Felix Nordberg has everything. Young, handsome and rich, he is successful at work and has the beautiful apartment and fancy car to prove it. He is newly married to Tilda Farrow, a celebrated young actress who looks perfect by his side But hidden inside his heart is a dark secret: a congenital defect which kills him as he returns to his conference hotel from a morning run. But everything is not as it seems…
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The evidence suggests that Felix showered. Beyond that, I know practically nothing about his final hours on this earth. All I have is the odd scrap of information and the patchy impressions of the bystanders, and it’s like I’m at the theatre, looking at the stage and seeing only the supporting cast, the scenery and the arrangement of shadows. All the important elements are missing. There are no principal actors, no stage directions and no script.
The receptionist said this – that Felix’s last morning was fresh and cold, that there was a frost on the lawn outside the hotel and a mist in the distance, where the woods are. She’d watched Felix sprinting out of the hotel, down the gravel drive, then turning left at the gate. ‘I was arriving for work and I called out “Good morning!”’ she said. ‘But he didn’t reply; he just kept running.’
Forty minutes later, he was back, dropping his head to catch his breath, panting and sweating. He straightened up and, now noticing the receptionist, said that he’d sprinted all the way to the golf course, running the perimeter and the long path through the woods back to the hotel. He thought that the sun glancing through the trees had been magical, as though life was just beginning (how extraordinary that he should say such a thing!) Then he took the stairs up to his room, two at a time.
He didn’t come down to breakfast or order anything to be sent up, not even the continental breakfast that was included in the room rate. His colleague, Julio, said he was surprised when Felix failed to attend the first session of the conference. At the mid-morning break, Julio carried a cup of coffee and a biscuit up to the room, but found the Do Not Disturb sign hanging on the door. He thought Felix was unwell, sleeping maybe, so he drank the coffee himself and ate the biscuit. ‘We missed him at lunch,’ he said, ‘and again in the afternoon session. By three o’clock I was calling his phone many times, but my calls went to voicemail.’ Julio felt uneasy. It was so unlike Felix to be unreliable; so he went upstairs one more time to hammer on the door, then he summoned the hotel manager, who arrived with a key.
The two men were struck by the unnatural stillness of the room, its air of unreality; Julio said it seemed considered, or planned, like a tableau vivant with Felix as the centrepiece, lying on his back on the bed in a strange balletic pose, right arm cast out across the duvet, left leg bent, bath robe open like a cape, grey eyes gazing at the ceiling. His left arm was dangling down the side of the bed, fingers suspended above the floor, and the hotel manager, who had a degree in the History of Art, was reminded of the pre-Raphaelite painting of the suicide of Thomas Chatterton. Except this didn’t look like suicide, there were no pill bottles or razor blades or other signs.
Dr Patel arrived and the receptionist stood by the door while the doctor conducted her examination. Her professional opinion was that Felix had suffered a heart attack or had some sort of seizure after his morning run. She left, and the receptionist took photographs of Felix and of the room – the bedside table, the pristine bathroom, the opened shower door, the view from the window and, finally, the untouched hospitality tray. ‘I know that was weird,’ she said. ‘But it felt like the right thing to do, to make a record.’ Maybe she thought her photos might become important, that they’d suggest that something about the scene was wrong. No-one else had that sense, though. When the results of the post mortem came through, they were in agreement with Dr Patel – Felix’s death was due to heart disease.
As simple as that, he had collapsed and was gone – and for a while it seemed that he’d simply vanished. The world had swept over him like the tide coming in.
But then the funeral happened. I trekked out of London that day to a pretty Berkshire village with a Norman church sitting among gravestones and windblown copper-coloured leaves. When I saw it, I thought that Felix, who was born and raised in America, was having a very English final moment, though the mourners who were arriving in small solemn groups were from his international life. Solid men in sharply-cut suits; flimsy, elegant women in heels. I watched them from a distance – in fact, from a broken bench set against the churchyard wall, where I was trying to calm down. Eventually, I slipped into the church and stood at the back.
My sister, Tilda, was the person on show and she walked slowly up the aisle like a melancholy bride. I tried hard, really hard, to get inside her head at that moment, and I conjured up a spectacular array of emotions – from profound grief and loss, to exhilarating release and relief. But nothing felt right. As always, I found her confusing, and I was reduced to noticing her expensive clothes. The black silk dress, the tailored jacket, doubtless costing a thousand pounds or more. And I watched her take a place in the empty front pew. On her right, in front of the altar, was Felix’s coffin, under a cascade of white lilies; and to her left, on a wooden stand, a giant photo of his smiling face. A few minutes later, Felix’s mother and father slipped in beside Tilda and then his brother, Lucas. There was the slightest of nods towards my sister who sat perfectly still, gazing at the floor.
The first hymn was a thin rendition of The Lord is my Shepherd – but I found that I couldn’t sing. Instead I slumped against the back wall, feeling faint and nauseous, overwhelmed by the occasion. Not that I was mourning Felix, although the sight of his hunched up, grieving family was upsetting. It was more that I was sick with knowing too much. On the day of his death, I’d waited for the police to turn up at my flat or at the bookshop. It was the same on the morning of the post-mortem. And now, at the funeral, it seemed certain that police officers were waiting for me outside the church, stamping their feet to keep warm, sneaking an illicit cigarette, and that as soon as I stepped out of the gloom into the autumn sun I would hear my name. Callie Farrow? Do you have a minute?
The branches outside my window are spindly and bare, and Tilda stands across the room looking like a waif-woman, saying, ‘How can you stand it? All those broken fingers tapping at the glass.’ She’s opening the door, is half way out. ‘Anyhow, I want you to come to Curzon Street this evening. I’m ordering Thai food and a DVD. Strangers on a Train. It’s an Alfred Hitchcock.’
‘I know that.’
‘Come about eight. There’ll be someone else too. Someone I want you to meet.’
The invitation sounds innocuous, but it isn’t. For a start, Tilda always comes to my flat for movie nights. Also, it’s unknown for her to introduce me to her friends. In fact, she rarely even talks about her friends. I can name only two, and those are girls she’s known since childhood. Paige Mooney and Kimberley Dwyer. I’d be surprised if she saw them more than once a year; so I’m curious and am about to say, ‘Who?’ but she’s leaving as she’s speaking, disappearing down the communal stairs.
At Curzon Street, I’m clutching my bottle of cider, knowing full well that Tilda won’t have cider. And I’ve brought brownies.
She’s waiting on the second floor, at the open door of her flat. Then she’s greeting me with uncharacteristic enthusiasm, kissing my cheeks, saying brightly, ‘Callie!’ Behind her a tall, fair-haired man is in the kitchen area, sleeves rolled up, busying himself with things in cupboards. He comes to say hello, holding out a thin hand, and from the way he stands, so firmly inhabiting his space, I realise that he’s accustomed to being there. Tilda gazes at him proprietorially, glancing at his hair, his shoulders, his bare forearms. She says, ‘Callie, meet Felix. Felix Nordberg.’
‘I’m opening a bottle of white,’ he says. ‘Will you have some?’
‘No, I’m fine with cider.’ I hold up the Strongbow bottle for inspection and take it to the kitchen counter, thinking that Felix seems to be in command of things. The kitchen, the wine. Then he starts asking me polite questions in a soft, moneyed voice that makes me think of super-yachts and private islands. Where do I live? Do I enjoy my work at the bookshop? I ask him about his work, which is for a Mayfair hedge fund.
‘I don’t even know what that means. Except that it’s a sort of gambling.’
He laughs. ‘You’re right, Callie. But our clients prefer to call it investing, so we humour them.’
I sense that he’s humouring me too, and I watch him pouring our drinks with precision, examining the label of a French Chablis, checking that the wine reaches the perfect level in the glass. And he’s careful with my cider, treating it like precious nectar, even though it’s in a plastic bottle with a gigantic red sticker saying £3.30. He hands Tilda her wine, and she flashes him a half-smile as their hands touch. Then Felix gets back to the kitchen cupboards, taking out plates and bowls, wiping them with a cloth and sorting them into piles, at the same time telling me how to short a market.
‘Think of it like this, I’ll sell you this plate for the current price of ten dollars, agreeing to deliver it to you in three months’ time. Then, just before the three months is up, I’ll buy-in a plate for nine dollars. You see? I’m betting that the plate market will go down and I’ll make a profit of a dollar.’
‘That’s an expensive plate.’
‘Felix likes expensive things,’ Tilda offers from her position at the end of the sofa. She’s decoratively arranged, her feet tucked up, hugging a velvet cushion with one hand, holding her glass with the other, and she’s observing us, wondering how we’re getting along.
I look at Felix, to see if he’ll say That’s why I like your sister, but he doesn’t. He just grins as if to say Got me there! and opens the cutlery drawer, taking out the knives and forks and polishing them. I don’t comment. Instead I ask Felix where he comes from, and how long he’s been in London. His family is from Sweden, he says, but he grew up in Boston, USA and considers himself to be a citizen of the world. I snigger at the phrase, and he tells us that he’s trying to get to grips with England and London.
‘What, queuing and minding-the-gap and apologising all the time, that sort of thing?’
‘Yes, all that. And the self-deprecation, and the way you guys make a joke of all situations, and find it difficult to accept compliments… Did you know, Callie, that those dark eyes of yours are enigmatic, soulful even?’
Feigning a serious expression, he looks right into my face and I feel embarrassed because he’s so handsome and so close to me. But I feel he’s including me in the joke, not laughing at me.
I move away, hot-cheeked, and as I pour myself more cider, I think that he’s intelligent and funny and I like him.
Tilda says, ‘Come and watch the DVD,’ so I pick up my glass and head for the other end of the sofa, intending to recreate the movie nights at my flat, when we sit like that, at each end, passing brownies back and forth and making little comments like ‘Keanu Reeves looks sad in this,’ or ‘Look at the rain outside, it’s going sideways.’ Nothing that amounts to conversation, but enough to make things seem companionable, like we’re children again. But I’m too slow. Before I can establish myself, Felix has taken the space next to Tilda, making it obvious that I should be banished to the old armchair. So I flop down and put my feet up on the coffee table, while Tilda presses the start button on the remote.
Felix and I haven’t seen Strangers on a Train before, but we both like it, the chilling effect of the black-and-white, the clipped 1950s voices and mannerisms, and we all have comments to make as the drama unfolds. Tilda, being an actress, and some sort of expert on Hitchcock, chips in more than Felix and me. Hitchcock put his evil characters on the left hand side of the screen, she tells us, and good characters on the right. I laugh. ‘So I’m evil, because I’m sitting over here, and you’re good, Tilda.’
‘Except, silly, onscreen that would be reversed. So I’m bad and you’re good.’
‘I’m the most interesting,’ Felix says. ‘I’m in the middle, and can go either way. Who knows what I’ll do?’
‘Oh, look at Ruth Roman!’ Tilda’s suddenly distracted. ‘The way her lips are slightly parted, it’s so suggestive.’
I say, ‘Hmm’ in a sceptical way, pouting, and Felix raises an eyebrow. But Tilda isn’t put off.
‘And Robert Walker is incredible as a psychopath. He does that clever thing with his eyes – looking so calculating. Did you know he died just after this movie, because he mixed alcohol and barbiturates?’
‘The other guy is using his wrists,’ I offer. ‘He’s doing wrist acting’. Tilda laughs.
‘I like the plot,’ I say.
‘Patricia Highsmith… She wrote the novel that the film is based on.’
The idea is that two strangers on a train could swap murders. The psychopath with the calculating eyes offers to murder the estranged wife of the wrist-guy, if, in return, the wrist-guy will murder the psychopath’s hated father. The police will never solve the crime because neither murderer would have any connection to his victim. There would be no discernible motive.
‘It’s a brilliant idea for a film,’ I say, ‘but it wouldn’t work in practice. I mean if you were plotting a murder and wanted to do it that way.’
‘What do you mean?’ Tilda is nestling into Felix.
‘Well you’d have to travel on trains the whole time, planning to fall into conversation with another person who also wants someone murdered. It’s not going to happen.’
‘Oh, everyone wants someone murdered,’ she says.
Felix rearranges Tilda so that her legs lie over his lap, his hands resting on her skinny knees, and I notice that they are beautiful people, with their fine bones, white skin and blonde hair, looking like they are the twins. They pause the movie to open another bottle of the same French wine and Felix says, ‘Of course you’re right, Callie, about the murder plot, but these days you wouldn’t have to travel on trains to meet another murderer, you could just find someone on the internet, in a forum or a chat room.’
‘I’ll bear that in mind.’
‘I suppose it’s true,’ says Tilda. ‘The internet is where psychos find each other.’
We hope you enjoyed this sample of White Bodies by Jane Robins.