Everyone Loves Robbie

Shutterstock / Maksym Azovtsev © Happy young man sits on grass hugging golden labrador

Lynn sees that love comes in many guises… yet it takes an unexpected source to teach her that valuable lesson

I don’t explain about Robbie any more. I let people experience him for themselves. His open smile and boundless enthusiasm coupled with his good looks soften the hardest hearts.

Only later do I see them glance at me and hear a hesitance in their replies as they try to determine the force of nature that confronts them.

Robbie was a late child, you see.

At the time I didn’t know whether to be pleased or embarrassed. I was thirteen and experimenting with my first cigarette.

An only child, I wasn’t at all sure about the appearance of a baby sister or brother. I decided to go for the kudos of being indifferent to my mother’s bulging belly.

To my friends I referred to the impending baby as The Sprog or The Rug Rat. I was into girl power and the baby was nothing to do with me.

That was until Robbie was born.

One look at his dark hair curling on the nape of his neck and I ditched the cigarettes and the plan for a nose stud. He was my baby brother and that was cool and if my friends wanted to stay my friends they had to go along with that.

Andy still teases me about that. He’s in the garden shed with Robbie. They’re clearing it out. On our second date I said to Andy, “You do realise, don’t you, that Robbie and I come as a package?”

“What, like a BOGOF?”

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. I knew how I felt about Andy and hadn’t wanted my hopes raised.

“Who says I’m buying?” Andy retorted.

“Just saying,” I said, shrugging.

Andy was driving at the time. I sneaked a look at him. He cocked his head to one side and I could almost see the wheels turning.

“Is he into male bonding?”

“Sure, he sticks to his friends like glue,” I said. “Well, I mean not like glue. He’s not that dependent. I just mean he’s loyal and loves his friends – and animals.”

“So, if he loves animals then I’m in with a chance.”

“You’re not an animal.”

“You called me a pig when I stole your Smarties. I was nine at the time and I’ve been in therapy ever since!”

“Oh, right. Robbie loves pigs and I’m sure he’ll even come round to the idea of a Smarties thief as well.”

I stopped dead and looked out the car window, embarrassed.

I was giving away too much, but the truth was that I had loved Andy for years.

“Anyway, if you’re interested, speak to Robbie yourself,” I added.

“I’m interested.”

We married two years later with Robbie as best man.

I look out of the window. My husband and brother are fencing with a hoe and a rake.

The recycling plant closes soon and I’ll be left with the rubbish sitting in the drive. I rap on the pane impatiently.

They both look up. Robbie waves and Andy takes the opportunity to deal him a lethal blow.

Robbie drops to the ground and goes into an agonising death sequence complete with twitches and last words. I open the back door.

“The recycling plant closes in half an hour.”

Andy salutes me and intones, “The oracle has spoken.”

“She who must be obeyed,” says Robbie, lying on the ground.

They’re in a-gang-up-on-Lynn mood. It’s time to get tough.

“I mean it. I don’t want all this rubbish lying around when our visitors arrive.”

They look at each other and burst out laughing. I know why they’re laughing. It’s the word “visitors”.

I’m about to say more but Robbie’s phone rings. One look at his face and we know who it is. He turns his back, lowers his voice and heads in to the house.

Andy and I exchange a look.

Robbie was the sweetest child, but slow. He rarely cried. Smiling was his default mode and he could stop a charging buffalo in its tracks with his smile.

My friends called him The Gump, after Forrest Gump, and showered him with kisses. Even the toughest kid on the block wouldn’t pass him without giving him a high five.

Robbie reflected that love back tenfold. He spoke to everybody, the snooty neighbour, the down and out and the totally eccentric.

Even then, as a self-absorbed teenager, I recognised that Robbie was one of nature’s gifts – a gift from God, if you like.

Yet what was acceptable as a child can be disconcerting in a handsome young man. The look in Robbie’s deep blue eyes can be misconstrued when turned on a pretty girl. He has no artifice and gets confused with flirting.

He stills call me Laa-Laa, his baby name for me. Over the years I’ve tried to get him to call me Lynn.

“I’m not a Teletubby,” I would say. “And I’m not yellow.”

“But you like to sing and dance,” he would reply. “And Laa-Laa looks out for everybody just like you look out for me.”

“True, but I don’t have a curly antenna sticking out of my head. So, just call me Lynn, OK?” I pleaded.

“OK, Laa-Laa.”

Hopeless! The only time he calls me Lynn is on the rare occasion when he wants to act grown up and serious. He called me Lynn recently.

Andy and I had been expecting it. After all, Robbie is twenty-two now.

“Robbie!” I shout now. “The recycling plant will be closing soon!”

He bounds out the back door, all enthusiastic smiles. “Just chill, Laa-Laa, we’ll make it.”

He starts to carry the black bin liners full of rubbish to the van. He makes a game of it, going faster and faster and challenging Andy to keep up.

Robbie has always been a worker; he does people’s gardens and has green fingers. He can tell a perennial from an annual and an annual from a weed – which is more than I can do.

He can also make a rockery, grow vegetables, create a water garden, and reel off words like ericaceous, campanula and sanguinaria. Strange how the battery of tests he’s undergone over the years doesn’t get to the essence of who he is.

“He’s special.”

Those had been my mother’s first words to me when I visited her and Robbie in the hospital.

At the time I thought it proud-mum talk, but sometimes, over the years, in the dead of night, I think of those words.

She died when Robbie was only twelve – of an undiagnosed heart condition – but, deep down, I think my mother knew she wouldn’t live to see Robbie grow up.

“If anything happens to me,” she’d said, over the years, “you will look out for Robbie, won’t you?”

I promised. My dad, older than my mother, didn’t cope very well with children. He is of the old school and crippled by arthritis.

I’m thinking of him when he phones.

“What time tonight?” he asks.

“They’re coming about seven, so whatever suits you. We’ve been clearing out the shed so some things in Robbie’s room can find a temporary home there until we decide what to do with them.”

“So the girlfriend is definitely moving in, then?”

“For now, so we can see how things go, but Robbie is talking about eventually getting a place of their own.”

My father grunts. He doesn’t always give Robbie the credit for how well he can manage on his own.

“I’m not sure what good I’ll be,” he says, “but I’ll be in my best bib and tucker.”

“So the holey jumper is getting the heave then?” I ask cheekily.

“Maybe I’ll have that on underneath.”

As long as he brings a good bottle of Rioja my father can wear what he wants. After reminding him about it, I hang up. I don’t care if he thinks I’m an alcoholic, I have a feeling that I’ll be in need of a glass or two.

Robbie must have thought so too. He’s come back from the recycling centre with a bottle of bubbly. He doesn’t drink but knows champagne is for special occasions.

“He insisted on buying it,” says Andy, shrugging. “So what can I do?”

“Drink it,” says Robbie, grinning.

He loves buying us gifts but this one is different. It is a gift of anticipation and celebration.

“Well, I’m away for a quick shower,” says Andy.

He leaves me looking at Robbie, still grinning.

“Lisa can’t drink fizzy drinks,” he says, “they get up her nose.”

Lisa… Robbie talked about her a lot before I finally met her.

They met at The Centre where Robbie goes once a week and where he helps others with learning difficulties in the garden.

She’s a mouse, I thought, when I first saw her and was dismayed when Robbie announced that she was his girlfriend.

“I was thinking about Hope today,” says Robbie, interrupting my thoughts. “I think Lisa would have loved Hope.”

Hope had been a rescue dog. Robbie chose her against the advice of all concerned. She was a golden Labrador who had been used for breeding purposes only and ill-treated, so she was terrified of humans.

“Hello, Hope,” he’d said, stopping in front of her cage.

Until that moment the dog had not been given a name. He sat on the floor and coaxed the cowering creature from the back of the cage.

“I think that dog will be too much work, son,” the man at the centre said.

“No, I want her.”

The thing about Robbie is that he has a stubborn streak. He had been fourteen at the time and adamant.

He wanted that dog, and he got her.

It had been a cause of friction between Andy and me.

Hope was a cowering bundle of nerves who messed on the floor, stole my pillows, hid in a corner and barked as soon as she was left alone.

One day I came home and found Robbie sitting in the garden.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Listen. Hope’s not barking and she’s in the house alone, but she can see me.”

Hope was at the window, looking at him. Robbie had left her a pair of his old trainers for comfort.

“I’ll never leave you, Hope.”

He never did leave her. Hope slept in his room and went everywhere with him.

She changed her toilet habits and went from being a dog spooked by a dandelion to a confident dog who loved to play Frisbee.

She died a few months ago.

Sometimes I wonder if Lisa is Robbie’s other Hope, another damaged soul to heal.

“Does Lisa like dogs?” I ask him.

I know so little about Lisa. She barely says two words to me, and when she does it’s only to reply to a direct question.

“She loves dogs, like I do.”

“Lisa’s a bit shy, isn’t she?”

“Yeah, she’s timid like Hope was – but not when we’re alone.”

Robbie gives me a goofy smile and waggles his eyebrows. He and Andy have clearly watched too many of the old Marx Brothers films.

“But remember, Lisa is a not a dog, Robbie, she’s –”

I get no further. Robbie is laughing fit to burst.

“No, she’s not got four legs or a tail, and I don’t think she’ll lick my face! But she will kiss me.”

I turn away and busy myself at the sink. Normally I leave this type of conversation to Andy. Robbie may be slow but he’s not stupid… and he is a grown man.

“Besides,” he adds, when he’s stopped laughing. “I can’t marry a dog!”

“Marriage is a serious step. Maybe you should get to know each other a bit better first.”

Robbie doesn’t reply. Instead he frowns. He does this when thinking or frustrated.

“I mean,” I say. “What do you know about being married?”

He cocks his head and looks at me, and it’s not his sock-it-to-me look or his who-does-woman-think-I-am look. It’s something different.

“I see what you have, Lynn – with Andy – and I want that too.”

That was unexpected.

Somehow I feel wrong-footed. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, Andy said, concluding our numerous conversations on this very issue.

I’m not sure I want to take that next step.

I’ve still to get used to the idea of Lisa moving in with us.

Robbie is my baby brother, and in spite of support from agencies, so many things can go wrong.

Robbie can get hurt.

Yet his words haunt me. They cling like the ghost of Christmas Future when Lisa and her parents arrive.

I see in their eyes the same apprehension.

“Come on, Lisa,” says Robbie, grabbing her hand. “I want to show you this plant in the garden.”

Lisa smiles up at him and it is then that I see her quiet beauty. She glances back at us before disappearing out of the back door.

“You know, it takes a while for Lisa to get to know people,” says her mother, “but when she does she really opens up.”

I swear Angela is a mind reader. I force a smile as, for a moment, we all stand about, awkward about where to start.

It’s Andy who takes the lead and plays host, getting everyone a drink.

I go through to the kitchen to finish the preparations with the food.

Robbie is getting more assertive and grown-up.

Even a year ago he wouldn’t have got rid of his model aeroplanes in his bedroom, but they’re now in the shed along with the rest of his paraphernalia. His old toys have gone to the recycling centre and the charity shops.

“I want Lisa to stay with me – us,” he’d said, causing us sleepless nights.

I pick up a couple of plates and glance out the window.

Robbie and Lisa are laughing. She is tickling his nose with a stalk of grass.

They look like any other young couple in love.

Then suddenly Robbie grabs her and starts kissing her.

I feel the tears sting, but ignore them. Robbie has so much love in him.

I see what you have, Lynn – with Andy – and I want that too.

Life is simple to Robbie.

“I just came through to see if you need any help.”

Angela stands beside me and we watch in silence, but there is togetherness in that silence.

Eventually she speaks.

“I sometimes wish I had the wisdom of Solomon.”

“None of us have all the answers, do we?” I reply.

This I do know, however: we have to keep on asking the right questions. What’s best for Robbie and what’s best for Lisa?

Just then Lisa breaks free and runs away from Robbie. He chases her and then stops. He lifts up his head and shouts to the sky.

“I love you, Lisa Rushton!”

Lisa stops running and flings out her arms as if to embrace the sky.

“I love you, Robbie Bennett!”

They shout their love to the world and I am humbled by it.

We’re sharing a short story collection from our archives every Monday and Thursday during August. Look out for more heartwarming family fiction – and remember, there’s exciting new fiction every week in My Weekly magazine, too. Sign up for a money-saving subscription here.