s scent lingered on the pillow and in the sheets. Edwin closed his eyes and inhaled, willing Albert’s voice into his head, imagining he were there with him, wishing he could freeze that weekend, or better yet, return to 1909 and keep things as they were. But 1909 was long gone, as was the weekend, and in a week’s time, Edwin would have a bride. The following January, he would have a child. Thus, the lifelong lie would begin, and whatever would become of him and Albert Francis, they would never again be together. Edwin drifted into a fitful sleep with the distinct feeling that he had known happiness, he had known love, and it would never again be part of his life.