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The Lying Game / (by Ware Ruth, 2017) -

The Lying Game /    (by Ware Ruth, 2017) -

The Lying Game / (by Ware Ruth, 2017) -

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The Lying Game / (by Ware Ruth, 2017) -
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2017
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Ware Ruth
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Imogen Church
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upper-intermediate
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13:37:52
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128 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

The Lying Game / :

.doc (Word) ruth_ware_-_the_lying_game.doc [1,9 Mb] (c: 54) .
.pdf ruth_ware_-_the_lying_game.pdf [1,7 Mb] (c: 43) .
audiobook (MP3) .


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THE REACH IS wide and quiet this morning, the pale blue sky streaked with pink mackerel-belly clouds, the shallow sea barely rippling in the slight breeze, and so the sound of the dog barking breaks into the calm like gunshots, setting flocks of gulls crying and wheeling in the air. Plovers and terns explode up as the dog bounds joyously down the riverbank, scampering down the runnelled side, where the earth turns from spiky grassy dunes to reed-specked mud, where the water wavers between salt and fresh. In the distance the Tide Mill stands sentinel, black and battered against the cool calm of the morning sky, the only man-made structure in a landscape slowly crumbling back into the sea. Bob! The womans voice rings out above the volley of barks as she pants to catch up. Bob, you rascal. Drop it. Drop it, I say. Whatve you found? As she draws closer the dog tugs again at the object protruding from the mud, trying to pull it free. Bob, you filthy brute, youre covered. Let it go. Oh God, its not another dead sheep, is it? Its the last heroic yank that sends the dog staggering back along the shore, something in its jaw. Triumphant, he scrambles up the bank to lay the object at the feet of his owner. And as she stands, looking dumbstruck, the dog panting at her feet, the silence returns to the bay, like a tide coming in. Rule One Tell a Lie THE SOUND IS just an ordinary text alert, a quiet beep beep in the night that does not wake Owen, and would not have woken me except that I was already awake, lying there, staring into the darkness, the baby at my breast snuffling, not quite feeding, not quite unlatching. I lie there for a moment thinking about the text, wondering who it could be. Whod be texting at this hour? None of my friends would be awake unless its Milly gone into labour already God, it cant be Milly, can it? Id promised to take Noah if Millys parents couldnt get up from Devon in time to look after him but I never really thought I cant quite reach the phone from where Im lying, and at last I unlatch Freya with a finger in the corner of her mouth, and rock her gently onto her back, milksated, her eyes rolling back in her head like someone stoned. I watch her for a moment, my palm resting lightly on her firm little body, feeling the thrum of her heart in the birdcage of her chest as she settles, and then I turn to check my phone, my own heart quickening slightly like a faint echo of my daughters. As I tap in my PIN, squinting slightly at the brightness of the screen, I tell myself to stop being silly its four weeks until Millys due, its probably just a spam text, Have you considered claiming a refund for your payment protection insurance? But, when I get the phone unlocked, its not Milly. And the text is only three words. I need you. It is 3.30 a.m., and I am very, very awake, pacing the cold kitchen floor, biting at my fingernails to try and quell the longing for a cigarette. I havent touched one for nearly ten years, but the need for one ambushes me at odd moments of stress and fear. I need you. I dont need to ask what it means because I know, just as I know who sent it, even though its from a number I dont recognise. Kate. Kate Atagon. Just the sound of her name brings her back to me, like a vivid rush the smell of her soap, the freckles across the bridge of her nose, cinnamon against olive. Kate. Fatima. Thea. And me. I close my eyes, and picture them all, the phone still warm in my pocket, waiting for the texts to come through. Fatima will be lying asleep beside Ali, curled into his spine. Her reply will come around 6 a.m., when she gets up to make breakfast for Nadia and Samir and get them ready for school. Thea Thea is harder to picture. If shes working nights shell be in the casino where phones are forbidden to staff, and shut up in lockers until their shifts are finished. Shell roll off shift at eight in the morning, perhaps? Then shell have a drink with the other girls, and then shell reply, wired up with a successful night dealing with punters, collating chips, watching for card sharps and professional gamblers. And Kate. Kate must be awake she sent the text, after all. Shell be sitting at her dads work table hers now, I suppose in the window overlooking the Reach, with the waters turning pale grey in the predawn light, reflecting the clouds and the dark hulk of the Tide Mill. She will be smoking, as she always did. Her eyes will be on the tides, the endlessly shifting, eddying tides, on the view that never changes and yet is never the same from one moment to the next just like Kate herself. Her long hair will be drawn back from her face, showing her fine bones, and the lines that thirty-two years of wind and sea have etched at the corners of her eyes. Her fingers will be stained with oil paint, ground into the cuticles, deep beneath the nails, and her eyes will be at their darkest slate blue, deep and unfathomable. She will be waiting for our replies. But she knows what well say what weve always said, whenever weve got that text, those three words. Im coming. Im coming. Im coming. IM COMING! I shout it up the stairs, as Owen calls something down above Freyas sleepy squawking cries. When I get up to the bedroom hes holding her, pacing back and forth, his face still pink and crumpled from the pillow. Sorry, he says, stifling a yawn. I tried to calm her down but she wasnt having any of it. You know what shes like when shes hungry. I crawl onto the bed and scoot backwards into the pillows until Im sitting against the headboard and Owen hands me a red-faced indignant Freya who takes one affronted look up at me, and then lunges for my breast with a little grunt of satisfaction. All is quiet, except for her greedy suckling. Owen yawns again, ruffles his hair, and looks at the clock, and then begins pulling on his underwear. Are you getting up? I ask in surprise. He nods. I might as well. No point in going back to sleep when Ive got to get up at seven anyway. Bloody Mondays. I look at the clock. Six a.m. Its later than I thought. I must have been pacing the kitchen for longer than I realised. What were you doing up, anyway? he asks. Did the bin lorry wake you? I shake my head. No, I just couldnt sleep. A lie. Id almost forgotten how they feel on my tongue, slick and sickening. I feel the hard, warm bump of my phone in my dressing-gown pocket. Im waiting for it to vibrate. Fair enough. He suppresses another yawn and buttons up his shirt. Want a coffee, if I put one on? Yeah, sure, I say. Then, just as hes leaving the room, Owen But hes already gone and he doesnt hear me. Ten minutes later he comes back with the coffee, and this time Ive had time to practise my lines, work out what Im going to say, and the semi-casual way Im going to say it. Still I swallow and lick my lips, dry-mouthed with nerves. Owen, I got a text from Kate yesterday. Kate from work? He puts the coffee down with a little bump; it slops slightly and I use the sleeve of my dressing gown to mop the puddle, protecting my book, giving me time to reply. No, Kate Atagon. You know, I went to school with her? Oh, that Kate. The one who brought her dog to that wedding we went to? Thats right. Shadow. I think of him. Shadow a white German shepherd with a black muzzle and soot-speckled back. I think of the way he stands in the doorway, growls at strangers, rolls his snowy belly up to those he loves. So ? Owen prods, and I realise Ive stopped talking, lost my thread. Oh, right. So, shes invited me to come and stay, and I thought I might go. Sounds like a nice idea. When would you go? Like now. Shes invited me now. And Freya? Id take her. Of course, I nearly add, but I dont. Freya has never taken a bottle, in spite of a lot of trying on my part, and Owens. The one night I went out for a party she screamed solidly from 7.30 p.m. to 11.58 when I burst through the doors of the flat to snatch her out of Owens limp, exhausted arms. Theres another silence. Freya leans her head back, watching me with a small frown, and then gives a quiet belch and returns to the serious business of getting fed. I can see thoughts flitting across Owens face that hell miss us that hell have the bed all to himself lie-ins I could get on with decorating the nursery, he says at last. I nod, although this is the continuation of a long discussion between the two of us Owen would like the bedroom, and me, back to himself and thinks that Freya will be going into her own room at six months. I dont. Which is partly why Ive not found the time to clear the guest room of all our clutter and repaint it in baby-friendly colours. Sure, I say. Well, go for it, I reckon, Owen says at last. He turns away and begins sorting through his ties. Do you want the car? he asks over his shoulder. No, its fine. Ill take the train. Kate will pick me up from the station. Are you sure? You wont want to be lugging all Freyas stuff on the train, will you? Is this straight? What? For a minute Im not sure what hes on about, and then I realise the tie. Oh, yes, its straight. No, honestly, Im happy to take the train. Itll be easier, I can feed Freya if she wakes up. Ill just put all her stuff in the bottom of the pram. He doesnt respond, and I realise hes already running through the day ahead, ticking things off a mental check list just as I used to do a few months ago only it feels like a different life. OK, well, look, I might leave today if thats all right with you. Today? He scoops his change off the chest of drawers and puts it in his pocket, and then comes over to kiss me goodbye on the top of my head. Whats the hurry? No hurry, I lie. I feel my cheeks flush. I hate lying. It used to be fun until I didnt have a choice. I dont think about it much now, perhaps because Ive been doing it for so long, but its always there, in the background, like a tooth that always aches, and suddenly twinges with pain. Most of all, though, I hate lying to Owen. Somehow I always managed to keep him out of the web, and now hes being drawn in. I think of Kates text, sitting there on my phone, and it feels as if poison is leaching out of it, into the room threatening to spoil everything. Its just Kates between projects, so its a good time for her and well, Ill be back at work in a few months so it feels like nows as good a time as any. OK, he says, bemused but not suspicious. Well, I guess Id better give you a proper goodbye kiss then. He kisses me, properly, deeply, making me remember why I love him, why I hate deceiving him. Then he pulls away and kisses Freya. She swivels her eyes sideways to regard him dubiously, pausing in her feed for a moment, and then she resumes sucking with the single-minded determination that I love about her. Love you too, little vampire, Owen says affectionately. Then, to me, How long is the journey? Four hours maybe? Depends how the connections go. OK, well, have a great time, and text me when you get there. How long do you think youll stay? A few days? I hazard. Ill be back before the weekend. Another lie. I dont know. I have no idea. As long as Kate needs me. Ill see when I get there. OK, he says again. Love you. I love you too. And at last, thats something I can tell the truth about. I CAN REMEMBER to the day, almost to the hour and minute, the first time I met Kate. It was September. I was catching the train to Salten, an early one, so that I would arrive at the school in time for lunch. Excuse me! I called nervously up the station platform, my voice reedy with anxiety. The girl ahead of me turned round. She was very tall and extremely beautiful, with a long, slightly haughty face like a Modigliani painting. Her waist-length black hair had been bleached gold at the tips, fading into the black, and her jeans were ripped across the thighs. Yes? Excuse me, is this the train for Salten? I panted. She looked me up and down, and I could feel her appraising me, taking in my Salten House uniform, the navy-blue skirt, stiff with newness, and the pristine blazer I had taken off its hanger for the first time that morning. I dont know, she said at last, turning to a girl behind her. Kate, is this the Salten train? Dont be a dick, Thee, the girl said. Her husky voice sounded too old for her I didnt think she could be more than sixteen or seventeen. She had light brown hair cut very short, framing her face, and when she smiled at me, the nutmeg freckles across her nose crinkled. Yes, this is the Salten train. Make sure you get into the right half though, it divides at Hamptons Lee. Then they turned, and were halfway up the platform before it occurred to me, I hadnt asked which was the right half. I looked up at the announcement board. Use front seven carriages for stations to Salten, read the display, but what did front mean? Front as in the closest to the ticket barrier, or front as in the direction of travel when the train left the station? There were no officials around to ask, but the clock above my head showed only moments to spare, and in the end I got onto the farther end, where the two other girls had headed for, and dragged my heavy case after me into the carriage. It was a compartment, just six seats, and all were empty. Almost as soon as I had slammed the door the guards whistle sounded, and, with a horrible feeling that I might be in the wrong part of the train completely, I sat down, the scratchy wool of the train seat harsh against my legs. With a clank and a screech of metal on metal, the train drew out of the dark cavern of the station, the sun flooding the compartment with a suddenness that blinded me. I put my head back on the seat, closing my eyes against the glare, and as we picked up speed I found myself imagining what would happen if I didnt turn up in Salten, where the housemistress would be awaiting me. What if I were swept off to Brighton or Canterbury, or somewhere else entirely? Or worse what if I ended up split down the middle when the train divided, living two lives, each diverging from the other all the time, growing further and further apart from the me I should have become. Hello, said a voice, and my eyes snapped open. I see you made the train. It was the tall girl from the platform, the one the other had called Thee. She was standing in the doorway to my compartment, leaning against the wooden frame, twirling an unlit cigarette between her fingers. Yes, I said, a little resentful that she and her friend had not waited to explain which end to get. At least, I hope so. This is the right end for Salten, isnt it? It is, the girl said laconically. She looked me up and down again, tapped her unlit cigarette against the door frame, and then said, with an air of someone about to confer a favour, Look, dont think Im being a bitch, but I just wanted to let you know, people dont wear their uniforms on the train. What? They change into them at Hamptons Lee. Its I dont know. Its just a thing. I thought Id tell you. Only first years and new girls wear them for the whole journey. It kind of makes you stand out. So youre at Salten House too? Yup. For my sins. Thea got expelled, a voice said from behind her, and I saw that the other girl, the short-haired one, was standing in the corridor, balancing two cups of tea. From three other schools. Saltens her last-chance saloon. Nowhere else would take her. At least Im not a charity case, Thea said, but I could tell from the way she said it that the two were friends, and this goading banter was part of their act. Kates father is the art master, she told me. So a free place for his daughter is all part of the deal. No chance of Thea qualifying for charity, Kate said. Silver spoon, she mouthed over the top of the teas, and winked. I tried not to smile. She and Thea shared a look and I felt some wordless question and answer pass between them, and then Thea spoke. Whats your name? Isa, I said. Well, Isa. Why dont you come and join me and Kate? She raised one eyebrow. Weve got a compartment just up the corridor. I took a deep breath and, with the feeling that I was about to step off a very high diving board, gave a short nod. As I picked up my case and followed Theas retreating back, I had no idea that that one simple action had changed my life forever.? ITS STRANGE BEING back at Victoria. The Salten train is new, with open-plan carriages and automatic doors, not the old-fashioned slam-door thing we used to take to school, but the platform has hardly changed, and I realise that I have spent seventeen years unconsciously avoiding this place avoiding everything associated with that time. Balancing my takeaway coffee precariously in one hand, I heave Freyas pram onto the train, dump my coffee on an empty table, and then theres the same long struggling moment there always is, as I attempt to unclip the cot attachment wrestling with clasps that wont undo and catches that wont let go. Thank God the train is quiet and the carriage almost empty, so I dont have the usual hot embarrassment of people queueing in front or behind, or pushing past in the inadequate space. At last just as the guards whistle sounds, and the train rocks and sighs and begins to heave out of the station the final clip gives, and Freyas cot jerks up, light in my hands. I stow her safely, still sleeping, opposite the table where I left my coffee. I take my cup with me when I go back to sort out my bags. There are sharp images in my head the train jerking, the hot coffee drenching Freya. I know its irrational shes on the other side of the aisle. But this is the person Ive become since having her. All my fears the ones that used to flit between dividing trains, and lift doors, and strange taxi drivers, and talking to people I didnt know all those anxieties have settled to roost on Freya. At last were both comfortable, me with my book and my coffee, Freya asleep, with her blankie clutched to her cheek. Her face, in the bright June sunshine, is cherubic her skin impossibly fine and clear and I am flooded with a scalding drench of love for her, as painful and shocking as if that coffee had spilled across my heart. I sit, and for a moment I am nothing but her mother, and there is no one in the world except the two of us in this pool of sunshine and love. And then I realise that my phone is buzzing. Fatima Chaudhry says the screen. And my heart does a little jump. I open it up, my fingers shaking. Im coming, it says. Driving down tonight when the kids are in bed. Will be with you 9/10ish. So its begun. Nothing from Thea yet, but I know it will come. The spell has broken the illusion that its just me and Freya, off on a seaside holiday for two. I remember why I am really here. I remember what we did. Im on the 12.05 from Victoria, I text back to the others. Pick me up from Salten, Kate? No reply, but I know she wont let me down. I shut my eyes. I put my hand on Freyas chest so I know she is there. And then I try to sleep. I wake with a shock and a belting heart to the sound of crashing and shunting, and my first instinct is to reach out for Freya. For a minute I am not sure what has woken me but then I realise: the train is dividing, we are at Hamptons Lee. Freya is squirming grumpily in her cot, she looks like she may settle if Im lucky but then theres another shunt, more violent than the first set, and her eyes fly open in offended shock, her face crumpling in a sudden wail of annoyance and hunger. Shh I croon, scooping her up, warm and struggling from the cocoon of blankets and toys. Shh its OK, sweetie pie, its all right, my poppet. Nothing to worry about. She is dark-eyed and angry, bashing her cross little face against my chest as I get the buttons of my shirt undone and feel the by-now routine, yet always alien, rush of the milk letting down. As she feeds, there is another bang and a crunch, and then a whistle blows, and we begin to move slowly out of the station, the platforms giving way to sidings, and then to houses, and then at last to fields and telegraph poles. It is heart-stoppingly familiar. London, in all the years Ive lived there, has been constantly changing. Its like Freya, never the same from one day to the next. A shop opens here, a pub closes there. Buildings spring up the Gherkin, the Shard a supermarket sprawls across a piece of wasteland and apartment blocks seem to seed themselves like mushrooms, thrusting up from damp earth and broken concrete overnight. But this line, this journey it hasnt changed at all. Theres the burnt-out elm. Theres the crumbling World War II pillbox. Theres the rickety bridge, the trains wheels sounding hollow above the void. I shut my eyes, and I am back there in the compartment with Kate and Thea, laughing as they pull school skirts on over their jeans, button up shirts and ties over their summery vest tops. Thea was wearing stockings, I remember her rolling them up her impossibly long slender legs, and then reaching up beneath the regulation school skirt to fasten her suspenders. I remember the hot flush that stained my cheeks at the flash of her thigh, and looking away, out across the fields of autumn wheat, with my heart pounding as she laughed at my prudery. Youd better hurry, Kate said lazily to Thea. She was dressed, and had packed her jeans and boots away in the case resting on the luggage rack. Well be at Westridge soon, theres always piles of beach-goers there, you dont want to give a tourist a heart attack. Thea only stuck out her tongue, but she finished hooking her suspenders and smoothed down her skirt just as we pulled into Westridge station. Sure enough, just as Kate had predicted, there was a scattering of tourists on the platform, and Thea let out a groan as the train drew to a halt. Our compartment door was level with a family of three beach-trippers, a mother, father and a little boy of about six with his bucket and spade in one hand, and a dripping choc ice in the other. Room for three more? the father said jovially as he opened the door and they clambered in, slamming the door behind them. The little compartment felt suddenly very crowded. Im so sorry, Thea said, and she did sound sorry. Wed love to have you, but my friend here, she indicated me, shes out on day release, and part of the terms of her probation is no contact with minors. The court judgement was very specific about that. The man blinked and his wife gave a nervous giggle. The boy wasnt listening, he was busy picking bits of chocolate off his T-shirt. Its your child Im thinking of, Thea said seriously. Plus of course Ariadne really doesnt want to go back to the young offenders institute. Theres an empty compartment next door, Kate said, and I could see she was trying to keep her face straight. She stood and slid open the door to the corridor. Im so sorry. We dont want to inconvenience you, but I think its for the best, for everyones safety. The man shot us all a suspicious look, and then ushered his wife and little boy out into the corridor. Thea burst into snorts of laughter as they left, barely waiting even until the compartment door had slid shut, but Kate was shaking her head. You do not get a point for that, she said. Her face was twisted with suppressed laughter. They didnt believe you. Oh, come on! Thea took a cigarette out of a packet in her blazer pocket and lit it, taking a deep drag in defiance of the No Smoking sign on the window. They left, didnt they? Yes, but only because they thought you were a fucking weirdo. That doesnt count! Is is this a game? I said uncertainly. There was a long pause. Thea and Kate looked at each other, and I saw that wordless communication pass between them again, like an electric charge flowing from one to another, as if they were deciding how to answer. And then Kate smiled, a small, almost secretive smile, and leaned forward across the gap between the bench seats, so close that I could see the dark streaks in her grey-blue eyes. Its not a game, she said. Its the game. Its the Lying Game. The Lying Game. It comes back to me now as sharp and vivid as the smell of the sea, and the scream of gulls over the Reach, and I cant believe that I had almost forgotten it forgotten the tally sheet Kate kept above her bed, covered with cryptic marks for her complex scoring system. This much for a new victim. That much for complete belief. The extras awarded for elaborate detail, or managing to rehook someone who had almost called your bluff. I havent thought of it for so many years, but in a way, Ive been playing it all this time. I sigh, and look down at Freyas peaceful face as she suckles, her complete absorption in the moment of it all. And I dont know if I can do it. I dont know if I can go back. What has happened, to make Kate call us so suddenly and so urgently in the middle of the night? I can only think of one thing and I cant bear to believe it. It is just as the train is drawing into Salten that my phone beeps for the last time, and I draw it out, thinking it will be Kate confirming my lift. But its not. Its Thea. Im coming. THE PLATFORM AT Salten is almost empty. As the sound of the train dies away, the peace of the countryside rolls back in, and I can hear the noises of Salten in summer crickets chirping, the sound of birds, the faraway noise of a combine harvester across the fields. Always before when I arrived here there would be the Salten House minibus waiting, with its navy and ice-blue livery. Now the car park is hot dust and emptiness, and there is no one here, not even Kate. I wheel Freya down the platform towards the exit, my heavy bag weighing down one shoulder, and wondering what to do. Phone Kate? I should have confirmed the time with her. Id been assuming she got my message, but what if her phone was out of charge? Theres no landline at the Mill anyway, no other number I can try. I put the brake on the pram, and then pull out my phone to check for text messages and find out the time. Im just tapping in my code when I hear the roar of an engine, funnelled by the sunken lanes, and I turn to see a car pulling into the station car park. I was expecting it to be the huge disreputable Land Rover Kate drove down to Fatimas wedding seven years ago, with its long bench seats and Shadow sticking his head out of the window, tongue flapping. But its not. Its a taxi. For a minute Im not sure if its her, and then I see her, struggling with the rear passenger door, and my heart does a little flip-flop, and Im no longer a Civil Service lawyer and a mother, Im just a girl, running down the platform towards my friend. Kate! Shes exactly the same. Same slim, bony wrists, same nut-brown hair and honey-coloured skin, her nose still tip-tilted and sprinkled with freckles. Her hair is longer now, held back in a rubber band, and there are lines in the fine skin around her eyes and mouth, but otherwise she is Kate, my Kate, and as we hug, I inhale, and her own particular scent of cigarettes and turpentine and soap is just as I remember. I hold her at arms length and find myself grinning, stupidly, in spite of everything. Kate, I repeat, foolishly, and she pulls me into another hug, her face in my hair, squeezing me so I can feel her bones. And then I hear a squawk and I remember who I am, the person Ive become and all thats passed since Kate and I last met. Kate, I say again, the sound of her name on my tongue so perfect, Kate, come and meet my daughter. I pull back the sun shade, and pick up the wriggling cross little bundle, and hold her out. Kate takes her, with an expression full of trepidation, and then her thin, mobile face breaks into a smile. Youre beautiful, she says to Freya, and her voice is soft and husky just as I remember. Just like your mum. Shes lovely, Isa. Isnt she? I look at Freya, staring up, bemused, into Kates face, blue eyes fixed on blue eyes. She reaches out a chubby hand towards Kates hair, but then stops, mesmerised by some quality of the light. Shes got Owens eyes, I say. I always longed for blue eyes as a child. Come on, Kate says at last, speaking to Freya, not me. She takes Freyas hand, her fingers stroking the silken baby pudge, the dimpled knuckles. Lets get going. What happened to your car? I say as we walk towards the taxi, Kate holding Freya, me pushing the pram, with the bag inside it. Oh, its broken down again. Ill get it fixed but Ive got no money as usual. Oh, Kate. Oh, Kate, when are you going to get a proper job? I could ask. When are you going to sell the Mill, go somewhere people appreciate your work instead of relying on the dwindling supply of tourists who want to holiday in Salten? But I know the answer. Never. Kate will never leave the Tide Mill. Never leave Salten. Back to the Mill, ladies? the taxi driver calls out his window, and Kate nods. Thanks, Rick. Ill sling the pram in the back for you, he says, getting out. Folds, does it? Yes. Im struggling with the clips again, and then I realise. Damn, I forgot the car seat. I brought the cot attachment instead I was thinking she could sleep in it. Ah, we wont see no police down here, Rick says comfortably, pushing the boot shut on the folded pram. Cept Marys boy, and hes not going to arrest one of my passengers. It wasnt the police I was worried about, but the name snags at me, distracting me. Marys boy? I look at Kate. Not Mark Wren? The very same, Kate says, with a dry smile, so that her mouth creases at one side. Sergeant Wren, now. I cant believe hes old enough! Hes only a couple of years younger than us, Kate points out, and I realise shes right. Thirty is plenty old enough to be a policeman. But I cant think of Mark Wren as a thirty-year-old man I think of him as a fourteen-year-old kid with acne and a fluffy upper lip, stooping to try to hide his six-foot-two frame. I wonder if he still remembers us. If he remembers the Game. Sorry, Kate says as we buckle in. Hold her on your lap I know its not ideal. Ill drive careful, Rick says, as we bounce off out of the rutted car park and into the sunken lane. And besides, its only a few miles. Less across the marsh, Kate says. She squeezes my hand and I know shes thinking of all the times she and I made that trip, picking our way across the salt marsh to school and back. But we couldnt do that with the buggy. Hot for June, int it? Rick says conversationally as we round the corner, and the trees break into a flash of bright dappled sunlight, hot on my face. I blink, wondering if I packed my sunglasses. Scorching, I say. It wasnt nearly so warm in London. So what brings you back then? Ricks eyes meet mine in the mirror. You was at school with Kate, that right? Thats right, I say. And then I stop. What did bring me back? A text? Three words? I meet Kates eyes and I know theres nothing she can say now, not in front of Rick. Isas come down for the reunion, Kate says unexpectedly. At Salten House. I blink, and she gives my hand a warning clasp, but then we bump across the level crossing, the car shaking and bouncing over the rails, and I have to let go to hold Freya with both hands. Very posh them Salten House dinners, so I hear, Rick says. My youngest does a bit of waitressing up there for pocket money, and I hear all sorts. Canopies, champagne, the works. Ive never been to one before, Kate says. But its fifteen years since our class graduated, and I thought this year might be the one to go to. Fifteen? For a minute I think shes got the maths wrong, but then I realise. Its seventeen years since we left, after GCSEs, but if wed stayed on for sixth form, shed be right. For the rest of our class it will be their fifteen-year anniversary. We swing round the corner of the lane and I hold Freya tighter, my heart in my mouth, wishing Id brought the car seat. It was stupid of me not to think of it. You come down here much? Rick says to me in the mirror. No, I say. I I havent been back for a while. You know what its like. I shift awkwardly in the seat, knowing I am gripping Freya too tight, but unable to loosen my hold. Its hard to find the time. Beautiful bit of the world, Rick throws back. I cant imagine living anywhere else meself, but I suppose its different if you wasnt born and bred here. Where are your parents from? They are were I stumble, and I feel Kates supportive presence at my side and take a breath. My father lives in Scotland now, but I grew up in London. We rattle over a cattle grid, and then the trees open up and we are out on the marsh. And suddenly its there. The Reach. Wide and grey and speckled with reeds, the wind-rippled waters reflecting the lazy streaks of sun-bleached cloud above, and the whole thing is so bright and clear and wide that I feel a lump in my throat. Kate is watching my face, and I see her smile. Had you forgotten? she asks softly. I shake my head. Never. But its not true I had forgotten. I had forgotten what it was like. There is nothing, nowhere like the Reach. I have seen many rivers, crossed other estuaries. But none as beautiful as this, where the land and the sky and the sea bleed into one another, soaking each other, mingling and mixing until its hard to know which is which, where the clouds end and the water starts. The road is dwindling down to a single lane, and then to a pebbled track, with grass between the tyre marks. And then I see it the Tide Mill; a black silhouette against the cloud-streaked water, even shabbier and more drunken than I remember. Its not a building so much as a collection of driftwood thrown together by the winds, and looking as if it might be torn apart by them at any point. My heart lurches in my chest and the memories come unbidden, beating at the inside of my head with feathered wings. Thea, swimming naked in the Reach in the sunset, her skin turned gold in the evening light, the long black shadows of the stunted trees cutting across the flame-coloured water and turning the Reach to tiger-striped glory. Kate, hanging out of the Mill window on a winters morning, when the frost was thick on the inside of the glass and furring the reeds and bulrushes, throwing open her arms and roaring her white breath to the sky. Fatima, lying out on the wooden jetty in her tiny bathing suit, her skin turned mahogany with the summer sun and a pair of giant sunglasses reflecting the flickering light off the waves as she basked in the heat. And Luc Luc but here my heart contracts and I cant go on. We have come to a barred gate across the track. Better stop here, Kate says to Rick. We had a high tide last night and the ground up ahead is still soft. You sure? He turns to look over his shoulder. I dont mind giving it a whirl. No, well walk. She reaches for the door handle, and holds out a tenner, but he waves it away. Your moneys no good here, duck. But, Rick But, Rick, nothing. Your dad was a good man, no matter what others in this place say, and you done well to stick it out here with the gossips. Pay me another day. Kate swallows, and I can see she is trying to speak, but cant, and so I speak for her. Thank you, Rick, I say. But I want to pay. Please. And I hold out ten pounds of my own. Rick hesitates, and I put it in the ashtray and get out of the car, holding Freya in my arms while Kate retrieves my bag and the buggy from the boot. At last, when Freya is safely strapped in, he nods. All right. But listen, you ladies need a lift anywhere, you call me, understand? Day or night. I dont like to think of you out here with no transport. That place, he jerks his head at the Mill, is going to fall down one of these days, and if you need a ride somewhere, you dont hesitate to call me, tenner or no tenner. Got it? Got it, I say, and I nod. There is something comforting in the thought. AFTER RICK DRIVES away, we look at each other, each unaccountably tongue-tied, feeling the hot sun beating down on the top of our heads. I want to ask Kate about the message, but something is stopping me. Before I have made up my mind to speak, Kate turns and opens the gate, closing it behind us, as I make my way down towards the short wooden walkway that joins the Tide Mill to the shore. The Mill itself sits on a little spit of sand, barely bigger than the building itself, which I suppose was once joined to the bank. At some point, when the Mill was being constructed, a narrow channel was dug away, severing the Mill from the land and funnelling the rising and falling tide past the water wheel that used to sit in the channel. The wheel is long gone, only a stump of blackened wood sticking out at right angles from the wall shows where it once stood, and in its place is the wooden walkway, bridging the ten feet of water that separates the Mill from the shore. Seventeen years ago I remember running across it, all four of us at once sometimes, but now I cant quite believe we trusted our weight to it. It is narrower than I remember, the slats salt-bleached and rotten in places, and no handrail has been installed in the years since I last saw it, but Kate starts across it fearlessly, carrying my bag. I take a deep breath, trying to ignore the images in my head (slats giving way, the pram falling into the salt water), and I follow, my heart in my throat as I bounce the wheels across the treacherous gaps, only exhaling when we reach the comparative safety of the other side. The door is unlocked, as it always is, always was. Kate turns the handle and stands back, letting me pass and I wheel Freya up the wooden step and inside. Its seven years since I last saw Kate, but I have not been back to Salten for more than twice that. For a moment it is like I have stepped back in time, and I am fifteen, the ramshackle beauty of the place washing over me for the first time. I see again the long, asymmetrical windows with their cracked panes, overlooking the estuary, the vaulted roof that goes up and up to the blackened beams above, the staircase drunkenly twisting around the space, hopping from landing to rickety landing, past the bedrooms, until it reaches the attic lodged high in the rafters. I see the smoke-blacked stove with its snaking pipe, and the low sofa with its broken springs, and most of all the paintings, paintings everywhere. Some I dont recognise, they must be Kates, but intermingled are a hundred that are like old friends or half-remembered names. There, above the rust-stained sink in a gilt frame is Kate as a baby, her face round with chub, her concentration fierce as she reaches for something just out of view. There, hanging between the two long windows is the unfinished canvas of the Reach on a winters morning, crackling with frost, and a single heron swooping low above the water. Beside the door that leads to the outside toilet is a water-colour of Thea, her features dissolving at the edges of the rough paper. And over the desk I catch sight of a pencil sketch of me and Fatima, arms entwined in a makeshift hammock, laughing, laughing, like there is nothing to fear in all the world. Its like a thousand memories assault me all at once, each of them with clutching fingers pulling me back into the past and then I hear a loud bark, and I look down to see Shadow, bounding up to me, a flurry of white and grey. I fend him off, patting his head as he butts it against my leg, but he is not part of the past, and the spell is broken. It hasnt changed! I say, knowing I sound foolish. Kate shrugs, and begins to unbuckle Freya from her pram. It has a bit. I had to replace the fridge. She nods at one in the corner, which looks if anything older and more disreputable than its predecessor. And I had to sell a lot of Dads best paintings of course. I filled the gaps with mine, but theyre not the same. I had to sell some of my favourites the plovers skeleton, and the one of the greyhound on the sands but the rest, I couldnt bear to let these go. She looks over the top of Freyas head at the pictures that remain, and her gaze caresses each one. I take Freya from her arms, and bounce her over my shoulder, not saying what I am thinking, which is that the place feels like a museum, like those rooms in the houses of famous men, frozen at the moment they left it. Marcel Prousts bedroom, faithfully reconstructed in the Mus?e Carnavalet. Kiplings study preserved in aspic at Batemans. Only here there are no ropes to hold the viewer back, only Kate, living on, in this memorial to her father. To hide my thoughts I walk to the window, patting Freyas warm, firm back, more to soothe myself than her, and I stare out over the Reach. The tide is low, but the wooden jetty overlooking the bay is only a few feet above the lapping waves, and I turn back to Kate, surprised. Has the jetty sunk? Not just the jetty, Kate says ruefully. Thats the problem. The whole place is sinking. I had a surveyor come and look at it, he said theres no proper foundations, and that if I were applying for a mortgage today Id never get one. But wait, hang on, what do you mean? Sinking? Cant you repin it? underpin, thats what I mean. Cant you do that? Not really. The problem is its just sand underneath us. Theres nothing for the underpinning to rest on. You could postpone the inevitable, but eventually its just going to wash away. Isnt that dangerous? Not really. I mean, yes, its causing some movement in the upper storeys, which is making the floor a bit uneven, but its not going to disappear tonight if thats what youre worried about. Its more stuff like the electrics. What? I stare at the light switch on the wall, as if expecting sparks to start flying at any moment. Kate laughs. Dont worry, I had a massive fuck-off circuit-breaker installed when things started getting dicey. If anything starts to fizz it just trips. But it does mean that the lights have a tendency to go off at high tide. This place cant possibly be insured. Insured? She looks at me like Ive said something quaint and eccentric. What the hell would I do with insurance? I shake my head, wondering. What are you doing here? Kate, this is mad. You cant live like this. Isa, she says patiently, I cant leave. How could I? Its completely unsaleable. So dont sell it walk away. Give the keys to the bank. Declare yourself bankrupt if thats what it takes. I cant leave, she says stubbornly, and goes across to the stove to turn the handle on the gas bottle and light the little burner. The kettle on top starts to hiss quietly as she gets out two mugs, and a battered canister of tea. You know why. And I cant answer that because I do. I know exactly why. And its the very reason Ive come back here myself. Kate, I say, feeling my insides tighten queasily. Kate that message Not now, she says. Her back is towards me, and I cant see her face. Im sorry, Isa, I just it wouldnt be fair. We need to wait, until the others are here. OK, I say quietly. But suddenly, Im not. Not really. FATIMA IS THE next to arrive. It is almost dusk; a warm sluggish breeze filters through the open windows as I turn the pages of a novel, trying to distract myself from my imaginings. Part of me wants to shake Kate, force the truth out of her. But another part of me and its equally big is afraid to face whats coming. For the moment, this moment, everything is peaceful, me with my book, Freya snoozing in her buggy, Kate at the stove, salt-savoury smells rising up from the frying pan balanced on top of the burner. Theres a part of me that wants to hold on to that for as long as possible. Perhaps, if we dont talk about it, we can pretend that this is just what I told Owen old friends meeting up. There is a hiss from the pan, making me jump, and at the same time Shadow gives a staccato series of barks. Turning my head, I hear the sound of tyres turning off the main road onto the track that leads down by the Reach. I get up from my window seat and open the door to the landward side of the Mill, and there, lights streaming out across the marsh, is a big black 4x4 bumping down the track, music blaring, sending marsh birds flapping and wheeling in alarm. It gets closer, and closer, and then comes to a halt with a crunch of stones and a creak of the handbrake. The engine turns off, and the silence abruptly returns. Fatima? I call, and the drivers door opens, and then I am running across the jetty to meet her. On the shore, she throws her arms around me in a hug so hard I almost forget to breathe. Isa! Her bright eyes are as black as a robins. How long has it been? I cant remember! I kiss her cheek, half hidden with a silky head-scarf, and cool from the cars air conditioning, and then pull back to look at her properly. I think it was after you had Nadia, I came round to see you so that must be blimey, six years? She nods, and puts her hands up to the pins that hold the head-scarf in place, and for a moment Im expecting her to take it off, assuming its an Audrey Hepburn-type thing. But she doesnt, she only pins it more securely, and suddenly I realise. Its not just a scarf its a hijab. This is new. New since I last saw her new, not just new since school. Fatima sees me looking, joining up the dots, and she smiles as she pushes the last pin back into place. I know, bit of a change, right? I was thinking about it for ages, and then when Sam was born, I dont know. It just felt right. Is it did Ali I start, and then instantly want to kick myself when Fatima gives me the side-eye. Isa, honey, when have you ever known me to listen to a bloke when it wasnt something I wanted to do myself? Then she sighs. I think its a sigh at me, although perhaps its about all the times shes been asked this question. I dont know, she says. Maybe having the kids made me reassess stuff. Or maybe its something Ive been working my way back to all my life. I dont know. All I know is Im happier now than I ever was. Well, Im I pause, trying to work out how I feel. I am looking at her highbuttoned top, and the sleekly folded scarf, and I cant help remembering her beautiful hair, the way it fell like a river over her shoulders, draping her bikini top until it looked like she was swathed in nothing else. Lady Godiva, Ambrose had called her once, though I didnt understand the reference until later. And now now its gone. Hidden. But I understand why she might want to leave that part of her past behind. Im impressed, I guess. And Ali? Is he I mean, does he do the whole nine yards too? Ramadan and stuff? Yup. I guess its something weve kind of come to together. Your parents must be pleased. I dont know. Its a bit hard to tell I mean, yeah. She shoulders her bag and we start to walk across the jetty, picking our way carefully in the last shafts of sunset. I think they are; although Mum was always very clear that she was OK with me not wearing a scarf, I think shes secretly quite chuffed Ive come round. Alis parents funnily enough, not so much. His mother is hilarious, shes always like but, Fatima, people dont like hijabis in this country, youll hurt your chances at work, the other mothers at school will think youre a radical. Ive tried to tell her my surgery is pathetically grateful to get a female GP who can speak Urdu and is prepared to work full-time, and that half of the kids friends are from Muslim homes anyway, but she just doesnt believe it. And hows Ali? Hes great! He just got made a consultant. I mean, hes working too hard but arent we all. Not me. I give a slightly guilty laugh. Im swanning around on maternity leave. Yeah, right. She grins sideways at me. I remember that kind of swanning. It involves sleep deprivation and cracked nipples. Ill take the podiatry clinic at work, thanks. Then she looks around. Wheres Freya? I want to meet her. Shes asleep completely knackered by all the travel, I think. But shell wake up soon. We have reached the door of the Mill, and Fatima pauses with her hand on the knob. Isa she says slowly, and I know, without her having to spell it out, what shes thinking, and what shes going to ask. I shake my head. I dont know. I asked Kate, but she wants to wait until were all here. She said it wouldnt be fair. Her shoulders sag, and suddenly it all seems hollow the meaningless social questions dry as dust on my lips. I know that Fatima is as nervous as me, and that we are both thinking of that message from Kate, and trying not to think about what it might mean. What it must mean. Ready? I ask. She blows out a long breath of air from between pursed lips, and then nods. As Ill ever be. Fuck, this is going to be weird. Then she opens the door, and I watch the past envelop her just as it did me. When I got off the train at Salten that first day, there was no one else on the platform apart from Thea and Kate and a slight, dark-haired girl about eleven or twelve years of age, far up the other end. She looked uncertainly up and down the platform, and then began to walk towards us. As she got closer I saw that she was wearing a Salten uniform, and as she got closer still that she was much older than Id taken her for fifteen at least just very petite. Hi, she said. Are you for Salten? No, were a gang of paedophiles wearing these uniforms as a lure, Thea said automatically, and then shook her head. Sorry, that was dumb. Yes, were going to Salten too. Are you new? Yes. She fell in beside us, walking to the car park. My names Fatima. She had a London accent that made me feel instantly at home. Where are all the others? I thought the train would have lots of Salten girls on it. Kate shook her head. Most people drive their kids, especially after the summer vac. And the day girls and weekly boarders dont start until Monday. Are there lots of day girls? About a third of the school. Im a weekly boarder myself. Im only here because Ive been staying with Thea in London for a few days, and we thought wed go back together. Wheres home? Fatima asked. Over there. Kate pointed across the salt marsh towards a glimmering tract of water, far in the distance. I blinked. I couldnt see a house at all, but there might have been something, tucked behind one of the dunes, or the stunted trees that lined the railway. How about you? Fatima turned to me. She had a round, friendly face and beautiful dark hair swept back from her temples in a clip. Have you been here long? What year are you in? Im fifteen, Im going into the fifth. I Im new, like you. Ill be boarding too. I didnt want to get into the whole story my mothers illness, the long hospital stays that left me and my thirteen-year-old brother Will alone while my father worked late at the bank the sucker-punch suddenness of the decision to send us both away, coming as it did out of a clear blue sky. I had never been any trouble, had I? I hadnt rebelled, or taken drugs, or acted out. I had responded to my mothers illness by being, if anything, even more diligent. By working harder and picking up more loose ends at home. By cooking and shopping and remembering to pay the cleaner when my father forgot. And then, the talk better for you both more fun than being on your own continuity schoolwork mustnt suffer GCSEs an important year I hadnt known what to say. In truth I was still dazed. Will had just nodded, his stiff upper lip firmly in place, but I heard him crying in the night. My father was driving him down to Charterhouse today, which was why I had travelled alone. My fathers busy today, I heard myself say. The words sounded relaxed, almost rehearsed. Otherwise I suppose he would have driven me down too. My parents are abroad, Fatima said. Theyre doctors. Theyre doing this, like, charity thing for VSO? Giving a year of work for free. Fucking hell, Thea said. She looked impressed. I cant imagine my dad giving a weekend up, let alone a whole year. Are they getting paid anything at all? Not really. I mean, they get a stipend, I think thats the word. Like an allowance. But its pegged to local wages so I dont think its much. Thats not the point for them though its like a religious thing for them, their version of sadqa. As she spoke we rounded the little station house, where a blue minibus was waiting, a woman in a skirt and jacket standing by the door with a clipboard. Hello, girls, she said to Thea and Kate. Had a good summer? Yes, thanks, Miss Rourke, Kate said. This is Fatima and Isa. We met them on the train. Fatima ? Miss Rourkes pen travelled down the list. Qureshy, Fatima said. Thats Q, U, R Got it, Miss Rourke said briskly, ticking off a name. And you must be Isa Wilde. She pronounced it Izza but I only nodded meekly. Am I saying it right? Actually its to rhyme with nicer. Miss Rourke made no comment, but noted something on her page, and then took our cases and slung them in the back of the minibus and then we climbed in, one after the other. Swing the door shut, Miss Rourke said over her shoulder, and Fatima seized the door handle and rattled it closed. Then we were off, bumping out of the rutted car park, and down a deep-carved lane towards the sea. Thea and Kate chatted away at the back of the van, while Fatima and I sat nervously, side by side, trying to look like this was something we did every day. Have you boarded before? I said quietly to Fatima. She shook her head. No. I wasnt sure if I wanted to come here to be honest, I was well up for going to Pakistan with my parents, but Mum wouldnt have it. How about you? First time too, I said. Have you visited Salten? Yeah, I came down at the end of last year when Mum and Dad were looking at places. What did you think of it? I Ive not been. There wasnt time. It was a fait accompli by the time Dad told me, too late for open days and visits. If Fatima thought this was strange, she didnt betray her feelings. Its all right, she said. It looks OK, now dont get me wrong, cos this is going to sound awful, but it looks a bit like a very classy prison. I smothered a smile and nodded. I knew what she meant, Id seen the pictures in the brochure and there was something slightly prison-like about the photos the big rectangular white frontage facing the sea, the miles of iron railings. The photograph on the cover of the prospectus showed an exterior that was almost painfully austere, the mathematically precise proportions accentuated, rather than relieved, by four slightly absurd little turrets, one at each corner, as though the architect had had last-minute doubts about his vision, and had stuck them on as an afterthought, in some attempt to lessen the severity of the facade. Ivy, or even just some lichen, might have softened the corners of the place, but I guessed that nothing much would survive such a windswept location. Do you think well get a choice who were with? The bedrooms, I mean? I said. It was a question that had been preoccupying me since London. Fatima shrugged. I dont know. I doubt it, I mean can you imagine the mayhem if everyone was milling around picking mates? I think well just get assigned someone. I nodded again. Id read the prospectus carefully on this point, as I was used to privacy at home and had been dismayed that Salten didnt offer girls their own room until the sixth form. Fourth and fifth years shared with one other girl. At least it wasnt dormitories, like the years below. We fell into silence after that, Fatima reading a Stephen King novel, and me looking out of the window at the salt marshes flashing past, the wide expanses of water, the heaped dykes and snaking ditches, and then the sand dunes that flanked the coast road, feeling the minibus buffeted by the wind off the sea. We slowed as we approached a bend in the coast road, and I saw Miss Rourke indicate, and then we turned sharply into the long white-pebbled drive that led up to the school. Its funny, now that Salten House is so graven on my memory, to remember there was a time when it was strange to me, but that day I sat, quite silent in the minibus, as we wound our way up the drive in the wake of a Mercedes and Bentley up ahead, just taking it all in. There was the wide, white facade, eye-hurtingly bright against the blue of the sky, just as I had seen on the cover of the brochure, its severity only underlined by the regimented gleaming squares of windows that dotted the building at precisely regular intervals, and the black shapes of fire escapes crawling up the sides and twining the towers like industrial ivy. There were the hockey pitches and tennis courts, stretching away into the distance, and the miles of paddock, petering away into the salt marshes behind the school. As we drew closer, I saw that the black front doors were open wide, and my overwhelming impression was of a bevy of girls of all shapes and sizes running hither and thither, screaming at each other, hugging parents, high-fiving friends, greeting teachers. The minibus stopped and Miss Rourke handed Fatima and me over to another teacher she introduced as Miss Farquharson-Jim (or possibly, Miss Farquharson, Gym). Thea and Kate melted into the crowd and Fatima and I found ourselves subsumed into the shrieking mass of girls checking lists on the noticeboard and exclaiming over placements and teams, depositing trunks and cases, comparing the contents of tuck boxes and new haircuts. Its quite unusual for us to have two new girls in the fifth, Miss Farquharson was saying, her voice rising effortlessly over the clamour as she led the way into a tall panelled hallway with a curving staircase. Normally we try to mix and match new girls with old hands, but for various reasons weve ended up putting you both together. She consulted her list. Youre in Tower 2B. Connie She grabbed a younger girl bashing another over the head with a badminton racket. Connie, could you show Fatima and Isa to Tower 2B? Take them past the buttery so they know where to come for lunch afterwards. Girls, lunch is at 1 p.m. sharp. There will be a bell but it only gives you five minutes warning so I suggest you start off as soon as you hear it as its quite a walk from the towers. Connie will show you where to go. Fatima and I both nodded, a little dazed by the sheer volume of the echoing voices, and lugged our cases after the departing Connie, who was already disappearing into the throng. You cant normally use the main entrance, she said over her shoulder as we followed her, weaving and threading through groups of girls, and ducking down a passageway at the back of the hall. Only on the first day of each term, and if youre an Hon. An Hon? I echoed. On the Honour roll. It means heads of house heads of teams prefects that sort of thing. Youll know if you get there. If in doubt, dont use that door. Its annoying because its the quickest way back from the beach and the hockey pitches, but its not worth the telling-off. She ducked without warning through another doorway and pointed up a long stone-flagged corridor. Thats the buttery, up the end there. They dont open the doors until one but dont be late, its a scrum to get a place. Are you really in Tower 2? There seemed no answer to this, but Fatima spoke for both of us. Thats what the woman said. Lucky you, Connie said enviously. The towers are the best rooms, everyone knows that. She didnt elaborate on why, just pushed on a door in the panelling and began power-walking up a flight of narrow dark stairs hidden behind. I was panting, trying to keep up, and Fatimas case was banging with every step. Come on, Connie said impatiently. I promised Letitia Id meet her before lunch and I wont have time at this rate. I nodded again, rather grimly this time, and pulled my case up another flight and along a landing. At last we were at a door that said Tower 2 and Connie stopped. Do you mind if I leave you here? You cant go wrong, just head up and theres only two rooms, A and B. Youre B. No probs, Fatima said rather faintly, and Connie disappeared without further discussion, like a rabbit going to ground, leaving Fatima and me rather breathless and nonplussed. Well, that was confusing, Fatima said, after shed gone. Fuck knows how well find our way back to the butlery. Buttery, I think it was, I said automatically, and then bit my lip, but Fatima didnt seem to have noticed, or at any rate, she hadnt taken offence at the correction. Shall we? she said, opening the door to the tower. I nodded, and she stood back and made a mock bow. After you I looked inside. Another staircase, this time a spiral one, dis-appeared upwards, and I sighed, and grasped the handle of my case more firmly. I was going to be very fit, if breakfast entailed the reverse of this every day. The first door we passed turned out to be a bathroom sinks, two toilet stalls and what looked like a bath cubicle and we pushed on upwards. At the second landing there was another door. This one simply said B on it. I looked down at Fatima, on the spiral stairs below me, and raised an eyebrow. What do you think? Go for it, Fatima said cheerfully, and I knocked. No sound came from within, and I pushed cautiously at the door, and entered. Inside was a surprisingly nice room, fitted into the curving wall of the tower. Two windows looked out, north to the marshes and west over the miles of playing fields and the coastal road, and I realised we must be in the rear lefthand corner of the building. Below us smaller outbuildings were scattered, some of which I recognised from the prospectus the science wing, the physical education block. Under each window was a narrow metal-framed bed, made up with plain white sheets and a red blanket over each foot. There was a wooden bedside locker, and between the two windows, two longer lockers, not quite wide enough to be described as wardrobes. I. Wilde, said a printed label on one of the lockers. F. Qureshy said the other. At least we cant fight over beds, Fatima said. She heaved her case up onto the one next to the locker marked with her name. Very organised. I was just studying the pack on the desk by the door, promin-ent on which was the StudentSchool contract to be signed by all girls and handed in to Miss Weatherby, when an impossibly jarring, jangling sound rang out, echoing horribly loudly in the corridor outside. Fatima jumped, visibly as startled as I was, and turned to me. What the fuck was that? Dont tell me were going to get that every time theres a meal? I guess so. I found my heart was beating rapidly with the shock of the noise. Bloody hell. Do you think well get used to it? Probably not, but I guess wed better start back, hadnt we? I doubt were going to find that butter place in five minutes. I nodded, and opened the door to the corridor to try to retrace our steps. Hearing footsteps from above, I looked up, hoping we might be able to follow these strangers to the dinner hall. But the legs that I saw descending the stone spiral stairs were long, very long, and unmistakably familiar. In fact I had watched those legs being swathed in distinctly non-regulation stockings just a few hours earlier. Well, well, well, said a voice, and I saw Thea, followed closely by Kate, round the bottom of the spiral. Guess whos in Tower 2B. It looks like we might be having some fun this year, doesnt it?? SO YOU REALLY dont drink anymore? Kate says to Fatima, as she refills my glass, and then her own. Her face in the lamplight as she looks up at Fatima is quizzical, her eyebrows quirked in something not quite a frown, and faintly interrogative. Like at all? Fatima nods and pushes her plate away. Like, at all. Its part of the deal, innit? She rolls her eyes at her own phrasing. Do you miss it? I ask. Drinking, I mean. Fatima takes a sip from the lemonade she brought with her from the car, and then shrugs. Honestly? Not really. I mean, yes, I remember how fun it was sometimes, and the taste of a gin and tonic and all that. But its not like She stops. I think I know what she was about to say. It wasnt like alcohol had been an unmixed blessing. Maybe without it, we wouldnt have made some of the mistakes we had. Im happy like this, she says at last. Im in a good place. And it makes things easier in some ways. You know driving being pregnant. Its not such a big deal, stopping. I take a sip of the red wine, watching the way it glints in the low lights strung from the ceiling, thinking of Freya sleeping just above our heads, and the alcohol filtering through my blood into my milk. I try to keep a lid on it, I say. For Freya. I mean, Ill have a glass or two, but thats it, while Im still feeding her. But Im not going to lie, it was bloody tough not drinking at all for nine months. The only thing that got me through it was thinking of the bottle of Pouilly-Fum? in the fridge for afterwards. Nine months. Kate swirls the wine thoughtfully in her glass. Its years since Ive gone even nine days without a drink. But you dont smoke any more, do you, Isa? Thats quite an achievement. I smile. Yeah, I gave up when I met Owen and Ive been pretty good on that. But thats it I cant cope with cutting out more than one vice at a time. You were lucky you never started, I add to Fatima. She laughs. Its a good thing really, makes it easier to lecture my patients on the evils of tobacco. Last thing you want is your GP telling you to quit while stinking of fags. Ali still has the odd one though. He thinks I dont know, but of course I do. Dont you want to say something? I ask, thinking of Owen. Fatima shrugs. Its his conscience. Id go mental if he did it in front of the kids, but aside from that, its between him and Allah what he does with his body. Its so Kate says, and then she laughs. Sorry, I dont mean to be weird about this. I just cant get over it. Youre the same old Fatima, and yet She waves a hand at the hijab. Fatima has taken it off her head, but its lying draped around her shoulders, like a reminder of how things have changed. I mean, dont get me wrong, its great. Its just going to take me a while to to match things up. Same with Isa and Freya, I guess. She smiles at me, and I see the fine lines at the corner of her mouth. It was so weird when you turned up at the station, with this little person. And seeing you toting her around, wiping her face, changing a nappy like youve been doing it all your life Its hard to remember youre a mum when youre sitting there, in the same chair as always. You look exactly the same, its like nothings changed and yet And yet everything has changed. It is gone eleven when Fatima looks at her watch, and pushes her chair back from the table. We have talked and talked, about everything from Fatimas patients to the village gossip and Owens work, but always skirting around the unspoken question why has Kate summoned us back so urgently? Im going to have to head up, she says. Can I use the bathroom? Yes, of course, Kate says, without looking up. She is rolling a cigarette, her slim brown fingers prodding and shaping the tobacco with practised deftness. She raises it to her lips, licks the paper and then puts the finished roll-up on the table. And am I out the back or ? Oh, sorry, I should have told you. Kate shakes her head, admonishing herself. No, Theas got the downstairs bedroom. Ive put you in my old room. Im on the top floor now. Fatima nods, and heads up to the bathroom, leaving me and Kate alone. I watch as Kate picks up the cigarette and taps one end on the table. Dont mind me, I say, knowing she is holding back on my account, but she shakes her head. No, its not fair. Ill go out on the jetty. Ill come, I say, and she opens the gappy wooden door that leads out onto the jetty on the river side of the Mill, and we go out together into the warm night air. It is quite dark, and a beautiful moon is rising above the Reach. Kate walks to the left-hand edge of the jetty, the end that faces upriver, towards Salten village, and for a minute I dont understand, but then I see why. The other end of the jetty, the unfenced end where we used to sit, our feet dangling in the water at high tide, is completely submerged. Kate sees my gaze, and shrugs resignedly. Its what happens at high tide now. She looks at her watch. Thats as high as itll get though itll start to ebb soon. But but, Kate, I had no idea. Is this what you meant when you said the place is sinking? She nods, lights up with a flare of her Bic lighter, and inhales deeply. But, this is serious. I mean, this is really sinking. I know, Kate says. Her voice is flat as she blows a long plume of smoke into the night. I feel desire twist in my gut. I can almost taste the smoke. But what can you do? she asks rhetorically, around the roll-up lodged in the corner of her mouth. Suddenly I cant bear it any longer. The waiting. Give me a drag. What? Kate turns to look at me, her face shadowed in the moonlight. Isa, no. Come on, youve given up! You know full well, youre never an ex-addict, youre just an addict who hasnt had a fix in a while, I say without thinking, and then with a lurch I realise what Ive said, and who Im quoting, and its like a knife in my heart. I still think of him, even after all these years, how much worse must it be for Kate? Oh God, I say, putting out my hand. Im sorry, I Its OK, she says, though she has stopped smiling, and the lines around her month are suddenly graven deeper than before. She takes another long drag, and then puts the roll-up between my outstretched fingers. I think about him all the time. One more reminder doesnt hurt me any more or less. I hold the roll-up, light as a match, between my fingers, and then with a feeling like slipping into a hot bath, I put the tip between my lips and I draw the smoke deep, deep into my lungs. Oh God, its so good And then two things happen. Far up the Reach, towards the bridge, twin beams of light swing across the waves. A car is stopping at the end of Kates rutted lane. And from the baby monitor in my pocket there comes a thin, squawking cry that tugs at my heart, and my head goes up, jerked by the invisible line that connects me to Freya. Here. Kate holds out her hand and I hastily give the cigarette back. I cant believe what I just did. A glass of wine is one thing, but am I really going to go and hold my daughter stinking of cigarette smoke? What would Owen say? You go to Freya, she says. Ill see who But as I run inside and up the stairs to the bedroom where Ive left Freya, I know who. I know exactly who. Its Thea, coming, just as she promised. We are all here at last.? UPSTAIRS I ALMOST bump into Fatima on the landing, coming out of her room, Kates old room. Sorry, I say breathlessly. Freyas She stands back, letting me pass, and I sprint into the room at the end of the corridor, where Kate has set up the bentwood cradle that once held her, as a baby. Its a beautiful room the best perhaps, except maybe the one Kate herself now occupies, a bedroom and studio combined, which is the entire top floor of the mill and used to be her fathers. When I pick Freya up she is hot and sticky, and I peel her out of her sleeping bag, realising how warm it is here. As Im shushing her over my shoulder, I hear a noise behind me and turn to see Fatima in the doorway, looking wonderingly around, and I realise what I failed to notice as I hurried past her on the landing: shes still fully dressed. I thought you were going to bed? She shakes her head. I was praying. Her voice is low and hushed, trying not to spook Freya. Its so weird, Isa. Seeing you here, in his room. I know, I say. I settle myself on the wicker chair while Fatima steps over the threshold and takes in our surroundings: the low slanting windows, the polished dark wood floor, the leaf skeletons strung from the beams, shivering in the warm breeze from the open window. Kate has taken away most of Lucs possessions, his music posters, the pile of unwashed clothes behind the door, the acoustic guitar propped up against the windowsill, the ancient seventies turntable that used to rest on the floor by the bed. But it is still haunted by his presence, and I cant think of it as anything but Lucs room, even though Kate called it the back bedroom when she took me up. Did you keep in touch? Fatima asks. I shake my head. No, you? No. She sits on the edge of the bed. But you must have thought about him, right? I dont answer for a minute; I take a moment, rearrange the muslin next to Freyas cheek. A bit, I say at last. Now and then. But thats a lie and worse, its a lie to Fatima. That was the most important rule of the Lying Game. Lie to everyone else, yes. But to each other never. I think of all the lies I have repeated and repeated over the years, until they became so engrained they felt like the truth: I left because I wanted a change. I dont know what happened to him, he just disappeared. I did nothing wrong. Fatima is silent, but her bird-bright eyes are steady on me, and I let my hand drop from where I have been fiddling with my hair. When you watch people lying as often as we have, you get to know each others tells. Thea bites her nails. Fatima avoids eye contact. Kate goes still and remote and unreachable. And I I fret at my hair, twining it into knots around my fingers, weaving a web as tangled as our falsehoods, without even noticing what Im doing. I worked so hard to overcome it, back then. And now I can see from Fatimas sympathetic smile that my old quirk has betrayed me again. Thats not true, I admit. I did think about him a lot. Did you? She nods. Of course. There is silence, and I know we are both thinking about him about his hands, long and narrow, with strong fingers that ran across the strings of the guitar, first slow as a lover, then faster than you could see. About his eyes, changeable as a tigers, and the way they flickered from copper-coloured in the sunshine to golden brown in the shadows. His face is etched into my memory, and now, I see him, so clearly that its almost as if hes standing in front of me the jutting Roman nose that made his profile so distinctive, the broad expressive mouth, the sweep of his brows and the way they winged upwards slightly at the edges, giving him the look of someone always just about to frown. I sigh, and Freya stirs in her light slumber. Do you want me to go? Fatima says quietly. If Im disturbing her No, stay, I say. Freyas eyes are drifting shut and then snapping open, and her limbs are becoming loose and heavy, and I know she is nearly back to sleep. Freya is lolling now, and I lay her gently into the cradle. Just in time, for below I hear the sound of footsteps, and a crash as a door is flung open, and Theas voice, ringing through the house above Shadows barking. Honeys, Im home! Freya startles, flinging out her arms, starfish-wise, but I put a hand on her chest, and her eyes drift shut, and then I follow Fatima out of Lucs room, and down the stairs to where Thea is waiting.? LOOKING BACK AT Salten House, the thing that I remember most is the contrasts. The searing brightness that came off the sea on a sunny winters day, and the midnight black of a country night deeper than any London dark. The quiet concentration of the art rooms, and the shrieking cacophony of the buttery, with three hundred hungry girls waiting to be fed. And, most of all, the intensity of the friendships that sprang up after only a few weeks in that hothouse atmosphere and the enmities that went with that. It was the noise that struck me most, that first night. Fatima and I were unpacking when the bell went for supper, moving around the room in a silence that was already companionable and easy. When the bell shrieked out and we tumbled hastily into the corridor, the wall of sound that met us was like nothing I had heard at my day school and it only intensified when we walked into the buttery. Lunch had been busy enough, but girls had been arriving all day, and now the hall was rammed, the din of three hundred high-pitched voices enough to make your eardrums bleed. Fatima and I were standing uncertainly, looking for a space to sit as girls pushed purposefully past us on all sides, heading for their own particular friends, when I saw Thea and Kate at the end of one of the long polished wood tables. They were facing each other, and there was a spare place beside each of them. I nodded at Fatima and we began to make our way over but then another girl cut in front of us, and I realised she was aiming there too. There would not be enough space for all of us. You take it, I said to Fatima, trying to sound as if I didnt mind. Im happy going on another table. Dont be silly. Fatima gave me a friendly shove. Im not abandoning you! Theres got to be two seats together somewhere. But she didnt move. There was something about the way the other girl was walking towards Kate and Thea that didnt seem quite right there was a purpose to it, a hostility that I couldnt quite pin down. Looking for a seat? Thea said sweetly as the girl reached her. Id later come to know her as Helen Fitzpatrick, and she was cheerful and gossipy, but now she laughed, disbelieving and bitter. Thanks, but Id rather sit by the toilets. Why the hell did you tell me Miss Weatherby was pregnant? I sent her a congratulations card, and she went completely mental. Ive been gated for six weeks. Thea said nothing, but I could see she was trying not to laugh, and Kate, who was sitting with her back to Helen, mouthed ten points, and held up her fingers to Thea, grinning. Well? Helen demanded. My mistake. I must have misheard. Dont bullshit me! Youre a filthy liar. It was a joke, Thea said. I never told you it was definite I said Id heard on the grapevine. Next time, check your facts. Ill give you facts. I heard some facts about your last school, Thea. I met a girl from there at tennis camp. She said youre not right in the head and they had to expel you. Well, they had the right idea, if you ask me. The sooner they chuck you out of here the better as far as Im concerned. Kate stood up at that and swung round to face Helen. Her face was quite changed from the mischievous, friendly expression Id seen on the train. It was full of a cold, hard anger that scared me a little. You know what your problem is? She leaned forward, so that Helen took a step back, almost involuntarily. You spend far too much time listening to rumours. If you stopped believing every nasty bit of gossip floating around, you wouldnt have got grounded. Fuck you, Helen spat, and then all the girls jumped as a voice came from behind the little group. It was Miss Farquharson, Gym. Everything quite all right here? Helen shot a look at Thea, and seemed to bite her tongue. Yes, Miss Farquharson, she said, her voice sulky. Thea? Kate? Yes, Miss Farquharson, Kate said. Good. Look, there are two new girls hovering behind you looking for a space, and no ones asked them to sit down. Fatima, Isa, make room for yourselves on the benches. Helen, do you need a seat? No, Miss Farquharson. Jess is saving me one. Then I suggest you go and take it. Miss Farquharson turned and was about to go, when she stopped, and her expression changed. She bent, and sniffed the air above Theas head. Thea, whats this I smell? Please dont tell me you have been smoking on school property? Miss Weatherby made it very clear last term that if there were any further instances of this wed be calling your father and discussing suspension. There was a long pause. I saw Theas fingers were gripping the table edge. She exchanged a look with Kate, and then opened her mouth but to my own surprise, I found myself speaking first. We were stuck in a smoking carriage, Miss Farquharson. On the train. There was a man there with a cigar poor Thea was sitting next to him. It was disgusting, Fatima put in. Like, really stinky. I felt sick even though I was by the window. Miss Farquharson turned to look at us, and I could see her appraising us both me with my clear, girlish face and smile, and Fatima, her dark eyes innocent and guileless. I felt my fingers go nervously to my hair, and stopped myself, linking my fingers together behind my back, like a kind of restraint hold. Slowly, Miss Farquharson nodded. How very unpleasant. Well, well say nothing more, Thea. This time. Now sit down, girls. The prefects will start serving out in a moment. We sat down, and Miss Farquharson moved away. Bloody hell, Thea whispered. She reached across the table to where I was sitting, and squeezed my hand, her fingers cold against mine and still shaking with spent nerves. And God, I dont know what to say. Thank you! Seriously, Kate said. She shook her head, her expression a mix of relief and rueful admiration. The steely fury Id seen in her expression as she faced up to Helen was gone, as if it had never existed. Both of you pulled that off like pros. Welcome to the Lying Game, Thea said. She glanced at Kate. Right? And Kate nodded. Welcome to the Lying Game. Oh her face broke into grin and ten points. IT DIDNT TAKE Fatima and me long to find out why the tower was considered to have the best rooms in fact we worked it out that very first evening. I had returned to our room after watching a film in the common room. Fatima was already there, lying on her bed, writing what looked like a letter on thin airmail paper, her mahogany hair hanging like dark curtains of silk on either side of her face. She looked up as I came in and yawned, and I saw she was already in her pyjamas a skimpy vest top and pink flannel shorts. The top rode up as she stretched, showing a strip of flat stomach. Ready for bed? she asked, sitting up. Definitely. I sat down on the mattress with a squeak of springs and pulled off my shoes. God, Im shattered. So many new faces I know. Fatima shook back her hair and folded the letter into her bedside table. I couldnt face meeting more people after supper so I came back here. Was that awful of me? Dont be silly. Its probably what I should have done. I didnt talk to anyone really anyway it seemed to be mostly younger girls. What was the film? Clueless, I said, stifling a yawn of my own, and then I turned my back to start unbuttoning my shirt. I had imagined a cubicle, like in boarding-school stories, with curtains you could pull around, but it turned out that was only for the dormitories. Girls in bedrooms were expected just to give each other privacy when necessary. I was in my pyjamas, and rummaging in my locker for my sponge bag, when a noise made me stop and look over my shoulder. It had sounded like a knock, but it hadnt come from the door side of the room. Was that you? I asked Fatima. She shook her head. I was about to ask the same thing. It sounded like it came from the window. The curtains were closed, and we both stood, listening, feeling oddly tense and foolish. I was just about to shrug it off with a laugh and a comment about Rapunzel, when the sound came again, louder this time, making us both squeak and then giggle nervously. It had come, quite definitely this time, from the window closest to my bed and I strode across to it and pulled back the curtain. I dont know what I was expecting but whatever it was, it was not what I saw: a pale face peering through the glass, surrounded by the darkness. For a minute, I just gaped, and then I remembered what I had seen from the minibus as it made its way up the drive: the black wiry tendrils of the fire escapes, twining up the sides of the building and round the towers, and I looked closer. It was Kate. She grinned, and made a twisting motion with her wrist, and I realised that she wanted me to open the window. The clasp was rusty and stiff, and I struggled for a moment, before it gave with a screech. Well, Kate said. She waved a hand at a rickety black metal structure below her, silhouetted against the paler background of the sea. What are you waiting for? I looked back at Fatima, who shrugged and nodded, and then, pulling the blanket off the foot of my bed, I clambered up onto the windowsill and out into the cool autumn darkness. Outside, the night air was still and calm, and as Fatima and I followed Kate quietly up the shivering metal steps of the fire escape, I could hear the far-off crash of the waves against the shingle shore, and the screech of the gulls wheeling and calling out to sea. Thea was waiting at the top of the fire escape as we rounded the last curve of the tower. She had on a T-shirt, and it barely skimmed her long, slim thighs. Spread out that blanket, she said to me, and I flung it out across the wire mesh and sat down beside her. So now you know, Kate said, with a conspiratorial smile. You have our secret in your hands. And all we can offer in return for your silence, Thea drawled, is this she held up a bottle of Jack Daniels and these. And she held up a packet of Silk Cut. Do you smoke? She tapped the packet and held it out towards us, a single cigarette poking from the top. Fatima shook her head. No. But Ill have some of that. She nodded at the bourbon, and Kate passed her the bottle. Fatima took a long swig, shuddered, and then wiped her mouth with a grin. Isa? Thea said, still holding out the cigarette. I didnt smoke. I had tried it once or twice at my school in London, and hadnt enjoyed it. And more than that, I knew that my parents would hate me smoking, particularly my father, who had smoked himself as a younger man and had periodic relapses into self-hatred and cigars. But here here I was someone else someone new. Here I was not the conscientious schoolgirl who always got her homework in on time, and did the vacuuming before she went out with her friends. Here I could be anyone I wanted. Here I could be someone completely different. Thanks, I said. I took the cigarette from Theas outstretched packet and when Kate flicked her Bic lighter, I leaned in towards the flame-filled cup made by her hands, my hair falling across her honey-brown arm like a caress, and I took a cautious puff, blinking against the sting in my eyes, and hoping I wouldnt choke. Thanks for earlier, Thea said. The smoking I mean. You you really saved my bacon. I dont know what would happen if I got expelled again. I seriously think Dad might get me locked up. It was nothing. I breathed out, watching the thread of smoke float up, past the rooftops of the school, towards a glorious white moon, just a shade off full. But listen, what did you mean, that thing you said at dinner? About the points? Its how we keep track, Kate said. Ten points for suckering someone completely. Five for an inspired story or for making another player corpse. Fifteen points for taking down someone really snooty. But the points dont count for anything important, its just I dont know. To make it more fun. Its a version of a game they used to play at one of my old schools, Thea said. She took a languid puff of her cigarette. They did it to new girls. The idea was to get them to do something stupid you know, tell them that it was tradition for all students to take their bath towel to evening prep to make it faster for evening showers, or persuade them first years could only walk clockwise round the quad. Pathetic stuff. Anyway, when I came here I was the new girl all over again, and I thought, fuck them. Ill be the one who lies this time. And this time Ill make it count. I wont pick on the new girls, the ones who cant defend themselves. Ill do it to the ones in charge the teachers, the popular girls. The ones who think theyre above it all. She blew out a plume of smoke. Only, the first time I lied to Kate, she didnt hit the roof and threaten to have me ostracised, she just laughed. And thats when I knew. She wasnt one of them. And neither are you, Kate said conspiratorially. Right? Right, Fatima said. She took another swig from the bottle and grinned. I only nodded. I brought the cigarette up to my lips and puffed again, inhaling deeply this time, feeling the smoke going down into my lungs, and filtering through my blood. My head swam, and the hand holding the cigarette shook as I put it down to rest on the meshed wire of the fire-escape platform, but I said nothing, hoping only that the others hadnt noticed the sudden head rush. I felt Thea watching me, and I had the strangest conviction that in spite of my composure, she was not deceived and knew exactly what was passing through my mind, and the struggle I was having to pretend that I was used to this, but she didnt tease me about it, she just held out the bottle. Drink up, she said, her vowels sharp as glass, and then, as if recognising her own imperiousness she grinned, softening the haughtiness of the command. You need something to take the edge off the first day. I thought of my mother, asleep under a sheet in hospital, poison trickling into her veins, my brother alone in his new room at Charterhouse, my father driving back through the night to our empty house in London my nerves sang, tight as violin strings, and I nodded, and reached out with my free hand. When the whiskey hit my mouth it burned like fire, and I had to fight the urge to choke and cough, but I swallowed it down, feeling it scald my gullet all the way to my stomach, feeling the tight fibres of my core relax, just a little. Then held the bottle out towards Kate. Kate took it and put it to her lips, and when she drank, it wasnt a cautious swig like the ones Fatima and I had taken, but two, three full-on gulps, without pausing, or even flinching; she might have been drinking milk. When she had finished, she wiped her mouth, her eyes glinting in the darkness. Heres to us, she said, holding the bottle high, the moonlight striking off the glass. May we never grow old. THEA, OUT OF all of them, is the person I have not seen for longest, and so the image in my minds eye as I descend the stairs, is the girl of seventeen years ago, with her beautiful face, and her hair like a storm front coming across a sunlit sky. As I round the corner of the rickety stairs, its not Thea I see first, but the watercolour that Ambrose did, in the corner of the staircase, Thea, swimming in the Reach. Ambrose has caught the sunlight on her skin and the prismed light filtering through the water, and her head is flung back, her long hair slicked to her skull making her even more arresting. It is with that picture in my head that I turn the final curve, wondering what to expect and Thea is waiting. She is more beautiful than ever I would not have thought that were possible, but its true. Her face is thinner, her features more defined, and her dark hair is cropped close to her skull. Its as if her beauty has been pared back to its bones, shorn of the two-tone waterfall of silky hair, of make-up and jewellery. She is older, more striking, even thinner too thin. And yet she is exactly the same. I think of Kates toast, that night long ago when we barely knew each other. May we never grow old Thee, I breathe. And then I am holding her, and feeling her bones, and Fatima is hugging her and laughing, and Thee is saying, For Christs sake, you two, youre crushing me! And watch out for my boots, the fucker chucked me out of the cab halfway up the Reach. I practically had to wade here. She smells of cigarettes and alcohol, its sweetness like overripe fruit heavy on her breath as she laughs into my hair, before letting us both go and walking to the table in the window. I cant believe you two are mums. Her smile is just as it always was, curved, a little wry, concealing secrets. She pulls out the chair that was always hers when we sat and smoked and drank into the small hours, and sits down, putting a Sobranie cigarette, black with a gold tip, between her lips. How did they let reprobates like you reproduce? I know, right? Fatima pulls out her own chair and sits opposite, her back to the stove. Thats pretty much what I said to Ali when they gave me Nadia to take home from the hospital. What the hell do I do now? Kate picks up a plate and holds it out to Thea, one eyebrow raised. Yes? No? Have you eaten? Theres plenty of couscous left. Thea shakes her head, and lights her cigarette before she answers, blowing out a stream of smoke. Im fine. I just want a drink. And to find out why the hell were all here. We have wine and wine Kate says. She looks through the lopsided dresser. And wine. Thats it. Christ, youve gone soft on me. No spirits? Go on then, I guess Ill have wine. Kate pours into one of the cracked green-blue glasses on the side, a huge glass, a third of a bottle at least, and hands it to Thea, who holds it up, watching the candle in the centre of the table through the ruby depths. To us, she says at last. May we never grow old. But I dont want to drink to that now. I do want to grow old. I want to grow old, see Freya grow up, feel the wrinkles on my face. I am saved from commenting when Thea pauses, her glass halfway to her lips, and points with one finger at Fatimas glass of lemonade. Hang on, hang on, whats this shit? Lemonade? You cant drink a toast with lemonade. Youre not knocked up again, are you? Fatima shakes her head with a smile, and then points to the scarf lying loose around her shoulders. Times have changed, Thea. This isnt just a fashion accessory. Oh, darling, come on, wearing a hijab doesnt mean you have to be a nun! We get Muslims in the casino all the time, one of them told me for a fact that if you drink gin and tonic it doesnt count as alcohol, its classified as medicine because of the quinine. A, that advice is whats technically termed in theological circles as bullshit, Fatima says. Shes still smiling, but theres a little hint of steel under her light voice. And B, you have to wonder about the dissociative powers of anyone wearing a hijab in a casino, considering the Koranic teachings on gambling. There is silence in the room. I exchange a glance with Kate, and draw a breath to speak, but I cant think what to say, other than to tell Thea to shut the fuck up. You werent always such a prude, Thea says at last, sipping her wine, and beside me I feel Kate stiffen with anxiety, but Thea is smiling, the corner of her mouth just quirked with that wry little tilt. In fact, I might be wrong, but I distinctly remember a certain game of strip poker ? Or am I thinking of a different Ms Qureshy? You werent always such a dick, Fatima replies, but theres no rancour in her voice, and she is smiling too. She reaches across the table and punches Thea lightly on the arm, and Thea laughs, and her real, true smile the one which is wide and generous and full of self-mockery flashes out in spite of herself. Liar, she says, still grinning, and the tension leaches out of the air, like static electricity discharging into the ground with a harmless crackle. I dont know what time it is when I get up from the table to go to the bathroom. It must be long past midnight. I look in at Freya on my way back, and she is sleeping peacefully, her arms and legs sprawled in complete relaxation. As I make my way down the curving stairs to where my old friends sit, I am overwhelmed by a sharp pang of d?j? vu. Fatima, Thea, Kate, they are seated in their old accustomed places, and for a moment, their heads bent around the flickering light of the candle, they could be fifteen again. I have the strangest impression of a gramophone record that has skipped, retracing over the echoes of our former selves, and I feel the ghosts of the past crowd in, Ambrose Luc My heart clutches in my chest, an almost physical pain, and for a moment a brief, stabbing moment a picture flashes before my eyes, a scene I have tried so hard to forget. I shut my eyes, put my hands to my face, trying to scrub the image away and when I open them again its just Thea, Fatima and Kate there. But the memory remains a body, stretched out on the rug, four shocked white faces, stained with tears There is a chilly touch on my hand, and I swing round, my heart thumping as I survey the stairs, winding up into darkness. Im not sure who I was expecting there is no one here but us, after all but whoever it was, they are not there just the shadows of the room, and the faces of our former selves looking out from the walls. Then I hear Kates low laugh, and I realise. Its not a ghost, but a shadow Kates dog, Shadow, his cold nose against my hand, looking plaintive and confused. He thinks its bedtime, Kate says. Hes hoping someone will take him out for a last walk. A walk? Thea says. She takes out another Sobranie, and puts the gold tip between her lips. Screw that. I say a swim. I didnt bring my costume, I say automatically, before I work out what her raised eyebrow and wickedly provocative expression means, and I start to laugh, half reluctantly. No way, and anyway, Freyas asleep upstairs. I cant leave her. So dont swim far! Thea says. Kate. Towels! Kate stands up, takes a gulp from the glass of wine on the table in front of us, and goes to a cupboard near the stove. Inside there are threadbare towels, faded to shades of pastel grey. She throws one at Thea, one at me. Fatima holds up her hands. Thanks, but Come on Thea drawls. Were all women, right? Thats what they all say, until some drunk comes along on the way back from the pub. Ill sit it out, cheers. Suit yourself, Thea says. Come on, Isa, Kate, dont let me down, you losers. She stands too, and begins to unbutton her shirt. Underneath I can see already that she is not wearing a bra. I dont want to undress. I know Thea would laugh at my self-consciousness, but I cant help thinking of my post-pregnancy body, my blue-veined milky breasts, and the stretch marks on my still-soft belly. It would be different if Fatima were swimming too, but shes not it will be me and Thea and Kate, both of them as slim and lithe as seventeen years ago. But I know I wont get out of it, not without a ribbing from Thea. And besides, theres part of me that wants to. Its not just the stickiness of the hair against my neck, and the way my dress is clinging to the perspiration on my back. Its more than that. We are here, all of us. Theres part of me that wants to relive that. I take a towel and walk outside into the darkness. I never had the courage to go in first, when we were teenagers. I dont know why not some strange superstition, a fear of what might be lurking in the waters. If the others were there, I would be safe. It was always Kate or Thea who led the charge, usually running off the jetty with a shriek to dive-bomb into the centre of the Reach, where the current ran fast. Now, I am too cowardly not to go first. My dress is soft, stretchy cotton and I peel it off in a single movement and drop it to one side, unhook my bra, and step out of my knickers. Then I draw a breath, and lower myself into the water quickly, before the others have time to come out and see my soft nakedness. Whoa, Isas gone in! I hear from inside, as I surface, spluttering with the cold. The night is warm, sweaty even, but the tide is high and the Reach is salt water, straight from the Channel. Thea strolls out onto the jetty as I tread water, gasping as my skin acclimatises. She is naked, and I see for the first time that her body has changed too, as drastically as mine in some ways. She was always thin, but now she must be close to anorexia, her stomach hollow, her breasts shallow saucers against visible ribs. One thing has not changed though her complete unselfconsciousness as she saunters to the very edge of the platform, the lamplight casting a tall slim shadow over the waters. Thea has never been ashamed of nakedness. Out of my way, bitches, she says, and then she dives, a perfect dive, long and shallow. Its also suicidally stupid. The Reach is not that deep, and is full of obstructions pikes in the riverbed, the vestige of old jetties and mooring posts, lobster pots, junk washed downstream by the current, sandbanks that shift and change with the tides and the passing years. She could easily have broken her neck, and on the jetty I see Kate wince with horror, and put her hands to her mouth but then Thea surfaces, shaking the water off her hair like a dog. What are you waiting for? she calls to Kate, who lets out a long slow breath of relief. You idiot, she says, something close to anger in her voice. Theres a sandbank in the middle there, you could have killed yourself. But I didnt, Thea says. She is panting with the cold, her eyes bright. Her arm, as she raises it from the water to beckon to Kate, is rough with goosebumps. Come on, get in the sea, woman. Kate hesitates and for a minute, I think perhaps I know what she is thinking. There is a picture in my minds eye a shallow pit, filling up with water, the sandy sides crumbling away Then she straightens her spine, an unconscious defiance in every bone. All right. She peels off her vest top, steps out of her jeans, and turns to unhook her bra and then, last, before she enters the water, she picks up the bottle of wine she has brought out onto the jetty and takes a long, gulping draught. There is something about the tilt of her head and the movement of her throat that is unbearably young and vulnerable, and just for a moment the years slip away and she is the same Kate, sitting out on the fire escape at Salten House, throwing back her head to drain the whiskey bottle. Then she lets the bottle drop on top of her pile of clothes, squares herself for the plunge, and I feel the ripples as she hits the water, feet away from me, and sinks beneath the moon-dappled surface. I wait, expecting her to come up somewhere close but she doesnt. There are no bubbles, and its impossible to see where she is, the moonlight reflecting off the water makes it hard to see anything beneath. Kate? I say, treading water, feeling my anxiety rise as the seconds tick past and there is still no sign of her. And then, Thea, where the hells Kate? And then I feel something catch on my ankle, a cold, strong grip that jerks me down, deep, deep into the Reach. I catch a breath before I go under, but I am deep below before I can scream, grappling the thing that is pulling me down. Just as suddenly, it lets go, and I surface, gasping and raking salt water out of my eyes, to find Kates grinning face next to mine, her arms holding me up. You bitch! I gasp, not sure if I want to hug her or drown her. You could have warned me! That would have spoiled the point of it, Kate says, panting. Her eyes are bright, and laughing. Thea is far out in the centre of the Reach where the current is strongest and the water is deep, floating on her back in the sweep of the turning tide, swimming to keep herself in one place. Come out, she calls. Its so beautiful. With Fatima watching from the jetty, Kate and I swim out to where Thea floats, suspended in reflected starlight, and we turn on our backs, and I feel their hands link with mine, and float, a constellation of bodies, pale in the moonlight, limbs tangled, fingers clutching and bumping and losing hold, and then clutching again. Come on, Fati, Thea calls. Its gorgeous out here. And it is. Now the shock of the cold has worn off, its surprisingly warm, and the moon above is almost full. When I dive beneath the surface I can see it, glinting, refracted into a thousand shards that pierce the milky, muddy waters of the Reach. When I surface, I see that Fatima has moved closer to the side of the jetty, and is sitting right at the edge, trailing her fingers in the sea, almost wistfully. Its not the same without you, Kate pleads. Come on you know you want to Fatima shakes her head and stands, I assume to go inside. But Im wrong. As I watch, treading water, she takes a breath, and then she leaps clothes and all, her scarves fluttering like a birds wing in the night air, and she hits the surface with a smack. No way! Thea crows. She did it! And we are scything our way through the water towards her, laughing and shivering with a kind of hysteria, and Fatima is laughing too, wringing out her scarves, and hugging us to keep afloat as the water drags on her clothes. We are together again. And for that brief instant in time, its all that matters. IT IS LATE. We have dragged ourselves from the water, laughing and cursing, scraping our shins on the splintered rotten wood, and we have towelled our hair and dried our goosebumped skin. Fatima has changed out of her wet clothes, shaking her head at her own stupidity, and now we are lying sleepily on Kates threadbare sofa in our pyjamas and dressing gowns, a tangle of weary limbs and soft worn throws, gossiping, reminiscing, telling the old stories do you remember Fatimas hair is loose and damp, and with it tangling round her face she looks younger, so much closer to the girl she used to be. Its hard to believe that she has a husband, and two children of her own. As I watch her, laughing at something Kate has said, the grandfather clock standing against the far wall gives two faint chimes, and she turns to look. Oh blimey. I cant believe its 2 a.m.! Ive got to get some sleep. You lightweight, Thea says. She doesnt look in the least tired, in fact she looks as if she could go on for hours her eyes are sparkling as she knocks back the dregs of a glass of wine. I didnt even start my shift until midnight last night! Well, exactly. Its all very well for you, Fatima says. Some of us have spent years conditioning ourselves to the rigid timetable of a nine-to-five job and a couple of pre-schoolers. Its hard to snap out of it. Look, Isas yawning too! They all turn to look at me, and I try, unsuccessfully, to stifle the yawn thats already halfway in motion, and then shrug and smile. Sorry, what can I say? I lost my stamina along with my waist. But Fatimas right Freya will be awake at seven. I have to get a few hours in before then. Come on, Fatima says, standing up and stretching. Bed. Wait, Kate says, her voice low, and I realise that out of all of us, she has been the quietest for this last part of the night. Fatima, Thea and I, we have all been telling our favourite stories, anecdotes at the expense of each other, dredged-up memories but Kate has kept silent, guarding her thoughts. Now, her voice is a surprise, and we all turn to look. She is curled in the armchair, her hair loose and shadowing her face, and there is something in her expression that makes us all stop. My stomach flutters. What? Fatima says, and there is uneasiness in her voice. She sits again, but on the edge of the sofa this time, her fingers twining around the edge of the scarf she has draped to dry on the fireguard around the stove. What is it? I Kate says, and then she stops. She drops her eyes. Oh God, she says, almost to herself. I didnt know it would be this difficult. And suddenly I know what she is about to say, and I am not sure that I want to hear it. Spit it out, Thea says, her voice hard. Say it, Kate. Weve skirted round it long enough, its time to tell us why. Why what? Kate could retort. But she doesnt need to. We all know what Thea means. Why are we here. What did that text mean, those three little words: I need you. Kate draws a breath, and she looks up, her face shadowed in the lamplight. But to my surprise, she doesnt speak. Instead she gets up, and goes to the pile of newspapers in the scuttle by the stove, left there for lighting the logs. There is one on the top, the Salten Observer, and she holds it out, wordless, her face showing all the fear she has been hiding this long, drunken evening. It is dated yesterday, and the headline on the front page is very simple. HUMAN BONE FOUND IN REACH.? Rule Two Stick to Your Story SHIT. THE VOICE that breaks the silence is Fatimas, surprising me with her vehemence. Shit. Kate lets the paper fall and I snatch it up, my eyes darting across the page. Police have been called to identify remains found on the north bank of the Reach at Salten My hand is shaking so hard that I can hardly read, and disjointed phrases jumble together as I scan the page. Police spokesperson confirmed human skeletal remains unnamed witness poor state of preservation forensic examination locals shocked area closed to the public Have they Thea falters, uncharacteristically, and starts again. Do they know She stops. Do they know who it is? I finish for her, my voice hard and brittle, looking at Kate who sits with her head bowed beneath the weight of our questions. The paper in my hand trembles, making a sound like leaves falling. The body? Kate shakes her head, but she doesnt need to say the words I know we are all thinking: Not yet Its just a bone. It might be completely unconnected, right? Thea says, but then her face twists. Fuck, who am I kidding? Shit! She slams her fist, the one holding the glass, down onto the table and the glass breaks, shards skittering everywhere. Oh, Thee, Kate says, her voice very low. Stop being a bloody drama queen, Thee, Fatima says angrily. She goes to the sink to get a cloth and a brush. Did you cut yourself? she throws back over her shoulder. Thea shakes her head, her face white, but she lets Fatima examine her hand, wiping away the dregs of wine with a tea towel. As Fatima pushes back Theas sleeve I see what the moonlight outside hid the trace of white scars on her inner arm, long-healed but still visible, and I cant stop myself from flinching and looking away, remembering when those cuts were fresh and raw. You idiot, Fatima says, but her touch, as she brushes the shards of glass from Theas palm, is gentle, and there is a tremor in her voice. I cant do this, Thea says, shaking her head, and I realise for the first time how drunk she is, just holding it together well. Not again, not now. Even rumours casinos are fucking strict, do you guys realise that? And if the police get involved There is a crack in her voice, the sound of a sob trying to rise to the surface. Shit, I could lose my gaming licence. I might never work again. Look, were all in the same boat, Fatima says. You think people want a GP with questions like that hanging over their head? Or a lawyer? She jerks her head at me. Isa and I have got just as much to lose as you. She doesnt mention Kate. She doesnt have to. So what do we do? Thea asks at last. She looks from me, to Kate, to Fatima. Shit. Why the hell did you bring us down here? Because you had a right to know, Kate says. Her voice shakes. And because I couldnt think of a safer way to tell you. We need to do what we should have done years ago, Fatima says vehemently. Get our story straight before they question us. The story is what it always has been, Kate says. She pulls the newspaper away from me and folds it so she cant see the headline, scoring the page with her nails. Her hands are trembling. The story is, we know nothing. We saw nothing. Theres nothing we can do except stick to that we cant change our account. I mean what do we do now? Theas voice rises. Do we stay? Go? Fatima has the car, after all. Theres nothing keeping us here. You stay, Kate says, and her voice has that quality that I remember so well an absolute finality that was impossible to argue with. You stay, because as far as everyones concerned, you came down for the dinner tomorrow night. What? Thea frowns, and I remember for the first time that the others dont know about this. What dinner? The alumnae dinner. But, were not invited, Fatima says. Surely they wouldnt let us back? Not after what happened? Kate shrugs, and for answer, she goes to the corkboard beside the sink, and pulls out a pin securing four stiff white invitations, returning with the cards in her hand. Apparently they would, she says, holding them out. The Salten House Old Girls Association invites to the Alumnae Summer Ball. In the space on each card is scrawled our names, handwritten in navy-blue fountain pen. Kate Atagon Fatima Chaudhry (n?e Qureshy) Thea West Isa Wilde Kate holds them, fanned like playing cards, as though inviting us to take one, make a bet. But I am not looking at the names, or the embossed gilt lettering of the text itself. I am looking at the hole, stabbed through each card by the pin holding them to the corkboard. And I am thinking that, however much we struggled to be free, this is how it always ends, the four of us, skewered together by the past.? ART WAS AN extra for most of us at Salten House, an enrichment the school called it, unless you were studying it for an exam, which I was not, so it was some weeks into the term, when the days at Salten had become almost routine, by the time I encountered the art studios, and Ambrose Atagon. Like most boarding schools, Salten groups pupils in school houses, each named for a Greek goddess. Fatima and I had been put in the same house, Artemis, goddess of the hunt, so our enrichment came round at the same time, and we both found ourselves searching for the studios one frosted October morning after breakfast, walking back and forth across the quad, looking for anyone more knowledgeable than ourselves to ask. Where the bloody hell is it? Fatima said again, for the tenth time, and for perhaps the eighth time I answered: I dont know, but well find it. Stop panicking. As the words left my mouth, a second year clutching a huge pad of watercolour paper shot past in the direction of the maths rooms and I called out, Hey, you! Are you heading to art? She turned round, her face pink with haste. Yes, but Im late. What is it? Weve got art too, were lost, can we follow you? Yes, but hurry. She bolted through an archway covered with white snowberries, and through a wooden door wed never seen before, hidden in the shadows of the snowberry bush. Inside there was the inevitable flight of steps I have never been so fit, since leaving Salten and we followed her up, and up, two or three flights at least until I began to wonder where on earth we were heading. At last, the stairs opened out onto a small landing with a wire-hatched glass door, which the girl flung open. Inside was a long vaulted gallery, the walls low, but the roof arching to a triangular point. The space above our heads was criss-crossed with supporting beams and braces, all hung with drying sketches and balanced with strange items, presumably to be used for still-life compositions an empty birdcage, a broken lute, a stuffed marmoset, its eyes sad and wise. There were no windows, for the walls were too low, just skylights in the vaulted roof, and I realised that we must be in the attics above the maths classrooms. The space was flooded with winter sunlight and filled with objects and pictures, entirely unlike any of the other classrooms I had seen so far white-painted, sterile, and painfully clean and I stood in the doorway, blinking at the dazzling impression. Sorry, Ambrose, the second year gasped, and I blinked again. Ambrose? That was another strangeness. The other teachers at Salten were routinely female, and referred to as Miss whatever their surname was, regardless of their marital status. No one, but no one, used first names. I turned, to see the person she had addressed so informally. And I caught my first sight of Ambrose Atagon. I once tried to describe Ambrose to an old boyfriend, before I met Owen, but I found it almost impossible. I have photographs, but they only show a man of middle height, with wiry dark hair, and shoulders curved from hunching perpetually over a sketch. He had Kates thin mobile face, and years of sketching in the sun and squinting against the bright light of the bay had worn his skin into lines that made him look somehow paradoxically younger than his forty-five years, not older. And he had Kates slate-blue eyes, the only remarkable feature he possessed, but even they dont come alive in a photograph the way they do in my memory for Ambrose was so alive always working, laughing, loving his hands never still, always rolling a cigarette, or sketching a drawing or throwing back a glass of the harsh red wine he kept in two-litre bottles under the sink at the Mill too rough for anyone else to drink. Only an artist of the calibre of Ambrose himself could have captured all that life, the contradictions of his still concentration and restless energy, and the mysterious magnetic attraction of a man of very ordinary appearance. But he never made a self-portrait. Or not that I know of. Ironic, really, when he drew anything and everything around him the birds on the river, the girls at Salten House, the fragile marsh flowers that shivered and blew in the summer breeze, the ripple of wind on the Reach He drew Kate obsessively, littering the house with sketches of her eating, swimming, sleeping, playing and later he drew me, and Thea, and Fatima, though he always asked our permission. I remember it still, his halting, slight gravelly voice, so like Kates. Do you, um, mind if I draw you? And we never minded. Though maybe we should have. One long sunny afternoon he drew me, sitting at the kitchen table with the strap of my dress falling from one shoulder, my chin in my hands, and my eyes fixed on him. And I can still remember the feel of the sun on my cheek, and the heat of my gaze upon him, and the little electric shock that happened every single time he glanced up at my face from his sketch, and our eyes met. He gave me the drawing, but I dont know what happened to it. I gave it to Kate, because there was nowhere to hide it at school, and it didnt feel right to show my parents, or the girls at Salten House. They would not have understood. No one would have understood. After his disappearance there were whispers his past, his drug convictions, the fact that he didnt have a single teaching qualification to his name. That first day though, I knew none of this. I had no idea of the part that Ambrose would play in our lives, and we in his, or how the ripples of our meeting would go on reverberating down the years. I just stood, holding the strap of my bag and panting, as he straightened from his position, hunched over a pupils easel. He looked across at me with those blue, blue eyes, and he smiled, a smile that crinkled the skin above his beard, and at the corners of his eyes. Hello, he said kindly, putting down the borrowed brush and wiping his hands on his painters apron. I dont believe weve met. Im Ambrose. I opened my mouth, but no words came out. It was something about the intensity of his gaze. The way you could believe, in the moment that he looked at you, that he cared, utterly and completely. That there was no one else in the universe who mattered to him as much as you did. That you were alone, in a crowded room. Im Im Isa, I said at last. Isa Wilde. Im Fatima, Fatima said. She dropped her bag to the floor with a little thump, and I saw her looking around, as full of wonder as I was at this Aladdins cave of treasures, so different from the plainness of the rest of the school. Well, Fatima, Ambrose said, Isa, I am very pleased to meet you. He took my hand in his, but he didnt shake it, as Id expected. Instead he pressed my fingers between his, a kind of clasp, as if we were promising each other something. His hands were warm and strong, and there was paint so deeply engrained into the lines of his knuckles and the grooves around his nails that I could see no amount of scrubbing could ever remove it. Now, he said, waving a hand to the room behind him. Come in. Pick an easel. And most important, make yourselves at home. And we did. Ambroses classes were different, we learned that straight away. At first it was the obvious things I noticed that Ambrose answered to his first name, that none of the girls were wearing ties or blazers, for example. Nothing worse than a tie dragging across your watercolour, he said that first day as he invited us to take them off. But it was more than that something other than straight practicality. A loosening of formality. A space, a much needed space, to breathe, in amongst all the sterile conformity of Salten House. In class he was a professional in spite of all the girls who pashed on him, unbuttoning their shirts to the point where you could see their bras, as they reached across the canvas. He kept his distance physically, as well as metaphorically. That first day, when he saw me struggling with my sketch, he came and stood behind me, and I had a sharp memory of my old art mistress, Miss Driver, who used to lean over her students shoulders to make alterations, so that you could feel the heat of her pressed against your spine, and smell her sweat. Ambrose by contrast stood his distance, a foot behind me, silent and contemplative, looking from my page up to the mirror I had propped on the table in front of my easel. We were doing self-portraits. Its crap, isnt it? I said hopelessly. And then I bit my tongue, expecting a reprimand for the bad language. But Ambrose didnt even seem to notice. He just stood, his eyes narrowed, seeming hardly to notice me at all, his whole attention fixed on the paper. I held out the pencil, expecting him to draw in corrections like Miss Driver. He took it, almost absently, but he didnt make a mark on the page. Instead he turned to look at me. Its not crap, he said seriously. But youre not looking, youre drawing what you think is there. Look. Really look at yourself in the mirror. I turned, trying hard to look at myself, and not at Ambroses lined, weathered face standing over my shoulder. All I saw was flaws the spots on my chin, the hint of baby fat around the jaw, the way my unruly flyaway hair wisped out from the elastic band. The reason its not coming together is because youre drawing the features, not the person. Youre more than a collection of frown lines and doubts. The person I see when I look at you He stopped, and I waited, feeling his eyes on me, trying not to squirm beneath the intensity of his gaze. I see someone brave, he said at last. I see someone whos trying very hard. I see someone whos nervous, but stronger than she knows. I see someone whos worried, but doesnt need to be. I felt my cheeks flame, but the words, which would have been unbearably corny coming from anyone else, somehow sounded matter-of-fact, when delivered in Ambroses gravelled voice. Draw that, he said. He handed the pencil back to me, and his face broke into a smile, crinkling his cheeks, and drawing lines at the corners of his eyes as if someone had sketched them in there and then. Draw the person I see. I could find nothing to say. I only nodded. I can hear his voice in my head now, clipped and husky, so like Kates. Draw the person I see. I still have that drawing somewhere, and it shows a girl whose face is open to the world, a girl with nothing to hide but her own insecurities. But that person, the person Ambrose saw and believed in, she doesnt exist any more. Perhaps she never did.? FREYA WAKES AS I tiptoe quietly into Lucs room (I cant think of it as anything else) and though I try to lull her back to sleep, shes having none of it, and in the end I take her into my bed Lucs bed and feed her lying down, bracing myself with an arm arched over her compact little body, so I dont let my weight fall on top of her when I fall asleep. I lie there, watching her, and waiting for sleep to claim me, and I think about Ambrose and Luc and Kate, all alone now, in this slowly crumbling house, this beautiful millstone around her neck. It is slipping away from her, into the shifting sands of the Reach, and unless she can let go, it will drag her down too. The house shifts and creaks in the wind, and I sigh and turn my pillow to the cool side. I should be thinking of Owen and home, but Im not. Im thinking of the old days, the long languid summer days we spent here, drinking and swimming and laughing, while Ambrose sketched, and Luc watched us all with his lazy almond-shaped eyes. Perhaps its the room, but Luc feels very present to me in a way he hasnt for seventeen years, and as I lie there, my eyes closed, the ghosts of his old possessions around me, and the cool of his sheets against my skin, I have the strangest sensation that he is lying next to me a warm, slender stranger with sun-dark limbs and tangled hair. The impression is so real that I force myself to turn over and open my eyes to try to dispel the illusion, and of course its only Freya and me in the bed, and I shake my head. What am I coming to? I am as bad as Kate, haunted by the ghosts of the past. But I remember lying here, one night, long ago, and I have that feeling again of the record skipped in its groove, tracing and re-tracing the same voices and tracks. They are here: Luc, Ambrose, and not just them, but ourselves, the ghosts of our past, the slim laughing girls we used to be before that summer ended with a cataclysmic crash, leaving us all scarred in our own ways, trying to move on, lying not for fun, but to survive. Here, in this house, the ghosts of our former selves are real as real as the women sleeping around and above me. And I feel their presence, and I understand why Kate cant leave. I am almost asleep now, my eyes heavy, and I pick up my phone one last time, checking the clock, before I surrender to sleep. It is as I am putting it down that the light from the screen slants across the gapped, uneven floorboards, and something catches my eye. It is the corner of a piece of paper, sticking up between the boards, with something written on it. Is it a letter? Something written by Luc and lost, or hidden there? My heart beats as though I am intruding on his privacy, which I am, in a way, but I tug gently at the corner and the dusty, cobwebbed piece of paper slides out. The page is covered with lines, and seems to be a drawing, but in the dim light from my phones screen, I cant quite make it out. I dont want to turn on the light and wake Freya, so I take it to the open window, where the curtains flutter in the breeze from the sea, and I hold it up, angling it so the moonlight falls on the page. Its a watercolour sketch of a girl, of Kate, I think, and it looks like one of Ambroses, though I cant be sure. The reason I cannot tell for certain is this: the drawing is crossed and slashed again and again with thick black lines, scoring out the face of the girl with lines so thick and vicious that they have torn the paper in places. Pencil holes have been stabbed through where her eyes would have been, if they werent obscured by the thicket of scribbles. She has been erased, scratched out, utterly destroyed. For a minute I just stand there, the piece of paper shivering in the sea breeze, trying to understand what this means. Was it Luc? But I cant believe that he would do such a thing, he loved Kate. Was it Kate herself? Impossible though it seems, I can believe that more easily. I am still standing there, trying to work out the mystery of this hate-filled little thing, when there is a gust of wind, and the curtain flaps, and the piece of paper falls from my fingers. I snatch for it, but the wind has caught it, and all I can do is watch as it flutters towards the Reach and sinks into the milky, muddy water. Whatever it was, whatever it meant, its gone. And as I turn for bed, shivering a little in spite of the warm night, I cant help thinking perhaps its for the best. I SHOULD BE tired enough to sleep well, but I dont. I fall asleep with the scratched-out face in my mind, but when I dream, its of Salten House, of the long corridors and winding stairs, and the endless search for rooms I couldnt find, places that didnt exist. In my dreams Im following the others down corridor after corridor, and I hear Kates voice up ahead, Its this way nearly there! And Fatimas plaintive cry after her: Youre lying again At some point Shadow wakes and barks, and I hear a shushing voice, footsteps, the sound of a door Kate is putting the dog out. And then, silence. Or as near to silence as this old, ghost-ridden house ever gets, with its restless creaking resistance against the forces of winds and tides. When I wake again, its to the sound of voices outside, sharp whispers of concern, and I sit up, bleary and confused. Its morning, the sun filtering through the thin curtains, and Freya is stirring sleepily in a pool of sunshine next to me. When she squawks I pick her up and feed her, but the voices outside are distracting both of us. She keeps raising her head to look around, wondering at the strange room and the strange quality of light so different to the dusty yellow sunshine that streams into our London flat on summer afternoons. This is a clear, bright light painful on the eyes and full of movement from the river, and it dances on the ceiling and walls in little pools and patches. And all the time the voices quiet, worried voices, with Shadow whining unhappily beneath like a musical counterpoint. At last I give up, and I wrap Freya in her comforter, and me in my dressing gown, and head downstairs, my bare feet gripping the worn wooden slats of the stairs. The door to the shore side of the Mill is open, and sunlight streams in, but I know before I have even turned the corner of the stairs that something is wrong. There is blood on the stone floor. I stop at the curve of the stairs, holding Freya hard against my thumping heart, as if she can still the painful banging. I dont realise how hard I am holding her, until she gives a squeak of protest, and I realise that my fingers are digging into her soft, chubby thighs. I force my fingers to relax, and my feet to follow the staircase to the flagged ground floor, where the bloodstains are. As I get closer I can see they arent random droplets, as Id thought from the top of the stairs, but paw prints. Shadows paw prints. They come inside the front door, circle, and then go swiftly out again as if someone had shooed the dog back outside. The voices are coming from the land side of the Mill, and I shove my feet into my sandals and walk, blinking into the sunshine. Outside, Kate and Fatima are standing with their backs to me, Shadow sitting at Kates side, still whimpering unhappily. He is on a lead, for the first time since I got here, a very short lead, held tightly in Kates lean hand. Whats happened? I say nervously, and they turn to look at me, and then Kate stands back, and I see what their bodies have sheltered from my gaze until now. I inhale sharply, and I clap my free hand over my mouth. When I do manage to speak, my voice shakes a little. Oh my God. Is it dead? Its not just the sight Ive seen death before its the shock, the unexpectedness, the contrast of the bloody mess before us with the blue-andgold glory of the summer morning. The wool is wet, the high tide must have soaked the body, and now the blood drips slowly through the black slats of the walkway into the muddy shallows. The tide is out, and only puddles of water remain, and the blood is enough to stain them rust-red. Fatima nods grimly. She has put her headscarf on again to go outside, and she looks like the thirty-something doctor she is, not the schoolgirl of last night. Very dead. Is it was it I trail off, not sure how to put it, but my eyes go to Shadow. There is blood on his muzzle, and he whines again as a fly settles on it, and he shivers it off and then licks at the stickiness with his long pink tongue. Kate shrugs. Her face is grim. I dont know. I cant believe it hes never harmed a fly, but he is well, capable. Hes strong enough. But how? But even as the words leave my mouth, my gaze travels across the wooden walkway to the fenced-off section of shore that marks the entrance to the Mill. The gate is open. Shit. Quite. Id never have let him out if Id realised. Oh God, Kate, Im so sorry. Thea must have Thea must have what? Theres a sleepy voice from behind us, and I turn to see Thea squinting in the bright sunlight, her hair tousled, an unlit Sobranie in her fingers. Oh God. Thea, I didnt mean I stop, shift uncomfortably, but its true, however my words sounded, I wasnt trying to blame her, just work out how it happened. Then she sees the bloody mess of torn flesh and wool in front of us. Fuck. What happened? Whats it got to do with me? Someone left the gate open, I say unhappily, but I didnt mean It doesnt matter who left the gate open, Kate breaks in sharply. It was my fault for not checking it was closed before I put Shadow out. Your dog did that? Theas face is pale, and she takes an involuntary step back, away from Shadow, and his bloodied muzzle. Oh my God. We dont know that, Kate says, very terse. But Fatimas face is worried, and I know she is thinking the same thing I am; if not Shadow, then who? Come on, Kate says at last, and she turns, a cloud of flies rising up from the dead sheeps guts, splattered across the wooden jetty, and then settling back to their feast once more. Lets get inside, Ill phone round the farmers, find out whos lost a ewe. Fuck. This is the last thing we need. And I know what she means. Its not just the sheep, coming as it does on top of our hangovers and too little sleep, its everything. Its the smell in the air. The water lapping at our feet, that is no longer a friend, but polluted with blood. The feeling of death closing in on the Mill. It takes four or five calls for Kate to find the farmer who owns the sheep, and then we wait, sipping coffee, and trying to ignore the buzzing of the flies outside the closed shore door. Thea has gone back to bed, and Fatima and I distract ourselves with Freya, cutting up toast for her to play with, although she doesnt really eat, just gums it. Kate paces the room, restlessly, like a caged tiger, walking from the windows overlooking the Reach, to the foot of the stairs, and then back, again and again. She is smoking, the rippling smoke from the roll-up the only sign of fingers that are shaking a little. Suddenly her head goes up, for all the world like a dog herself, and a moment later I hear what she already did: the sound of tyres in the lane. Kate turns abruptly and goes outside, shutting the door of the Mill behind her. Through the wood I hear voices, one deep and full of frustration, the other Kates, low and apologetic. Im sorry, I hear, and then, the police? Do you think we should go out? Fatima asks uneasily. I dont know. I find I am twisting my fingers in the hem of my dressing gown. He doesnt sound exactly angry do you think we should let Kate handle it? Fatima is holding Freya, so I get up and move to the shore window. I can see Kate and the farmer standing close together, their heads bent over the dead sheep. He seems to be more sad than angry, and Kate puts her arm around his shoulder for a brief moment, clasping him in a gesture of comfort thats not quite a hug, but near it. The farmer says something I dont catch, and Kate nods, then together they reach down and pick the ewe up by the fore and hind legs, carrying the poor thing over the rickety bridge, and swinging the body unceremoniously into the back of the farmers pickup. Let me get my wallet, I hear Kate say, as the farmer latches up the tailgate, and when she turns back towards the house, I see something small and bloody in her fingers, something that she shoves into the pocket of her jacket before she reaches the house. I step hastily back from the window as the door opens, and Kate comes into the room, shaking her head like someone trying to rid themselves of an unpleasant memory. Is it OK? I ask. I dont know, Kate says. I think so. She rinses her bloody hands under the tap, and then goes to the dresser for her wallet, but when she looks inside at the notes section, her face falls. Fuck. Do you need cash? Fatima says quickly. She gets up, hands Freya to me. Ive got my purse upstairs. I have cash too, I say, eager to finally do something that could help. How much do you need? Two hundred, I think, Kate says soberly. Its more than the sheeps worth, but hed be within his rights to get the police involved, and I really dont want that. I nod, and then turn to see Fatima coming back down the stairs with her handbag. Ive got a hundred and fifty, she says. I remembered Salten never had a cash machine so I drew some out at the petrol station on the way through Hamptons Lee. Let me go halves. I stand, holding a wriggling Freya over my shoulder, and dig into the handbag I left hanging on the stair post. Inside is my wallet, fat with notes. Ive definitely got enough, hang on I count it out, five crisp twenties, hampered by Freya joyfully snatching at each as they go past. Fatima adds a hundred of her own on top. Kate gives a quick, rueful smile. Thanks, guys, Ill pay you back as soon as we get into Salten, theyve got an ATM in the post office now. No need, Fatima says, but Kate has already shut the Mill door behind her, and I hear her voice outside and the farmers answering rumble as she hands over the cash, and then the crunch of tyres as he reverses up the lane, the dead sheep in the flatbed of his truck. When Kate comes back inside she is pale, but her face is relieved. Thank God I dont think hell call the police. So you dont think it was Shadow? Fatima asks, but Kate doesnt answer. Instead she goes over to the sink, to wash her hands again. Youve got blood on your sleeve, I say, and she looks down at herself. Oh God, so I have. Whod have thought the old sheep to have so much blood in her? She gives a twisted smile, and I know shes thinking of Miss Winchelsea and the end-of-term Macbeth that she never got to play. She shrugs off the coat and drops it on the floor, and then fills up a bucket at the tap. Can I help? Fatima asks. Kate shakes her head. No, its fine, Im going to sluice down the jetty, and then I might have a bath. I feel gross. I know what she means. I feel gross too soiled by what I saw, and I didnt even help the farmer sling the corpse into the back of the truck. I shiver, as she shuts the door behind her, and then I hear the slosh of water, and the scccsh, scccsh of an outdoor broom. I stand and put Freya in her pram. Do you think it was Shadow? Fatima says in a low voice, as I tuck Freya in. I shrug, and we both look down at where Shadow is huddled miserably on a rug in front of the unlit stove. He looks ashamed, his eyes sad, and feeling our eyes on him, he looks up, puzzled, and then licks his muzzle again, whining a little. He knows something is wrong. I dont know, I say. But I know now that I will never leave Shadow and Freya alone together. Kates jacket is crumpled on the floor by the sink, and I am seized with a need to do something, help in some way, however insignificant. Does Kate have a washing machine? I dont think so. Fatima looks around. She always used to put her clothes through the school laundry. Do you remember Ambrose used to hand-wash all his painting clothes in the sink? Why? I was going to put the jacket in, but I guess Ill just put it in to soak? Cold waters better for blood anyway. I cant see where a washing machine could be, so I put in the plug, and run cold water into the sink, and then pick up Kates jacket from the floor. Before I put it in the sink, I feel in each pocket, to make sure Im not about to submerge anything valuable. Its only when my fingers close on something soft, and unpleasantly squishy, that I remember Kate picking something up from the jetty, and shoving it surreptitiously into her pocket. When it comes out, its unrecognisable, whatever it is a matted lump of white and red in my fingers and I make an involuntary sound of disgust as I swish my fingers in the cold sink water. The thing unfurls like a petal and floats gently to the bottom of the sink, and I fish it out. I dont know what I thought it would be, but whatever it was, I was not expecting this. It is a note, the paper soaked crimson with blood and fraying at the edges, the biro letters blurred, but still readable. Why dont you throw this one in the Reach too? it reads. The feeling that washes over me is like nothing Ive felt before. It is pure, distilled panic. For a minute I dont move, dont say anything, dont even breathe. I just stand there, the bloody water running from between my fingers, my heart skittering erratically in my breast, my cheeks hot and flushed with a scarlet wave of guilt and fear. They know. Someone knows. I look up at Fatima, who isnt watching, who has no idea what has just happened. Her head is bowed over her phone, texting Ali, or something. For a second I open my mouth and then a kind of instinct takes over, and I shut it again. I feel my fingers close over the ball of mushy paper, grinding it, grinding it into pulp, feeling my nails in my palm as I rip and shred and mash the paper into flecks of white and crimson until its gone, quite gone, and not a single word remains. With my free hand, I pull the plug, letting the bloodstained water drain away, out of the jacket, and I dip my fingers in as it disappears down the plughole, letting the shredded mush float free into the spiralling water. Then I turn on the cold tap and I sluice away every trace of the note, every fibre, every fleck of accusation until its as if it never existed. I HAVE TO get out. Its ten oclock, and Kate is in the bath, Thea has gone back to sleep, and Fatima is working, her laptop open on the table in front of the window, her head bent as she ploughs intently through her emails. Freya is sitting plump-bottomed on the floor, and I am trying to play with her, quietly so as not to disturb Fatima. I am reading to her from the flap book that she loves, with the little babies playing peekaboo, but I keep forgetting to turn the page, and she bangs the book with her hand and chirrups at me as if to tell me, come on! Turn faster! Wheres the baby? I say quietly, but Im distracted, not properly entering into the game. Shadow is still lying unhappily in the corner, still licking at his muzzle, and all I want to do is snatch Freya up and hug her against me and get her out of here. Outside I can hear the whine of insects, and I think again of the spilled guts of the sheep, spattered across the walkway. I am just opening the flap to show the babys surprised face peeking out, when I see, right by Freyas chubby, perfect leg, a jagged splinter of wood sticking up out of the floorboard. This place, where I have spent so many happy hours, is suddenly full of threat. I stand, picking up Freya who gives a hiccup of surprise and drops the book. I might go for a walk, I say aloud. Fatima barely looks up from the screen. Good plan. Where will you go? I dont know. Salten village, probably. You sure? Its a good three or four miles. I suppress a spurt of irritation. I know the distance as well as she does. I walked it often enough. Yes, Im sure, I say evenly. Ill be fine Ive got good shoes, and Freyas buggys quite sturdy. We can always get a taxi back if were tired. OK, well, have fun. Thanks, Mum, I say, letting my annoyance break through, and she looks up and grins. Oops, was I doing that thing? Sorry, I promise I wont tell you to wear a coat and make sure youve done a wee. I crack a smile as I strap Freya into her buggy. Fatima could always make me laugh, and its hard to be pissed off while youre grinning. The wee might not be bad advice, I say, pulling on my walking sandals. Pelvic floor aint what it used to be. Tell me about it, Fatima says absently, tapping out a reply. Remember those Kegels. And squeeze! I laugh again, and glance out of the window. The sun is beating down on the glassy, glinting waters of the Reach, and the dunes shimmer with heat. I must remember Freyas sunscreen. Where did I pack it? I saw it in your washbag, Fatima says, speaking around the pencil gripped between her teeth. My head jerks up. What did you say? Sunscreen, you just muttered it as you were looking through Freyas nappy bag. But I saw it upstairs in the bathroom. God, did I really say it aloud? I must be going mad. Perhaps Ive got so used to being alone with Freya on maternity leave, Ive started talking to myself, voicing my thoughts aloud to her at home in the silent flat? The thought is a creepy one. What else might I have said? Thanks, I say briefly to Fatima. Keep an eye on Freya for a sec? She nods, and I run upstairs to the bathroom, my walking shoes clomping on the wooden stairs. When I try the door, its locked, and I can hear sloshing from within, and belatedly I remember that Kate is in there. Who is it? Her voice is muffled by the door, and echoey. Sorry, I call back. I forgot you were in here. Ive left Freyas suncream inside can you pass it out? Hang on. I hear a rush of water, and then the lock clicks, and a slosh as Kate gets back into the tub. Come in. I open the door cautiously, but shes fully submerged beneath icebergs of foam, her hair drawn up into a straggly topknot showing her long slim neck. Sorry, I say again. Ill be quick. No worries. Kate sticks a leg out of the tub and begins to shave it. I dont know why I locked it anyway. Its not like its anything you lot havent seen before. Are you going out? Yes, Im going for a walk. Maybe to Salten, Im not sure. Oh, listen, if I give you my card, could you get out two hundred pounds so I can pay you and Fatima back? I have found the suncream now, and I stand, twisting the cap in my hands. Kate, I look, Fatima and I we dont God, this is hard how to say it? Kate has always been proud. I dont want to offend her. How can I say what Im really thinking, which is that Kate, with her crumbling house and broken-down car, clearly cant afford two hundred pounds, whereas Fatima and I can? As Im scrabbling for the right words, an image flashes sharply into my mind, distracting as a jab from a stray pin when youre dredging for your purse in your handbag. Its the note, slick with blood. Why dont you throw this one in the Reach too? I feel suddenly sick. Kate, I blurt out, what really happened out there? With Shadow? Her face goes suddenly blank, unreadable. Its like someone has drawn a shutter down. I should have shut the gate, she says flatly, thats all. And I know, I know she is lying. Kate has become as remote as a statue and I know. We swore never to lie to each other. I stare at her, half submerged in the cloudy, soapy water, at the uncompromising set of her mouth; thin, sensitive lips, clamped together, holding back the truth. I think about the note that I destroyed. Kate and I both know she is lying, and I am very close to calling her on it but I dont quite dare. If shes lying, it must be for a reason, and Im afraid to find out what that reason might be. All right, I say at last. Im conscious of my own cowardice as I turn to go. My cards in my wallet, Kate calls as I shut the door behind me. The PINs 8431. But, as I clatter down the stairs towards Fatima and the still-sleeping Freya, I dont even try to remember it. Ive got no intention of taking her card, or her money. OUTSIDE, PUSHING FREYAS buggy along the sandy track that leads up the side of the Reach, away from the Mill, I begin to feel the oppressive mood lift. The day is calm and quiet, and the gulls are bobbing tranquilly on the rising tide, the waders stalking the mudflats with intent concentration, darting their heads down to pluck up unsuspecting worms and beetles. The sun is hot on the back of my neck, and I adjust the sunshade on Freyas pram, and wipe the residue of the sunscreen I have slathered over her fat little limbs onto the back of my neck. The smell of blood is still in my nostrils, and I long for a breath of air to blow it away. Was it Shadow? I cant tell. I try to think back to the spilled guts and the whining dog; were those tears from a strong jaw, or cuts from a knife? I just dont know. There is one thing for sure, though Shadow could not have written that note. So who did? I shiver in the bright sunshine, the malevolence of it suddenly striking through to my bones. All at once, I have a strong urge to snatch up my sleeping baby and press her into my breast, hugging her to me as if I can fold her back inside myself, as if I can protect her from this web of secrets and lies that is closing in around me, dragging me back to a long-ago mistake that I thought wed escaped. I am starting to realise that we didnt, none of us. We have spent seventeen years running and hiding, in our different ways, but it hasnt worked, I know that now. Perhaps I always knew that. At the end of the lane, the track opens up to a road that leads in one direction to the station, and in the other across the bridge into Salten itself. I pause on the bridge, rocking Freya gently to and fro, surveying the familiar landscape. The countryside around here is fairly flat, and you can see a long way from the shallow vantage point of the bridge. In front of me, black against the bright waters of the Reach, is the Mill, looking small in the distance. To the left, on the other side of the river, I can just see the houses and narrow twittens of Salten village. And to the right, far off in the distance, is a white shape that glimmers over the tips of the trees, almost invisible against the sun-bleached horizon. Salten House. Standing here, its impossible to pick out the route we used to walk across the marsh, when we broke out of bounds. Perhaps its overgrown, but now I marvel at our stupidity, remembering the first time, that chilly October night, dusk already drawn in as we climbed out of the window onto the fire escape, torches between our teeth, boots in our hands so we didnt wake the teachers as we crept down the rattling iron structure. At the bottom, we shoved our feet into wellingtons (Not shoes, I remember Kate telling us, even after the summer weve just had, itll be muddy) and then we set off, running lightly across the hockey fields, suppressing our laughter until we were far enough away from the buildings that no one would hear us. That first part was always the dangerous bit, particularly as the days grew longer, and it was light outside long after curfew. From Easter onwards, any teacher looking out of their window would have seen the four of us fleeing across the close-cropped grass, Theas long legs eating up the distance, Kate in the middle, Fatima and me puffing behind. But that first time, it was almost pitch black already, and we scampered under cover of darkness until we reached the clutch of the stunted bushes and trees that marked the edge of the marsh, and could let out our suppressed giggles, and turn on our torches. Kate led the way, the rest of us following her through a dark maze of channels and ditches filled with black brackish water that glinted in the torchlight. We climbed over fences and stiles, jumped ditches, paying careful heed to Kates muttered instructions over her shoulder, For Gods sake, keep to the ridge here the ground to the left is pure bog Use the stile here, if you open that gate, its impossible to shut again and the sheep will escape You can use this tussock of grass to jump the ditch see where Im standing now? Its the firmest part of the bank. She had run wild on the marsh since she was a little girl, and although she couldnt tell you the name of a single flower, or identify half the birds we disturbed on our walk, she knew every tuft of grass, every treacherous bit of bog, every stream and ditch and hillock, and even in the dark she led us unerringly through the labyrinth of sheep paths, boggy sloughs and stagnant drainage ditches, until at last we climbed a fence, and there it was the Reach, the waters glinting in the moonlight, and far up the sandy bank in the distance, the Mill, a light burning in the window. Is your dad home? Thea asked. Kate shook her head. No, hes out, something in the village, I think. It must be Luc. Luc? This was the first Id heard of a Luc. Was he an uncle? A brother? I was almost sure that Kate had told me she was an only child. Before I had time to do more than exchange a puzzled glance with Fatima, Kate had started off again, striding up the lane this time without looking back to check on the rest of us, now we were on firm, sandy ground, and I ran to catch up. At the door of the Mill she paused for a moment, waiting for Fatima, who was bringing up the rear, panting slightly, and then she opened the door. Welcome home, everyone. And I stepped inside the Mill for the first time. It has hardly changed, thats whats remarkable, as I think back to that first time I saw the place the pictures on the wall were a little different, the whole place slightly less drunken, less tumbledown, but the twisting wooden staircase, the lopsided windows casting their golden light out across the Reach, all that was the same. The October night was cold, and a fire was burning in the wood stove, and the first thing that struck me when Kate opened the door, was a blast of warmth, and firelight, woodsmoke mingling with the smell of turps and oil paint and seawater. Someone was there, seated in a wooden rocking chair in front of the fire, reading a book, and he looked up in surprise as we entered. It was a boy, about our age or, to be exact, five months younger than me, as I found out later. He was actually only a year older than my younger brother but he was a world away from little pink-and-white Will in every other respect, his lanky limbs tanned nut brown, his dark hair jaggedly hacked, as if hed cut it himself, and he had the slight stoop of someone tall enough to have to worry about low doorways. Kate, what are you doing here? His voice was deep and slightly hoarse, and there was a touch of something that I couldnt place, an accent not quite the same as Kates. Dads out. Hi, Luc, Kate said. She stood on tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek, a rough, sisterly kiss. Sorry I didnt warn you. I had to get out of that place, and, well, I couldnt leave the others to rot at school. You know Thea, of course. And this is Fatima Qureshy. Hi, Fatima said shyly. She stuck out her hand, and Luc shook it, a little awkwardly. And this is Isa Wilde. Hi, I said. He turned and smiled at me, and I saw that his eyes were almost golden, like a cats. Guys, this is Luc Rochefort, my She stopped, and she and Luc exchanged a glance, and a little smile that crinkled the tanned skin at the corner of his mouth. My stepbrother, I guess? Well, anyway. Here we all are. Dont just stand there, Luc. Luc smiled again, then he ducked his head, awkwardly, and moved backwards into the room, making space for the rest of us. Can I get you a drink? he said as we filtered past, Fatima and I tongue-tied by the unexpected presence of a stranger, and a strange boy at that, when wed been shut up for so many weeks with only other girls. What have you got? I asked. Wine, he said with a shrug, C?tes du Rh?ne, and suddenly I knew what that accent was, what I should have realised from his name. Luc was French. Wine is good, I said. Thanks. And I took the glass he gave me and knocked it recklessly back. It was late, and we were drunk and limp with alcohol and laughing and dancing to the records Kate had put on the turntable, when there was the sound of the door handle, and all our heads turned to see Ambrose coming through the door, his hat in his hand. Fatima and I both froze, but Kate only stumbled across the room, tripping drunkenly over the rug and laughing as her father caught her and kissed her on both cheeks. Daddy, you wont tell, will you? Get me a drink, he said, throwing his hat on the table, and ruffling Lucs hair, where he lay sprawled across the sofa, And I never saw you. But he did, of course. And its his own sketch that gives him the lie, the little dashed-off pencil thing that hangs at the crook of the landing, outside Kates old bedroom. Its a sketch of the sofa, that very first night, with Luc, and Thea and me tangled together like a litter of puppies, arms around one another, limbs entwined until it was hard to tell where my flesh ended and Thea or Lucs began. Perched on the arm of the sofa is Fatima, her bare legs acting as a chair back for Thea to lean on. And at our feet is Kate, her spine against the battered couch, her knees to her chin, and her eyes on the fire. There is a glass of wine in her hand, and my fingers are laced in her hair. It was the first night that we lay and drank and laughed, curled in one anothers arms, the stove flames warm on our faces, heating us through, along with the wine but it was not the last. Again and again we would come back, across fields crunchy with hoar frost, or past meadows full of baby lambs, drawn again and again, like moths to a flame that shone through the darkness of the marshes, drawing us in. And then back through the pale spring dawns, to sit heavy-eyed in French, or wending our slow laughing way through the marshes on a summer morning, salt water dried into our hair. We didnt always break out. After the first two weeks of each term, the weekends were open, which meant that we were free to go home, or to friends, provided our parents gave permission. Home wasnt an option for Fatima or me, with my father permanently with my mum at the hospital, and her parents away in Pakistan. And Thea well, I never enquired about Thea, but it was plain that there was something very wrong, something that meant that she either could not or would not go back to her parents. But there was nothing in the rules to say that we could not accompany Kate, and we did, most often packing up our bags and walking across the marshes with her on Friday nights after prep, returning Sunday night for registration. At first it was the odd weekend then it became many and then at last most, until Ambroses studio was littered with sketches of the four of us, until the Mill was as familiar to me as the little room I shared with Fatima, more familiar even, until my feet knew the paths of the marsh by heart, almost as well as Kate. Mr Atagon must be a saint, said Miss Weatherby, my house-mistress, with a slightly thin smile, as I signed out yet again with Kate on a Friday night. Teaching you girls all week, and then boarding you for free all weekend. Are you sure your father is OK with this, Kate? Hes fine, Kate said firmly. Hes more than happy for me to have friends back. And my dads given permission, I put in. With alacrity, in fact my father was so relieved that I was enjoying myself at Salten, not adding to his worries by clamouring to come home, that he would have signed a pact with the devil himself. A stack of pre-authorised exeat forms, by comparison, was nothing. Its not that I dont want you to spend time with Kate, the housemistress said to me later, over tea in her office, concern in her gaze. Im very glad youve found friends. But remember, part of being a well-rounded young woman is having a wide variety of friends. Why not spend the weekend with one of the other girls? Or indeed stay here its not as if the school is empty at weekends. So I sipped my tea is there anything in the rules about the number of exeat weekends I can take? Well, nothing in the rules exactly I nodded, and smiled, and drank her tea, and then signed out the following Friday to stay at Kates exactly as before. And there was nothing the school could do. Until they did. BY THE TIME I reach the stretch of road leading into Salten village, I am hot and sweaty, and I pause under the shade of a clump of oaks by the road, feeling the sweat running down the hollow of my chest, pooling in my bra. Freya is sleeping peacefully, her rosebud mouth just slightly open, and I stoop to kiss her, very gently, not wanting to wake her, before straightening up and pushing on, my feet a little sore now, towards the village. I dont turn at the sound of the car behind me, but it slows as it passes, the driver peering out, and I see who it is Jerry Allen, the landlord of the Salten Arms, in the old flatbed truck that used to take drinks back and forth from the cash and carry. Only now its older and more ramshackle than ever, more rust than truck. Why is Jerry still driving a thirty-year-old rust bucket? The pub was never a gold mine, but it looks as if he has fallen on hard times. Jerry himself is craning out of the window with frank curiosity, wondering, I expect, what kind of tourist is mad enough to be walking along the main road, alone, in the heat of the day. Hes almost past me when his face changes, and he gives a little blast of the horn that makes me jump, and grinds to a halt on the verge, throwing up a cloud of dust that sets me coughing and choking. I know you, he says as I draw level with the truck, its engine still running. There is a touch of sly triumph in his voice, as though he has caught me out. I dont say what Im thinking, which is that I never tried to deny it. Youre one of that crowd used to hang around with Kate Atagon one of them girls her pa Too late he realises where this conversation is leading and he clears his throat, and covers his mouth, trying to hide his confusion in a fit of smokers hack. Yes, I say. I keep my voice even, refusing to let him see me react to his words. Im Isa. Isa Wilde. Hello Jerry. All growed up, he says, his eyes watering a little as his gaze travels over my figure. And a baby, no less! Little girl, I say. Freya. Well, well, well, he says meaninglessly, and he gives a gummy smile, that shows his missing teeth, and the gold tooth that always gave me a slight shudder for reasons I could never pin down. He regards me silently for a moment, taking me in from my dusty sandals to the sweat patches staining my sundress, then he jerks his head back towards the Reach. Terrible news, isnt it? Theyve fenced off half the bank, Mick White says, though you cant see it from here. Police teams, sniffer dogs, them white tent things though what good they think thatll do now, I dont know. Whatevers buried there, its been out there in the wind and rain long enough, from what Judy Wallaces old man said. Her it was that found it, and to hear Micks account, their dog snapped it right in half at the elbow, brittle as a stick. Between that and the salt, I dont suppose theres much left of it now. I dont know what to say to this. A kind of sickness is rising in my throat, so I just nod, queasily, and something seems to strike him. You going to the village? Hop in, and Ill give you a lift. I look at him, at his red face, at the rickety old truck with the bench seat and no belts, let alone a child seat for Freya, and I remember the way you could always smell whiskey on his breath, even at lunchtime. Thanks, I say, trying to smile. But honestly, Im enjoying the walk. Dont be soft. He jerks a thumb at the back of the truck. Plenty of room in there for the pram, and its a good mile still to the village. Youll be roasted! I cant smell whiskey, Im too far away from the truck for that, but I smile again and shake my head. Honestly, thanks, Jerry. But Im fine, Id rather walk. Suit yourself, he says with a grin, his gold tooth flashing, and puts the truck back into gear. Come into the pub when youre finished with your shopping, and have a cold one on the house, at least. Thanks, I say, but the word is drowned in the roar of tyres on grit and the cloud of summer dust as he pulls away, and I wipe the hair out of my eyes, and continue on down the road to the village. Salten Village has always given me the creeps a little, in a way I cant explain. Its partly the nets. Salten is a fishing village, or was. Its really only pleasure boats that go out of the port now, although there are a handful of commercial fishing boats that still use the harbour. In tribute to this, the houses in the village are festooned with nets, a decorative celebration of the towns history, I suppose. Some people say its for luck, and perhaps thats how it started out, but now its kept up purely for the tourists, as far as I can see. The day trippers who pass through on their way to the sandy beaches up the coast go wild for the nets, taking photographs of the pretty little stone and halftimbered houses swathed in the webbing, as their kids buy ice creams and gaudy plastic buckets. Some of the nets look pristine, as if they were bought straight from the chandler and have never seen the sea, but others have plainly been used, with the rips that put them out of service still visible, chunks of weed and buoys knotted in the strands. I have never liked them, not from the first moment I saw them. Theyre somehow sad and predatory at the same time, like giant cobwebs, slowly engulfing the little houses. It gives the whole place a melancholy air, like those sultry southern American towns, where the Spanish moss hangs thick from the trees, swaying in the wind. Some houses have just a modest skein of netting between the storeys, but others are festooned, with great rotting swags that drape from one side to the other, hoicked up above doorways, obscuring windows, tangling in pot plants and window latches and shutters. I cant bear the idea of opening your window late at night, and feeling the cloying netting pushing back against the glass, shutting out the light, feeling it tangle in your fingers as you force the window open, the rip of the strands as you try to free the latch. If it were me, I would sweep away every vestige of the sad relics, like someone spring-cleaning a room, chasing out the spiders. Perhaps its the symbolism I dont like. Because what are nets for, after all, but to catch things? As I walk down the narrow high street now, they seem to have grown and spread, even as the place itself seems to have become shabbier and smaller. Every house is swathed, where ten years ago it was maybe half, if that, and the nets look to me as if they have been arranged deliberately to cover up the way that Salten is fading draped over peeling paintwork and rotting wood. There are empty shops too, faded For Sale signs swinging in the breeze, and a general air of dilapidation that shocks me. Salten was never smart, the divide between town and school always sharp. But now it looks like many of the tourists have disappeared to France and Spain, and I am dismayed to see that the shop on the corner that sold ice cream and was always bright with plastic buckets and spades is gone, its empty window full of dust and cobwebs. The post office is still there, though the net above its entrance is new: a broad orange swag, with an old repaired tear still visible. I look up as I push the door open with my back, reversing the pram into the tiny shop. Dont drop on me, Im praying. In my minds eye the tangling threads are engulfing me and Freya in their suffocating web. The bell dings loudly as I go in, but theres no one behind the counter, and no one comes as I walk to the ATM in the corner, where the pick-and-mix boxes used to be. I have no intention of taking Kates money, but the ?100 I gave to her nearly cleaned me out, and I want to be sure I have enough in my wallet to I pause. To what? Its a question I dont quite want to answer. To get groceries? To pay Kate back for the tickets to the alumnae ball? Both of those, certainly, but they are not the real reason. Enough to get away in a hurry, if I have to. Im tapping in my PIN, when a voice comes from behind me, a deep raspy voice, almost like a mans, although I know its not, even before I turn round. Well, well, well. Look what the cat dragged in. I take the money from the machines mouth, and pocket my card, then turn, and there behind the counter is Mary Wren village matriarch, perhaps the nearest thing that Salten has to a community leader. She worked in the post office when I was at school, but now, for some reason, her appearance wrongfoots me. I had assumed that in the years since I left Salten she would have retired, or moved on. Apparently not. Mary, I say, forcing myself to smile as I shove my purse back in my bag. You havent changed! Its both true and untrue her face is still the same broad, weather-beaten slab, still the same small dark penetrating eyes. But her hair, which used to be a long dark river to her waist, is iron grey now. She has plaited it, the thick grey rope dwindling down into a meagre, curling end barely thick enough to hold an elastic band. Isa Wilde. She comes out from behind the counter and stands, hands on hips, just as massive and immovable as ever, like a standing stone. As I live and breathe. What brings you back? For a minute I hesitate, my eyes going to a pile of local weekly papers, where HUMAN BONE FOUND IN REACH still blares forth. Then I remember Kates lie to the taxi driver. We I its the summer ball, I manage. At Salten House. Well. She looks me up and down, taking in my linen sundress, sticky and limp with sweat, Freya slumbering in her Bugaboo. I must say, Im surprised. I didnt think as you came back here any more. Plenty of dinners and balls been and gone and no sign of you and your little clique. She pronounces it click and for a minute I cant work out what shes saying, but then I understand. Clique. Its a loaded word, and yet I cant deny it. We were cliquey, Kate, Thea, Fatima and I. We were pleased with ourselves, and we had no need for others except as targets for our jokes and games. We thought we could take on anything, anyone, as long as we had each other. We were arrogant and unthinking, and thats the truth of it. My behaviour back then is not something Im proud of, and I dont enjoy Marys pointed reminders, though I cant fault the justice of her choice of words. You see Kate though, right? I say lightly, trying to change the conversation. Mary nods. Oh, of course. Were the only cash machine in the village, so shes in here pretty regular. And she stuck around, when theres plenty wouldnt have. People respect that, in spite of her little ways. Her ways? I echo back, unable to stop a slight acerbity entering my voice. Mary laughs easily, her big frame shaking, but theres something mirthless about the sound. You know Kate, she says at last. She keeps herself to herself, living out there like she does. Ambrose was never a loner like that, he was always in the village, down the pub, playing his fiddle in the band. He might have lived out on the Reach, but he was one of us, no mistake about it. But Kate . She looks me up and down, and then repeats, She keeps herself to herself. I swallow, and try to think of some way to change the subject. I hear Marks a policeman now, is that right? Yes, Mary says. And very convenient it is too, to have someone living local, as you might say. He works out of Hamptons Lee, but this being his home patch, he comes through here more regular than an outsider might. Does he still live with you? Oh yes, you know what its like round here with the second-home owners pushing the prices up, very hard for young people to save for their own place now, when theres rich people from London coming down, snapping up the cottages. She eyes me again, and this time I feel her eyes lingering on the expensive change bag, and my big Marni tote, a present from Owen that cant have been less than ?500 and was probably much more. It must be hard, I say awkwardly. But I guess at least they bring in money? Mary snorts derisively. Not them. They bring their food down in the back of their cars from London, you dont see them in the shops round here. Baldocks the Butcher closed, did you see that? I nod mutely, feeling an obscure sense of guilt and Mary shakes her head. And Croft

- Skyeng

3 ENGFILMS

  • Love Story /   (by Erich Segal, 1996) -    Love Story /
  • A Christmas Carol /    (by Charles Dickens, 1997) -    A Christmas Carol /
  • Assimil.    . Anthony Bulger, 2005. - 640 . + Audio Assimil.
  • Collection The tales of Peter Rabbit /       (7 ) Collection The tales of Peter
Cackle
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