Bill climbed out and sat on the side of the pool for a few minutes, his legs dangling in the water, waiting for his breathing to return to normal. That was odd – such hard work. Not like him. Everything seemed to have settle down again now. What was that about?
Stress, got to be.Thinking of that damned lab. Bloody Charm Chemicals: he must be more stressed than he’d thought. Well, he didn’t need to think about the place any more. Leaving was the best thing he’d ever done. He took several deep breaths and, confident that he wasn’t developing either asthma or a heart attack, he slipped back into the water for some gentle breaststroke. Take it easy, no need to rush. Backwards and forwards, pull and glide. He was fine, no problem. His breathing was as it should be, no strain and the stroke was perfect. He awarded himself full marks for style.
This was what he needed. Now that he’d finished with Charm, he could come here every day, if he wanted.
He could do anything. Take up another sport, perhaps. He didn’t fancy squash. Michael and Gina were always on at him to try squash, but rushing about on dry land had never appealed to him. He’d never felt co-ordinated enough to play squash. Golf maybe? Or a spot of fishing. Fishing appealed, but activities like that take time, and time was something that had always been in short supply. Not now, that was the benefit of retirement.
It was great, being here in the pool, having the chance to do something he enjoyed. He’d always been happy in water. Probably was a fish in a previous life.
A couple more lengths and Bill was out again, climbing to the high board. Dave, the lifeguard, called out to him from the poolside.
“You want to watch out,” he said. “Pensioner like you, going up there.”
“Give you youngsters a run for your money any day.”
“Probably very true.”
Bill had all the time in the world and he took it. He shook his broad shoulders out and relaxed before he dived, hitting the water at the perfect angle.
When he surfaced, Dave was clapping. “Not lost your touch, then,” he called. “Suppose we’ll be seeing more of you now?”
“You can count on it.” Bill flipped onto his back and floated, his big frame supported by the water.
“You could apply to be a lifeguard here, if you’re interested. They’re always looking for people. There’s a vacancy now.”
“Thanks,” Bill said, “I’ll give it some thought.”
“Doing the Charity Mile Saturday?”
“Never missed yet. What time do we start?”
But a group of school children arrived in the shallow end, distracting Dave’s attention. Bill would catch him later. He went back to swimming, crawl this time, not powering along, just enjoying the rhythm, breathing to the side on every third stroke.
At the shallow end, the group of youngsters were becoming rowdy. A couple of lads jumped off the side and Dave’s whistle was working overtime. Bill smiled, remembering his first encounters with a swimming pool. That had been a cold outdoor job near the docks, at the end of a gantry on what passed for a mud beach. You could watch the river rushing underneath through the holes in the changing room floor, which was slippery from the cloudy disinfectant foot-bath. With no heating, cleaned and flushed only by the tide as it ebbed and flowed, it had long been condemned. This place was a warm paradise by comparison.
His mind wandered. He hadn’t considered taking another job, but lifeguard: that was different. Getting paid to be around the pool. He had his lifesaving certificates, so that wouldn’t be a problem. It was a good idea. Better than being at Charm Chemicals, anyway.
Michael would be leaving the lab, going for coffee about now. Such a relief not to be there. Get out Michael. That place is bad news. At the least, it’s immoral. At worst – Bill didn’t like to think about what Charm might be up to at worst.
Don’t think. Just enjoy the water. Maybe the lifeguard job was what he needed. It would bring in a bit extra money and keep him from under Ellen’s feet. He’d never had much in the way of hobbies, apart from his swimming, not even as a spectator. Swimming had always been his sport and it came as easily to him as breathing.
But his breathing wasn’t easy.
The strain was back. He tried to control it, but it wouldn’t go away. He’d never had any problems before, so what on earth was wrong?
He switched to breaststroke and tried to keep it slow, rhythmic. Maybe a check up at the doctor’s would be a good idea. Years since he’d been near the surgery. Maybe time to get a full check up. This was stupid. His breathing wasn’t improving, it was getting worse. Like a tight band around his chest, squeezing him. Better get out.
“Stay in the water, Bill. You must keep swimming.”
Who said that?
Bill looked around him, but there was no one. Dave was with the schoolteacher and the children down at the shallow end. There were only the children’s voices: playing, screaming, echoing.
“Stay in the water.” This voice was inside his head. Maybe it was some sort of hallucination. Picked up a virus, probably. Everything was a virus these days, wasn’t it? No sense in trying to carry on. He must get out. His breathing was too fast, too shallow and laboured.
He knew that voice. Who was it?
“Keep your head down and keep swimming.”
But Bill didn’t want to keep swimming. He was tired and wanted to get out of the pool, but his powerful arms continued to pull on the water and he travelled at speed.
Strong hands tugged at him from below, so that he was underwater now, with no chance of breathing.
“Touch the side wall, do the turn, glide. Pull and glide. Turn again.”
He wanted to float to the surface, but the unseen hands dragged him down and his body was doing their bidding. Need to breathe in. Need air. His lungs screamed, head pounding.
Must get out. The metallic taste of blood was in his throat.
“And turn. Glide. Again. Keep swimming, Bill. You must keep swimming.”
“Can’t,” he said and swallowed what should have been chlorine. Instead, the water was fresh, tasted brackish, muddy. There were other voices now too, and poles were pushing at him, poking him down into the water.
“Push him down. Sink or swim, we’ll know the answer soon. Nathaniel-Too-Good-for-the-likes-of-Us, we’ll see what you are. As if we didn’t know.”
What was this about? Who were these people?
“We’ve suspected for some time.”
And now Bill couldn’t swim, even if he wanted to. He found he was tied up, right thumb to left big toe, left thumb to right big toe. How? How had that happened?
Never mind how – better get untied sharpish, or be prepared to drown.
“He put a hex on my cow so she died.”
“His mother cured my warts.”
“Ah, but she give them to me instead.”
Bill didn’t know what they were talking about and he didn’t care. His body was stiffening with cold. Though he was supple, getting his toe in his mouth hadn’t been something he’d tried since he was about six, but he had to get this thong off his feet.
Get it off. Better to lose a toe than his life.
It was bound tight. Matthew Hopkins had done a good job of tying him up.
Who the devil was Matthew Hopkins?
“Concentrate Nathaniel. Use your head or you will die.”
A woman’s voice. Speaking to him inside his head. Where was she? She was trying to save him – well, to save Nathaniel, whoever he was.
“You know how to do this,” she said. “I have shown you a million times. In case. Concentrate.”
“The old woman’s still floating, Matthew.”
How could he hear the voices above the water so clearly?
“Guilty then. As we thought. Pull her out. What about the younger one?”
“Sunk without trace.”
Bill’s heart fluttered and there was a stabbing pain inside his head.
“Innocent. A pity,” said the one they called Matthew. “She was a pretty little thing. What was her name?”
Rose – His Rose was dead? No, she couldn’t be.
But Bill didn’t know anyone called Rose.
“Nathaniel – remember. Remember all I’ve taught you.”
The woman’s voice was sharp inside his head. As the poles poked at his body, so her voice seemed to be jabbing at his brain. She was wheezy and ill. His mother was dying. Consumption she’d said. The gaol and the sleeplessness and now this cold water – they wouldn’t help her.
“Nothing can help me, Nathaniel. But you – you can live, if you will only remember,” she repeated.
But what was it he was supposed to remember?
And this wasn’t his mother. His own mother had been dead for years. Car accident at the bottom of Fool’s Watering, on the way back from Lowestoft.
“You must remember and live. Take my life into yours. Take Rose’s life.”
“No, mother.” The man’s voice spoke inside his head. Nathaniel’s anguish communicated itself to Bill, as they both struggled against the pressure in his lungs. “We can all live,” said Nathaniel. “If I can get free, we can all –”
“No, my son. Only together can we survive this. Do it now. Together, we can be strong.”
Bill felt her presence inside his head, felt the shift of his consciousness as he made way for hers.
“Concentrate. All that I have taught you comes to fruition now. Take my life into yours, my son. Take Rose quickly – there is not much time. Live long and remember us.”
What on earth was the woman babbling about?
Concentrate she’d said. On what?
He held his gaze on the impossible ties on his feet. That was what was going to kill him. He must concentrate on getting free.
Even as his mind thought it, he felt the knots loosen, felt the thongs lessen their grip upon him. He tore his feet away from his hands, and relished the exquisite pain as life tingled back into his toes, into his hands. Free of his bonds, natural buoyancy lifted his body towards the light.
But they were not going to let him out. The poles were pushing him down again and he dived to the bottom of the pond, searching in the dark, and the mud, and the reeds for Rose, his bride of just two weeks.
But that wasn’t right either. He was married to Ellen, had been for thirty-five years. Why were his lungs bursting for this unknown woman? How long since he had begun to struggle with his breathing? A minute? Five minutes? An hour?
He dredged through the mud until he found her. She was bound in the same way as he had been, and she rolled away from him as he approached. He caught her hair in his hands. He could see it in a dark halo, all around her head, like pictures of mermaids, remembered from books. Except that Rose’s eyes were popping, her full mouth shaped like a round, silent, whispered ‘Oh.’ He grasped her hair and pulled her body towards him to kiss her full on her lifeless lips, cold and unyielding beneath his. Nathaniel winced as the agony stabbed his heart, and he thought that it would break, but something had to be done and he did it. Using the knowledge his mother had taught him since his birth, he severed the tenuous link Rose still held to this world, and sucked it in.
Bill felt it like an injection of oxygen, intoxicating bubbles of life invading his brain, doubled, quadrupled now as he felt the rush of life the women gifted to him, seeping into him.
He sent his own silent scream to whoever was inside his head. This – Nathaniel.
“I don’t know any Rose. I don’t know these women. Help me.”
“You keep swimming.”
“But my lungs are bursting.”
“It will soon be your turn,” said the voice inside his head.
Bill had no strokes left, no pull, no glide. He was just held to the bottom. Ears pounding with the pressure.
More voices in his head.
“Bye, Bill.” Ellen. His own wife calling to him, his children.
Everything turned red in front of his eyes.
From somewhere far away, he heard a whistle.
That voice again and this time, he did recognise it. From someone at Charm. He knew this voice, didn’t he? Not Nathaniel. Surely – surely it was –
Hands were pulling him upwards now.
A distorted face under the water. Dave. The lifeguard. A tug of war for his body. Dave was trying to peel him off the bottom of the pond – no, the pool. He was back in the swimming pool. But this – Nathaniel – held him fast under the water.
And Bill had had enough.
He didn’t care any more about living or dying, these were just words. All there was in the world was pain. He could wait no longer for the agony in his chest and ears and eyes to stop, for the pressure to ease, for the red sea in front of him to fade away and become black and blessed oblivion.
Bill gave in. He opened his lungs to the chlorinated water and Nathaniel took into himself that essence of life that had once comprised Bill Bright.
The teacher from the school party went to help Dave and together they dragged Bill’s limp body to the surface, bleeding from his nose and ears.
“Hold him up,” Dave said and wiped away the blood, began mouth to mouth before attempting to drag him out of the water.
“Shouldn’t we get him out first?”
Dave ignored the man and gave Bill half a dozen puffs in an attempt to get his lungs going.
“No good,” Dave said. “Got to do chest compressions – get him on the side.” Bill was a big man, but between them, they managed to heave him from the pool. More mouth to mouth. Dave sent the teacher to get help and kept going until the ambulance men took over, but it was no good.
“What happened?” asked the teacher.
“Haven’t a clue.” Dave sat back, exhausted.
“Wasn’t he a very good swimmer?”
“The best. I can’t understand it. He seemed to be stuck on the bottom. All he had to do was stand up. He drowned in four foot six of water.”