The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl – extract

The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl was published by Orenda Books in paperback on 21 March 2019.

Orenda Books have allowed me to share an extract from the book.

Oslo, October 1942

1

Her front wheel is stuck in the tram rail. She wiggles the handlebars, but it is too late. She is going to fall. The wheel continues to follow the rail, her bicycle tips to the side, and she jumps off, runs a few steps so as not to lose balance, slips and almost lands on her backside, but manages to stay on her feet as her bike clatters onto the cobblestones. What a fool I must look, she thinks. The silence behind her tells her everyone is watching, all the passengers waiting at the tram stop. Ester brushes down her clothes without taking any notice, without looking at them. Then a hand lifts her bicycle. A green sleeve. A uniform. A soldier. A gun barrel points over his shoulder, straight at her. Ester’s attention is drawn to the round hole in the barrel. He speaks, but she doesn’t catch a word of what he says. At last he stands up. The barrel points upwards. She takes her bike and says thank you, first in Norwegian, then in German and finally in English. Apparently the last causes some merriment. In German he says: ‘Can’t you see that I’m German?’ He laughs. Odd laughter. His wide mouth produces brief squeaking noises, like a bike wheel rubbing. He looks pleasant enough. Innocent, she thinks. Bit stupid. If only he knew who he was wasting his gallant manners on. She places her left foot on the pedal, pushes, sits on the saddle and freewheels down to the Royal Palace without a single glance behind her. Approaching the crossroads by Parkveien, she brakes in case there are cars coming. None she can see. Bears left, pedals harder, rounds the park, has to brake for a man running across the street, then continues into Sven Bruns gate with the wind in her hair. Brakes on the descent. Slows down to take the bend to the right in Pilestredet. The clouds part so she now has the sun in her face. It is low, an October sun. She glances down at her skirt. A stain. She folds the hem over to hide it, baring her to above the knee; she hears a wolf whistle. She turns her head. Sees two German soldiers on the corner, whooping. She almost falls off again, but regains control and lets go of her hem. More wolf whistles. She turns towards her block of flats. Brakes. Gets off her bike. Leans it against the wall. Breathes hard through her mouth and listens. She counts in her head while looking at the piles of wet leaves and inhaling the smell of burnt coke. A magpie is on the rubbish bins, hopping from lid to lid. It flaps its wings and flies off. Ester holds her breath to make sure she captures all the sounds. Nothing happening in the entrance, no footsteps – nor in the block. She does a quick scan then walks over to the nearest bin and the brick behind it, against the wall. She holds her breath again, this time to avoid the stench coming from the bin. Then she flips off her shoe and takes out the papers; she hides them under the brick, puts her shoe back on and can’t get away fast enough.Pedalling has become harder. She should have gone to Kirkeristen first. She would have had the whole day to deliver the papers then. It was the practical Ester who told herself the papers had to be delivered and that as the block of flats in Pilestredet was on the way, she could go there first. But now her fears are mounting. The fears that she doesn’t have enough time. There are very few people in the streets. It is early. Perhaps not early enough, though. Ester sees clocks everywhere. Above jewellers’ shops, on church towers. On the neon sign advertising Freia chocolate. She tries to concentrate on other matters. Cycles up Apotek-ergata and turns down to the marketplace. Soon she is racing along towards the cathedral. Her eyes are drawn by the clock on the tower. She jumps off her bike at the corner of Glasmagasinet, the department store. Glances both ways and runs across the street, dragging her bike. Pulls up sharply when she sees uniformed men outside the shop. Hovers for a moment, then continues walking. Pushes her bike past the shop windows, slowly, so as not to attract attention. Squeezes the brake as the road slopes downwards. One of the soldiers is sticking a poster to a shop window. He runs his hand across the poster and is satisfied with the result. Steps back.Jüdisches Geschäft. Jewish shop.Ester screws up her eyes and reads the poster again. And once more. Then loud shouts are heard from inside the shop. A man wearing civilian clothing – it is Dad – is dragged through the door. A man in a dark-blue uniform is hauling him outside. Ester stands watching. They are shouting in Norwegian. They tell him to be still, even though he isn’t moving. He looks lost. His jacket is open and he is bare-headed; his hat is in his hands. As the policeman lets go he totters. Falls to his knees. He gets up and tries to brush the dirt from his trousers. The second policeman grabs him again and shoves him into the back of the police van by the kerb. The rear door slams shut. As though he has been swallowed by iron jaws.Ester can see part of her father’s face through the bars on the window. The hairline, the fringe over his forehead and the top of his glasses. That is when he sees her. They exchange looks. His hand grasps a bar on the door. She closes her eyes and regrets that she has seen this. She wishes she had spared him the humiliation.So she doesn’t immediately hear the policeman shouting. The man in the dark-blue uniform points. She doesn’t understand. Takes one hand from the handlebars of her bicycle and points to herself. Me?‘Yes, you!’Ester is rooted to the spot. All she can do is stand and stare at the man waving his arms. Then she clicks.‘Get out of the way!’The police van is trying to reverse and she is in the way. Lowering her head, she pulls her bike up onto the pavement. The mudguards clattering. The van sets off in the direction of the eastern railway line, rounds a corner and is lost from view. She casts a glance over her shoulder. A small group of police officers is still outside the shop. One of them pushes inquisitive onlookers away. Another seals the shop entrance with chains and a padlock. A third paints something on the door in white: Closed (Jew). Ester trundles her bike down Torggata. Stops. She has no idea where she is going. Someone behind her almost collides with the bike, curses and carries on. Ester looks around. The world hasn’t changed. People on the pavement are scurrying to and fro. Outside the entrance to Chris-tiania Steam Kitchen a woman is sweeping. A barber is putting a sign outside his shop. This is what dying is like, she thinks. You have gone and the world doesn’t care. You die and others eat pastries. She keeps walking with her hands on the handlebars, and all she can feel is that she is cold. She leans her bike against her hip and lets go of the handle-bars. Her hands are trembling. She has stopped by the kiosk with the Tenor throat pastilles advertisement on the roof. A woman carrying a shopping net emerges from the subway under Folketeateret. Out of the corner of her eye Ester registers the buxom figure. A familiar sight. The waddle, the arm outstretched as if for balance, and the funny hat. It is Ada, who lives across the corridor from her.Ada approaches, clasps her arm and tells Ester not to go home. Ester answers like a machine. She knows. She was there when they turned up early this morning. Ada looks around to check no one is listen-ing. ‘Have you got somewhere to go?’ she whispers. ‘To hide from the police?’Ester racks her brain, nods. ‘I think so.’Ada gives her a hug. Her body is large and soft. The embrace pre-vents Ester from moving and her bike clatters to the ground. She bends down and lifts it up, nods again and assures her: ‘I know where I can go.’

About the book

In Oslo in 1942, Jewish courier Ester is betrayed, narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo. In great haste, she escapes to Sweden whilst the rest of her family is deported to Auschwitz. In Stockholm, Ester meets the resistance hero, Gerhard Falkum, who has left his little daughter and fled both the Germans and allegations that he murdered his wife, Åse, Ester’s childhood best friend. A relationship develops between them, but ends abruptly when Falkum dies in a fire.And yet, twenty-five years later, Falkum shows up in Oslo. He wants to reconnect with his daughter Turid. But where has he been, and what is the real reason for his return? Ester stumbles across information that forces her to look closely at her past, and to revisit her war-time training to stay alive…

About the author

One of the fathers of the Nordic Noir genre, Kjell Ola Dahl was born in 1958 in Gjøvik. He made his debut in 1993, and has since published eleven novels, the most prominent of which is a series of police procedurals cum psychological thrillers featuring investigators Gunnarstranda and Frølich. In 2000 he won the Riverton Prize for The Last Fix and he won both the prestigious Brage and Riverton Prizes for The Courier in 2015. His work has been published in 14 countries, and he lives in Oslo.

*I was asked to share an extract of The Courier to help promote publication of the book. I have not received a copy of the book or any other payment for doing so.*

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