Into the Water – Paula Hawkins

SOMETHING WOKE ME up. I got out of bed to go to the toilet and I noticed Mum and Dad’s door was open, and when I looked I could see that Mum wasn’t in bed. Dad was snoring as usual. The clock radio said it was 4:08. I thought she must be downstairs. She has trouble sleeping. They both do now, but he takes pills which are so strong you could stand right by the bed and yell into his ear and he wouldn’t wake up. I went downstairs really quietly because usually what happens is she turns on the TV and watches those really boring adverts about machines that help you lose weight or clean the floor or chop vegetables in lots of different ways and then she falls asleep. But the TV wasn’t on and she wasn’t on the sofa, so I knew she must have gone out. She’s done it a few times – that I know of, at least. I can’t keep track of where everyone is all the time. The first time, she told me she’d just gone out for a walk to clear her head, but there was another morning when I woke up and she was gone and when I looked out of the window I could see that her car wasn’t parked out front where it usually is. I think she probably goes to walk by the river or to visit Katie’s grave. I do that sometimes, though not in the middle of the night. I’d be scared to go in the dark, plus it would make me feel weird because it’s what Katie did herself: she got up in the middle of the night and went to the river and didn’t come back.

I understand why Mum does it though: it’s the closest she can get to Katie now, other than maybe sitting in her room, which is something else I know she does sometimes. Katie’s room is next to mine and I can hear Mum crying. I sat down on the sofa to wait for her, but I must have fallen asleep, because when I heard the door go it was light outside and when I looked at the clock on the mantelpiece it was quarter past seven. I heard Mum closing the door behind her and then run straight up the stairs. I followed her up. I stood outside the bedroom and watched through the crack in the door. She was on her knees next to the bed, over on Dad’s side, and she was red in the face, like she’d been running. She was breathing hard and saying, ‘Alec, wake up. Wake up,’ and she was shaking him. ‘Nel Abbott is dead,’ she said.

‘They found her in the water. She jumped.’ I don’t remember saying anything but I must have made a noise because she looked up at me and scrambled to her feet. ‘Oh, Josh,’ she said, coming towards me, ‘oh, Josh.’ There were tears running down her face and she hugged me hard. When I pulled away from her she was still crying, but she was smiling, too. ‘Oh, darling,’ she said. Dad sat up in bed. He was rubbing his eyes. It takes him ages to wake up properly.

‘I don’t understand. When … do you mean last night? How do you know?’ ‘I went out to get milk,’ she said. ‘Everyone was talking about it … in the shop. They found her this morning.’ She sat down on the bed and started crying again. Dad gave her a hug but he was watching me and he had an odd look on his face. ‘Where did you go?’ I asked her. ‘Where have you been?’ ‘To the shops, Josh. I just said.’ You’re lying, I wanted to say.

You’ve been gone hours, you didn’t just go to get milk . I wanted to say that, but I couldn’t, because my parents were sitting on the bed looking at each other, and they looked happy. TUESDAY, 11 AUGUST Jules I REMEMBER. ON the back seat of the camper van, pillows piled up in the centre to mark the border between your territory and mine, driving to Beckford for the summer, you fidgety and excited – you couldn’t wait to get there – me green with carsickness, trying not to throw up. It wasn’t just that I remembered, I felt it. I felt that same sickness this afternoon, hunched up over the steering wheel like an old woman, driving fast and badly, swinging into the middle of the road on the corners, hitting the brake too sharply, over-correcting at the sight of oncoming cars. I had that thing, that feeling I get when I see a white van barrelling towards me along one of those narrow lanes and I think, I’m going to swerve, I’m going to do it, I’m going to swing right into its path, not because I want to but because I have to. As though at the last moment I’ll lose all free will. It’s like the feeling you get when you stand on the edge of a cliff, or on the edge of the train platform, and you feel yourself impelled by some invisible hand. And what if? What if I just took a step forward? What if I just turned the wheel? (You and me not so different, after all.

) What struck me is how well I remembered. Too well. Why is it that I can recall so perfectly the things that happened to me when I was eight years old, and yet trying to remember whether or not I spoke to my colleagues about rescheduling a client assessment for next week is impossible? The things I want to remember I can’t, and the things I try so hard to forget just keep coming. The nearer I got to Beckford, the more undeniable it became, the past shooting out at me like sparrows from the hedgerow, startling and inescapable. All that lushness, that unbelievable green, the bright, acid yellow of the gorse on the hill, it burned into my brain and brought with it a newsreel of memories: Dad carrying me, squealing and squirming with delight, into the water when I was four or five years old; you jumping from the rocks into the river, climbing higher and higher each time. Picnics on the sandy bank by the pool, the taste of sunscreen on my tongue; catching fat brown fish in the sluggish, muddy water downstream from the Mill. You coming home with blood streaming down your leg after you misjudged one of those jumps, biting down on a tea towel while Dad cleaned the cut because you weren’t going to cry. Not in front of me. Mum, wearing a light-blue sundress, barefoot in the kitchen making porridge for breakfast, the soles of her feet a dark, rusty brown. Dad sitting on the river bank, sketching.

Later, when we were older, you in denim shorts with a bikini top under your T-shirt, sneaking out late to meet a boy. Not just any boy, the boy. Mum, thinner and frailer, sleeping in the armchair in the living room; Dad disappearing on long walks with the vicar’s plump, pale, sun-hatted wife. I remember a game of football. Hot sun on the water, all eyes on me; blinking back tears, blood on my thigh, laughter ringing in my ears. I can still hear it. And underneath it all, the sound of rushing water. I was so deep into that water that I didn’t realize I’d arrived. I was there, in the heart of the town; it came on me suddenly as though I’d closed my eyes and been spirited to the place, and before I knew it I was driving slowly through narrow lanes lined with four-by-fours, a blur of rose stone at the edge of my vision, towards the church, towards the old bridge, careful now. I kept my eyes on the tarmac in front of me and tried not to look at the trees, at the river.

Tried not to see, but couldn’t help it. I pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the engine. I looked up. There were the trees and the stone steps, green with moss and treacherous after the rain. My entire body goose-fleshed. I remembered this: freezing rain beating the tarmac, flashing blue lights vying with lightning to illuminate the river and the sky, clouds of breath in front of panicked faces, and a little boy, ghostwhite and shaking, led up the steps to the road by a policewoman. She was clutching his hand and her eyes were wide and wild, her head twisting this way and that as she called out to someone. I can still feel what I felt that night, the terror and the fascination. I can still hear your words in my head: What would it be like? Can you imagine? To watch your mother die? I looked away. I started the car and pulled back on to the road, drove over the bridge where the lane twists around.

I watched for the turning – the first on the left? No, not that one, the second one. There it was, that old brown hulk of stone, the Mill House. A prickle over my skin, cold and damp, my heart beating dangerously fast, I steered the car through the open gate and into the driveway. There was a man standing there, looking at his phone. A policeman in uniform. He stepped smartly towards the car and I wound down the window. ‘I’m Jules,’ I said. ‘Jules Abbott? I’m … her sister.’ ‘Oh.’ He looked embarrassed.

‘Yes. Right. Of course. Look,’ he glanced back at the house, ‘there’s no one here at the moment. The girl … your niece … she’s out. I’m not exactly sure where …’ He pulled the radio from his belt. I opened the door and stepped out. ‘All right if I go into the house?’ I asked. I was looking up at the open window, what used to be your old room. I could see you there still, sitting on the window sill, feet dangling out.

Dizzying. The policeman looked uncertain. He turned away from me and said something quietly into his radio before turning back. ‘Yes, it’s all right. You can go in.’ I was blind walking up the steps, but I heard the water and I smelled the earth, the earth in the shadow of the house, underneath the trees, in the places untouched by sunlight, the acrid stink of rotting leaves, and the smell transported me back in time. I pushed the front door open, half expecting to hear my mother’s voice calling out from the kitchen. Without thinking, I knew that I’d have to shift the door with my hip, at the point where it sticks against the floor. I stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind me, my eyes struggling to focus in the gloom; I shivered at the sudden cold. In the kitchen, an oak table was pushed up under the window.

The same one? It looked similar, but it couldn’t be, the place had changed hands too many times between then and now. I could find out for sure if I crawled underneath to search for the marks you and I left there, but just the thought of that made my pulse quicken. I remember the way it got the sun in the morning, and how if you sat on the left-hand side, facing the Aga, you got a view of the old bridge, perfectly framed. So beautiful, everyone remarked upon the view, but they didn’t really see. They never opened the window and leaned out, they never looked down at the wheel, rotting where it stood, they never looked past the sunlight playing on the water’s surface, they never saw what the water really was, greenish-black and filled with living things and dying things. Out of the kitchen, into the hall, past the stairs, deeper into the house. I came across it so suddenly it threw me, beside the enormous windows giving out on to the river – into the river, almost, as though if you opened them, water would pour in over the wide wooden window seat running along beneath. I remember. All those summers, Mum and I sitting on that window seat propped up on pillows, feet up, toes almost touching, books on our knees. A plate of snacks somewhere, although she never touched them.

I couldn’t look at it; it made me heartsick and desperate, seeing it again like that. The plasterwork had been stripped back, exposing bare brick beneath, and the decor was all you: oriental carpets on the floor, heavy ebony furniture, big sofas and leather armchairs, and too many candles. And everywhere, the evidence of your obsessions: huge framed prints, Millais’s Ophelia, beautiful and serene, eyes and mouth open, flowers clutched in her hand. Blake’s Triple Hecate, Goya’s Witches‘ Sabbath, his Drowning Dog. I hate that one most of all, the poor beast fighting to keep his head above a rising tide. I could hear a phone ringing, and it seemed to come from beneath the house. I followed the sound through the living room and down some steps – I think there used to be a store room there, filled with junk. It flooded one year and everything was left coated in silt, as though the house were becoming part of the riverbed. I stepped into what had become your studio. It was filled with camera equipment, screens, standard lamps and light boxes, a printer, papers and books and files piled up on the floor, filing cabinets ranged against the wall.

And pictures, of course. Your photographs, covering every inch of the plaster. To the untrained eye, it might seem you were a fan of bridges: the Golden Gate, the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, the Prince Edward Viaduct. But look again. It’s not about the bridges, it’s not some love of these masterworks of engineering. Look again and you see it’s not just bridges, it’s Beachy Head, Aokigahara Forest, Preikestolen. The places where hopeless people go to end it all, cathedrals of despair. Opposite the entrance, images of the Drowning Pool. Over and over and over, from every conceivable angle, every vantage point: pale and icy in winter, the cliff black and stark, or sparkling in the summer, an oasis, lush and green, or dull flinty-grey with storm clouds overhead, over and over and over. The images blurred into one; a dizzying assault on the eye.

I felt as though I were there, in that place, as though I were standing at the top of the cliff looking down into the water, feeling that terrible thrill, the temptation of oblivion. Nickie SOME OF THEM went into the water willingly and some didn’t, and if you asked Nickie – not that anyone would, because no one ever did – Nel Abbott went in fighting. But no one was going to ask her and no one was going to listen to her, so there really wasn’t any point in her saying anything. Especially not to the police. Even if she hadn’t had her troubles with them in the past, she couldn’t speak to them about this. Too risky. Nickie had a flat above the grocery shop, just one room really, with a galley kitchen and a bathroom so tiny it barely warranted the name. Not much to speak of, not much to show for a whole life, but she had a comfortable armchair by the window which looked out on the town, and that’s where she sat and ate and even slept sometimes, because she hardly slept at all these days so there didn’t seem much point going to bed. She sat and watched all the comings and goings, and if she didn’t see, she felt. Even before the lights had started flashing blue over on the bridge, she’d felt something.

She didn’t know it was Nel Abbott, not at first. People think the sight’s crystal clear, but it isn’t as simple as all that. All she knew was that someone had gone swimming again. With the light off, she sat and watched: a man with his dogs came running up the stairs, then a car arrived; not a proper cop car, just a normal one, dark blue. Detective Inspector Sean Townsend, she thought, and she was right. He and the man with the dogs went back down the steps and then the whole cavalry came, with flashing lights but no sirens. No point. No hurry. When the sun had come up yesterday she’d gone down for milk and the paper and everyone was talking, everyone was saying, another one, second this year, but when they said who it was, when they said it was Nel Abbott, Nickie knew the second wasn’t like the first. She had half a mind to go over to Sean Townsend and tell him then and there.

But as nice and polite a young man as he was, he was still a copper, and his father’s son, and he couldn’t be trusted. Nickie wouldn’t have considered it at all if she hadn’t had a bit of a soft spot for Sean. He’d been through tragedy himself and God knows what after that, and he’d been kind to her – he’d been the only one to be kind to her, at the time of her own arrest. Second arrest, if she was honest. It was a while back, six or seven years ago. She’d all but given up on the business after her first fraud conviction, she kept herself to just a few regulars and the witching lot who came by every now and then to pay their respects to Libby and May and all the women of the water. She did a bit of tarot reading, a couple of seances over the summer; occasionally she was asked to contact a relative, or one of the swimmers. But she hadn’t been soliciting any business, not for a good long while. But then they cut her benefits for the second time, so Nickie came out of semi-retirement. With the help of one of the lads who volunteered at the library, she set up a website offering readings at £15 for half an hour.

Comparatively good value, too – that Susie Morgan from the TV, who was about as psychic as Nickie’s arse, charged £29.99 for twenty minutes, and for that you didn’t even get to speak to her, just to one of her ‘psychic team’. She’d only had the site up a few weeks when she found herself reported to the police by a trading standards officer for ‘failing to provide the requisite disclaimers under Consumer Protection Regulations’. Consumer Protection Regulations! Nickie said she hadn’t known that she needed to provide disclaimers; the police told her the law had changed. How, she’d asked, was she supposed to know that? And that caused much hilarity, of course. Thought you’d have seen it coming! Is it only the future you can look into, then? Not the past? Only Detective Inspector Townsend – a mere constable back then – hadn’t laughed. He’d been kind, had explained that it was all to do with new EU rules. EU rules! Consumer Protection! Time was, the likes of Nickie were prosecuted (persecuted) under the Witchcraft Act and the Fraudulent Mediums Act. Now they fell foul of European bureaucrats. How are the mighty fallen.

So Nickie shut down the website, swore off technology and went back to the old ways, but hardly anyone came these days. The fact that it was Nel in the water had given her a bit of a turn, she had to admit. She felt bad. Not guilty as such, because it wasn’t Nickie’s fault. Still, she wondered whether she’d said too much, given too much away. But she couldn’t be blamed for starting all this. Nel Abbott was already playing with fire – she was obsessed with the river and its secrets, and that kind of obsession never ends well. No, Nickie never told Nel to go looking for trouble, she only pointed her in the right direction. And it wasn’t as though she didn’t warn her, was it? The problem was, nobody listened. Nickie said there were men in that town who would damn you as soon as look at you, always had been.

People turned a blind eye, though, didn’t they? No one liked to think about the fact that the water in that river was infected with the blood and bile of persecuted women, unhappy women; they drank it every day. Jules YOU NEVER CHANGED. I should have known that. I did know that. You loved the Mill House and the water and you were obsessed with those women, what they did and who they left behind. And now this. Honestly, Nel. Did you really take it that far? Upstairs, I hesitated outside the master bedroom. My fingers on the door handle, I took a deep breath. I knew what they had told me but I also knew you, and I couldn’t believe them.

I felt sure that when I opened the door, there you would be, tall and thin and not at all pleased to see me. The room was empty. It had the feeling of a place just vacated, as though you’d just slipped out and run downstairs to make a cup of coffee. As though you’d be back any minute. I could still smell your perfume in the air, something rich and sweet and old-fashioned, like one of the ones Mum used to wear, Opium or Yvresse. ‘Nel?’ I said your name softly, as if to conjure you up, like a devil. Silence answered me. Further down the hall was ‘my room’ – the one I used to sleep in: the smallest in the house, as befits the youngest. It looked even smaller than I remembered, darker, sadder. It was empty save for a single, unmade bed and it smelled of damp, like the earth.

I never slept well in this room, I was never at ease. Not all that surprising, given how you liked to terrify me. Sitting on the other side of the wall, scratching at the plaster with your fingernails, painting symbols on the back of the door in blood-red nail polish, writing the names of dead women in the condensation on the window. And then there were all those stories you told, of witches dragged to the water, or desperate women flinging themselves from the cliffs to the rocks below, of a terrified little boy who hid in the wood and watched his mother jump to her death. I don’t remember that. Of course I don’t. When I examine my memory of watching the little boy, it makes no sense: it is as disjointed as a dream. You whispering in my ear – that didn’t happen on some freezing night at the water. We were never here in winter anyway, there were no freezing nights at the water. I never saw a frightened child on the bridge in the middle of the night – what would I, a tiny child myself, have been doing there? No, it was a story you told, how the boy crouched amongst the trees and looked up and saw her, her face as pale as her nightdress in the moonlight, how he looked up and saw her flinging herself, arms spread like wings, into the silent air, how the cry on her lips died as she hit the black water.

I don’t even know whether there really was a boy who saw his mother die, or whether you made the whole thing up. I left my old room and turned to yours, the place which used to be yours, the place which, by the look of it, is now your daughter’s. A chaotic mess of clothes and books, a damp towel lying on the floor, dirty mugs on the bedside table, a fug of stale smoke in the air and the cloying smell of rotting lilies, wilting in a vase next to the window. Without thinking, I began to tidy up. I straightened the bedding and hung the towel on the rail in the en suite. I was on my knees, retrieving a dirty plate from under the bed, when I heard your voice, a dagger in my chest. ‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing?’ Jules I SCRABBLED TO my feet, a triumphant smile on my lips, because I knew it – I knew they were wrong, I knew you weren’t really gone. And there you stood in the doorway, telling me to get the FUCK out of your room. Sixteen, seventeen years old, hand around my wrist, painted nails digging into my flesh. I said get OUT, Julia.

Fat cow. The smile died, because of course it wasn’t you at all, it was your daughter, who looks almost exactly like you did when you were a teenager. She stood in the doorway, hand on hip. ‘What are you doing?’ she asked again. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I’m Jules. We haven’t met, but I’m your aunt.’ ‘I didn’t ask who you were,’ she said, looking at me as though I were stupid, ‘I asked what you were doing. What are you looking for?’ Her eyes slid away from my face and she glanced over towards the bathroom door. Before I could answer she said, ‘The police are downstairs,’ and she stalked off down the corridor, long legs, lazy gait, flip-flops slapping on the tiled floor.

I hurried after her. ‘Lena,’ I said, putting my hand on her arm. She yanked it away as though scalded, spinning round to glare at me. ‘I’m sorry.’ She dipped her eyes, her fingers massaging the place where I’d touched her. Her nails bore traces of old blue polish, her fingertips looked as though they belonged to a corpse. She nodded, not meeting my eye. ‘The police need to talk to you,’ she said. She’s not what I expected. I suppose I imagined a child, distraught, desperate for comfort.

But she isn’t, of course, she’s not a child, she’s fifteen and almost grown, and as for seeking comfort – she didn’t seem to need it at all, or at least, not from me. She is your daughter, after all. The detectives were waiting in the kitchen, standing by the table, looking out towards the bridge. A tall man with a dusting of salt-and-pepper stubble on his face and a woman at his side, about a foot shorter than him. The man stepped forward, his hand outstretched, pale-grey eyes intent on my face. ‘Detective Inspector Sean Townsend,’ he said. As he reached out, I noticed he had a slight tremor. His skin felt cold and papery against mine, as though it belonged to a much older man. ‘I’m very sorry for your loss.’ So strange, hearing those words.

They said them yesterday, when they came to tell me. I’d almost said them myself to Lena, but now it felt different. Your loss. I wanted to tell them, she isn’t lost. She can’t be. You don’t know Nel, you don’t know what she’s like. Detective Townsend was watching my face, waiting for me to say something. He towered over me, thin and sharp-looking, as though if you got too close to him you might cut yourself. I was still looking at him when I realized that the woman was watching me, her face a study in sympathy. ‘Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan,’ she said.

‘I’m very sorry.’ She had olive skin, dark eyes, blueblack hair the colour of a crow’s wing. She wore it scraped back from her face, but curls had escaped at her temple and behind her ears, giving her a look of dishevelment. ‘DS Morgan will be your liaison with the police,’ Detective Townsend said. ‘She’ll keep you informed about where we are in the investigation.’ ‘There’s an investigation?’ I asked dumbly. The woman nodded and smiled and motioned for me to sit down at the kitchen table, which I did. The detectives sat opposite me. DI Townsend cast his eyes down and rubbed his right palm across his left wrist in quick, jerky motions: one, two, three. DS Morgan was speaking to me, her calm and reassuring tone at odds with the words coming out of her mouth.

‘Your sister’s body was seen in the river by a man who was out walking his dogs early yesterday morning,’ she said. A London accent, her voice soft as smoke. ‘Preliminary evidence suggests she’d been in the water just a few hours.’ She glanced at the DI and back at me. ‘She was fully clothed, and her injuries were consistent with a fall from the cliff above the pool.’ ‘You think she fell?’ I asked. I looked from the police detectives to Lena, who had followed me downstairs and was on the other side of the kitchen, leaning against the counter. Barefoot in black leggings, a grey vest stretched over sharp clavicles and tiny buds of breasts, she was ignoring us, as if this were normal, banal. As though it were an everyday occurrence. She clutched her phone in her right hand, scrolling down with her thumb, her left arm wrapped around her narrow body, her upper arm roughly the width of my wrist.

A wide, sullen mouth, dark brows, dirty blonde hair falling into her face. She must have felt me watching, because she raised her eyes to me and widened them for just a moment, so that I looked away. She spoke. ‘You don’t think she fell, do you?’ she said, her lip curling. ‘You know better than that.’ Lena THEY WERE ALL just staring at me and I wanted to yell at them, to tell them to get out of our house. My house. It is my house, it’s ours, it’ll never be hers. Aunt Julia. I found her in my room, going through my things before she’s even met me.

Then she tried to be nice and told me she was sorry, like I’m supposed to believe she even gives a shit. I haven’t slept for two days and I don’t want to talk to her or to anyone else. And I don’t want her help or her fucking condolences, and I don’t want to listen to lame theories about what happened to my mum from people who didn’t even know her. I was trying to keep my mouth shut, but when they said how she probably fell I just got angry, because of course she didn’t. She didn’t. They don’t understand. This wasn’t some random accident, she did this. I mean, it’s not like it matters now, I suppose, but I feel like everyone should at least admit the truth. I told them: ‘She didn’t fall. She jumped.

’ The woman detective started asking stupid questions about why would I say that and was she depressed and had she ever tried it before, and all the time Aunt Julia was just staring at me with her sad brown eyes like I was some sort of freak. I told them: ‘You know she was obsessed with the pool, with everything that happened there, with everyone who died there. You know that. Even she knows that,’ I said, looking at Julia. She opened her mouth and closed it again, like a fish. Part of me wanted to tell them everything, part of me wanted to spell it out for them, but what would even be the point? I don’t think they’re capable of understanding. Sean – Detective Townsend, as I’m supposed to call him when it’s official business – started asking Julia questions: when did she speak to my mother last? What was her state of mind then? Was there anything bothering her? And Aunt Julia sat there and lied. ‘I’ve not spoken to her in years,’ she said, her face going bright red as she said it. ‘We were estranged.’ She could see me looking and she knew I knew she was full of shit and she just went redder and redder, then she tried to turn the attention away from herself by speaking to me.

‘Why, Lena, why would you say that she jumped?’ I looked at her for a long time before I answered. I wanted her to know that I saw through her. ‘I’m surprised you ask me that,’ I said. ‘Wasn’t it you who told her she had a death wish?’ She started shaking her head and saying, ‘No, no, I didn’t, not like that …’ Liar. The other detective – the woman – started talking about how they had ‘no evidence at this time to indicate that this was a deliberate act’, and about how they hadn’t found a note. I had to laugh then. ‘You think she’d leave a note? My mother wouldn’t leave a fucking note. That would be, like, so prosaic.’ Julia nodded. ‘That is … it’s true.

I can see Nel wanting everyone to wonder … She loved a mystery. And she would have loved to be the centre of one.’ I wanted to slap her then. Stupid bitch, I wanted to say, this is your fault, too. The woman detective started fussing around, pouring glasses of water for everyone and trying to press one into my hand, and I just couldn’t take it any longer. I knew I was going to start crying and I wasn’t going to do it in front of them. I went to my room and locked the door and cried there instead. I wrapped myself in a scarf and cried as quietly as I could. I’ve been trying not to give in to it, the urge to let myself go and fall apart, because I feel like once it starts it’s never going to stop. I’ve been trying not to let the words come, but they go round and round in my head: I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry, it was my fault.

I kept staring at my bedroom door and going over and over that moment on Sunday night when Mum came in to say goodnight. She said, ‘No matter what, you know how much I love you, Lena, don’t you?’ I rolled over and put my headphones in, but I knew she was standing there, I could feel her standing and watching me, it’s like I could feel her sadness and I was glad because I felt she deserved it. I would do anything, anything, to be able to get up and hug her and tell her I love her, too, and it wasn’t her fault at all, I should never have said it was all her fault. If she was guilty of something, then so was I. Mark IT WAS THE hottest day of the year so far and since the Drowning Pool was off limits, for obvious reasons, Mark went upriver to swim. There was a stretch in front of the Wards’ cottage where the river widened, the water running quick and cool across rust-coloured pebbles at the edge, but in the centre it was deep, cold enough to snatch your breath from your lungs and make your skin burn, the kind of cold that made you laugh out loud with the shock of it. And he did, he laughed out loud – it was the first time he’d felt like laughing in months. It was the first time he’d been in the water in months, too. The river for him had gone from a source of pleasure to a place of horror, but today it switched back again. Today it felt right.

He had known from the moment he woke up, lighter, clearer of head, looser of limb, that today was a good day for a swim. Yesterday, they found Nel Abbott dead in the water. Today was a good day. He felt not so much that a burden had lifted but as though a vice – one which had been pressing against his temples, threatening his sanity, threatening his life – had at last been loosened. A policewoman had come to the house, a very young detective constable with a sweet, slightly girlish quality to her that made him want to tell her things he really shouldn’t. Callie Something, her name was. He invited her in and he told the truth. He said that he’d seen Nel Abbott leaving the pub on Sunday evening. He didn’t mention that he’d gone there with the express intention of bumping into her, that wasn’t important. He said that they’d spoken, but only briefly, because Nel had been in a hurry.

‘What did you talk about?’ the DC asked him. ‘Her daughter, Lena, she’s one of my pupils. I had a bit of trouble with her last term – discipline issues, that sort of thing. She’s going to be in my English class again in September – it’s an important year, her GCSE year – so I wanted to make sure that we weren’t going to have any further problems.’ True enough. ‘She said she didn’t have time, that she had other things to do.’ True, too, though not the whole truth. Not nothing but. ‘She didn’t have time to discuss her daughter’s problems at school?’ the detective asked. Mark shrugged and gave her a rueful smile.

‘Some parents get more involved than others,’ he said. ‘When she left the pub, where did she go? Was she in her car?’ Mark shook his head. ‘No, I think she was heading home. She was walking in that direction.’ The DC nodded. ‘You didn’t see her again after that?’ she asked, and Mark shook his head. So, some of it was true, some of it was a lie, but in any case the detective seemed satisfied; she left him a card with a number to call and said he should get in touch if he had anything to add. ‘I’ll do that,’ he said, and he smiled his winning smile and she flinched. He wondered if he’d overdone it. He ducked under the water now, diving down towards the riverbed, driving his fingers into the soft, silty mud.

He curled his body into a tight ball and then with one explosive burst of power pushed himself back to the surface, gulping air into his lungs. He’d miss the river, but he was ready to go now. He’d have to start looking for a new job, perhaps up in Scotland, or perhaps even further afield: France, or Italy, somewhere nobody knew where he had come from, or what had happened on the way. He dreamed of a clean slate, a blank sheet, an unblemished history. As he struck out for the bank he felt the vice tighten a little once more. He wasn’t out of the woods yet. Not yet. There was still the matter of the girl, she could still cause problems, although since she’d been quiet this long, it didn’t seem likely that she’d break her silence now. You could say what you liked about Lena Abbott, but she was loyal; she kept her word. And perhaps now, freed from the toxic influence of her mother, she might even turn into a decent person.

He sat on the bank for a while, his head bowed, listening to the river’s song, feeling the sun on his shoulders. His exhilaration evaporated along with the water on his back but left in its place something else, not hope exactly, but a quiet premonition that hope might at least be possible. He heard a noise and looked up. Someone was coming. He recognized the shape of her, the agonizing slowness of her walk, and his heart beat harder in his chest. Louise.


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