After the Death of Ellen Keldberg by Eddie Thomas Petersen *Extract*
AFTER THE DEATH OF ELLEN KELDBERG
by EDDIE THOMAS PETERSEN
The Danish seaside town of Skagen is an artists’ paradise in summer, but only the locals live there in winter. The elderly artist Ellen Keldberg was found frozen on a street bench, and now lies laid out on her bed, waiting for a post-mortem.
Two visitors come from Copenhagen on a snowy night after her death. Her student nephew Mikkel is there to organise her funeral, yet he can barely remember Aunt Ellen and knows nothing about her life. Anne Sofie comes to pursue her ruthless quest single-mindedly. She will allow no-one to hide, or obscure the truth about Ellen, and leads Mikkel into a hopeless chase.
Before Anne Sofie has finished, there will be blood in the snow, and she will have photographed death.
This subtle novel by the Danish writer Eddie Thomas Petersen is a family saga, and a portrait of Skagen in the dark and in the snow, full of art, alliances and old secrets.
Toby Bainton’s translation does full justice to the gripping narration.
An extract from
After the Death of Ellen Keldberg by Eddie Thomas Petersen
Howling and gusting, quite a wind has got up, and the snow begins to build up in drifts along the street. She takes a deep breath and shuts the gate behind her, enchanted by the light from the moon sailing at full speed across the breaks in the cloud. She runs with the wind at her back, does a quick sprint and then slides down to the main road and walks briskly along beside the whitened fences. By the time she’s got to Brøndums Hotel she feels hot and breathless. The lights are on in the dining-room, and she sees a lonely party of guests behind the thin curtains.
She goes on, behind the museum and past the red brick villas towards Kappelborg, and takes another run, sliding along the road in the fresh snow, as yet undisturbed by the gritters. She can think only of her movement and balance, swivelling round on herself and snatching snow from the hedges, though it’s too dry for anything but sprinkling around. Thomas will be so happy when she rings and tells him that Harber thinks she’s a genius, and they’ll celebrate together, and she’ll have an exhibition in Copenhagen in the spring, and next year they’ll do something bigger and even wilder. She stops and looks up at the moon, which moves enfolded in shiny silver ornaments. As she stands like a little soldier with her face upturned, a middle-aged couple go by, arm in arm and bent against the wind. The woman’s in mink and the man’s wearing a long wool overcoat. She hears their low voices.
‘Thomas!’ she calls up to the moon, and the woman casts a brief glance over her shoulder and whispers something to her husband.
She’d got out of the ice-cold, blood-filled garden pool and let him bandage her wrist with shaking hands. He was white and afraid.
Now she stretches out her arms again and runs with the wind, leaving her thoughts behind her, gathering speed and sliding again through the snow. Lovely, she thinks, and walks for a while before coming to the lights of the harbour road and the Firenze pizza house.
She goes into the warm. In here it smells of holidays, of safety, of freshly-baked bread and oregano. She chooses a table in the little L-shaped snug, where she’s on her own. Disentangling herself from her jacket, scarf and hat, she realises she’s perspiring.
‘Good evening, miss,’ says Marius the waiter, once she’s sorted herself out.
‘I’ll have a pepperoni and a glass of water with ice, please,’ she says, letting her fingers run through her short black hair.
While she’s waiting she takes her camera out of its leather case to let the steamed-up lens demist. She’ll take some photographs this evening. Just dawdle a bit round the harbour and find some routine subjects. The snow reflected in the light of the street-lamps like a swarm of fireflies. A drunk making his way back from the pub on his rusty bicycle: or even better, a drunk who’s fallen off his rusty bicycle and lies scrabbling around in the snow.
There’s a queue just inside the front door. Firenze stays open all year round, and people keep arriving in their four-by-fours to pick up their evening meal. The staff are sweating by the oven and shouting orders in the kitchen. Everyone wants a take-away. The only seated guests apart from herself are three men in their forties at a table at the front. They’re sitting in their work clothes talking in a language that she guesses must be Polish.
Suddenly shouts and loud laughter come from the entrance. Two younger men in quilted jackets come into view. One of them is Frode. He notices the camera on her table and comes purposefully into the snug and over to where she’s sitting. His cheeks are red as tomatoes and he’s smiling as if he’s just won the lottery.
‘Miss Soffi,’ he says, snatching off his hat and posturing like a low-grade film star. ‘Take my picture.’
She looks at him without even blinking. He doubles up with laughter, pulls out a chair, and sits down opposite her.
‘How goes it?’ he says.
‘How goes what?’
Frode hides his head in his hands.
‘Why won’t you take my picture?’
‘Because you look a complete idiot when you’re high, and your boozy breath would get on the film and take off the emulsion so I’d get black holes in the negative.’
It dawns on him rather late that she’s sitting there giving him a lot of nonsense, and he smiles and lays his icy hands over hers.
‘Weren’t you going to Århus to make yourself an expert in something?’ she asks, withdrawing her hands.
‘Århus,’ he says, coming suddenly back to reality, and drumming his fingers on the table. ‘Now what’s so fantastic about Århus? Tell me, Soffi. I’ve forgotten.’
She picks up her camera anyway and focuses on his left eye. A drop of almost-melted snow shivers on his eyebrow. She quickly takes three pictures one after the other, while he blinks and a drop runs down his cheek as he looks down at the table.
‘Are you on your own?’
‘No,’ she says, putting the camera down. ‘You’re sitting here with me, Frode.’
Frode puts on his happy high-on-hash face again, slaps a hand down on the table and screws up his eyes. For a moment he looks completely normal, and his cheeks begin to regain the colour people’s cheeks usually have in their early twenties. He fidgets with his fingers on the table as if there’s something he wants to say to her, some thought that’s just escaped him.
‘Have you been to Copenhagen?’
‘And you’ve come back.’
‘So it would seem.’
He smiles again, his fingers drumming on the table.
‘Will you come with us out to Bodil? We’re going to watch some videos.’
She slowly shakes her head.
When Marius appears with her pizza, he gets up with a quick ‘See you’ and disappears to join his friend again.
‘You be careful of him,’ says Marius in his strong accent, putting the pizza and a jug of water on the table.
She considers taking a picture of Marius, but realises that all over Europe, even the smallest one-eyed town has a Marius, showing off his pizza-concept and his double-sided catholic morals. Of Frode, on the other hand, there is only one, and she’s taken a good picture of his left eye.
She’s known Frode since she began coming here in the summer as a toddler with her parents. Three summers ago Frode had a holiday job washing dishes at Brøndums Hotel, and they went skinny-dipping at night on Sønderstrand beach, and after the chef had gone to bed they would have goose pâté and champagne in the hotel kitchens with the waitresses.
But how would Marius know anything about that?
The taxi-driver is short and thick-set. It’s almost as if he hasn’t got a neck, and has his head sitting directly on his torso. He’s chatting merrily about the weather, and about a fare he’s just taken down to the Old Town, and how he can’t understand people just sitting at home staring at their televisions, and how he’d give a million to know why a young man staying at Brøndums Hotel would want to go out to an address in Mosegården.
‘Did you say number 26?’ he asks. ‘Isn’t that where Henry Olsen lives?’
Mikkel pays his fare and gets out in front of a small block of flats built of red stone. Some of the balconies are decorated with Christmas lights. A tired-looking Christmas tree stands outside.
This is obviously where the real locals live, he decides, seeing the bicycles and buggies cluttering the hallways. Further along the street some children are trying to make a snowman, but the project is doomed to failure because the snow is as dry as flour. There’s no entryphone, so he walks up the echoing stone stairway to the first floor. ‘Henry Olsen, Dorte, Kasper and Svupper’ is typed on a sheet of A4 fastened to the door. Near the letterbox a more official notice in small Letraset characters says simply ‘Henry Olsen’.
The moment he rings the bell, the door opens. A young woman of about his own age, in faded jogging clothes and lightly-gelled blonde hair, flashes him a tired smile.
‘Hi, my name’s Mikkel,’ he says.
‘I’m Dorte,’ she says, as her hand moves to her hair, ‘and sorry about the mess.’
He’s hit by a sour odour of wet clothes mixed with the smell of cooking from the kitchen.
Behind her two small boys push forward. They’re totally alike, except that one has a bump the size of a pigeon’s egg in the middle of his forehead. Behind the boys peers a rough-haired retriever, lashing his stiff tail.
‘Just leave your coat on the chair,’ she says, seeing that the coat-rack is bristling with overload.
He takes off his coat, and the boys begin pulling at him. There’s something they want him to see.
‘Leave Mikkel alone,’ she shouts.
Quite a bit of shouting goes on here, he observes, as a man in his early fifties emerges from the living room. He’s wearing a washed-out vest; blue-green tattoos cover his sinewy arms. He has a sprinkling of grey in his black hair, a neat, short beard and dark eyes. They measure Mikkel up.
‘Can’t you just leave him alone now?’ The question is directed somewhat threateningly at the twins.
‘Would you like a beer?’ asks Henry, and Mikkel accepts it though he has no real desire for one.
Henry goes out to the kitchen, and Mikkel hears Dorte complaining about something: ‘don’t let him get started on that’.
He settles down on a worn green sofa to wait. The room is sparsely furnished. The most notable thing is a row of antlers on the wall over the sofa.
What has Henry got to do with all this? It was the caretaker he was supposed to talk to. The caretaker had rung him too but hadn’t answered when he rang back. If Henry asks anything about his family, he’ll explain just how things are. That his parents have had nothing to do with his aunt for the past ten years, and that right now they’re sunning themselves on a beach somewhere in Mexico.
‘Yes, it’s sad about Krille,’ mumbles Henry, half to himself, while to judge from the noise they’re making, the twins are having a fight in the kitchen. There’s another shout from Dorte, and a saucepan-lid crashes to the floor.
Henry calls her Krille. Ellen Kristine Keldberg was her name. Maybe she called herself Kristine.
Indifferent to the drama in the kitchen, Henry opens the beers and brings them to the coffee-table.
‘What did my aunt die of?’
‘She froze to death.’
‘How?’ asks Mikkel in surprise.
Henry scratches at his beard.
‘She’d been sitting in the pub with Poul, and then she left.’
‘Poul?’ asks Mikkel, confused.
‘Yes, Poul: ‘the Crab’, they call him. He used to go to her house a lot. When he left the pub he found her sitting in the square by the church in just her dress. No one knows where she’d left her coat. He tried to wake her up, but couldn’t. He was worried and carried her home. When he laid her on the bed, he realised she was dead.’
‘That sounds pretty weird.’
‘Not if you knew your aunt or Poul.’
Dorte comes into the living-room. She looks upset.
‘Why would she have taken her coat off?’ she asks, holding her clenched hands to her sides. ‘You heard what Poul said,’ she says. ‘Krille was in a good mood. She was wearing her best dress. She’d just come into some money. Who the hell would go around without a coat when it’s eleven degrees below freezing?’
After the Death of Ellen Keldberg was published by Handheld Press on 3rd September 2018
My thanks to the publisher for this extract.