The water should have been cold. It was the middle of winter.
The lake was cold. That’s how she remembered it, though they’d always come in summer, when the sun shone all day, most days.
The best days were the rare cloudy ones. That was when they were allowed to use the pool table, and when they might sneak to the adjacent cabin and prise open the freezer door, where he hung whole pigs, their throats slit and rubbery. One summer he’d padlocked the door and they’d broken it off with a rock, out of pique more than anything else, and curiosity about what could be worse than a pig, but it was empty. She remembered that – the cold smell of the empty freezer, which still had pink stains on the floor. And the cold of the lake.
She sat at the end of the jetty, dangling both feet, warped in the water. The weeds rose almost to touch her. That’s how she judged her friends, back when she was thirteen and allowed to invite one to join the family each summer – how they reacted to the weeds. Most of the girls from her school were used to swimming pools, and they’d never swum with the green, where fish might flick up against you in the shallows. Catherine had been the worst, but it made her the bravest – she’d only swim off the boat, or off the end of the longest jetty, where the weeds couldn’t grow up long enough to touch her. Jane hadn’t cared at all. She’d come back three summers all up, until that last one, when they were fifteen, and old enough to have one drink when the fireworks across the lake went up, set off by one of the rich families who owned property right on the water. You wanted to hate them, because of everything they had, but you couldn’t, because of the fireworks.
There wouldn’t be any fireworks during this trip. This was the first time Ellen had visited in winter. She hadn’t wanted to come, but Jack had heard so much about the lake, and Hot Water Rock, and the sand tennis courts that merged with the beach, that he’d insisted. Her own fault, for the tying the place up so tightly with her childhood. He’d even driven, plugging the address she had memorised into the SatNav, and managing the local roads while she sat watching the bush flash by, counting.
“19,” she’d announced to him as he made the last turn onto the five-minute downhill that would spit them out directly on the lake front.
“What? 19 what?”
“19. That’s how many dead animals we’ve driven by. 19.”
“You’re counting the roadkill?” he’d asked. He should have looked stupid in his Brits-on-holiday get-up, the chequered shirt half-tucked into knee-length shorts, but instead he looked comfortable. He always looked comfortable, born in the right skin, even when, like now, he was dotted with bites and burnt across his knees and neck. It was one of the things she liked about him.
“We always did it, on the way down,” she’d said. “It’s not weird or anything.”
He’d risked a glance at her, one eyebrow up. He was doing better than her, really. She couldn’t shake her London habit of black-all-over, especially in winter, but winter here wasn’t really winter, and she was sweating beneath her jumper and jeans.
“19’s a lot,” she’d said, half to herself. It was one of their habits, passing the time in the back of the car, after the Anne of Green Gables audiobooks had finished. Possums, cats, rats, dogs. The highest she could remember from this stretch of road was 11, but that was a long time ago. There were more cars now.
Gravel beneath the tyres. “We’re here!” Jack had announced, pulling up on the handbrake. “Let’s see what it’s all about!”
He owed her this enthusiasm, even if she didn’t particularly want it. Six years now they’d lived together in London, and even though he was northern, and had moved to the city at the same time she had, it was still his. His university friends, and his family home for Christmas. Coming here this year had been his idea.
They hadn’t managed Christmas, since prices had been impossible, but it was almost nice to come in winter. No tourists. No humidity, though of course he’d still managed to get sunburnt. The hard part was over now, hadn’t even been that hard. Her parents already knew she wasn’t coming back, even before she’d met him. She was as much of a stranger to them as he was.
Now it was just them, would be until next Sunday, when they’d drive back up north and get back on the flight.
Jack had been amazed that they’d been able to book the same cabin that her family had visited for so many years, but it wasn’t so amazing. No one visited the lake during winter. It was cold, and grey, and the nearest town was a 50-minute drive along roads so dark you’d never chance it in the rain. At this time of year it was only locals. They’d wonder what they were doing here, but they’d never ask, she knew. There was a line between those that lived, and those that visited.
She didn’t tell Jack that though. He thought everyone was so friendly; best to keep it that way.
Still: she’d have liked to ask someone why the water was this warm. It was almost sensationless against her feet and she thought, idly, that that must make it the same temperature as her. Blood temperature. 42 degrees? She could never remember. But then, it couldn’t be.
Steps on the wood behind her, and she leant her head back, waiting for Jack’s heavy hands on her shoulders.
“Warm, isn’t it?”
She jerked her head around. A woman, no more than 50, dressed in the uniform of a lake local: shorts, damp at the hem, and a fleece zipped up to her neck. She had grey hair cropped close to her head, no makeup, black eyes.
Ellen stood, slipping wet feet into her shoes, brushing off her palms against her jeans, but the woman made no move to take her hand. She’d never really shaken hands in greeting before she lived in London, but now it was instinct, and she paused awkwardly before clasping both hands before her.
“Yeah, I was just thinking that.”
The woman smiled. “Really? Most tourists are just pleased. Don’t wonder about it.”
“I used to come here every summer, for 10 years or so,” Ellen said, a tiny hint of defensiveness creeping in. “Never been here at this time of year before, I thought it’d be freezing.”
The woman didn’t react to her words, and Ellen knew she’d made herself look more of a fool than anything else, trying to pretend like this was her place. It wasn’t, not any more than London was.
“The springs. That’s why”.
It clicked. It was one of the best parts of the lake, as a kid, a spot you could get to only by boat, a tiny inlet you only knew if you knew, where natural springs bubbled up under the cliff, mixed with the lake water, formed a perfect pool of hot water. They’d spent hours there, eating cold sausages and drinking from the lake.
“But… they’re tiny. Wouldn’t that…” she trailed off. She worked in digital. She’d failed biology. She had no fucking idea. “The whole lake?”
The woman nodded, looking out at the water. “Screwed all the fishing. Made the koura spawn like anything.”
Koura were local endangered crayfish, black and the size of a child’s foot. Only the indigenous were allowed to fish them, technically, but everyone did, spotlighting them with torches after dark. She looked down into the water and suddenly she saw that the darkness at the bottom of the lake wasn’t weed, or mud, but a thick, crawling mass of crayfish, scrabbling shell on shell.
“Ellen!” Jack’s voice, bouncing off the water, brightly foreign. It was getting dark. The winter thing again; she remembered endless evenings here.
Ellen smiled with the same brightness at the woman who hadn’t offered her hand, or her name. “I’d better get back. He’s new here, doesn’t know where anything is.”
The woman was thin but the jetty was narrow and she was firmly planted, barefoot, of course, right in the centre. “You’re staying there?” She jerked a thumb at the little cabin, so much smaller now than in Ellen’s memory.
“Yes,” she said, because the car was there and because Jack stood in the doorway with moths swarming his head.
The woman stood aside at that, and Ellen smiled, said good night, walked past. There was a moment of closeness where she could have been pushed, would have had no chance at stopping it, but nothing happened, of course.
She didn’t turn around as she walked back up the sand, avoiding the sharp rocks though she had her shoes on. She walked into the cabin, but Jack was gone, and the two rooms were cool and empty.
She stepped back out, flicking off the porch lamp as she did so. She hated moths. The woman was still on the jetty, staring up towards the cabin, though there was no way she’d have been able to see Ellen in the half-light.
A scratching to her left, and she knew what Jack was doing, same thing she’d done so many times as a kid, drawn to the concrete sides and the thick slab of a door. “Hey babe,” he said. “What’s in here?”
No padlock, hardly a surprise, since the house it belonged to had stood empty all these years. You could tell by the cobwebs, and the rot of the porch. He might think it was empty because it was winter, that the family would return for summer, but it wasn’t that kind of emptiness.
He pulled on the handle, and she wanted to shout, but. And it was empty, of course.
“Looks like an abattoir,” he said, with a half-step inside.
“Don’t,” came a voice, but it wasn’t Ellen’s, though her mouth was open to say the same. Black eyes, grey hair, a bit too close behind them both. You could do that with bare feet. “No one goes near this place anymore.”
Jack stepped out, interest all over his face. “Why’s that?”
“Girl died, stuck in here, one summer. Stupid game of hide and seek. Had some sort of fit, threw her head up against the wall. Her mates found her later. Bit of a shock to the community.” She nodded her head twice. “Bit of a shock”.
Jack’s eyes were wide. “Wow.” He turned to Ellen, took her hand, as she knew he would. “Must have been horrible. Did you know her?”
She opened her mouth, but another voice filled the gap again. “Nah. After your time, wouldn’t it be, girly?”
Ellen nodded. “Yes. Later, I think.” The door was still open, white walls, pink stains.
“Anyway. You’re brave, staying here. We’re superstitious folk, round here. Not interested in trying our luck, if you know what I mean. It’ll be bowled over one day soon, prices going up like they are.”
She was already turning away, but she spoke directly to Jack, who was hanging on every deliciously dark word. “Shut that door, boy. Don’t need to invite anything out, do you?”
But it was Ellen who caught the lip of the door with her fingers and swung it shut, hard, making a noise that rang out across the lake. Jack looked at her crossly, but the local woman nodded her head, approving.
“Don’t try catching the koura, will you? Not yours to take.” She walked down the gravel driveway, fading quickly into shadow. Just the sound of the lake, warm against the sand, thick with black cray, bigger than a child’s foot.