Jessica burst through the surface of the water, coughing and spluttering. It was icy cold, biting into her skin, through to the marrow of her bones beneath. She kicked furiously, head whipping round in frantic panic as she tried to make sense of her watery predicament.
The water in which she found herself was a lake. Crystal clear waters which now frothed around her as she tried to stay afloat, what looked to be rough, stony beaches lining the banks and a forest almost circling the entire expanse of water save for what looked to be a natural harbour at one end. A wooden jetty stretched out over the surface, small rowing boats were moored there. Their brightly coloured hulls, an invitation to safety.
Jessica recovered herself and began to swim towards the wooden craft, her teeth chattered, she could feel numbness creeping into her hands and feet. If she stayed in the water much longer she’d sink and drown. Her clothes were already weighing her down, pulling against her as she fought to swim against the lake’s undercurrents.
Don’t panic, she mentally told herself, swim harder; swim faster.
A bright sun beat overhead in a clear blue sky but it was not a warm sun, the air around the lake was also very bitter. Jessica knew that even once she made it to the jetty she wouldn’t be completely safe. Not until she could get to somewhere warm, dry off and change into some warm clothes.
She discarded what clothes she could, which didn’t amount to much. A corduroy jacket and cardigan. She was already barefoot, her shoes having already slipped off as she breached the surface of the lake only moments previously.
After what seemed an age and with her body growing colder and increasingly numb by the minute, Jessica reached the jetty. She clung to an ancient looking wooden post, slippery weeds and limpets covered most of the rotting woods. The edge of the pier itself was too high above the water for Jessica to reach but she noticed a rusty ladder on the opposite side and swam to it, climbing out of the cold water as quickly as she could. The corroded rungs rough and sharp against her skin, she barely noticed the cuts and grazes, just heaved herself onto the welcoming dry surface of the small dock and lay there for a few moments, shivering. Water streamed away from her, dripping through the slats, back into the lake. Small curls of steam wafted into the air from her skin, goose bumps prickled her flesh, as she gazed up at the blue sky above and began to wonder, how on earth, she had ended up in such an unfamiliar place.
Jessica squeezed her eyes shut tight, as if the darkness behind them would somehow jolt her memory and explain her sudden ascent through the icy waters but the harder she squeezed and the more she searched her mind, there was nothing. It was a grey, smoky fug with no tangible memory to grab onto.
She rolled onto her front, sat up and rocked back on her heels taking a good look around at her surroundings. The forest was dense, thick and green with foliage but very still. No breeze disturbed leaf or branch, no sounds could be heard from within. Jessica thought there would have at least been the sounds of foraging wildlife, the chirping of birds calling to each other but, nothing. The lake was the same, she peeked a look over the edge of the jetty, into the crystal clear water as it lapped gently against the wood but there were no visible fish or water creatures.
Jessica tore her eyes away from gazing too intently into the lake; the rocky bed dropped away fairly sharply from the shoreline, descending to a shingle bottom where rainbow colours danced through the translucent waters from the multi-coloured stones and pebbles. The sight was mesmerising and she could feel herself leaning dangerously forward, any further and Jessica would find herself back in the mere.
“Come on Jessica,” she said out loud, her voice sounding strangely small in the open.
There was a small, wooden hut at the opposite end of the jetty. It had the appearance of a ticket office, there was a small recessed door to the left of a window through which she could see the figure of a man leaning on a counter top. He looked engrossed in something, did not acknowledge the cold, wet woman as she approached.
“Hello?” Jessica said.
He nodded, not lifting his eyes from the yellowed paper before him.
“Um, where am I?” Jessica said, a bit louder.
“In the back,” he said, lazily turning a page, still not looking at her.
Jessica frowned. “Excuse me?”
This time, the man sighed audibly and looked up at her. He looked familiar, like a face from her distant past but Jessica couldn’t place him.
“In the back,” he said. “Clean, dry clothes. Help yourself.”
“Oh.” She said.
“Or not,” came the reply. “Stay out here and freeze if you prefer.”
“I don’t,” Jessica said. “Thank you but you still haven’t answered my question.”
“Not my question to answer,” he said. This time, he folded up his paper, tucking it under his arm and in one swift move, pulled a heavy wooden blind down across the window.
Perplexed, Jessica went to the door and tried the handle. To her surprise, it was unlocked and the door swung smoothly inwards.
She stepped inside, “Hello?”
All was quiet, there was no sign of the strange ticket man or no one else for that matter. The building itself was small and square, a counter top by the shuttered window, some filing cabinets (locked, as she discovered) lined one wall, there was a kitchenette in one corner, stocked with tea, coffee, sugar a kettle, some mugs, spoons and a small fridge in which Jessica found some milk.
Whilst she boiled some water, Jessica discovered a small back room that was more like a shop changing room and where she did, indeed, find some warm clothes, including clean, fresh underwear.
“This is so weird,” she muttered to herself, pulling on a pair of soft jogging bottoms. There were even socks and a pair of trainers. Everything fit, it was all her size, in colours she liked down to the pink trainers. Being warm and dry was making her feel infinitely better.
She was enjoying a warm, sweet cup of tea when the ticket man returned. He didn’t look surprised to see Jessica still there or that she had helped herself.
“Taxi coming in five,” he said, lifting the blind and taking his place back at the counter.
“Thank you,” Jessica said. Perhaps the taxi driver would be able to explain things better than the monosyllabic responses she was getting from this strange character.
The taxi driver was even less talkative than the ticket man. Any attempts at conversation were met with a wall of silence and when Jessica apparently became too persistent, he simply increased the volume of his radio so Jessica sat back, letting the classical strains of Schubert wash over her as she tried to ignore the mounting cost on the meter.
After a half hour had passed, Jessica was close to falling asleep when a small cluster of cottages appeared on the horizon. The road on which she travelled wound through what appeared to be a hamlet of some sort and when the car pulled up outside the last one she knew this was her destination.
“I don’t have any money,” she said patting the pockets of her jacket and jogging bottoms. “Can I get it to you when I can get hold of someone?”
The taxi driver shrugged and simply reset the meter.
“Ok,” Jessica said, letting herself into the cottage after finding the front door key under a flower pot, the sound of the taxi dwindling away. “Let’s see what this is all about then.”
Inside, the cottage was beautifully quaint. A flagstone floor, low ceiling, wooden beams and a fire which was already lit, crackled in the grate. It was warm, cosy and welcoming. The cottage was small, the dining and living space taking up the one room and a spiral staircase leading up into the attic which had been converted into a comfortable bedroom off which Jessica discovered a bathroom containing a clawed foot half bath over which a shower attachment had been fitted. It was a perfect living environment, one in which Jessica had always dreamed of owning one day.
She stopped short; a memory. It was the first memory she had managed to recall that day. Something tangible had come back to her, maybe that meant more would follow.
“Fingers crossed, Jess,” she said to herself.
Tiredness began to overwhelm her, she yawned loudly. It had been a long, strange and eventful day. Reluctantly, Jessica realised the answers were not coming yet and perhaps the situation would present itself more clearly to her once she had had a decent night’s rest. As she slipped into the bed, it welcomed her into velvety, warm softness. Jessica was asleep in seconds.
“I keep telling you,” Gus, the ticket man said impatiently. “Stop coming back here.”
“Why?” Jessica demanded. “It’s not as if you have a queue of customers,” she gestured to the lake. “There isn’t even a ferry here. What are you paid for?!”
Gus laughed, rasping and phlegmy, Jessica grimaced as the laugh became a hacking cough.
“You really should give up smoking,” she said.
“I did,” he said.
Jessica sighed. “I’m going to sit by the lake.”
“Nothing there for you girl,” Gus said.
Since Jessica’s arrival in the small hamlet she had returned to the lake and to speak with the ticket man every day. On the fifth day he had relented and given her his name but she was still no closer to discovering the circumstances that had brought her to such a place. Jessica was aware that she was becoming comfortable in her little cottage, there had been no further memory recall and exploration of the surrounding area revealed a landscape permanently shrouded in mist. Jessica had neither the means or the desire to go any further for fear of getting lost so she stayed close to the cottage when she wasn’t bothering Gus down at the lake.
She had met some of the other people dwelling in the neighbouring cottages but they seemed just as confused as she herself felt so Jessica decided to keep herself to herself. In the morning, a jog down to the lake, sometimes around the lake, helping herself to tea and coffee in Gus’ office then the taxi ride back. Boxes of food would be on the doorstep of every cottage by the time the residents emerged from their night’s slumber; everyone was uniquely catered for, right down to their favourite brand of tea.
Sitting cross legged halfway along the jetty, Jessica listened out for the sound of Gus leaving the ticket office. He would disappear when the sun was over a particular tree and returned roughly an hour later.
The minute Jessica heard the shutter down, she counted to twenty and then she was up, racing towards the office, through the door and across to the locked filing cabinet. Unperturbed, Jessica pulled a hairgrip from her hair, bent it into shape and began working the lock for the cabinet labelled A-E. She had the lock picked in seconds, smiling in satisfaction as the top drawer pinged outward slightly.
Jessica rifled through the files. She stopped dead, fingers shaking as she found a file labelled “Easton, Jessica”. Her name, her file. Up until then, Jessica hadn’t known what it was she was looking for but now, she knew. Whatever was in that file would confirm it, there were answers contained within.
With nervous hands, Jessica lifted the contents of the file out, sat on the floor and began to read.
She didn’t hear Gus return, failed to register the click of the door and Gus’ heavy step as he walked into the office.
“What are you doing?” he whispered.
Jessica looked up and saw, through the tears that filled her eyes who Gus really was.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she said through a sob. A crumpled piece of paper in her hands.
“You know why.” Gus said. “Would you have believed me even if I could or had?”
Jessica’s body shook as she cried. “It’s not true,” she said. “I’ll prove it.”
Gus shook his head sadly. “Go home. Rest. Things will look better in the morning.”
Jessica scrambled to her feet, throwing the papers down defiantly. She stormed past Gus and out onto the jetty where she stood gazing at the lake.
“Jessica,” Gus called, using her name for the first time. “It won’t work.”
“Then I’ve got nothing to lose have I?” Jessica said.
Jessica ran, full pelt along the jetty, the lake beckoned to her, its waters inviting her to dive in and sink to the bottom once and for all.
She hit the surface in a deep dive and kicking her feet, propelled herself towards the rocky bottom of the lake, to where she had spotted what looked like a swirling pattern in the shingle, the same pattern bath water would make as it drained down a plughole.
The harsh coldness of the water tore through Jessica as she swam, she felt as if the lake were attempting to push her back towards the surface but she ignored it when she spotted the swirling pattern in the shingle. The stones and pebbles circled in a continuous motion until Jessica hit the bottom, sending them up in a lazy explosion, plunging her hands into the sharp silt where she began to burrow.
Up on the jetty, Gus watched Jessica disappear from sight, the last glimpse was of her pale feet; her trainers slipping off as the lake bed swallowed her whole.
“She’s troubled, that one,” came a voice behind him. Gus turned to see a woman standing a few feet back from his spot.
“This is the third time now,” he said.
“Time to break protocol,” she replied. “The others are nervous.”
“You will see to it, Gus?”
Gus returned to the ticket office where he tidied up the contents of the filing cabinet, fixed the picked lock and took his seat by the window where he watched as Jessica broke through the surface of the lake. Coughing and spluttering, confusion on her face, visibly cold she thrashed about in the water, disoriented until she spotted the jetty and began to swim.
Gus turned his attention back to the newspaper before him. He knew the content word for word, having read it so many times.
“Obituary: Jessica Easton.”
© Grace McGowan 2016