Authors: Louise Candlish
For John Candlish
I am running
naked through the streets of Elm Hill.
It is late evening, summer's end, and the streetlamps burn synthetic holes in the darkening sky. Deep in the rack of streets on the east side of the park, the mild air feels hostile, the near-silence thunderous.
I am trembling badly. The arm covering my breasts has begun to spasm and both knees are buckling. Blood leaks from my right foot where gravel has sliced the sole. But none of that distresses me as much as my face, the grimacing, primitive feel of it, as if I've been robbed of all that makes me civilized.
has done this to me.
A sign for Wilson Road slides into view and I feel a sudden ache of hope: where I started is farther from me now than my front door. Just a left turn here, a quiet stretch of residential road, and the high street will be ahead. This
A woman approaches, lifts her eyes, and I see the same startled expression and flash of high colour as in every other face I've encountered, all mobility arrested by the shock of seeing a nude woman loose in leafy Elm Hill. They suspect I'm insane â there is a secure mental-health facility at Trinity Hospital a mile
or two away â and are afraid to help in case I turn savage.
But there's a flicker in this face that prompts me to speak for the first time since this nightmare began. âPlease, can you lend me something?'
âWhat?' She's stunned by my addressing her â and by my accent. It's worse to know that I'm educated.
âTo cover myself. Please.'
âI don't think I've got anything â¦' She looks down at her cotton dress and gestures helplessness. It's balmy: no one is carrying a scarf or a jacket.
It strikes me that I'm thinking normal thoughts. I'm still rational.
âOh,' she says, and suddenly she does have something, screwed up in her handbag, a light cardigan of some sort.
âCan I borrow it? I'll return it if you â'
With shaking hands, I tie the garment around my lower half, then tighten my arms over my chest.
âLook, hang on.' The woman takes a purposeful step towards me, her gaze lingering on the bruises that bloom on my arms.
fingerprints. âMy name's Beverley. You don't have to tell me yours, but something has obviously happened, hasn't it? Come home with me and â'
I interrupt: âWhere do you live?'
I know it: no closer than home. âNo, thank you, I'm fine.' I sound polite, as if declining the offer of a drink.
awful thing is she's relieved. She did the right thing and now she can scurry away with a clear conscience and a story to tell.
On the move once more, I slam my left toes into the raised edge of a paving stone and cry out at the pain. Raising my free hand to my face to wipe away tears, I catch a scent beneath the sweat, a scent that only makes me sob harder: chlorine and sunshine, scrubbed stone and suburban grass. Swimming pool.
I'll never go back.
At last the high street blazes in greeting, the Vineyard bar directly opposite the junction at which I've emerged. I falter. I'd forgotten about the pavement terrace, its crush of smokers: I'll need to pass right by it to reach Kingsley Drive. From a standing start, I sprint across the traffic lanes and meet the shockwave, the universal bewilderment that erupts into laughter.
âWho booked the stripper?' a man's voice calls out, and a second round of laughter volleys into my back. âBit long in the tooth for that, aren't you, love?'
I sense rather than see the phones in their palms. There will soon be pictures circulating, if not already, attracting likes and shares and re-tweets, comments that make this man's sound tender.
I'm on my street. The pain in my damaged toes is ferocious, consuming the foot and calf, causing me to limp. My building is in sight: four featureless storeys, the night sky above. It's nearly over, nearly over.
then I see him. He stands by the building doors, watching, waiting. My knees roll and at last I sink to the ground, powerless. Because I know he'll watch for ever â he'll wait for ever.
It will never be over.
She coughs in her sleep.
I spring to her bedside to check that her chest is rising and falling as it should, that her pulse is steady and her skin warm. In the dimmed light, I can see the vestiges of stickers glued on the headboard in younger years, pictures of kittens and ponies and love-hearts: all things nice. Children grow and it strikes the parent as both miracle and loss.
The coughing subsides, but I remain on my knees, vigilant. I haven't watched over her like this since the night she was born, when I stayed awake, enchanted and petrified, ready for her cry. At least Ed is with me this time. Thirteen and a half years ago, he wasn't allowed in the maternity ward after visiting hours but was sent home with the other fathers, ready or not.
I don't suppose Lara Channing had to stand for
. She would have been in some posh clinic for the births of Georgia and Everett, installed in a private room with Miles at her side, the recipient of privileges she'd assume came as standard. âYou are an angel,' she would tell the staff, in her smoky, intimate way. âI mean it, an
.' And she would say it like she really meant it.
I mustn't think ill of Lara. Not now.
âHere, this should sober you up.' Ed comes into the room with mugs of black coffee â as if adrenalin had not annihilated the alcohol hours ago, pinned open our eyes and cleansed our ears.
I return to my seat on the little pink sofa by the door, take the coffee in both hands. The smell is instantly comforting. Though there is space next to me, Ed chooses not to take it, perching instead on Molly's desk chair under the window. âIs she sleeping a bit better, d'you think?'
âYes. I'm glad we brought her home.'
We speak in whispers. Until the last half-hour she'd fought sleep, like an infant, her distress slow to fade, and since then we've hardly dared exchange more than a syllable.
âShe needed to be in her own bed,' I add.
âYou're probably right. It's good you insisted.'
insisted, this should sober
up: it destroys me, the way he speaks. If never again, surely tonight we should be united. âShe was completely hysterical, Ed. We know how to deal with that better than anyone. And it's not like we've snatched her from intensive care and absconded, is it?'
He lifts his glasses from the bridge of his nose, replaces them a second later. He is not quite looking at me. âNo, but the paramedics were pretty clear about wanting to take her in for observation.'
âWe'll observe her here,' I say.
nods, lets it go. To the right of where he sits, Molly's school uniform hangs on the wardrobe door, a scholarly silhouette with regulation tights dangling low. New shoes sit on the carpet below. All ready for the first day of term on Wednesday. I wonder if she'll be well enough to go back or if we should keep her at home for the week to recuperate fully. To think how we used to dither over arrangements when she had a day off sick, debate whose turn it was to cover, like it actually mattered!
All three of us were different people then.
âI wish I'd never â¦' I pause, struggling to subdue the what-ifs, to keep them from massing and charging.
âWish you'd never what, Nat?'
he looks at me, direct and eager, almost with a sense of daring.
I lose my nerve. âNothing.'
And I think how wrong people are when they say you should never regret, I think how unrealistic that is â dangerous, frankly. Personally, I regret almost everything, including and especially these last months. Even the parts when I was so happy I thought I might levitate, when it felt as if I'd never before known what summer was, what pleasure was, what it meant to live life to the full.
Mostly, I regret ever laying eyes on Lara Channing.
I happen to know that the sun rose at 4.42 the morning I first saw her. It was, in fact, the longest day of the year, with twelve hours and sixteen minutes of daylight.
I'm guessing it was past eleven by the time I logged on to the Elm Hill community website and saw her photograph, possibly even closer to noon. Sunday mornings were sacrosanct in the Steele household: all three of us being in full-time education, we timetabled down-time and this was our prized weekly triple period of laziness, the only blank box on the kitchen calendar.
Pleasantly indolent as I sat at the kitchen table, mug of green tea cooling in front of me, all I had in mind was to check if it was the right week for the farmers' market on the high street, but as soon as the homepage appeared I was waylaid. With her blonde tresses falling to her breast and her slender, burnished limbs, with a smile broad enough to post a letter through, she eclipsed quite effortlessly the competing items. Missing moggies and pedestrianization schemes, forget them, look at
! Listen to
was a second figure in the photograph, a newer, fawnlike version of the first, a teenager who looked older than Molly by two or three years. A mother-and-daughter shot, then, like one of those pictures you see of âageing' supermodels and their mini-me progeny on the beach in St Barts, the kind that make you wonder how each party
feels about the other's beauty. The caption read:
Brave locals Lara and Georgia Channing prepare for this morning's Dawn Dip at the new Elm Hill lido.
Ah, of course. Now I noticed the band of cyan water at their feet, the festive triangles of bunting above their heads, the blurred rainbow in the background that must be the row of changing huts I'd heard about, each door painted a different shade of art-deco pastel. In tribute to the 1930s origins of the site, mother and daughter had attired themselves in swimwear from the period: high-necked, low-legged, this was a style that flattered few. Luckily for all concerned, these two
The mother was quoted in the accompanying report: âTo have such a beautiful pool on our doorstep is a gift. This is going to be the best summer Elm Hill has ever had!'
And, against my better judgement, the words stirred excitement in me, causing me to turn to the kitchen window and check the sky above the plane trees: yesterday it had glowered the grey-black of a mussel shell, but today it shone blue and unblemished, a perfect June day.
If I opened the window I'd be able â almost â to smell summer. Teachers exist in a perpetual mode of countdown and I didn't need the calendar to tell me there were less than three weeks till school broke up (four for Ed and Molly, an inequality that neither had any intention of letting me forget); maybe it
going to be the best summer we'd ever had. Maybe, after all our careful avoidance of the new neighbourhood facility, it was going to be possible to enjoy it.
Then again, I thought, sensing resistance in the seat next to me, history suggested otherwise.
âFour forty-two, good Lord!' I swivelled the laptop to show Molly, who glanced up from her DS.
âFour forty-two what?' Her face was expressionless as she registered the image. With her straight brows and small mouth, she did impassivity well â even when wearing a Dalmatian-print onesie.
âThat's what time these two crazies went swimming this morning, and a whole lot of other people as well. It's midsummer. The new pool has opened.'
Molly made no comment, which was not unusual even when the subject was to her taste. I loved her reflectiveness, a quality I believed to be deepened, if not outright caused, by her being an only child. Not that I wasn't sometimes tempted to project my own thoughts on to her, of course.
âMaybe next year that will be us,' I said, keeping the mood casual.
Never judge, never blame
, the last therapist but one had said, a little mantra for us. In the end, he had
brought nothing new to the table, but I didn't judge or blame him for that.
Molly glanced again at the photo, raised her eyebrows. âTo be brutally honest, Mum â¦' â that was what the girls her age were saying at the moment,
to be brutally honest
â ââ¦ I don't think that kind of swimsuit is, uh, your style.'
I narrowed my eyes at the screen, failing to diminish the backlit glamour, the pull of the Channing woman's energy. âYou're probably right. Maybe I'm better sticking to the one I've got. Bland, conservative, modest â¦'
âI'm not even kidding,' Molly said, another current teen favourite (what did it âeven' mean? An expression of agreement, I gathered, or possibly contempt). Infants modelled their turns of phrase on their parents', but at this age they could come from anyone.
Not only do you have to let them go, my friend Gayle said, but you get no say in who influences them instead. On matters to do with parenting Gayle was my touchstone. The day I dismissed her advice was the day I lost faith in common sense.
I closed the laptop and returned to my tea, feeling â and I know it sounds trite â different. Inspired. So the lido had opened at last â re-opened, to be precise, following a closure that had lasted nearly two decades and at least three fund-raising campaigns that had bitten the dust before this last successful one. Each delay had been met with disappointment by the local community; only Ed and I had wished it would never happen, that the funding would fall through once and for all, or some
stalemate develop between builders and conservationists. That it would be left for the skateboarders or graffiti artists or clubbers or whoever else had been making use of the derelict site during the dark, dry years.
But secret wishes were dandelion clocks to the force of nature that was Lara Channing, for, as I would soon learn, it was she who had driven the project. From the very day she had moved into her parkside house and eyed the abandoned beauty from her terrace, she had made its resurrection her mission. She'd personally overseen the procurement process, the bid to the Lottery Commission, the final restoration; she'd even interviewed the lifeguards.
âPeople don't turn Lara down,' Miles Channing told me once, and his eye lingered on me long after he'd made his point.
Well, we were only human and, intrigued, Ed and I strolled down to have a look at the new pool the following Saturday morning when Molly was at her tennis lesson. Of course I'd passed the abandoned building countless times over the years, but such was its design â squat brown brick walls with enclosing curved corners, a horizontal strip of windows too high to see into, entrances and exits that had been boarded up more securely with each trespasser's breach â that, prior to its
reopening, it had been impossible to get so much as a glimpse inside. Now the plywood frontage had been replaced with a stark glass entrance, the reception area beyond a temple of flawless pale stone and polished wood. Signs in art-deco font directed arrivals one way to the changing rooms, the other, through a long sky-lit corridor, to the renovated poolside cafÃ©.
There was already a queue for tables when we arrived, but fortunately the manager, Liam, was the partner of a colleague of Ed's and he offered to squeeze us in on the sundeck. âWe'll need the table back at twelve,' he warned. He had the look of a man whose brakes had failed and we stepped quickly out of his way, seating ourselves before minds could be changed.
âTable back?' we grumbled. âWhat is this, the Ivy?'
But at the first turn of my eyes my cynicism vanished. It was as if a large nut had been cracked open to display its fruit â and the fruit was liquid blue, shivering with its own freshness. I had to shield my gaze from the sheer dazzling beauty, from the transforming, sun-spangled glamour of it. With the photogenic length of multicoloured huts and the candy-striped deckchairs on the upper terrace, it might have been Miami Beach or the CÃ´te d'Azur. Only the smell was English, not of swimming pool yet, but of the park beyond, of sap-drenched leaves and cut grass; green and lusty and alive.
âIt's so huge,' I said to Ed, slightly idiotically. The shallow end, a riot of flailing limbs and shrieking mouths,
seemed a field's length away. âI can't take my eyes off the water, can you?'
âHumans have an inbuilt attraction to it,' he replied, his words scarcely audible above the raised voices of a group of children setting up camp on the other side of the railing. âThey've done a nice job, haven't they?'
Ed registered the word â not one either of us had used in years, if ever â before shaking straight his newspaper. That Saturday
symbolized many things for him. It spoke of who he was: a left-leaning man who still took the time to read the news in print and in full, at least once a week. Others might have downgraded their engagement with current affairs to a quick scroll on their phones as they jostled commuters on train platforms or jay-walked their kids across perilous roads, but
was still willing to give it the time and attention it deserved. Even if his wife would have preferred a conversation
After we'd ordered I scanned the other tables for familiar faces. As a teacher at one local school and a parent at another, I was confident there'd be several. There was Molly's chaotic chum Rosie and her family â we exchanged waves â and Gayle's neighbour Ian, dressed for once in jeans and a shirt, not his customary Lycra (a keen cyclist, he was one of those hovering spidery types who, you suspected, had only themselves to blame when caught in a skirmish with a motorist); and Annabel from the kindergarten at Elm Hill Prep, in my opinion not so much teaching assistant as holy being.
a member of staff at the largest senior school in the postcode, Ed, were he to look, would recognize more Elm Hillians still (recent incomers had led a movement to call us Elm Hillbillies but the old guard had squarely rejected
). Though not, I guessed, the woman my gaze fell on next.
She was at the table closest to the water and the best on the deck, glamour radiating from her and rendering the rest of us mere extras in her scene. Her clothes were exotic (to my eye, anyhow; doubtless they were workaday to her): a pink silk shirt-dress with a woven silver belt; flat snake-print sandals, the kind you might wear on a luxury safari or for a stroll through a hilltop village in Umbria. Oversized sunglasses with amber-coloured frames covered much of her face, leading the eye down a small kittenish nose to an insolent Bardot mouth.
Irrationally, my brain ordered my pulse to leap.
âThere's that woman,' I said to Ed in an undertone.
He didn't look up. âWhat woman?'
âThe one I told you about, with the matching daughter. I can't remember her name.'
That was a lie: I didn't want to utter it for fear of being overheard by its owner. It was only six days since the sunrise photo shoot, but already Lara Channing had become the de facto face of the place, her photo gracing the leaflets posted through doors and even appearing on the features pages of the
to illustrate a piece about the new heyday of London's lidos.
was not with her daughter this morning but with a man I assumed to be her husband, given their idle tapping of iPhones and sporadic, inattentive conversation (at least he had not, as Ed had, placed a partition of newsprint between the two of them and kept it there even after their orders had arrived). I couldn't see his face, only the back of his head, the still-dark hair fastidiously cropped, the strip of neck between hairline and box-fresh cotton shirt expensively bronzed. On the table, alongside the phones, were a black coffee (his) and a green smoothie (hers), the antioxidant one with kale and kiwi that I'd not ordered myself because I thought Â£4.99 was scandalous for a soft drink â and even if I didn't Ed would.
âThey're locals, apparently,' I said, prodding his newspaper. âThough I've never seen them before, have you?'
âHmm.' He lowered the paper to reveal a chewing jaw, his plate of sourdough toast almost finished. He was famously hard to engage in gossip even when he wasn't trying to read. Careless talk costs lives: he would have led by example quite beautifully in wartime. âThe daughter's not at All Saints, is she?'
âI'd be amazed if she was,' I said. With or without the staff's dedication, All Saints (staff nickname: All Sinners) was not the school of choice for any known elite, and if I took anything from this first in-the-flesh impression of Lara Channing it was that she belonged to an elite. With those enticing looks and that media-magnetism, she was a breed apart from the mothers of Elm Hill
Prep, BMW-driving, gem-set-watch-wearing creatures of privilege though they were. Even the way she looked out at the water suggested a satisfaction more personal, more nuanced, than mere inbuilt human response.