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«Blackwater», Conn Iggulden

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I STOOD IN THE water and thought about drowning. It’s strange how the sea is always calmer at night. I’ve walked along Brighton beach a hundred times on cold days and the waves are always there, sliding over and over each other. In the dark the water is smooth and black, with just a hiss of noise as it vanishes into the pebbles. You can’t hear it in the day, over gulls and cars and screaming children, but at night the sea whispers, calling you in.

The swell pulled at the cloth of my best black suit, reaching upwards in the gentle rise and fall of unseen currents. It felt intimate somehow, as if I was being tugged down and made heavier. Even the icy Brighton wind had grown easy on my skin, or perhaps I’d just gone numb. If I had, it was a welcome numbness. I’d spent too much time thinking and now there was just the final choice of walking into a deeper dark.

I heard the crunch of footsteps on the shingle, but I didn’t turn my head. In dark clothes, I knew I would be almost invisible to the dog walkers or late night revellers, or whoever else had braved the cold. I’d seen a few pale figures in the distance by the pier and heard high voices calling to each other. They didn’t touch me. There was something wonderful about standing in the sea, fully clothed. I’d left the land behind me, with all its noise and light and discarded chips in lumps of wet paper. I tasted bitterness in my mouth, but I was free of fear and guilt, free of all of it. When I heard his voice, I thought it was a memory.

‘Now how bad can it be, to have you standing out there on a night like this?’ he said. My older brother’s voice. I could not help the spasm of nervousness that broke through my numb thoughts. I had been there for hours. I was ready to walk into the deep water until my clothes grew heavy and I could empty my lungs in a sudden rush of bright bubbles. I was ready, and his voice pulled me back, just as securely as if he had cast a line that snagged on my jacket.

‘If you go in now, you’ll drown us both,’ he said. ‘I’ll have to follow you, you know that.’

‘And maybe just one will come out,’ I replied, my voice rough. I heard him laugh and I couldn’t turn to face him. I’d feared him all my life, and if I turned I knew I’d have to look him in the eyes. I heard him chuckle softly.

‘Maybe, Davey boy. Maybe it would be you.’

I thought of a boy we’d both known, a lad with a cruel streak a mile wide. His name had been Robert Penrith, though even his mother called him Bobby. I can see her face at his funeral, so white she looked as if she was made of paste. I’d stood at the side of a damp hole in the ground watching the box being lowered in and I remember wondering if she’d ever known how her son had terrorized us.

He liked humiliation more than pain, did Bobby. His favourite was the simple thing of forcing you down to the ground with your legs right over your head, so pressed that you could barely take a breath. When he did it to me, I remember his face reddening with mine, until I could feel my pulse thumping in my ears. Even as young as I was, I knew there was something wrong with the way he grew so hot and excited. As a man, the thought of being so helpless makes me want to scratch myself.

I think my brother killed him. I’d never had the nerve to ask outright, but our eyes had met as the coffin dropped down into the hole between us. I hadn’t known how to look away, but before I could he’d winked at me and I’d remembered all the secret cruelties of his life.

Bobby Penrith had drowned in a lake so far north of Brighton it was like another world. My brother had dared him across on a day when the water was so cold it turned the skin blue. My brother had made it to the other side, to where we waited in a shivering group. He climbed out as if he was made of rubber, flopping and staggering before leaning on a rock and vomiting steaming yellow liquid onto his bare feet.

I think I knew before anyone else, though I stared past him with the others, waiting for a glimpse of Bobby’s red scalp coming doggedly in. It took divers to bring him back in the end, beaching his body three hours later, with the lake busier than the tourist season. The police had interviewed us all, and my brother had been in tears. The divers had cursed with all the anger of men who fished for dead children on bitter days. We felt their scorn like blows as we shivered in rough red blankets.

I’d listened while my brother told them nothing worth hearing. He hadn’t seen it happen, he said. The first he knew of the tragedy was when he reached the far bank alone. I might have believed him if he hadn’t seen Bobby hurting me only the day before.

You never really know when a story starts, do you? Bobby had decided I deserved a special punishment, for breaking some rule of his. I’d been crying when my brother came by and Bobby let go. Neither of us was sure what he might do, but there was a hard tightness to my brother that even lads like Bobby found frightening. Just a glance at his dark eyes and a face that looked a little white over the bones and Bobby had dropped me straight away.

The two of them had looked at each other and my brother had smiled. A day later and Bobby Penrith was cold and blue on the side of Derwentwater. I didn’t dare ask the question and it had settled inside me like a cold lump. I felt guilty even for the freedom it brought me. I could walk past Bobby’s house without the usual terror that he would see me and fall into step at my side. The boy had an evil streak in him, but he was not a match for my brother and only a fool would have tried to swim on a November day. Only a boy who had been frightened by an even bigger fish than he was.

In the utter darkness of the Brighton shingle, I began to shiver with the cold. Of course he noticed, and I heard a note of amusement in his voice as he went on.

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