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The thermometer showed fifteen degrees below zero, and she put on layer upon layer of clothing. Outside it was gloriously quiet. There were no other people about. The only sound she heard was her own breathing. This was a stark contrast to the summer months when the town was teeming with life.
A many-headed monster that slowly, year by year, swallowed the old fishing village by downloading up the houses near the water, which created a ghost town for nine months of the year. The unforgiving environment and the constant struggle to survive, when everything depended on whether the herring came streaming back or not, had made the people of the town strong and rugged.
At the same time, the fish lost their importance as a source of income, and Erica thought she could see the necks of the permanent residents bend lower with each year that passed. The young people moved away and the older inhabitants dreamed of bygone times. She too was among those who had chosen to leave. He was waving his arms and coming toward her. What happened? It took a moment before Erica comprehended what he was saying, but when the words sank in she shoved open the stubborn gate and plodded up to the front door.
Eilert had left the door ajar, and she cautiously stepped over the threshold, uncertain what she might expect to see. Eilert followed warily and pointed mutely toward the bathroom on the ground floor. Erica was in no hurry. She turned to give Eilert an inquiring glance. She shivered in the cold despite her warm clothing. The door to the bathroom swung slowly inward, and she stepped inside. The bathroom was completely tiled in white, so the effect of the blood in and around the bathtub was even more striking.
For a brief moment she thought that the contrast was pretty, before she realized that a real person was lying in the tub. In spite of the unnatural interplay of white and blue on the body, Erica recognized her at once. In their childhood they had been best friends, but that felt like a whole lifetime ago. Now the woman in the bathtub seemed like a stranger. A thin film of ice had formed around the torso, hiding the lower half of the body completely.
The right arm, streaked with blood, hung limply over the edge of the tub, its fingers dipped in the congealed pool of blood on the floor. There was a razor blade on the edge of the tub. The other arm was visible only above the elbow, with the rest hidden beneath the ice. The knees also stuck up through the frozen surface. Erica stood for a long time looking at her.
She was shivering both from the cold and from the loneliness exhibited by the macabre tableau. Then she backed silently out of the room. Afterward, everything seemed to happen in a blur. She rang the doctor on duty on her mobile phone, and waited with Eilert until the doctor and the ambulance arrived.
She recognized the signs of shock from when she got the news about her parents, and she poured herself a large shot of cognac as soon as she got home. Perhaps not what the doctor would order, but it made her hands stop shaking. The sight of Alex had taken her back to her childhood. It was more than twenty-five years ago that they had been best friends, but even though many people had come and gone in her life since then, Alex was still close to her heart.
They were just children back then. As adults they had been strangers to each other. And yet Erica had a hard time reconciling herself to the thought that Alex had taken her own life, which was the inescapable interpretation of what she had seen.
The Alexandra she had known was one of the most alive and confident people she could imagine. An attractive, self-assured woman with a radiance that made people turn around to look at her. According to what Erica had heard through the grapevine, life had been kind to Alex, just as Erica had always thought it would be. But something had obviously gone wrong.
Adrian woke me up at three in the morning, and by the time he finally fell asleep at six, Emma was awake and wanted to play. The company is in a critical strategic stage. Lucas always had a ready excuse, and Anna was probably quoting him directly.
So all responsibility for the children fell to Anna. Anna had met him when she was working as an au pair in London, and she was instantly enchanted by the onslaught of attention from the successful stockbroker Lucas Maxwell, ten years her senior. She gave up all her plans of starting college, and instead devoted her life to being the perfect, ideal wife.
The only problem was that Lucas was a man who was never satisfied, and Anna, who had always done exactly as she pleased ever since she was a child, had totally eradicated her own personality after marrying Lucas. Until the children arrived, Erica had still hoped that her sister would come to her senses, leave Lucas, and start living her own life. But when first Emma and then Adrian were born, she had to admit that her brother-in-law was unfortunately here to stay.
Emma threw a tantrum yesterday and managed to cut up a small fortune in baby clothes before I caught her, and Adrian has either been throwing up or screaming nonstop for three days. I could really use your help going through a bunch of stuff. We were planning to talk to you about that. Erica was instantly on guard.
As soon as Lucas had a finger in the pie, it usually meant that there was something that would benefit him to the detriment of all others involved.
Erica waited for Anna to go on. I mean, without a family and all. Lucas thinks we ought to sell the house. It would be hard for us to hold on to it and keep it up. Besides, we want to download a house in Kensington when we move back, and even though Lucas makes plenty of money, the cash from the sale would make a big difference.
I mean, a house on the west coast in that area would go for several million kronor. The Germans are wild about ocean views and sea air. Anna had certainly managed to divert her attention, as usual.
She had always been more of a mother than a big sister to Anna. Ever since they were kids she had protected and watched over her. Anna had been a real child of nature, a whirlwind who followed her own impulses without considering the results.
More times than she could count, Erica had been forced to rescue Anna from sticky situations. Lucas had knocked the spontaneity and joie de vivre right out of her.
More than anything else, that was what Erica could never forgive. By morning, the events of the preceding day seemed like a bad dream. She was so tired that her whole body ached.
The town was deserted, and at Ingrid Bergman Square there was no trace of the thriving commerce of the summer months. It was an encounter she would have preferred to avoid, and she instinctively looked for a possible escape route. Her woolen coat was shades of green and covered her body from her shoulders to her feet, giving the impression of one big shapeless mass. Her hands had a firm grip on her handbag.
A disproportionately small hat was balanced on her head. The material looked like felt, and it too was an indeterminate moss-green color. Her eyes were small and deeply set in a protective layer of fat.
Right now they were fixed on Erica. Clearly she was expected to respond. And later in the afternoon when I happened to ring Dr. Jacobsson, I heard about the tragic event. Yes, he told me in confidence, of course. Naturally one has to wonder what could be the reason. Personally I always thought she seemed rather overwrought.
No, it was the big city for her. I think they even packed the poor girl off to some school in Switzerland, and you know how things go at places like that. Before they moved away from here, she was the happiest and liveliest little girl one could imagine. Well, in my opinion.
When Elna paused to take a breath, Erica saw her chance. All this must have been so hard for you, coming so soon after your own family tragedy. But luck was not with her. But one comment she heard stayed with her. Erica set the bags of groceries on the kitchen table and began putting away the food. Despite all her good intentions, the bags were not as full of staples as she had planned before she walked into the shop. As if on signal, her stomach started growling.
With a flourish, she plopped twelve Weight Watchers points onto a plate in the form of two cinnamon buns. She ate them with a cup of coffee. Back then there had been a presence, an awareness that somebody could walk through the door at any moment.
Now it seemed as if the soul of the house had gone.
The smell still lingered in the kitchen, but Erica thought it was getting fainter each day. She had always loved the smell of a pipe. The smoke from the pipe had settled in all his clothing, and the scent had meant security in the world of her childhood.
Elsy Falck was a hard and unforgiving woman who kept their home in impeccable order but who never allowed herself to be happy about anything in life. Even as a child she had been taught that life would be endless suffering; the reward would come in the next life. Erica had often wondered what her father, with his good nature and humorous disposition, had seen in Elsy, and on one occasion in her teens she had blurted out the question in a moment of fury.
He just sat down and put his arm around her shoulders. Then he told her not to judge her mother too harshly. Some people have a harder time showing their feelings than others, he explained as he stroked her cheeks, which were still flushed with rage. She refused to listen to him then, and she was still convinced that he was only trying to cover up what was so obvious to Erica: her mother had never loved her, and that was something she would have to carry with her for the rest of her life.
Losing a parent was hard, but it was still part of the natural order of things. Losing a child must be horrible. Besides, she and Alexandra had once been as close as only best friends can be. Of course, that was almost twenty-five years ago, but so many of her happiest childhood memories were intimately associated with Alex and her family.
The house looked deserted. All the houses were perched high up on a slope, and their lawns slanted steeply down toward the road on the side facing the water.
The main door was in the back of the house, and Erica did not hesitate before ringing the doorbell. The sound reverberated and then died out. Not a peep was heard from inside, and she was just about to turn and leave when the door slowly opened. She felt foolish for introducing herself so formally. She stepped aside and let Erica into the entryway. Not a single light was lit in the entire house. Muted sobs could be heard from the room straight down the hall.
Erica took off her shoes and coat. She caught herself moving extremely quietly and cautiously because the mood in the house permitted nothing else. Ulla went into the kitchen and let Erica find her own way. When she entered the living room, the weeping stopped. On a sectional sofa in front of an enormous picture window, Birgit and Karl-Erik Carlgren sat desperately holding on to each other. Both had wet streaks running down their faces, and Erica felt that she was trespassing in an extremely private space.
But it was too late to worry about that now. She sat down cautiously on the sofa facing them and clasped her hands in her lap.
No one had yet uttered a word since she entered the room. I know her better than anyone, and I know that she would never be capable of taking her own life. She would never have had the courage to do it! You must realize that.
You knew her too! Birgit was opening and closing her hands convulsively, over and over, and she looked Erica straight in the eye until one of them was forced to look away. It was Erica who yielded first. She shifted her gaze to look around the room.
The curtains had been skillfully hung with enormous flounces matching the sofa pillows that had been sewn from the same floral fabric. Knickknacks covered every available surface. Hand-carved wooden bowls decorated with ribbons with cross-stitch embroidery shared the room with porcelain dogs with eternally moist eyes. What saved the room was the panoramic window.
The view was wonderful. Erica wished that she could freeze the moment and keep looking out the window instead of being drawn into the grief of these people.
Instead she turned her gaze back to the Carlgrens. It was twenty-five years ago that Alexandra and I were friends. Her words seemed to ricochet off the walls.
This time Karl-Erik spoke up. But even if Alex did take her own life for some reason, she would never, and I repeat never, have done it this way! You probably remember that Alex was always hysterically afraid of blood.
If she got the slightest cut she was absolutely uncontrollable until someone put a bandage on it. Sometimes she even fainted when she saw blood. There is no way in hell that Alex could have managed to take a razor blade and cut herself, first on one arm and then on the other. She was not a courageous person. An inner strength is required for someone to decide to take her own life. A presence, a shadow.
That was as close to a description as she could come. It suddenly occurred to her how much the adult Alex looked like her mother. Birgit was dressed all in black, and despite her sorrow she seemed aware of what a startling appearance she made, thanks to the contrast between light and dark. Tiny gestures betrayed her vanity. A hand carefully patting her coiffure, a collar straightened to perfection.
Next to Birgit, her husband looked ordinary. Far from unattractive, but simply unremarkable. Karl-Erik Carlgren had a long, narrow face engraved with fine lines. His hairline had receded far up his scalp. He too was dressed all in black, but unlike his wife the color made him look even grayer.
Erica could sense that it was time for her to leave. She wondered what she actually had wanted to accomplish by visiting them. She stood up and the Carlgrens did too. Birgit gave her husband an urgent look, as if exhorting him to say something. Apparently it was something they had discussed before Erica arrived. About her life, her dreams—and her death.
A commemoration of her life. It would mean a great deal to Birgit and me. And you do too, for that matter. And that was true for Alex too. You can start by talking to her husband Henrik. Without actually having accepted the assignment, Erica found herself standing outside on the steps, with the telephone number and address of Henrik Wijkner in her hand, as the door closed behind her. Erica pushed away the thought and felt like a bad person for even thinking it, but it was persistent and refused to go away.
An idea for a new book of her own, an idea that she had long been searching for, was right here in front of her. An explanation of what had driven a young, beautiful, and obviously privileged woman to a self-inflicted death. To date Erica had published four books, but they were all biographies about other prominent female authors. The courage to create her own stories had not yet emerged, but she knew that there were books inside her just waiting to be put down on paper.
The fact that she had once known Alex would only be to her advantage. As a human being she writhed with repugnance at the thought, but as a writer she was jubilant. The brush spread broad swathes of red across the canvas.
He had been painting since dawn, and for the first time in several hours he now took a step back to look at what he had created. To the untrained eye it was merely large patches of red, orange and yellow, irregularly arranged over the large canvas. For him it was humiliation and resignation re-created in the colors of passion. He always painted using the same colors.
The past shrieked and mocked him from the canvas, and now he went back to painting with growing frenzy. After another hour he realized that he had earned the first beer of the morning. He took the can standing closest to him, ignoring the fact that he had flicked cigarette ashes into it sometime the night before.
Flakes of ash stuck to his lips, but he eagerly downed the stale beer, then tossed the can to the floor after he had slurped the last drop. Possibly a combination of the two. His greasy hair hung over his shoulders, and his chest was pale and sunken. He sank to the floor and leaned against the wall to face the painting. Next to him lay an unopened can of beer, and he liked the popping sound it made when he pulled the tab.
The colors shrieked loudly at him, reminding him of something he had spent the greater part of his life trying to forget. Why in hell was she going to ruin everything now! That selfish fucking whore, she was thinking only of herself. Sweet and innocent as a bloody princess.
But he knew what was beneath the surface. They were cast from the same mold. Years of mutual pain had shaped them, welding them together, yet suddenly she thought she could unilaterally change the order of things. The canvas merely buckled and the can slid to the floor.
The liquid sprayed across the painting, and red, orange and yellow began to flow together, blending into new shades. He observed the effect with satisfaction. The beer did its work quickly despite his many years of hard drinking and his high tolerance for alcohol. He slowly sank into the familiar fog with the smell of old vomit hanging in his nostrils. She had her own key to the apartment. In the hall, she carefully wiped off her shoes, although she knew it was a complete waste of time.
Things were cleaner outdoors. She set down the bags of groceries and hung her coat neatly on a hanger. By this time he had probably already passed out. The kitchen to the left of the entryway was in its usual wretched state. Cigarette butts, beer cans, and empty bottles were everywhere. She opened the door of the fridge to put in the food and saw that she was in the nick of time. It was completely empty.
She spent several minutes putting things away, and then it was full again. She stood still for a moment, marshaling her strength. The apartment was a small one-room. The room was dominated by the big easel next to the window.
A shabby mattress was flung in one corner. She could never afford to download him a regular bed. At first she had tried to help him keep everything tidy, both the apartment and himself.
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Lighthouse keeper - Wikipedia. A lighthouse keeper is the person responsible for tending and caring for a lighthouse, particularly the light and lens in the days when oil lamps and clockwork mechanisms were used.