It happens in the middle of September. It’s a Sunday and the five of them have left early and driven up from the their home in Totnes. The drive takes just over an hour. There’s no parking close to the water so they have to leave the car in a layby on the nearest road and walk the rest of the way, following a winding stone track half a mile up to the quarry. Marc and Kyle carry the dinghy between them, Clara the chairs, Sarah has hold of the cooler box, and two-year-old Mable totters along behind. It’s a warm day, more like summer than autumn, the skies a pristine blue, and even on the elevated peaks of Dartmoor, there isn’t a breath of wind. When the five of them finally arrive at the quarry, the lake is still in shadow, the ragged wall of granite on its eastern flank high enough that the sun hasn’t yet crested it. There’s an almost identical sweep of speckled granite on the western edge, except this gently curves in an L-shape and creates a natural amphitheatre around the lake. The cliffs that encircle the former quarry are dramatic and beautiful, and that beauty is complimented by the tranquillity of the lake itself: once, Parson’s Quarry had been a vast tin mine, crumbling miner’s huts still scattered at its edges; now, with water in it, it’s one of the best wild swimming spots on the moors. That’s exactly why the Fowlers love it here. It’s why they’re here today. But, by sunset, three of them will have disappeared.
Other families begin arriving at the quarry an hour after the Fowlers have set up, but what Marc and Sarah have always loved about this place is how – even on the sunniest days – it’s never packed. That’s partly because a lot of people still have no idea it’s a wild swimming spot. But it’s mostly because there’s only seven parking spaces in the layby, and once the layby has filled up, the next nearest place to leave your car is over two miles away. The sun crests the eastern flank of the quarry just after ten and, from there, Sarah spends most of the day running around applying lotion to Mable, who in turn immediately wipes it off, and then gets it in her eyes, and then starts to cry because it stings. The drop off in the lake is almost vertical from fifteen feet in, so Sarah perches a chair at the edge and her and Mable build mudcastles, throw a beachball around, and paddle together. Mable has armbands, but Sarah doesn’t put them on for now. Not that she’s one for taking risks. At 19, she took a drunken risk with her then-boyfriend, and nine months later Kyle was born. ‘Marc, give me a hand.’ Sarah looks up to see Kyle handing Marc an oar. ‘I need to stay here with your mum, mate,’ Marc says, and Marc glances at Sarah, then at Mable. Mable is fully into the clingy stage and throws a tantrum if Sarah isn’t nearby. That means Sarah has been on toddler duty from the moment they arrived here, and – although Marc has attempted to take the reins a couple of times, and Mable has burst into tears – Marc is going to attempt to do it again so that Sarah can get a few minutes to herself. ‘Plus it’s almost six,’ Marc adds. ‘We should think about packing up.’ ‘Ah, come on,’ Kyle responds, and throws the oar to Marc. Marc has no choice but to catch it. He looks at Sarah. She looks at him. The rest of the families that were here earlier have gone now, and much as Sarah likes it here, she’s more than ready to go home. She loves Mable with every fibre of her being, just the same as she loves Kyle, but she’s absolutely exhausted. ‘Please, Mum,’ Kyle says, and gestures to Clara, at the bandaging around his girlfriend’s shoulder, at the sling she’s sporting. ‘My shipmate’s injured, and you know what this dinghy is like. It’s so awkward without two of you rowing.’ Sarah wants to say no. Instead, she says, ‘Okay. But don’t be long.’ ‘We’ll go to the middle and back ,’ Marc says. ‘Make sure he doesn’t drown,’ Sarah tells Kyle, pointing to Marc. Marc pretends to be offended but Kyle and Clara both laugh and know why Sarah has made the joke: Marc’s clumsy and, one time, when they brought the boat here, he rowed it out to the middle and tried to stand up and wave to Sarah, and fell over the side. Kyle helps Marc in and says, ‘The kid’ll be safe with us adults.’ ‘Bloody cheek,’ Marc replies good-naturedly, and sits down. And then Kyle and Marc grab an oar each and start to row the three of them out. The dinghy is just under twenty feet long and, although it doesn’t have a motor, boats of a comparable size sometimes do. Marc has thought about it often but, in the end, he always decides against it: a motor means the dinghy will be much heavier and more awkward to transport, and means more maintenance, and maintenance means more hassle. Instead, he’s paid to have a clip-on roof put onto the back of the boat, so – if Sarah or him take Mable out – they can sit her in the shade. The roof also has roll-down sides that can be untied and dropped to provide further protection from the sun, and as the men continue to row out, Sarah can just about make out Clara behind the yellow plastic of the drop-down sides. Her body is slightly weighted to the left, some of the bandaging on her shoulder visible beneath her beach dress. Sarah collapses into her chair. She’s so tired.
Sarah’s eyes ping open. Mable is hitting her spade against the arm of Sarah’s chair, trying to get her attention. Sarah sits bolt upright, squeezes her eyes shut and tries to wake herself. Bloody hell, she thinks, I fell asleep. She glances at her watch and feels a wave of relief. She’s only been out for a minute, maybe even less. She’d been aware of the sounds around her the whole time – the water lapping at the shore, the birdcalls – but it doesn’t bring her any comfort. Because when she looks at Mable – how small her daughter is – at her nappy, she realises a minute, even semi-conscious, would have been plenty. Mable could have wandered off; even with her armbands on, she could have drowned, she could have injured herself – and maybe Sarah would have heard, or maybe she wouldn’t. The truth is, Sarah has simply got lucky. She grabs Mable and brings her in for a hug. Mable tries to wriggle out of it, but Sarah holds on and it’s as if the two-year-old realises her mum may need this moment, because she settles, presses her head against Sarah’s chest, goes quiet. Sarah’s gaze switches to the lake. The dinghy is in the middle now but no one is rowing anymore. It’s come to a stop, the back of the boat facing her, Marc, Kyle and Clara obscured by the clip-on hood and the drop-down sides. All around the boat, the lake is still, the surface like glass. Sarah frowns, steps forward. Something isn’t right. She gets up, out of the seat, Mable still against her, and moves down to the edge of the lake. One of the oars has become detached from the boat and is gently floating away. And as the oar drifts, as a throbbing at the back of Sarah’s head instinctively tells her something about what she’s seeing is definitely off, the dinghy starts to turn, the point of the bow edging around in her direction. That’s when she sees that there’s no one under the roof. In fact, there’s no one on the boat at all. Marc, Kyle and Clara are gone.