Water Water – episode fifty four

[start at episode one]

Rani is worried

terraceIt was 4 o’clock on Friday afternoon and Rani was really starting to worry. It was not that unusual for her friend to spend a weekend incommunicado, in fact she’d never known anyone as happy in their own company as Laura. She herself could not bear to be alone – perhaps that’s what came from being the middle one of five and growing up in a house that was always crowded and chaotic.  But it had been well over a week now and not a word. The Witch had sent an email a few days ago saying that Laura was not going to be in and her work was to be redistributed, but when Rani tried to ask what had happened, Olga just snapped back something about Laura’s landlady phoning in sick on her behalf.

She’d tried calling of course, home and mobile, and had sent a selection of increasingly anxious emails, but still there was nothing. Rani hated not having Laura around, nobody there to moan with over coffee and cake, and no one to appreciate her latest hair colour. And now it was almost the weekend again and still she’d heard nothing. At 17.01 precisely she switched off her computer, threw on her new vintage broderie anglaise summer cape and marched out the room with a don’t even think about asking where I’m going expression on her face.

Rani had only been to Laura’s flat a couple of times as they always tended to meet in town, but she remembered where it was, and her adorable landlady too. In particular she remembered the lemon drizzle cake and lavender shortbread that Mrs Patterson had provided for the “girls” as she’d referred to Rani and Laura when they’d joined her for tea. The old lady had even dug out an old silk scarf in a beautiful geometric sixties print and insisted Rani (who had been channelling Mary Quant that day) have it. She smiled at the memory as she reached the steps of the house, but then frowned as she took in the peeling window frames and blistered front door. The house looked shut up, curtains closed and leaflets sticking out of the letter box. That week’s local freesheet had been left on the doormat and pages from it had blown down the worn stone steps and out into the street. Laura would never have left such a mess.

Rani had no compunction about peeping through the letterbox. She pulled out the crumpled leaflets advertising pizza delivery and taxis to the airport and bent down to take a look. The tarnished brass flap was stiff but she was able push it far enough to get a glimpse of a rectangle of floor strewn with envelopes and yet more leaflets. There was definitely no one home, Rani concluded, as she straightened up and stretched her back before tripping over the curled up corner of the worn coir mat and almost falling straight down the steps. An enormous grey cat was soon winding itself round her ankles, but Rani was not in the mood to fall for Brian’s charms and ignored him. She was extracting her mobile from deep within her voluminous green leather bag to try Laura one more time when she crunched straight into someone and almost dropped it again.

“Sorry,” she muttered automatically before looking up to see who she’d collided with. The pavement had been empty when she’d walked out of Laura’s front gate a second ago so where had this man appeared from – this slightly odd looking man in very strange clothes? Rani always noticed an outfit, and this one was rather special. The long overcoat was particularly striking, especially on such a hot evening, and when coupled with a wide brimmed hat that completely shaded his face he looked like an extra from a second rate spy movie.

“Are you looking for someone?” the man said, not moving from where he stood in the middle of the pavement as a hissing and spitting Brian shot past him at high speed with his fur standing on end. Was this guy for real? Perhaps he was one of those re-enactment types who liked to run around town pretending he was a secret agent or something.

“The only thing I’m looking for is the quickest way to get away from you,” Rani retorted, and scooting round him she stalked off down the street. Glancing back she saw he still hadn’t moved and was watching her.

“Fancy dress isn’t really the done thing in Muswell Hill you know,” she called over her shoulder, “not in daylight anyway!” And tossing her head she turned the corner into the Broadway, and headed for bus stop.

It was only when she was sitting comfortably on the top deck of the bus that she began to think how odd the man really had been. Why was he there outside Laura’s flat, was he looking for her too? This did not seem an especially appealing prospect and as the bus groaned into life and chugged past the end of Kings Avenue, Rani peered through the grimy window up Laura’s street. The pavement was empty again, and she tried to shrug off the sense of foreboding that had crept up on her. She sent one last text to her friend and then got out her headphones – she needed some music.

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Water Water – episode fifty three

[start at episode one]

Joseph sets out

rails-253134_1280By the time Laura and Mrs Patterson were sitting down to talk, Joseph was already on his way. He had driven straight home and made sure the van was parked somewhere safe, away from prying eyes and the attentions of traffic wardens. He had a quick shower and made some toast from the last of a sliced loaf he found in the cupboard, washing it down with black coffee made as strong as he could bear. Then he threw a few clothes into a bag and switched off or unplugged all the obvious things before leaving the flat. He didn’t know when he’d be back again.

It didn’t take long to hail a taxi and he sank gratefully into the worn upholstery. The cabbie was chattering on about some discussion on the radio but Joseph wasn’t listening. Physically still at last, his mind began to race, thoughts of the Mer, their threats and his half-baked plan, swirled around in his brain. And in amongst it all the memories of the night before, flashes of Laura crowding out everything else. The more he tried to ignore them the more vivid they became, until eventually he banged his fist against the door of the cab with a growl of frustration as he tried to clear his head.

The driver stopped talking and looked anxiously in the mirror at his fare – the last thing he needed was a nutter in his cab.

“You alright mate?”

“Yeah, sorry.”

“Bad night was it?”

“Something like that.”

“I’ll put some of my music on, that’ll calm you down,” and the driver prodded his stereo and turned up the volume.

            ‘By the time I get to Phoenix, she’ll be rising…’

 Of course, what else would it be? Joseph closed his eyes as Glenn Campbell’s sentimental tune filled the cab. At least it wasn’t far to Kings Cross.

At the station he bought a single ticket, taken aback by the price but with no choice but to pay up. Thankfully there was less than half an hour until the train left, time to buy a sandwich but not time enough to lose his nerve. Only once the train was pulling out of the station, non-stop to York and then onwards to Scotland, did he allow himself to think again. It had to be a real possibility, this idea of his, but could he bear to return there to try and make it work?  He’d soon find out.

He’d thought his memories were hazy, it was so long ago, but standing on the firm sand looking out across the Sound it all came flooding back. She’d been ill for so long, as a seven year old he knew only the frail shadow of a mother who could still summon the strength to hold him tight, but could barely walk a hundred yards. She’d talked so often of returning to her beloved Scotland, and that Easter his father had finally been persuaded to take them.

Joseph had loved it up there. He’d played for hours among the rock pools, finding treasures to show his mother who sat on a folding chair, wrapped up in a thick rug and gazing out at the sea, his father always hovering nearby. They’d only left her for moment or two, perhaps he’d wanted an ice cream, or just to go to the loo, but whatever it was by the time they’d returned she was no longer in her chair. Instead she was in the sea, fully clothed and wading out purposefully away from the shore towards some unseen destination. His father shouted after her but she didn’t turn back. It was already up to her chest when he plunged into the water, and by the time he was waist deep she was gone.

The coastguard found her body the following day. The Sherriff’s report said suicide but when he was old enough to understand, as he was learning about the ‘family business’, his father told him about the Sirens, and how he thought that his mother, weakened by her illness, had been lured to her death.

Today only the low hum of the nearby wind farm sang to Joseph, and after gazing at the sea for an age he knew that there was nothing left to torment him now, he would be able to do this. All that remained then was to get on with it, to try and turn his idea into a reality. But where to begin?

It had started to rain so he retreated to a café with a view of the sea and the golf course. Despite the sudden squall there were still plenty of folk trudging up and down the links in pursuit of their balls. Joseph had never understood the appeal himself, though Cosmo was a big fan and frequently tried to persuade him of its joys. He remained firmly on the side of Mark Twain: a good walk spoiled.

Turning away from the hardy souls out on the course he pulled a battered notebook from his pocket. Once bound in fine leather, the cover was now worn and threadbare and the pages hung loose where the stitching had frayed over the years. It was Joseph’s most precious possession, the one he guarded most vigilantly, and in it were recorded the details of all those who had ever worked as he did. Most were long dead, but the book had been updated sporadically, and there were a handful of active names, scattered across the country. He just hoped that there would still be someone up here who could help him now.

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Water Water – episode fifty two

[start at episode one]

Tea and secrets

tea cupLaura woke in the flat for the second time. This time she remembered straight away where she was, and that Joseph had gone. Irritated, she dressed herself in the borrowed clothes and made for the kitchen – now she really did need tea, and to sort this mess out. If he thought she was going to sit here twiddling her thumbs with just Jeannie for company he had another think coming.

But it wasn’t Jeannie she found drinking tea at the kitchen table, it was Mrs Patterson. She stared at the old lady in confusion.

“What are you doing here?”

“Joseph asked me to come.”

“But how did he know to ask you? I never mentioned you to him,” she paused, frowning, “I don’t understand.”

“Sit down Laura, we need to have that chat now.”

So Laura sat at the glass table and listened, as Mrs Patterson talked to her about the links that had drawn them together in this strange chain of events.

Laura learned that when she had felt such relief on finding the flat in Kings Avenue, that feeling of being home at last, Mrs Patterson had also felt a connection. She had sensed something special in Laura, soon noticing how she saw things, how she was aware of her surroundings, her innate curiosity. She had loved having her around, and despite their age difference the two women had slipped easily into a relationship of good friends as well as landlady and tenant.

“I knew you were a solitary soul, content in your own company. We all are.”

“I do have friends you know Mrs P, there’s Rani, and…” Laura broke off, “what do you mean we?”

Mrs Patterson ignored her question for the moment and kept chatting, apologising for trying to sort out her social life for her, for worrying too much.

“That’s why I suggested you go to the cemetery a few weeks ago, I just thought you might meet some nice people. I had no idea there was an open entrance up there.”

“So you knew where I’d been? I don’t get it, why didn’t you say something?”

“I tried, but you didn’t seem to want to tell me. I could tell something had happened, I even thought I could smell lamp oil on your jacket. I rang Joseph straight after you came back, but he wasn’t there, I had to leave a message on his machine.”

“I still don’t understand, how do you know about it all?”

Mrs Patterson took a sip of her tea and carried on with her explanation. She told Laura how a handful of people held the secret, acting as guardians where there was a risk. She herself had been a link, when she was young and fit, handing on the task to Joseph’s father before it fell to him in turn. Others kept watch, or shielded the evidence from prying eyes. All worked mostly alone for their own protection, only communicating with each other if absolutely necessary.

“We all came from the same families originally, the ones who worked on the water, the ones who first saw, many generations ago.”

Laura was thinking, “So the woman at the Transport Museum library?”

“Yes, Elizabeth, an old friend. She came to see me after your visit.”

“And in the archives at Boston Spa?”

“No, the collection there is just heavily guarded. ‘National security’ is a wonderfully useful concept.”

“And now there is me.”

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?”

“It can be a heavy burden, and it’s one you never lose.”

“Is that what you meant by ‘we’?”

“In a way yes, but I was also talking about who you are, as well as what you are.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I saw it in you, when we first met. It’s hard to explain but it’s a way of being: sometimes slower, sometimes quiet, always listening, always able to see.”

“They said I could see on that first day, I remember. They said I saw them from the train but I was the only one.”

“Yes. Anyone can have it but few do. It is more common in children but they lose the ability as their senses are drowned out by everything around them: television, computers, there’s such an onslaught nowadays. You are one of the lucky few Laura, though you might not think so at this moment.”

Laura didn’t know what else to say.

Mrs Patterson then had some questions of her own, wanting to know all about what had happened to her, what the Sea Mer had said and what was written in the message. She frowned as Laura told her, but then brightened for a moment when she heard about the Gathering. She reminisced about Gatherings she had been to in the past, and clearly the food hadn’t changed much over the years. She recalled that there had been talk of a rising once before, but this time it seemed much more serious.

Finally Laura broached the subject that seemed most pressing, her apparent incarceration in the show flat.

“I don’t really have to stay in here do I?”

“Yes I’m afraid you do. Joseph was right, from what he and now you have told me there is every possibility that they will try and take you again if they think things are not going their way. They seem to think that you are their best chance. Without you they are weakened as we don’t believe they would ever attack the Margrave directly.”

“What about work?”

“I have already telephoned and spoken to your superior, a woman – quite rude – and told her you are unwell.”

 “Olga”

“Yes that was her name, most unpleasant.”

“And where is Joseph anyway?”

Surely Mrs Patterson would be able to tell her, but if she knew she was not letting on, and all she said in response to Laura’s question was:

“He thinks he may be able to find a solution, so he has gone away to try.”

And for the moment at least, that appeared to be that.

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Water Water – episode fifty one

[start at episode one]

An unexpected minder

Warm sun streaming in through the window meant that thinking soon turned to dozing. Jeannie peeped in to the bedroom when Laura hadn’t reappeared after half an hour, but left her undisturbed. At nine thirty there was a soft knock on the front door of the apartment and she opened it to see Colin standing there.

“An old lady just came in a taxi. Were you expecting her?”

“I was expecting someone. Where is she now?”

“Downstairs with Harry. Shall I bring her up?”

“Yes please.”

Colin went back to the lift and Jeannie waited in the doorway, curious to see the ‘old lady’ who must be the relief. Joseph had said that they would arrive before ten.

The lift rattled and groaned down, and then back up again to the tenth floor and the guard reappeared carrying a small leather suitcase. He was followed by a small elderly lady who greeted Jeannie warmly.

“Hello my dear, you must be Jeannie. Joseph told me all about you.”

“Not all I hope?” smiled Jeannie, thinking back to some of the scrapes she and Joseph had got into as kids.

The lady looked confused for a moment but then carried on talking.

“I am Dulcie Patterson, Laura’s landlady. Is she in here?”

“Yes, sorry,” Jeannie hastily stepped aside to let the old lady into the flat. “She’s sleeping. Would you like some tea?”

“Yes please, that would be lovely”.  Then she turned to the security guard who had followed her in.

“Just put it anywhere, thank you – Colin, wasn’t it?” He put down the case and beat a hasty retreat, shaking his head. This day was getting stranger and stranger – somehow there were now three women in the flat, when he was not supposed to be letting anyone in. He decided to check with Mr Lunn, just to make sure.

Mrs Patterson settled herself at the kitchen table as Jeannie made tea. If she was going to be here for a while, this didn’t seem like too bad a place, although the chair was rather unforgiving. Jeannie meanwhile had some questions.

“So you’re Laura’s landlady?”

“Yes, she’s lived with me for a couple of years.”

“And that’s how you know Joseph?”

“Oh no, I’ve known Joseph since he was born. I knew his mother well.”

“But she died when he was young didn’t she? There was only ever his dad when we were at school.”

“Yes she did.”

“What happened? Joseph never talks about it, and he’s never mentioned you before.”

“There was an accident. She drowned.”

Jeannie said nothing else. She had been friends with Joseph since she’d been given the job of looking after him when he’d joined her school in the middle of a term, and they had grown up together like brother and sister. She was closer to him than anyone else in the world, apart from her beloved Bill of course, but he’d always had secrets, and she’d somehow always known never to pry.

She suddenly thought of the café and her husband left alone to handle the morning rush. Now that this Mrs Patterson was here she could go home. She showed her where everything was, and wrote down her phone number on the back of an old cash and carry receipt she found in her handbag.

“I can bring shopping over, or anything else you need.”

“Thank you. Joseph said you would help. I’m glad to have met you Jeannie.”

“Okay. Bye then,” and Jeannie let herself out of the flat. Steeling herself for another ride in the dodgy lift she wondered where the stairs might be.

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Water Water – episode fifty

[start at episode one]

Laura wakes

Jeannie didn’t have to wait long. It was going to be another bright summer’s day, and by six-thirty sunlight was streaming into the bedroom and Laura stirred. It took her a few minutes to fully waken, and in her drowsy state she didn’t at first remember what had happened, or even where she was. But then she stretched, and instead of her feet pushing against the sloping wall at the end of her own narrow bed, there was only space. She was laying beneath a white sheet not her familiar old duvet, and then with a jolt she remembered. First her mind went back to the Fort and the fear she had felt, and then her head filled with images of last night and she blushed at the memory. Had that really been her?

Opening her eyes at last she saw he was gone, but then she heard noises from the kitchen and smiled. He must be making tea, or breakfast even, and she was certainly hungry enough. Hungry and sticky, she thought, and in need of a shower before anything else. She padded over to the bathroom and blushed again, remembering how he had carried her from there the night before. Peering over her shoulder into the mirror she could see that the message was almost gone from her skin. She would be glad when there was not even the faintest mark left, nothing to remind her of them.

The huge square shower head poured a hot waterfall onto her and Laura stood still, enjoying how it felt on her body, slightly regretful that it was washing away all traces of Joseph. She didn’t stay there for long though, and after drying herself and putting on the robe that hung on the back of the door, she found the elastic she had taken from her hair when she’d been in the bath. She rinsed it under the tap and pulled her hair back into a ponytail, then she headed for the kitchen.

“I hope that’s tea,” she said as she opened the door, and then stopped in her tracks as it was not Joseph rattling cups but a stranger, a woman.

“Hello,” the woman said, smiling, “you must be Laura.”

Laura said nothing, but clutched the edges of the robe more closely round herself feeling embarrassed and slightly queasy. Where was Joseph, and who the hell was this?

“I’m Jeannie, we met yesterday.”

Laura managed two words, “Did we?”

“You came to my café.”

Then she remembered. She remembered shovelling the food down in a spectacularly unattractive manner, and she also remembered this woman’s hand on Joseph’s shoulder, they were obviously close. Now she really did feel sick and she leaned against the breakfast bar.

“Please sit down, before you fall down,” said Jeannie kindly, “Joseph asked me to look after you for a bit.”

Laura sat, on one of the stylish but very uncomfortable chairs that were tucked underneath the shiny glass table.

“Where has he gone?”

“I don’t know, he wouldn’t tell me.”

“When will he be back?”

“Oh dear.” Jeannie poured out two cups of tea and sat down opposite Laura. “I don’t know, but I can tell you I’ll be giving him a piece of my mind when he does come back.”

“I don’t understand,” Laura said simply, blinking hard and not meeting Jeannie’s gaze.

Jeannie sighed. Poor girl, this clearly wasn’t a regular occurrence for her, and from what little Joseph had told her, she’d already had quite a time of it over the last couple of days without him doing a runner while she slept.

“I don’t know what exactly is going on, and I don’t want to know. Joseph has always been involved in things I know nothing about, but I trust him and that’s good enough for me. He said that he had to leave straight away, that he had to try and sort something out before it was too late. It sounded serious and he asked me to come here to watch you, so here I am.”

“To watch me?”

“He told me that you’ve had a bad experience and you could still be in some sort of danger, but he didn’t give me any of the details. That’ll be why you’re in hiding here?”

“I suppose.”

Laura managed to stop herself from pouting but inside she was fuming. How could he just leave her here, as if she were some useless damsel in distress. He’d needed her help before, but now things had got really interesting he’d just abandoned her. And what about last night? Her cheeks grew hot and she studied her cup.

Jeannie felt Laura’s discomfort, and tactfully got up from the table to wash out her own mug. To try and lighten the mood she told Laura a funny story about Joseph’s antics at the school where they had first met, and then picked up one of the bags she’d brought with her.

“He said you’d need some clean clothes. I hope these are okay.”

“Thanks.”

Laura took the bag and returned to the bedroom. So that was it: she was stuck in this place with Jeannie and a bag of someone else’s clothes to put on. What about work? What about her flat? Mrs P would be worrying. She flopped down onto the bed and wondered how on earth this had all happened, and what exactly she was going to do about it.

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Water Water – episode forty nine

[start at episode one]

Night into morning

Darkness had fallen by the time Laura slept. It was almost midnight, and Joseph was beside her, awake and watching, thinking.

She lay on her stomach, her hair spread across the pillows like a cloud. One or two tendrils clung to skin still slick with sweat from their lovemaking. Joseph picked up a curl and wound it round his finger, wondering at what had passed between them. The heat, the intensity, the total surrender had taken him by surprise, and yet somehow now he understood, of course it had been that way.

He rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. He was worried about her and even more so about the reason she was there – the threat to the Riverways and the danger facing them all. Eventually he slept, but restlessly, his mind unable to be still. He dreamed of being underwater again, but this time he glimpsed the face of the woman. Then he woke with a start and sat bolt upright. The dream had disturbed him, but it had planted the seed of an idea.

It was quarter to five in the morning, and just one person he knew would be up and about, and hopefully willing to help him. He covered Laura with a sheet and got out of bed.

Jeannie was scrubbing the counter at the café in preparation for opening up to their early bird customers who’d arrive on the dot of five-thirty a.m. She wondered who could be calling at this hour but answered her phone as soon as she saw it was Joseph. After she’d hung up, she went into the kitchen to speak to Bill.

“He said I should only be a few hours, then someone else will take over.”

Bill said yes, as she knew he would. Sometimes she wondered what she’d done to deserve such a wonderful husband, and she gave him a big kiss before heading upstairs to their flat. Just for once she was pleased they lived over the shop.

By the time Bill was opening up the café, Jeannie had found the address Joseph had given her. There was a security guard at the gate, but he seemed to be expecting her and waved the car in. She stared up at the empty building, there was a light in a top floor window, but otherwise no sign of life. Parking where the guard indicated and grabbing the carrier bags she’d brought, she got out, and Colin walked towards her.

“I’ll show you to the lift,” he said. “Mr Singer’s upstairs.”

“Thank you,” Jeannie replied, unable to remember the last time she’d heard anyone call Joseph ‘Mr Singer’.

Colin warned her about the lift and its dodgy doors, and it carried her upwards in near total darkness, the only light coming from the control buttons. The lift stopped at the tenth floor and she stepped out cautiously onto the landing, increasingly curious about what she would find.

Joseph was listening for the lift and stood at the open door of the flat, sending a shaft of light out onto the landing. His shirt was untucked and his feet were bare. Jeannie looked him up and down and sighed heavily.

“Oh no,” she said, “what have you done?”

He had the grace to look embarrassed as he took the carrier bags and followed her into the flat.

“Nice place,” Jeannie commented and went to look around. Before Joseph could stop her she’d opened the bedroom door and there lay Laura, motionless under a rumpled sheet.

“I take it the fact that you asked me to bring clothes means she’s sleeping rather than dead?” Jeannie said a few minutes later as they stood at the breakfast bar in the kitchen.

“Did you think I’d killed her?” asked Joseph, unable to look his oldest friend in the eye and feeling wretched.

“No of course not, but something’s not right. You look like you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders.”

“Maybe I have.”

Jeannie looked at him questioningly but he just leaned against the counter and sighed.

“Never mind. I’ve done a selfish thing, that’s bad enough, but now I have to do another.”

“You’re leaving.”

“Yes.”

“Does she know?”

“No.”

“And are you planning to tell her?”

Joseph shook his head, and stared glumly at the packet of teabags he’d pulled from one of Jeannie’s bags.

“Coward.”

“Yes,” he agreed miserably. “But I must leave now, and I can’t say where I’m going and I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

Jeannie didn’t say anything else, he was torturing himself quite enough.

Once Joseph had found the rest of his clothes he was ready to go. He reminded Jeannie that either Colin or Harry would be outside, that her relief would be there in a couple of hours, and that Laura absolutely must not leave the flat. She watched him into the lift from the doorway telling him not to worry, and then went back into the kitchen.

She prodded a few buttons on the coffee machine and sent a shower of ice across the floor before giving up on the fancy appliances, and filling the smallest of the copper saucepans with water. He’d said to bring tea, so she had, and she might as well have one while she waited and tried to work out what on earth she would say to Laura when she woke. She had seen the haunted look in Joseph’s eyes when he’d said he was leaving, and guessed that Laura would feel that way too. She’d never thought she’d see the day when Joseph fell for someone, but now it seemed he’d fallen hard.

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Water Water – episode forty eight

[start at episode one]

Together

She had enjoyed the luxury of the hot bath at first, laying back and breathing the perfumed air. She’d found some shampoo and washed the salt and grime from her tangle of hair, but then she’d caught sight of her reflection in the mirror and even though it was foggy from the steam she could see the black marks that started on her shoulders. She tried to rub and then scratch at the ink with her hands but she made no impression and in any case she couldn’t reach most of it. She grew more and more frustrated, and then angry, and finally she picked up the bottle of bath oil and flung it across the room with a cry, following it shortly afterwards with the shampoo.

It was at that moment that Joseph burst in, thinking she was being attacked. Instead, he saw her sitting in the bath with her back to him, knees pulled up to her chest.

“I can’t get it off, I can’t reach,” she wailed and finally gave in to tears.

Joseph stood rooted to the spot. He hadn’t meant to intrude on her like that but he’d heard the crash and acted on instinct. He saw the raw red skin on her shoulder where she must have been scratching at the black ink, and he told himself that although she was in the bath, he couldn’t actually see anything: the water was deep and bubbly and she was facing away from him. He took a deep breath.

“Let me,” he said.

Laura sniffed, then nodded, then lay her head on her knees, her arms wrapped around her legs, only her back exposed. Joseph took the smallest towel from the pile that sat on the shelf and knelt beside the bath. He dipped the end of the towel into the water and began to wash her.

The ink had left a strong stain on her skin, but gradually it started to fade under his careful touch. Gently he rubbed her back with the cloth, working in sections, until he had done all he could. The message was still visible, but very faint, and it would soon disappear completely.  He took up water in the towel and then squeezed it out to rinse her skin. He watched the droplets run down her spine and then did it again, and again, and he knew he was no longer washing her. She gave a shudder which broke the spell and he stood up abruptly.

“Get out now, or you’ll get cold,” he said, and reaching back to the shelf again he took down a large white bath sheet.

Still facing away from him Laura slowly stood up and stepped out of the bath. Joseph wrapped the towel around her and she swayed unsteadily. So this is what weak at the knees feels like she thought vaguely as she leaned back against him. Her heart was thumping as he gently eased her long hair out from where it was caught in the towel.

With his hand in her hair, Joseph felt like he was having an out of body experience as he lowered his head to her bare shoulder where he could see the pulse beating under her skin.  He breathed in deeply against her neck as he told himself it was just for a minute, that he would let her go any second. But then, before he could break away, she turned around in his arms.

As she turned to him Laura could hardly breathe, it had never felt like this with the map guy. And then she lifted her head and they were kissing at last.

Joseph ignored the voice of reason in his head, telling him not to be so reckless. He picked her up in his arms and in a few strides he was out of the bathroom and beside the bed, and then they were on the bed, still locked in an urgent embrace.

His hands and mouth burned across her skin and Laura wanted it, wanted more.

Soon Joseph was fighting for control, and when finally he touched her, and she pressed herself against him with a soft cry, he knew he was losing the fight. He forced himself to pull away.

Laura’s eyes flew open. The towel was on the floor, along with Joseph’s shirt, and her hands appeared to be fumbling with buttons of his jeans. She snatched them away and blushed, suddenly shy, as he propped himself up on one elbow and looked at her.  Then he said her name, his voice hoarse with strain.

“Laura.”

She looked up at him and steadily met his unwavering gaze.

“If you want me to stop, you need to say now.”

In reply Laura said nothing. She brushed her fingers across his mouth and pulled him back to her. And he didn’t stop, and he didn’t stop, and they didn’t stop.

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Water Water – episode forty seven

[start at episode one]

Mike comes up trumps

Laura closed her eyes again as they drove across town, trying to push the images from her mind. She kept reminding herself of the Margrave’s wise words: something bad happened but it’s over, it’s not happening any more. Everything would be fine now.

Eventually the van stopped and Joseph turned off the engine. She opened her eyes and gave a start, shrinking back into her seat – peering in through the windscreen was a middle aged skinhead with a tattoo on his neck.

“It’s alright,” Joseph said quickly, “that’s Mike, he’s a friend of mine. He’s helping.”

He leaned across her and opened the passenger door. The window was still broken.

“Hi Mike, I wasn’t sure you’d be here yet. Where shall I go?”

Mike nodded at Joseph and glanced over again at Laura before replying, she looked like she’d seen a ghost.

“This is a fancy development you know, none of your rubbish. There’s an underground car park, or the bare bones of one at least. Drive down that slope over there and you’ll be out of sight.  Col’s waiting, he’ll put you in the lift – doors don’t shut properly but the mechanism’s working okay.”

Colin met them in the basement, pointed out where to park and then guided them across the uneven ground to the lift. Laura stepped in first and leaned against the back wall without saying a word.

“Harry’s upstairs cleaning,” Colin said as the lift groaned into life with a lurch.

“Cleaning?”

“Yeah. The boss told him to give the place a once over. There was dustsheets on the beds and that, but it was a bit grubby all the same.”

“Thanks.” Joseph didn’t know what else to say. He could just imagine Mike running an enormous finger across a dirty table top and handing out the Marigolds.

Harry was waiting for the lift when it arrived on the tenth floor, holding a bucket and cloth and looking slightly sheepish.

“All sorted Mr Singer,” he said, “you’ve got hot water and light in there now.”

“Thanks Harry.”

“Do you want me here on the landing or downstairs?”

“There’s only the one lift plus those stairs at the end of the hall isn’t there?”

“Yes, this is the only way up that got finished.”

“Well downstairs at the bottom will be fine then.”

“Righto,” and Harry took his bucket into the lift.

Joseph led Laura into the show flat. Mike had come up trumps: not only would she be safe up here she would be reasonably comfortable too. The place was fully furnished, if in a rather gaudy Eurotrash style designed to appeal to those who had millions to spend on a pied-a-terre. The dressing of the flat for prospective purchasers had extended as far as linen on the beds and soft towels in the marble bathroom, and now it was all spick and span thanks to Harry’s valiant efforts.

Laura kicked off her sandals. They looked small and shabby on the expanse of bright cream carpet. She stood still in the middle of the floor and spoke at last.

“Did I hear him say hot water?”

“Yes.”

Joseph opened a couple of doors. The first one led into the kitchen, but then he found the master bedroom and off that a luxurious bathroom complete with bottles of expensive looking potions. He fiddled with the unnecessarily complicated taps, opened one of the bottles and soon hot, bubbly water was filling the bath. Then he backed out of the room awkwardly, saying “there you are.”

Laura paused in the doorway, “I don’t think I said thank you.”

“What for?”

“For coming. For finding me.”

Joseph shrugged, what could he say? He changed the subject.

“I’ll see what there is in the kitchen,” he said, and left her to it.

There was plenty of shiny equipment in the equally shiny kitchen, a fancy coffee maker, a built in ice machine, but no sign of a kettle. Copper pans hung from a rack though, so at least he’d be able to make her a cup of tea on the hob, if he’d only thought to bring any teabags, milk or anything useful at all that is. He was just wondering whether he could ask Colin or Harry to fetch some when he heard a crash, then a muffled shout and another crash.

It was Laura.

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Water Water – episode forty six

[start at episode one]

A place to hide

Joseph had left the Margrave and found the nearest exit, now he was up at ground level making some calls. It was Cosmo he’d first thought of, but once he’d stopped swearing at Joseph for waking him, he told him that his girlfriend was away and he had two cousins staying over. He offered an airbed on the floor, but though three young guys would offer protection of sorts Joseph turned him down.

He needed somewhere safe, for an as yet unknown length of time and with no questions asked.   He was walking down the street, so as not to draw attention to the entrance, when he found his way blocked by a huge eight wheeled crane reversing across the road. Liebherr 1070, he noted idly as he watched a couple of security guards guide the monster machine into a yard, and then he had a brainwave about who else he could ask. Quickly he dialled the number.

“Mike? It’s Joseph Singer”

“Hello mate, how are you? Long time no see. You’re catching worms this morning.”

“I know it’s early. Listen Mike, I need your help.”

“Don’t tell me, more parking favours?”

“What?”

“I hear from Eric and Gus that you’ve been cadging a bit of free parking the last few days.”

“Yeah, sorry about that.”

“Don’t be silly, what are friends for? I hope she was worth it.”

“Who?”

“Don’t play the innocent with me Joe, I know you better than that. Gus told me you had a pretty girl with you, and Eric said you were a man on a mission.”

“Ah.”

Nothing got past Mike, he wasn’t the head of one of the biggest security firms in the trade for nothing.

“Come on Joe, time is money, you know how it is,” Mike chuckled down the phone.

Joseph got straight to the point.

“The thing is Mike, she was worth it – is worth it – and she’s in trouble.”

“No problem,” he wasn’t laughing now because Joseph sounded deadly serious, “what do you need?”

“I need somewhere to take her, I don’t know how long for. Somewhere safe, where she’ll be comfortable.”

“I’m on it. Anything else?”

“High up maybe, and not near the river.”

“I’ll call you back,” and the phone went dead.

If there was one person who could help it was Mike Lunn. Five foot seven, shaven headed and virtually square, his meathead looks belied a kind heart and a quick mind. He and Joseph had set up their respective companies around the same time all those years ago, Joseph straight from college and Mike deciding to go straight. Their paths had started to cross, big construction projects tended to need security and scaffolding pretty much simultaneously, and they had become unlikely but firm friends. Each knew the other to be 100% honest and reliable, and that trust had bred a fierce loyalty in Mike which Joseph was counting on now.

Five minutes of pacing later and the phone vibrated. Joseph didn’t give it chance to ring.

“It’s sorted.”

“What have you got?”

“You need to give me till about four o’clock this afternoon, but I’ve got you a flat, a show flat in fact. Remember that block those Uzbek brothers were putting up in Bayswater – ten floors, twenty flats, all going to be four million plus?”

“Yes I remember, they ran out of money and then one of them ended up in the canal with a concrete necklace.”

“That’s it. Well the block’s still there, half finished, but with a fully furnished show flat on the top floor. No one goes there, ownership is all locked up in some mammoth court case and we’re on security detail.”

“Is it okay?”

“All good. I was just checking to see if there was power and stuff, I only have two guys on there and I haven’t been down in weeks. They said there’s electric and water, and amazingly the lift works too. I’ll take them off and put Col and Harry on – you know both of them, been with me since the beginning.”

Joseph breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you so much, I owe you one.”

Mike just laughed, and told Joseph where and when to meet him.

It was after six by this time and the streets were starting to get busier. He had to be discreet as he slipped back into the Riverways and returned to the Margrave. The old man looked troubled, he had been going over in his mind what Joseph had told him. The Sea Mer’s message may have said one lunar cycle but he was concerned that things had already started. If the water was changing as Nelson had sensed, then maybe they didn’t have that long.

Laura still slept, and as she couldn’t go to the flat until four o’clock, they let her go on sleeping. Joseph sat dozing fitfully in a chair and the Margrave read quietly. He had met with his council of Elders but other than getting the full translation from Arne, which confirmed that any changes already being seen in the waters were not a coincidence, they had not made any progress. They would meet again the next morning, after each had had time to think further.

Finally, Laura woke. She sat up gingerly, still wrapped in the warm blanket, and looked around. She  remembered where she was, but exactly how she’d got there remained a blur. Joseph was leaning back against the wall with his eyes shut but the Margrave saw her and smiled.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Better.” She coughed and he handed her a cup of water which she drained.

“Hungry,” it was after two and she hadn’t eaten for more than a day, “starving in fact. I should go home.”

“You can’t.” It was Joseph, eyes open and face etched with concern.

“Don’t be ridiculous, I’m fine now. Message delivered so I want to go home.”

“I’m sorry,” said the Margrave, “but Joseph is right, you cannot go home. You are in danger and we cannot let them take you again.”

“So do I have to stay down here then? What about work? And my landlady will be wondering where I am.”

“You cannot stay here either. Joseph has found somewhere safe for you to go.”

“Where?”

“He doesn’t know,” Joseph interrupted, “the fewer people that do the better. And forget about work.”

Laura didn’t have the strength to argue, but she was almost faint with hunger and asked if they could at least go and get something to eat first. Joseph looked at his watch, not sure that they could spare the time. Laura was going to try and stand up when she realised that under the blanket she was wearing only the remains of her torn shirt.

“I can’t go anywhere like this,” she pointed out.

Five minutes later Edgar and Cara appeared carrying a bundle of clothing, from which Laura was able to pick out a couple of garments that she thought she could bear to put on. She decided not to think about where they had come from, and was thankful that her jeans and sandals, though filthy, were still in one piece.

Once she felt decent in the better of the tops Laura stood up, or rather tried to – she immediately felt dizzy and sat down again with a bump.

“I really need to eat something,” she pleaded, “otherwise I’ll pass out completely.”

“Alright,” Joseph conceded, “let’s go and we’ll get something on the way.”

He had already been outside once to bring the van closer, to a nearby but rarely used entrance, one he hoped the Sea Mer would not be watching. He helped Laura through the tunnels and outside, and even after just that short walk she virtually collapsed into the passenger seat. He switched on the engine and put the van into gear, but they didn’t move. Laura could see his hands gripping the steering wheel, so tightly that his knuckles were white. He was steeling himself to speak, and finally, staring straight ahead rather than look at her, he asked the question that was eating away at him,

“Did they hurt you?”

Laura knew at once what he meant. Her clothes had been torn and she’d given no details of what had actually happened out there. She answered truthfully.

“No.”

Joseph lessened his grip on the wheel and exhaled in relief before pulling out into the traffic. He drove to Bill and Jeannie’s cafe, now shut for the afternoon, and parking in an empty space opposite he ran across the road and rang the bell. After a couple of minutes a bleary eyed Jeannie came to the door. She was about to remind Joseph in no uncertain terms that she got up at four-thirty and he’d interrupted her siesta when she saw the look on his face. Laura, watching from the car, saw her briefly touch his cheek with her hand before she said something and opened the café door wide.

Jeannie leaned against the counter and took in the scene before her: this exhausted woman in dirty jeans and an old man’s sweater, eating the meal she’d hastily thrown together as Joseph watched over her. She caught his eye and he came and stood beside her, while Bill took up his customary position in the doorway, never quite out of his kitchen, but close enough to see and be seen.

“So this is her?”

Joseph nodded, his eyes not leaving Laura for a second. Jeannie shook her head and put her hand on his shoulder. She had a bad feeling, something had happened and he was clearly in deep, too deep.

“Be careful.”

Joseph reached up and took Jeannie’s hand in his, he was about to say something when Laura stopped eating and put down her cutlery with a clatter.

“Thank you very much,” she said without looking up. “Should we leave now?”

“Yes,” replied Joseph, dropping Jeannie’s hand to look at his watch. “Let’s go.”

He opened the door and then they were gone, leaving just the jangling door chimes and an empty plate behind them.

“Well,” said Jeannie, and as she knew he would Bill stepped up behind her and wrapped his arms around his wife. She leaned into him thankfully.

“Jealous?” he teased.

“Not in a million years. Something’s going on there, and I don’t like it, I don’t like it at all.”

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