‘At the top of the hill, by N. Alex Dickison.’ The book lies open, upside down on Olivia’s bed. She stares at it from across the room. She has just come back in with a plate of salad and curried chickpeas. A home-made recipe. Nick and Emily are eating outside but Olivia made the excuse of needing a dark room to cure a headache, so that she could get back to the book she was already over halfway through. The room is cool as the sun sets on the other side and her window is open to let in a silent breeze. Olivia drapes a cardigan over her shoulders and kicks off her sandals. She takes a big spoonful of chickpeas and chews them. It’s delicious and in an absent-minded way she decides to take the recipe home for her mother. Her Mother! She really must stop forgetting. She makes a third mental note to email her before she goes to sleep and accepts that she’s most likely in for an ear full. She actually wouldn’t be surprised if Claudia Monroe turned up here, banging on the door and demanding to find out where her baby girl is. Olivia laughs internally at the thought and sets her food to one side and picks up the book, careful not to lose her place. There is a single armchair underneath a shelf of old Jane Austin books. Olivia sits herself down, pulling up her knees to her chest as she hunches over the pages where she left off.
The book so far, has been wonderful. It’s about a young girl, Lucinda Gerald, who lives by herself in a small cottage by a lake at the bottom of a great grass hill. It’s set in the future, in a world where the population has been drastically decreased by a virus. She has to scavenge her own food and grows her own plants. One day, she sees a man walking over the top of a hill behind her house. She is wary of the stranger at first but sees him pass by every day for a month. When he heads one way, he is always carrying something in a sack, when he comes back, the sack is empty. Eventually, Lucinda finds herself in need. She trips up, carrying wood, and falls into the lake. The lake is like ice on her skin and she struggles to swim to the surface as her ankle has been broken. She is sinking and there is no one who can save her. Just as the girl starts to give up hope, she is pulled out of the water, she faints. When she awakes, that evening, she is in a strange home, beside an open fire. Her ankle has been wrapped and a dog lays at the foot of her bed. She is frightened and sees that a man is stood beside her. It is the man from the hill. His sack in his hands. He explains that he was passing by, as usual and heard her struggle. When he saw that she hadn’t come to the surface, he had gone down and saved her. He had thought her dead, but stubborn as she is, she had fought for breath. Then he had brought her to his home to nurse her back to health. The two talk for a while and she finds out he had lost his family to the virus outbreak and that the dog had belonged to his daughter. She asks him about the sack and he tells her that he fills it with food he grows and with wood he finds, then he walks it over the hill to another house that hosts a large group of people, he feeds them, cleans for them, cooks for them and plays with the children. He is teaching the adults there how to grow food for themselves. So far, the young girl has never left her cottage and she has no memory of ever having been anywhere else or of having any family, it’s been that way as long as she could remember. The mystery is who she was before. The girl doesn’t have the courage to venture beyond the land she knows, she didn’t even know of the houses or families around her. All this time she has been lonely because she was too afraid to take a leap. It seems that this new stranger will help her get over this fear.
Olivia is wondering if she will find out what happened to the girl’s memory and is eager to find out more about the stranger. She settles in to read on. Every now and then she will notice a similarity to herself and the character. Her determination to carry on, her love for nature, the way she speaks to herself and cares for passing animals. Even the character has long black hair, green eyes and freckles. This character is Olivia in another world. Her mind flits back briefly to Isabelle and she wonders if she could maybe persuade her to let her audition when the time comes. But then, how would Nick feel about that. Maybe she doesn’t fit what he had in his mind. Though, reading the description of the character, she absolutely has the look down. She turns the page. The words are eloquently knitted together, there is no break in flow, no metaphor or simile she doesn’t find beautifully easy to understand. Even the house represents the characters loneliness and she can picture Lucinda’s capability of being alone wearing down with everything that breaks in the cottage. She is at a point in the book where Lucinda and the stranger, who she now knows to be Philip, are venturing out to visit the house with supplies. He carries her on his back, so that she might make the journey. He is strong, like an ox. His dog runs by their side. As they arrive at a run-down mill, which is doubling as these peoples home, a rugged man comes forward with tears in his eyes – Nick describes them as ‘Diamonds in a pool of sapphires’ – he clings to the girl and holds her face in his hands and claims himself to be her father. “What?!” Olivia cries. She is dumfounded and invested in Lucinda’s life and asks herself what this could mean. Could it maybe be a trick of some kind? She doesn’t have a chance to think too much over this, as music is now playing from Emily’s room, signalling that the evening of socialising is over for her and Nick. She walks through the bathroom and into Emily’s room. Emily is picking out some pyjamas and jumps when she sees Olivia in the doorway. “You remember I have a headache, right?” Emily grits her teeth and nods by way of apology. “Sorry!” She says. She turns the music down and Olivia nods thank you. “Night.” Emily says.
“Good night, Emily.” She leaves her to her evening and heads back into her own room. She sits back in the chair and allows herself to sink into the cushions. Outside her window two birds land on a hanging branch. They squawk and click their beaks angrily. Olivia stands and walks over to the window; she closes it and heads back to her seat. They persist their squawking. It sounds like a lover’s quarrel. There’s nothing to be done about it, but Olivia decides that she may need somewhere quieter to read.
She heads downstairs, book in hand. She races outside, keen to find out what is going to happen next. No one sits outside, she is alone with the novel. Olivia walks out to the dock and sits on the warm wood, opening the book and ready to dive in. She gazes out at the water. It’s a scene she doesn’t feel she will ever get used to. Those mountains, the water, the sun, the birds in the trees. How could anybody get used to this. Olivia can imagine that this place would be beautiful no matter the time of the year. Yes. Even in the winter. The hills would be covered in snow and the trees, though bare, would claw and bend and wilt. She could write a horror story set in this little village. The most picturesque horror story anybody has ever read. There could be monsters in the lake and ice dragons living in the mountains…come to think of it, maybe she could write a children’s book about it. Yet another career choice. She could ask Nick for tips. He would help her, she’s sure. Afterall, she may only be halfway through, but this book had to have been the best she had ever read. She could imagine how incredible it would be as a film and is insanely proud of him for his achievements. There is a little hint of doubt that tugs at her, that he may be upset if she were to tell him she knew the book is his. Would he be offended or shy? There must have been a reason he hadn’t used his real name. Though with words as glorious as these, she cannot possibly imagine what he would want to hide. He clearly has a unique talent and if it were her, she would be calling it from the roof tops that she was one of the greatest writers of her time. Nick is one of the greatest writers of his time…though she is a little biased. She inhales and sets the view to the back of her mind so she can focus on the task at hand. She is right at the docks edge. A drake and his mate bob by on the water next to her. She smiles at them, half expecting a smile in return. The wind is gentle, though she is right by the waters edge. She leans forward, a little distracted by the beauty of the Coniston water. Olivia leans a little too far. She hears a clink and feels the chain of her necklace slide from her neck. It lands in the water with a tiny splash. Her heart sinks. It was the necklace her father had given her. Tears brim in her eyes. “No!” She sets the book aside and leans over trying to see it. The sun is bouncing off the waters ripples and something shines beneath it. It’s hard to tell, but it appears to have been caught on something. She reaches her arm into the water as deep as she can. It’s cold, despite the hot weather. Her arms break out in goose bumps. She can’t reach it. “Damn it!” She cries. Tears run down her cheek. “No.” She says. She refuses to let it go and not thinking very much, she hangs her legs over the edge and holding onto the wooden pillar, she slides her body into the water. Her mouth opens instinctively. It’s freezing. Her whole body is in shock with the cold. She takes a brief second to acclimatise and then submerges herself under the water, keeping one hand on the dock. She opens her eyes, the water stabbing at them. There is it. She sees it, the necklace hanging on a crooked nail beneath her feet. She pushes down and let’s go of the dock reaching for it, but her body keeps pushing back to the surface. Her air is running out, but she pushes on. Her dress lifts around her middle and her bare feet kick wildly, in desperation. She reaches, her fingertips barely touch the chain and she is afraid of knocking it off and losing it forever. Her air is gone, she blows out bubble and decides to come to the surface for a breather before pushing on. Only, as she tries to swim back up, her dress snags on another nail, poking out on the pillar. She tugs at it, but it doesn’t give. She has no air. Panic starts setting in. The water around her is clinging at her, pulling at her, asking her to join it. She doesn’t want to. Olivia pulls and her dress tears a little but is still clinging onto the nail. Her energy disappears and she can feel herself blacking out. The water isn’t as cold. The bubbles around her stop as her limbs start to slack. She sees white and black, and blue, and she is ready, but she is not ready. A wild array of thoughts cling to different memories in her mind.
She sees grass. She sees Emily at five years old, pushing over a chunky boy who had been picking on her. It’s gone. She sees her dad. Is it her dad? She sees someone she thinks is her dad, holding her, rocking her as a baby from side to side. He kisses her on the nose and tickles her cheeks. He loves her so much. Those eyes. Those bright green eyes. She misses him so much. His hair. Darker than the night. It’s gone. She clings to it, but it’s gone. She sees stars and tastes whiskey. She takes a picture of it. She takes a picture of the taste. It is fire and honey and bitter. It shouldn’t be possible, but she takes a picture of the taste and it’s wonderful. A cloud swims into view. It’s shaped like a dolphin. Then it’s a star. She sees red. A long red carpet and flashing beside that. She feels paper in her hands and the words on the page. They look funny. Not where they should be. She strokes them and they talk to her. “Feel it. Feel the words. You say them and you know why you say them. Now feel them.” They whisper in her ear and she feels crazy. It’s a lifetime and it’s a second. It’s a heartbeat and a transplant. The water is claiming her, and she doesn’t care. She is revelling in it. It’s amazing. She is the mermaid of Coniston waters; she will be the ghost that haunts the lands and people will come from afar to adore her. There has never been a peace like it. There will never be anything like it again. The world is gone. She is gone. She has no regret and no feeling of loss. There is nothing now. It’s happening. And then it isn’t. Somewhere in the fog there is a hand around her arm and then an arm around her waist. She opens her eyes and can’t see a thing. An angel is saving her. Her dress is free, and she feels her body rise to the surface. She is reborn.
Air in her lungs. She is thirsty for it. Air. So much of it and she gasps for it. Her hair falls over her face, dripping wet. She is suddenly aware of her body and of how cold she is. Then she isn’t. She feels the warm wood of the dock beneath her. She is on land and something is being thrown over her shoulders and she feels warm. “An angel.” She gasps. “An angel saved me.” She wants to see it. Wants to thank it, but there is nothing there. She lifts her head; her breath is heavy but back. She isn’t coughing on water anymore; it isn’t up her nose. Her hair is moved from her face. She looks up. The sun is still there in the sky, the blue, blue sky. The Old Man mountain still watches out for them. The drake and his partner still bob along on the water like she hadn’t almost died. Her body is coming back to her. The wood is still smooth, and the trees still sway in the breeze, but the world isn’t the same. It looks the same, it feels the same. Olivia doesn’t feel the same. She looks in front of her. Not up, not down, not to the sides at the house or to the road in the distance. She pays no attention to the birds chirping about their day to day gossip.
She sees only Nick. He sits in front of her, dripping wet. He pants heavily and she is suddenly aware of his hands on her face. She lifts her hand and puts it over one of his. She is wearing his jacket over her shoulders. He gasps. “Are you okay? Are you okay?” He is frantic. There are words but she can’t seem to reach them. “You could have drowned, what were you doing? Are you crazy?” She considers he may be angry but then realises he is frantic with worry. He is scared for her. He saved her. There was no angel pulling her from the water. Reality starts setting in and she feels the need to explain herself. She searches for the words and they finally come to her. “I was…my necklace, it fell. My dad…I needed it back. I had to get it back, and then my dress…got caught. I couldn’t get out.” He nods and his hands tighten around her face, like if he were to let go, she’d slip back under. “You’re crazy.” He whispers. Olivia looks up at him. His eyes are more beautiful than they’ve ever been. The setting sun sets them on fire. Her stomach jumps and her body courses with adrenaline. She reaches up and puts her hands on his wrists. “I’m okay. I’m okay. I promise, I’m fine.” She assures him. He shakes his head at her.
“I swear to god, Olivia, you’re going to be the death of me.” She laughs. “I’m serious.” He looks her dead in the eye. He is serious. The penny drops. He is deadly serious. She recalls all their ‘innocent’ flirtatious moments and tries to recall a single hour since they’d met that she hadn’t thought about him. Maybe it’s the sunshine or the setting. Maybe it’s the fact that she is impulsive and full of misplaced hope for the future. Maybe it’s because she has no plans and nowhere to go. Perhaps it’s just the fact that she nearly drowned to death. Whatever the reason, Olivia is certain more than anything of what she is about to do. She stares into his eyes and says: “Kiss me.”
He raises his eyebrows in shock, and he kneels up, further away from Olivia, but his hands don’t move from her face. She sits up so that her lips are millimetres away from his and this time he doesn’t move. She repeats herself and this time whispers, “Kiss me.”
And he does.