Diane has barely reached the bar of the Woolpack before she’s accosted by a harassed looking Victoria.
“Great, just the person I need, can you do me a favour?”
“Hi love, I’m great thanks. The cruise was lovely.” Diane replies.
“I’m sorry, it’s just been one of them days.” Vic sighs and rubs her temple like she always does when she’s stressed.
“What can I do then?” Diane asks.
“I need you to go find Robert for me, he’s stormed off in a state… I would go myself but I’m stuck behind the bar, and I’m pretty sure he’d refuse to talk to me anyway.”
“What’s happened now? Has he heard from Aaron?”
“Nah. But he was in here earlier getting trollied. Again.” Victoria says, before she leans further over the bar and lowers her voice. “He got into an argument with Rebecca, then Ross got involved, and it’s only because Pete was here that neither of them have black eyes right now.”
Diane follows her gaze, and spots Rebecca sitting in a booth with Chrissie and Lawrence, heads together and talking quietly.
“Where’s he gone now then?” Diane asks
“No idea.” Victoria rubs at her temple again. “I know he’s prone to kicking off, but he really seemed a mess tonight, more so than usual. I’m worried about him Diane.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll go look for him.” Diane reassures her, hitches her handbag further up onto her shoulder and heads back out of the pub.
It takes her a while to find Robert. He’s not in any of the places she expected – the Mill, the scrapyard, Vic’s cottage – she even sticks her head into the B&B in case Doug had seen him, with no luck.
Just as she’s about to give up looking, Diane realises there is one place she hasn’t checked. It’s not somewhere Robert goes often, but if he is in as much of a state as Victoria seems to think, then he might go there.
Diane spots him from the gate in the early evening dusk, his blond hair a stark contrast to the bleakness of the dry grass and the grey headstones. He’s sat cross-legged on the ground, apparently not caring about the dry dirt leaving marks on his jeans, and he has half a bottle of whiskey in his hand, which he swigs from with alarming regularity.
He either doesn’t notice her walking up behind him, or he’s point blank ignoring her, either way it’s left to Diane to break the silence.
“I’m pretty sure your mam wouldn’t approve of you necking that booze like there’s no tomorrow.” Diane tells Robert decisively, as she pulls off her jacket to lay it on the ground next to him, using it to kneel on.
Robert sighs, his tired, bloodshot eyes fixed on Sarah’s engraved name, and he takes another swig from his bottle before speaking
“Yeah? Well just add it to the long list of things about me that she’d be disappointed in.” His voice sounds bitter and hollow.
“That’s not tr-“
“Yeah, it is. You even said it yourself, a few months back, remember?” Robert cuts across her before she can argue with him.
“I already told you that I didn’t mean that, and anyway that’s not what this is about, is it?” Diane says, realising that Robert is trying to deflect the attention away from himself. “The is about Aaron.”
She sees the way Robert winces, like that name alone is enough to cause him a whiplash of pain. He takes an even longer drink from the bottle, and Diane yearns to yank the disgusting stuff off him, but she knows that it would just wind him up more.
It’s quiet for a minute or two, before Robert speaks again.
“Do you think she would hate me?” He asks, his voice small, fragile, and so unlike his usual self that Diane feels tears begin to prick behind her eyes.
“No. Never.” She tells him firmly. “Look…” she pauses, treading carefully. Diane knows what she wants to say, but she also realises that she’s on risky ground and that this could easily either make things better, or make him close off and self-destruct completely.
“…I know I’m not your mam, and that I never will be, but right now I’m the closest thing you’ve got, so start talking.”
Diane doesn’t know what to expect from Robert in reply, whether he’ll close off, or shout, or ignore her completely. But she certainly doesn’t expect Robert to turn to face her for the first time, look her in the eye for a few seconds, then promptly burst into tears.
She’s slow to react, because she’s never seen Robert like this before. He’s never been the crying type, and she can probably count on one hand the amount of times he’s shown any sign of upset at all.
But he is sure crying now, and not gently. It’s like a great dam has burst, his face is in his hands, his knees pulled up to his chest, and he is outright sobbing. Robert’s normally large frame is curled in and heaving with short, sharp breaths.
Diane has no clue how to deal with this version of her stepson, so she just does what her mothers’ instinct tells her. She pulls his shaking body into her arms, strokes the soft hair at the back of his head and murmurs soft reassurances in his ear.
“It’s alright…I’ve got you, just let it all out! You’ll feel better after, I promise. You’ll be ok sweetheart…”
“sorry… sorry… I’m so sorry.” Robert hiccups in between crying, and Diane doesn’t know whether he’s talking to her, to Sarah, to Aaron, or to all of them. She doubts if he even knows, so she just kisses the top of his head and rocks him gently.
When Robert’s sobs subside, she’ll help him to his feet and take him back to the B&B. He’ll try to weakly argue about going back to the Mill, but she won’t let him. Instead she insists he stay with her, where she can keep an eye on him and ply him with hot, sweet tea until he falls asleep under a blanket on her sofa, utterly exhausted.