Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good stars Maud, an irascible 88-year-old Swedish woman with no family, no friends, and … no qualms about a little murder.
This funny, irreverent story collection by the author of the Irene Huss investigations, features two-never-before translated stories that will keep you laughing all the way to the retirement home.
You can read a story from the collection below.
To celebrate the book’s publication, we teamed up with Grandma Girl Designs to produce a limited run of Maud-inspired cross-stitch designs, and we’re giving away one to each of four lucky winners.
To enter to win, send your proof of purchase (itemized receipt or order confirmation) from any book retailer to
[email protected] before November 20, 2018.
An Elderly Lady Seeks Peace at Christmastime
by Helene Tursten
translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy
The churchyard was silent and peaceful so early on the morning of Christmas Eve. Maud couldn’t help sighing loudly as she struggled along the snow-covered path. It didn’t matter, because she was all alone. At this time of day there wasn’t a living soul in sight, and she was unlikely to disturb the others. The rubber wheels of her walker twisted sideways as it plowed through the deep snow, but eventually, after a certain amount of difficulty, she managed to park it next to the grave. She took the special grave lanterns and a box of matches out of the bag in the wheeled walker’s wire basket. Two lanterns on the family grave would have to do—one for her parents and one for her sister. Such things were expensive these days.
Her older sister had been named Charlotte. Maud had come along eleven years after Charlotte’s birth, much to her parents’ surprise and her sister’s disgust. Being an only child had suited Charlotte perfectly; a little sister definitely wasn’t on her wish list.
Maud thought back to the lavish parties her parents used to throw. She particularly remembered the big party they traditionally hosted on New Year’s Eve. She recalled the delicious food, the candles burning brightly in the tall candelabras, the champagne corks popping at midnight, the hum of cheerful voices, the smell of cigars and expensive perfume. And of course the beautiful dresses the ladies wore.
Everything had come to an abrupt end when her darling father suffered a heart attack during an Odd Fellows meeting. He had collapsed in the middle of a guffaw after someone told a funny story.
For a number of reasons, her mother had very little to laugh about after his death. It turned out that his affairs were “in a bit of a mess,” as people said. Once the family lawyer had settled all his debts, there was virtually nothing left. The large property her father had bought several years earlier had to be sold; the only thing the widow was allowed to keep was the apartment they lived in.
Maud’s mother was fifteen years younger than her father and ought to have been able to soldier on, but it was as if all the strength simply drained out of her and was buried along with him. Two years later, she too was dead. Maud often thought that the shame of their financial and social disgrace had probably broken her mother. She herself had been eighteen when the fatal blow struck her family; she had just started college, where she was training to be a teacher of English and French.
A year or so before their father died, Charlotte had developed what her mother referred to as “nerves.” Apparently Charlotte was “a sensitive, artistic soul.” She was thirty years old and still unmarried when the war broke out. Her hypochondria and a growing list of phobias filled her life completely. Charlotte was a trained pianist, but had never performed in public. Nor could she cope with teaching the piano at home.
The limited amount of capital that was left after the sale of the property diminished rapidly during the war. Luckily, the sisters had inherited the lease of the apartment from their mother and were able to live there rent-free. However, they still had to pay for electricity, water, and heating. Maud remembered how bitterly cold the apartment had been during those terrible winters. The ice that had formed on the inside of the windows was so thick they couldn’t see out. They lived in the kitchen and the bedroom, keeping the doors tightly closed to retain any warmth. The other rooms were left unheated.
During the war Maud got a job as a teacher at a girls’ high school. She loved it right from the start. However, her financial situation didn’t improve a great deal because she also had to provide for Charlotte.
The flickering flames of the candles illuminated the worn inscription on the tall gravestone. Charlotte had died thirty-seven years ago. Only then had Maud’s own life begun. Better late than never, she thought.
The cold nipping at her toes brought her back to the present. Her boots were warm, but the lining was getting threadbare. Perhaps she should buy herself a new pair.
Laboriously, she began to maneuver the walker toward the path, which had not been cleared. Heavy snow had fallen overnight. When she listened carefully, she could hear a distant rumble that sounded as if it might be a tractor. A harsh scraping confirmed her suspicions; the snow plow was on its way. She congratulated herself on the fact that there was nothing wrong with her hearing. Most of her contemporaries were practically deaf. But not Maud. Which was perhaps a shame. If she had been deaf, she wouldn’t have been troubled by the Problem.
Resolutely, she pushed all thoughts of the Problem aside and set off toward the bus stop, which was just outside the churchyard gate; she was quite out of breath by the time she got there, and had to sit down for a while on the waterproof seat of her walker. It was such a handy gadget. Not that she really needed such a thing, but it had been left behind when herr Olsson, the civil engineer, passed away. None of his children had bothered to collect it. They probably didn’t even know that the wheeled walker, which was kept just inside the door of the building, belonged to their father. After his apartment had been cleared and sold, it was still standing there, and Maud had simply picked it up and carried it into her own apartment. Last autumn she had twisted her knee when she tripped over a rug, and had reluctantly started to use the walker when she had to go out shopping. The sidewalks were very icy at the time, and she didn’t want to risk falling again. She quickly became aware of its advantages: it provided useful support, she could sit on it and have a rest, she was now offered a seat on the bus, people held the door open for her when she went into the stores, and middle-aged female shop assistants started treating her politely and . . . well, they really were quite sweet to her. The walker was a brilliant acquisition.
Once she was safely aboard the bus, her thoughts turned to Charlotte once more. Her sister had crept around their big, gloomy apartment like a restless soul, refusing to go out. Her mental state had deteriorated rapidly during the 1960s. There was no point in suggesting that Maud might get away, even for one day. Her sister would go even more crazy than she already was. Little Charlotte couldn’t possibly manage all on her own! Who would cook her meals and make sure she took her medication? Who would be there when the fear dug its claws into her?
The worst thing was that it was all true. As Charlotte’s illness gradually got worse, she needed stronger and stronger medication. She spent most of her time in a befuddled torpor; she should really have gone into an institution. Whenever her doctor suggested some kind of residential care, Charlotte always came to life and said sharply, “My sister would never allow such a thing! She and I have always lived together! She looks after me!”
Charlotte had been totally dependent on her sister for her daily care and survival. It didn’t look as if Maud would ever have the opportunity to realize her own dreams.
At least until the evening when Maud was standing in the kitchen and suddenly felt a cold draft from the hallway. She hurried out to see what was going on, and found the front door standing open. In her confused state, Charlotte had managed to unlock the door and had wandered out into the gloom of the stairwell. Maud sensed rather than saw her sister moving past the elevator. There was a wide landing with a long stone staircase leading down to the main entrance of the apartment block. By the faint light seeping out from the elevator, Maud was just able to make out Charlotte’s thin figure flitting anxiously to and fro. “Hello?” her voice echoed weakly. Slowly she moved closer to the edge of the landing. The stairs themselves were in total darkness. From Maud’s point of view, it looked as if her sister was inching toward a black hole. The long, steep stone staircase . . .
The paralysis passed and she rushed toward the open door of the apartment. Charlotte was balancing on the top step. Maud had called out— or had she? She’d definitely tried to grab hold of her sister, hadn’t she? She remembered feeling the slippery fabric of Charlotte’s checked bathrobe against her fingertips but her sister pulled away and then . . . disappeared . . . down into the depths of the darkness.
Three weeks later, Charlotte had passed away as a result of the severe concussion she had sustained. Maud spent every minute by her bedside. Her sister never regained consciousness.
Over all the years that Maud had been responsible for their joint finances, she had deposited the whole of her sister’s sickness benefit in a special bank account. As time went by, it had grown into a tidy little sum. The day after the funeral, Maud booked her first trip. On the last day of the spring semester, she set off. She traveled by train and bus through Denmark, Germany and France. For the next fifteen years she spent the summer break in the same way, traveling all over the world. She had retired twenty-two years ago, and she had kept on traveling.
The ICA Gourmet grocery store opened at nine o’clock in the morning on Christmas Eve. Maud could see the manager unlocking the door as she stepped off the bus. She plodded over through the slush. The manager waved to her.
“Good morning! You’re bright and early!” he called out cheerfully.
Maud smiled back at him. He was the person she spoke to more than anyone else these days.
“I thought I’d get my shopping done before all those stressed-out people start rushing around,” she said.
“Very wise, very wise indeed,” the manager said with a chuckle as he stacked boxes of raisins into a neat pyramid.
The little store had been there for as long as Maud could remember. To begin with it had sold only dairy products, but then it had expanded to become a minimart. Nowadays it was a gourmet grocery store, selling ready meals that could simply be heated up in the oven or microwave. They were prepared in a restaurant kitchen just a few miles away. The store also sold other delicious foods such as fine cheeses, exotic fruits, fresh bread baked on the premises, and all the other life essentials.
Maud placed two small cartons of pickled herring rolls in the basket of her wheeled walker, followed by a larger pack of herring salad. They were soon joined by a Stilton cheese in a blue porcelain pot, a mature Gorgonzola, a piece of ripe Brie, a packet of salted crackers, an artisan loaf that was still warm, a bunch of grapes, fresh dates, a jar of fig conserve, two bottles of julmust, the traditional Christmas soft drink, a small pack of new potatoes from the Canaries, a few clementines and a box of After Eight chocolate mints. She was very pleased to find a portion of Jansson’s Temptation, a potato and onion casserole, in the ready meal section, and quickly added it to her basket. Now there was only one thing missing from her Christmas table.
She pushed the walker over to the charcuterie counter. A young man who in Maud’s opinion looked as if he was barely out of short pants was fiddling aimlessly with the prepackaged sausages on a shelf in front of the glass counter. Maud stopped beside him and said, “I’d like a small, ready-cooked Christmas ham, please.”
The young man pulled out one of his earbuds. “What?”
Patiently Maud repeated what she had just said.
“Ready-cooked?” the boy echoed.
“I can, like, cut you some slices of that big one there. All the small ones are gone. There are so many old dudes living around here.”
Maud thought his grin had something of a sneer about it. With considerable self-control, she nodded to indicate that she would like some slices of the ham behind the glass of the deli counter. As the boy walked past her he let out a loud yell that could be heard all over the store. The manager came rushing over from his pyramid of raisins, knocking the whole thing down in his panic.
“What’s going on?” he wanted to know, sounding horrified.
“The old bat stabbed me!” the boy said, pointing an accusing finger at Maud.
She stooped over the handlebars of her walker.
“What? What’s he saying?” she said in a reedy voice.
The manager looked from Maud to the assistant, unsure what to do.
“Go to the staff room and calm down!” he snapped at the boy.
“But the old bat—”
“Don’t call the customer an old b- . . . that word!” the manager growled, his face turning an alarming shade of bright red.
“What did he say?” Maud chirped. She was finding it difficult not to laugh. Carefully she closed the big safety pin and slipped it back into her pocket. She had thrust it into that unpleasant young man’s buttock with all her strength. It was time someone taught him a lesson about old women! The pin was used to attach a reflective disc on a cord to the lining of her right hand pocket.
“Staff room, now!” the manager repeated in a tone that brooked no disagreement.
As the teenager shambled away, the manager turned to Maud with a strained smile. “Please forgive the boy. He’s only been here for a few days. He probably tripped and banged into a sharp corner. What can I get you?”
“I’d like four slices of your cooked ham. It’s always so delicious,” Maud replied, smiling sweetly.
She carried the wheeled walker up the wide stone staircase. There was no longer any sign of the bent little old lady who had been so bewildered by all the fuss in the grocery store not long ago. For someone who would be ninety in a few years, she was unusually strong.
A short while later, she was sitting in her favorite armchair with a steaming cup of coffee and a ham sandwich with plenty of mustard. The spiced rye bread flavored with wort smelled wonderful. She put on her glasses and began to read the morning paper.
That was when the Problem began to make its presence felt.
Maud looked at the clock. It was just before ten-thirty. That was unusually early for the Problem. She sighed loudly and decided to try to ignore the whole thing for as long as possible. To her relief, the Problem stopped after a few minutes, and she was able to carry on with her reading.
At around two o’clock, Maud was woken from her afternoon nap. The Problem was in full swing. It seemed worse than ever. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t ignore it.
The apartment complex was five stories high and over a hundred years old. It was red brick built on a solid granite foundation. The ground floor housed a parking lot and a small number of shops. In spite of the fact that Maud lived on the first floor, her window was almost fifteen feet above the ground. The walls were thick. The only weakness was the system of pipes throughout the building. If Maud was standing in the bathroom, she could hear almost every word from the neighbors on the floor above. Particularly if they raised their voices—then she couldn’t avoid hearing their exchanges.
And that was the Problem.
She couldn’t pretend she didn’t know about it, which was what she would have liked to do: to avoid getting involved in the Problem. All she wanted was peace and quiet.
But the Problem couldn’t be ignored. Maud couldn’t shut out the sound of raised voices—mainly his voice—and the woman’s sobbing. And the heavy thuds when he hit her and knocked her down. Thump-thump-thud was the sound that came through the ceiling of Maud’s bedroom.
The Problem had begun in the autumn last year, when a famous attorney and his wife bought the apartment above Maud’s. They were middle-aged and wealthy, and their children had already left home. According to the rumors, he had kicked up an enormous fuss when he wasn’t allocated a parking space, but there was a waiting list of several years, and he just had to put his name down like all the other residents. Meanwhile, he had to park his flashy Mercedes on the street.
After renovations lasting several months, the attorney and his wife had moved in just before Christmas the previous year. “Peace at last,” Maud had thought. The noise of the building work had been unbearable.
Over the Christmas period exactly one year ago, Maud had realized that there was a big Problem. Christmas Eve was completely ruined, as far as she was concerned. The attorney had started abusing his wife in the afternoon, and had simply carried on doing so. Maud had been unable to concentrate on the film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on TV that night. All she could hear was quarreling and shouting from upstairs.
Early on December twenty-sixth, an ambulance turned up. Maud opened the door of her apartment a fraction. She heard the attorney’s well-modulated voice in the stairwell as he spoke to the paramedics:
“She fell down the stairs yesterday. I wanted to call you right away, but she didn’t think it was anything serious. But when I saw how she looked today, I just had to call . . .”
Maud closed the door, screwing her face up in disgust. Fell down the stairs! What a revolting man! And he had ruined her Christmas.
After that, things were quiet for a few months. Twice during the spring she heard the attorney abusing his wife again. The week after Midsummer, Maud met the wife on the stairs. It was pouring outside, but in spite of the weather the woman was wearing huge sunglasses. She had wound a big scarf around her head and pulled it well down over her forehead. Her entire face was covered with a thick layer of dark foundation. It didn’t help. Maud could clearly see the eye that was swollen shut, and the bruise like a purple half-moon over the cheekbone. They exchanged greetings, and the woman scurried past.
The charming attorney himself was a drinker. That was obvious to Maud whenever they passed on the stairs. He usually ignored her, but she couldn’t miss the alcoholic fumes that lingered in his wake long after he had disappeared up the stairs to his apartment.
And now it was Christmas Eve once more, and the Problem was raising its ugly head again. Maud could hear the attorney’s furious voice and his wife’s sobs. Thump-thump came the familiar sound from the floor above.
It was high time she did something about the Problem. Deep down, Maud had already made the decision before the idea began to form in her conscious mind. She went into the bathroom. The voices emerged clearly from the toilet bowl, and the ventilation duct amplified the sound.
“Fucking bitch! You useless fucking . . .”
Maud clenched her fists in impotent fury. The anger that flared inside her made her heart beat faster.
“Fix your face. You can’t fucking go out looking like . . . to the parking meter,” the attorney’s voice echoed through the pipes.
Maud heard a sniveling mumble in response.
“I have to do everything myself . . . You are such a disgusting fucking mess . . . I’m going downstairs to get another ticket. You can’t even do that right, you useless bitch! You were supposed to get a twenty-four-hour ticket! What do you mean, you don’t have any money? Don’t you dare . . . ?”
Heavy footsteps crossed the floor above Maud’s head, moving toward the hallway. She quickly hurried into her own hallway; cautiously she opened the front door and left it on the latch. She pushed the wheeled walker onto the landing and placed it next to the elevator. Anyone coming down the stairs on the other side wouldn’t be able to see it, nor would anyone stepping out of the elevator. The stairwell was lit by a brass art nouveau style lamp with a tulip-shaped glass shade. Without hesitation, Maud reached in and partially unscrewed the bulb. Now it wouldn’t come on.
As she heard the door open on the floor above, she positioned herself behind the wheeled walker. She gripped the rubber handlebars firmly and waited.
Mumbling and muttering to himself, the attorney stumbled down the stairs. He was playing with the loose change in his coat pocket, trying to scoop it into his hand. He stopped right outside the elevator, fiddling with the coins. Maud could have reached out and touched his right shoulder. His boozy breath made her nostrils flare.
“Not enough cash . . . have to use my card . . . can’t see a fucking thing . . .”
Swaying unsteadily, the attorney moved toward the wide marble staircase. Maud tensed her muscles. When he reached the edge of the top step, she summoned all her strength and shot across the landing, cannoning into his calves with the walker.
“What the f—”
That was all the attorney managed to say before he lost his balance and tumbled down the stairs, his arms waving helplessly. The dark, flapping overcoat made him look like a clumsy bat. Or possibly a vampire, Maud thought as she hurried back to her apartment. She did, however, remember to screw the bulb back in place before she went inside. She parked the wheeled walker just behind the door as usual. She didn’t bother checking to see whether the attorney was still alive. The heavy thud when he hit the floor at the bottom of the staircase had sounded like a coconut being split open.
Only when Maud heard the sirens stop wailing outside the main door of the apartment block did she open her own front door.
The neighbor opposite was standing in the stairwell, looking terribly upset.
“What’s going on?” Maud asked, making an effort to appear slightly confused.
“Oh, I’m so glad you’re home . . . I was just going to ring the bell . . . it’s the attorney . . . he’s fallen down the stairs,” the neighbor attempted to explain.
A young police officer came up and introduced himself to both women.
“Do you happen to know who the gentleman is?” he asked politely.
He was addressing the neighbor, who was at least twenty years younger than Maud. She told him the attorney’s name and where he lived. The police officer nodded and said he would go and tell the man’s wife what had happened.
“Those stairs are lethal. My sister fell down them,” Maud said in a weak voice, pointing with a trembling finger. All at once the neighbor looked calmer.
“But Maud, my dear, that was before Gunnar and I moved in. And we’ve lived here for thirty-five years,” she said, giving the police officer a meaningful glance.
She placed a protective arm around Maud’s shoulders and steered her toward her apartment.
“Let’s get you inside. You’re very welcome to join us this evening if you like, but the children and grandchildren are coming over after they’ve watched Donald Duck on TV, so it might be a bit too noisy for you . . .”
The question remained hanging in the air, and Maud quickly grabbed hold of it and said, “No, thank you. It’s very kind of you, but . . . no thank you. I’ve got my television.”
Behind her she heard one of the paramedics say to his colleague, “He stinks like a distillery.”
The ambulance and the police car had gone. Someone had come to collect the attorney’s weeping wife.
Maud arranged all the goodies she had bought for her Christmas dinner on a tea cart. She poured herself an ice-cold Aalborgs Aquavit to go with the herring. It had been a stressful day, and she felt that she had earned a little drink. The delicious aroma of Jansson’s Temptation was coming from the oven. Satisfied with the sight of the laden cart, she pushed it into the TV room and sank down into her armchair with a sigh of contentment.
At long last, the peace of Christmas descended on the old apartment block.