Standing by the side of the lake was so familiar to Frances. As a child, she loved to balance and twirl on the stone walls and to run her hand lovingly over the terracotta lions that she named Sampson and Delilah. Sometimes, Frances and her sister Bella rode astride the lions, having pretend races, mock duels or imagining they were taking off, flying high in the sky to a magic lion land. They would squat beside the water, dropping pebbles into the still, darkness and watching the spreading ripples distort their reflected images. Often, they squabbled fiercely over whose was the uglier face.
There were darker, sharper memories too but Frances quickly dealt with those as she had learned to do. Today, the weather was tranquil. It felt cool and restful beneath the old sycamore tree. She knew she must stay calm; stay in control. There had been times recently, too many times, when she feared that she was going mad. Her own reality sometimes, teasingly, slipped from her grasp, eluding her. At those moments, she felt frighteningly alone and vulnerable, isolated from her loved ones.
Frances was twenty-three with that pale ethereal look so currently fashionable. Her long, blonde hair hung wispily around slender shoulders and her large, pale-blue eyes gazed wistfully out at the smooth water, seeking her own reflection. Frances had done this many times over the years – she knew it wouldn’t be there. At first, she had become frantic, feeling her face to reassure herself, waving her arms wildly, but the lake would give nothing back to her.
She knew if she bent low and concentrated hard she would be there, still and grey in the dark, secretive waters, her eyes wide and staring up at her. Frances shivered and turned away back to the house.
In the summer the family often ate lunch on the terrace overlooking the lake. Frances realised that she was hungry and was pleased to see signs of lunch under way. She smiled at the array of rustic crockery. Since her mother’s last holiday in Provence, she was obsessed with all things French and the old, oak table was piled with earthenware bowls and platters. Frances frowned slightly – only four, she wondered which of the family would not be joining them for lunch.
She loved this house; the thick, stone walls made it cool but light and airy in the summer. Frances loved light. Dark shadows scared her and she tried to stay away from them. She stepped lightly through the open French doors to see if she could help. She called out in greeting to avoid alarming her mother.
‘Hi where are you mum, can I help?’ she formed the words clearly in her brain, shaped the sounds perfectly with mouth and tongue but there was no sound although she could clearly hear her mother in the kitchen. She tried again – nothing. Frances, shaking, looked down at her hands but there was just cool, light space. Sobbing, petulant and childlike now, she ran swiftly back to the lake and knelt on the damp grass. She kept very still, concentrating hard on counting her shallow breaths. She was desperate to see her image and reassure herself that she did exist and was not going mad.
Behind her, she could hear the family gathering for lunch. Unseen in the shadows, she kept her lonely vigil. At last, she saw it, blurry at first; breathless with the effort of stillness and concentration, the image came in sharper focus, that crucifyingly awful image that Frances craved, yet dreaded. Tangled, blonde hair fanning out from a hideous, grey, bloated face, blue eyes dead and staring straight up at her.
‘See I do exist, it’s me Frances,’ she called soundlessly.
Then as at other times she would remember. Remember that terrible day.
It had started well enough; it was mid-June and the days were long and sunny. It was her brother, Tom’s 13th birthday. Frances was eight and Bella six. Several of Tom’s school friends were having a barbecue on the terrace. Bored with waiting for the food to be ready, the children wandered into the fields behind of the house to play.
Tom was ‘it’ first, choosing an old log as base. The others scattered to hide and Frances found herself with two of Tom’s friends, crouching unseen behind a hawthorn bush. She didn’t like these two; they had teased her rudely all day, taking every opportunity for a sly unkind remark. One of the boys was sat too close making Frances feel hot and uncomfortable. The boy winked at his friend and gave a sneer. To her horror, Frances saw that he had unzipped his flies and was rubbing his hand up and down his thing. His friend began to do the same, grunting and panting. The boy near to her stared at Frances with a hostile smirk and made a flicking movement with his tongue.
Horrified and burning with embarrassment, Frances scrambled to her feet but he was too quick for her; he dragged her to the ground, his sweaty hands reaching under her skirt.
‘You love it don’t you?’ he breathed into her ear. ‘Dirty little girls like you can’t get enough of it.’
Frances shuddered as the boy opposite groaned and the creamy fluid shot from him. She retched violently but hatred made her strong. She shook herself free, scrambling over the rough, stony ground, stumbling and sobbing through the thick heather that scratched her bare legs. She didn’t have the breath to cry out; she just ran.
She could see the house now but she daren’t look round to see if the boys were chasing her. Where was Tom?
Nearly at the house now, she ran towards the lake, but her sandal turned over on a wobbly stone slab, made green and slippery under the shade of the tree. Unable to save herself, she slipped, feet-first, into the lake, striking her head on the stone surround. The cold, dark water closed over her; already her limbs felt cold and dead as she floated on her back below the surface. She felt strangely calm; they would find her soon; Daddy would see her from the terrace and pull her out dripping and cold but safe. They would come soon she was sure of that.