Over on the other side of the lake there was a huge family celebrating. They had big rose-gold balloons saying 40!, and disposable barbecues. Their smoke floated over to us on the hot breeze.
Rose led me and Hazel down towards the lake. Around us, children rushed around with an orange frisbee. Kids vaped in the shade and couples drank prosecco. Dragonflies were hooking up, green with blue, in the shallows. Ducks were leading their ducklings across the water.
The three of us laid out our towels, letting them flick up and then settle. My towel was blue. Rose’s was green. Hazel’s was mango yellow, and she was wearing a turquoise anklet.
We twisted and pulled at our clothes, getting into our swimming costumes underneath them. I felt so bare in my bikini with these two. I hadn’t ever swum with them before.
Rose was first into the water, wading through the shallow parts, and launching herself out into the lake.
Hazel was nervous, so I went in with her, more slowly. The lake was greenish cold around our legs. The sun cream from our skin marbled the water. Hazel gripped my hand as we waded deeper. Her hand felt warm, and almost intimate. It made me so aware of her whole body.
Rose swam further than me or Hazel, slapping the water up into fast foam. Hazel swam slow and calm, head held up high and still. I floated on my back with water in my hair, my ears. Sun shone bright onto my face.
When we were cold, we swam towards each other. Then we swam towards the bank and clambered out.
My towel was warm and rough beneath my back. I ripped into some crisps so the packet lay silver and open. We ate hungrily and lay down under the hot sky. Voices echoed off the light green lake.
Suddenly, Hazel sat up fast, slapped her ankle as though it had been bitten. The turquoise anklet jingled. The ring of skin around her ankle, under the bracelet, had been stained greenish. It looked like it had drowned, that greenish skin.
She was quiet. The three of us sat there and watched two moorhens on the lake. The air was getting too hot, uncomfortable. My cheeks and eyes felt red. ‘Drinks?’ I asked. I heard my voice croak.
‘Mmm. Cider and blackcurrant, please,’ said Hazel.
‘G&T for me babe,’ Rose said.
I put my skirt on over my bikini, stood and walked up through the dryish grass to get the drinks. At the top of the hill there was an ornamental garden, where people chatted in quiet voices and ate Magnums. There were lavender plants thick with bees and smelling soft. Through the garden there was a place for buying ice creams and wood fired pizzas and drinks. Children ran around and squealed. Dogs lapped at a metal bowl of water.
When the person handed me the drinks, bubbles hissed out from the clear plastic cups, sprinkling my wrists. I carried the three cups carefully down to the lake.
It was hot, as we drank, and the drinks were fresh. I held my beer against my cheeks to cool my face.
‘Let’s get back in,’ Rose said at last. Sometimes she liked to tell us what to do, and sometimes it felt nice to be told.
Hazel took my hand again, as we went into the lake. It felt deeper and siltier than before, for some reason. And heavier. It only took three steps to come up to our waists, and then Rose told us she was peeing in the water. Then we were all doing it. We were all looking at each other and pissing ourselves, laughing in the waist-deep water. Then we set out swimming again, amongst the ducks and bugs and other people.
The hot afternoon was passing. Swimmers were gradually leaving, drying off, putting on their summer dresses. As they left, the lake grew quieter. There was less sloshing, less jostling. Just stillness, and small ruffles with the movements of the ducks. The water felt different, too. Deeper and colder. Like metal.
None of us spoke, but all together we swam towards the shore at the same time. Scrambled out, lay down on our three rough towels. The air was still heavy hot, but I was shivering.
Rose was restless. Pacing about, drying off, talking.
‘That woman’s looking at us, isn’t she? It feels like it’s forty degrees. I don’t know why my swimming costume keeps on bunching up.’
I looked at her, but she kept speaking. I couldn’t fit my words in around hers. She talked about the rough grass, said it was itchy, and then looked at me like she was disappointed.
‘I’ll get some more drinks,’ she said, and she stomped up the hill to the cafe.
It must have been about four o’clock by then. I looked over at Hazel. I could feel my body in relation to hers, even though we weren’t touching. Birds swooped and muttered. A bee landed, light, on my thumb, then rushed away. I could feel how close my face was to Hazel’s knee, how close my shoulder was to her thigh. The feeling fluffed up the hair on my arms, spangled my body.
I looked towards the lake. The swimmers were all getting out, and the creatures seemed to be retreating, too. Mother ducks flew long wonky loops above their frightened ducklings.
I looked away, not sure what was happening, and not wanting to see it. And there was Rose, striding down the hill with a burrito tucked under her arm, and three big drinks in her hands.
‘The queue was horrific,’ she said, holding her cup in her teeth. She handed out our drinks and passed round the burrito. Then she took a long sip of her gin, her eyes roving about.
‘Did you move the towels?’ she asked, and smacked her lips.
We shook our heads. My mouth was full of burrito beans and rice, and I chewed until she spoke again.
‘I swear we were further away from the water before.’
‘It’s come closer,’ Hazel agreed quietly.
‘It’s not tidal?’ I asked, though I knew that it wasn’t.
Other people were noticing the water, too. A woman had come and yanked the frisbee kids away, pulled them up the hill. Over the lake, the 40th birthday family were putting on their shoes and packing up their cool-bags.
And then we heard the water. Hissing. It was getting closer to us, definitely, up towards our bags, towards our towels.
Then Hazel and Rose stood up, and I stood too. And we were dressing quickly, stepping upwards as the water came towards us. I put my bag on my back, held my towel in one hand. We were walking now, walking away. And behind us the water was scooping up all our litter. Our plastic cups flipped and rolled on the rising lake.
No shouting. No looking backwards.
We were walking, and then we were hurrying, tripping up the hill. Up the path. Up the dry grass. Blood panting through our veins. Rose running up ahead. My body, and Hazel’s. And the rush of rising water.
We were running. So were the people around us. Running upwards. Ripping through hot air. And the hill was getting steeper and the water there behind us.
I looked behind me once, and saw the green lake rushing at us. And then it was at the back of our feet, scraping cold, and splashing at our heels.
Phoebe T (she/her) is from South London. Her stories and reviews have appeared in Best Small Fictions 2021, Litro Online, IFLA!, Brixton Review of Books, Lunate, Review 31, Idle Ink, Short Fiction and 3:AM Magazine. In 2020 she graduated from the Goldsmiths MA in Creative & Life Writing through the Isaac Arthur Green Scholarship.