I have just sat down to write and am curled up in an old quilt. I always begin with stream of consciousness and from somewhere I hope smoke appears, the magic trick to produce something worth reading, but the truth is that I haven’t produced anything worthy in years, and that is exactly why I am here at a friend’s house in the shires, pretending myself a lady of the landed gentry, when really I am an impoverished writer (much less romantic than it sounded when I was seventeen), or a reluctant teacher, if you prefer realism. William, a friend from university has invited me out here, and his young family will be arriving back this weekend. I keep thinking how I have to make the most of this treat. This free reign of a nice place, so much time, all this solitude. This new setting for my writers block. But I’ve sat here forty minutes, gazing out across the dusk of the fields, the edge of the forest, and there is a woman in the stream. There is a woman in the stream!-
Later, same night:
It is entirely unsettling to know someone else is in the house, and still, I feel less cut off. I suppose she might be a madwoman, in the very Edwardian sense of the word, although I suppose I should start at the beginning; I saw that there was a woman wading in the river. She was in the middle where the current is strongest, her arms out at her side to steady her, and I hadn’t realised how deep it went, (I’d been calling it the stream until now!) She was up to her chest, for heaven’s sake. The twilight on the surface of the water made it all surreal and I couldn’t have moved quickly if I tried. As I ran towards her, I could hear the current loudly. The sound of it grew loud, as if the stream was becoming the river; swelling and becoming strong. The river throbbed around her as she waded through. A voice called out and I heard it was my own, “OI!” I ran down to her “What are you doing? What’s wrong with you?” I held out my arm out to her. She was entirely drenched. She must have gone completely underwater at some point. She wasn’t looking anywhere but ahead. Suddenly she grabbed sideways, taking my arm. I flinched at the suddenness, and at the cold wet body that clambered up towards me, like I’d woken it from a dream. Her eyes cut right into mine and I knew she was listening to me now. She was afraid somehow, but I couldn’t tell what of. I pulled her up the bank and fell backwards as I over balanced her weight against my own. She stumbled with me but didn’t fall, and as I looked up at her steadying herself, I almost felt like the silly one for having fallen. I looked up at her blue embroidered caftan. You could see every detail of her body as if she were naked, the soft curve in, centred with the prick of her navel, the arch of her breast, the darkness of her nipples as they pushed forward through the thin Indian smock, which stuck to her like dark wet paint against her skin. I sat up, bemused, but I didn’t stand straight away.
“You’ll catch your death in that water. What were you doing?”
She looked at me patiently and I thought she was going to climb back into the river, not answer me. But she did, I suppose. She crumpled into a heap, on the bank where she stood, and she put her head in her lap and began to cry. I put my arms around her and lifted her to standing. I took her back to William’s house. Before the kettle sent up steam, she was asleep. Now her wet clothes are wrung out and hung on the radiator in the bathroom. There is nothing I can do till the morning.
Lydia. Her name is Lydia. Today she gave me something for saving her, she gave me some words. She gave me her name. And she thanked me as her gaze hung at the window. Then she curled back up in her blankets and cried quietly till I had made food. We ate jam and toast together this morning, and I asked again what she had been doing in the water, what had happened to her. She didn’t seem to shy away from me asking, just carried on spreading her jam as if what I had said was rhetorical. When she did speak, it startled me.
“I’m terribly sorry”, she explained, without looking up, she lightly continued scraping butter thinly onto toast, “You’ve been so kind already, but could I use your phone, please?”
I was stunned by her voice, and smiled gently to give her her yes. She spoke gently, but sounded steady. I was unsure whether to trust that certainty in her voice. And what would happen after the phone call? Would someone come to pick her up? Would she find her way? I couldn’t turn her out alone. Nor could I keep her.
Maybe something maternal in me struck- but this woman was probably just a better looking thirty than I was. Could I let her drift off again without making sure she’d be taken care of? There was clearly much more wrong than I knew.
She floated up from the table, and went over to the phone by an armchair, in the open living-dining room. I felt like a voyeur as she dialled.
“Lawrence,” she breathed, “can you come and get me?”
I couldn’t hear anything said on the other end of the line, but she then hung up. Those were the only words she said.
I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t concerned, or even curious.
“Who was that?” I asked, trying to be casual “is someone coming to get you?”
“Yes” was all she said, and I couldn’t help pushing my luck.
“A friend?” I tried; she didn’t seem to respond. “You didn’t say where you were, on the phone.” That wasn’t really a question, how I said it.
“It’s okay, I rang my brother.” It seemed she thought this explained it. I didn’t see what she meant.
“But how does he know where you are?” I blurted.
“Oh, he’s good like that. I suppose it’s because we are twins.” She said airily.
This woman seemed ethereal to me now, more than the lady in the lake. She was building myth as we spoke.
I didn’t get much out of her at all, after that. She slipped off into some other world, her feet tucked sideways beside her on the chair, all bound up in my dressing gown, gazing out the window.
I didn’t know what to do with myself then, I felt like I was invading her house. I didn’t know how long it would take for her brother to arrive, or who to expect when he did. I couldn’t think of anything I needed to do now, but I didn’t want to go back upstairs to write, while she sat down here alone. I ironed some things in the next room; nothing I had with me needed ironing, but it soothed me.
About half an hour later, there was a knock at the door, and I braced myself to meet the stranger.
Stood on that doorstep was a man in every way opposite to the fragile, otherworldly girl curled up on the sofa. He stood tall, and had a shadow. In every way solid, and darker, more substantial, engaged. “Is Lydia here?” he asked, to the point. As if he had forgotten himself momentarily, he smiled at me.
I nodded and led him through the cottage to her. She had fallen asleep exactly as she was.
“You came.” She said flatly. And I felt that he always did, that this happened before, that he always came.
He offered his hand for her to take hold of. She did. He bent his knees to crouch in front of her.
“I’m sorry,” he told me, without turning from her, “she sleepwalks”. It seemed like such a flimsy thing to say.
“I found her in the river” I told him, “I pulled her out last night.” I don’t know what I hoped he’d say to that.
“Thank you,” he told me, still locking eyes with his sister, “thank you.”
I felt uncomfortable just being in the same room as them. Like I was watching something not meant for me.
“Did she have any clothes on?” he asked me, this time, turning just his head to see me.
I boiled the kettle while they sat together. No one said anything. When I had made the tea, I took it to them, he drank his. And they left. He thanked me again as they went through the threshold. And I watched them walk to his car together, like he was holding her up. She burrowed against him, and he opened her door. He walked round the front of the car to his side, and held a still hand up to wave as he drove away from the cottage. They got smaller and smaller till they drove over the horizon and disappeared entirely.