Into the Water

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An addictive new novel of psychological suspense from the author of #1 New York Times bestseller and global phenomenon The Girl on the Train.

“Hawkins is at the forefront of a group of female authors – think Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott – who have reinvigorated the literary suspense novel by tapping a rich vein of psychological menace and social unease… there’s a certain solace to a dark escape, in the promise of submerged truths coming to light.” –Vogue

A single mother turns up dead at the bottom of the river that runs through town. Earlier in the summer, a vulnerable teenage girl met the same fate. They are not the first women lost to these dark waters, but their deaths disturb the river and its history, dredging up secrets long submerged.
 
Left behind is a lonely fifteen-year-old girl. Parentless and friendless, she now finds herself in the care of her mother’s sister, a fearful stranger who has been dragged back to the place she deliberately ran from—a place to which she vowed she’d never return.
 
With the same propulsive writing and acute understanding of human instincts that captivated millions of readers around the world in her explosive debut thriller, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins delivers an urgent, twisting, deeply satisfying read that hinges on the deceptiveness of emotion and memory, as well as the devastating ways that the past can reach a long arm into the present.
 
Beware a calm surface—you never know what lies beneath.


PART ONE
 

2015

Jules

THERE WAS SOMETHING you
wanted to tell me, wasn’t there? What was it you were trying to say? I feel
like I drifted out of this conversation a long time ago. I stopped
concentrating, I was thinking about something else, getting on with things, I
wasn’t listening, and I lost the thread of it. Well, you’ve got my attention
now. Only I can’t help thinking I’ve missed out on some of the more salient
points.

When they came to
tell me, I was angry. Relieved first, because when two police officers turn up
on your doorstep just as you’re looking for your train ticket, about to run out
of the door to work, you fear the worst. I feared for the people I care about –
my friends, my ex, the people I work with. But it wasn’t about them, they said,
it was about you. So I was relieved, just for a moment, and then they told me
what had happened, what you’d done, they told me that you’d been in the water
and then I was furious. Furious and afraid.

I was thinking
about what I was going to say to you when I got there, how I knew you’d done
this to spite me, to upset me, to frighten me, to disrupt my life. To get my
attention, to drag me back to where you wanted me. And there you go, Nel,
you’ve succeeded: here I am in the place I never wanted to come back to, to
look after your daughter, to sort out your bloody mess.

 

MONDAY, 10 AUGUST

 

Josh

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, ghost-white 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,
blue-black 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.

 

Louise

THERE WAS A man sitting on
the bank. She thought at first that he was naked, but when he stood she could
see that he was wearing swimming trunks, short and tight and fitted. She felt
herself noticing him, noticing his flesh, and she blushed. It was Mr Henderson.

By the time she
reached him, he had wrapped a towel around his waist and pulled a T-shirt over
his head. He walked towards her with his hand outstretched.

‘Mrs Whittaker, how
are you?’

‘Louise,’ she said.
‘Please.’

He ducked his head,
half smiled. ‘Louise. How are you?’

She tried to smile
back. ‘You know.’ He didn’t know. No one knew. ‘They tell you – they, listen to me! The grief counsellors
tell you that you will have good days and bad, and you just have to deal with
it.’

Mark nodded, but
his eyes slid from hers and she saw colour rise to his cheeks. He was
embarrassed.

Everyone was
embarrassed. She had never realized before her life was torn apart how awkward
grief was, how inconvenient for everyone with whom the
mourner came into contact. At first, it was acknowledged and respected and
deferred to. But after a while it got in the way – of conversation, of
laughter, of normal life. Everyone wanted to put it behind them, to get on with
things, and there you were, in the way, blocking the path, dragging the body of
your dead child behind you.

‘How’s the water?’
she asked, and his colour deepened. The water, the water, the water – no way to
get away from it in this town. ‘Cold,’ she said, ‘I imagine.’

He shook his head
like a wet dog. ‘Brrr!’ he said and laughed
self-consciously.

In between them
stood an elephant and she felt she ought to point it out.

‘You heard about
Lena’s mother?’ As if he wouldn’t have. As if anyone could live in this town
and not know.

‘Yes. Terrible.
God, it’s terrible. Such a shock.’ He fell silent, and when Louise did not
respond, he kept talking. ‘Um … I mean, I know you and she …’ He tailed off,
looking over his shoulder at his car. He was desperate to get away, poor thing.

‘Didn’t exactly see
eye to eye?’ Louise offered. She toyed with the chain around her neck, pulling
the charm, a bluebird, back and forth. ‘No, we didn’t. Even so …’

Even
so
was the best she could do. Didn’t
see eye to eye
was a ludicrous understatement, but there was no need to
spell it out. Mr Henderson knew about the bad blood, and she was damned if she
was going to stand by the river and pretend she was unhappy that Nel Abbott had
met her end in it. She couldn’t, she didn’t want to.

She knew when she
listened to the grief counsellors that they were talking nonsense and she would
never, ever have another good day for the rest of her life, and yet there had
been times over the past twenty-four hours or so when she had found it hard to
keep the triumph from her face.

‘I suppose, in a
horrible way,’ Mr Henderson was saying, ‘it’s oddly fitting, isn’t it? The way
she went …’

Louise nodded
grimly. ‘Perhaps it’s what she would have wanted. Perhaps it’s what she did want.’

Mark frowned. ‘You
think she … You think it was deliberate?’

Louise shook her
head. ‘I’ve really no idea.’

‘No. No. Of course
not.’ He paused. ‘At least … at least now, what she was writing won’t be
published, will it? The book she was working on about the pool – it wasn’t
finished, was it? So it can’t be published …’

Louise skewered him
with a look. ‘You think so? I would have thought the manner of her death would
make it all the more publishable. A woman writing a book about the people who
died in the Drowning Pool becomes one of the drowned herself? I’d say someone
would want to publish it.’

Mark looked
horrified. ‘But Lena … surely Lena … she wouldn’t want that …’

Louise shrugged.
‘Who knows?’ she said. ‘I assume she’ll be the one receiving the royalties.’
She sighed. ‘I need to be getting back, Mr Henderson.’ She patted him on the arm
and he covered her hand with his own.

‘I’m so very sorry,
Mrs Whittaker,’ he said, and she was touched to see that there were tears in
the poor man’s eyes.

‘Louise,’ she said.
‘Call me Louise. And I know. I know you are.’

Louise started on her
way home. It took her hours, this walk up and down the river path – even longer
in this heat – but she could find no other way to fill her days. Not that there
weren’t things to do. There were estate agents to contact, schools to research.
A bed that needed stripping and a wardrobe full of clothes that needed to be
packed away. A child that needed parenting. Tomorrow, perhaps. Tomorrow she
would do those things, but today she walked by the river and thought of her
daughter.

Today she did as
she did every day, she searched her useless memory for signs she must have
missed, red flags she must have breezed blithely past. She searched for scraps,
for hints of misery in her child’s happy life. Because the truth is, they never
worried about Katie. Katie was bright, capable, poised, with a will of steel.
She swanned into adolescence as if it were a trifle, she took it in her stride:
if anything, Louise felt sad sometimes that Katie hardly seemed to need her
parents at all. Nothing fazed her – not her schoolwork, not the cloying
attention of her needy best friend, not even her swift, almost shocking
blossoming into adult beauty. Louise could remember acutely the sharp,
affronted shame she had felt when she noticed men looking at her
body when she was a teenager, but Katie showed none of that. Different times,
Louise told herself, girls are different now.

Louise and her
husband, Alec, didn’t worry about Katie, they worried about Josh. Always
sensitive, always an anxious child, something had changed this year, something
was bothering him; he’d become more withdrawn, more introverted, seemingly by
the day. They worried about bullying, about his slipping grades, about the dark
shadows under his eyes in the morning.

The truth is – the
truth must be – that while they were watching their
son, waiting for him to fall, their daughter tripped instead, and they didn’t
notice, they weren’t there to catch her. The guilt felt like a stone in
Louise’s throat, she kept expecting it to choke her, but it didn’t, it
wouldn’t, and so she had to go on breathing; breathing and remembering.

The night before,
Katie was quiet. It was just the three of them for dinner because Josh was
staying over at his friend Hugo’s house. It wasn’t usually allowed on school
nights, but they’d made an exception because they were worried about him. They
took the opportunity to talk to Katie about it. Had she noticed, they asked,
how anxious Josh seemed of late?

‘He’s probably
worrying about going to the big school next year,’ she said, but she didn’t
look at her parents when she spoke, she kept her eyes on her plate, and her
voice wavered ever so slightly.

‘He’ll be all right
though,’ Alec was saying. ‘Half his class will be there. And you’ll be there.’

Louise remembered
her daughter’s hand clenching a little tighter around her glass of water when
Alec said this. She remembered her swallowing hard, closing her eyes for just a
second.

They did the
washing-up together, Louise washing and Katie drying, because the dishwasher
was broken. Louise remembered saying that it was all right, that she could do
it herself if Katie had homework, and that Katie had said, ‘It’s all done.’
Louise remembered that every time Katie took a dish from her to dry, she let
her fingers brush against her mother’s for just a moment longer than she needed
to.

Except now Louise
couldn’t be sure whether she remembered those things at all. Did Katie lower
her eyes, look down at her plate? Did she really grip her glass more tightly,
or let her touch linger? It was impossible to tell now, all her recollections seemed
open to doubt, to misinterpretation. She wasn’t sure if this was down to the
shock of realizing that all she had known was certain was not so sure at all,
or whether her mind had been permanently fogged by the drugs she’d swallowed in
the days and weeks after Katie died. Louise had gobbled pills upon pills, each
handful offering hours of blank relief, only to be plunged freshly back into
her nightmare on waking. After a while she came to grasp that the horror of
rediscovering her daughter’s absence, over and over again, was not worth the
hours of oblivion.

Of this, she felt
she could be sure: when Katie said goodnight, she smiled and kissed her mother
the way she always did. She hugged her, no closer or longer than usual, and
said, ‘Sleep tight.’

And how could she
have done that, knowing what she was going to do?

In front of Louise,
the path blurred, her tears obscuring her vision, so she didn’t notice the tape
until she was upon it. Police Line. Do Not Cross. She
was already halfway up the hill and was approaching the ridge; she had to take
a sharp detour to the left so as not to disturb the last ground that Nel Abbott
ever stood on.

She lumbered over
the crest and down the side of the hill, her feet aching and her hair plastered
to her scalp with sweat, down to the welcome shade where the path passed
through a thicket of trees at the edge of the pool. A mile or so further along
the path, she reached the bridge and climbed the steps to the road. A group of
young girls was approaching from her left and she looked, as she always did,
for her daughter amongst them, searching for her bright-chestnut head,
listening for the rumble of her laugh. Louise’s heart broke again.

She watched the
girls, their arms draped around one another’s shoulders as they clung to each
other, an entwined mass of downy flesh, and at their centre, Louise realized,
was Lena Abbott. Lena, so solitary these past few months, was having her moment
of celebrity. She too would be gawped at and pitied and, before too long,
shunned.

Louise turned away
from the girls and started up the hill towards home. She hunched her shoulders
and dropped her chin and hoped that she could shuffle off unnoticed, because
looking at Lena Abbott was a terrible thing, it conjured terrible images in
Louise’s mind. But the girl had spotted her and cried out, ‘Louise! Mrs
Whittaker! Please wait.’

Louise tried to
walk faster, but her legs were heavy and her heart was as deflated as an old
balloon, and Lena was young and strong.

‘Mrs Whittaker, I
want to talk to you.’

‘Not now, Lena. I’m
sorry.’

Lena put her hand
on Louise’s arm, but Louise pulled away, she couldn’t look at her. ‘I’m very
sorry. I can’t talk to you now.’

Louise had become a monster, an empty creature who
would not comfort a motherless child, who – worse, so much worse – could not
look at that child without thinking,
Why not you?
Why weren’t you in the water, Lena? Why wasn’t it you? Why my Katie? Kind and
gentle and generous and hard-working and driven – better than you in every
possible way. She should never have gone in. It should have been you…….

 

 
 
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Author

Paula Hawkins


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