The Room by the Lake by Emma Dibdin
Published: 5th April 2018 (Paperback)
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Available in Hardback, Paperback and on Kindle
Caitlin never meant to stay so long. But it's strange how this place warps time. Out here, in the middle of nowhere, it's easy to forget about the world outside.
It all happened so fast. She was lonely, broke, about to give up. Then she met Jake and he took her to his 'family': a close-knit community living by the lake. Each day she says she'll leave but each night she's back around their campfire. Staring into the flames. Reciting in chorus that she is nothing without them.
But something inside her won't let go. A whisper that knows this isn't right. Knows there is danger lurking in that quiet room down by the lake...
Today for my stop on The Room by the Lake blog tour I have an extract from the first and second chapters of the book, enjoy x
New York, new start, yes, but why New York? On the tube to Heathrow I’d had a romantic notion of looking up at the departures board and picking a place at random, but this was the only destination I ever really had in mind. I’ve never been here before. No one in my family has been here before, as far as I know. My concept of New York is a charismatic jigsaw made up from fragments of pop culture and my own imagination. I could have gone to Paris or Florence or Berlin, where the language barrier would at least have given me an excuse to isolate myself. I could have gone to Budapest, where my mum spent what she always called the best three years of her life. I could have run anywhere in Europe, except that none of it was far away enough.
There’s rage in the streets here, a general thrum of aggression powering the city through its never-sleeping existence. Earlier I saw a cab drive straight through a red light, side-swiping a cyclist who smashed his palm hard against the driver’s side window, hitting the car again as it drove on past him, screaming ‘Are you fucking serious?’ Nobody around me gave the scene a second look. I assume I’ll get used to sights like this, just as the constant car horns have become like white noise.
The roads and pavements are all wide, the grid system laid out in vast, greedy swathes of right angles, and I’m reminded of colouring books and how I never, ever went outside the lines. How I cried after Natalie Bickers elbowed me while I was colouring in a tree once, my crayon zigzagging into the white and ruining the picture. I’ve been dreaming of kindergarten a lot this week.
Coming to New York for a new start on a visa waiver might be the stupidest, because I know perfectly well that I can’t get a job here, can’t even stay for more than three months. When the border official at JFK asked how long I planned to stay in the US, I told him my flight home leaves on 10th August, a flight I booked with no intention of taking. For once in my life, I’m refusing to think things through too much.
‘You’ve had a tough couple of years,’ the university counsellor told me, a box of tissues placed pointedly on the table between us. I should be crying, the subtext says. The fact that I’m not is suspect, maybe monstrous.
‘Sure.’ I’d promised myself I wouldn’t be snappy, not with this one, but it was better than the alternative of not speaking at all. ‘Could be worse.’
‘The death of a parent is one of the most profound losses a person can suffer. At your age, all the more so.’
‘High up on the stressful life event scale, yeah. Can I ask something?’
‘Of course, Caitlin.’
‘What would you say to someone who’s not only mourning the death of a parent, but sort of mourning the fact that the wrong parent died?’
She didn’t flinch, but I liked to think I blindsided her at least for a second. I knew I should feel disloyal to my dad, and horrified by the idea of my mum looking down from wherever and hearing me say it, but all I felt in that moment was satisfaction, like I’d finally grasped something I hadn’t dared to reach for before.
It’s the same satisfaction I feel now at the thought that maybe, just maybe, my dad will have sobered up for long enough to wonder where I am. Maybe even tried to call. What happens when you call a phone that has been thrown into the canal? Does it go straight to voicemail? Can the network tell when a SIM card is waterlogged?
I’d left a voicemail with my aunt Chloe and another with my best friend Sophie: clipped, utilitarian messages designed solely as insurance. I’m fine, I’m going away, don’t try to contact me and don’t report me as missing. I don’t want to give him a reason to turn this into a police procedural.
I just want to stay. In this lonely five days in New York I’ve been as low and high as I ever have, miserable and exhilarated, drunk on freedom and fear and the city’s collective, propulsive desire for more. In these streets where anger hums in the air, where cars keep driving straight towards you as you cross on a corner, where there’s no real expectation that you’re safe. Here, I can imagine dying, or else living forever.
As soon as I walk into the house that Friday night, my last night in London, I know I should leave.
I’ll never know exactly what it was about the hallway – the piles of post on the sideboard, neglected for months, the jumble of boots and trainers by the door making a mockery of the shoe rack, the way mundane objects felt overgrown – that gave me pause. Nausea in the pit of my stomach, buried like a bullet. The faint sound of opera reaches me, muffled by walls and a door ajar, and I lean hard against the front door as it closes behind me.
He’s sitting in his armchair, The New Grove Dictionary of Opera open on his lap, and he looks so familiar and comforting and appropriate that something young in me wants to run to him. Curl up at his side and let him read to me about a favourite aria or a composer’s biography, not because I have any interest in opera but because he does, and because I will remember this moment as something true. The knot in my stomach dares to loosen, until I see the glass. Stashed clumsily behind the leg of the side table, empty, because he drained it in a hurry.
We’d had a real afternoon together earlier in the week, a walk around Hampstead Heath, starting at the south-west entrance and skirting the edge of Parliament Hill, passing the ponds as the ground sloped gently upwards.
‘I really feel different about it this time, darling,’ he’d said to me as we passed the model boating pond, heading up towards Hampstead Gate and the dense, soothing forestry beyond. ‘When I think about drinking now, it just feels like some kind of nightmare. What the hell was I thinking, you know?’
I held onto these words like salt and threw them hard over my shoulder, and dared not to worry about him for an entire day afterwards.
Back in the living room, my voice is high and thin as I ask, ‘What are you drinking?’
Almost worse than the lying itself is how bad he is at it. I need to brace for a fight but I’m just too tired, the weight of nausea in my stomach anchoring me in place. I want to join him in his denial, but I can’t do that either, not this time.
‘What are you drinking?’
‘I just said, darling, nothing.’
‘Yes you are. Dad, I can see the glass, okay?’
He looks slowly down at it, back at me, and I can see the lie failing to form, the wheels turning so slowly. It had made him so dull, the drinking, his once-sharp mind blunted.
‘You’re not fooling anyone.’
‘How dare you?’ he snaps, and suddenly he’s not slow any more. A live wire has been sparked and his eyes are wild, and he’s so far away from me now.
‘You don’t speak to me that way,’ he says. ‘You’ve always been disrespectful. I didn’t realize it for so long, but with everything happening with your mother, I just saw what I wanted to in you.’
It shouldn’t sting any more, this whiplash shift. My nails are pressing hard into my palms.
‘I’m stating facts, Dad.’
‘Stating facts? Well, yeah, you’ve always been good at that, good brain. Pity about your spine.’
‘What’s that even supposed to mean?’
‘Don’t pretend you don’t know, you little creep.’
I mentally recite the Google results I had spent whole evenings poring over, trying to remember all of the statistics about relapse and withdrawal. All that comes back to me are the facts about long-term liver damage, the early symptoms of cirrhosis, and how death has been hanging over this house for such a long time.
‘You know what the doctor told you,’ I manage, my throat closing up. He stares at me, eyes less wild now than cold, all affect gone.
I’m halfway up the stairs before I know what I’m doing, and in my room I throw clothes into my battered suitcase, grabbing toiletries with a rat-a-tat list of essentials ringing in my head. Toothbrush. Razor. Passport. Leave. Leave. Leave.
I look around the room and don’t feel anything, not even as I look at the childhood teddy bears I used to love so much. All I want is out, and I have just enough resolve left to get me there. As I’m locking my case with steady hands I think I hear him in the doorway and turn, fists tight again. But he’s passed my door, going to his study, a room that has not earned its name in months.
And a minute later, I’m back out in the night air, gasping because I’ve been holding my breath for minutes on end, or maybe that house is just airless. And when I reach the canal almost an hour later, I throw my phone in with such force I think my body may follow.
I really enjoyed reading The Room by the Lake by Emma Dibdin, you can check the review I wrote last year here.