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The Darkest Roomby Johan Theorin
A high voice called through the dark rooms.
The cry made him jump. Sleep was like a cave filled with strange echoes, warm and dark, and waking up quickly was painful. For a second his consciousness could not come up with a name or a place, just confused memories and thoughts. Ethel? No, not Ethel, but . . . Katrine, Katrine. And a pair of eyes blinking in bewilderment, seeking light in the blackness.
A second later his own name suddenly floated up from his memory: Joakim Westin. And he was lying in the double bed in Eel Point manor house on northern Oland.
Joakim was at home. He had been living here for one day. His wife, Katrine, and their two children had been living on the estate for two months, while he himself had only just arrived.
1:23. The red digits on the clock radio provided the only light in the windowless room.
The sounds that had woken Joakim could no longer be heard, but he knew they were real. He had heard muffled complaints or whimpers from someone sleeping uneasily in another part of the house.
A motionless body lay beside him in the double bed. It was Katrine; she was sleeping deeply and had crept toward the edge of the bed, taking her coverlet with her. She was lying with her back to him, but he could see the gentle contours of her body and he could feel her warmth. She had been sleeping alone in here for almost two months-Joakim had been living and working in Stockholm, coming to visit every other weekend. Neither of them had found it easy.
He stretched a hand out toward Katrine's back, but then he heard the cry once again.
This time he recognized Livia's high voice. It made him throw aside the cover and get out of bed.
The tiled stove in one corner of the bedroom was still radiating heat, but the wooden floor was freezing cold as he put his feet on it. They needed to change things around and insulate the bedroom floor as they had done in the kitchen and the children's rooms, but that would have to be a project for the new year. They could get more rugs to see them through the winter. And wood. They needed to find a supply of cheap wood for the stoves, because there was no forest on the estate where they could go and cut their own.
He and Katrine needed to buy a whole lot of things for the house before the real cold weather set in-tomorrow they would have to start making lists.
Joakim held his breath and listened. Not a sound now.
His dressing gown was hanging over a chair, and he put it on quietly over his pajama trousers, stepped between two boxes they hadn't unpacked yet, and crept out.
He immediately went the wrong way in the darkness. In their house in Stockholm he always turned right to go to the children's rooms, but here they were to the left.
Joakim and Katrine's bedroom was small, part of the manor house's enormous cave system. Outside was a corridor with several cardboard boxes stacked up against one wall, and it ended in a large hall with several windows. They faced onto the paved inner courtyard, which was flanked by the two wings of the house.
The manor house at Eel Point was closed off to the land, but open toward the sea. Joakim went over to the windows in the hall and looked out toward the coast beyond the fence.
A red light was flashing down there, coming from the twin lighthouses on their little islands out at sea. The beam of the southern lighthouse swept over piles of seaweed at the water's edge and far out into the Baltic, while the northern tower was completely dark. Katrine had told him that the northern lighthouse was never lit.
He heard the wind howling around the house and saw restless shadows rising down by the lighthouses. Waves. They always made him think of Ethel, despite the fact that it wasn't the waves but the cold that had killed her.
It was only ten months ago.
The muted sounds in the darkness behind Joakim came again, but they were no longer whimpers. It sounded as if Livia were talking quietly to herself.
Joakim went back toward the corridor. He stepped carefully over a wide wooden threshold and into Livia's bedroom, which had only one window and was pitch dark. A green roller blind with five pink pigs dancing happily in a circle covered the window.
"Away . . ." said a girl's voice in the darkness. "Away."
Joakim trod on a small cuddly toy on the floor next to the bed. He picked it up.
"No," said Joakim. "Just Daddy."
He heard the faint sound of breathing in the darkness and detected sleepy movements from the small body beneath the flowery coverlet. He leaned over the bed.
"Are you asleep?"
Livia raised her head.
Joakim tucked the cuddly toy in the bed, right beside her.
"Foreman had fallen on the floor."
"Did he hurt himself?"
"Oh no . . . I don't think he even woke up."
She placed her arm around her favorite toy, a two-legged animal made of fabric that she had bought when they were on Gotland the previous summer. Half sheep, half man. Joakim had named the strange creature Foreman, after the boxer who had made his comeback at the age of forty-five a couple of years earlier.
He reached out and gently stroked Livia's forehead. The skin was cool. She relaxed, her head fell back onto the pillow, then she looked up at him.
"Have you been here long, Daddy?"
"No," said Joakim.
"There was somebody here," she said.
"You were just dreaming."
Livia nodded and closed her eyes. She was already on her way back to sleep.
Joakim straightened up, turned his head and saw the faint glow of the southern lighthouse again, flashing through the blind. He took a step over to the window and lifted the blind an inch or two. The window faced west and the lighthouses weren't visible from here, but the red glow swept over the empty field behind the house.
Livia was breathing evenly again; she was fast asleep. Next morning she wouldn't remember that he'd been there.
He peeped into the other bedroom. It was the one that had been renovated most recently; Katrine had decorated and furnished it while Joakim was in Stockholm taking care of the final move and cleaning the house.
Everything was silent in here. Gabriel, aged two and a half, was lying in his little bed over by the wall, a motionless bundle. For the last year Gabriel had gone to bed around eight o'clock every evening, and slept almost ten hours straight through. The dream of every parent with small children.
Joakim turned away in the silence and crept slowly back along the corridor. The house creaked and knocked quietly around him, the creaks almost sounding like footsteps crossing the floor.
Katrine was still fast asleep when he got back to his own bed.
That morning the family had been visited by a quietly smiling man in his fifties. He had knocked on the kitchen door on the north side of the house. Joakim had opened it quickly, thinking it was a neighbor.
"Hi there," the man said. "Bengt Nyberg-I'm from the local paper, Olands-Posten."
Nyberg was standing there on the porch steps with a camera resting on his fat belly and a notebook in his hand. Joakim had somewhat hesitantly shaken hands with the journalist.
"I heard some big moving vans had come out to Eel Point over the last few weeks," said Nyberg, "and I thought I'd take a chance on you being at home."
"I'm the only one who's just moved in," said Joakim. "The rest of the family have been living here for a while."
"Did you move in stages?"
"I'm a teacher," said Joakim. "I had to work until now."
The reporter nodded.
"We do have to write about this," he said, "as I'm sure you understand. I know we were informed last spring that Eel Point had been sold, but of course now people want to know who's bought it . . ."
"We're just an ordinary family," said Joakim quickly. "You can write that."
"Where are you from?"
"Like the royal family, then," said Nyberg. He looked at Joakim. "Are you going to do what the King does, and just stay here when it's warm and sunny?"
"No, we're here all year round."
Katrine had come into the hall and stood next to Joakim. He glanced at her, she gave a brief nod, and they invited the reporter in. Nyberg shambled over the threshold, taking his time.
They chose to sit in the kitchen; with its new equipment and polished wooden floor, it was the room they had done the most work on.
When they were working in there in August, Katrine and the man laying the floor had found something interesting: a little hiding place under the floorboards, a box made of flat pieces of limestone. Inside lay a silver spoon and a child's shoe that had gone moldy. It was a house offering, the fitter had told her. It was meant to ensure many children and plenty of food for the inhabitants of the manor house.
Joakim made coffee and Nyberg settled down at the rectangular oak table. He opened his notebook once again.
"How did this all come about, then?"
"Well . . . we like wooden houses," said Joakim.
"We love them," said Katrine.
"But wasn't that a big step . . . buying Eel Point and moving here from Stockholm?"
"Not such a big step," said Katrine. "We had a house in Bromma, but we wanted to swap it for a house here. We started looking last year."
"And why northern Oland?"
Joakim answered this time:
"Katrine is from Oland, kind of. . . . Her family used to live here."
Katrine glanced at him briefly and he knew what she was thinking: if anybody was going to talk about her background, then it would be her. And she was rarely prepared to do so.
"Oh yes, whereabouts?"
"Various places," said Katrine without looking at the reporter. "They moved about quite a bit."
Joakim could have added that his wife was the daughter of Mirja Rambe and the granddaughter of Torun Rambe-that might have got Nyberg to write a much longer article-but he kept quiet. Katrine and her mother were barely speaking to each other.
"Me, I'm a concrete kid," he said instead. "I grew up in an eight-story apartment block in Jakobsberg, and it was just so ugly, with all the traffic and asphalt. So I really wanted to move out to the country."
At first Livia sat quietly on Joakim's knee, but she soon got tired of all the chat and ran off to her room. Gabriel, who was sitting with Katrine, jumped down and followed her.
Joakim listened to the little plastic sandals, pattering off across the floor with such energy, and repeated the same refrain he'd chanted to friends and neighbors in Stockholm over the past few months:
"We know this is a fantastic place for kids too. Meadows and forests, clean air and fresh water. No colds. No cars churning out fumes . . . This is a good place for all of us."
Bengt Nyberg had written these pearls of wisdom in his notebook. Then they went for a walk around the ground floor of the house, through the renovated rooms and all the areas that still had tattered wallpaper, patched-up ceilings, and dirty floors.
"The tiled stoves are great," said Joakim, pointing. "And the wooden floors are incredibly well preserved . . . We just need to give them a scrub from time to time."
His enthusiasm for the manor might have been infectious, because after a while Nyberg stopped interviewing him and started to look around with interest. He insisted on seeing the rest of the place as well-even though Joakim would have preferred not to be reminded of how much they hadn't yet touched.
"There isn't actually anything else to see," said Joakim. "Just a lot of empty rooms."
"Just a quick look," said Nyberg.
In the end Joakim nodded and opened the door leading to the upper floor.
Katrine and the reporter followed him up the crooked wooden staircase to an upstairs corridor. It was gloomy up here despite the fact that there was a row of windows facing the sea, but the panes were covered with pieces of chipboard that let in only narrow strips of daylight.
The howling of the wind could be heard clearly in the dark rooms.
"The air certainly circulates up here," said Katrine with a wry smile. "The advantage is that the house has stayed dry-there's very little damage because of damp."
"Well, that's a good thing . . ." Nyberg contemplated the buckled cork flooring, the stained and tattered wallpaper, and the veils of cobwebs hanging from the cornices. "But you do seem to have plenty left to do."
"Yes, we know."
"We can't wait," said Joakim.
"I'm sure it'll be fantastic when it's finished. . . ." said Nyberg, then asked, "So what do you actually know about this house?"
"You mean its history?" said Joakim. "Not much, but the real estate agent told us some things. It was built in the middle of the nineteenth century, at the same time as the lighthouses. But there have been quite a lot of alterations . . . the glass veranda at the front looks as if it was added around 1910."
Then he looked inquiringly at Katrine to see if she wanted to add anything-perhaps what it had been like when her mother and grandmother were tenants here-but she didn't meet his eye.
"We know that the lighthouse masters and keepers lived in the house with their families and servants," was all she said, "so there has been plenty of coming and going in these rooms."
Nyberg nodded, looking around the dirty upper floor.
"I don't think many people have lived here over the past twenty years," he said. "Four or five years ago it was used for refugees, families who had fled from the wars in the Balkans. But that didn't last long. It's a bit of a shame it's stood empty. . . . It's such a magnificent place."
They started back down the stairs. Even the dirtiest rooms on the ground floor suddenly seemed light and warm compared with those upstairs.
"Does it have a name?" Katrine asked, looking at the reporter. "Do you know if it has a name?"
"What?" said Nyberg.
"This house," said Katrine. "Everybody always says Eel Point, but I mean, that's the name of the place, not the house."
"Yes, Eel Point by Eel Shallows, where the eels gather in the summer . . ." said Nyberg, as if he were reciting a poem. "No, I don't think the house itself has a name."
"Houses often have a nickname," said Joakim. "We called our place in Bromma the Apple House."
"This doesn't have a name, at least not that I've heard." Nyberg stepped down from the bottom stair and added, "On the other hand, there are plenty of stories about this place."
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