Copyright © 2013 by Jussi Adler-Olsen
Translation copyright © by Martin Aitken
The feeling could get the better of her in an unguarded moment. The cool, delicate champagne glass between her fingers, the hum of voices, and the light hand of her husband at her waist. Apart from being in love, only brief flashbacks of a distant childhood reminded her of it. The security of her grandmother’s chatter. Subdued laughter as she fell into a slumber. The laughter of people long since gone.
Nete pressed her lips together to stem the emotion. Sometimes it got the better of her.
She collected herself and gazed out upon the palette of colorful evening gowns and proud figures. The celebratory banquet in honor of the Danish recipient of the year’s Nordic Prize for Medicine had drawn many guests. Scholars, physicians, pillars of society. Circles into which she certainly hadn’t been born but in which she nevertheless had come to feel increasingly comfortable as the years passed.
She took a deep breath and was about to let out a contented sigh when she became acutely aware that a pair of eyes had latched onto her through the array of festive coiffures and men in tight bow ties. The inexplicable, unsettling charges of electricity only ever emitted by eyes that wished no good. Instinctively she moved aside, like a hunted animal seeking cover in undergrowth. She put her hand on her husband’s arm and tried to smile as her gaze flickered across the shimmer guests and the elegantly dressed of the candelabra.
A woman tossed back her head in a moment’s laughter, suddenly opening up a clear view to the rear end of the hall.
And there he stood.
His figure towered like a lighthouse above all the others. Despite the stooping posture and crooked legs, a great, strutting wild animal whose eyes swept over the crowd like a pair of searchlights.
Again she sensed his intense surveillance to the very core of her being and knew for certain that if she didn’t react now her entire life would collapse in seconds.
“Andreas,” she said, putting her hand to her throat, which was already sticky with perspiration. “Can’t we leave now? I’m not feeling well.”
Further entreaty was unnecessary. Her husband raised his dark eyebrows, nodded to those nearest, and turned away from the throng, taking her arm in his. It was typical of him, and she loved him for it.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’m afraid it’s my headache again.”
He nodded, all too familiar with the affliction himself. Long, dark evenings in the drawing room, his migraine pounding.
It was yet another thing they had in common.
As they approached the majestic staircase the tall man stole forward and stepped in front of them.
He looked much older now, she noted. The eyes that once had sparkled had lost their luster. His hair was unrecognizable. Twenty-five years had taken their toll.
“Nete, are you here? You’re the last person I would have expected to see in such company,” he said bluntly.
She stepped to one side and drew her husband past, but her stalker was undeterred. “Don’t you remember me, Nete?” came his voice from behind. “Of course you do. Curt Wad. How could you ever forget me?”
Halfway down the stairs he caught up with them.
“So you’re Rosen’s tart now, is that it? Imagine you, of all people, reaching such heights.”
She tugged at her husband’s arm to hasten him along, but Andreas Rosen was not known for turning his back on a problem. The present situation was no exception.
“Would you be so kind as to leave my wife alone?” he asked, his words accompanied by a glare that warned of rage.
“Oh, I see.” The unwelcome guest took a step backward. “So you’ve actually lured Andreas Rosen into your web, Nete. Well done.” He flashed what others might have taken to be a wry smile, but she knew better. “That piece of information seems to have completely passed me by, I’m afraid. But then I don’t usually frequent such circles. Never read the gossip magazines.”
In slow motion she saw her husband shake his head in disdain. Felt the grip of his hand on hers as he drew her on. For a moment she was able to breathe again. Their footsteps clattered, asynchronous echoes, urging them away.
They reached the downstairs cloakroom before the voice behind them spoke once more.
“Mr. Rosen! Perhaps you are unaware that your wife is a whore? A simple girl from Sprogø who isn’t fussy about who she opens her legs for. Her feeble mind cannot distinguish between truth and lies, and—”
She felt a wrench of her wrist as her husband spun round. Several guests were trying to subdue the man who had interrupted their festivities. A couple of younger doctors leaned menacingly toward the tall man’s chest, making it clear he was not wanted there.
“Andreas, don’t,” she shouted as her husband stepped toward the cluster of individuals that now surrounded her tormentor, but he was oblivious. Her alpha male was marking out his territory.
“I don’t know who you are,” he said, “but I strongly suggest you refrain from showing yourself in public again until you’ve learned how to behave in decent company.”
The thin figure raised his head above the men who were holding him back and everyone present focused on his moistureless lips: the ladies behind the counter who were sorting the furs from the cotton coats, guests slinking their way past, the private chauffeurs waiting in front of the swing doors.
And then came the words that should never have been uttered.
“Why don’t you ask Nete where she was sterilized? Ask her how many abortions she’s had. Ask her what an isolation cell feels like after five days. Ask her, and leave lecturing me on social skills to your betters, Andreas Rosen.”
Curt Wad extracted himself from those restraining him and stepped aside, eyes aflame with hatred. “I’m leaving now!” he spat. “And you, Nete!” He extended a trembling finger toward her. “You can go to hell, where you belong.”
The room was a buzz of voices even before the swing doors closed behind him.
“That was Curt Wad,” someone whispered. “An old student friend of the prizewinner, which is about the only good thing that can be said of him.”
But the trap had sprung. She had been revealed.
All eyes were upon her now. Searching for signs of her true self. Was her neckline too plunging? Were her hips too vulgar? Were her lips?
They collected their coats, and the cloakroom lady’s warm breath felt almost poisonous. You’re no better than me, her expression said.
It happened that quickly.
She lowered her gaze and took her husband’s arm.
Her beloved husband, whose eyes she hadn’t the courage to look into.
She listened to the quiet purr of the engine. They had not spoken a word to each other, staring past the swish of the windshield wipers into the autumn darkness through which they passed.
Perhaps he was waiting for her denials, but she had none to offer.
Perhaps she was expecting him to accommodate her. To help her out of her predicament. To look into her eyes and tell her it didn’t matter, whatever it was, and that what counted were the eleven years they had been together.
Not the thirty-seven she had lived before that.
But he turned on the radio and filled the car with jangling remoteness, Sting accompanying them south across Sjælland, Sade and Madonna over Falster and the Guldborgsund strait to Lolland. Strange, young voices in the night. The only thing that bound them together.
Everything else was gone.
A few hundred meters before the village of Blans, still a couple of kilometers from the manor farm, he pulled in to the edge of the fields.
“Now tell me,” he said, his gaze fastened to the darkness outside. His words were without warmth. He didn’t even utter her name by way of comfort. All he had was Tell me!
She closed her eyes. Pleaded with him to understand there were underlying events that explained everything, and that the man who had confronted her was the very cause of her misfortune.
But apart from that, what he had said had been the truth. She admitted it, her voice a whisper.
It was true. All of it.
For an agonizing, all-consuming moment only his breathing was heard. Then he turned toward her with darkness in his eyes. “So that’s why we’ve never been able to have children,” he said.
She nodded. Pressed her lips together and told it like it was. Yes, she was guilty of lies and deceit. She came clean. As a young girl she had been committed to Sprogø, through no fault of her own. A chain of misunderstandings, abuse of power, betrayal. There was no other reason. And yes, she’d had abortions and had been sterilized, but the dreadful man they had just encountered . . .
He laid his hand on her arm, and its coldness went through her like an electric shock, prompting her to stop.
Then he put the car into gear, released the clutch, and drove slowly through the village before accelerating quickly past the meadows and the darkened view of the water.
“I’m sorry, Nete. But I can’t forgive your allowing me to live all these years blindly believing we could become parents together. I simply can’t. And as for the rest of what you’ve told me, quite frankly I’m disgusted.”
He paused, and she felt an icy tingle at her temples, the muscles of her neck tensing.
He raised his head. Arrogantly, the way he did when negotiating with people he deemed unworthy of his respect. Confidently, as when ignoring poor advice.
“I shall pack some things,” he said firmly. “In the meantime, you have a week to make other arrangements. Take whatever you need from Havngaard. You won’t be left wanting.”
She turned her face slowly away from him and stared out over the sea. Rolled the window down slightly and drew in the smell of seaweed borne by waves as black as ink, waves that might take her once and for all.
And the feeling returned to her of lonely, desperate days on Sprogø, when the same lapping sea had tried to lure her into putting an end to her miserable life.
“You won’t be left wanting,” he had said, as though it mattered.
He knew nothing about her.
She glanced at her watch and fixed the date in her mind, the fourteenth of November 1985, and felt her lips quiver as she turned to look at him.
His dark eyes were cavities in his face. Only the bends in the road ahead claimed his interest.
She lifted one hand slowly and grasped the steering wheel, wrenching it to the right as hard as she could just as he opened his mouth in protest.
The engine roared in vain as the road vanished beneath them, and as they hurtled through the windbreak the sound of rasping metal drowned out her husband’s final protests.
When they hit the sea it, was almost like coming home.