Death on a Pale Horse
By Amanda Hellberg
Translated from the Swedish by James Walker
Birgitta’s last day alive was not remarkable, except for the end itself.
That night, she had slept well, calm in the knowledge that it would soon be
finished. Her role had been decided and, she would soon be cashing in her chips. How?
The details? They were as yet unclear.
She awoke, well rested and raised the squeaky, stiff window to let the weak,
autumn sunshine in. The street below lay in shadow still but when she leaned out in
order to breathe in the salty sea air; she could just make out a dark figure, more of a bulge
in the façade than a freestanding figure, pressed right up against the wall of the house.
Someone standing almost preternaturally still. Someone who was in no hurry.
In order not to think and to stop herself brooding, Birgitta scrubbed the kitchen
surfaces, the fridge and the, by now, almost empty kitchen cabinets. She stripped the bed
and stuffed the sheets into a rubbish bag but left the bedspread lying on the stripped bed.
She dusted and vacuumed, using the clumsy machine which could be borrowed from the
cleaning cupboard on the second floor. There was nobody at home on the stair. Anyway,
not that she could see.
She stood for a while with a cup of coffee and smiled a little at the filthy town
pigeons which cooed and fawned below, in Dorset Gardens, before she closed the
window for the last time. In the afternoon, she went out and posted a letter which she had
written with care and which she had waited many years to send. Then, she washed her
hair and painted her nails. A single drop remained in her perfume bottle; saved for this
evening. Lily of the valley. Always lily of the valley. Her signature scent. The drop
tingled pleasantly on her neck, like a kiss. A farewell kiss.
When the landlord knocked to collect the week’s rent, Birgitta had already put the
kettle on and placed the envelope with the money on the small scarred table. Dennis
stayed with her for a while, a friendly man in late middle age who lived for his small
dogs and milky tea; in that order. Not interested in women and, the best landlord she’d
ever had. Birgitta felt warm in his company, her heart pounding, she wanted to ask him if
he had also noticed an elusive shadow, a stranger down by the door, inside the house
even? But she didn’t. It was unnecessary to involve him. A good man like that.
Occasionally they’d had a drink together at Hercules bar. But not on that last evening.
“Come on Birgitta, sing us a song. Something by Abba.”
But Birgitta just waved her hand dismissively, smiled quietly and looked down
into her wine glass. Her friends around the table shrugged their shoulders and continued
to look through the list of Karaoke songs. There were enough regulars who wanted to get
up on the stage and display their musical talents. Or lack of them. It didn’t matter. At
Hercules Bar, way out on the glittering pier, anyone who felt like was able to feel like a
star for the evening.
When she left her friends she made sure she gave each one a hug.
The wind was so brutal that Birgitta was almost blown over as she made her way
home over the thick planks of the pier. The black water, far below, glittered between the
gaps. A horrible, cutting pain notted her stomach. Nerves? A premonition? She turned off
and let her feet decide the route. Her feet slowed their pace and turned to the side off
from the illuminated, main drag. Birgitta pulled her coat tighter around her. Now she was
at the edge. It would soon be over.
She stopped and leaned towards the ornate cast iron rail. She looked out over the
waves, back, towards the beach. It was difficult to focus. Icy, raw veils of mist rose up
from the sea. It was close now. A solitary warm tear came from the corner of her eye.
Birgitta didn’t bother to blink it away. Come on then. Come on. With this, she let go of
her coat and let it hang open. The wind grabbed the belt and snapped it across her back
like the lash from a whip.
The murderer slid down from a whitely painted wooden horse. The carousel’s
carved animal heads provided excellent camouflage. The woman was alone. The
murderer rounded the desolate bumper car ride, out of the darkness. Soft, hurrying feet. A
second under the coloured garlands of light and then invisible again. She looked fragile,
standing there at the edge. But, at the same time, she looked both older and younger than
her forty eight years. It was getting close now. It was inexplicable that she did not hear
breathing at the nape of her neck. The scent of flowers was like a cloud around her head.
The blow came from behind, at an angle. The murderer drove the knife in deep,
right down to the handle, just above Birgitta’s pelvis. With insane power, the blade was
forced upwards, through her blouse, through her organs until it was halted by her rib
cage. Brigitte gasped but she did not scream. She was still on her feet; her hand
spasmodic against the rail as the murderer pulled the knife out, and almost tenderly took
her neck which was pulled back, as her throat was sliced open.
You hurt the ones that I love best
And cover up the truth with lies.
One day you’ll be in the ditch,
Flies buzzin’ around your eyes,
Blood on your saddle.
You’ll never know the hurt I suffered
Not the pain I rise above,
And I’ll never know the same about you,
You holiness or your kind of love,
And it makes me feel so sorry.
Bob Dylan, Idiot Wind
My life in two suitcases. That would be a melancholy thought indeed, I think, as I
look down at the luggage by my side but it makes me feel unburdened and free and
cleansed. As if I have just given myself permission to begin living the life which I’m
supposed to have.
I saw him as soon as I stumbled into the arrivals hall and knew immediately that it
was he: dark skinned and wearing a navy blue suit with his short hair and, a hand-written
sign with my name on in his chocolate hands.
Miss Maja Grå.
The circle above the letter å is a touch squint and unfamiliar in its formulation. He
could be a driver, a constable, anyone at all from the Brighton police but I don’t need to
see his warrant-card. I know who he is. What he is. Calm envelops his tall figure like an
aura. He is the kind of person you can talk to.
The British airport is swarming with people on the go. All of them are driven by a
personal agenda, like ants, steering, as if by a collective, unspoken system of rules, not
colliding and seemly without frustration. I straighten my back although it is close to
bending due to the weight of the luggage and walk towards the man with the sign. I resist
the impulse to stare just that bit closer at a woman in a silk scarf with matching luggage.
She reminds me of my mother, or, my memory of her. It is not her of course. It is
never mother, and especially not now.
During the last ten years I have been looking constantly for my mother. One
quarter of my childhood and all of my teens. At first there was a goal. I was so small.
Zealous. Optimistic? It became like a secret game I played with myself. A bitter game
which could never end with us living happily ever after. How would she look now? Had
she changed her hair style? Would she recognise me? Would she be happy if I found her?
Once, for hours, I followed a much older woman who could never have been my
missing mother (although, who knows?). I followed her through a shopping mall, onto a
bus, out to another town, all the way home to her terraced house, just because I had
smelled mother’s lily of the valley perfume through a changing-room wall. Afterwards, I
was sick into a pile of snow and walked four miles home and no one wondered where I
had been and so, I decided that enough was enough.
Father was like a block of ice, inside and out. He tried; he pretended to go on
living for a few years but he was absent. He served me cold macaroni at the same time
each evening and asked the same automatic questions about school. And we just sat there,
in silence in our chairs and never did what we should have done; stretched our frozen
hands towards each other over that bloody macaroni. He couldn’t cope with the
uncertainty. He couldn’t cope with looking me in the face. He didn’t have the strength to
go on, a fact that I knew long before he knew it himself.
I hid my feelings and my search became subconscious, a part of me. I searched
for her too when I was alone. Searched for traces of her in the curve of my neck, in the
shape of my nails, in my own eyes. Even in the misted up mirror over the basin. And, old
habits don’t die hard as I have still have not stopped searching. Not even now.
“Miss Grå? I am Detective Inspector King. Welcome to the UK. I deeply regret
His English is as well polished as his shoes and his expression is sympathetic. I
mumble a few polite phrases in my schoolgirl English. Inspector King picks up my two
suitcases as if they were empty and I try to keep up with him as we pass by cake shops,
money exchange booths and unformed policemen with their machine-guns in view who
acknowledge him with almost invisible nods.
There is no first-aid kit, no map and no car cushion in the back window of his
immaculate car. There are some books though. Larousse Gastronomique. The AA Guide
toFood and Wine and a Michelin Guide. On his left hand, a platinum wedding ring glints.
He speaks softly but quickly and I am forced to concentrate hard in order not to miss
something. “This is not a regular interview,” says Inspector King and gesticulates with
his ring-finger hand.
“…more of an informal chat. A chance to fill in some missing details as well a
chance for you to ask questions. I don’t think we need to go to the station. And, believe
me you are missing a lot.”
For the first time, I see a glimpse of a smile in the corner of his mouth. But, the
Detective Inspector composes himself quickly and his face becomes serious once again.
“I suggest that we have lunch together, Miss Grå.”
“Please, call me Maja. Lunch? I don’t know…I mean, OK Thanks.”
The Black Grouse is a shabby pub with a brown carpet and the best Thai food this
side of Bangkok according to Inspector King. The aromas from our steaming clay dishes
suggest as much and, I realise how famished I am.
“You have to try my sticky rice. This place is Brighton’s best kept secret. More
When he realises that I am not red-eyed from crying or in shock, he is a little less
formal. I hold out my glass for some water.
“Junior would love this,” my host says and helps himself to green curry. His
pronunciation has changed and is not as polished anymore.
“Yep, my son,” he continues. “Only two but a gannet already. Takes after his
Once again I see a hint of smile and can’t stop smiling back. He presses his paper
napkin to his lips to disguise the spontaneous, inappropriate pleasure. He wants to act
properly and professionally. But his compassion shines through. I sit and realise that I am
intensely jealous of Junior who has a dad like this.
“OK, Miss…sorry Maja. You were in the process of moving to Great Britain to
study at Oxford when you got the news? Have I got that right?”
I swallow my food without chewing it properly.
“That’s right. I had just found out that I’d got onto an art course. I was just getting
ready to move when you rang.” I say and put down my cutlery before continuing.
“I am getting the train to Oxford to start my course as soon as we are finished
He raises his eyebrows.
“What a coincidence. Oxford, very prestigious. You must be very gifted. I was
stationed there for a short while just after leaving Police College…”
He does not finish the sentence and seems to be caught up in a distant memory for
a moment; I fidget a bit and hum something as a distraction. King takes a sip from his
glass of water and meets my gaze once more.
“We were lucky with the landlord and the fact that your mother was so open with
him and told him about her previous life. So that we were able to locate you.”
He sighs deeply before continuing.
“The investigation is almost at a standstill to be honest. The forensic evidence is
almost non-existent. There was a heavy downpour before we got there and none of her
acquaintances has much to say. But it is valuable to be able to talk to you, face to face.”
“Yes, it is good to meet you.”
“You seemed composed when we spoke on the phone. I hope everything went
…as well as can be expected?”
“It did,” I say curtly. No point in bringing up a lot of personal stuff. Like how it
feels to bury your grandfather and mother in the space of two weeks. Your long gone,
newly murdered mother.
“You never got to see it…the body?”
“No, I didn’t want to,” I reply curtly once again.
“I think that was the right thing to do.“
Inspector King pushes away his plate and plays with his plain cufflink.
“Your language ability is impressive. All Swedes I’ve met speak such good
English. We have three thousand of you in the town you know. Brighton has always
attracted a myriad of people. As a place it is quite unique compared to other British
towns. The pleasure stuff and the sea…My parents came here from Jamaica. Here, take
my card. Don’t hesitate to get in touch.”
We sit in silence whilst the guy behind the bar serves coffee and dessert.
“When did you see your mother last?” the inspector continues after the guy has
“I am not exactly sure of the date,” I lie. “At least ten years ago.”
In reality, the date of that last day is etched on my brain. I remember every recipe
she taught me during that fateful week. The dark-brown steaming plates form each
uneven line, childish letter and every digit.
“And, I presume you had no idea where she was during those years. No contact at
“No, she was presumed dead after a time.”
He regards his coffee cup with a clinical intensity.
“Mmm. And your father died when you were twelve? Nearly eight years ago?”
I stir my coffee before answering.
“Yes. He….didn’t really have the strength.”
King sits in silence for thirty seconds and nods slowly. My mango sorbet tastes
like cardboard but I eat it anyway, automatically. Then he clears his throat.
“I wonder…did what I tell you on the telephone come as a surprise to you? That
Birgitta worked here in town as a prostitute?”
I put down the empty bowl and do my best to keep a steady voice.
“There is not a lot about my mother that would surprise me.”
Brighton’s pier is a colossal pedestrian affair, built on huge piles and stretches out
into the sea. Piles of pebbles cover the beach, all the way down to the water’s edge.
Amongst them are barbecue coals and champagne corks. The ebb tide has pushed back
the great body of water, exposing a soft stretch of sand where the rosy-violet horizon is
mirrored in the moisture.
In the days when London factory workers only had a single day’s summer
holiday, an open rail bus went from Brighton station all the way out to the end of pier. I
close my eyes and imagine striped deckchairs, straw hats and skinny children licking ice-
cream from flat glass spoons.
Now, just as then, a noisy funfair is to be found right out at the end of the pier. It
is just as pathetic as it is delightful. Thousands of coloured, blinking lights try but, are
unable to keep in time with the disco music.
Something in the way you love me
Won’t let me be
A mangy seagull, weaker than the rest and which seems to have hurt its leg whirls up
from under the pier on a gust of wind, is flung towards me and almost gets tangled in my
hair. It bumps my head lightly and I manage to think how little it weighs before I feel
scared. The little seagull is even more afraid. The shock makes me reel and I instinctively
wave my arms around my head in order to protect my eyes. The bird flutters upwards
with a scream, and is away over the ghost train. I just regain my balance when I realise
that there is someone behind me.
Some loose hairs whip across my eyes and block my vision. I scratch manically to
get the hair out of my eyes. Even so, I still see a large figure, seemingly covered in a veil
or with long straggling hair, just on the edge of my vision. A shadow, a powerful force
rather than something real, it is silent and almost preternaturally still. But, when I spin
round I see that there is nothing behind me.
The bloodstains must have been worn away a long time ago by the wind, salt
water and cleaning. I imagine that I can still see the contours around my shoes, deeply
ingrained in the grey wooden planks. If I am right then there was a horrific amount of
blood. On the other side of the rail, slimy, grey waves crash onto the shore. I bury my
chin in my collar. Was this the last thing you saw, Birgitta?
The air tastes of salt. I try to control both my breathing and heart which is
pounding furiously. I force myself to stay there a few seconds against my will, one hand
grasping the rail. In the sky, to the west, there remain pink strips, left after a spectacular
sunset. The lavender colours of dusk have just lost their tug of war against the velvet blue
of the evening. I close my eyes for a moment, swallow hard a couple of times and
manage to suppress my fear by thinking that this is the most beautiful time of day.
Most of the visitors are avoiding the cold by staying in the noisy amusement
arcades or in some café or other. Fish and chips, hamburgers and beer are the order of the
day. Over by the helter-skelter, I can just make out a courting couple but otherwise it is
just me with the seabirds.
A plastic sign, set up by the Brighton police and which appeals to the public to
come forward with any information on the crime that has been committed here, hangs
dejectedly from the rail by its strings. It serves no purpose!
It takes me but a minute to stumble from the murder scene to the place where my
mother was last seen. Hercules Bar, at the end of the pier, the final outpost. It all looks
just as Inspector King described. I finger his business card in my pocket. The tourist map
from the hotel is there too; just in case.
“It is easy to find you way around this town,” King said and he was right.
“There is the beach to the south, the railway station to the north. The finer folk
live to the west and the crazies to the east.”
“Which part do you live in, Inspector King?” I dared to ask as we parted
company, outside my hotel, after our lunch.
“Call me Steve. Stephen King. God, can you imagine how I was teased at school?
We live in the east part. There is more of a buzz there. And, it’s closer to France.”
At first it feels nice to come into the warm of Hercules Bar, but I regret it almost
at once. The atmosphere is not really threatening, but it is obvious that outsiders are not
that welcome. A couple of large ladies over by the door look me up and down with
animosity. On the small stage, a man in a nylon shirt is belting out his own interpretation
of a Robbie Williams song.
“A half please.”
All the staff seem to be about my age or younger. Students? Despite the torturous
sound level, they move about like sleepwalkers, so bored that they are almost comatose.
Before my half arrives, I discover that someone has crept up beside me at the bar. An
actual being this time and a bit too close for comfort. I turn my head.
“He…he’s nnn.. not baa..ad eh?
The guy is thin as a rake and smells of sweat.
“Sorry, What did you say?”
I try to sound guarded, but without seeming unpleasant.
The guy nods towards the stage.
“Sure.” I say through clenched teeth.
“YOU NOT FROM HERE EH?”
“No, I am from Sweden.”
“Well then…who’d have guessed..hoho, a Swedish girl. WELCOME to
He throws his arms apart, just as proud as if we were in the Taj Mahal and he’d
built the whole thing with his bare hands.
“Thank you. I am here to..”
“WHAT? What ARE you SAYING?
I bend closer to his pockmarked cheek, breathe through my mouth and go for it.
“My mother. I think she was a regular here. She died recently.”
I don’t manage to say anything more when he puts his arm around me and shouts
louder than both the music and general clatter.
“Birgitta’s daughter! BIRGITTA’S DAUGHTER!
When he lets go so that he can get a closer look at my face, I notice that his eyes
have welled up with tears.
The table nearest the door at Hercules Bar is covered in beer glasses, empty
peanut packets and, despite there being a cigarette ban, overfilled ashtrays. Tracey and I
get up in order to help and clear some away so that Sonia can set down the next round of
drinks. I have tried to pay several times but it’s out of the question. The circle of stools
has expanded almost as far as the bar. There are at least fifteen of us by now and I am
having difficulty in remembering all the names of the people who have hugged me,
pressed my hand or offered to buy me a drink. The three large ladies make up the core
and they bawl at people to shut up when everyone talks at once. Despite having had
several pints, I am surprisingly compos mentis and my English becomes more and more
“Your mother was a star. Just so you know. A star!”
Sonia lifts her glass and proposes yet another toast.
“Cheers” To Birgitta!”
I make for the ladies but am pulled back by determined fingers.
“Shush. Sit still. Pauline is going to sing now, for you and for your mum.”
Pauline is the heaviest, shyest and perhaps the nicest of the three, despite her
upper arms being thicker than tree trunks and being covered in livid marks. Two men
help to heave her up on to the stage. Someone adjusts the single spotlight. The whole
place is quiet. When Pauline opens her mouth and starts to sing all my hairs stand on end.
She is singing Somewhere over the rainbow without accompaniment, with a voice deeper
than a jazz singer’s yet with a softness and a tenderness. The tears are rolling down my
cheeks for the first time since I received the news of my mother’s death and I do nothing
to try to stop them.
“Maja, be a sweetheart and watch the door for me. The lock’s broken.”
I hold the bottom with my foot whilst Tracey pees like a waterfall in her cubicle.
“Tracey, Can I ask you a personal question,” I ask through the closed door.
“Of course. Fire away!.”
“Do you do the same work as Birg..as my mother did?”
She lets out a sad little laugh.
“Well, as it happens. When my ex is holding back his child support and the kids
need something like a bike or new trainers. Well let’s just say, now and then each month.
She lets out a mirthless “Ha” and so I continue.
“Did you have the same clients?”
Inside the cubicle the toilet flushes and Tracey opens the door.
“I choose mainly local guys, the ones that I’ve know for a long time. Your mother
was different. Attractive, for a start. She was a looker. Just like you.”
It is not the first time I’ve heard this supposed likeness.
“Shit, not wishing to speak ill of the dead but Birgitta was more ambitious than
the rest of us. How can I put it?”
She washes her hands and dries them on the back of her trousers.
“What do you mean, Tracey?”
“Don’t think it is easy talking about this! But you’re her daughter after all. Jesus
Christ. She was so free in a way. She travelled to other towns and, she was into….special
stuff. The more the money, the greater the risks. She was into different kinds of sex. You
get me? Kinky stuff. Come on, I need a shot…or three.”
I take Tracey’s fleshy, soft hand, pull her a bit closer and lower my voice.
“Who do you think it was Tracey?”
“Fuck knows. Don’t you think we ask ourselves the same question? Probably
some nutcase, anyway that’s what the police think. There are so many sick bastards. He
can’t be sane, think of the risks. Pauline and I walked past the same spot a couple of
Tracey stops talking. She gets out a crumpled paper tissue and blows hard before
“We’ll never forget that sight, not as long as we live.”
I glance at the mirror and shudder involuntarily.
“Are you not afraid still?” I mean, going out at night when there is a nutcase in
Tracey shrugs her shoulders.
“We stick together and go out in groups. Birgitta wouldn’t want us to sit at home,
“So you don’t think it was someone she knew?”
“Nah, I doubt it somehow.”
A nutcase. Think of the risks. Yep. Mothers’ pals reluctantly let me leave and I
decline the offer of a male escort back to the hotel.
I need to be alone and gather my thoughts. I have pockets full of crumpled notes
with mobile numbers and email addresses which I know I’ll never use. The night air is
surprisingly mild. The wind has slackened and a blanket of cloud covers the town. The
beer has taken the edge off my fear and and without really knowing how I got there, I
find myself at the murder spot.
I stand for some time on the spot where I think she stood. One hand is on the rail,
and I am staring towards the shore and the Victorian houses standing to attention along
the promenade. One of them contains my mother’s room. She always had a lamp on in
the window. I just know this, without actually questioning how. It is always nicer to
come home when there is a lamp on. Not as desolate. I can feel my eyes welling up and I
shut them to stop the tears coming again.
Suddenly I get a pain in my stomach, A searing feeling just above my pelvis,
followed by total agony in my diaphragm. I double up, let go of the rail and grasp my
stomach with both hands. Then, my head is bent upwards and back and there is a burning
feeling across my throat. I can’t breathe and it feels like a warm liquid is oozing down
my neck. I pull open my coat and scrape at my neck. Nothing. I gasp for breathe. But,
after a few seconds the panic abates and I lean forward and rest my forehead against the
cold rail. My breathing is unsteady and I clutch at my stomach again. Nothing. I am OK.
I can stand and I notice that I can even walk as I take a few unsteady steps towards the
lighted walkway which runs between the dodgems and the carousel which is in darkness.
Over there, where the carved wooden horses wait, too still, each in mid gallop.
I check out of my small hotel room, deposit the two suitcases in the flowery lobby
and walk along by the sea to my mother’s rented room which I have marked in black biro
on my map. The morning smells of wet seaweed and I am accompanied on my walk
by the call of the gulls. I walk past proud but worn house-fronts painted in sugary
pastel colours which remind me of iced wedding cakes. I look askance at a grandiose
avenue, off of which claustrophobic cobbled lanes and medieval passages snake towards
Brighton’s heart. I can see glistening waves. Tourists are optimistic in their summer
clothes despite it being autumn. And, there is a golden streak of light over the English
A part of me can see why she wanted to be here. And, it is almost as if she is still
here, somehow. I can see her reflection flit by in the tulle and swan-down in the window
of the tiny, erotic-underwear shop. She is also in the barred window of the pawnshop, and
in the waft of washing powder from the launderette. She is in the pop music of the early
morning cocktail bars, and the stare of the beggar. I put a pound in his outstretched hand
and continue in her footsteps.
“Come in, come in. Quiet now Chicko darling.”
Denis Dyson holds the door open at the same time as he hushes the excited
Yorkshire terrier. The house where my mother lived during the lost years is a down at
heel beauty from a previous century, split into ten or so rented flats and rooms.
And, most of all, the landlord is still here.
Behind Mr. Dyson, another small dog is trying to get up onto the coffee table to
get at the cake-stand.
“No, no Fifi! Get down now my lovely. Shoo. Won’t you take a seat. Tea? I’ve
already got a mug.”
I sit down on the edge of the sofa. Denis installs himself in a beautiful, threadbare
wing-chair and scoops both of his darlings onto his lap. I have to squint due to the strong
sunlight. The room has seen better times but has a lived-in feel and is sparingly furnished.
It has ten feet high ceilings, cornicing and old fashioned windows.
“I wanted to come to Sweden for the funeral but unfortunately I couldn’t make it.
I have to think of my little darlings. I hope you can forgive me. Birgitta spoke so much
about you. She was very proud I believe. It’s a shame you never came to visit.
Proud? Proud! Like hell she was.
Dennis pours himself a second mug of tea and instinctively adjusts his hairpiece. I
am amazed at how fast he drains his tea, half a mug at a time.
“There are still some of your mother’s things in her room, if you want to go and
take a look. There’s a small TV which you might want to sell to the pawnbroker. She
rented the room furnished so most of the stuff will stay.
I take a bite from the edge of a vanilla wafer.
“Thanks, I’d really like to have a look.”
“No problem. The police came straight after and went through it all. Have you
met Inspector King? Totally wonderful don’t you think?”
I nod and mumble something affirmative.
“There’s a couple of boxes containing her personal effects in the bedroom over
there.” Denis says and gestures with his head.
“You can sort through the dra wers if you wish and take what you want.”
“Is there much?”
“Not really. But take all the time you need. Stay as long as you like. I remember
how it was sorting out my father’s house after he’d gone. A most upsetting business…
I nod again and Dennis continues.
“Clothes and shoes and anything else you don’t want can go to charity.”
As if responding to some invisible signal, the dogs begin to bark like mad. Chicko
jumps down from Dennis’ lap, makes for the outer door and stands there, growling. Fifi
struggles to get loose from her owners grasp and slinks off towards the bedroom.
“Can you see how my darlings look out for me? Stop being silly Chicko, it was
just someone on the stairs!”
Dennis gets up with remarkable ease and pulls the curtain aside.
“Hmm…I could have sworn…nah…nothing. I think I’m becoming gaga.”
He mutters something inaudible to himself. I put my half-eaten wafer down.
“Dennis, you knew my mother really well didn’t you?”
“Yes, you could say that.”
I take a good swig of my tea in order to gain some time. How do you approach
this kind of thing?
“I had a couple of beers with her pals at Hercules yesterday evening. They said
that she seemed happy on that last evening, relaxed even. She was also being very
generous to them. As if she was doing well.”
Birgitta was always generous with what little she had.” He says, pressing his lips
The two dogs have returned to their owner and are whining for a treat.
Dennis fishes out a dog biscuit and another small item from his cardigan. The
dogs get half a treat each in exchange for giving a paw. I get the other item.
“This is the key to your mother’s room. Number three on the ground floor. Take a
look. You’ll be alright won’t you?”
The door of number three closes behind me. Mother’s room is freezing cold. It
smells musty.. There is an odour which hangs like a thin gauze under the yellowing
ceiling. Lily of the valley. The curtains are heavy and go all the way down to the floor but
they still do not stop the draught from the old windows. Footsteps can be heard in the hall
outside. Someone is skipping up the stairs to the next floor and I am sure the walls are
shaking, they are so thin.
I lift the striped counterpane. The tired single mattress has some unrecognizable
marks on it, as does the carpet. I bend down to look under the bed. There is only a couple
of dusty magazines.
I sit on one of the two Windsor chairs and angle it so that I don’t have to look at
the bed. My lassitude makes my arm tremble as I run my palm over the scratched, small
table. The view isn’t bad but a grey-blue clump of clouds has drifted in from the coast
and the sunny day has turned dim and raw. She is no longer here in this desperate room.
There is nothing here for me.
I leave Brighton backwards, in a train which is both stuffy as if it were late
summer and raw due to it being September. My carriage smells of newspaper ink and
coffee despite there being only a few fellow passengers. When the train speeds up, it feels
as if I am being pulled away by an enormous energy. As if a little part of me has become
attached to Brighton and a strong, fine string is still attached to me and as we move along
it unravels along the railway track.
The direction of travel provides a panorama farewell view of this town by the sea.
This sugary bag of sweets is in equal parts an overgrown fishing village and a confused,
heaving spa resort. Addictive. As a place, it has a unique, secret attraction. I felt it already
and I only spent a single night there. It has a charm which can beguile the strange, the
vulnerable and the strong in equal, democratic measures. This is the place where my
mother chose to disappear to. This is the place where she began her whore existence.
There. I have now used the words that I have for so long avoided. Whore
existence. Why a life as a whore? Was this a temporary solution, something she got
caught up in as a last resort? If so, what was the turning point? What was it that meant
that she couldn’t stay with us? With me? In a tiny Swedish dump-of-a-town, together
with her family and her ordinary job? How much of it was planned and how much of it
I know nothing. In my conscience, her disappearance is veiled in mist. What she
did and how she did it seem inaccessible and incomprehensible. If I concentrate so hard
that it hurts me, I can just about make out something in the misty veil. Nervous shadows,
meager demons. Some kind of explanation. But I can never see any details in the mist, I
can’t get to them.
A last glimpse of sea and Brighton is gone as if a mirage, behind the lush
greenness of the countryside, in time with the rhythm of the train. Trees, thick with
foliage block my view and I can see that autumn has already got out her box of paints and
painted the trees yellow in places.
Despite the fact that Oxford can be characterized as having an indisputable
provincial grandeur, it can still seem superficial and cliquey. It is a place of small
drinking establishments and overlarge egos. Sometimes the air seems to stand still
between the sandstone palaces and foreboding chapels. Scornful gargoyles with dusty
tongues peer down. Pennants hang flaccid on the flagpoles.
No draughts permeate these incomparable halls. And for the unitiated, it has
nothing to offer. Keep Out! You can try to bribe the porters like the cheeky kids from the
London suburbs try to do or plead like the old Japanese women tourists. The outcome is
always the same. College Members Only…
For the initiated on the other hand; the prodigies, those of normal ability with
massive ambitions, presidents’ daughters and elite athletes, there awaits an indoctrination
that will see them develop over-inflated self confidence, here, behind these ancient
We are the chosen few. We are the topflight. Never forget who you are or where
you are! You and your peers shall rule the world!
But there is also a silent oppressor waiting in the wings. There, alongside the
brutal exam regime, the presumed brilliance of fellow students, the severe portraits of
former prime ministers, princes and bards. A suffocating silent tyranny that can lead to
world changing scientific discoveries, the highest qualifications and dazzling careers and
yet at the same time there is paranoia, plagiarism and personal ruin.
The disproportionate number of shops selling fancy dress costumes, gilded masks
and stage daggers which at first sight seem to indicate a high-spirited student life might
actually be indicative of Oxford and her infantile, dark side. Indicative of a desire for a
more primitive outlet and some kind of flight from reality.
In contrast with Brighton, Oxford is a city which sits uncomfortably with its
But I know nothing about this yet as I get down from the train and thank my
tweed clad fellow passenger who helps me with my cases. Oxford. “City of dreaming
spires,” is how it is described in the well thumbed brochure in my coat pocket. The chill
bites at my cheeks and it is markedly colder here, inland. I’m here now. I have arrived.
The taxi passes a round building with a cupola on top, like an observatory. I make
out a row of figures set into the iron rail outside. They look medieval. Coarse male heads,
their mouths gaping open, angrily. A group of tourists accompanied by a guide
gesticulate and take photographs. The car comes to halt in front of a majestic gate, set
into a wall which is several meters high.
“Well, well…let’s see now, here it is. Miss Maja Grå. Right, you are on the
Narrative Illustration Course, you lucky thing.”
The woman in pearl grey peers over her half-spectacles and looks down at her
papers again and hums in a friendly manner.
“Very popular, not many get on it. You will love Oxford. And, Professor
Chesterfield is exceptional.”
“Thank You. I am really looking forward to it.”
“And, I see that you have requested a shared room in one of our halls of
residence. Mill Creek Manor. Were you aware of that?”
“Oh, Thanks. What a relief. I wasn’t sure. I have been travelling around Britain
beforehand and..yes, thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” smiles the course secretary. “You did the right thing and
applied in good time. Mill Creek Manor is not the oldest hall but it has housed our
students for a couple of hundred years. It has all mod cons and a wonderful garden. It
also has a cafeteria which as far as I’ve heard, serves decent hot food.”
“What about cooking facilities?”
“Yes, I believe you get an electric-ring. The other girl is already here”, she says
and looks down at her register.
“Fernando-something. She’s on the same course as you. That’s probably why
they’ve put you together. Do you have much luggage?”
I contemplate this other person. A stranger. In the same room?
“I have some luggage!”
“In that case I’ll ring Raymond so that he can come and fetch you by car. He is
head porter at Mill Creek. Here in Oxford we like to take good care of our gifted
I gathered that, I think to myself.
“The oldest parts of Mill Creek Manor are from the 17th century,” says Raymond.
“But there’s not much left to see, just the ruins of a stone building. The majority was built
We have walked through the property where a parched wild flower garden is
surrounded by wings built of blond granite, as well as a main building with towers and
leaded windows. It contains the porters’ lodge with its window looking out onto the
vaulted passage so that Raymond or his colleagues can check people and if they are to be
let in. The student hall reminds me of a fortress and the grounds stretch the way down to
the river where I can see a solitary oarsman in the mist amongst the alders.
Raymond has shown me the stone cloister and the notice board covered in papers
about, amongst other things, book exchanges, chamber concerts and tennis. We have also
visited the bacon smelling cafeteria in the basement, the student bar and a large common
room, a half landing up, with its sofas, open fire, piano and computers which are for our
use. When Raymond is pointing, his uniformed sleeve rides up to show a blue-green heart
tattoo set deep into his leathery skin.
The floors are connected by stone stairs where the treads have been worn by
thousands of feet. Now and again we come across other students who stand aside, say
“hi” to Raymond and regard me with curiosity. If the boys had been wearing hats I am
convinced they would doff them.
“Did you see Arthur Bartleman on TV yesterday?” a guy shouts to Raymond.
Yes, God, what a bloke”, says my guide, a fatherly look appearing on his face. “I
think he was here in 97. Genius, almost to the point of insanity. And that massive
head..I’ll never forget that,” he chuckles.
Room 45 in the north wing is quite ordinary and the furniture puts me in mind of
a better class youth hostel, except for the green chaise longue. It makes me happy just
looking at it. We have a small tiled bathroom with just enough room for a bath, sink and
toilet but nothing more. There is a bay window with a lamp which is switched on. My
room mate is not at home. There is an art dictionary as a thick as a brick and some library
books on her bedside table; Gauguin and Maurice Sendak. I thank Raymond and he
leaves me on my own. So this is where I am going to live. Me and let’s see...”Nikita
Fernando.” She has already signed her room contract in an elegant, adult hand.
Otherwise, I note that Nikita Fernando uses ant-frizz shampoo and likes chocolate
digestives. I hope she is nice. I wonder when she’ll be back.
I sink down onto my narrow bed. I really should unpack at once but am sleepy.
It’s as if I’d run out of steam as soon as I came to a halt and reached my goal. I am
hungry too but far too tired to leave the room in search of something to eat. I eye my as
yet unknown, room mates’ biscuit packet. After a short inner debate I decide it would be
stupid to take food from Nikita Fernando without her permission, before we have even
met. Instead, I make do with a brown banana and a half full bottle of semi-flat water
which I find at the bottom of my rucksack.
I must have dozed off as when I open my eyes, the room is in darkness. It takes
me a second to know where I am and a few seconds more to realise that I am not alone. It
doesn’t make sense. I would have heard…why didn’t she put the light on?
I freeze. Even before the smell of lily of the valley wafts towards me, I know who
it is and, it’s not my room mate. The hair is lighter than I remember and the body
somewhat smaller, but it’s her. The female figure squats with her back to me, next to my
suitcases. She moves towards the door and there is something deformed about the way
she moves, bent forward and swaying. She is clutching her stomach and her head is loose
at the neck. It flips from side to side in a horrible way. I lie as if nailed to the bed by
invisible nails. When I open my mouth there is just a feable..”mothe..”
But it’s enough. She hears me. It takes her an infinity to turn round. She lifts her
head which doesn’t seem to be properly attached. She focuses her mad eyes on me. It is
the same crazy look she was capable of and which I can never forget. The look that says
anything at all is possible and at any moment. Nobody can tell what and least of all
mother. I want to shout out and tell her to go away. I’ve done all I can. She can shuffle
off into the shadows and oblivion and stay there. I have buried her, shed tears for her and
felt her pain. I have played the dutiful daughter a thousand times better than she deserves.
She pulls back her upper lip and smiles her icy bestial smile. Her teeth are black.
“Wake up, girl”. You are having a nightmare. Wake up!”
I stare into a pair of chocolate brown eyes. She has put the light on and is holding
“Sorry, I must have fallen asleep…”
“Not a problem,” she smiles. You were having a horrible dream and I almost had
to shake you. I’m Nikita by the way. You’re Maja aren’t you?”
I nod and wipe the sweat from my brow with the side of my index finger. I try to
hide this gesture and make as if I am fixing my hair. My arms feel like I have been
extremely tense for some time.
“Nice name. Is it spelt M-a-y-a?” Nikita asks.
I explain and have to force myself to keep my teeth from chattering.
“Fancy a cup of tea? Raymond told me that you arrived earlier today. It’s a hassle
Whilst Nikita puts the kettle on I get into a sitting position, hunched up with my
chin between my knees and study her. She is a tall, sturdy girl. She is wearing a
patchwork mini skirt which looks homemade and thick leggings. Her dark hair is piled
loosely on her head and I think that her profile looks quite Egyptian.
“Jesus, Maja, you’re shaking like a leaf. Are you cold? Do you want the heater
“No, it’s noth…there’s been a lot happening recently.”
“Come with me,” she says as she turns off the kettle.
I get up from the bed somewhat clumsily.
“Raymond said that you looked pale earlier and this is just silly. What have you
“Right, we’ll go down to the bar. The cafeteria is closed but I know what they do
with the leftover sandwiches.”
She touches the side of her nose, knowingly .
“A sandwich and a beer is what you need. And some company”
Nikita sits me on a wooden bench in the student bar and places a bottle of beer
and sandwich on the table in front of me. I feel like a nodding dog? We are alone in the
long, narrow room which looks out onto the garden with the stone terrace although
occasionally students pass by in the reception, happily engaged in conversation. I sip
from the bottle, mainly to keep her happy. It tastes so good. It seems to take the edge
off..off what? I unwrap the sandwich and take a bite from it. It’s a bit soggy but is filled
with grated cheese, mayonnaise and onions. It tastes good too. Nikita looks like a proud
mother, finishes her own beer and goes in search of two more from the fridge behind the
bar. When she returns, she burps politely behind her hand and studies me from the side.
There’s still a bit left.
“You don’t say a lot, Maja.”
I shrug my shoulders.
“Nope, maybe not.”
She burst out laughing.
“Nice one. I like that. There are enough people here who just talk crap. Another
“Aha. I knew I’d find you here, you bitch.”
A guy with a scarf wound several times around his neck is standing in the
doorway, blowing on his frozen fingers. Nikita gets up, and pokes out her tongue at the
same time as she embraces him. Then, he notices me.
“My goodness, who do we have here? You little cutie. What are you doing
together with that old slag?”
He speaks quickly and in an odd dialect which I can’t make out. Nikita pretends
to kick him in the backside.
“Get yourself a beer and show some manners Ashley. This is Maja Grå from
Sweden, my room mate. Don’t try and scare the shit out of her. She looked like she’d
seen a ghost earlier and I’ve just managed to calm her down.”
“Oohh..Have you had a visit from one of the famous Mill Creek ghosts?” he says
and makes a monster face.
Nikita shuts him up with a sharp look. Ashley undoes his blazer, sits down and
steals a mouthful of her beer. He ignores her obvious displeasure, rests his chin on his
palm and looks at me, wide-eyed.
“Well, well, Maja Grå…Narrative Illustration if I’m right? I recognize your name
from the list as it looks so exotic.”
If his face wasn’t moon shaped and ruddy from the cold he would almost be
“Are all Swedes as pretty as you?” he asks.
“Give us a break Ash,” Nikita warns him.
“Gosh, how stupid of me.” He continues without heeding the warning. “When did
you ever see a Swede who wasn’t attractive?”
I don’t feel the slightest bit attractive, but rather greasy and hot but smile shyly
nonetheless. Nikita knocks back her beer.
“Maja, may I present Ashley Morris, straight out of the dodgiest part of
Ashley wrinkle’s his nose and makes a grab for the bottle but Nikita lifts it out of
his reach and continues:
“He is Mill Creeks number one dandy, sponger and water-colour painter. And,
he’s on the same course. Hallelujah””
“Hallelujah,” echoes Ashely. “Listen, you two, who do you have to sleep with
around here in order to get a beer?”
It would seem that you don’t actually have to sleep with anyone. The system
consists of just going over to the fridge, taking out what you feel like and writing it up on
the list which has been pinned up for all to see. You pay when you can, and the price is
same price that it costs to buy them in. It’s an “honour bar”. They have another three or
“Where is everyone?” Nikita wonders. Her voice is now an octave lower due to
“They don’t dare to come in when you are holding court,” says Ashley.” Besides,
Radiohead are playing a charity gig at Freuds. Chesterfield is doing a reading from his
new book at Blackstones. The wine’s free so I was there for a nosey, but it was full.”
Ashley empties the bottle and continues.
“So, people will start to drift in soon enough I’ve no doubt. Are you looking for
anyone special or just any old Neanderthal from the rowing club?”
“How long have you been in Oxford then?” I ask since she refuses to answer him.
“We both came yesterday. Although we studies here last summer as well,” says
Ashley adds: “A preparatory course: ‘Creative Methodology’.”
“It was brill,” says Nikita. “The Institute is a bit on the grand side and the tuition
is quite formal. But it is important to take you artistic practice seriously.”
“Pretentious Moi? Your artistic practice seriously says Ashley. You trying to
sound like Chesterfield?”
Nikita puts on the silent act and I am not sure if it is for real or if she is just
Ashley Morris is right. Half an hour later, the bar fills up with noisy students.
Somebody has put music on as well as some flashing lights. Nikita sits up straight and
applies some shiny lip-gloss that smells of cherries. I have to stifle a yawn.
“Are you sleepy Maja,” Ashley asks.
“A little. We have registration tomorrow and I haven’t unpacked yet.” I say.
“A little beauty sleep won’t go amiss until you meet Mr. Dreamboat himself.
Chesterfield that is..but how about a nightcap in my room before bed-time. I’ve got some
I look at Nikita questioningly.
“Off you go,” she smiles. “I need to stay for a bit. And don’t worry about Ash,
he’s not interested in you in that way.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, stupidly.
“Oh, sweetie pie,” says Ash. “Your gaydar is not working too well. I’m as gay as
Arm in arm, we shamble up the stairs to Ashley’s single room. It’s not clear who
is carrying who. From the walls, old Oxford alumni peer down at us. Some of them are
serious, others just look content. Graham Greene, J.R.R Tolkien. And, Bill Clinton?
“Yep,” says Ash. He lived in the south wing in room 32. Several of the pubs in
the area still sell marshmallows in his honour. But, now you have to tell me.”
He fumbles with the light switch, misses and decides that we don’t need any light.
The corridor has no windows and is pitch black.
“Tell you what?” I ask.
“When I arrived, Nikita said that you’d seen a ghost or something. You know that
there are ghosts galore here. So, what did you see?”
“He tries haphazardly to get the key in the lock, manages eventually and opens
the door in a gentlemanly manner. I fall into the dark room and kick off my shoes.
“I didn’t see anything. It was just a bad dream. I’ve been through a lot recently. If
you pour me a whisky, I’ll explain.”
“Don’t even try, Maja. I’ve met your kind before. My mother is exactly the same.
You are one those people who sees things.”