Not quite what he intended…
“Where did you say we were going?” Laura asked as Joseph led her down yet another passageway. They had been walking for longer than was ideal in heels so she stopped to take off her party shoes.
“I didn’t,” was the only response she got. He was absolutely maddening sometimes, but at least he no longer seemed so anxious. In fact he was starting to resemble a naughty schoolboy with a secret.
They rounded one last corner and came to a stop. In front of them lay a still pool of dark, clear water. As well as a torch on the wall, a faint glow seemed to come from under the far side of the water itself.
“What is it?” Laura was puzzled.
“It’s the way home,” replied Joseph. “There’s a short tunnel and then we’ll be outside – can you see the light under the water?
Laura was speechless, so this was why he’d asked her about swimming.
“Don’t look so worried, it will be refreshing. You’ll know where you are when we come out.”
Joseph took off his shoes and reaching into a cleft in the rock beside the water he pulled out a thick plastic bag.
“Do you do this a lot then?” Laura was feeling extremely doubtful about the whole thing, but she handed over her own shoes and handbag and watched as he wrapped up a watertight bundle.
“Only occasionally, but on a sticky night like this, when I want to clear my head, there’s nothing better. Come on. You go first, head for the light and I’ll be right behind you. “
He seemed so keen that Laura didn’t have the heart to voice her doubts. It was a long time since she’d earned those stripes by swimming across the school pool without armbands, not to mention the fact that she was wearing her best dress. Of course it was already filthy after the Sirens episode, and at least he wasn’t expecting her to take it off.
She certainly felt very hot and grubby and the water did look inviting, so Laura sat down and dangled her bare legs in the pool. It was on the cold side of refreshing, but that didn’t seem to bother Joseph who jumped in with a splash.
“You did that deliberately!” cried Laura, “I’m soaked.”
“You might as well get right in then,” Joseph grinned, standing waist deep and clutching the plastic parcel.
Laura lowered herself in gingerly and watched the skirt of her dress rise up and float delicately on the surface of the water. Determined not to let Joseph see how cold she was, she clenched her chattering teeth together until her body began to acclimatise.
“Which way?” she said, trying to sound nonchalant.
“Just follow the light and I’ll follow you.”
So taking a deep breath Laura ducked her head under the surface of the water, opened her eyes and pushed off against the rocky edge of the pool aiming for the blurry light. She felt her way into the mouth of the underwater tunnel and with arms outstretched she kicked her feet, propelling herself through the silky water. How hard could it be?
Quite hard, as it turned out. Soon her lungs were bursting but she was still in the tunnel. Why wasn’t the stupid light getting any nearer? She closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on swimming, but her legs felt so heavy and she just couldn’t seem to reach the end.
Joseph spent a few seconds enjoying the feel of the cool water and imagining Laura’s surprise when they emerged in the Ladies Bathing Pond on Hampstead Heath. Then he bumped against her feet in the tunnel and realised with horror that she was no longer kicking, in fact she wasn’t moving at all. He dropped the bag of belongings to free both hands, then he grabbed hold of her ankles and kicked out as hard as he could, pushing her along in front of him.
It was only a moment until they were out in the open water of the pond but it felt like a lifetime. He pulled her inert body to the surface and towed her to shore where he dragged her up onto the grass. It was not yet dawn but there was a grey light in the sky as Joseph looked down at Laura with rising panic. She wasn’t breathing.
“Laura? Laura…” he knelt beside her and shook her by the shoulders.
“Come on, come on!” he cried in growing panic, “you said you could swim. Don’t do this to me.”
He sat her up and thumped her hard between her shoulder blades, desperately trying to knock some air into her until at last she gave a spluttering cough and took a breath.
Joseph supported her against him as she gulped for air and held back her hair as she was violently sick. Eventually, Laura collected herself sufficiently to turn and glare at him. He had never been so relieved, and he couldn’t bear to think about what might have happened if he’d opted to lead the way rather than follow her.
“Were you trying to drown me?” were her first words.
“You said you were a good swimmer.”
“No I didn’t.”
“The school stripes – wasn’t that the swim team?”
Laura shook her head. “You got two white stripes to sew on your bathing suit if you could do two widths of the pool.”
“Where are we anyway? I’m cold.”
“And I’m sorry. I wanted this to be nice surprise not a near-death experience. We’re at the Ladies Bathing Pond on Hampstead Heath.”
“Really?” Laura looked up with a flicker of interest, but she was now shaking from cold and shock, even though the night air was warm and still.
Joseph got up and ran around the edge of the pond to the wooden pool house used by the women who swam here each day. As he’d hoped, there was a small heap of abandoned towels on the decking which he quickly gathered up. When he returned to Laura she was sitting with her arms wrapped round her legs, fingering the material of her dress.
“Is it ruined?”
Could his stupid surprise have turned out any worse?
“Probably.” Laura didn’t move as Joseph wrapped her in the largest of the towels. “Where are my bag and shoes?”
“I dropped them when you stopped swimming. I had to push you.”
Laura lowered her head onto her knees, but said nothing.
“I’ll get them. Stay here,” and with that he plunged back into the water.
It took a while, but he found the plastic bag in the mud at the bottom of the pond. He wondered vaguely how it had found its own way through the tunnel, but his mind was on Laura. By the time he brought it back to her, she had made a nest of the towels and was asleep.
He sat down beside her. The sun was almost up now and he would soon be dry. He opened the plastic wrapping and laid out the contents on the grass. Her shoes looked so small beside his own and he picked one up. The leather was very soft and he studied it for a moment, inside was a worn sticker that revealed Laura had got them half price. Letting go of the shoe as if it were suddenly red hot, Joseph closed his eyes and put his head in his hands.
“Shit,” he muttered to himself, “shit, shit, shit.”
Seeing that stupid sticker, that tiny window into her life, it suddenly hit him like a brick. He had let himself start to care about her, really care, and now he’d almost killed her. He looked down at her, wrapped in other people’s dirty towels, lying on the ground with grass and pond weed in her tangled hair. He took a lock in his hands and gently picked out some leaves, letting the curl wind itself around his finger. This was not a good thing, not a good thing at all.
When the first shaft of sunlight broke through the trees and onto Laura’s face she stirred in her sleep. Joseph dropped the lock of hair and looked at his watch. It was gone five, and not that long until the early bathers would start to arrive.
“Laura? Laura wake up, we need to go now.”
Laura sat up groggily, rubbing her eyes. She had slept for an hour or so and felt horrible. It took her a few seconds to remember where she was, but then it all came rushing back. She snatched up her shoes and bag and struggled to her feet.
“I want to go home,” she said, swaying as dizziness almost overcame her. She leaned against Joseph, but then pushed him away as soon as she recovered. “Which way is it?”
“I’ll take you.” Joseph pushed his feet into his shoes and picked up the towels.
Laura did not say a word as they walked past the pool house and down the track away from the pond. Joseph led the way from the quiet dawn of the Heath into the maze of surrounding streets and back to his van. She stood by the passenger door waiting for him to open it, and slumped into the worn seat as soon as he did. They drove in silence, with no traffic to delay them at that hour, and in just a few minutes she was home. He leaned across her to open the door again and paused with his hand on the handle.
“Am I forgiven?” he asked.
“Not yet,” was all she said as she pushed the door fully open and got out. She didn’t look back as she climbed the steps and went inside.
Joseph closed his eyes for a moment, suddenly exhausted and with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. How could he have been so stupid, letting his urge to show off to Laura distract him from the trouble that seemed to be brewing in the Riverways? He should go straight back to the Margrave and find out what was going on, but Jorn and his cronies had made it clear he was not welcome. Wearily he roused himself and crunched the van into gear, he couldn’t trust himself to do anything sensible until he’d been home and had some sleep.