The Swimming Pool - Louise Candlish

Prologue

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.

He 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 will end.

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 – there is a secure mental-health facility at Trinity Hospital a mile or two away – 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. ‘Please, can you lend me something?’

‘What?’ She’s stunned by my addressing her – and by my accent. It’s worse to know that I’m educated.

‘To cover myself. Please.’

‘I don’t think I’ve got anything …’ 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.

‘Oh,’ she says, and suddenly she does have something, screwed up in her handbag, a light cardigan of some sort.

‘Can I borrow it? I’ll return it if you –’

‘Keep it.’

With shaking hands, I tie the garment around my lower half, then tighten my arms over my chest.

‘Look, hang on.’ The woman takes a purposeful step towards me, her gaze lingering on the bruises that bloom on my arms. His fingerprints. ‘My name’s Beverley. You don’t have to tell me yours, but something has obviously happened, hasn’t it? Come home with me and –’

I interrupt: ‘Where do you live?’

‘Broadwood Road.’

I know it: no closer than home. ‘No, thank you, I’m fine.’ I sound polite, as if declining the offer of a drink.

The 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.

‘Who booked the stripper?’ a man’s voice calls out, and a second round of laughter volleys into my back. ‘Bit 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.

And 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 – he’ll wait for ever.

It will never be over.

1

Monday, 31 August 2015, 12.15 a.m.

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