Unlikely friends, she and I, an acquaintance that grew over time, and over lingering cups of coffee. What drew us together was the fact that we were both American, both divorcees living alone in our smug, suburban town of Toddington. I met Antonia in the local bookshop, having just moved here following a bitter divorce. She sauntered up to the counter, super fit in a v-neck sweater, skinny-fit jeans, and sneakers. I at once pegged her for a Paula Hawkins or a Jojo Moyes – never would I have guessed that she was a fan of Edith Wharton, like me. She chose a hardback edition of that most savage of Wharton’s high society novels, ‘The House of Mirth’. I said she had made an excellent choice.
‘Oh honey, I love Wharton!’ She gushed. ‘Have you read ‘Age of Innocence’? Isn’t it the most exquisite piece of literature? I just adore those fascinating descriptions of the houses they lived in, and the Broughams and the furnishings and all.’
‘Yes, and the vomit-inducing snobbery.’ I added.
My companion looked at me with distaste, but nodded in agreement. ‘Oh yes, very unkind to the Countess, weren’t they?’
‘Wharton is cruel to her female characters,’ I said. ‘That book you are about to purchase, excoriates the heroine, her fate is relentlessly tragic, but I’ll say no more for fear of spoiling it for you.’
‘Oh, I don’t mind a little fatalism,’ she answered. ‘As long as it doesn’t happen to me.’
Later, I realised the irony of that remark.
When my new friend invited me to an exclusive members-only sports club for a drink, I happily accepted. The club was housed in a beautiful mansion house hotel on the outskirts of town and boasted an Olympic-sized pool with a large steam room. We began swimming together, unwinding in the steam afterwards, and talking about our lives. I enjoyed the fact we were both in our late fifties, fellow Americans, she from Texas, me from New York, both retired, both independent, and able to enjoy each other’s society without the intense scrutiny, and discomforting angles that burgeoning female friendships can often seem to have. She was in good shape, a solid swimmer and a fanatic gym goer. Most men couldn’t take their eyes off her although she rarely reciprocated their interest. I learned that she was particular on whom she dated and that very few individuals had all of what she required – solvent, respectful, fit, sense of humour, no addictions or baggage.
‘But who doesn’t have baggage?’ I asked. ‘Anyone who claims to be baggage-free at our age is profoundly untrustworthy.’
The revelation that Antonia had had a heart condition was shocking. I never would have suspected it of one who was perfect in every detail. Her kids were happy and lived in Australia. Antonia herself was healthy, trim, good-looking and optimistic about the future. She had weekly life-coaching sessions and was well on the way to meeting the man of her dreams. I, on the other hand, was the eternal pessimist, the realist, the one who confessed to a love of red wine, a nicotine habit, a regret of past mistakes and a certain resignation that life is a dubious affair. Still, I’m not the sort to worry if I put on a few pounds or have a lousy date with a no-hoper – something she wouldn’t tolerate.
When she died, I was forlorn, especially at the cruel manner in which her life had ended. Her kids came home for the funeral. Sweet kids, good-looking kids. Boy and a girl. The boy was the eldest. He took charge of all the arrangements. The girl reminded me of her mother, a petite, shapely blonde, neat as a pin and slightly pigeon-toed like her mom. She shared her mother’s Texan drawl whereas the boy – who was big boned – had traces of an Ozzie accent. Burial over, they headed straight back to their lives in Sydney and Melbourne. Their father never showed up.
Six months after the tragedy, I visited the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain, where I tried to make contact with my deceased friend. The clairvoyant was a red-headed Irish woman called Kitty. She and I became friends. Kitty said that Antonia was ‘around a lot’ and that sooner or later she would let me know why she had ‘decided to depart’ so suddenly.
Then I had the dream.
Antonia and I were at the Laneway Hotel and Spa. She had just had a marvellous aromatherapy massage while I waited for her in the pool. When she didn’t arrive, I got dressed and headed for the bar. I saw Antonia in the dressing room looking for me. Not finding me there, she undressed and changed into her costume. Friday afternoon, and the pool was all but empty so Antonia had the rare enjoyment of a lane to herself. She slid into the soft, ozone-treated water and began her breaststrokes, dipping down for several seconds and emerging again for a brief instant before sinking back into the delicious depths. She liked to keep her head under the water for as long as she could. In the dream, I saw the smooth, rhythmic dance, and as always I was struck by the grace and beauty of her movements. High on his observation post, the poolside boy followed her with hungry eyes. Antonia swam clockwise. From my dream perspective, I saw a female figure descend into the water and begin her aquatics anti-clockwise. When Antonia raised her head, the lane appeared to be empty, then when she slid beneath the water again, the woman in a black costume was visible once more, swimming in the opposite lane.
My friend finished her swim and got out of the pool, dripping wet.
She padded across to the observation post and looked up. ‘Where’s the other swimmer?’
The lifeguard blinked at her in surprise. ‘No one else here madam, just you.’ She made her way to the steam room, thinking it had been a trick of the light or her overactive imagination at work. But I knew because I had seen it too.
When Antonia arrived the steam room was empty. The serious steamers would arrive around six. The best (and loneliest) time was mid-afternoon. For a while, she felt content to sit and let the soothing vapour envelop her body, but she got thinking about the figure in the pool. A ghost? Surely not. Surprisingly, a young man entered, stayed for five minutes and left. Then she was alone again in the opaque, milky atmosphere of the room feeling uncomfortably hot. She was thinking of leaving when the same mysterious figure appeared at the door and slipped inside the sweltering chamber.
Terrified, Antonia got up and left at once. She stood in the relaxation area gazing at the shadowy figure inside the steam room. Dismissing her fears, she entered the room again expecting to see the black-suited swimmer sitting quietly and minding her own business.
She would say hi and introduce herself – she would ask for an explanation about the disappearance at the pool. But once inside the chamber, hissing jets of steam exploded into the atmosphere and Antonia found it difficult to discern where the woman was sitting.
Little by little, the vapour dispersed, and the room was visible once more. Empty. It was as though that female character had evaporated into thin air.
Antonia laughed about it. ‘Am I nuts? Yes, I am, definitely going loopy. Oh shoot! I never even saw her leave!’
Standing up, she stretched her small, lithe frame – time to head to the bar for a cold glass of Sauvignon. Alarmingly, the exit door was jammed – Antonia yanked in vain.
As a fresh jet of steam entered the chamber, Antonia pressed the red emergency button on her left and waited for help to arrive. For a whole hour, her screams went unheard and her hands scraping against the steam room door went unnoticed. In the thick, hot, misty atmosphere of the room, Antonia was certain she saw the face of death scrutinising her from the opposite side of the locked chamber.
When I told Kitty my dream, she turned pale. ‘Who was the woman in the black swimsuit?’
I said I didn’t know, but deep down I knew. Yes, only a dream, but it has left me feeling peculiar and acting strange. I rarely go out now, and Kitty has not contacted me since I told her.