The oars break the water sending the boat limping across the lake. The creaking of old wood under stress and the lap of water are the only sounds.
‘I can’t believe we were here only last month,’ I whisper. ‘It wasn’t as quiet then, but it was peaceful. Relaxing. It was so good to get away from home for a bit. To clear our heads.’
I look about. Autumn reds and browns of soon-to-be-dead leaves just visible through wispy cotton-like air.
‘I didn’t want to go back to the city. I wanted to stay and just huddle up with you by the wood burner in that lovely little cabin you rented. I bet you paid a lot of money for that place. Lakeside. All the romantic trimmings.’
I give a small chuckle before snot fills my throat. I spit it over the side. Watch it dollop into the lake.
‘You shouldn’t have paid so much. We could barely afford our hole back in the city. But I loved it.’ The memory is sweet but it burns like acid after vomit. ‘But, back home we had to go. I’m surprised we made it to work the next day after those bloody train delays.
‘And what was the point? Why did we even try? Work was shit. Yawning in meetings. Not even taking part in the usual gossip in the canteen. Those bickering hens seem so far away now. Whispering all their secrets and theories over coffee and sandwiches. I know, I can’t lay blame. I used to do it too. We all used to go quiet when someone we were talking about entered the room, used to watch them from the corner of our eyes and the whole time make out as if we were talking about something completely different.’
I stop rowing, stick my hand in the canvas bag and pull out a bottle of water. I take a sip and it’s freezing. I savour the pang of cold hitting my teeth. I take a few more gulps and put the bottle back in the bag.
‘I bet it must have played on people’s minds. To have people talking about them, glancing in their direction. Come to think of it I don’t think anyone was free from gossip. I never noticed anyone talking about me though. I guess that’s the point. It doesn’t matter.
‘When I got home to you that night you were already asleep on the couch. I watched you for a while. And then we got Chinese. Ate in like fatties.’
I look to the shore and pull on the oars. My arms hurt. I’m getting pangs in my shoulders.
‘I noticed something was different that night. The man who dropped off the Chinese was shivering. He kept glancing over his shoulder as if he had been chased to our apartment. When he left I thought nothing of it. Probably had a bunch of deliveries to do. Just wanted to get on and get them done. And then the next day. We ate toast and watched the news. Break-ins and attacks across the city. A bunch of talk about a possible riot.
‘So, the next day, off we went to work. Parting at Clapham like we always did. Another thing I miss: you walking off with a paper under your arm and a coffee in your hand. I don’t think you knew I always watched you walk to the platform. I bet I pissed off a whole bunch of commuters when I did that, standing still and getting in their way.’
I look north. My eyes roam over the trees. The deep colours would be beautiful, in a different life.
‘That day…two people didn’t show for work. I needed Dennis there, something I never would have heard myself say, you know how much of a pain in the arse he is, but I needed him for the presentation. And Claire, three desks down, didn’t show up either.
‘At lunch time, people were looking over their shoulders or jumping at every little sound. Everyone was on edge as if expecting the world to explode under their feet at any moment. I called you. You said people hadn’t shown up either. I was worried then. Not because of the people…I heard something in your voice. You were always so strong…so sure. The only thing that scared you was that bloody great big spider on the kitchen counter the time you moved the bread bin.’
I laugh. A bark of weary muscles making a sound like a branch snapping under heavy snow. It spreads across the lake. Echoes and dies and suddenly I’m crying with the memory of Jake jumping around the kitchen like the floor was on fire, eyes wide and backpedalling toward the door.
I let down the oars with a splash and run my fingers through my hair. I take a moment to pull myself together and wipe cold tears from tepid cheeks. A twig snap. I turn to the north bank once more and watch a man walk from the woods. I make out a heavy knitted jumper and what I think are fishing trousers. Suspenders ‘n’ all. He’s missing a boot but he doesn’t seem to notice. He just stares out at the boat.
‘I hoped we would have this place to ourselves.’
I take a deep shuddering breath and pick up the oars. I feel the cold slipping into my limbs threatening to make me stiff. Movement is the only option. Just keep moving.
‘When I got home you called me over to the couch. You were watching T.V and you looked… well, I don’t know. You took my hand. Held it a little too tight. They were reporting on the rainfall that had hit London whilst we were here. Missed it by a few hours. And then people acting strange.
‘And then you showed me the video on Youtube. Some guy testing water samples in the sewers. Finding some unknown bacteria and the guy talking about rats going berserk. We barely slept at all that night. Woke up to the sound of screams twice and ran to the window. People leaving houses. A few of them were running. That one family… I remember the slaps of that kids feet on the road. You locked both deadbolts on the front door and wedged it with a chair under the handle like something out of an old movie. I always wondered if that worked. We never did find out.’
I look over to the man on the north shore. He is walking parallel to the boat. He just keeps looking out. I notice a shock of white hair. I can’t make out much of his face. His gaze feels like a weight on my neck.
‘They’re strange aren’t they? They disappear. Come back like that. Spreads even after the rain.’
I look about and wonder if it is in the air. In the mist. I don’t know. There is nothing I could do about it now anyway.
‘The next morning the video of the man in the sewers was taken down. Screams filled the street outside. Sirens went off every half a minute. In two days the entire city was at a standstill and there were talks on the news about it being widespread. They warned us not to drink the water. Since coming back all we had had was bottled water, teas and coffees at the office. So strange to think our shitty work schedule saved us.
‘So we left. Hit the road. Tried to go somewhere safe until it all blew over. Tried to come back here. You said there were fewer people up here. It would be better to go where there were fewer people. I agreed with you then. I agree with you now.’
The man on the bank stumbles. I watch as he pushes himself up, the whole time staring out at the boat. Like a leech when it smells blood. Just following the scent. I keep rowing. I want to stop. A lead weight is building between my shoulder blades but I can’t stop. I will never stop moving.
‘We made it most of the way here. And then we got to that fucking service station. All we wanted was a sandwich. Maybe a packet of crisps. We took our time didn’t we? Circled the car park three times and didn’t see anyone… Honked the horn. I thought that was good practise. A sure way of bringing them out… Why didn’t it work? The electricity was still running. The doors still worked. Maybe they waited. Do you think that was it? They waited? Maybe they are smarter than we thought Jake. Maybe that’s why no one knows how it’s spread. They wait and watch…’
I pull in a breath of frigid air. My arms pull and the oars break water, slap back down.
‘You wanted to use the toilet.’
I pull. Up, down, splash.
‘And when you came out of the toilets.’
Pull. Up. Down. Splash.
‘Ridiculous. Bloody, stupid…’
My body shakes once more with sobs but this time I let loose. I spit and shout and hope my words would shatter the day apart and wake me from this nightmare. The man on the bank has stopped. He watches, head cocked.
‘I hate you! I hate you! You took him from me! He was all I wanted! All I had and you had to take him from me! Why? Why? Why?’
I’m standing. The boat is rocking but I don’t care. Part of me wants to fall and succumb to the cold. Let the water slip into my nostrils and down my throat and fill me so that I don’t have to feel this burning hatred.
‘You made me do this! You made me do this to him!’ I scream, pointing into the hull of the boat where John lays dead and staring into oblivion.
The last time I had seen those eyes alive he had walked back out of the toilets. His mind lost. They had got to him in there. Something had got to him. I was crying when he ran at me. I was crying when I picked up a barrier post and swung it into his temple.
‘Please forgive me baby. I never wanted this. I never wanted this for you. I never wanted this for us. I thought we could make it out here. Where there is nothing. In the last place we were happy and free.’
I push my palms into my eyes and try to squeeze away tears.
‘This is the best I can do. I don’t want to bury you. It doesn’t seem right. You said you loved it here. ‘“I would love to see what’s under the waters here. They are so calm.”’ You remember saying that?’
His eyes stare at the grey sky.
‘I love you. Jake, I love you. I’m sorry.’ I move over and stick my hands under his armpits. I take a breath tinged with the smell of piss and shit from Jake’s death-voided bowels. I grunt as I lift Jake’s dead weight and try not to think of him walking away with a paper under his arm and a coffee in his hand. I try not to think of him holding me in bed. Pushing me against the wall as we make love. The thing that I am unceremoniously pushing over the lip of the boat is not Jake. I keep telling myself that but it doesn’t help.
His head and shoulders splash into the lake. With one last sob and a scream which ripped at my throat I push the rest of him over the side. He rolls in the freezing water. For one moment I think he would stay face up and staring at the sky, vacated blue eyes watching but he mercifully rolls over and stares into the depths.
I look up to the bank. At the spectator. He is leaning his head back as if beckoning me over.
‘No. No you are not getting me.’
I slump back and watch Jake float like a piece of trash. Arms and legs splayed. I watch for a long time until the weight of his clothes finally pulls him under. I watch white flesh disappear into black water and the whole time I cry and I want him back.
I look up to the man on the north shore still standing there. Still beckoning me over with his head back and staring.