Excerpt

Something in the Water

Catherine Steadman

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Something in the Water, the debut novel by British actress and writer Catherine Steadman, best known in the US for her role on Downton Abby. In the following passage, unease surrounds the seemingly perfect life of a couple planning their honeymoon.

Friday, July 8

Anniversary Morning

We woke up before sunrise this morning. Mark and I. It’s our anniversary morning. The anniversary of the first day we met.

We’ve been staying in a boutique pub hotel on the Norfolk coast. Mark found it in the Financial Times’s “How to Spend It” supplement. He has a subscription but the supplements are the only bits he ever gets time to read. The FT was right, though; this is “the cozy-­country bolt-­hole of your dreams.” And I’m glad this is “how we’re spending it.” Of course, it’s not my “it” we’re spending, really, but I suppose it will be soon.

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The hotel is a perfect country nest of fresh seafood, cold beer, and cashmere throws. Chelsea-­on-­Sea, the guidebooks call it.

We’d spent the past three days walking until our muscles were loose and heavy, our cheeks flushed from English sun and windburn, hair smelling of forest and salty sea. Walking and then fucking, bathing, and eating. Heaven.

The hotel had originally been built in 1651 as a coaching inn for customs officials making that bumpy trip to London and had since boasted famous Norfolkian and Battle of Trafalgar winner Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson as a regular patron. He stayed in room 5, the one next to ours, and came here to collect his dispatches every Saturday of his five-­year unemployment, apparently. Interesting that Lord Nelson had stretches of unemployment. I suppose I always thought if you were in the Navy, then you were just in the Navy. But there you go. It happens to the best of us. Anyway, throughout the years, livestock auctions, assizes, and all the fun of the Jane Austen fair had been hosted here in the hotel.

The coffee-­table book in our room had gleefully informed us that the preliminary hearings for the infamous Burnham Murderers trial had been held in what was now the private dining room downstairs. “Infamous” is questionable. I had certainly never heard of them. So I read up.

The story began in 1835 with the wife of a shoemaker violently retching up her stomach at the family dinner table as her husband watched.

The story began in 1835 with the wife of a shoemaker violently retching up her stomach at the family dinner table as her husband watched. Mrs. Taylor, the retcher, had been poisoned with arsenic. The flour in the larder had been laced with the stuff, and arsenic traces were later found in her stomach lining at autopsy. An inquest into the poisoning found that Mr. Taylor had been having an affair with their neighbor, a Mrs. Fanny Billing. And Fanny Billing had recently purchased three-­pennyworth of arsenic from a local druggist. That arsenic had made its way into the Taylors’ flour bag and consequently into the dumplings that ended the life of Mrs. Taylor. I guess Mr. Taylor was abstaining that evening. Perhaps Mr. Taylor was on a no-­carbs diet.

Further information supplied by another neighbor at the inquest stated that a Mrs. Catherine Frary had had access to the Taylors’ home that day and had been heard telling Fanny before her questioning, “Hold your own and they can’t hurt us.”

Upon further investigation it was found that Catherine’s husband and her child had also both died very suddenly the previous fortnight.

Foul play was suspected. Catherine’s husband’s and child’s stomachs were shipped to Norwich, where analysis confirmed they too contained arsenic. A witness at the Taylor house attested he had seen Catherine attending to the sick Mrs. Taylor, post-­retching, and he had seen her add a white powder “on the tip of a knife from a paper packet” into Mrs. Taylor’s gruel, poisoning her a second time. This time fatally. The two women had also poisoned Catherine’s sister-­in-­law the week before.

Odd to put “the Burnham Murderers” in the hotel information booklet, especially considering the nature of weekend getaways.

Catherine and Fanny were hung in Norwich for the multiple murders of their husbands, as well as Mrs. Taylor, Catherine’s child, and Catherine’s sister-­in-­law. According to the Niles’ Weekly Register of October 17, 1835: the pair were “launched into eternity amidst an immense concourse of spectators, (20,000 or 30,000), above one-­half of whom were women.” Launched into eternity. Nice shipping reference.

Odd to put “the Burnham Murderers” in the hotel information booklet, especially considering the nature of weekend getaways.

***

The alarm wakes us at four-­thirty in the morning from our warm bundle of goose down and Egyptian cotton. We dress in silence, our clothes laid out the night before: thin cotton T-­shirts, walking boots, jeans, and woolen sweaters for before the sun rises. I make us some coffee using the little machine in the room while Mark fixes his hair in the bathroom. Mark’s not a vain man by any standard, but like most men in their thirties, his getting ready seems to be mainly hair-­based. I like his dithering, though, a little chink in his perfection. I like that I can be ready quicker. We drink our coffee fully clothed on top of the duvet, windows open, his arm around me, silent. We’ll have enough time to jump in the car and get to the beach for the break of dawn. Sunrise is listed as 5:05 on the daily information card by the bed.

We drive in relative silence to Holkham Beach, breathing and thinking. We’re together, but alone with our thoughts and each other. Trying to hang on to the thick sleepiness that hasn’t quite faded away yet. There’s an innate sense of ritual to it all. We have that sometimes; things just happened that way for us. A little bit of magic creeps into our lives and we nurture it like a succulent. We’ve done all this before; it’s one of our things. Anniversary morning. As we pull in to park I wonder if we’ll still celebrate this day after we’re married, two months from now. Or maybe that will be our new day?

We get out to thick quiet at Holkham Hall. Silence pierced intermittently by bursts of rich birdsong. A herd of deer in the adjoining field look up as we slam the car doors, and freeze. We hold their gaze, all momentarily caught in stasis, until their attention drops back down to the grass.

We are one of the first cars of the day in the clay gravel car park; it will get much busier later—­it always does—­with dogs and families, horseboxes and riders, family clans eking out the last of the good weather. Apparently this heat won’t last. But then, they say that every year, don’t they?

The North Sea wind bends patches of wild grasses and whips sand up into the air along the ridgebacks of towering dunes.

No one is in sight yet as we make our way along the gravel tracks down to the great desert stretch of Holkham Beach, four miles of golden-­white sand skirted by pine forests. The North Sea wind bends patches of wild grasses and whips sand up into the air along the ridgebacks of towering dunes. Miles of freshly blown sand and sea and not a soul in sight. Unearthly in the predawn light. A fresh barren landscape. It always feels like a clean start. Like the New Year.

Mark takes my hand and we walk out toward the shore. At the water’s edge we squeeze off our boots and slip into the icy North Sea, jeans pushed up to our knees.

His smile. His eyes. His hot hand tightly gripping mine. The sharp taut feeling of the icy water on my feet, bursting into a fluid white heat up my legs. Burning cold. We’d timed it exactly right. The sky starts to lighten. We laugh. Mark counts down to 5:05 on his wristwatch and we look patiently east across the water.

The entire sky lightens to twilight before the sun crests the silver water. Yellow streaks the horizon and ombrés out to peaches and pinks as it hits the lowest clouds, and beyond—­the whole sky blazes blue. Azure blue. Ha. It’s so beautiful. So beautiful I feel nauseous.

When we can’t stand the cold anymore, I wade back to shore, bending to clean the sand off my feet in the shallows before I put my boots back on. My engagement ring catches the full glare of the sun refracting through the crystal water. The early morning mist is gone, the air full of moisture, salty and crisp. So bright. So clear. The sky in high-­definition blue. The best day of the year. Always. So much hope, every year.

Mark asked me to marry him last October, after his thirty-­fifth birthday. Although we’d been together for years, it had still been a surprise, somehow. I sometimes wonder if things pass me by more than other people. Maybe I don’t pay enough attention, or maybe I’m just not that good at picking stuff up. Things often surprise me. I’m always surprised to find out from Mark that so-­and-­so didn’t like so-­and-­so, or somebody was attracted to me or had some other strong reaction. I never notice. I suppose that’s probably for the best. What you don’t know can’t hurt you.

I never notice. I suppose that’s probably for the best. What you don’t know can’t hurt you.

Mark notices things. He’s very good with people. People light up when they see him coming. They love him. People often ask me, on the rare occasions that we do anything separately, “Isn’t Mark coming?” with a tone of bemused disappointment. I don’t take it personally, because that’s how I feel too. Mark makes all situations better. He listens, really listens. He holds eye contact. Not aggressively but in a way that reassures people—­his look says: I’m here, and that’s enough for me. He’s interested in people. Mark’s look has no angle; he’s just there, with you.

***

We sit high on a dune, looking out across the wide flat expanse of sky and sea. It’s windier up here. The air howls in our ears. I’m glad of the thick sweaters. The coarse Irish wool gives off the scent of animal as it warms. The conversation turns to the future. Our plans. We’ve always made plans on this day. Like resolutions, I suppose, mid-­year resolutions. I’ve always enjoyed planning ahead, since I was a child. I like to plan. I like to take stock. Mark had never really done resolutions before we met, but he took to it instantly—­it suited him, the progressive futurist nature of it.

My mid-­year resolutions aren’t out of the ordinary. The usual: read more, watch TV less, work smarter, spend more time with loved ones, eat better, drink less, be happy. And then Mark says he wants to focus on work more.

Mark works in banking. I know, yes, boo hiss. But all I can say is: he’s not an arsehole. You’ll have to trust me on that. He’s definitely no Eton, drinking-­club, polo-­team alumnus. He’s a Yorkshire lad made good. Granted, his dad wasn’t exactly a coal miner or anything. Mr. Roberts, now retired, had been a pensions adviser for Prudential in East Riding.

Mark moved forward fast in the City, passed his regulation exams, became a trader, specialized in sovereigns, got poached, got promoted, and then it happened. The financial crash.

The bottom fell out of the financial industry. Everyone who understood was terrified from the first day.

The bottom fell out of the financial industry. Everyone who understood was terrified from the first day. They could see it all spooling out ahead of them. Technically, Mark was fine. His job was safe—­if anything, it was safer than before because he specialized in the exact thing that everyone needed help with after the crash, sovereign debt. But bonuses plummeted for everyone. Which was fine, we weren’t exactly on the breadline, but a lot of his friends got laid off, which was terrifying. It scared me at the time, watching grown adults failing; they had kids in schools, and mortgages they couldn’t afford anymore. The wives hadn’t worked since pregnancy. No one had a backup plan. That year was the year that people came to dinner and cried. They’d leave our house apologizing, smiling bravely, and promising to see us once they’d moved back to their hometowns and got their lives back on track. We never heard from a lot of them again. We’d hear that they’d moved back in with their parents in Berkshire or moved to work in Australia, or divorced.

Mark switched banks; all his colleagues had been let go where he was and he’d been left doing five people’s jobs, so he took a chance and went somewhere else.

The new bank, I don’t like. It’s not quite right. The men there manage to be fat and yet sinewy at the same time. They’re out of shape, and they smoke, which I didn’t used to mind at all, but now it has that air of nervous desperation. That worries me. It smells of bile and broken dreams. Mark’s colleagues sometimes come out with us for drinks and sneer and bitch about their wives and kids, as if I weren’t there. As if were it not for those women they’d be on some beach somewhere.

Mark isn’t like them; he looks after himself. He runs, he swims, he plays tennis, he keeps himself healthy, and now he sits in a room for eleven hours a day with these men. I know he’s strong-­minded but I can see it’s wearing him down. And now, on this day of all days, on our anniversary, he announces he wants to focus on work more.

__________________________________

From Something in the Water. Used with the permission of the publisher, Ballantine Books. Copyright © 2018 by Catherine Steadman.




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