Wild Swimming - PART ONE

Suffering with grief and guilt after a devastating personal tragedy, Emma has retreated to the solitude of a cottage on the remote Scottish coast. Then a chance discovery sends her troubled mind into turmoil...

Emma looked out across the dark grey sea as she held the phone. Her sister had hardly let her get a word in since Emma had made the call to tell her where she was.

'You just disappeared, Em. I called that little junk shop you work in and they said you've resigned. Are you sure that's a good idea?'

Emma could only just hear her voice over the sound of the waves.

'I needed to get away.'

'You could have told me.'

'There's not much phone reception here.'

'Why on earth have you gone to Scotland? Greece is gorgeous at this time of year. I could have recommended an island and a lovely little hotel with a spa.'

Emma shut her eyes for a few seconds, wondering why her sister always seemed to want to interfere. She had her own life - a perfect one with a husband and two children - a successful career and a beautiful home.

'I'll call you again in a few days,' Emma said with a sigh.

'But when are you coming back?'

'I'm not sure. I need to be alone for a while.'

Despite her sister's protestations Emma ended the call and pushed the phone deep into her pocket.

She watched a group of women who had congregated at the top of the beach, swaddled in large dryrobes. Emma eyed what they were wearing enviously, wishing she had brought something more substantial than the Burberry gabardine trench coat Andrew had given her for her birthday two years before. The coat had been a very special surprise present, and wearing it was the closest thing to still being with him.

With a great cheer the women suddenly discarded their robes on the sand, rushing down the beach wearing nothing more than swimsuits and woolly bobble hats. Emma thought they must have gone completely mad. It was the beginning of May, but the biting wind made it feel like February and the intermittent drizzle pricked at Emma's cheeks like shards of ice. A sudden gust of wind blew her long curls into her eyes, and she pushed them back to see the women splashing into the sea, whooping as they launched themselves into the waves.

Emma shivered and did up the top button of her coat.

'You don't fancy it then?'

Emma turned at the sound of a deep voice. A dark- haired man wearing a thick Fair Isle jumper stood a few feet or so further along the jetty.

Emma shook her head and turned back to the women. The bobbles of their hats were bright balls against the steely North Sea.

'Lottie's been in already,' the man bent to stroke a sleek black labrador at his feet. 'She loves her early evening swims. Doesn't feel the cold at all.' Emma wished he would leave her alone. After all, that had been the point of coming to a remote seaside village on the Scottish coast. She wanted to be as far away as possible from people who would want to talk to her.

She had chosen a tiny fisherman's cottage because the Airbnb listing had described it as a hideaway, and that was exactly what Emma wanted to do:
hide away from
all her well-meaning friends, who recently seemed to have become obsessed with trying to encourage Emma to become more social. 'Maybe take a class? Yoga? Painting? Learn to sail? What about the tennis club? You must meet Marcus, he's newly single.'

She knew what they were really saying. In fact, her sister had actually come right out with it: 'Isn't it time to stop moping around. It's been over a year. Andrew wouldn't have wanted you to be like this.'

On the jetty Emma shivered again. Andrew. Even the thought of his name made her heart ache. Real pain in her chest that made her head spin and left her breathless.

'Are you OK?'

Emma realised she had gasped out loud. The man took a few steps towards her, concern written across his rugged face. 'I'm fine,' Emma muttered as she began walking back along the jetty towards the village.

'I'm Rory, by the way,' the man's voice called behind her. 'If you need...' his sentence was cut short by the sound of high-pitched laughter.

The swimmers were running back up the beach, exposed flesh glowing, faces flushed and happy. One of them whipped off her hat and shook out long, wet hair. Water droplets shone like a shower of diamonds in a sudden shaft of sunlight that had broken through the clouds. Emma put her head down and walked faster. She passed the pub at the end of the jetty, ignoring the locals gathered outside as she turned into the narrow cobbled lane that wound its way up to her cottage.

In the little porch she pressed the digits on the keypad - she knew the code off-by-heart already. On the long drive north she had been relieved to get a message from the Airbnb host to say they were away and she could let herself in. The last thing she wanted was to have to make small talk with someone asking too many questions.

A climbing rose grew over the porch. Emma noticed that it's buds were opening to reveal yellow petals despite the inclement weather. She gave a silent prayer of thanks that the flowers weren't red or pink, or any colour that would have reminded her of her wedding bouquet. The bouquet had had to be cancelled, along with the bridesmaid dresses, the wedding venue and of course the church. Her sister had dealt with everything. Emma had been unable to speak, let alone make explanations to the florist, the dressmaker or the vicar.

She barely remembered the days that had followed the news of Andrew's fatal crash. If she hadn't had flu she would have been in the same car, coming home from the birthday party of one of Andrew's colleagues. But she would have been driving and would have been sober, with much less chance of veering into an oncoming lorry.

After the initial shock passed Emma began to feel a terrible sense of guilt. She knew she would easily have managed to get through the party with the help of some paracetamol and throat lozenges, and then it wouldn't have mattered how many glasses of wine Andrew had drunk.

But Emma had never really enjoyed being with the rowdy crowd from Andrew's office. She always found the men too loud and their wives and girlfriends more concerned with admiring each other's nails and hair extensions than making small talk with Andrew's quiet fiancée. Emma hardly wore mascara, let alone the false eyelashes the women fluttered at Andrew - he was always the most handsome man in the room.

They weren't interested in finding out about Emma's job in the antique shop, and they couldn't understand why anyone would want a 1950s wedding dress from a vintage stall on the Portobello Road, rather than a diamanté- encrusted meringue from a luxury bridal boutique.

On the morning of the party Emma had exaggerated a mild cold: she called it flu and feigned a fever. Andrew had left her lying in bed, but when he had gone she got up to eat ice-cream and watch Netflix on the sofa. At ten o'clock Andrew had sent a text to say he might stay the night at his friend's house. He asked her how she was, and Emma replied that she was feeling awful. She was sure this was the reason he had got into his car - he had been coming home to look after her.

After the accident people kept telling her that grief takes a long time to get over. They talked of 'waves' and 'stages'. They talked about it being a process and suggested counselling. Emma had shaken her head, she didn't want to talk. No one could tell her how to get over her terrible sense of guilt. In the fisherman's cottage Emma put the kettle on top of the ancient Aga and coaxed the fire in the grate back to life. A pad of paper lay on the scrubbed pine table. The top sheet was covered in writing, accompanied by arrows, stars and heavy underlining. Emma flicked through the rest of the pad, her eyes skimming over the plot for the historical novel that had been brewing in her mind for so many years.

'Your pipedream', Andrew had called it. So one day, just to prove to him that she could actually do it, Emma had bought the A4 pad and started to write notes. It was only the outline: character sketches and the vaguest of plot lines, but it was progress. She had brought the pad with her to Scotland with the idea that she might add to her notes and even start to write proper chapters on her laptop.

But it had been three days since she arrived, and she had done nothing but stare at the pages and think of the time she had written them in the little flat she shared with Andrew. They had been planning their wedding, dreaming of their lives together. She remembered sitting at the desk Andrew used when he worked from home, finally getting her ideas down on paper. It had felt so good.

The day before he died Andrew had come up behind her, gently pulling her from the seat into his arms. 'This book had better become a best-seller,' he said, nuzzling his face into her neck. 'I'm already feeling jealous of the time it's taking. I need you to be with me, not in some 18th-century fantasy world.' 'You'd better let me get on with it then,' she laughed, as he turned her round to face him.

'It's only because I love you so much,' he said, looking into her eyes. 'You do know that? I'll always love you.'

The memory of his words echoed in Emma's mind and her chest felt tight: she had wasted all that time on her novel when she could have been spending precious time with the man she adored.

She seized the pad and began frantically ripping out the pages of notes, crushing them into balls and throwing them onto the fire. Flames flew up from the embers like dragons, fiery tongues consuming her words.

Emma sat back on her heels, hypnotised by the inferno she had created. The banging on the door made her jump.

'Are you OK in there?' said a man's voice.

When Emma opened the door she saw the man she had seen on the jetty half an hour before.

'There's an awful lot of smoke coming from the chimney,' he said.

Emma stared at him, wondering what business it was of his.

'Can I come in and take a look?'

'No! It's fine.' Emma was surprised at the loudness of her voice.

'I think I ought to...'

'There's no need.'

Emma slammed the door shut. She peered through the window and watched him standing there, looking upwards at the chimney, before he walked away down the lane.

When Emma turned back to the fire the flames had died down. Only a smouldering heap of black ash filled the grate.

Emma sat down at the table, her body slumped and her head in her hands. When she finally looked up, the remaining pages of the notepad looked back at her accusingly from the table. She picked up the pad, smoothing down the top sheet with her fingers, then flicked through the clean white pages.

Turning the pad over, she smoothed the cardboard in the same way she had the other side. That was when she felt it - slight indentations. She squinted at the cardboard, trying to see. The light in the room was fading, so she got up and turned on a lamp, examining the cardboard, tilting it this way and that. It looked like words and numbers, but it was too difficult to make them out.

Emma remembered that she had seen some colouring pencils in a box of children's toys in the second bedroom. She fetched them and began to lightly colour over the indented writing. A line of numbers revealed themselves followed by words 'Lake View Motel, 10pm'. Emma recognised the handwriting immediately: Andrew's slanted dramatically to the left, and there was the unmistakable way he crossed his sevens with two lines instead of the usual single stroke.

She remembered driving past the Lake View Motel many times on her way to her sister's house. It was a run-down place on the edge of the bypass that had definitely seen better days.

Maybe it had been the venue for a business meeting, or perhaps Andrew had been looking for a cheap place for his university friends to stay for the wedding. Emma made herself a sandwich, trying to put the name of the motel and the number out of her mind. But it was difficult.

'Ten o'clock.' She whispered the time out loud. That was late for Andrew. He liked to be in bed by 10.30pm, then up at six to go to the gym.

Emma picked up her phone and began to dial the phone number, but then remembered there was no signal in the cottage. The only place she could make a phone call from was the jetty. She peered outside the window. It was dark, rain glistened on the mossy cobbles and the wind was blowing through the hedge that lined the lane. A stray branch from the rose tapped against the window pane in the wind, like an urgent message in Morse code.

Emma drew the curtains quickly, for the first time wishing she wasn't somewhere so remote. Maybe her sister had been right: a boutique spa hotel in Greece would have been a better place to run away to - at least there would be someone to hear her if she screamed. She cursed her over-active imagination and went up the little wooden flight of stairs to bed.

Emma woke with a start. She had been drowning, tangled in seaweed, unable to get free. She sat up, the dream already fading. The first thing she saw was the notepad on the bedside table, and she remembered the mysterious phone number. Throwing the trench coat over her pyjamas she pushed her feet into her boots and raced out of the cottage and down the lane.

Waves were breaking on the jetty as Emma reached it, the pre-dawn light gloomy.

She saw the women were in the sea again, heard their laughter filling the air, their bobble hats bright in the inky water. One woman raised a hand and called a greeting. Emma turned away and dialled the number.

'Hello?' The person who answered sounded husky with sleep. 'Hello, who is this?'

Emma felt an icy chill as she heard the familiar voice.
If you enjoyed this two-part short story by Kate Granville, pick up the May issue of The Lady for her next story, in shops from Friday 3rd May.