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Authors: Rachel Ward

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BOOK: The Drowning
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I find another cloth under the sink and kneel down next to her.

“Here, let me help you.”

I let her carry on polishing her clean patch, and steadily work my way around her. As I dip the cloth into the bucket, a shiver runs down my spine.

We nearly did it, Cee.

A voice, his voice, close to my ear.

I look around. It’s just Mum and me, on the kitchen floor.

I take a few deep breaths and carry on working. Where my fingers grip the cloth, water oozes out. The voice is still there — cold, quiet, chilling.

Nearly’s not enough.

Jesus. Something clicks in the back of my brain. Something to do with the moisture on my fingers … and Rob — here one minute and gone the next.

I spring up.

“I reckon that’s done it, Mum. Do you want a drink?” I say.

She sits up on her heels again and looks around her.

“Coffee,” she says. “Black coffee would be nice.”

I empty the bucket into the sink. The filthy water splashes my arms and the twang of decay catches at the back of my mouth, making me gag.

Mum sits at the table, pushes the heap of leaflets to one side. I make coffee for her and sit down, too.

“Since when have you drunk coffee?”

“Cheeky sod,” she says, but she’s almost smiling. “That’s it now. This is what I’m going to drink. I’m on the wagon.”

I force myself to meet her eyes. A thread of red runs through the white of her right eye, the skin underneath is puffy and saggy.

“I mean it. This is it, Carl. I got things wrong, terribly wrong. I’ve been a bad person.” Her eyes are brimming with tears again.

“Mum, don’t …”

We sit in silence.

“I might take a bath,” she says after a while. “You should take one, too — you’re filthy.”

“Okay,” I say, but there’s no way I’m getting in a bath. My head’s full of horror, seeing a body lying under the surface of the
bathwater: pale, still, hair floating out, away from his head. Dead, but not dead.

Mum drains her mug, tipping her head all the way back to down all the dregs, then gets up to go to the bathroom. I hear her make her way upstairs. The sound of water running brings back the fear, like cockroaches running all over my body.

Upstairs, I hide in my sleeping bag, curling up with my back turned to the dark stain on the ceiling. If I’m asleep, or Mum thinks I am when she gets out of the bath, perhaps she’ll leave me be.

But I can’t sleep. Everything that’s happened today is tumbling around my head. I can’t make sense of it.

Instinctively, I reach for my book, the comfort of reading. And I understand now why it means so much to me. It’s not just the story, it’s the book itself. The fact that Harry gave it to me. And it wasn’t even my birthday.

A water snake slipped along on the pool, its head held up like a little periscope. The reeds jerked slightly in the current.

I close the book again, and let it flop onto the floor.

There are questions snaking through my head, things too awful to think about. Things that I can’t stop thinking about.

How could I betray Harry and burgle his house? How did I end up fighting my brother in a lake? How did he end up dead? Did I really want Neisha — lovely, beautiful Neisha — dead, too?

Am I a killer?

wake up in yesterday’s clothes, yesterday’s dirt. Now I lie on my back looking at the dark patch on the ceiling; it’s grown again. I can hear voices downstairs, female voices. I haul myself out of bed and pad into the kitchen.

I do a double take. Neisha’s standing in the kitchen with her back to me, talking to Mum. She’s got a thigh-length black coat on, fitted so it goes in at the waist. There are tiny specks of rain sitting on the surface of the fabric, the same with her hair.

Why’s she here?

Oh God, I look like a tramp. Our flat looks like a flophouse.

I’m about to sneak away, but Mum’s seen me, and her eye movement alerts Neisha. She turns around and a tight little smile blinks on and off.

“All right,” I say, half in, half out of the doorway.

“Hey,” she says. The whites of her eyes flash as she quickly looks at me and looks away, turning straight back to Mum. She’s faking it, trying to pretend she wants to be here, but even that half second of eye contact is enough to melt me, turn me to jelly.

“I wanted to say … to say how sorry I am. About Rob,” she says.

What? I think back to last night in the rain outside her house.

“Thanks, love,” Mum says. She looks better for her bath. Her hair’s clean, tied back into a neat ponytail, but her face is still crumpled, her eyes are still puffy. “I appreciate that. I appreciate you coming. How are you doing? It must be difficult for you.”

“Oh, I’m … you know.”

Terrified? Terrified of your sons! What’s she doing here?

“I was lucky, I suppose, I had him for seventeen years. You’d only just got together. You had your whole lives ahead of you. It’s so cruel.”

There’s a little pause where I guess Neisha’s trying to pick the right words, and I think,
Please don’t say anything bad, not to Mum.
Then she says tightly, “We had a few months. I’ll always remember them. Always remember him.”

She glances back nervously to me as Mum steps forward and puts her arms around her. She’s wrapping Neisha up in her arms and I wonder how Neisha can do it, let this woman hold her, this woman whose sons tried to kill her. It’s weird seeing Mum like this, too. I can’t remember ever having a hug from her.

Behind them the tap is dripping into the kitchen sink, a steady feed of drops that’s on the edge of being a stream.

When Mum steps back, they’ve both got tears in their eyes. “Do you want a drink? Some Coke or a cup of tea?” Mum says.

Neisha checks back at me. I shrug. I don’t know why she’s here, how long she’s planning to stay.

“Um …”

“It’s okay,” Mum says. “I’ll make myself scarce.”

Neisha smiles again, a quick, brittle smile that betrays her nerves.

“Okay,” she says, “I’ll just have some water.”

Mum fetches a glass and fills it at the tap. She turns the tap back as far as it will go, but it still keeps dripping.

“I’ll leave you to it,” she says. “I’ll be upstairs.” On her way past me, she hisses, “The state of you. You’re going in that bath today.”

Neisha and I stand awkwardly on either side of the kitchen table.

“Sit down,” I say, trying to be polite, but it comes out like an order. I wince at my own clumsiness and dart around to pull out one of the chairs for her. Instinctively she takes a step backward. “Please,” I say, retreating back to my own side, and reluctantly she lowers herself down, perching nervously on the edge of the chair.

I sit down opposite her. The pile of leaflets is still there. I wish it wasn’t, but if I pick them up now, it’ll just draw attention to them. Too late, anyway; Neisha’s seen them, her eyes are tracking across the titles.

I try to think of something to say, anything, to distract her.

“You were nice, just then, to my mum.”

“Why wouldn’t I be? It’s not her fault, is it? All of this …”

Not her fault. My fault. Has she just come around to have another go at me?

“Neisha —” I say.

“What?” Her eyes flick up and down nervously.

“I’m sorry. For everything. I don’t remember much, but the stuff I do remember is …” I trail off, then I say the thing I’m really thinking. “Why are you here? You hate me, don’t you? I tried to … me and Rob tried to …”

Then she does something that makes me gasp. She reaches across and puts her hand on my wrist. Her touch is light and her skin is warm, shockingly warm. I feel myself blushing, blotches forming on my face and neck. I can’t look at her. If I look at her, I might actually explode.

“The thing is,” she says, “I’ve come around to thank you.”

And now I do look at her. As our eyes meet, I get a flash of another time. When I was looking at her, and she saw me looking.

He slides his hands down her sides, around to the front. I stand and watch him stroke her, squeeze her, turn her on. She sees me over his shoulder. For a second I wonder if there’s a question there, an appeal for help, but then her eyes close and her mouth opens.

I stand. And watch. And I can’t believe it.

She’s back with him. After everything that’s happened.

He breaks away from her and starts peeling off his clothes. Down to his underpants, he runs into the water until it’s up to his knees.

“Come on!” he shouts. She shakes her head, but then arches her back as she peels off her top, and I can’t look anymore. Disgusted, humiliated, I turn away.

“Carl, are you listening? I wanted to thank you.”

“Thank me?”

“I’ve been thinking about what you said. How you said you killed him. Rob.”

She lowers her voice even further. Her fingers tighten a little, curving over the back of my hand.

“I think I did. I’m not sure. I remember fighting him.” I lower my voice, too. “My arms were pulling on his neck.”

“I didn’t know what had happened,” she says. “All I can remember is that we’d swam farther than I wanted to, way out of my depth. I wanted to go back, but he stopped me and then …” She starts to stumble on the words. “… then he ripped the necklace off me, he put his hands around my throat. He was strangling me, and you were swimming toward us, shouting. And he let go. The thing is … you must be telling the truth. Why would he let go unless someone forced him to? Unless you forced him to? You probably saved my life, Carl.”

Can that be true? Am I the one who saved her?

“Did you see what happened next?”

“No. As soon as he let go, I started swimming away. I didn’t even know where, just away. And it was raining so much I couldn’t see anyway. I could hear you, though, the two of you … swearing at each other, splashing, getting fainter the farther I swam … I made it to the shore, and a few minutes later, so did you.”

“But you said before that I tried to kill you. Me and my evil brother.”

“I was confused. It was all so quick. I was in shock. I thought you were in on it, that you knew what he was going to do. You see, he had some photos of me, on his phone.” She’s looking down at our hands on the table now, can’t meet my eyes. “He
said he’d show my dad if I didn’t meet him. And you said — don’t you remember? — you said that he’d really do it, that I had to go to the lake and see him, but you’d protect me. You’d meet me from school and we’d walk there together. And then you’d stay in the bushes nearby while I talked to him.”

Walking across the grass together. She touches the silver locket at her neck.

“But at the lake, you kissed him,” I say. “I saw you. You both took your clothes off, you went in the water … you were back together with him, Neisha.”

“Because he said that if I didn’t do exactly what he told me to, he’d put the photos on the Internet, he’d print them and send them to my dad … he’d turn up at home if he needed to. I was scared, Carl. I had no choice. So I did it. I took my clothes off … and when I looked around for you, you were walking away. I thought you’d betrayed me.”

“But then I saw you in the water, struggling, and I came to help. To get him off you.”

“Yes. I really think you did. You were looking out for me after all, Carl. Like you always did. You never betrayed me, and thank God you were there, or else … I would’ve …”

I saved her? I’m her hero. Rob was trying to kill her. Him, not me.

She takes a sip from her glass. A drop spills on the table. It sits on the Formica surface, a tiny dome of water. It’s nothing, just a drop. I put my fingertip on it and try to smear it away and suddenly my head is full of him.

Don’t listen to the bitch.

His voice in my ears. The harsh twang of lake water in my nostrils. A chill running down my spine.

I wipe my finger on the leg of my jeans and it all stops. I’m right about the water. I must be.

Neisha brings the glass up to her lips again, and my stomach turns inside out as the water passes from the glass into her mouth. Water. In the tap, in the lake, on her lips, in her mouth. Her hardly-there Adam’s apple bobs up and down as she swallows. And now I notice a vivid red line around the side of her neck, where the chain must have bitten deep into her skin.

She mustn’t drink the water. I reach forward and take the glass from her hand. She’s too surprised to resist.

“What are you doing?”

“Don’t drink it,” I say.


“It’s dirty. I just noticed — the glass is dirty.” I quickly take it away and put it in the sink.

She scrapes her chair back, but doesn’t stand up. “I’d better go, anyway.”

She’s biting her bottom lip and I know she’s got something else to say. I wait, letting the silence hang between us.

“Carl, I know this is terrible for you. If you did kill him, you did an awful thing. But you did it to stop something else bad happening. And I’m really, really grateful.” She’s looking down at her hands clasped in her lap. As she speaks, her fingers squeeze hard. She’s squashing her hands out of shape. “The thing is, you’re a good person and I should have listened to you. Should
have kept away from him from the start. All of this, it’s not all on your shoulders. I’m guilty, too.”

BOOK: The Drowning
11.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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