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Jacob floated still and suspended beneath the surface of the water, his ears filled with the slow hissing swirl of blood and water spiralling on either side of his eardrums. If he opened his eyes, he would look up through warm water to the roses and cherubs that clung sightlessly to the ceiling above his head, occasionally dropping crumbs onto his hair and shoulders as he and Ella shivered in the draught from the badly-fitting window; but Jacob found it easier to concentrate with his eyes closed, his focus turned inwards.
His toes were clenched tight. He forced them to relax. His fingers were claws. He let them unfold. The dripping tap made the water tremble. He told himself not to think about it. His ears were filled with water, but the sounds of the house still came to him in waves. The rattle of the window as the wind kissed it. The sound of their parents' voices, their mother's piercing descant rising over the angry bass mutter of their father as they argued in the never-used morning-room, which he'd privately re-christened The Arguing Room because of his parents' persistent delusion that they couldn't be heard while they were in there. His little sister Ella, steadily counting. How was he doing? What number had she reached? Was she distracted enough from the chaos unfolding in the room below? And had he beaten the record yet?
As soon as he thought of the record, he knew he'd made a mistake. The idea of winning ignited in his brain a great surge of hope and excitement, racing down his spinal cord and out into his limbs, waking up nerves and muscles, burning through his reserves, and then he heard something that sounded like smashing, either in the house or out of it, and he knew it was all over and he couldn't stay under any more. With a gigantic whoosh he flung himself upright, grabbing onto the sides of the bath as he gulped down air like water.
"How did I do?" he asked, between breaths.
Ella was tightly cocooned in the towel he'd wrapped around her, to cover the places her swimming costume left exposed to the cold air. When they'd first played this game, she'd been happy enough to hop into the bath naked, but since her seventh birthday she'd insisted on a costume. ("You always wear one," she told him, "so now I should wear one too.") Her feet – once so pudgy and squeezable, now slender and vulnerable – were lifted onto the toilet seat to save them from the chill of the cracked black-and-white tiles. "Four minutes and forty-nine seconds."
"Really? I thought I'd managed at least five minutes."
"Maybe I counted wrong."
Now he was free of the warm imprisonment of the bath-water, the air laid a cold mouth against his skin, sucking away the warmth. Earlier that day he had fantasised about getting into a cold bath of water and never getting out again, soaking the humid stickiness from his skin for ever, but the storm had stolen all the heat from the air. ("That bathroom's too big for the house," their mother frequently said, a mysterious phrase which was sometimes followed up with "and this whole house is too big for us.") Jacob could see what she meant about the house – surely no modern family could possibly need six bedrooms, two large bathrooms, two staircases and all the half-empty rooms downstairs – but the too-big bathroom still baffled him. Perhaps what she meant was "it's too big to keep warm and dry," which was definitely true. Especially when the storms blew in like raiders across the North Sea, driving salty rain against the windows and taking giant bites out of the crumbling mud cliffs that crept closer to their house with each assault. He wrapped a towel around his shoulders and dropped another onto the floor to stand on.
"We'll be in trouble for using all the towels," said Ella.
"I'll be in trouble. They won't shout at you. Maybe we can dry them before they notice."
"And I'm sorry about your phone. Now we can't time ourselves properly any more."
He was sorry about his phone too, but there was no point telling her off again. The noises below were growing louder. Despite the distance of three rooms separating them, some mysterious confluence of pipes and walls and conductivity meant that whole sentences occasionally flung themselves into the room like stones. Ella seemed oblivious, but how long could that last?
("You can keep me shut up here, I can't stop you doing that, but I'm allowed to bloody well write, you unutterable bastard!")
("Then write about something that doesn't upset you so much!")
"Forget about my phone," he told her.
"I can ask for one for Christmas and give it to you."
"Stop going on, it's annoying. Are you getting in or what?" Still clutching her towel around her, Ella shuffled over to the bath.
"Maybe we should lie face down? That's how the world record holders do it?"
"Don't you dare."
"You did it once."
"Yes, and it made you cry because you thought I was dead."
"But I'm older now, I know better. And I never last as long as you do, I need something to make it more fair."
"Not a chance. What if you start drowning and I don't realise?"
"Not happening. Or I'll pick you up and carry you out and we'll never do it again, you hear me?"
He could see Ella wanted to press her point further – even at seven years old, there was a streak of stubbornness in her that would soon be a match for his sixteen-year-old strength – but his approval still meant a lot to her. Or maybe there was just enough anger in their house already. Ella shed her towel; he lifted her into the bath. She hurried beneath the surface to escape the tendrils of cold air creeping around the window-frame.
"Are you ready?"
Shrouded in towels, his feet already aching with cold, Jacob watched his little sister's face sink below the water. He began the count.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
Which storm was it most important to shield Ella from? The one raging in the morning-room below, where their mother and father tore into each other with the weary expertise of seasoned gladiators? Or the one driving the sea into a frenzy, raising towering cliffs of water that threw themselves against the soft mud and raced back to the ocean bed with chunks of land clutched tight within the heart of the waves? (Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen. Nineteen.) That dream she'd described to him when they first came here, their house falling and the water taking them. And his ridiculous promise, we'll learn to hold our breaths underwater and then we'll be fine even if the sea does come.
("You're a bastard. Do you hear me? An absolute bastard ...")
Twenty-three. Twenty-four. Twenty-five. Getting the pitch and tone of the count right was tricky. Count too loudly and the echo-chamber effect working in reverse would summon their parents upstairs. Count too quietly and he risked losing his thread among the strangeness of sitting in this cold, badly-lit towerroom, looking out to a boiling sea that edged closer with every storm. Living in this house was like making a wager with the water. Bet we can grow up and escape before you can eat your way through the cliffs. Bet you we'll be gone before you get here. Bet you're not strong enough.
("He's still looking, Richard, he'll always be bloody looking! And the amount you drink, you'd never see him coming ...")
Ella's face was still and blank like a mannequin, the planes of her face just beginning to sculpt into the beauty that belonged to their mother, and that would one day surely be hers. When Ella was smaller, they'd climb in together and lie down at opposite ends of the bath, her small body crammed into the triangle of space beside his legs. Now, despite the giant-sized bath left behind by the madman who built this house, they could only fit one at a time. But that was okay. He was happier when he could watch over her as she lay beneath the water. Forty-eight. Forty-nine. Fifty.
("Of course I bloody well drink, who wouldn't drink if they had to live with someone like you?")
One and seven. One and eight. One and nine. One and –
The rumble that shuddered up through the house's bones was strong and lasting enough to be mistaken for an earthquake. Ella bolted upright, brushing frantically at her hair and face as the cherubs sent down a shower of white dust and spider webs. The window jumped and juddered in its frame, and Jacob held his breath, waiting to see if the glass would break. If the pane gave way, that would be the end of the game. The bath at the other end of the house, which they were supposed to use, was too small for even Ella to lie full-length in. But the glass held, and the frantic panicky movements of wood against wood subsided into the usual fretful rattling, and they both let go the breaths they'd been holding.
"That was loud," he said, forcing himself to smile. Ella's answering smile was small and careful.
"How long did I manage? That wasn't a proper go, was it? Can I get my breath back and try again?"
"Maybe, but it's getting late –"
"Kids! Kids!" Their father's voice, booming up the thin steep staircase that had felt like luxury when they first moved there. ("It's a servants' staircase," their mother had laughed, "we're going to live in a house with a servants' staircase! How about that?") "Kids! Are you okay?"
"We're fine!" Ella shouted back, before Jacob could shush her. "What? What's the matter?"
"Now he'll know where we are – oh, never mind, there's no point getting upset now."
"Are you up in that bathroom again? How many more times do I have to tell you, use the other one. How about you, Jacob? Are you up there with Ella?"
"Yes. We're fine, everything's fine, Ella's not scared or anything, don't worry, we're fine –"
They could hear their father's tread in the corridor now, and the creak of floorboards as he grew nearer. His breathing was heavy. Was their mother there too? "Come out here where I can talk to you."
Because there was no point doing anything else, Jacob lifted Ella out of the bath, wrapped a towel around her shoulders, took a deep breath, and opened the door. He knew the underwater-breathing ritual made their parents angry and upset. He still didn't understand why – any more than his parents could understand why they both felt so compelled, in the face of all the ferocious tellings-off and punishments they'd received, to keep doing it – but he knew what was coming next. Their parents, united for once. Their father, red-faced and powerful, his breath sprayed with whiskey. Their mother like a one-woman Greek chorus, joining in with the most important parts. He felt Ella's little hand slip inside his and squeeze his thumb.
"Right," their father said, and Jacob felt the first stirrings of uneasy surprise, because their father was alone. "There's a chunk of cliff gone again. Your mother's gone out for a bit, to look at the damage from the storm, so I need to go after her and ... and look after her, make sure she's ... make sure –" His breathing was heavy, as if he'd run up the stairs, as if he'd run for miles. "So you both stay inside, you hear me? Stay inside. Do not go out of the house. It's pissing with rain –"
The word shot through Jacob like electricity. Their father never, ever, ever cursed in front of them.
" – and you'll catch your death of cold. Understand?"
Did he understand? There was something mysterious here, something in the look on his father's face and the sound of his breathing, and the air that was chilled with more than Nordic winds and driving rain. He was glad for the feeling of Ella's hand still tucked inside his like a nut in a shell. His father shook his head in despair.
"God almighty, the pair of you ... Get to your rooms, you hear me? And not another peep out of you tonight, or you'll know about it. Right, I'm going to find my boots, I might be out for a while."
Baffled and breathless, Jacob watched his father's lum-bering shape disappear down the narrow staircase.
"Did we not get in trouble?" Ella whispered at last.
"Maybe. Or maybe he's just saving it up for later."
"Or maybe he didn't notice we were wearing our cos-tumes." Ella nibbled at her thumbnail and grimaced. Their mother was forever painting her nails with aloe to try and stop her, but her fingers remained gnawed and raggedy. "Where's Mum? Why wasn't she with him?"
"She's gone out to look at the storm."
"But where is she? Should we look out of the window?"
"We can look out of the window if you like, but don't be surprised if you can't see anything, it's pitch-black out there."
Ella hopped back into the bathroom to press her nose against the window. Outside was no more than a wall of driving raindrops in an ocean of black. Jacob sighed.
"Wait a minute, I'll put the light out."
"No, don't, I don't like it in here when the light's out!"
"You can't be scared, I'll be here."
The darkness flooded in. Ella squeaked, but waited by the window for him to join her so she could grab onto his hand again. After a minute, the night began to resolve itself into a murky series of shadows, in which shapes moved that could be their mother and father, or the bushes and trees bending before the power of the wind.
"Where are they? I can't see them, I can't see anyone." He could feel Ella shivering. "Where are they? What if they've gone over the cliff?"
"Of course they haven't gone over the bloody –" he forced his voice lower and softer. "They're fine, you dipstick. They'll be out there somewhere, don't worry." His gaze snagged on a long finger of light that stretched briefly back towards them before turning outwards across the garden. "Look over there. That's a torch. That must be them."
"Where? Where?" Ella's fingers on his hand were tight enough to be painful. "Is that both of them? I can only see Dad. What's he doing? Why's he going so slowly?"
Their father's huge wavering shape was bent double as he strove against the weight of wind pushing him back. Was their mother with him? It was impossible to say. Ella's teeth had begun to chatter. "I think Mum's there too. Yes, I can see her. There beside him, look. See?"
"I can't see her. What if she's not there? What if she's lost?"
"She's not lost, she's right there with him." Their father's progress was painfully slow, but he was almost sure now he could see a second shape with him. They were close together, leaning on each other for support. He was surprised by how happy that sight made him. "Come on, it's time for bed."
"Just another few minutes. Oh!" She grabbed his arm. "Is that another light? Is it? Is it Mrs Armitage's house? Has she put the light on for us?"
The rain made everything uncertain. He cupped his hands around his eyes to form a tunnel to peer into the night. For a moment he saw another brief gleam, wavering as if the person holding it was struggling to stay upright.
"No, it can't be her house, it's moving around. Maybe it's Mum with her own torch."
"But you said you could see her with Dad, isn't she with Dad?"
"Well, then it must be Mrs Armitage then. She might be out looking at the damage as well."
"Or maybe she's gone diving."
"She'd never get the boat out in this weather."
"She goes diving when it's rough sometimes," Ella said, pressing her cold little nose against the window. "She says when you get below the surface everything turns quiet and calm."
Jacob thought of Mrs Armitage, slick in her black scuba suit, striding out across the cliffs as if they belonged only to her. The first time they'd met her, Ella had been terrified.
"Or maybe," said Ella through shivering lips, "maybe that was her house. That noise, I mean. Maybe it was her house falling into the sea."
"No, of course it wasn't."
"But it might have been. It's closer to the edge than ours."
"Look, it wasn't Mrs Armitage's house. Mrs Armitage is fine, Mum and Dad are fine, we're fine. Now it's time to go to bed."
"But should we wait and see –"
"Stop arguing. Bed."
"Will you carry me?"
"No! You're too heavy." Ella's face crumpled. "Oh all right then, but no more messing around, okay?"
When he lifted her, her towel unravelled and fell to the floor, shortly followed by the one around his own shoulders. The draught from the rattling window was like a cold mouth moving over his bare skin. With his sister in his arms, he staggered awkwardly down the corridor to the relative warmth of her bedroom, where a plug-in oil-filled radiator created a small unmoving patch of dry air and her discarded pyjamas lay like a shucked pink skin at the end of her bed.
"Come on then. Cossie off. Pyjamas on."
"I don't want to, I'll sleep in my costume ..."
"No you won't, it's soaking wet. You can't get into bed in wet clothes. Hurry up."
She looked up at him hopefully. "Can you take it off for me?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Underwater Breathing"
Copyright © 2018 Cassandra Parkin.
Excerpted by permission of Legend Times Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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