Originally written 27 January 2010)
The little beach at Villeneuve is a shallow-sloping, pebbly crescent, fringed with weeping willows and embracing the now-glittering warm waters of Lac Leman. Away from the lapping shoreline, a low wall separates the public path from the beach, as if gently segregating those who are in mellow-mode, happy to wallow in the water or read in the dappled shade, from those who thrive on “feeling the burn” in any number of ways; running, cycling, roller-blading or power-walking. A little play area with picnic tables is tucked neatly and conveniently behind the path. The beach overlooks the “Golden Rose” of Lac Leman; Montreux, a place that is bathed daily in the powerful afternoon sunlight that summer in this micro-climate brings, turning the windows of the town into mirrors of bronze-coloured fire. This height-defying mountainside haven was, and still is, home to princes, millionaires, crooks, rock stars, statesmen, composers, sportsmen, entrepreneurs, artists and paupers.
It is on this little beach of ours that I feel I have found paradise. I am not alone in my thinking. Skye has discovered true joy in floating for hours in the cool shallows, with her other “water-baby” friends, in giant, luminous, inflatable, rubber rings. They chat, shout, scream, play, invent, tussle and splash for what seems like an eternity. I usually have to coax her out of the water as the sun begins to set, as her teeth start to chatter and as her fingers and toes are a mass of watery wrinkles. Only promises of a cool drink, a hot shower and a slice of toast will do the trick.
On Tuesday morning, we meet with two of my best friends and their children and set up a patchwork of blankets and towels on the grass. Flasks of coffee poured, crisps and cookies distributed, sunscreen administered, our respective needs are met. The heat of the morning is already a sizzling promise of the oppressive afternoon heat that lies ahead, so a relatively early rendezvous feels like a good decision.
The fusion of life’s soundwaves carry gently on the warm breeze; delighted children playing watery games, mothers gossiping and complaining of sleep-deprivation, teenage boys making mischief on the diving boards, snippets of conversation caught from lycra-clad, paired cyclists as they power on by, infants watching their elder siblings with envy from their pushchairs, gurgling and chattering, trying out new-found voices.
It is time for a swim. Upon first tentative “toe-dipping” exploration, entry into the lake can prove breath-taking! But after what is now feeling like the longest heatwave I have ever known, it is the most welcome aspect of being in this location. And it makes what is turning into the most exciting period of child-rearing so far, a time when I can really and truly begin to get a taste of forgotten freedom. In the last few weeks my 15 month old son has learned to walk, learned to deliver a slobbery kiss, and is starting to form words. My 2 year old daughter is becoming so much more socially and physically able, that I can now sit on a beach and just watch her having a blast with her friends from a short distance away, with rapt fascination. It is beginning to feel that the back-breaking, emotionally traumatic era that saw me live through two virtually concurrent difficult pregnancies and two subsequent births, is drawing to a close, ready for a new, exciting and healthy chapter in my life to begin.
So in to the water I venture…..my breath quickening the further in I go, the water rising up past my ankles and to my knees. To take my mind off the change in temperature as quickly as possible, I plunge in, and pull myself forward on my arms. Time for some fun! I sneak up on my daughter in the water, who is happily kicking her legs out behind her and waving at the boats on the lake. She is slippery and giggling when I reach out for an embrace and shrieks “Mummy!” in excited hiccups. Her skin is cool to the touch and her breath, in contrast, is hot on my face as I snuggle in for a watery kiss. I hold her up by her waist and she continues to scream with excitement, looking down at me, her eyelashes clogged together with drops of water like diamonds, glistening in the morning sunlight.
She chatters to me excitedly about swimming, the boats, the birds, her friends and….crocodiles. Crocodiles, I ask?!
“I see a crocodile!” she assures me. “I’m scared”.
I feign amazement and tell her not to be frightened and assure her that this particular crocodile is, no doubt, a friendly one.
“Why don’t we find him and see if we can give him a big kiss?” I suggest.
She looks at me with curiosity and then simply says, “I can’t kiss crocodile, Mummy?! His teeth are too big!”
Of course, silly Mummy! I am laughing so hard by now, that her expression of confusion is eventually forced into a smile, and then she too collapses into high-pitched giggles.
We laugh some more, and then wallow for a while in the shallows together. It is only after a few short minutes that the mood changes. She becomes uneasy, looking around her, trying to peer in the water below. She talks of monsters and becomes more and more agitated at any passing shadow in the water beneath us. I reassure her, but at the same time, begin to feel the onset of a sick kind of fear. I tell myself not to be so stupid; dark, moving shapes in the water mean nothing at all. They are merely tricks of light in the water, passing clouds reflected on the surface, vegetation floating innocently by.
As we cling to each other and also to the giant rubber ring, I am struck by a wave of love and emotion, and by our similarities. I was a water baby at her age too, but often let the fear of whatever was below my feet get the better of me. A happy relaxed swim in our childhood swimming pool would often quickly turn into a sudden need to scramble out and sit panting on the side, searching the water for something dark and menacing that I felt sure I had sensed only seconds before.
Fear of the unknown, it is something we all feel.
A suppressed shard of memory suddenly pierces my consciousness. There was a time when I was afraid of a monster; the time, nearly 21 years ago, that the monster came to get me.
I’m on the floor, at least I think I am, my face tucked into the bottom of the sofa. My mum is next to me, whimpering. The knife at my back, he is fiddling with something in his left hand. I take my chance and turn my head. He immediately positions the knife to my left cheek and threatens, “Look at me again and you’re dead.” Don’t try anything else, for god’s sake, don’t try anything else! “Do as he says!” I instruct my Mum, trying to get the words out as quickly as possible. My face is forced back to the sofa.
I hear the unravelling of what is probably masking tape, and he spends time binding my Mum. I lie there terrified, expectantly waiting for the same treatment. All I seem to hear is my heartbeat. Everything else seems strangely muffled.
It’s my turn now.
Hauled up from being face down on the floor, he wraps the tape around my head. He starts at the crown, taking no chances. I am sitting facing him, my eyes screwed shut, as he threatens to kill me if I open them. All it would take is one glimpse to see who this monster is who has come to change our lives. Maybe, just maybe… I try to relax my eyes, ready to open them slightly. But, of course, he probably still has the balaclava on. I screw them tightly shut again. In any case, the opportunity has gone, as the tape is wound around my head and down over my eyes. I think that is it, but, to my horror, he stuffs a woollen gag into my mouth and then secures this with the tape. It takes all my efforts just to exist at this point, just to breathe.
My hands are bound too, and then I am left to sit, alone with my terror and my desperate thoughts. Is this a joke? Who is he? Why us? What is he here for?
I sit for what feels like an eternity, left to suffer in hell. I have no real idea of time frame, I can only guess, at least giving my mind a form of healthy occupation, away from the panicking thoughts that threaten to drive me insane. I am concentrating so hard on trying to breathe. The only sound I can vaguely hear is some shuffling on the carpet in front of me. But then…no…something different. A drawer opens. I identify this as a drawer in an old oak dresser at the end of our living room. I am flooded with a weird kind of relief. Burglary?
The last contact with the monster is probably over half an hour ago now, although I cannot be sure of this. Suddenly, and bizarrely, he turns on the radio. Our local radio station pipes forth, a happy-sounding voice offers a weather forecast for the following morning. Will we be alive by then? How will this end? How can I be sitting on my sofa, bound and gagged, whilst ordinary life carries on so innocently for everyone else around us? Our street is only 10 metres away, but I know that fear has paralysed me from shouting loud enough, even if I were not gagged.
I hear nothing at all for a few minutes. My chaotic thoughts are like an out of control hurricane in my head, leaving nothing but devastation. Where is he? I feel isolated, surrounded, paralysed from fear, but fear of what, or whom? Am I going to die? Will it hurt? Please don’t let it hurt. If I have to go now, if this IS my time, then I am willing, but please, no pain. Just no pain, that’s all I ask of you. Who am I asking? God? How could a God allow this to happen?
My brain continues to search its limits for an understanding of how we are in this situation. Did we deserve this, somehow?
I still don’t know where he is. Where is my Mum? Is she alive? It is too quiet. Only the radio can be heard. The woollen gag is threatening to choke me. The tape at the nape of my neck is starting to throb, as hairs are pulled and the skin is stretched. I cannot stop moving to prevent this, because I cannot stop shaking uncontrollably.
Suddenly, I have an answer to at least one question, one that perhaps I had not dared to utter even to myself, even in my head. I am no longer alone. The monster is with me, his breath on my neck. And as his leather-clad fingers start to undo the buttons on my shirt, unhurriedly and deliberately working his way down, he lets out a soft, menacing chuckle.
And it is with this sick realisation that my whole world changes again…