Death By Water

Torkil Damhaug

Death By Water

The second book in the Oslo Crime Files series, 2015

English translation © 2015 Robert Ferguson

To Helen

September 1996

MEDIUM DANGER. THE yellow flag flying. The breakers pound high up the beach though it’s only twelve o’clock. He throws his towel on to the sand and runs in, keeping his yellow T-shirt on. Wades out until the water reaches his navel. Starts swimming, diving into the wave that breaks right in front of him, swimming on out towards the buoys, continuing past them. The water starts a tickling and a bubbling inside his chest, as though something nasty is about to happen. But even with the red flag up, he would still have gone swimming. Red flag means hazard.

No other swimmers this far out today. He turns towards the shore. Truls is holding Nini by the hand, the way he’s been told to. Out here, past the buoys, it’s just possible to hear her shriek each time a giant of a breaker throws itself at her feet.

Further out, the troughs between the waves are deeper. They open up suddenly; he falls down into them, is lifted up and tossed over the next peak, then falls again. Has to use his strength to keep his head up, not to get sucked under. His mouth and nose fill with salty foam. He spits and snorts, gets tossed up again, down again. The waves keep coming, and when he’s up on a peak he can see the horizon where the water meets the grey-blue sky, and he knows that the sea continues long past that line, all the way down to Africa. How far would he get if he carried on in the direction of the coast he can’t see? With every wave that pulls him down and tosses him up again, he twists his upper body and feels that it is he who is strongest. How far out can he get before he has to give up and let the waves do what they like with him?

Not even when they arrived on the plane that morning, with the sky clear and bright, could he see land on the far side. He had turned to his mother, sitting in the middle seat, to ask her how many hundreds of miles she thought it was over the sea. He could tell from her eyes that she was no longer in a condition to answer a question like that. Had known it before anyway, even before they boarded the plane. They were sitting in the café right next to the gate. They’d got up at three in the morning in order to reach the airport in time. He sat there staring out at the runway. Nini was lying in her pushchair asleep. Truls was out too, curled up in a chair.

– Want something to drink, Jo? Arne asked, winking and acting like a pal, which meant that Jo could have a Coke if he wanted. He knew there was a reason for it. Sure enough, Arne returned with a Coke and some crisps and a doughnut. That was okay. It didn’t bother Jo that he’d bought a beer for himself. What he didn’t like was the red wine for his mother. It’s quarter to six in the morning and there’s his mother sitting there drinking wine. No normal grown-up does that. She hadn’t touched a drop for several days, and Jo was hoping that this trip, with the sunshine and the swimming and all those things she was always longing for, might mean she didn’t need to drink. But before they’d boarded the plane she’d knocked back three glasses and was already at the stage where she wanted to put her arms around him and ruffle his hair. She didn’t say ‘plane’ any more, she said ‘pwein’, and suddenly Arne’s jokes were so funny she was leaning her head back and clucking with laughter.

Once the pwein was up in the air and those blue-striped shirts appeared pushing the drinks trolleys along, Arne went right ahead and ordered a cognac for her, even though he knew perfectly well how it would end. Maybe that was why he did it. Jo huddled up by the window and pretended to be asleep. Thought how he should have had a parachute and opened the emergency exit and jumped out over Germany or Poland or wherever they were; landed in some strange town where no one knew who he was nor who his mother and Dickhead Arne were.

A few hours later, they were both sitting on sun loungers by the pool with a drink each, and Mother dropped hers so it smashed on the flagstones. Jo thought he didn’t want to be there any more and got up to head down to the beach.

– Take Truls and Nina with you, Arne ordered.

Jo made his way down the stony slope with his younger brother beside him and his baby sister in the pushchair. A little family. He could take Truls and Nina and just leave, go back home again. Not home. Move somewhere else, where he could work and get them food and whatever else they needed. That way they wouldn’t have to see Arne again. They wouldn’t have to see Mother drinking herself legless and breaking glasses and making a show of herself in front of a crowd of people they didn’t know.

But that isn’t the worst thing that happens on that first day of the holiday. The worst thing is what happens in the evening. Jo puts Nini to bed after he’s given her the allergy medicine and the sleeping draught. Forces it down her, in spite of her protests. Over and over again Mother has repeated that he must remember to give her all four pills before putting her to bed. And then Arne suddenly says that Mother gave them to Nini herself before she went out, only she forgot to mention it to Jo. That means Nini’s had twice as many pills as she should have. No wonder she’s sleeping so soundly. Lying there without moving.

Jo sits in the room with them for a while. Truls has brought along a pile of Phantom comics that Arne gave him. Truls thinks Arne is cool for giving him his old comics. It’s like a thing between them. Arne collected these comics when he was a kid. Was a member of the Phantom Club and had the ring with the Sign of Goodness on it. Truls has inherited that too. Jo never accepts anything from Arne any more. Accepts it maybe, but hides it away at the back of a cupboard and never uses it. A Man United shirt, or a football card, whatever it is.

He leans over Nini yet again to hear if she’s still breathing. Slowly and deeply, he notes, so it probably wasn’t that dangerous with the double dose. All the same, it occurs to him to pop down to the restaurant to ask Mother. Just to be sure. Even though the thought of being near her the way she is now makes him feel sick.

The music pounds towards him from the speakers up by the stage. Some disco stuff. Neither Mother nor Arne will let him play loud music at home, but the rules here are different. That’s what being on holiday means. Rules are changed, or dropped.

He sees only strangers when he looks around the restaurant. Hopes that Mother and Arne aren’t there. That they’ve gone for a walk and taken another way home and are back in the apartment… Then he sees Mother at a table next to the wall in the far corner. She’s sitting with her head on the shoulder of a man Jo has never seen before. Arne’s carrying on out on the dance floor. Him and that guy Mother is hanging on to have probably changed partners. Mother for that dark, skinny thing Arne is necking with. Arne likes skinny women and always grins whenever he grabs Mother by the stomach and yanks it over the lining of her trousers.

Jo stands there by the terrace doorway. He can still feel the sea in his body. He could sneak back down there again before the grown-ups catch sight of him. Throw himself into the waves again, not see them rolling up in the darkness, just feel them surging and twisting around him. But if he doesn’t stay here in the bar, something will happen to Mother. She might trip on the steps. Get raped, or drown in the pool. Arne doesn’t care a shit about things like that.

Suddenly his mother tries to stand up and collapses forwards. The stranger grabs hold of her before she upends the table. Two or three glasses glide over the edge. Everyone turns and stares. The woman dancing with Arne comes hurrying over. She holds Mother up and shouts to her. She and the stranger drag her up the steps towards the bar; they pass right in front of Jo. Mother is deathly pale and doesn’t seem to recognise him. Her skirt is hitched up so half her knickers are showing. She staggers on, held up by the skinny woman. When they disappear into the toilet, Jo follows and stands waiting outside the door. Hears funny sounds. Suddenly Mother screams. He’s seen her drunk, but never heard her scream like that. As though she’s in the process of dying in there. He takes hold of the doorknob. Then he feels a hand on his shoulder.

– Don’t go in there.

Jo jerks, trying to free himself, but it’s an adult that’s holding him, a stranger. At first he thought it was the man his mother was making out with, but it’s someone else.

– Someone’s in there with your mother. You don’t have to look after her.

Something or other makes Jo let go of the handle on the toilet door. Maybe it’s because the voice seems familiar. He glances up at the stranger. A man about Arne’s age. Unshaven, with sunglasses pushed up on the top of his head, even though it’s evening.

– No need for you to care, barks Jo, but he isn’t angry.

– No, there isn’t, the man replies.

But then he acts exactly as though he does care. – Come with me, he says. – I’ll treat you to a Coke.

He heads out towards the terrace without turning round. He’s wearing khaki shorts and a short-sleeved black shirt. His hair is quite long and combed straight back and hangs over the collar of his shirt. Jo doesn’t hea ...

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