The Things People Do

By Louise Hart

 

Ben was away on a business trip. We hadn’t lived in our house for very long and I was still getting used to it. We’d freed up some cash by buying a smaller house. It had a double garage that I could use as a dance studio. Built in the last ten years, the house had full-length windows and underfloor heating. It was slightly out of place amongst the seaside cottages of Old Limhamn. They had been there for centuries, some even during the time of sea smugglers, when men would sneak out at night to ferry brandy and tobacco back from Copenhagen. Even though new apartment buildings were rapidly appearing in the area, those old cottages refused to be swallowed up by progress. They gave Limhamn its culture and cosy atmosphere. Like weeds in pavement, they were not going to be dislodged easily.

I had decided not to go with Ben because I’d been invited to a "girls" evening at Janey’s. Her husband was away, too, until Friday night. I’d known Janey since I first arrived in Sweden. We were in the same class at primary school. Being the only native English speakers, we'd stuck together during the first few years. We had drifted apart by the time we got to high school, but we still kept in touch sometimes. If my dance school was going to work, I needed to build up my network, and she knew everyone in the area.

Janey had a large modern house on the waterfront. The entrance to her house was landscaped with tall ornamental grasses, warmly lit from below by spotlights. On Friday evening I walked up the grey paving-stone driveway and knocked on the door. Janey opened it. A full head shorter than me, she was dressed in a sleeveless black dress which showed her thin, muscular arms. Her chin-length auburn hair was smooth and glossy. Her round brown eyes, which had a habit of staring people down, checked out my jeans and white T-shirt. She let me in anyway. 

The interior walls and glossy tiled floor were white. There was a smell of household ammonia. The second story landing could be seen from the entrance hall. Janey led me into the living room. The white theme continued, except for a large abstract painting on one wall. There was a woman sitting on the white sofa.

“Sandra, this is Binty. Squinty Binty."

“I haven’t been called that for a while. It’s Bronwyn actually. Nice to meet you,” I said.

Sandra was thin. Her blue eyes darted around when she wasn’t speaking. She had nut-brown, shoulder-length hair. She was dressed similarly to Janey, but her clothes were probably not as expensive.

“I’ve heard a lot about you Binwin, Bronwyn.”

“Only good things I hope.”

Sandra blushed.

“Your husband’s a lawyer, I heard.”

“Wine?”

Janey handed me a glass.

We sat in the white kitchen at a glass table and ate sushi. I’ve always wondered why neat freaks buy glass tables. It’s impossible to avoid greasy finger marks. They mainly talked about people I didn’t know.

“Did you hear about that girl from the pet shop? She’s been missing since Tuesday. It’s really strange.”

“Her car was found down at the dock. Just near here, at the end of our road.”

I knew something about this. 

“Yes, her boyfriend's beside himself. I heard him in the supermarket. He’s worried sick. He did that search, find my phone, and that’s how he found her car. The police won’t do anything apparently.”

“So weird, there’s no sign of her,” Janey said.

“Anything could have happened. Remember that guy who killed his wife? I’ve got a photo somewhere.” Sandra started flicking through her phone.

“It’s fine, I don’t need to see it.”

She showed it to me anyway. It was a photo of an ordinary couple at a party. They were sitting close together, not smiling, looking bored. They both had dark circles under their eyes.

“They had a lovely new house. He shot her. Then he shot himself, but not until a week later, when the police came calling. Her body was in a cupboard in the garage, and he was hiding in one of the fishing huts. Apparently he was a really nice guy, kinda quiet.”

“The things people do,”Janey said.

“Where do you live, Bronwyn?”

I saw Janey shake her head. She gave Sandra a look. 

“Who wants to see the outside kitchen?”

Janey led us through the garden. More ornamental grasses and paving stones. The pool was lit from underneath. We waited so she could fish out some leaves that had blown into it. Round, hanging lanterns swayed gently in the chestnut tree. They cast a yellow light over the outside kitchen at the end of the garden. 

“I had this custom built. Of course the barbeque’s missing.”

The stone bench had two cupboards underneath it. One was slightly open. I glimpsed the dull, metal cylinders inside. Two copper hoses led out from the cupboard into a space obviously meant for the barbeque.

Sandra and I followed Janey into the garage. There was a fridge, an armchair, a bookcase, an old car, and a barbeque. The barbeque was a spectacular beast made of polished stainless steel. It was almost two metres across. The panel on the front had ten stainless steel knobs of various sizes. There were two lids covering the grill plates. Janey lifted one of the lids. It had lights inside.

“That’s the biggest barbeque I’ve ever seen.”

“It's got eight elements and a smoker. Taken him ages to put it together.”

“His birthday present?”

“Yep, he loves barbequing. He’s a simple man, not having one those crises that most do when they turn fifty. So I got him something simple.”

I saw Sandra blush again.

“A fifty-eight thousand kronor barbeque is not simple,” she said.

I wondered about the type of person who would buy a barbeque for fifty-eight thousand kronor. Was that the definition of insanity or boredom? I could do a lot of things with that much change.

“It’ll be connected tomorrow. Just got to roll it in and connect the copper pipes.”

“For the party?” Sandra asked.

Janey looked at me.

“It’s mostly couples. I knew you’d be on your own. Didn’t want you to feel out of place.”

“I won’t be alone. I’m picking Ben up tomorrow morning.”

We were watching our pennies now. Ben had taken the night train from Stockholm to save money on a hotel. 

Janey turned her back to me and pointed at the car.

“That’s his other toy.”

The navy-blue paintwork was dense and smooth. Its sheen exaggerated the curved shape of the car. The shiny chrome details and white-wall tyres looked brand new, but I guessed the car was from the nineteen-fifties or sixties. 

“It’s a Volvo PV isn’t it?” Sandra said.

“Mmm. It was his grandfather’s.”

Later, walking home, Sandra’s story had me perturbed. Did she mean our garage? She clearly stated they had “a new house.” I had a burning feeling in my throat. I wished I’d taken the long way home instead of walking past the harbour. The lighting was sparse down there at night. Everything became a tone of black. Like a charcoal sketch. Shadows danced over the faces of the little fishing huts. Fog hung low on the sea. It floated over the dock, crept along the ground, and seeped under the huts. It circled the oak trees next to the footpath. The ropes, which had been hung on wire lines to dry, flicked up and down in the gusts of wind. As the wind picked up, the lines began to hum like a mast, at that certain frequency, in a storm. The ropes whipped themselves up and whacked extra hard against the huts and drying lines. They were like halyards swinging and clanging against the mast. 

I thought about something I’d read once. Good friends are the ones that leave you feeling good after you leave them. It’s not enough to have a good time when you’re with them. How you feel afterwards matters. I felt nauseous.

I hurried on home. I didn’t look at the garage when I went up the drive to the front door. I shoved the key into the lock as fast as I could. I slammed and locked the door, and I went to bed. It took a while for me to settle. I watched TV on my iPad until I fell asleep. My night was filled with erratic dreams. I dreamt about the time I was playing with Janey at her house. She’d pulled the head off my Barbie. I’d gone home with Barbie’s head lolling around in my pocket. I’d cried all the way home. I woke up several times during the night. Yet, I was grateful for the loud noise that woke me on Saturday morning. I had forgotten to set the alarm and only had time to throw my clothes on and drive to the station to pick Ben up. His train was due at five-to-seven. I thought about that noise as I drove. At first I thought it might have been an earthquake, because it had caused all the windows to rattle, but they hardly ever occur in Sweden, and it still didn’t explain the noise. I had no idea what the sound could have been.

I parked outside the station. The train was delayed, so I put the top down on my little Mini. It was probably the last chance to do that for the year. It was officially the first day of autumn. I looked at my phone. There were eight missed calls from Janey at around midnight. I’d deal with that later. When Ben arrived we drove home by the scenic route, which runs along the coast, from the central station to Limhamn. It was still and sunny. We spoke with gentle voices to ease us into the morning. His trip had been worthwhile. He managed to sort some unfinished things. We were free from his old job at last. So now we had a clean slate to build on. We discussed my night out.

“But you told her I’d be back this morning.”

“Yes.”

“And she still didn’t invite you?”

There was a calm atmosphere in the little harbour today. The sun shone through the golden leaves of the oak trees. It fell onto the green fishing nets which were nestled in the bins against the red huts. Last night’s storm had blown through the harbour, whipping away debris, and purging the air. All the rubbish from the night had been cleared away. The route we had taken passed by Janey’s house. A lot of people were standing in the street when we approached it. Blue and red lights flashed from two police cars and a fire engine. A policewoman stood in the road directing traffic. I slowed down and parked opposite Janey’s driveway. The air smelt of smoke and roasted chestnuts. White curtains billowed out from Janey’s open windows. The neighbours’ windows were open too. There were no panes in any of them. Piles of shattered glass lay in the gardens. Janey was outside her front door, talking to a policeman. The ornamental grass on the driveway had been turned into dried black stumps. The driveway was awash with foam. Streams of smoke and steam wafted from the charred timber framing of the garage. The doors and walls were absent. Two mounds of smouldering metal could be seen. One was clearly the carcass of an old car. The other was a rectangular lump of crumpled black steel.

Sandra spotted me. She came toward us, waving her right hand and tugging her husband’s arm with her left. He was still looking at the scene as she dragged him up to my car. 

“Janey called me at one in the morning. She was so upset. He called last night, her husband, to say he wanted a divorce. He was supposed to come back last night. Said he didn’t miss her. He realised he felt better when she wasn’t around. Poor thing. They seemed so happy. And now she has this.”

Sandra’s husband looked at us.

“I’ve heard about this happening before. The gas cylinder probably wasn’t closed properly. I’d say it must’ve been leaking out all night. Fridge compressor starts up, causes a little spark—and boom! Up she goes. Probably just as well, that guy who killed his wife, he lived here. That’s how they got it so cheap."

I spotted the “missing” girl from the pet shop amongst the crowd. 

“That’s her isn’t it? They found her then.”

“Yeah, she was only trying to make a break from her boyfriend. Apparently he’s a bit of a stalker,” Sandra said.

“Mmm, really.”

“See you on Thursday for coffee, anyway.”

“Actually, I don’t think so. No, I won’t be there.”

“Week after then?”

I watched Janey with her big eyes fixed on the policeman. 

“No, count me out from now on. See ya.”

I wound the windows up and put my foot down.

“Party’s off then?” said Ben.