When Clara was eight, her mother asked her if she ought to leave her father. She did not say that Clara would go with her, though they both assumed it.
“We could live in the country. The little cottage at Deep Pool Bridge. We had fun there, didn’t we?”
“Yes,” Clara said, not fully committing.
“Can Daddy come?”
Her mother said no. If Daddy was involved, they wouldn’t be going. They’d be stuck in this miserable apartment forever.
The apartment was miserable, full of dark corners and walls in the wrong places. There were gloomy cupboards that Clara would rush past, singing loudly, and a room she would not sit in unless the cat did too. Her mother peeled the curtains away from the windows as far as she could, but it was never bright enough for her to paint and, she said, her work suffered.
They had visited Deep Pool House that winter. It was not a little cottage in Clara’s memory, but an imposing grey stone and slate house, set in a valley of skeletal beech trees. A river rushed past at the bottom of the garden and poured away under a hump-backed granite bridge. Her father drove too fast over the bridge, with a bounce that made Clara squeal.
When she had taken her rain boots off in the large farmhouse kitchen, her toes curled against the cold of the flagstones. There was a glass conservatory that looked out over the river and would make a perfect artist’s studio, her mother said. The couple who lived there were going away for a year because the woman had a job in America.
They went to look at the river. The man said there was a deep spot under the bridge and you could jump off when the water was high. Clara said she’d like to try, but the man said it was the wrong time of year and everyone laughed. She hadn’t been serious about jumping and wished she hadn’t said anything.
There had been arguments after that day and then, a few months on, the question. The marriage had run its course, her mother said, but everyone still loved everyone and no one was angry.
Aunty Val drove them. She came and went from the apartment a few times before they left. After each visit, the rooms got barer. Clara barked and squeaked to hear the sound bouncing off the walls until her mother told her she was being annoying.
Eventually, on the last trip, they piled into Aunty Val’s car. Daddy was at work and there wasn’t time to wait for him to get back. Clara had already said goodbye, her mother insisted. That was goodnight not goodbye, Clara tried to explain, but her mother was putting on lipstick in the visor mirror with sharp, jerky movements. Clara feared there might be a row, and in the end there was. About the cat. Her mother said Marlow would come with them, but it turned out he wasn’t.
“You’ll see Marlow when you visit Daddy,” Aunty Val said, leaning round and thrusting a handful of Werther’s toffees into her lap.
It wasn’t just Marlow. Daddy was even ground. Clara wasn’t sure what would happen without him there to moor them, to shore them up and tie them down. Deep Pool was a long way out of town and her mother didn’t drive. Aunty Val promised she would be there nearly every day, though her mother had grimaced at that.
Their things were scattered through the house when they arrived, but there were not enough of them and it felt like they were living in someone else’s house, with her toys and her mother’s pictures and ceramics plopped in.
Over the summer, her mother painted in the glass extension. Clara swam in the river when Aunty Val was there, but she wasn’t allowed to jump off the bridge. Once, she dared herself to wade out to the deep spot to see if she could touch the bottom. Water shadows licked the underside of the bridge and a roaring sound bellowed off the granite bricks, so loud it hurt her ears.
The pool was still, as if darkness had sunk to the depths like rocks, and all the sparkling, rippling water was flowing carefully around it. Aunty Val sat on the bank with two glasses of lemonade and Clara pretended she couldn’t hear her calls to come back. Aunty Val worried too much about everything, her mother said. Suddenly, the gravel bed fell away, and Clara bobbed down over her head. Cold, peaty water rushed into her nostrils and she was flying, kicking out into nothing. Breathing out fast, as Daddy had taught her to stop her nose stinging, she imagined hungry eels snapping at her toes. She shoved at the current with her arms wide and scrambled back to the safety of the gravel.
Aunty Val was running along the bank now, shouting. Clara waded back as if nothing had happened but when she tried to call, her breath stuck in her throat, so she waved instead.
Her mother was happy. She spent her time painting in the glass room and when Clara went in, she was dreamy and sweet, in a far-off kind of way that made Clara feel that nothing she could do would upset her. When she visited her father and Marlow, she asked when they would come to Deep Pool House: “We’ll see.”
In the autumn, Clara was to be sent to a local school. She cried when she found out and it was this, she believed, that shattered her mother’s peace. She heard arguing downstairs in the big kitchen. “Of course she’s upset. She won’t know anyone,” Aunty Val said. They often talked about her. Clara knew from the sh-sh sound of She this—, She that—. Like a flurry of ripples breaking against the bank, sometimes building to waves. Aunty Val was shouting, which was unusual. “Alright, alright,” she said, but her mother was too angry by then and screamed at her never to come back. Clara watched from the window upstairs as Aunty Val drove away. She wanted to run after the car so badly it hurt, like something thorny clasped tight around her chest.
When Clara went into the glass room, she was interrupting. Screwed-up papers spread across the floor like a fall of rocks. The light was bad now the sun was lower, her mother said, and there were too many trees. She had painted them at first but now they got in the way and the paper rocks kept tumbling.
Clara walked alone to the school bus stop. She always lingered on the humpy stone bridge. Sometimes the river glistened like spun gold, at others it was dull and made a whispering noise that shivered against the trees. The deep spot was almost black, with crumpled leaves spinning slowly. She was scared to jump from the bridge now, though she had wanted to all summer. Clara didn’t like being scared and the more she thought about it, the more she felt she had to, or would go on all winter with this breathless, prickly feeling. She imagined jumping every time she crossed the bridge until one day, when the water was particularly sparkly and golden, she dared herself.
She put her bare feet in the river at the bottom of the garden first. It wasn’t too cold, so she took off her coat and sweater and went back to the bridge. The big splash would frighten any eels away, she reasoned. She clambered up onto the low block wall and jumped quickly, like Daddy had taught her, before she changed her mind.
Clara curled herself cannonball-tight and hit the water with a satisfying smack. But plunging down through the surface, she felt something sharp, something crack. She thought she’d jumped straight into the teeth of a lurking eel and everything went red and black.
Cold water crashed in, not just to her nose and ears, but into her mouth, like she was being swallowed. There was no bottom, just sinking, but then stones came up fast and thumped into her back. Clara’s eyes opened and to her surprise, she saw light. The pool was not black and eel-ridden. It was clear as day and when she looked up, she saw a shimmering mosaic of trees and leaves and sky.
Aunty Val came. They drove to the hospital in silence. When Clara came out, with a big cast on her foot, her dad was there. Her mother was quiet and said, “Yes, yes.” She and Aunty Val drove back to Deep Pool and Clara went home with Daddy. Marlow wound around her legs as if trying to trip her up. Daddy said, “You can’t break it again,” but Clara knew she could. She knew how easily things broke by then.
Listen to Louise Dumayne read “Deep Pool Bridge.”