First Chapter Friday -- A Presence of Absence by Sarah Surgey and Emma Vestrheim

Friday, March 31, 2017


About the Authors: 

Sarah Surgey is a 37-year-old British feature writer for various magazines. She lives in the UK with her husband and 4 daughters.

She has had an interest in all things Nordic for many years and has written about many genres within this subject for publication. Although British, she has Danish family and enjoys exploring Denmark and its culture whenever the opportunity arrives.

Sarah was brought up with crime books and inevitably has always had crime story scenarios going around inside her head. After interviewing many famous authors for different magazines within the Nordic literary circle and always knowing the answer to her question of “why did you start writing?” she felt now was her time to get her stories out there, for people to read!

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Emma Vestrheim is the owner and editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia, a Nordic film and television journal that analyses popular Nordic titles. Part of her work includes working with directors, actors and film-makers, and her numerous interviews with the biggest names in Nordic film and television have given her a privileged access to what makes Nordic narratives so successful. Cinema Scandinavia publishes bi-monthly and is available in major Nordic film libraries.

Emma grew up in Australia, and completed her degree in film and television in Melbourne. After finishing her studies, she moved to Norway to pursue her interest in all things Nordic; not just film – Emma has fallen in love with the Scandinavian way of living (‘hygge’), modern Nordic cuisine, and the beautiful mountains and fjords of Western Norway, where she currently resides.

Synopsis: 

A gritty murder case gets in the way of the characters' everyday lives and sends the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish city of Odense, into a panic.

British detective Simon Weller escapes the fallout from the recent suicide of his Danish wife, Vibeke and heads out to her home city of Odense. But once there he is paired up with a local detective, Jonas, who is also about to his rock bottom in his home life, and they must overcome their differences and personal problems to try and catch one of the worst serial killers Odense has ever seen. The case takes them back into past decades as history starts catching up with some of the local inhabitants. When Simon realises that his wife's suicide may not be all it seems and her name appears in the cas, his integrity within the case is compromised, how far will he go to find out the truth of Vibeke's past and hide it from his already troubled police partner?

Back home in London Simon's family are struggling with their own web of lies and deceit and the family is falling apart.

With one family hiding a dark secret, the whole case is just about to reach breaking point.
 

Chapter One: 

London, United Kingdom

With her father sitting alongside her, Sanne could almost feel his uptight Britishness holding him rigid in his seat. He was probably going through the preceding schedule minute-by-minute in anticipation to be able to leave. Detective Simon Weller was facing forward and waiting for the Christening to begin. Even though he was approaching his mid-fifties Sanne had never seen her father as an old man. He had always been extremely fit, despite the heavy fatigue which came with being the head detective in central London. She had never noticed her father growing old until now. She had always lived in denial that her parents would grow old and eventually leave her.

Looking past her father, she found herself staring at her Danish mother, a complemented contrast to her father was the only way Sanne could describe her parents. Sanne’s mother didn’t look straight ahead towards the front of the church, like her father. She instead gazed at the baby, her pale face resembling the sculptures of the angels that lined the cathedral. A smile spread gently across her Mother’s face, giving insight into what nurturing thoughts could be going on in her mind. Sanne suddenly had an urge to leave the pew where she was sitting and join her mother, having her mother’s soft touch wrap around her and remind her that everything was going to be okay.

Sanne closed her eyes to stop the tears flowing and by the time she had opened them again her mother was gone. The faces of the angels had turned back to their stone-cold appearance and the cathedral darkened from the incoming rain. She cursed herself for being so silly.

Dealing with her mother’s death was just so painful and each day she found herself living with a very real and impending presence of absence filling the void where her mother should be.

*

Simon knew that Sanne felt her breakdown had gone unnoticed, but he had known what she was thinking from the moment they sat down together. It had been three months since they sat in the front row saying goodbye to her mother and his wife, and now they had returned to the very same place to welcome a new life into the world. Sanne had tried to convince her father that this was a good reason to make their first appearance in public since the funeral, but Simon hadn’t bought into her philosophical reasoning. He had agreed to come to this for himself. It had been so long since he had spoken to his wife and he was now looking for anywhere with a remote connection to her. He just needed to hear her voice again, and as much as he didn’t consider himself a religious man, he felt this building gave him a chance.

Emotional pain is an invisible ailment which can be covered up by the subtle upward turn of the mouth and kept silent by positive sentences. But it is a tangible hurt that finds its way to every part of the body and mind, which rears itself with the sunrise and hangs on throughout the day, refusing to be side tracked. Yet people expect someone who has it embedded in them to just shake it off and leave it lying there. They are the people who had never experienced the intense feeling of loss. It is often looked upon to be treated like a physical problem, solved with medicine, but Simon knew this was often purely a placebo to comfort the outsider looking in. By the time they had arrived at the first social gathering since the funeral, Simon second guessed why he had agreed to come.

He was dealing with not only the loss but also the fact that she had wanted to take her own life. She was more than his wife; she was his soul-mate, as cheesy as he knew that sounded. The thought of having found her had not escaped his mind, and he could help but see her body lying beside him, whenever his head touched the pillow. This had caused him to lose night after night of sleep, and he knew it was showing on his face. 

Everything had been destroyed and none of it made sense. And he was in the line of work to understand scenes like this. He had cursed himself over and over that he had been unable to solve the most important case of his life.

The priest approached the pulpit and began to recite words from the bible. Simon closed his eyes and cursed, louder than intended judging from the cold glances that had been shot his way.

“Can you please not do this now? Mum would have…” Sanne whispered, cutting off her sentence when she realised this was the first time her mother had been spoken about in the past tense.

“Don’t tell me what she would’ve wanted” Simon growled, feeling more sets of eyes casting themselves over towards the grieving family. Simon left the cathedral, causing the floorboards to creak and the attention to drift from the priest to himself. He left in a hurry, hearing Sanne and her husband Michael following close by. His and Sanne’s relationship had always been one of protocol and order. When to speak with emotion, and when to speak with just words. The latter was the usual path taken and Simon had often wondered, even discussed with Vibeke, whether this came from his career in the police force or his own nurtured personality which fed off self-righteousness. The right track. The right actions. The right conclusions. They brought calm with them of the knowing. Now he didn’t know anything anymore.

He had always been regarded as someone who hid emotion. Even when the most gruesome cases were thrust in front of him, he always remained pragmatic and reacted with a level head, especially, within the first few hours of a case, and he was known for putting on a front as to not worry his team, even when they knew he hadn’t eaten or slept for 24 hours or had time to go home and reconnect with his family.

Everyone saw him as a cold-faced detective who used poor jokes to hide his grief. But the lines were blurred between work and home and he sometimes treated his children like one of his officers and on most occasions led from the front, leaving his wife at the back, nurturing and guiding the children. His son Thomas seemed to have thrived on this type of upbringing and looked to Simon as his role model, even though he had chosen insurance as a career. He now was working his way through the ranks at a quick pace: he had the strengths and morals of a detective, Simon always thought. Sanne, however, took the alternate route and pushed her father to his limits growing up. She had gone down the route of homemaker after many years before, going off the rails, and found a husband named Michael who had a 9-5 job pushing a pen, also in insurance in the city, so “he would be home for his children to tuck up in bed,” Sanne had shouted a few times, when she felt it necessary to hurt her father.

Simon was good at pretending and this had stood him in good stead when the pretence relied upon his acting being fond of this pencil-pusher his daughter had chosen to not only spend her life with but also bring two children into the mix of this storybook life which Simon felt would one day bring a not so happy ending.

But Sanne, he realised, felt it her duty now her mother was gone to take the role of someone who gave reassurance, guidance and motivation to her father and to see him through these dark days so he could suddenly miraculously come out from the depths of despair. She had no doubt been reading her many American self-help books and listened with intent to the gurus who seemed to be flooding the market to find the answer: to bring her dad back. She couldn’t bring her mother back. So she was starting from a point of failure in Simon’s eyes and had nowhere to go. This game of pretence would go on until Sanne was comfortable enough within her own lies to tell herself that her father was fine and on the right track. He would help her along if it gave him some peace with his own thoughts of Vibeke.

Out in the hallway, Simon fought back the tears as he read the flyers pinned to the message board. Alcoholics Anonymous, drug addict support groups, cancer survivor support groups, all the groups were there. He looked over to the one for those dealing with grief but turned away again immediately. He had never felt so alone.

“Dad, Kim is my best friend. She wants us here. Please can we stop making a scene?” he heard Sanne say behind him. He held back tears and refused to face her.

“I know” he muttered, folding his arms.

“What are you going to do, Dad? Fly to Denmark and forget about us? Forget all your troubles and leave us here?” Sanne said, almost shouting this time. Simon sighed. After three months of living on the couch surrounded by bottles of various liquors, Simon had booked a one-way ticket to the hometown of his wife, Odense in Denmark. He and Sanne had been fighting about whether or not to sell the second house they owned in the central Danish city, and as Sanne was winning the argument with real estate agents about to be booked. 

Simon had quit his job and booked the flight in a move to outbid his daughter. This had come as a shock to Sanne and she had been holding it against him ever since. He knew she felt abandoned after her mother had decided to take her own life and now that her father was leaving, but he couldn’t bring himself to address this and instead the two had been fighting almost daily. He wanted to wrap his arms around her and tell her he wasn’t going away like her mother was, but something kept holding him back, perhaps his pride. Or maybe he just didn’t want to care about anyone anymore. But now he was leaving tomorrow and this had no doubt caused tension on what was supposed to be a pleasant gathering.

Simon had never in his role of being a father put his feelings of unease onto his two children, but since Vibeke had passed he felt himself becoming childlike again, rash in his decisions and standoffish in his emotions. And the saddest part was that he recognised this, but he didn’t have the strength to change it.

Simon’s job was extremely demanding, not only on the body, with the long hours you put your heart and soul into until the job is done, but emotionally, by seeing the human race at its very worse. Somehow, he had always managed to compartmentalise these emotions, but with this personal nightmare he was in, he found his emotions floating all over as if at sea, bobbing up and down to the rhythm of grief. Years of hunting down London’s toughest criminals and visiting monstrous crime scenes had made Simon emotionally numb, and so in his wife’s passing he had been able to maintain his façade. He was waiting for it all to come crashing onto the shore.

“Simon, how about I give you a ride home? I’ve got some work to do anyway” Michael, Sanne’s husband, added to ease the tension.

“What? You mean you aren’t staying either?” Sanne quipped, “I thought you said you could finish off tomorrow

“No, you said I could finish off tomorrow. Sanne”

“You mean you don’t want to be here, Michael? You didn’t want to come from the start,” whispered Sanne as her father turned to face the two of them. Michael’s face dropped and he took a step closer into Sanne, towering over her.

“Sanne, don’t take this out on me. I have a big project on at the moment and I have to finish it off as soon as possible. Simon clearly isn’t coping. It will be for the best. You’ve got the kids and your brother still here” Michael whispered. Simon pretended he hadn’t heard it and turned for the door.

“Come on, Michael. Let’s go” he said briefly, avoiding eye contact with his daughter.

“Am I going to see you before you leave?” Sanne cried, but Simon didn’t hear her. Feeling that the two men she trusted most were letting her down, Sanne returned to the cathedral to watch the new life being blessed into this world. Death often makes way for life, another cliché she had been told by a rather nosey but well-meaning neighbour who had learned about the passing of her mother as Sanne was congratulating Kim on the birth of her baby.

Sanne had wanted to scream then as she did now. Michael had let her down in the past couple of months, too. He had become distant and more indulgent in his work. Kim had said to Sanne one day that this was how men cope with their wife’s grief. They felt like a spare part and knew that this time, they couldn’t fix it. Sanne understood this logic but didn’t like the practice. Michael hadn’t always been there for her, but she could always rely on his advice. Recently, though, he had become so distant from her that she felt her burden was nothing more than an annoyance to him. Sanne looked up to the angels once more and told them to tell her mother she missed her.

                                                                  *
Michael couldn’t concentrate on anything else. His phone had not stopped buzzing since they had been at the christening. He just needed to get Simon home and then he could take the call. He had seen the look of disappointment in Sanne’s eyes when he volunteered to drive her father home, but these past months he had been on the edge of most emotions with all of them.

London was ridiculously congested today and to get Simon from one side and then back across to the other was a logistical nightmare. Turning to his passenger on his left, Michael could see that he was barely holding it together. It was the right choice for him to come home, Michael thought. But he knew Sanne would be angry. She so needed her dad to be ‘better’. Michael knew that as soon as Simon got back into his house, he would head upstairs to the bedroom and fall into bed. Hide from everything, but the strange thing was that was the place his misery hailed from. Where Vibeke ended it all.

Michael was going to speak with Sanne tonight; they needed to shake Simon out of this. Michael had far too much going on to ferry Sanne’s zombie-like father around. Checking on him after work, listening to Sanne’s frustrations every night. He couldn’t bear to watch this drama for much longer. There was a time when Simon would have picked up on Michael’s problems, taken him to one side and tried to help, for Sanne’s sake of course. Michael was half-glad that Simon wasn’t of sound mind at the moment, the last thing he needed was Simon on his back.

“Do you need me to come in?” asked Michael as Simon pushed open the Land Rover door.

“No, I’m fine, I have to pack. Do you still have the spare key?” Simon said in a short tone.

“Sanne has it” Michael replied quickly.

“Good. Just check on the place every now and again. Make sure it doesn’t burn down and so on”

“Will do. Shall I see you tomorrow? I can take you to the airport?” Michael said, but Simon shook his head and left the Land Rover, as though to avoid the question altogether. With that, Michael watched the once-great London detective shuffle to his front door with his shoulders hunched and his head down. What a sorry state, thought Michael as he sped off to take his call. Not waiting until he got home, Michael pulled over to the side of the road and picked up his phone. He had twelve missed calls. Not from the man himself but from his people. Michael had never actually spoken with the boss, and that suited him fine. The calls were intense and demanding and Michael knew he had to do something about this.

Holding his phone in his hand as if he could just magic everything away by throwing it out the window, Michael suddenly had a realisation. These people weren’t going anywhere, and he had nowhere to hide from them or his demons.

***********************

Thank you Sarah and Emma for sharing your first chapter! For more information about their book, head to their website HERE

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