The Hidden Beach

Karen Swan | 11 mins

Chapter One

Stockholm, December 2019

Bell wheeled through the lights, standing on the pedals, her trousers tucked into her socks and her breath still coming hard from the last hill. She was one of the few cyclists on the road actually pedalling; all around her were commuters on their electric bikes and scooters, looking a lot more composed – and a lot less late. At least the Baltic blast that had chilled her as she’d stepped out of her apartment ten minutes ago was now merely notional, her cheeks stained with a laboured flush.

She swerved right into a narrow street and, leaning harder on the handlebars, began her ascent up the short but steep hill that she would be walking straight back down again in a few minutes’ time. Glossy black cars flanked either side of the road, some with drivers already in the front seats – for this was embassy-land, the handsome townhouses painted in deeply pigmented shades of loden, umber and terracotta red.

Reaching the top with a gasp, she finally allowed herself to sink back onto her seat again, knowing she could glide the rest of the way from here. The background drone of rush-hour traffic became muted, the birdsong and buzz of her spinning wheels amplifying as the streets fanned out, becoming wider and brighter. Parked Volvos, Audis and Jaguars stood outside plain but generous townhouses, as indicative of the family neighbourhood as the playground set atop the small, anomalous hill in the middle of the square: a rocky outcrop that the bulldozers had been unable to flatten when the city was being developed, so they had been forced to build around it instead. Bell loved the curious anomaly – the city’s smooth, ordered surfaces disrupted by a jagged poke of something older and wilder. Feral. It was probably the reason why families had settled in this district in the first place. There wasn’t a child in Stockholm who didn’t love to run and climb over it; teenagers snuck their first cigarettes and kisses on it . . .

She rounded the Rock and saw the house that was, these days, her second home. Set on the corner, it was unmissable on the block – a four-storeyed, stocky building with cantilevered Crittall bay windows running down a central column, the dark, time-blackened bricks offset by the bright verdigris of the copper mansard roof and downpipes. A high garden wall obscured the surprisingly leafy and pretty courtyard within; Oddjob, the family’s tabby cat, was sitting on top and surveying his kingdom. As she drew closer, she saw the gate set within the garden wall begin to open. She wasn’t the only one behind time today, then? An electric scooter was swung through, followed by a bespectacled man in a mid-thigh navy pea coat, a Missoni striped scarf at his neck and a brown satchel worn across his body, his lightly salted dark hair largely obscured by a ribbed beanie.

‘Hi, Max,’ she panted, her brakes squeaking slightly as she lifted over her left leg and came to a stop standing on the pedal.

‘Morning, Bell,’ he said, holding the gate open for her, and she dipped through with brisk, practised efficiency, as though this were a dance.

‘How’s it going in there today?’ she asked, propping the bike up against the garden wall and pulling off her pom-pom hat; her long dark hair immediately stood with static.

He shook his head with a roll of his eyes. ‘It’s a madhouse. I’m escaping with my sanity while I still can.’

She laughed. ‘That explains why I like it here, then. I lost mine years ago,’ she grinned, running up the back steps and opening the fully glazed back door. The ground floor of the house stood a couple of metres off the ground, to allow light into the sub-basement below.

‘Morning, everyone,’ she said cheerily, walking into the kitchen and twisting up her hair into a topknot with a band she kept on her wrist. Her eyes automatically scanned the dirty breakfast dishes in the sink, the orange juice getting warm on the island; without thought, she returned it to the fridge.

‘Oh Bell, thank heavens you’re here. I’ve got to dash. A client’s just booked an emergency appointment and they’re waiting for me.’ If Hanna’s voice suggested urgency, her movements didn’t as she shrugged on a berry-coloured coat that looked sensational against her pale blonde hair and double-checked her appearance in the mirror. As ever, her discreet make-up was expertly applied, not a hair out of place. In the three years she’d been working for the Mogert family, Bell had never seen her look anything less than flawless. Her kitchen, on the other hand . . .

Feeling a tug at her ankles, Bell looked down to find Elise, the older of the twins by nine minutes, tugging her tucked-in trousers out of her socks with a disapproving pout. Even at the tender age of three and three quarters, she had her mother’s innate sense of style.

‘Thanks, Elise,’ she smiled. ‘That’s saved me a job. Now, have you brushed your teeth and washed your face?’

Elise nodded.

Bell bent down and gently wiped a lick of jam off the girl’s pudgy cheek with a finger. She showed it to her with one of her famous bemused looks. ‘Have you?’

Elise gasped and ran from the room, scarcely able to believe she’d been rumbled.

‘She’s a rascal,’ Hanna chuckled as she grabbed her slim leather file case off the kitchen stool. ‘So, you remember Max won’t be back for dinner tonight?’

‘Yes. I’m making meatballs, so I’ll freeze whatever’s left over,’ Bell said, looking in the fridge to make sure she had all the ingredients. It looked like they were low on lingonberry jam.

‘Great. And I was supposed to get to the parents’ meeting with Linus’s teacher this evening, but this emergency might throw the whole schedule out the window. Can we play it by ear and, worst case, you can get over there for me?’

‘Oh –’ She was supposed to be seeing Ivan again tonight. It was going to be their third date and, she expected, the night. Bell looked across at the nine-year-old watching them both from the kitchen table. He had the face of an angel – softly curled muddy-blonde hair and wide grey-green eyes, a smudge of freckles across his nose. He had a gentle manner, manifested in a love for animals and the outdoors, but a mischievous sense of humour often winked through his eyes too, and the first hints of pubescence were beginning to show themselves: wanting a skateboard, cooler trainers, a Snapchat account . . .

Bell winked at him. ‘Sure, no problem.’

She watched as Hanna skittered over to him and gave him a noisy kiss on his cheek, making him scrunch his face in a look of delighted disdain. ‘I love you, my Liney . . . And thanks, Bell, you are a lifesaver!’ she said with an appreciative point of her finger, before throwing Linus another kiss from across the room and exiting through the back door in an elegant streak.

It clicked shut behind her, but not before Blofeld, the family’s other cat, slipped in and trotted across the kitchen floor. Bell looked across at Linus again, seeing how he watched until Hanna disappeared from sight down the steps. A room always felt different when she left it, as though the oxygen–nitrogen balance of the air itself changed; she was somehow all things – elegant yet chaotic, softly spoken yet commanding.

‘Right, champ, you just about ready to shoot? One of us overslept her alarm this morning, and you’ve got your maths quiz today. We don’t want to be late,’ she said, immediately setting about gathering the dirty plates off the kitchen table and putting them in the sink – out of sight until she could deal with them later.

‘I don’t want to go,’ he said, watching as Bell wiped a blob of honey off the worktop with a tear of kitchen paper.

‘Sure you do.’ It was the same every Wednesday morning, maths not being his strong point. ‘What’s eight times four?’

‘Thirty-two.’ The hesitation had been only fractional. They had spent every morning and afternoon walk to and from school this week learning this times table.

‘Nine times eight.’ She glanced up at him as she scooped up the carton of oat milk and replaced it in the fridge, along with the jam, cheese and pickles.

‘. . . Seventy-two.’

She gave an impressed nod. He hated the numbers higher up the ladder. ‘Eleven eights.’

‘Too easy,’ he scolded. ‘That’s a cheat one.’

She shrugged. ‘If you think that, then you’re totally ready. You’re going to slay it today and that gold star will be yours.’

‘Nils will beat me. He always does.’

‘Not this time. You’ve got this. He got the fours and the sevens and the threes, but you got the fives, sixes and nines. And now the eights will belong to you too.’

He stared at her. Could it be true? Could he really beat his old foe? She gave a nod in silent affirmation and he slid off the chair. ‘Good boy – shoes on. And tell your sisters they’re wearing their hats. No arguments. It’s bitter out there this morning.’

He darted out of the kitchen, hollering up the stairs at the twins as Bell rinsed the coffee machine’s foamer before the milk dried to a stubborn crust. Twenty seconds later, there came the stampede of tiny feet down the stairs.

‘Let me see,’ Bell said as they skidded to a stop in front of her, mouths pulled back in rictus grins to show their gleaming milk teeth. ‘Very good,’ she smiled, wiping a bit of toothpaste from the corner of Tilde’s mouth and taking the hairbrush from her hand. ‘Now who’s having plaits today?’

‘Me!’ Elise’s hand shot up first.

Hanna and Max didn’t mind the girls wearing the same clothes – as was often their wont – but they liked their hair to be worn in separate styles to impose some sense of difference between them. The point of the exercise was to promote the girls’ individuality but it was a helpful marker of distinction for the outside world too: they really were truly identical. When she had first started, it had taken Bell several weeks to confidently know which twin was which, but now she saw their differences easily. Both had what Max called his ‘buggy’ blue eyes and long limbs, but whilst Elise had their mother’s self-composed Mona Lisa smile and confidence, there was a tiny crook to the left in Tilde’s grin, and her left foot was fractionally pigeon-toed – the faintest strain of a palsy? It was common in twins.

With practised deftness, Bell quickly brushed Elise’s white-blonde hair free of her bedtime tangles, ignoring her dramatic squeals of protest, and plaited it into pigtails. Tilde had a half-ponytail with a blue gingham beribboned band. ‘Okay, very smart. Now boots on. Hats on. Gloves on. Quick-quick-quick.’

Linus walked back in, fully dressed and with his backpack already shrugged on his shoulders. His lips were moving but no sound escaped them as he ran through the eights again.

‘Five eights?’ Bell said, knotting the girls’ scarves.


She hitched an eyebrow fractionally as she pulled their hats down over their ears.

‘Forty! Five eights are forty,’ he corrected himself quickly, the panic evident in his voice.

‘Good boy. Don’t worry. It was just a slip. Remember to breathe.’

He shot her an annoyed look. Nine-year-old boys didn’t appreciate mindful reminders such as remembering to breathe.

‘Okay. Have we got everything?’ She assessed them swiftly. Everyone was clean and bundled up. ‘Right, quick march. We’ll have to walk fast if we’re not going to be late.’

‘Did you oversleep again Bell?’ Elise asked.

Bell shot her a bemused grin. ‘Cheeky . . . And yes, I did.’

‘I can take my board and go on ahead,’ Linus said immediately, as though helpfully.

Now it was Bell’s turn to shoot him a look. He knew perfectly well his mother’s views on that, with all the hills in their neighbourhood.

‘Fine,’ he muttered, walking to the back door and holding it open as the twins followed after him – a reluctant young gentleman, but a gentleman nonetheless.

‘Twelve eights,’ Bell said, locking the door as the girls ran down the steps to see whether the birds had eaten any of the seeds they had left out on the bistro table overnight. The frosts were still hard at the moment, and all four of them had been broken-hearted to find a dead sparrow on the ground the other morning.

Inside the house, the phone started ringing just as Bell pulled the key from the lock. She sighed and hesitated, staring back in at the superficially tidy kitchen – the dirty dishes hidden from view here, the crumbs too small to see on the counters. But the signs of a sprawling, unwieldy life lay scattered everywhere: a basket of laundry had been brought up from the utility room, ready for ironing; a raincoat from last night’s showers was slung across the back of a hemp linen armchair, rather than hanging from its designated hook, no doubt leaving a water mark. The weekend’s newspapers had been carried through from the living room, almost but not quite making it to the recycling bin. The water in the glass vase of lilies had been used up, she saw, and needed immediate refreshing . . .

She dithered as she listened to the phone ring on the other side of the glass. They would be late if she answered it, but there was something always so urgent, so insistent about a ringing phone. The ringtone for her mobile was set to ‘Lark’, far less . . . pressing. What if it was Hanna or Max? Had they forgotten something? Hanna had been in her version of a rush, with that emergency . . .

‘. . . Ninety-four.’

Huh? She glanced back towards the outdoor table. The girls were kneeling on the cafe chairs, freeing the sunflower seeds from their stuck-down positions with little fingertips. She made a mental note to remind them to wash their hands if they handled the chicks that had recently hatched at their nursery; now that the babies were a couple of weeks old, the children were allowed to pet them.

‘Twelve eights are ninety-four . . .’ Linus frowned. ‘No – wait . . .’

‘I’m just going to answer that quickly,’ she said with an impatient sigh, pushing the key back into the lock. It might make them a minute later, but it would be sod’s law Hanna did need something, and then she’d have to do an extra trip back here later. ‘It might be Mamma.’

Unlocking the house, she ran back in again, eyes fixed on the handset and the glowing blue digital screen. It would go to voicemail any –

‘Hello?’ she panted, reaching it just in time.

‘Hanna? Hanna Mogert?’

Her shoulders sagged. ‘No, I’m sorry, she’s not here. Who is calling, please?’ she asked in brisk Swedish.

‘This is Dr Sorensen from the Larna Klinik.’ The woman’s voice was officious and clear. As a psychotherapist, Hanna worked with a lot of different institutions and facilities, although this one was new to Bell. ‘I tried her cell just now but it wouldn’t connect.’

‘Yes, she’s rushing to work. She probably didn’t hear it in her bag. Can I take a message for her?’ She tried not to sound as impatient as she felt. Glancing back, she saw Linus on the top step, a look of panic dawning on his beautiful face, lips moving rapidly as he tore through his repetitions again. ‘Ninety-six,’ she mouthed to him.

‘It would be preferable to speak to her directly. It is urgent.’

Bell suppressed a sigh. ‘Well, you’re welcome to keep trying her. But she’s dealing with an emergency herself, so I’m not sure how contactable she will be this morning.’

There was a pause down the line as options were considered, weighed, discarded, accepted. ‘And to whom am I speaking?’

‘I’m her nanny.’

‘Of long standing?’

Bell frowned. Was she being interviewed? ‘Three years.’

‘I see.’ That appeared to pass muster. ‘Well, then, if you could pass a message on to her, please.’

‘Sure. It was Dr Sorensen, you said . . .’ she muttered, grabbing a biro that had been left beside a half-done crossword and writing it on the top of the newspaper. ‘From the . . .?’

‘Larna Klinik. She has my number.’


‘It is really very urgent. If you can please pass on to her –’

Linus stepped back over the threshold, eyes wide, tears threatening. ‘Bell, I can’t remember them. They’ve gone.’

‘– so the sooner she can get here the better.’

What? Bell blinked at Linus blindly as the two simultaneous pronouncements clashed and clattered in her brain, each one vying for her attention. She turned away from him, certain she had misheard the voice on the phone.

‘I’m sorry, that makes no sense. I think you must have the wrong number . . .’ But even as she said it, she frowned; the doctor had clearly asked for Hanna Mogert. ‘Hello? . . . Dr Sorensen? . . . Are you there?’