From the mind of a psychologist comes a taut and chilling domestic thriller with a double twist that will leave you reeling.
**One of Cosmopolitan's 13 of the best books to read this summer 2021**
At first it's the lie that hurts.
A voicemail from her husband tells Sara he's arrived at the holiday cabin. Then a call from his friend confirms he never did.
She tries to carry on as normal, teasing out her clients' deepest fears, but as the hours stretch out, her own begin to surface. And when the police finally take an interest, they want to know why Sara deleted that voicemail.
To get to the root of Sigurd's disappearance, Sara must question everything she knows about her relationship.
Could the truth about what happened be inside her head?
Translated from the Norwegian by Alison McCullough
Release date: May 6, 2021
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 336
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Friday, March 6: The message
It was dark outside when he left. I woke as he leaned over me and kissed me on the forehead.
“I’m going now,” he whispered.
Still half-asleep, I turned. He was wearing his coat, had his bag slung over his shoulder.
“O.K.,” I mumbled.
“Just go back to sleep,” he said.
I heard his footsteps on the stairs, but must have been asleep before the door clicked shut behind him.
When I wake I’m alone in the bed. There’s a gap between the blind and windowsill that admits a weak shaft of sunlight, which hits me in the eyes and stirs me. It’s 7.30 a.m. – not a bad time to get up.
I pad barefoot to the bathroom in defiance of the wall-to-wall carpet of chipboard tiles in the hall, the wet wooden pallets that cover the clay floor in the bathroom. We don’t have a ceiling light in here, but Sigurd set up a work lamp when he was pulling up the tiles and it’s still standing there, disconcertingly permanent. Luckily, it’s light enough that I don’t need to use the lamp. It’s starkly functional, in the way that work lamps are, and gives off a hard white light that makes me feel as if I’m showering in the revealing brightness of a secondary school changing room. I turn on the water, let it warm up as I take off my nightgown. The boiler needs changing, but Sigurd showers quickly and I don’t plan on washing my hair today, so it’ll do.
The shower cabinet is plastic – this, too, was meant to be temporary. Sigurd has designed a shower for us, a brick cubicle with glass doors and tiny blue-flecked and white tiles. In all the half-finished rooms in the house, the standstill is most obvious in the bathroom. The old tiles are gone, the new ones not yet laid. We have no lights, no proper curtains to speak of, pallets to walk on so we don’t damage the floor, a hole in the wall where the water runs out, and this provisional shower cabinet, an ancient relic from Sigurd’s grandfather. I once saw the house as it would be when it was finished as I walked through this abandoned building site: the blue-flecked tiles, the shining glass bricks, the recessed lights – would feel the heated tiles beneath the soles of my feet, the hot water perfectly meted out from a modern showerhead with several settings. Now all I can see is just how much time it’s all going to take. As I stick my hand into the stream of water, feeling it begin to warm up, it occurs to me that I’ve somehow stopped believing the house will ever be finished.
Under the hot water I wake up – it’s cold in here; the temperature is O.K. in the bedroom, but the bathroom is freezing. The winter has been a long one, and every morning I’ve stood here naked and waited for the heat with a hand in the stream of water. Now the season is slowly moving into spring. The shower does me good as it hammers against my cold, goose-pimpled skin. I collect water in my palms and dip my face in it; feel it jerk me fully from the night, feel the day taking hold.
Friday. Three patients – the usual Friday gang. First Vera, then Christoffer, and finally Trygve. It’s a bad idea to see Trygve last thing on a Friday, but it’s so tempting to just schedule the same time next week at the end of our sessions together. I gather another handful of water, dip my face into it, rub my hands along my cheeks. Sigurd will be at his friend’s cabin in Norefjell until Sunday. I’ll be alone all weekend.
Unable to stand the cold bathroom for a second longer than necessary I go back into the bedroom to get dressed. The sheets lie in a crumpled heap on the bed. The air is dense with the smell of sleep – mine, at least – and perhaps his, too. I didn’t see what time it was when he left, it could be several hours ago already. We don’t have any wardrobes, but between the chimney and the wall Sigurd has installed a metal rail where we keep our clothes. Sigurd’s hang there messily, any old way, while my dresses, shirts and jackets are arranged by colour in a neat row. Looking at Sigurd’s clothes it seems there may be some missing, but then he is supposed to be going straight to the mountains. The bag that was on the floor is gone, and now I remember he had it over his shoulder when he left. I put on a soft, pigeon-blue shirt and trousers, a smart, neutral outfit for the day, thinking that it’s only a matter of hours before I can come up here again and grab some workout clothes should I decide to go to the gym, or put on my pyjama bottoms and an oversized T-shirt if not. Only three patients first.
Actually, three patients is too few. I need to have four every day, and at least a day or two every week with five. Those were the figures I had calculated when I started freelancing. “There’s less paperwork in private practice,” I said to Sigurd as we made our plans, sitting in the kitchen of our old apartment by Torshovparken and drawing up a budget on an Excel spreadsheet. “I can manage four patients a day, possibly five. Five, most days. Or one day a week, anyway – although a little extra money wouldn’t hurt.” We laughed.
“Don’t work yourself to death now,” Sigurd said.
“Says you,” I said.
Sigurd started working for himself at the same time, had plotted his own calculations on the same Excel spreadsheet. A minimum of eight clients simultaneously, preferably ten. He’d help the other partners when they needed it; every hour would count.
“There’ll be some overtime,” we said to each other, “but we’ll make good money, put a little extra in the piggy bank.” So far I only have three patients on most days, and very rarely five. Why did it turn out this way? It’s more difficult to find patients than I expected, and the younger ones often cancel, but that’s only part of the reason. I do up the last of my shirt buttons, all neatly, decently closed. I’d forgotten to include one important thing when I sat there in the kitchen in Torshov, Sigurd’s old desk lamp providing the light above my computer and the sheets of paper on which we’d scribbled our notes. The human factor. I enjoy my own company, but even I need others. I had erased my colleagues with the stroke of a pen, never guessing that I would feel so lonely. That it would make me passive. A year ago, if anyone had told me how difficult it would feel to advertise for and pull in more patients – how I would shrink from it – I wouldn’t have believed them.
Breakfast is the best meal of the day, in my opinion. I sit at our kitchen island with the newspaper, a slice of bread and a cup of coffee. I prefer to eat alone. Sigurd always leaves early after downing his coffee while standing beside the kitchen counter, but I like to take my time. Read the Aftenposten opinion pieces, the film reviews. Contemplate the day.
Sigurd has left his cup on the counter beside the sink. The kitchen surfaces are one of the few things about the house that are more or less finished, and the counter is so shiny that I can see the semicircle of coffee beneath the cup all the way from where I’m sitting. Of course. Perhaps it’s a biological difference between men and women, this ability to see a ring of coffee beneath a cup, crumbs under the toaster, stray drops of water along the worktop. Sigurd wants everything to be done properly, is planning the house in detail, painstakingly making drawings and impressive visualisations – but he falls short when it comes to the little things. Putting his cup in the dishwasher. Wiping down the worktop. Packing up his laptop for the evening. These things are no big deal, so why do I go on about them, let them irritate me? On the other hand, they only take a few seconds – so why can’t he just do them?
This is as far as I’ve got when I glance towards the hook on the wall where Sigurd usually hangs his document holder – the hard grey plastic tube with a black shoulder strap attached to each end which he uses to carry drawings to and from work. It always hangs there on the same hook if he’s home. I frown as I consider the empty hook. Wasn’t he supposed to be driving straight to Thomas’ place to pick him up? Did he not explicitly say so? And wasn’t the document tube hanging there on the wall yesterday evening?
I have always found it difficult to shrug off inconsistencies, although I know some people can, and I envy them for it. He wasn’t supposed to be going into work – but no, maybe I misunderstood. I thought he said he was going straight to Thomas’ place – well, perhaps I heard wrong, maybe he was going to call in at the office first. Maybe he left the document tube at work, and when I think I can remember it hanging here yesterday, I’m actually thinking of the day before. It would be much easier to be able to shrug it off. Those with poorer memories seem much less suspicious of the world, less argumentative. To take the current example: I remember, without a shadow of a doubt, that Sigurd and I spoke about his plans yesterday, how I got up from our sofa in the corner and went across to the kitchen nook to empty the dregs of my tea into the sink, threw the used teabag in the bin and put my cup in the dishwasher; remember how I turned when standing perhaps a metre from the kitchen island where I’m sitting now, and said to Sigurd, “So, when are you leaving tomorrow?” And I remember Sigurd so clearly – as if I’m looking at a photograph of him, one with an extraordinary resolution, billions of megapixels, every impurity of his skin rendered in detail. I remember the worn-out jumper and ripped trousers he often wears in the evening; that he ran a hand through his dishevelled curls and looked at me with narrow, tired eyes, as if I was waking him, and said:
“Oh. I’m leaving early. I want to be at Thomas’ by six-thirty.” And I said:
And he said:
“Yes. So we’ll make it up there by mid-morning, get a full day on the slopes.”
Then maybe he forgot and acted out of habit, taking the document tube with him. Maybe he decided he’d do a bit of work from the cabin. Perhaps he changed his mind and went into the office at the last minute.
My memory is too detailed. I remember all too clearly the way he looked when we spoke about this; how he was wearing the beige, ill-fitting jumper with the black collar that looks like something his mother might have bought him – which in fact it is – he told me it was she who had bought it for him before he met me, when I first dared to point out how hair-raisingly awful it is. It’s an insignificant detail, not something I need to be able to recall. At least, it isn’t important to remember that I said, “O.K.,” and turned away, and that by the time I had put down my teacup and looked back at the sofa he was already sitting with his laptop open on his knees, his eyes squinting at the screen, eyebrows drawn together, mouth half-open, and that I suppressed the urge to say, “Turn a light on, you’re ruining your eyes, and take that computer off your lap, it’ll ruin the quality of your sperm and we might need your sperm to be in tip-top condition some day, and don’t sit there on the sofa with your neck bent like that, you’ll get a bad back.” Instead, all I said was:
“I’m going up to bed. Night.”
All this is trivial. What’s important is to be able to distinguish the important details from the rest. If you remember everything, it’s harder to recall the significant things – the things you have to remember.
From the bathroom window I can see my first patient of the day walking up the path to my office above the garage. Vera bows her head a little as she walks, which gives her a distinctive gait that’s easy to recognise – the gait of a teenage girl who hasn’t yet grown into her adult body. Were you to ask her, though, she’d tell you she’s mature enough. I take a deep breath, down into my diaphragm, following her with my gaze as she opens the door to the office. Three patients, that’s all – then the weekend. I feel tired, even though I’ve only just got up.
I brush my teeth in the bathroom, balancing on one of the pallets Sigurd brought back from a construction site he’d visited and then used to cover our bathroom floor. The basin belonged to Sigurd’s old Grandpa Torp, as did the shower cabinet, which means it was fitted before 1970 and hasn’t been updated since, apart from the few modifications Old Torp carried out himself. The tap has one round handle for cold water and one for hot, and when I look at them I can almost see Old Torp’s crooked, arthritic hands turning them. Sigurd’s grandfather didn’t believe in worldly goods. According to him, it was inevitable that Norway would soon be taken over by the communists – although he must have been disappointed that it was taking so long, because he’d been waiting for this to happen since the 1950s. By the time he drew his last breath, in his command centre in the loft, his convictions had remained rock solid through the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of China as a global economy. Still, the sly old fox must have been dispirited when his health began to decline, just as the world’s communist states were succumbing to capitalistic ideas. The Cold War had been his heyday, and he was palpably proud to tell anyone who would listen – generally Sigurd’s mother, or Sigurd and me – that the intelligence service had kept a file on him throughout the ’70s. But last year was his final over and out, and now all that remain are the souvenirs of this house: the old radiators and taps, and the command centre, so far untouched, with its shelf upon shelf of reading matter, membership magazines from the Communist Party and Workers’ Communist Party, its wall maps with small drawing pins marking locations Old Torp regarded as significant targets, and the old, rusty revolver, thought to have been owned by someone who had fought in the Russian Revolution, and which Old Torp had acquired in the ’70s to protect himself – or to give the secret service a reason to keep tabs on him.
Old Torp’s death gave Sigurd and me the opportunity to achieve our dream of owning a house. In the 1950s Nordberg was an area of the city like any other, but over the years it has gone up in the world. In 2014 it was utterly impossible for a hopeful young couple like us to raise enough capital to buy a house up here. On the way back to the station after visiting the old wreck, we’d sigh to each other and say, but just look at the view, and it’s so close to the countryside, and just a short T-banen ride from the city, and you can see the sea from here. But there was no point saying anything further. A terraced house in an outer suburb without any kind of view was all that was on the cards for us. But two days after the old man was found, declared dead and sent off to a funeral parlour for the necessary preparations, Margrethe, Sigurd’s mother, had called.
“Listen,” she had said. “Wouldn’t Grandpa’s house in Kongleveien be perfect for you?” Margrethe is an only child, and lives in a modern house in Røa. Sigurd’s brother Harald lives in San Diego and has no need for a house in Oslo. Sigurd’s late father’s cabin in Krokskogen had already been given to Harald, who had promised not to sell it before his mother became too old to use it, and one day would also be the beneficiary when Margrethe’s house was sold. So Old Torp’s house was given to us.
But an uncomfortable fact about Old Torp’s death is that almost three weeks passed before he was found. That is, he died in his command centre in the loft, above the bedroom Sigurd and I now share, as he sat there with a flask of coffee, poring over a wallchart from a time when there was still an East and a West Germany. It was his heart that gave out – no surprise really, the man was almost ninety. Nor was he a very social person, so he had no visitors other than immediate family. Margrethe was on one of her two-month jaunts to warmer climes when it happened; Sigurd and I were supposed to visit Old Torp once a week to ensure that everything was O.K. But we were busy with work and our own lives; we skipped a week here and a week there. When we finally turned up, two weeks late, we sensed the silence from the moment Sigurd turned the key in the lock.
“Grandpa?” Sigurd called.
We had looked at each other with apologetic smiles, feeling guilty for leaving the old communist alone so long, and when I think of Sigurd’s expression now I can see the tension in it, as if he had used safety pins at the corners of his mouth to pitch it up. I’m tempted to say that we already knew, although that’s too dramatic. But perhaps our guilty consciences made us suspect something was wrong.
In the end, I was the one to find him; he lay there with his face on the map. His skin was grey and rugged, dry as leather and just as lifeless, and mottled with haematomas in the way that long-dead human bodies often are. It’s an image I wish I could unsee. The yellow nails that looked as if they might drop off; the vertebrae of the neck about to pierce the dead, parchment-like skin. The heavy, stifling smell of decomposing flesh. I’ve hardly been in the command centre since. Perhaps the distressing circumstances of his death were in part what made Margrethe decide to give us the house.
We wanted to renovate the property as soon as possible; peel the old man off the walls, empty the house of him and make it our own. Sigurd created drawings; I drew up a budget. Our new-found financial freedom gave us opportunities. Some of Sigurd’s former student friends wanted to open their own architectural firm, and had invited Sigurd to join them. We no longer had a mortgage or service charge to pay, and the sale of our apartment provided the sum Sigurd needed to buy himself into the firm. I was unhappy in my job in the health service, working with young people suffering from mental illness; we now had enough space to create an office for me at home. The house was the start of something new for us. Four days before we moved in we went down to the courthouse in Oslo and got married, eating cake at the local bakery afterwards with my sister and Sigurd’s two best friends and their partners. It didn’t change anything – we’d still be us – but we wanted to have the paperwork in order. On our first night in the house we slept on an air mattress in the living room. We toasted ourselves with glasses of prosecco, and told each other, “The rest of our lives starts now.”
But Old Torp would prove harder to get rid of than we’d imagined. The renovations took time, as did getting started at our new respective workplaces. Sigurd was working a lot of overtime, and our plan to redecorate primarily required him – his expertise, his practical hands. We had set out overenthusiastic and full of energy, ripping off the wallpaper in strips, tearing up the tiles in the bathroom. We managed to get some things done, such as fitting a new kitchen and creating a home office for me above the garage. Then we started to lose momentum. Sigurd took on more clients, worked longer days, sat bent over his drawing board. Winter came, the days becoming colder and darker, draining us of energy. When we got home from work we could no longer be bothered to paint; to go to Maxbo to look at showerheads or taps or to find tiles. We failed to mix any filler, failed to pull off the last strips of wallpaper, instead dropping onto the old sofa we had brought with us from Torshov and watching T.V. Sigurd often didn’t get home until late in the evening, stooped and tired, with the document tube dangling from his shoulder.
“In the summer,” we said. “We’ll spend the summer holidays doing up the house.” That’s around three months away, and the fact that I’ve lost faith worries me. Something else is bound to happen, and then we’ll say “in the autumn”, and then the weather will turn cold and we’ll have yet another long winter in which I tiptoe around barefoot, my feet stiff and heavy as frozen clubs on the pallets on the bathroom floor.
I run my practice from the floor above the garage, where I have a tiny waiting room containing a shoe rack, a straight-backed chair and a minuscule table with magazines, and then a door that leads into my office. Vera is sitting on the straight-backed chair, a magazine open in her lap, but I suspect she isn’t reading it. She looks up as I enter.
“Hello, Doctor,” she says. She looks refreshed, and is sporting a new haircut.
“Hello,” I say. “Just a moment, and then I’ll . . . I’ll come out and call you.”
“Alright,” she says obligingly, one eyebrow arched in the expression I most often see her wearing – it complements the touch of sarcasm she adds to most of her remarks.
I go into my office and close the door behind me to prevent Vera’s gaze from following me, from tainting everything I do.
Sigurd has done a great job with the office. It isn’t very big, and the sloping ceiling made the optimal use of space the main concern. He knocked out one of the shorter walls, the one facing the driveway, and replaced it with glass. My two chairs are set there – two fine Arne Jacobsen armchairs, with a small table between them. When we sit there, my patients and I, we sit in the brightest part of the room. In the ceiling above us, Sigurd has installed a Velux window, so that natural light can enter through the ceiling, too. A couple of lamps make the nook cosy and welcoming, regardless of the autumn storms and freezer-box winters. Against the other short wall, the one that separates my office from the waiting room, Sigurd has placed my little white desk, and hung shelves along the walls all the way up to the ceiling on either side of the door to create plenty of space for my books and ring binders. The short wall and floor are panelled in pale, warm wood; the two taller walls are painted white, and the overall effect is so modern, so friendly. I’ve positioned a couple of plants where the sloped ceiling nears the floor, and although it’s admittedly difficult to keep them alive – it gets cold in here when I turn off the electric heater for the day – they provide a certain atmosphere. “You can breathe in here,” the room says. “In here, you can be yourself. Nothing you say in this room will be judged, repeated or ridiculed.” That’s what I had wanted – an office that would invite my patients in. And that’s exactly what Sigurd gave me. I have to give him that.
But now Vera is sitting out there waiting for me and a tiredness starts to squeeze around the base of my throat. I don’t want to invite her into my office. I sit down at my desk, turn on the computer – I’ll read my notes from her last visit, although strictly speaking I don’t need to, I remember what we talked about during the session. I’m playing for time – want to delay the moment at which I have to go out and tell her she can come in. Why am I doing this? I’m not sure – or perhaps I don’t want to think about it. Therapists care about their patients, and I care about Vera, but there’s no escaping the fact that our conversations are hard work.
Difficulties with parents, say my notes from our last session. Difficulties with boyfriend. Vera’s problems are relational. She started coming to see me just after Christmas for help with a depressive reaction. She’s of well above average intelligence – perhaps even gifted – so everything bores her. “I’m just so tired of everything,” Vera said in our first session when I asked her to tell me why she had come to see me, “it just seems as if nothing matters or means anything anymore.” Her boyfriend, it turns out, is a married man. Her parents are researchers who are trying to solve a mathematical theorem only a handful of people in the world are familiar with – they’re always at work and often away. Her siblings are grown-up and have long since left home, and Vera, eighteen and wise beyond her years, says that the family was already complete when she arrived. Her parents had not wanted more children. She was an accident.
There’s a lot to unpack here – there is real pain in Vera’s life. But it’s such tough material to work with.
I check my e-mails, killing time before I let her in. Mostly advertising, nothing personal. For the briefest moment I want to call Sigurd, but that’s silly, it’s five to nine, he’ll still be in the car with his friends. I take a deep breath. Three patients, and then it will be the weekend. The entire evening alone. Lunch with my sister on Sunday, otherwise no plans. Except to go to the gym, perhaps.
“Ready, Doctor?” Vera asks when I go out to tell her she can come in.
This calling me “Doctor” is something Vera started doing in our second session. She asked me about the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist, and I told her that I’m a psychologist, not a doctor – that I specialise in how the whole person functions, not just the pathology – but she got hung up on this and said, “So you’re not a real doctor, then?” Irritatingly, I let this bother me, let the remark prod at an inferiority complex I didn’t think I had, because I answered – a little defensively – that I knew as much as any doctor about what goes on in people’s heads, at which she laughed, and said, “That’s O.K., I’ll call you ‘Doctor’.” I feel a stab of discomfort every time she says it: a prickling feeling at the back of my throat that tells me I’ve revealed too much. Sometimes I ask myself whether she understands that it bothers me – whether it’s a passive-aggressive move on her part – but she seems genuine enough. Just playful.
I let her into the room ahead of me. Vera is a little taller than average, slim, with straight hips. Her hands are quite large, hanging there like pendulums at her sides, and I look at her and ask myself – as women always do when they meet other women – is she pretty? Yes, averagely sweet. Young. But there’s also something peculiar about her; her round little face, her long body.
“Well,” Vera says as she takes a seat. “I’ve had a fight with Mamma and Pappa. And argued with Lars.”
“I see,” I say, settling into my chair. “Tell me what happened.”
The waking sun is visible in the Velux window as Vera speaks, illuminating her hair and making it halo-like, all the hundreds of curly, flyaway hairs that have broken free from her otherwise slicked-back hairstyle. All girls have these kinds of unruly, flyaway hairs, I think. I have plenty of them myself – more than Vera has.
The pattern in what she’s telling me is straightforward: Vera feels rejected by her parents, who have so many important things to do that they don’t have time for her. Since she’s unable to tell them how upset she is, nothing is more satisfying than a confrontation with them – afterwards, feeling even more rejected, Vera calls her boyfriend and starts another argument. The married boyfriend goes home to his wife after they hang up regardless of what happens, so in the unprovoked argument there’s no doubt that Vera will be rejected – this is how Vera takes the intolerable feeling of not being prioritised by her parents and reframes it within more tolerable limits with her boyfriend. Half an hour into our session I share this observation with her.
“I don’t know,” Vera says, wrinkling her nose. “Isn’t that a bit easy? Like, a bit Freudian or something?”
“So is it correct to say that you don’t think that’s the case?”
She looks over at my bookcase, as if trying out my interpretation. Her fingers pluck at the bracelet on her wrist, a thin silver bracelet with a single pearl dangling from it. She rolls the pearl around between her index finger and thumb. The piece of jewellery is too grown-up for her, I think. The girls who come to see me often wear jewellery bearing letters; they adorn themselves with words like LOVE or TRUST or ETERNITY. This bracelet might belong to a middle-aged woman.
“I don’t know. I hope . . .
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