‘You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here, aren’t you?’
Angela’s voice is light, uplifting. She is obviously desperate for someone to talk to. But Ali can’t muster the enthusiasm, not right now. She is walking alongside Angela, down a long dingy corridor. The lights flicker occasionally. The walls look like they were painted in the 1950s, with a shiny yellow paint, and not redecorated since. There is a slight smell of mould. But Ali is less concerned about the girl, than she is about herself, right now. What exactly are she and Jack doing here? Is it really going to help? She can hear Jack’s footsteps close behind them, shuffling slightly. Reluctant. She knows he is tired and hopes she can convince Angela to leave them alone for a while. Of course she wants the whole tour at some point. There is much to be explored in the old hospital. She has to remind herself sometimes that this is why they are here, after all – to be part of this community. To be involved. She forces a smile into her voice.
‘I’m more interested in you saying you wanted to be a stripper…’
Angela laughs, high-pitched and girlish. ‘I wanted to be a glamour model, first—’
‘What, like Jordan? Or those ones in the lads’ mags?’
‘Page three, actually. I first saw one of those photos when I went to the garage with my mum, to collect her car. The mechanic was reading it when we arrived. Left it lying on the table, wide open. Put his mug down on it and I could see that it was going to leave a brown ring across the girl’s body, and I didn’t want that so I lifted the mug off. Had a good look at the photo while the mechanic was talking to my mum, something about brake fluid and washers. I was fascinated by her smooth, pale skin. The perfect mounds of her breasts. She looked so … serene, I thought—’
Ali snorts. ‘You couldn’t see the backdrop of exploitation behind her then, eh?’
Angela shakes her head. ‘I’m not sure I agree with you, actually. If you’ve got a beautiful face and a beautiful body, why shouldn’t you show it off ?’
Ali feels a tightness in her chest, her vison distorts and she stops walking. An image swims in front of her: blurred edges; a heart-shaped face, baby-doll eyes; hair swirling around. Skin too pale, not smooth though. Although it would’ve been once. The mouth is like a raised scar. Ali blinks, and the image disappears. She clenches her fists, forcing it back into her subconscious.
She sucks in a breath and carries on walking. ‘I’m sorry,’ Ali says, hoping that her voice sounds normal. ‘I’m tired, so I’m a bit grouchy. Maybe we can have a bit of a lie-down before the welcoming party later. Do you think that would be OK?’ She can still hear Jack behind them, although he hasn’t said a word. His breathing is heavy. He’s exhausted, too. Tiredness, that’s all it is, plus a bit of dehydration. Those things can make your subconscious work overtime. She just needs to get a grip, have a rest. She probably imagined Jack staring at Angela earlier on, too. Surely he wouldn’t be so blatant. Not so soon after they arrived?
Angela opens the door with a heavy brass key. It swings open. ‘I’ve tried to make it nice for you,’ she says. ‘I’ll come back and get you later, OK?’
‘Thank you,’ Ali says, genuinely grateful. She drops her bag on the floor and surveys the room. There’s a large ironwork bed with layers of blankets; long sash windows with curtains made from what looks like stitched-together hessian sacks. There is a low bookcase, a dressing table with an old mirror and a battered-looking wicker chair. An old wooden wardrobe, and a hanging rail beside it. A door that leads off to what she hopes is a bathroom.
Jack follows her inside, pulls the door shut behind him. ‘I’m just going to lie down for a minute,’ he says, flopping onto the bed and kicking his shoes off. ‘Then I’ll unpack.’
She walks into the bathroom, taking in the beauty of the old clawfoot tub in the middle of the room. Perfect. Maybe it won’t be so bad here after all, she thinks. As long as the water is hot. Ali turns on the taps and after a moment, water starts to creak and gurgle and judder through the pipes. She sits on the edge of the bath, watching it spurt out of the taps, foamy and brown. After a while, it settles and starts to flow, clear and hot now, steam billowing. She leans into the bath and drops the heavy metal plug in quickly, trying to avoid burning her hand. Smeaton wasn’t lying then, about the water being hot and in plentiful supply. The bath, too, looks perfect. Wide and deep and just right for a good long soak. She stands and stretches, feeling her muscles popping in protest. How long has she been so tense, so coiled? This place will be good for them. She knows it. They just need a bit of time to adjust.
‘Any idea where the toiletries are?’ she calls out. ‘I’ve got that jar of lavender bath salts that Mrs Edmonds from next door gave me. I’m sure she bought it in a charity shop. I thought it might be just the thing for here…’ She leaves the bath running and closes the door to keep the warmth of the steam in the room. Jack is lying flat out on the bed, half of the blanket under him, the other half over the top, so he’s folded in like a sandwich filling. She smiles to herself, gazing at the peaceful expression on his face, and marvels at the innocence of sleep. Do you dream about it, she wonders. Do you dream about them? Are your unconscious thoughts as dark as your heart? Her expression hardens. Forget it, Ali. She tries to tell herself. They can move on from this. If they allow themselves.
She picks up the leather hold-all that lies at the foot of the bed, and the contents half spill on the floor: shampoo, soap, flannels. Razors. She rummages quietly, glancing up as Jack snorts and rolls over in his sleep. She finds the jar of purple crystals and goes back into the bathroom.
The bath is half filled now. She dips a hand in and checks the temperature. Then turns off the cold tap, leaving the hot running as she unscrews the lid of the jar and tosses in a handful of the scented salts.
Lavender steam fills the air, and she breathes it in deeply as she takes off her clothes.
She turns off the hot tap and gently climbs into the bath. She leans back, letting herself sink down into the soothing depths. The room is filled with steam. No ventilation, no fan. But she likes it. Feels safe, cocooned in the warmth.
She sinks further, her hair swirling around her. Then further still, submerging her face under the water. Bubbles escape from her nose, and she opens her eyes, watching them disappear on the surface.
Peace. This is peace. She closes her eyes.
The cold hits her first. And then the hands. Strong hands, pressing down on her body. The ice-cold water is in her shocked mouth. No, she tries to scream. She thrashes, struggles, arms and legs flying. The cold. It’s so cold. She can’t catch her breath. Terror grips her, like rough hands on her soft skin. Pinning her down. Gripping her. Drowning her. Her eyes fly open.
And then it stops.
There is no one there.
She sits bolt upright, hands gripping the sides of the bath. Her heart hammers. Her lungs burn. She coughs, tasting the lavender in her chest. ‘Jack,’ she tries. But her voice is a croak. ‘Jack…’Do you dream about them? Are your unconscious thoughts as dark as your heart?
With shaking hands, she pulls herself up and manages to climb out of the bath, grabbing a towel from the rail nearby. She is shivering. She wraps the towel around herself but she can’t warm up. The water … She dips a finger into the bath, and finds the water is still hot. Confused, she opens the bathroom door, and sees that Jack is still lying on the bed. Still sleeping. Oblivious.
It wasn’t real.
She climbs onto the bed beside him, pulling the cover off him and
over herself. She doesn’t want to touch him; she’s not ready for that yet.
But has no choice. She can’t stop shivering, and she needs his body heat.
With a grunt, he shuffles himself under the covers, turns over and hugs her close. She lies there on her back, staring up at the ceiling, not hugging him back. Not daring to move. Trying to breathe in and out – long slow breaths. After a few moments, she turns towards the bathroom door. In her haste to leave, she’d left it open just a crack, and she imagines she can see something moving in the room beyond.
Shadows, Ali. Just shadows.
‘Jack … are you asleep?’ She knows he is, but she yearns to hear his voice. She needs to know that everything is going to be OK. ‘Jack?’ she says again, turning her head back to face him. ‘Something happened in the…’
Her words catch in her throat. Jack’s eyes are wide open, staring straight ahead – straight to the bathroom door.
‘Jack … Oh my God. What is it?’
She turns over again, pulling herself away from him. But there is nothing there. No one is in the bathroom. She imagined it. Didn’t she?
She turns back. ‘Jack?’ she tries once more.
His eyes are closed again now, his chest rising and falling. He is in a deep sleep. His eyes can’t have been open at all. Just something else that she’s imagined.
She slides closer to him, and his arm flops over her like a dead weight. She’s warm now, but there’s no chance of sleep.
She stares up at the ceiling.
There is a creak of a floorboard up above, and she wonders who is there; whose room is directly above. She reminds herself why it is that they are here. She knows it’s all going to work out. It has to. But that doesn’t stop her wishing that she could go back to her old life, even just for a moment. She didn’t even tell some people that they were leaving. But she knows that it will never be possible. They are here now. She tries to relax, to imagine that maybe things will be OK. Keeps trying to convince herself that nothing happened in the bath, that no one pushed her down, that the water didn’t turn cold and then hot again. Tries to convince herself that she imagined it. That she is overtired – which is hardly surprising considering everything that’s gone on. Everything that’s gone on with Jack. She lies there, wrapped in his arms, feeling alternately trapped and scared, then hopeful and safe. Wild thoughts buzz around her like a manic fly, until finally she falls asleep.