Death by hanging
When I woke up the next morning, I went on Facebook to find my wall full of well wishes for my birthday. I liked all of them, added a comment to the slightly more original ones and went to look at my private messages. There was only one from Melissa. I had messaged her Friday night to try and relay some of what had been going down here.
I really really miss you, but I’m glad you are doing well. I think you really needed a break and perhaps this was for the best, even if I know you got scared. Gosh, I thought He was dead too.
How was your birthday? We’ll have a huge celebration when you come back to London.
That family stuff and the mid-summer drownings sounds very crazy and almost made-up, but it’s really giving me the chills. Is all this in any way related to that poor girl who hanged herself in the magic forest? I still remember your grandma sharing that story one dark and stormy evening that last summer she was alive and I came to stay for two weeks.
Have to go. Got a mid-wife appointment, but please keep me posted. And that Markus guy sounds cute. *wink wink*
I sat for a while trying to recollect the story but I couldn’t remember all the details. Something about a teenage girl who had experience a great loss in love and who had ended up hanging herself. I made a mental note to ask Gerda along with all the other stuff I wanted to ask her. I hoped she was home.
I went down and Emma and I made and ate a good Sunday breakfast consisting of scrambled eggs, bacon, fresh bread, yoghurt, fruit salad, fresh juice and coffee. We decided not to go anywhere, or do anything today. It was Sunday and it was sunny. We wanted to sunbathe.
We had been reading and sunbathing for nearly two hours when I saw Gerda in her garden. I excused myself, and said that I wanted to ask a few questions, put on my sarong and got up. Emma was looking unimpressed, but didn’t say anything. “Off you go then Nancy Drew. I’ll prepare some refreshments for when you’re back.”
Gerda saw me coming towards her garden and she waved and smiled. “Sandra,” she said. “Fancy you visiting a boring old lady on a Sunday like this.”
She beckoned me towards her veranda where her senile husband Amund sat reading a paper. If reading was an accurate way to describe how he seemed to be just staring at the pages with a blank look on his face.
“What can I get you. Coffee, birthday cake?”
“Birthday cake?” I asked and wondered for a moment if she’d somehow found out it had been my birthday yesterday.
“It’s my birthday today,” she said. “Of course I need birthday cake. Don’t you think?”
“Sure, Happy birthday” I said, sounding very unsure to my own ears and wishing I’d brought some flowers. “I’m getting some birthday cake,” she said and marched into the house. “It was my birthday too,” I said when she reappeared with a very plain-looking cake. “Oh, then you must have a big piece.” She cut a huge slice and put it on a plate in front of me. “Old-fashioned marble cake,” she said. I picked it up and took a careful bite out of it. Amund was eating cake and crumbing it all over his newspaper. To my surprise, the cake didn’t taste that bad. I wondered why it was called marble cake, but then a lot of foods had strange names, like the English toad in a hole.
“I am 90 today.” Gerda said as she reappeared with coffee and a jug of water on a tray. “Wow, you look good” I said and meant it. I had assumed she was in her seventies. “Thank you Sandra.” She sat down across from me and rubbed her temples as if she had a headache, or was tired.
“I was quite a beauty in my youth you know. Wasn’t I darling?” She turned to Amund who was now eating cake crumbs from his newspapers. “Don’t do that dear,” she said and took the paper from him to shake the crumbs off. “Beauty.” He said in a very clear voice. “That’s right. I could pick and choose from all the men around Homborsund, Grimstad and Lillesand.” Her eyes were sparkling as she recalled old memories. “My darling Amund proposed to me a number of times, but it took me two husbands to say yes. Isn’t that right?” She stroked his cheek affectionately. “Yes, say yes.” He stared out in front of him with a distant look in his eyes.
“My poor Amud,” Gerda said turning to me. “Still in good physical shape. But mentally…. He used to be so sharp and witty. I miss him. But I still love him the way he is now.”
“That’s lovely,” I said feeling moved. “I’m sure he loves you too,” I added.
“He does, when he remembers who I am.” Gerda made to pour me some coffee, but I shook my head. “I’m too hot for coffee,” I said.
I let a minute or so pass before I asked “There are a few things I was wondering whether you could shed some light over.” “And what’s that dear?” Gerda asked stirring sugar and cream into her coffee. “I know this may be painful for you, but your husband Sven’s mistress.” I stopped, unsure of how best to proceed, but then decided to jump right in. “Is she alive? Arlette Johnsen?”
“She is.” Gerda said slowly. “But where she is, I’m not sure.”
“Then, how do you know she is alive?” I asked.
“When you get to a certain age, you start reading every single obituary. Because the people dying could be, and in some cases are, your friends, estranged relatives and people you’ve known. I was heartbroken when I found out that my Sven had had an affair with Arlette Johnsen. Murder was admittedly on my mind, but I decided that enough people had died and to be the bigger woman. I wasn’t the one who’d had a child out of wedlock after all. So I got over it, though I’ve been looking for her obituary in the local and national papers for the past, I don’t know how many years. Arlette moved to Grimstad with her little bastard son. Sorry dear, I know he was your father. But you must understand I wasn’t a big fan of hers… Not that I have a problem with your father of course. Nobody chooses their parents.”
“And what about the girl who hanged herself I the magic forest?” I asked, helping myself to a glass of water from the jug.
“That is a tragic story I don’t like to think of.”
“I’m sorry,” “I said. I’m sure I can ask…”
“No,” Gerda cut me off. “I should be the one telling you this story. The girl in question was my little sister.
Pernille was a beauty just like me. She also had a lovely singing voice. When she was 16 and I twenty-one, it was decided that she was going to move to Oslo to study music there. The Second World War had just ended and life was slowly resuming back to normal. She was happy. She wanted to perform on world stages and travel. She found this little place too small for someone like her. Yes, she was very proud. But that summer before she was supposed to travel, she also fell in love for the first time ever in her life. The guy was the handsome son of the lighthouse keeper. She did everything she could to get his attention. She serenaded outside his window, making a complete fool of herself, wrote him a love ballad an even had the nerve to ask him to the mid-summer dance. Of course he said no. He was in love with someone else. Namely me. I didn’t have eyes for him. I was engaged to be married to Sven. Still, he told her so that she would leave him alone. She was found dead on mid-summer eve, hanging from a three near the lighthouse torch Ramshaug. She must have been crazier in love than we thought. The lighthouse keeper’s son was the one who found her, because his father had asked him to attend to Ramshaug. He had nightmares ever since and claimed that her ghost was haunting him for decades to come.”
“That’s tragic. And it too happened at mid-summer.” I said. Gerda nodded solemnly. “There is something about mid-summer,” she said. “Something very disconcerting.” She got up, gathering the empty cake plates and I took it as a cue to leave. “Thanks for the chat, and the cake,” I said and descended the steps to the garden.
“Anytime Sandra. Anytime. Please come again.”
I felt someone watching me as I walked towards the separating hedge and turned around. Amund was sitting alone on the veranda. But whereas before his expression had been vacant, it was now crystal clear. He met my eyes and held my glance. I was surprised to see a look of pure hatred and contempt in his face. As if he wanted to kill me right there and then.
Death by hanging