Katie had been dreaming of the sea. Dark, restless water and sinuous currents drained away as she pushed herself upright on the heels of her hands. Somewhere in the apartment her phone was ringing. She blinked, then rubbed her eyes. The bedside clock read 2:14 a.m.
Mia, she thought immediately, stiffening. Her sister would get the time difference wrong.
She pushed back the covers and slipped out of bed, her nightdress twisted around her waist. The air was frigid and the floorboards were like ice against the soles of her feet. She shivered as she moved through the room, her fingers spread in front of her like sensors. Reaching the door, she groped for the handle. The hinges whined as she pulled it open.
The ringing grew louder as she picked her way along the darkened hall. There was something troubling about the sound in the quiet, sleep-coated hours of the night. What time would it be in Australia? Midday, perhaps?
Her stomach stirred uneasily remembering yesterday’s terrible fight. Words had been sharpened to injure and their mother’s name had been flung down the phone line like a grenade. Afterwards, Katie was so knotted with guilt that she left work an hour early, unable to concentrate. At least now they’d have a chance to talk again and she could tell Mia how sorry she was.
She was only two steps from the phone when she realized it was no longer ringing. She hovered for a moment, a hand pressed to her forehead. Had Mia hung up? Had she dreamed it?
Then the noise came again. Not the phone after all, but the insistent buzz of the apartment intercom.
She sighed, knowing it would be late-night visitors for the traders who lived upstairs. She leaned towards the intercom, holding a finger to the Talk button. “Hello?”
“This is the police.”
She froze, sleep burning off like sea mist on a sunny day.
“We’d like to speak to Miss Katie Greene.”
Her pulse ticked in her throat. “That’s me.”
“May we come up?”
She released the front door, thinking, What? What’s happened? She switched on the light, blinking as the hall was suddenly illuminated. Looking away from the glare, she saw her bare feet, toenails polished pink, and the creased trim of her silk nightdress against her pale thighs. She wanted to fetch a robe, but already the heavy tread of feet sounded up the stairway.
She opened the door and two uniformed police officers stepped into her hall.
“Miss Katie Greene?” asked a female officer. She had graying blonde hair and high color in her cheeks. She stood beside a male officer young enough to be her son, who kept his gaze on the ground.
“Are you alone?”
“Are you the sister of Mia Greene?”
Her hands flew to her mouth. “Yes . . . ”
“We are very sorry to tell you that the police in Bali have informed us—”
Oh God, she began to say to herself. Oh God . . .
“—that Mia Greene has been found dead. She was discovered at the bottom of a cliff in Umanuk. The police believe she fell—”
“No! NO!” She spun away from them, bile stinging the back of her throat. This couldn’t be real. It couldn’t be.
She wouldn’t turn. Her gaze found the bulletin board in the hallway where invites, a calendar, and the business card of a caterer were neatly pinned. At the top was a map of the world. The week before Mia left to go traveling, Katie had asked her to plot her route on it. Mia’s mouth had curled into a smile at that, yet she indulged Katie’s need for schedules and itineraries by marking a loose route that began on the west coast of America and took in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Vietnam, and Cambodia—an endless summer of trailing coastlines. Katie had been tracking the route from Mia’s infrequent bursts of communication, and now the silver drawing pin was stuck in Western Australia.
Staring at the map, she knew something wasn’t right. She turned back to the police. “Where was she found?”
“In Umanuk,” the female officer repeated. “It’s in the southern tip of Bali.”
Bali. Bali wasn’t on Mia’s route. This was a mistake! She wanted to laugh—let the relief explode from her chest. “Mia isn’t in Bali. She’s in Australia!”
She caught the exchange of glances between the officers. The woman stepped forward; she had light-blue eyes and wore no makeup. “I’m afraid Mia’s passport was stamped in Bali four weeks ago.” Her voice was gentle, but contained a certainty that chilled Katie. “Miss Greene, would you like to sit down?”
Mia couldn’t be dead. She was twenty-four. Her little sister. It was inconceivable. Her thoughts swam. She could hear the water tank downstairs humming. A television was playing somewhere. Outside, a late-night reveler was singing. Singing!
“What about Finn?” she asked suddenly.
“Finn Tyler. They were traveling together.”
The female officer opened up her notebook and spent a moment glancing through it. She shook her head. “I’m afraid I don’t have any information about him currently. I’m sure the Balinese police will have been in contact with him, though.”
“I don’t understand any of this,” Katie whispered. “Can you . . . I . . . I need to know everything. Tell me everything.”
The police officer described the exact time and location at which Mia had been found. She told her that medical assistance had arrived swiftly on the scene, but that Mia was pronounced dead on their arrival. She explained that her body was being held at the Sanglah morgue in Bali. She confirmed that there would be further investigations, but that so far the Balinese police believed it was a tragic accident.
All the while Katie stood completely still.
“Is there someone you would like us to contact on your behalf?”
She thought instantly of their mother. She allowed herself a moment to imagine the comfort of being held in her arms, the soft cashmere of her mother’s sweater against her cheek. “No,” she told the officer eventually. “I’d like you to leave now. Please.”
“Of course. Someone from the Foreign Office will be in touch tomorrow with an update from the Balinese police. I’d also like to visit you again. I’ve been assigned as your Family Liaison Officer and will be here to answer any questions you have.” The woman took a card from her pocket and placed it beside the phone.
Both officers told Katie how sorry they were, and then left.
As the door clicked shut, the strength in Katie’s legs dissipated and she sank onto the cold wooden floor. She didn’t cry. She hugged her knees to her chest to contain the trembling that had seized her. Why had Mia been in Bali? Katie didn’t know anything about the place. There was a bombing outside a nightclub some years ago, but what else? Clearly there were cliffs, but the only ones she could picture were the grass-covered cliffs of Cornwall that Mia had bounded along as a child, dark hair flying behind her.
She tried to imagine how Mia could have fallen. Was she standing on an overhang and the earth crumbled? Did a sudden gust of wind unbalance her? Was she sitting on the edge and became distracted? It seemed absurdly careless to fall from a cliff. The facts Katie had been given were so few that she couldn’t arrange them into any sort of sense. She knew she should call someone. Ed. She would speak to Ed.
It was her third attempt before she managed to dial correctly. She heard the rustle of a duvet, a mumbled, “Hello?” and then silence as he listened. When he spoke again, his voice was level, telling her only, “I’m on my way.”
It must have taken no less than ten minutes for him to drive from his apartment in Fulham to hers in Putney, but looking back she wouldn’t remember any of that time. She was still sitting on the hallway floor, her skin like gooseflesh, when the intercom buzzed. She stood groggily. The floorboards had marked the backs of her thighs with red slash-like indentations. She pressed the button to let him in.
Katie heard the thundering of his feet as he took the steps two at a time, and then Ed was at her door. She opened it and he stepped forwards, folding her into his arms. “My darling!” he said. “My poor darling!”
She pressed her face into the stiff wool of his jacket, which scratched against her cold cheek. She smelled deodorant. Had he sprayed himself with deodorant before coming over?
“You’re freezing. We can’t stand here.” He led her into the living room and she perched on the edge of the cream leather sofa. It’s like sitting on vanilla ice cream, Mia had said the morning it was delivered.
Ed removed his jacket and draped it over her shoulders, rubbing her back with smooth circular strokes. Then he went into the kitchen and she heard him open the boiler cupboard and flick on the central heating, which rumbled and strained into life. There was the gush of a tap as he filled the kettle, followed by the opening and closing of drawers, cupboards, and the fridge.
He returned with a cup of tea, but her hands didn’t move to take it. “Katie,” he said, crouching down so they were eye level. “You are in shock. Try and drink a little. It will help.”
He lifted the tea to her lips and she sipped it obediently. She could taste the sweet milky flavor on her tongue and the urge to retch was immediate. She lurched past him to the bathroom with a hand clamped to her mouth. The jacket slipped from her shoulders and fell to the floor with a soft thump.
Bending over the sink, she gagged. Saliva hit the white ceramic basin.
Ed was behind her. “Sorry . . . ”
Katie rinsed her hands and splashed water over her face.
“Darling,” he said, passing her a blue hand towel. “What happened?”
She buried her face in it and shook her head. He gently peeled the towel away, then unhooked her robe from the back of the bathroom door and guided her arms into the soft cotton. He took her hands in his and rubbed them. “Talk to me.”
She repeated the details learned from the police. Her voice sounded jagged and she imagined that if she were to glance up at the bathroom mirror, her skin would be leached of color, her eyes glassy.
As they moved back to the living room, Ed asked the same question to which she wanted the answer: “Why was your sister in Bali?”
“I have no idea.”
“Have you spoken to Finn?”
“Not yet. I should call him.”
Her hands shook as she dialed Finn’s cell. She pressed the phone to her ear and listened as it rang and rang. “He’s not answering.”
“What about his family? Do you know their number?”
Katie searched in her address book and found it, the Cornish dialing code stirring a faint memory that she wasn’t ready to grasp.
Finn was the youngest of four brothers. His mother, Sue, a curt woman who was often harassed, answered, sounding half asleep. “Who is this?”
“Katie Greene.” She cleared her throat. “Mia’s sister.”
“Mia?” Sue repeated. Then immediately: “Finn?”
“There’s been an accident—”
“No. It’s Mia.” Katie paused and looked at Ed. He nodded for her to go on. “The police have been here. They told me that Mia was in Bali . . . on a cliff somewhere. She fell. They’re saying she’s dead.”
“No . . . ”
In the background she could hear Finn’s father, a placid man in his sixties who worked for the Forestry Commission. There was a brief volley of exclamations muffled by a hand over the receiver, and then Sue returned to the line. “Does Finn know?”
“I’d imagine so. But he’s not answering his cell.”
“He lost it a few weeks ago. Hasn’t replaced it yet. We’ve been using e-mail. I’ve got his address if you want—”
“Why were they in Bali?” Katie interrupted.
“Bali? Finn wasn’t.”
“But that’s where they said Mia was found. Her passport was stamped—”
“Mia went to Bali. Not Finn.”
“What?” Katie said, her grip tightening.
“There was an argument. Sorry, I thought you knew.”
“When was this?”
“Good month ago, now. Finn spoke to Jack about it. From what I heard they had a falling-out—God knows what about—and Mia changed her ticket.”
Katie’s thoughts whirled. Mia and Finn’s friendship was unshakable. She pictured them as children, Finn with a wig of glistening seaweed draped over his head, Mia bent double with laughter. Theirs was a friendship that was so rare, so solid, that she couldn’t imagine what would be terrible enough to cause them to separate.
* * *
Ten days later, winter sun flooded Katie’s bedroom. She lay perfectly still, her arms at her sides, eyes shut, bracing herself against a distant threat she couldn’t quite recall. She blinked and, before she had a chance to recall why her eyelids felt stiff and salted, grief bowled into her.
She curled into herself, tucking her knees to her chest and pressing tight fists to her mouth. She screwed her eyes shut, but disturbing images bled into her thoughts: Mia dropping silently through the air like a stone, the rush of wind lifting her dark hair away from her face, a rasped scream, the crack of her skull against granite.
She reached for Ed, but her fingers met only with the empty curve of where he’d slept. She listened for him and, after a moment, was relieved to tune into the light tapping of a keyboard coming from the living room: he was e-mailing his office. She envied him that—the ability for his world to continue, when hers had stopped.
She knew she must get to the shower. It would be too easy to remain cocooned in the duvet as she had done yesterday, not rising until after lunch, by which time she was drowsy and disorientated. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself from beneath the covers.
Drifting toward the bathroom, she passed Mia’s room and found herself pausing vaguely outside the door. They had bought this apartment using the small inheritance they received after their mother’s death. Everyone was surprised that they were moving in together, not the least Katie, who had vowed she’d never live with Mia again after their acrimonious teenage years, yet she’d worried that if Mia didn’t put her share of the inheritance into something solid, it would slip through her fingers as easily as water. Katie had been the one to organize viewings, deal with estate agents and solicitors, and run through the rain with a broken umbrella to sign the mortgage papers on time.
Wrapping her fingers lightly around the brass door handle, she turned it. A faint trace of jasmine lingered in the cold, stale air. Mia had positioned her bed beneath the tall sash window so she could wake and see sky. A sheepskin coat, which once belonged to their mother, was draped over the foot of the bed. It was an original from the seventies with a wide, unstructured collar, and she remembered Mia wrapping herself in it all winter like a lost flower child.
Beside the bed a pine desk was heaving with junk: an old stereo, unplugged and dusty; three cardboard boxes bulging with CDs; a pair of hiking boots with their laces missing; a mound of paperbacks, well thumbed, beside two pots of pens. The bedroom walls were bare of the photos and paintings that had adorned Mia’s previous rooms and she’d made no attempt to decorate; in fact, it was as if she had never intended the move to be permanent.
Katie was the one who’d persuaded her sister to move to London, using words like “opportunity” and “career,” when those words had never belonged to Mia. Mia spent her days wandering the parks, or drifting in one of the rent-a-rowing-boats in Battersea Park, as if dreaming she were somewhere else. She’d had five jobs in as many months because she would suddenly decide to get out of the city to go hiking or camping, and take off, just leaving a note pushed under Katie’s door and a message on her employer’s voicemail. Katie tried searching out job opportunities using her recruitment contacts, but fixing Mia to something was like pinning a ribbon to the wind.
Noticing a pair of mud-flecked running shoes, she remembered the evening Mia announced she was going traveling. Katie had been in the kitchen preparing a risotto, slicing onions with deft, clean strokes. She tossed them into a pan as Mia wandered in, a pair of white earphones dangling over the neckline of her T-shirt, to fill her water bottle at the tap.
“Going running?” Katie had asked, blotting her streaming eyes with the sleeve of her cardigan.
“How’s the hangover?” When she’d gone to shower before work, Katie had found Mia asleep on the bathroom floor wearing a dress of hers borrowed without asking.
“Fine,” she replied, keeping her back to Katie. She turned off the tap and wiped her wet hands on her T-shirt, leaving silver beads of moisture.
“What happened to your ankle?”
Mia glanced down at the angry red cut that stretched an inch above her sock line. “Smashed a glass at work.”
“Do you need a Band-Aid? I’ve got some in my room.”
Katie nodded, tossing the onions with a wooden spoon, watching their sharp whiteness soften and become translucent. She turned up the heat.
Mia lingered by the sink for a moment. Eventually she said, “I spoke to Finn earlier.”
Katie glanced up; his name was so rarely spoken between them.
“We’ve decided to go traveling.”
The onions started to sizzle, but Katie was no longer stirring. “You’re going traveling?”
“For how long?”
Mia shrugged. “A while. A year, maybe.”
“Our tickets are open.”
“You’ve already booked?”
“When did you decide this?”
“Today?” Katie repeated, incredulous. “You haven’t thought it through!”
Mia raised an eyebrow: “Haven’t I?”
“I didn’t think you had any money.”
The oil began to crackle and spit. “And what, Finn’s just taking a sabbatical? I’m sure the radio station will be thrilled.”
“He’s handed in his notice.”
“But he loved that job . . . ”
“Is that right?” Mia said, looking directly at her. The air in the kitchen seemed to contract.
Then Mia picked up her water bottle, pushed her earphones in, and left. The pan started to smoke, so Katie snapped off the stove. She felt a hot flash of anger and took three strides across the kitchen to follow, but then, as she heard the tread of Mia’s shoes along the hallway, the turning of the latch, and finally the slam of the door, Katie realized that what she felt most acutely was not anger or even hurt, it was relief. Mia was no longer her responsibility: she was Finn’s.
* * *
It was mid-afternoon when the phone rang. Ed glanced up from his laptop; Katie shook her head. She had refused to speak to anyone, allowing her voicemail to record friends’ messages of condolence that were punctuated with awkward apologies and strained pauses.
The machine clicked on. “Hello. It’s Mr. Spire here from the Foreign Office in London.”
A nerve in her eyelid flickered. It was Ed who reached for the phone just before the message ended. “This is Katie’s fiancé.” He looked across to her and said, “Yes, she’s with me now.” He nodded at her to take the phone.
She held it at arm’s length, as if it were a gun she was being asked to put to her head. Mr. Spire had called twice since Mia’s death, first to request permission for an autopsy to go ahead, and later to discuss the repatriation of Mia’s body. After a moment, Katie pressed her lips together and cleared her throat. Bringing the phone towards her mouth, she said slowly, “This is Katie.”
“I hope this is a convenient time to talk?”
“Yes, fine.” The dry, musty warmth of the central heating caught at the back of her throat.
“The British Consulate in Bali have been in touch. They have some further news concerning Mia’s death.”
She closed her eyes. “Go on.”
“In cases such as Mia’s, a toxicology report is sometimes requested as part of the autopsy procedure. I have a copy of it in front of me, which I wanted to talk to you about.”
“The results indicate that at the time of death, Mia was intoxicated. Her blood alcohol content was 0.13, which means she may have had impaired reflexes and reaction times.” He paused. “And there’s something else.”
She moved into the living room doorway and gripped the wooden frame, anchoring herself.
“The Balinese police have interviewed two witnesses who claim to have seen Mia on the evening of her death.” He hesitated and she sensed he was struggling with something. “Katie, I’m very sorry, but in their statement, they have said that Mia jumped.”
The ground pitched, her stomach dropped away. She hinged forward from the waist. Footsteps crossed the living room and she felt Ed’s hand on her back. She pushed him away, straightening. “You think she . . . ” Her voice was strained like elastic set to snap. “You think it was suicide?”
“I am afraid that based on witness statements and the autopsy, the cause of death has been established as suicide.”
Katie reached a hand to her forehead.
“I understand this must be incredibly hard—”
“The witnesses, who are they?”
“I have copies of their statements.” She heard the creak of a chair and pictured him leaning across a wide desk to reach them. “Yes, here. The witnesses are a 30-year-old couple who were honeymooning in Bali. In their statement, they say that they had taken an evening walk along the lower cliff path in Umanuk and paused at a lookout point—this was close to midnight. A young woman, matching Mia’s description, ran past them looking extremely anxious. The male witness asked if she needed help and Mia is said to have responded, ‘No.’ She then disappeared along what used to be the upper cliff path, which has apparently been disused for several years. Between five and eight minutes later, the witnesses looked up and saw Mia standing very near the cliff’s edge. The report says that they were concerned for her safety, but before they were able to act, she jumped.”
“My God.” Katie began to tremble.
Mr. Spire waited a moment before continuing. “The autopsy suggested that, from the injuries sustained, it is likely that Mia went over the cliff edge facing forwards, which collaborates with the witnesses’ reports.” He continued to expand on further details, but Katie was no longer listening. Her mind had already drifted to the cliff top.
He’s wrong, Mia, isn’t he? You didn’t jump. I won’t believe it. What I said when you called—oh, God, please don’t let what I said . . .
“Katie,” he was saying, “the arrangements are in place to have Mia’s body repatriated to the UK a week on Wednesday.” He required details of the funeral parlor she had selected, and then the call ended.
She felt shooting pains behind her eyes and pressed the arched bones beneath her eyebrows with her thumb and index finger. In the apartment below the baby was wailing.
Ed turned her slowly to face him.
“They are saying it was suicide,” she said in a small, strained voice. “But it wasn’t.”
He placed his hands on her shoulders. “You will get through this, Katie.”
But how could he know? She hadn’t told him about the terrible argument she’d had with Mia. She hadn’t told him of the hateful, shameful things she’d said. She hadn’t told him about the anger and hurt that had been festering between them for months. She hadn’t told Ed any of this because there are some currents in a relationship between sisters that are so dark and run so deep, it’s better for the people swimming on the surface never to know what’s beneath.
She turned from Ed and stole to her room, where she lay on the bed with her eyes closed, trying to fix on something good between her and Mia. Her thoughts led her back to the last time she had seen her, as they hugged good-bye at the airport. She recalled the willowy feel of Mia’s body, the muscular ridges of her forearms, and the press of her collarbone.
Katie would have held on for longer, treasured every detail, had she known it would be the last time she’d feel her sister in her arms.
Swimming at Night
Katie’s world is shattered by the news that her headstrong and bohemian younger sister, Mia, has been found dead at the bottom of a cliff in Bali. The authorities say that Mia jumped—that her death was a suicide.
Although they’d hardly spoken to each other since Mia suddenly left on an around-the-world trip six months earlier, Katie refuses to accept that her sister would have taken her own life. Distraught that they never made peace, Katie leaves her orderly, sheltered life in London behind and embarks on a journey to find out the truth. With only the entries in Mia’s travel journal as her guide, Katie retraces the last few months of her sister’s life and—page by page, country by country—begins to uncover the mystery surrounding her death. . . .
Weaving together the exotic settings and suspenseful twists of Alex Garland’s The Beach with a powerful tale of familial love in the spirit of Rosamund Lupton’s Sister, Swimming at Night is a fast-paced, accomplished, and gripping debut novel of secrets, loss, and forgiveness.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
The relationship between sisters is never simple, as Lucy Clarke illustrates in her debut novel, Swimming at Night. Katie and Mia shared the ups and downs of sisterhood—the fierce love and loyalty, the friendship, as well as the jealousy, disappointment, and anger. But a late-night visit from the police changes everything when Katie learns that Mia has been found dead in Bali. Unwilling to believe the evidence pointing toward suicide, Katie flies around the world following the entries in Mia’s travel journal—searching for truth, understanding, and finally, forgiveness.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Did you believe that Mia committed suicide? Did you change your mind about whether or not she did throughout the course of the story? If so, at which points and why?
2. There’s a fine line between love and hate when it comes to sisters: “Sometimes the line between the two was so fine it was difficult to see which side you were standing on” ( see more