Clapping her hands, Julia began to separate members from their initial cuppa and conversation. Within a few minutes everyone was seated and she was able to switch on the music. At the first tinkling notes most present closed their eyes and cradled their hands across their laps, well used to the routine. Maxine’s head began to nod. Julia felt she hardly needed to lead them now. Most were perfectly capable of leading themselves.
‘Breathe in. And out. In. And out. Slow. And deep. Slow. And deep. Concentrate on the sound of my voice. On the rhythm of my speaking, and allow yourself to sink deeper, and deeper, into relaxation...’
Her own eyelids became heavier as she took the group by the hand, leading them along the well-used lane, through the break in the hedge, and into a meadow of sweet-smelling flowers. It wasn’t the meadow she was expecting; the colours were of a slightly different hue, the hillocks more pronounced, but the sun was shining, and she felt very warm, very light. The narrow track was there. It led down, down, beneath shady oaks and ash to the edge of a mist-shrouded pool. Someone was swimming. She could see an arm rise and fall through the swirling mist. A woman’s arm, beckoning. A pale arm, almost translucent, beckoning, beckoning...
‘No!’ Her eyes sprang open. Julia could see the circle, the group, the inclined heads. Between them and herself, as if a pastel-shaded painting on glass, was the pool, and the mist, and the beckoning arm.
‘No!’ Aware of the alarm in her voice, she steadied herself, her gaze darting round her group seeking signs of distress. They were all with her. All safe.
‘We mustn’t go in. The water’s too cold; we mustn’t go in. Not today. Back up to the meadow, now. Hold hands, hold hands tightly and go back up to the meadow.’
One of the group raised her head. Another opened her eyes. Julia could see them quite clearly through the pastel-shaded glass, but the pool was still there, between them, shrouded in mist. The arm was still beckoning, not beckoning but waving, not a woman’s arm but a man’s, not waving but—
Three rasping coughs were followed by a great whooping breath that seemed to fill the room with sound and commotion. Maxine was clutching at her throat, her eyes wide and terror-stricken. Julia stood, her concentration centred solely on her distressed participant. The painting loomed large as she stepped towards it, shimmered and dispersed as she cut through it to the woman’s side.
‘Someone get a glass of water,’ she called. ‘You’re all right, Maxine. You swallowed the wrong way, that’s all.’
She was holding her by the shoulders, patting her back. Others were standing, looking. Some were talking in low, serious tones. A glass was brought and Julia stood aside. She had to smile for them, had to show that nothing was amiss.
‘Everyone else okay? Yes? Well... That was a bit of a shock to us all, wasn’t it? Brought us round a little faster than anticipated.’ She turned her smile into a grin. ‘It certainly sent my heartbeat soaring.’
The ladies smiled at each other. One nudged her companion and chuckled, relieving the tension for everyone. The coughing stopped.
‘How are you feeling, Maxine?’
‘I thought I was drowning.’
Julia looked down at the woman with the ashen face and felt her own smile grow taut enough to shatter.