CHAPTER ONECold grey water lapped the flimsy-looking sides of the fibre-glass dinghy, and I shivered and thought of the five hundred feet straight down to the sea-bed underneath.
An hour out of Oslo with the outboard motor stilled and my friend Arne Kristiansen taking all afternoon to answer some simple questions.
A grey day, damp, not far from rain. The air sang in my ears with stinging chill. My feet were congealing. The October temperature down the fjord was giving the land a twenty degree lead towards zero, and of the two of us only Arne was dressed for it.
Where I had a showerproof jacket over an ordinary suit and no hat, he had come equipped with the full bit: a red padded cap with ear flaps fastened with a strap under his chin, blue padded trousers tucked into short wide-legged gumboots, and a red padded jacket fastened up the front with silver coloured press studs. A glimpse of black and yellow at the neck spoke of other warm layers underneath.
He had arranged on the telephone to meet me at the statue in the Radhusplassen by the harbour, brushing aside my suggestion that he should come to the Grand Hotel, where I was staying. Even in those wide open spaces he had gone muttering on about being overheard by long range bugging machines (his words) and had finally insisted on taking to the dinghy. Knowing from past experience the quickest way in the end to deal with his perennial mild persecution complex was to go along with it, I had shrugged and followed him along the quay to where the small pale green craft bobbed beside a flight of steps.
I had forgotten that it is always very much colder out on open water. I flexed the stiffening fingers inside my pockets and repeated my last question.
‘How would you smuggle sixteen thousand stolen kroner out of the country?’
For the second time, I got no answer. Arne produced answers as prodigally as tax collectors offer rebates.
He blinked slowly, the dropping of the eyelids marking some intermediary stage in the chess-like permutations going on in his head. He was no doubt, as always, considering every foreseeable consequence: if answer A might produce any one of five responses, and answer B lead on to six subsidiary questions, wouldn’t it be wiser to answer C, in which case, though...
It made conversation with him a trifle slow.
I tried a little prompting. ‘You said it was all in coins and used notes of small denominations. How bulky?
Enough to fit in a small sized suitcase?’
‘Do you think he just walked out with it through the customs?’
‘Or do you think he is still somewhere in Norway?’
Arne opened his mouth and said grudgingly, ‘No one knows.’
I tried some more. ‘When a foreigner stays in one of your hotels, he has to fill in a form and show his passport. These forms are for the police. Have your police checked those forms?’
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘Robert Sherman did not fill in any form.’
‘None at all? What about when he arrived from England?’
‘He did not stay in an hotel.’
Patience, I thought. Give me patience.
He considered. I knew he knew the answer. He knew he was eventually going to tell me. I suppose he couldn’t help the way his mind worked, but this, God help us, was supposed to be an investigator.
What was more, I had taught him myself. ‘Think before you answer any question,’ I’d said. So now he did.
In the three months he had spent in England learning how the Jockey Club ran its investigation department we had grown to know each other well. Some of the time he had stayed in my flat, most of the time we had travelled together to the races, all of the time he had asked and listened and blinked as he thought. That had been three years ago. Two minutes had been enough to resuscitate the old warm feelings of tolerant regard. I liked him, I thought, more because of the mild eccentric kinks than despite.
‘He stayed with Gunnar Holth,’ he said.
After ten seconds he added, ‘He is a racehorse trainer.’
‘Did Bob Sherman ride for him?’
This dead simple question threw him into a longer than ever session of mental chess, but finally he said, ‘Bob Sherman rode the ones of his horses which ran in hurdle races while Bob Sherman was in Norway. Ja. He did not ride the horses of Gunnar Holth which ran in flat races while he was in Norway.’
God give me strength.
Arne hadn’t actually finished. ‘Robert Sherman rode horses for the racecourse.’
I was puzzled. ‘How do you mean?’
He consulted his inner man again, who evidently said it was OK to explain.
‘The racecourse pays appearance money to some foreign jockeys, to get them to come to Norway. It makes the racing more interesting for the racegoers. So the racecourse paid Robert Sherman to ride.’
‘How much did they pay him?’
A rising breeze was stirring the fjord’s surface into proper little wavelets. The fjord just below Oslo is not one of those narrow canyon jobs on the Come-To-Scenic-Norway posters, but a wide expanse of sea dotted with rocky islands and fringed by the sprawling suburbs of the city. A coastal steamer surged past half a mile away and tossed us lightly in its wake. The nearest land looked a lot further off.
‘Let’s go back,’ I said abruptly.
‘No, no...’ He had no patience for such weak suggestions. ‘They paid him fifteen hundred kroner.’
‘I’m cold,’ I said.
He looked surprised. ‘It is not winter yet.’
I made a noise which was half laugh and half teeth beginning to chatter. ‘It isn’t summer either.’
He looked vaguely all around. ‘Robert Sherman had made six visits to race in Norway,’ he said. ‘This was his seventh.’
‘Look, Arne, tell me about it back at the hotel, huh?’
He attended to me seriously. ‘What is the matter?’
‘I don’t like heights,’ I said.
He looked blank. I took one frozen mitt out of its pocket, hung it over the side of the boat, and pointed straight down. Arne’s face melted into comprehension and a huge grin took the place of the usual tight careful configuration of his mouth.
‘David, I am sorry. The water to me, it is home. Like snow. I am sorry.’
He turned at once to start the outboard, and then paused to say, ‘He could simply have driven over the border to Sweden. The customs, they would not search for kroner.’
‘In what car?’ I asked.
He thought it over. ‘Ah yes.’ He blinked a bit. ‘Perhaps a friend drove him...’
‘Start the engine,’ I said encouragingly.
He shrugged and gave several small nods of the head, but turned to the outboard and pressed the necessary knobs. I had half expected it to prove as lifeless as my fingers, but the spark hit the gas in an orderly fashion and Arne pointed the sharp end back towards hot coffee and radiators.
The dinghy slapped busily through the little waves and the crosswind flicked spray on to my left cheek. I pulled my jacket collar up and made like a tortoise.
Arne’s mouth moved as he said something, but against the combined noises of the engine and the sea and the rustle of gaberdine against my ears, I couldn’t hear any words.
‘What?’ I shouted.
He started to repeat whatever it was, but louder. I caught only snatches like ‘ungrateful pig’ and ‘dirty thief’, which I took to be his own private views of Robert Sherman, British steeplechase jockey. Arne had had a bad time since the said Bob Sherman disappeared with the day’s take from the turnstiles of Øvrevoll, because Arne Kristiansen, besides being the Norwegian Jockey Club’s official investigator, was also in charge of racecourse security.
The theft, he had told me on the outward chug, was an insult, first to himself, and secondly to Norway. Guests in a foreign country should not steal. Norwegians were not criminals, he said, and quoted jail statistics per million of population to prove it. When the British were in Norway, they should keep their hands to themselves.
Commiserating, I refrained from drawing his country’s raids on Britain to his attention: they were, after all, a thousand or so years in the past, and the modern Vikings were less likely to burn, rape, pillage and plunder than to take peaceable photographs of Buckingham Palace. I felt moreover a twinge of national shame about Bob Sherman: I had found myself apologizing, of all things, for his behaviour.
Arne was still going on about it: on that subject unfortunately he needed no prompting. Phrases like ‘put me in an intolerable position’ slid off his tongue as if he had been practising them for weeks – which, on reflection, of course he had. It was three weeks and four days since the theft: and forty-eight hours since the Chairman of the racecourse had telephoned and asked me to send over a British Jockey Club investigator to see what he could do. I had sent (you will have guessed) myself.
I hadn’t met the Chairman yet, nor seen the racecourse, nor ever before been to Norway. I was down the fjord with Arne because Arne was the devil I knew.
Three years earlier the hair now closely hidden under the red padded hood had been a bright blond fading at the temples to grey. The eyes were as fierce a blue as ever, the wrinkles around them as deep, and the bags below a good deal heavier. The spray blew on to skin that was weather-beaten but not sunburned; thick-looking impervious yellowish-white skin lumped and pitted by forty-something winters.
He was still breaking out in bursts of aggrieved half-heard monologue, trudging along well-worn paths of resentment. I gave up trying to listen. It was too cold.
He stopped in mid-sentence and looked with raised eyebrows at some distant point over my left shoulder. I turned. A large speedboat, not very far away, was slicing down the fjord in our general direction with its bow waves leaping out like heavy silver wings.
I turned back to Arne. He shrugged and looked uninterested, and the outboard chose that moment to splutter and cough and choke to silence.
‘Fanden,’ said Arne loudly, which was nothing at all to what I was saying in my head.
‘Those people will help us,’ he announced, pointing at the approaching speedboat, and without hesitation he stood up, braced his legs, and waved his scarlet clad arms in wide sweeps above his head.
Twisting on my bench seat, I watched the speedboat draw near.
‘They will take us on board,’ Arne said.
The speedboat did not seem to be slowing down. I could see its shining black hull and its sharp cutting bow, and the silver wings of wave looked as high and full as ever.
If not higher and fuller.
I turned to Arne with the beginnings of apprehension.
‘They haven’t seen us,’ I said.
‘They must have.’ Arne waved his arms with urgent acceleration, rocking the dinghy precariously.
‘Hey!’ Arne shouted to the speedboat. And after that he screamed at it, in Norwegian.
The wind blew his words away. The helmsman of the speedboat didn’t hear, didn’t see. The sharp hard shining black prow raced straight towards us at forty knots.
‘Jump!’ yelled Arne; and he jumped. A flash of scarlet streaking into the sea.
I was slow. Thought perhaps that the unimaginable wouldn’t happen, that the bow wave would toss the dinghy clear like it would a swan, that the frail craft would bob away as lightly as a bird.
I tumbled over the side into the water about one second before the bow split the fibre-glass open like an eggshell. Something hit me a colossal bang on the shoulder while I was still gasping from the shock of immersion and I went down under the surface into a roaring buffeting darkness.
People who fall off boats die as often from the propellers as from drowning, but I didn’t remember that until the twin screws had churned past and left me unsliced. I came stuttering and gulping to the daylight in the jumbled frothing wake and saw the back of the speedboat tearing away unconcernedly down the fjord.
‘Arne,’ I shouted, which was about as useless as dredging for diamonds in the Thames. A wave slapped me in the open mouth and I swallowed a double salt water, neat.
The sea seemed much rougher at face level than it had done from above. I floundered in high choppy waves with ruffles of white frothing across their tops and blowing into my eyes, and I shouted again for Arne. Shouted with intensifying concern for him and with fear for myself: but the wind tore the words away and battered them to bits.
There was no sign of the dinghy. My last impression was that it had been cut clean into two pieces, which were now, no doubt, turning over and over in a slow sink down to the far away sea-bed.
I shuddered as much from imagination as from cold.
There was no sight anywhere of Arne. No red-padded head, no red waving arms above the waves, no cheerful smile coming to tell me that the sea was home to him and that safety and hot muffins were this way, just over here.
Land lay visible all around me in greyish misty heights. None of it was especially near. About two miles away, I guessed, whichever way I looked.
Treading water, I began to pull my clothes off, still looking desperately for Arne, still expecting to see him.
There was nothing but the rough slapping water. I thought about the speedboat’s propellers and I thought about Arne’s wide legged gumboots which would fill with water in the first few seconds. I thought finally that if I didn’t accept that Arne was gone and get started shorewards I was very likely going to drown on that spot.
I kicked off my shoes and struggled with the zip of my raincoat. Ripped open the buttons of my suit jacket underneath and shrugged out of both coats together. I let go of them, then remembered my wallet, and although it seemed crazy I took it out of my jacket pocket and shoved it inside my shirt.
The two coats, waterlogged, floated briefly away and started to go down out of sight. I slid out of my trousers, and let them follow.
Pity, I thought. Nice suit, that had been.
The water was very cold indeed.
I began to swim. Up the fjord. Towards Oslo. Where else?
I was thirty-three and hardy and I knew more statistics than I cared to. I knew for instance that the average human can live less than an hour in water of one degree centigrade.
I tried to swim unhurriedly in long undemanding strokes, postponing the moment of exhaustion. The water in Oslo fjord was not one degree above freezing, but at least five. Probably not much colder than the stuff buffeting the English beach at Brighton at that very moment. In water five degrees above freezing, one could last... well, I didn’t actually know that statistic. Had to take it on trust. Long enough anyway to swim something over two miles.
Bits of distant geography lessons made no sense. ‘The Gulf Stream warms the coast of Norway...’ Good old Gulf Stream. Where had it gone?
Cold had never seemed a positive force to me before. I supposed I had never really been cold, just chilled. This cold dug deep into every muscle and ached in my gut. Feeling had gone from my hands and feet, and my arms and legs felt heavy. The best long-distance swimmers had a nice thick insulating layer of subcutaneous fat: I hadn’t. They also covered themselves with water-repelling grease and swam alongside comfort boats which fed them hot cocoa through tubes on demand. The best long-distance swimmers were, of course, usually going twenty miles or so further than I was.
The waves seemed frighteningly big: and I couldn’t see where I was aiming unless I lifted my head right up and trod water, and that wasted time and energy.
The nearest-looking land seemed to my salt-stinging eyes to be as far away as ever. And surely Oslo fjord should be a Piccadilly Circus of boats? But I couldn’t see a single one.
Dammit, I thought. I’m bloody well not going to drown. I’m bloody well not.
Daylight was slowly fading. Sea, sky, and distant mountains were all a darker grey. It began to rain.
I travelled, it seemed, very slowly. The land I was aiming for never appeared to be nearer. I began to wonder if some current was cancelling out every yard I swam forward: but when I looked back, the land behind was definitely receding.
I swam mechanically, growing tired.
A long way off, straight ahead, pinpricks of light sprang out against the fading afternoon. Every time I looked, there were more. The city was switching on in the dusk.
Too far, I thought. They are too far for me. Land and life all around me, and I couldn’t reach them.
An awful depth beneath. And I never did like heights. A cold lonely death, drowning.
I swam. Nothing else to do.
When another light shone out higher up and to the left, it took at least a minute for the news to reach my sluggish brain. I trod water and wiped the rain and sea out of my eyes as best I could and tried to make out where it came from: and there, a great deal nearer than when I’d last looked, was the solid grey shape of land.
Houses, lights, and people. All there, somewhere, on that rocky hump.
Gratefully I veered fifteen degrees left and pressed on faster, pouring out the carefully hoarded reserves of stamina like a penitent miser. And that was stupid, because no shelving beach lay ahead. The precious land, when I reached it, proved to be a smooth sheer cliff dropping perpendicularly into the water. Not a ledge, not a cranny, to offer even respite from the effort of staying afloat.
The last quarter mile was the worst. I could touch the land if I wanted to, and it offered nothing to cling to. There had to be a break somewhere, if I went far enough, but I had practically nothing left. I struggled feebly forward through the slapping waves, wishing in a hazy way that I could surge through warm calm water like Mark Spitz and make a positive touchdown against a nice firm rail, with my feet on the bottom. What I actually did was a sort of belly-flop on to a small boat slipway bordered with large rock slabs.
I lay half in and half out of the water, trying to get back breath I didn’t know I’d lost. My chest heaved. I coughed.
It wasn’t dark; just the slow northern twilight. I wouldn’t have minded if it had been three in the morning: the cold wet concrete beneath my cheek felt as warm and welcoming goose feathers.
Footsteps crunched rhythmically along the quay at the head of the slipway and then suddenly stopped.
I did a bit towards lifting my head and flapping a numb hand.
‘Hvem er der?’ he said; or something like it.
I gave a sort of croak and he walked carefully, crabwise, down the slipway towards me, a half seen, well-wrapped ?gure in the rainy gloom.
He repeated his question, which I still didn’t understand.
‘I’m English,’ I said. ‘Can you help me?’
Nothing happened for a few seconds. Then he went away.
So what, I thought tiredly. At least from the waist up I was safe in Norway. Didn’t seem to have the energy to drag myself uphill till my feet were out, not just for a minute or two. But I would, I thought, given time.
The man came back, and brought a friend. Ungrateful of me to have misjudged him.
Thecompanion peered through the rain and said, ‘You are English? Did you say you are English?’ His tone seemed to suggest that being English automatically explained such follies as swimming in October in shirt
and underpants and lying about on slipways.
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘You fell off a ship?’
I felt his hand slide under my armpit.
‘Come. Out of the water.’
I scraped myself on to the slipway and with their help more or less crawled to the top. The quay was edged with railings and posts. I sat on the ground with my back against one of the posts and wished for enough strength to stand up.
They consulted in Norwegian. Then the English speaking one said, ‘We will take you to my house, to dry and get warm.’
‘Thank you,’ I said, and by God I meant it.
One of them went away again and came back with a battered old van. They gave me the front passenger seat though I offered to drip in the back, and whisked me about a quarter of a mile to a small wooden house, standing near two or three others. There was no village, no shops, no telephone.
‘This is an island,’ my rescuer explained. ‘One kilo-metre long, three hundred metres across.’ He told me its name, which seemed to me like ‘gorse’.
His living-room was small and bright, and warmed by the huge stove which took up at least a sixth of the floorspace. Seen clearly in the light he himself was a short friendly man of middle age with hands that were used for work. He shook his head over me and produced first a blanket and then, after some rummaging, a thick woollen shirt and a pair of trousers.
‘You are not a sailor,’ he said matter of factly, watching me fumble off my shirt and pants.
‘No,’ I agreed.
My wallet fell on the floor. I was surprised it was still there; had forgotten it. The Norwegian-only rescuer politely picked it up and handed it to me, smiling broadly. He looked very like his friend.
Between hopeless bouts of shivering I told them what had happened and asked them how I could get back to the city. They talked to each other about it while I dressed, first with a lot of shaking of heads but finally with a few nods.
‘When you are warmer we will take you by boat,’ said the English-speaker. He looked at the wallet which lay now on a polished pine table. ‘We ask only that you will pay for the fuel. If you can.’
Together we took out my sodden money and spread it on the table. I asked them to take whatever they liked, and after debate they chose a fifty kroner note. I urged them to double it. It wouldn’t cost so much, they protested, but in the end they put two notes aside and dried the rest for me quickly on the stove so that the edges curled. After more consultation they dug in a cupboard and brought out a bottle of pale gold liquid. One small glass followed, and a moderate tot was poured into it. They handed it to me.
‘Skol!’ they said.
‘Skol!’ I repeated.
They watched interestedly while I drank. Smooth fire down the throat, heat in the stomach, and soon a warm glow along all the frozen veins.
‘Aquavit,’ said my host, and stored the precious bottle away ready for the next needy stranger who swam to their doorstep.
They suggested I should sit for a while on the one comfortable-looking chair. Since various muscles were still trembling with weakness this seemed a good idea, so I rested while they busied themselves putting out businesslike sets of oilskins, and by the time they were kitted up my skin had returned from a nasty bluish purplish white to its more usual shade of sallow.
‘D’you feel better?’ my host observed, smiling.
They nodded, pleased, and held out a spare set of oilskins for me to put on. They took me in a big smelly fishing boat back up the twinkle-edged fjord to the city, and it rained all the way. I spent the journey calculating that I had been in the water for about two hours, which didn’t prove anything in particular about the current in the fjord or the inefficiency of my swimming or the distance I had travelled, but did prove pretty conclusively that the temperature was more than one degree above freezing.