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Authors: Robert Barnard

Death in a Cold Climate

BOOK: Death in a Cold Climate
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Twilight at Noon

Domestic and Foreign

First Light

Deep Frozen

Mortuary Matters

Reluctant Witnesses

Husband and Wife

Two Girls

No Place

Work and Play

Marital Relations

One Day

The Cardinal's Hat

Wife of a Friend

Blood in the


Midnight Sun


Setting a book in a real town always involves the danger that the reader will assume that the characters as well as the topography are based on reality. I should like to insist, therefore, with even more force than usual, that though I have remained fairly faithful to the geographical facts in depicting Tromsø, the characters are entirely fictitious: the policemen are not Tromsø policemen, the students are not Tromsø students, and above all the Professor of English is not Tromsø's Professor of English.


Seen from the windows of the café, the main street assumed an aspect less than solid, though more than shadow. The light, such as it was, had a temporary, unwilling feel to it. The sky had earlier been faintly tinged with a pallid blue, but haze and cloud had robbed it by now of any suggestion of daylight. The wooden cathedral looked large, a solid, comfortable mass, but its features and those of the main street of wooden shops were as if under mufflers, to be seen only indistinctly. The people, hurrying over the gritty snow and ice, were interested solely in getting where they were going. The day, such as it was, would last no more than an hour or so, and then everything would be wrapped up in fitting, natural darkness.

It was midday on December 21 in the city of Tromsø, three degrees north of the Arctic Circle.

The boy standing by a table and stripping off his anorak and scarf seemed to be deciding that he'd had enough of the city for the moment. He looked at the faint glow of light outlining the shops and offices, like a faded halo around a grimy saint, and then looked down at his newspaper. Something caught his eye on page one, and he took it with him to the counter. Absently he took a tray from the pile, collected on a plate a ham smørbrød and a cheese roll, and then made himself a sort of cup of tea, with a bag and some near-boiling water.

‘To-og-tyve nitti,'
said the woman at the cash desk, pressing the keys. The boy looked at her for a moment, before fumbling in the back pocket of his jeans. ‘Twenty-two,
ninety,' the woman said in careful English. The boy counted out the money slowly, then carried the tray over to his table.

Half an hour later he had digested his paper and his meal and drunk his tea, but he did not seem inclined to go. He fetched another cup of tea and sat over it, looking yet not looking out at the twilit town. There were things going round in his head, but too many things: sometimes he frowned, as if trying to work something out, or trying to dismiss from his mind something he did not want to think about. As his tea got cooler and cooler, he sat there, staring, unseeing.

He was about twenty-two. His hair was fair, but with a rich, golden fairness that was not Norwegian. His face was lean, old for his years, and his eyes–when they were registering anything–looked slightly calculating. His hands were rough as sandpaper, with stubby fingers, and his nails cut close and dirty. He sat in his jeans and his bulky, shapeless sweater, gazing at the ashtray, in which his tea-bag was mingling to a disgusting mush with the ash and butts.

In fact, he was hardly even thinking. Impressions, memories of the last few days, swam sharply to the front of his mind, then retreated to become part of the great wash of recollection. The woman, blonde, desperate, and the nerve in her cheek that twitched as she asked him round for coffee . . . The American girl, horribly earnest, confiding her emotional problems, as she confided them, he guessed, to friend and total stranger, indiscriminately . . . The cellar pub, with the alcove where everyone spoke English and tried to make in that corner of a foreign field that fuzz of togetherness which is an English country pub . . . The dreadful Professor of whatever it was, with the Dracula teeth and the watchful eyes.

His mind turned to the business in hand, and his eyes
contracted from infinity to the here and now. He looked at his watch. Twenty past one. The appointment was for half past two. He had no desire to walk and re-walk the main street of Tromsø until it was time to get a bus or a taxi. But perhaps he could walk to the place. He looked out of the window; it had not started to snow, though it threatened. It would pass the time. And on the way he could think the matter through. He had a feeling he had been too casual–had started something that could get out of hand.

He took out his map and spread it over the table. It was across the bridge, he knew that. A fair distance then, but easy enough to manage if the roads were all right.

‘Can I help you? Anywhere you want to go?' asked a voice.

The boy looked up. A middle-aged man with a tray–kindly-faced, probably not trying to pick him up. Still . . . He replied coldly: ‘No, I'm just looking.'

The man went on to another table, discomfited.

The boy drew his finger over the bridge. Here things were less built-up, it seemed. His finger followed the main roads on the other side of the bridge until suddenly it lighted on his destination: Isbjørnvei. If he were outside, he thought, he could probably see the house across the water. He judged the distance with expert appraisal. He could walk slowly and still do it easily. He stood up, tallish, slight, but tough-looking, and began swathing himself in his anorak and long woollen scarf–multi-coloured in stripes, the product, perhaps, of some unstoppable girlfriend or mother.

Out in the street, in a world of bright shop windows and street lights surrounded by looming shadows, he set his face towards Storgate, and walked along it for the last time, he hoped, that day. He idled, noting the decorations for Christmas in the shops and the Christmas trees oddly decorated with the Norwegian flag, as if Christ had been
born in a stable near Oslo. He bought a hot dog, and stood for some time munching it and staring ahead of him at the shoppers, streaming this way and that. When he had finished eating, he patted his anorak, heard the crinkle of paper from his inside pocket, and went on his way again, reassured.

Now he was nearing the bridge. Underfoot the snow and ice were grimy and gritty, but he wore heavy boots, the soles deeply rutted, and there was no danger of sliding or falling. The footpath over the bridge was very narrow, and the traffic passed unpleasantly close, but he paused when he reached its highest point, the wind biting through his too light trousers, and looked back to the island on which Tromsø is built, and then out to the other islands, mere sleeping monsters in the distance, guarding the deep. The fjord sent back dull twinklings from the dying day and the lights of the city. Impassively he turned on his way.

Once he reached the mainland he lingered around the Arctic Cathedral, two great white triangles, and peered in the windows. The place held no memories for him, and he dawdled on. Up the road, with the traffic grazing his ankles, then to his right and a long, quiet, straight walk to his destination.

It was a quarter past two when he neared the end of Anton Jakobsensvei and began to turn down to Isbjørnvei. There were a couple of people walking and the occasional car, but by now the light was all but gone. The moon had come up, round the mountain behind him. ‘Darkness at Noon'–the phrase went round in his head. He stopped and considered. The walk had not sorted out his thoughts and he was aware he needed to decide what to do–not knowing how little use there was in his meditation.

Then, finally, in the gathering dark, he walked down
and found Isbjørnvei. The name was dimly lit on the side of a house, and he walked along the road, peering at the numbers. The snow was rather roughly cleared here, and many of the paths to the houses not swept at all. He trudged rather than walked. Finally he came to No. 18, made his way through heavy snow up the path to the door, and rang the bell. He turned on the doorstep while he waited, and looked once more over the fjord to the white and coloured lights of the town.

Nobody had seen him come. Nobody saw him again alive, except for the person whose footsteps in the house he now heard, and whom, turning, he saw as the door opened.


Sidsel Korvald was–all her friends agreed–a model Norwegian wife. Her house was always spotless: the windows, upstairs and down, were cleaned (with some publicity) once a month, and the curtains washed nearly as often; the dishes were never allowed to stand over from one meal to the next, and if the children played in the living-room, their mother made clear to them the difference between a pleasant sort of disorder and a mess. Her husband's meals were invariably ready for the table the moment he came home from work, and were never more than mildly experimental, ringing the changes from sausage, to meat-balls, to cod, and pork chops, invariably served with boiled potatoes. Her mother had impressed on Sidsel that one thing the menfolk could not stand was novelty in their diet. The children were kept quiet while her husband slept off his meal, and coffee was waiting for him when he woke. At weekends she made herself genteelly desirable for bedtime, and was sweetly co-operative on any other day of the week.

Her husband hated her very much indeed.

Affection had declined into boredom almost before the honeymoon was over; pity succeeded boredom, irritation pity, and hatred had come after eight or nine years of marriage. Then Bjørn Korvald knew the time had come to move out.

On that day, December 22, he had been alone in his tiny flat off Kirkegårdsveien for three months, and the magic of separation had still not worn off. Everything he did
seemed to be invested with a new significance. When he came home from work the pleasure of cooking for himself renewed itself every day, and unpacking the things he had bought for the meal gave him a piercing, unnatural delight. Deciding how to cook it was an intellectual treat and an adventure–especially as he avoided sausage, meat-balls, cod and pork chops, from instincts very close to superstition. When he had eaten, he piled up the dishes on the tiny draining-board, and finished off his beer. Sometimes he listened to a record, and as he did so he walked around the flat and looked at everything, sometimes even touching the cheap or second-hand furniture as if it were the concrete evidence of his liberation. Sometimes he laughed out loud for no reason.

Today he did things with the same relish as ever, but he did not laugh. He had decided to take his Christmas presents to his children, and he did not expect the visit to go easily. His wife had greeted his decision to leave her with a stunned bewilderment, like a puppy left for the first time in kennels during the family holiday. Before he left it seemed as if a smouldering anger was succeeding the bewilderment. Since then his contacts with her had been limited to formal greetings when he went to collect the children every Saturday for his ration of their time. All the financial arrangements were done through the bank, with computerized impersonality. He did not know how Sidsel was standing up to the separation, and in his heart of hearts he did not want to know. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, he was terrified at the way he had hardened his heart. But he did not think that she, any more than he, wanted any extended contact, and in fact when he stood on the doorstep, gaudy boxes in hand, and she opened the door to him, her words were:

BOOK: Death in a Cold Climate
10.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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