The Hidden Beach - Karen Swan
Stockholm, March 2013
In the final moments of his life, it was her face that filled his mind. Images spun round and round, of the light catching her pale hair, her head thrown back so that her long neck was exposed, eyes slitted with heady pleasure. Everything about her was radiance and beatific grace, as though she was not solid at all but a heavenly conceit, a constellation of stardust fallen from the skies into one deft, perfect form . . .
In seeing all this, there was much that he missed – the early autumn puddle glinting darkly, deeply; the low, discernible electric burr of the tram behind; the singular scream that pitched into the air and tore through the city’s sky. He knew none of it.
For him there was only light.
And then darkness.
Stockholm, December 2019
Bell wheeled through the lights, standing on the pedals, her trousers tucked into her socks and her breath still coming hard from the last hill. She was one of the few cyclists on the road actually pedalling; all around her were commuters on their electric bikes and scooters, looking a lot more composed – and a lot less late. At least the Baltic blast that had chilled her as she’d stepped out of her apartment ten minutes ago was now merely notional, her cheeks stained with a laboured flush.
She swerved right into a narrow street and, leaning harder on the handlebars, began her ascent up the short but steep hill that she would be walking straight back down again in a few minutes’ time. Glossy black cars flanked either side of the road, some with drivers already in the front seats – for this was embassy-land, the handsome townhouses painted in deeply pigmented shades of loden, umber and terracotta red.
Reaching the top with a gasp, she finally allowed herself to sink back onto her seat again, knowing she could glide the rest of the way from here. The background drone of rush-hour traffic became muted, the birdsong and buzz of her spinning wheels amplifying as the streets fanned out, becoming wider and brighter. Parked Volvos, Audis and Jaguars stood outside plain but generous townhouses, as indicative of the family neighbourhood as the playground set atop the small, anomalous hill in the middle of the square: a rocky outcrop that the bulldozers had been unable to flatten when the city was being developed, so they had been forced to build around it instead. Bell loved the curious anomaly – the city’s smooth, ordered surfaces disrupted by a jagged poke of something older and wilder. Feral. It was probably the reason why families had settled in this district in the first place. There wasn’t a child in Stockholm who didn’t love to run and climb over it; teenagers snuck their first cigarettes and kisses on it . . .
She rounded the Rock and saw the house that was, these days, her second home. Set on the corner, it was unmissable on the block – a four-storeyed, stocky building with cantilevered Crittall bay windows running down a central column, the dark, time-blackened bricks offset by the bright verdigris of the copper mansard roof and downpipes. A high garden wall obscured the surprisingly leafy and pretty courtyard within; Oddjob, the family’s tabby cat, was sitting on top and surveying his kingdom. As she drew closer, she saw the gate set within the garden wall begin to open. She wasn’t the only one behind time today, then? An electric scooter was swung through, followed by a bespectacled man in a mid-thigh navy pea coat, a Missoni striped scarf at his neck and a brown satchel worn across his body, his lightly salted dark hair largely obscured by a ribbed beanie.
‘Hi, Max,’ she panted, her brakes squeaking slightly as she lifted over her left leg and came to a stop standing on the pedal.
‘Morning, Bell,’ he said, holding the gate open for her, and she dipped through with brisk, practised efficiency, as though this were a dance.
‘How’s it going in there today?’ she asked, propping the bike up against the garden wall and pulling off her pom-pom hat; her long dark hair immediately stood with static.
He shook his head with a roll of his eyes. ‘It’s a madhouse. I’m escaping with my sanity while I still can.’
She laughed. ‘That explains why I like it here, then. I lost mine years ago,’ she grinned, running up the back steps and opening the fully glazed back door. The ground floor of the house