Therese Tungen: The Lover (Short story from the book Love, or something like it)

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From Love, or Something Like It: Stories (Kjærleik og det som liknar: Noveller) by Therese Tungen Translated from the Norwegian by Alison McCullough

The Lover Magni woke and looked up at the ceiling. She lay with her hands down by her sides, in exactly the same position as when she had fallen asleep. The room around her was half dark – she didn’t know where she was, which way up she was lying, whether it was morning or night. She lay there, still and breathing, with the sense that everything was over but only she remained – as if a wind had swept across the world pulling all living things with it, or the years had simply rushed past while she slept – that the kids were fully grown, that her parents were dead, or that she herself was a child. As if the doors between then and now – between childhood and all that awaited her – stood open and swinging, and all that had been and all that was to come was muddled together. This was just how it was – she was used to it – and the feeling always passed after a while. She just had to wait. She sat up in bed, carefully stretched her back. The glass of water on the windowsill had been standing there since yesterday evening. The water had turned pale with air bubbles; lukewarm and soft, it filled her mouth. She fumbled for her phone to check the time – threethirty in the afternoon. She logged on to to check the news, as she usually did. When she saw the main story at the top of the page, an anguished sound rose from her throat. She felt stupid, confused. She had just been dreaming about him. The apartment was empty – she’d been asleep for over an hour. She looked out of the window, as if in an attempt to find some kind of validation. It was early December; outside, it was already almost dark. She heard the bells of the horse and sleigh that passed by on the street. The thin branches of the birch trees stretched themselves into a latticework, dark lines against the mellow light of the city behind them. Total darkness never fell. The photograph that accompanied the news story showed a steep cliff – she knew immediately that it was him they had found, even though his name wasn’t mentioned. An

Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


experienced mountaineer from Northern Norway, the article said. A man in his fifties, a father of three, a resident of Trondheim. She got up, a little unsteady, casting aside the blanket and walking through the living room. A reddish glow smouldered in the wood burner; only the embers remained. The ash had settled in tiny grey flakes on the surfaces around the stove, on the floor and the little shelf just above it. Before she had fallen asleep, the sun had been white in the sky. Matt and white. She had slept through the lightest hour of the day. She stood beside the window, feet cold against the floor. Met her own gaze in the glass; eyes large and shining, expression flat. There were people queueing from the entrance to the farm and all the way down the street, bundled in thick jackets, hats and mittens; breath like thin smoke streaming from their noses and mouths. Magni rested her head against the windowpane so that the cold could penetrate her addled brain. She knew that Jørgen was out on the heritage farm with the kids, walking through the crowds between the tiny stalls full of things for sale, the horse and sleigh that went around and around. Clicking sounds came from the metal of the wood burner. Laughter and voices, the jingling of a bell. It was like this every year on the first Sunday of Advent, when the farm put on an old-fashioned Christmas fair for the locals. Frost rose like smoke from the mouths of the people outside, from the horse making its tenth round of the square, from the partly frozen river that twisted its way down to the fjord a hundred metres away. They were there. She was here. She couldn’t stand crowds. A twenty-metre-high cliff, up on a ridge in Trondheim. The article said he had three children. Had he been climbing up the rock face, or down? It only meant that he hadn’t changed, she thought. People like him don’t change. But still – he could climb, there was no reason to believe he might fall. Unless he was drunk. He must have been drunk – on the way home from a party. So sure of himself; certain that he could do anything. She had never thought that he might die – that he was a person who could die. She had tried to imagine it, long ago: if he was dead, his hold over her would finally have been broken. Then time had worked in her favour; her life had become a different one. But that his body could die – that his genitals, his skin, could die – the thought was impossible. She felt rotten at her core; picked up a cardigan from where it lay over the back of a chair, draped it around her shoulders. Then she stood up and took a few steps. Stood in the middle of the living room, looking about her. The floor around the wood burner was dirty; she turned on a lamp, saw the dust that covered the bulb, the glass shade. It wasn’t long since she had last gone over everything with Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


a duster. It felt as if she did nothing but go around wiping up dust, watering the plants, picking things up from the floor. But soon afterwards she would have to water the plants again; wipe up the dust again. It came from the road – exhaust fumes, dirt and grit creeping in through the cracks. Tiny flakes of ash from the wood burner settled on the shelf, the floor. Her kids were out there, somewhere in the throng – they would be tugging at Jørgen, wanting to buy everything they saw. She knew what they were like. She was here, waiting for them. Didn’t want them to come back; wanted to be alone. The wood burner made a clicking sound. He was dead. In her dream he had been on the train, sitting there on a seat slightly up ahead of her. He had his two kids with him (she’d thought he had two), but they were grown – teenagers – as if life was charging ahead at a furious pace for him, too. A simple arithmetic problem – two numbers cast out into the air by one of the kids, but he couldn’t seem to add them together. The problem was easy – 27 plus 4, or something like that – a simple calculation, which she didn’t understand the purpose of. It was like being underwater, everything moved so slowly – she worked out the sum in her head, and once she had the answer she wanted to shout it out to him. But then she would have had to reveal herself, show that she was there. So she said nothing. The image that accompanied the news story showed the steep rock face from which he had fallen, grey and precipitous, just beside a row of houses. There was a staircase in the background, and at the bottom of the mountain slate could be seen glimmering wetly in the stone, in the rock. It looked so cold in the photograph. He must have fallen at some point during the night, then been found early in the morning – that is, today. Sunday. Yesterday, as she went to bed, he was still alive – in the city where she once had lived. It had been autumn when she met him – a Saturday. She had just turned nineteen, and that evening, just a few weeks after she had moved to Trondheim, she was out with her flatmates Camilla and Helge, and some of their friends from Nordfjordeid. They were at a piano bar full of people, both students and older individuals. He was in the middle of the room – or at least this was how she remembered it afterwards – that he stood there at the centre of things, pulling everyone’s attention towards him. And the more time that passed between then and now, the clearer he became in that room. The bar was full of people, but she remembers only him: he was wearing a red headscarf and a white turtleneck sweater, and he smiled and looked so pleased that her eyes were continually drawn to him. They took a seat at Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


a table slightly closer to the pianist; people stood around them, drinking and dancing. At one point he disappeared, and she made her way to the bar’s innermost room. She danced, her body light, almost weightless as she jumped up and down in time to the YMCA – didn’t understand which letters were in the song but let her arms swing this way and that as the others did. Camilla stood before her, slinging her arms about and laughing loudly. She looked drunk, but Camilla almost never drank – she was just happy. There were people all around them, packed in tightly, and Magni liked it, how she seemed to be part of a bigger body, an energy that dissolved all differences, everything movement, pulse and sweat – she disappeared into the music. Then she sensed someone behind her, a body against her body, breath against her ear, and when she turned around it was him who was standing there. Suddenly the song was over, her face was sweaty; a slow number crept out of the speakers and he held out his hand to her. His eyes were black pieces of coal. No thanks, she said, and laughed. Oh, come on, he said, putting his hand to his heart and looking dejected. Camilla stood beside them, eyebrows raised – not trying in the slightest to hide what she thought of him. Magni smiled apologetically, turned towards him and put her arms around his shoulders; he pulled her to him in an awkward, close dance. Are you a ballerina? he asked when the music stopped and the lights were turned on. She laughed at him; told him to knock it off. Then they were standing outside, their bodies sweaty beneath their coats, and when he wondered whether they could leave together she took only the briefest moment to consider. She said goodbye to the others; said she would be home later. That is not a good idea, said Camilla, who was three years her senior, tugging at her arm. You have no idea who he is, she said, looking at her insistently. But Magni knew perfectly well who he was. She knew what she was doing. She went with him to a small office he had access to and he was like an animal, licking her in the ear, down her neck, her chest. She didn’t want to go any further – he was a stranger – and she froze. I thought we wanted the same thing, he said, standing there with his closely cropped hair, dark eyes, a kind of smile. But I can take a no, he said. He nodded towards a sofa; conjured up a sleeping bag that he pulled over them like a blanket. She lay in front of him, the weight of his body against hers. It was so close; confined. She almost rolled off several times and he threw an arm across her, hard, and held her tight. The sofa was beige and threadbare; she closed her eyes and tried to sleep. She was so tired, it was the middle of the night; she tensed her body so as not to fall onto the floor. No, ugh, this isn’t going to work, she said finally. No, it isn’t, he said, but he continued to hug her to him, half asleep.

Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


Before she left, she wrote her number on a scrap of paper. The ballpoint pen was running out, and for a moment she stood there and wondered whether she should write down her actual number or give him a fake one. You have to give me a kiss, then, he said, and she moved across to the sofa, bent down and kissed him on the mouth. Then she went out through the door, out through the gate and over the bridge. Walked home along empty streets, seagulls attacking empty hamburger wrappers around her, a few broken bottles on the ground. She pulled her arms close about her; was wearing a short skirt and so felt a frost enter her body. Was joyless, because there was nothing good about what had happened. The next day Princess Diana died, and in her diary she wrote about Diana, not about the man she had met. The encounter seemed too fresh for her to write anything about it; she felt a heavy pounding in her stomach whenever thoughts of it arose. She thought of his head – hair closely cropped and dark and so thick that it looked like fur – making its way down her body; his hands on her backside under her skirt. She couldn’t shake the thought of it. She clearly remembered how the telephone on the wall rang, making her jump, her heart pounding strong and quick, but she stayed sitting at the table. She was reading a book by Virginia Woolf, and didn’t look up until Camilla said it was for her. It’s your dad, she said, her face expressionless – both she and Helge were mad at her for staying out late into the night. Her father’s voice on the telephone – he rarely called, but now he was wondering whether she’d heard the news? Diana had been in a collision in a tunnel in France, both she and her Arabic boyfriend had died – Diana and Dodi. Terrible news, said her father. The paparazzi had taken pictures of her in the wreckage as she lay there dying, circling like predators around the car and snapping photo after photo – several of them did so instead of helping, stuck in the hunting mode they had been in as they chased alongside the car on their motorcycles. Diana was sitting in the back seat. She was still alive when the emergency services arrived. Beside her was her bodyguard, severely injured. Neither of them had been wearing their seat belts. Magni’s father had seen it on TV – awful people, he said – and sounded upset. Magni was upset, too. The news was so sudden – her hungover brain couldn’t quite take it in. Diana had been there throughout her entire life. She always looked so sad and lonely in photographs – even when she was surrounded by people. Magni had cut pictures of her from the weekly magazines and put them up on the wall. Then she had grown older, and after a time Diana’s other traits had become evident. She sat through TV interviews, her eyes large and shining, talking about her anorexia and how she could feel so unsure of herself. Her

Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


gaze and her expression – she looked like a little girl in the body of a grown woman. She had two small children. A couple of hours later the telephone rang again. She was in the shower when Camilla called out to her; dripping and breathless, she hurried to the phone. Her housemates’ eyes followed her from the sofa where they sat huddled together, watching a film on TV. It’s Eskil, he said down the receiver, his voice calm and soft. He’d been thinking about her, wanted to check that she’d made it home okay. I thought your name was Askil, she said. He laughed, said that yes, he hadn’t been able to remember her name, either. It was a good job she’d written it on the scrap of paper, he said – otherwise he probably wouldn’t have dared to call. He said he was curious about her; wondered whether they could meet later in the week? It was a brief conversation. She’d go to his place on Wednesday. He lived far out in the hills, almost in the countryside. Afterwards she went straight into her room; sat on the bed with her hair still wet and stared at the wall, the piece of paper with his address on it quivering slightly in her hand. She’d have to buy a portable electric heater – it was starting to get cold. When Jørgen got back, she was supposed to have dinner ready for them. That was the plan. They had prepared a meat stew before they went out; fried the meat, chopped the onions and carrots, put everything in a big pan and set it on the stove on a low heat. Only the mashed potato needed making. In the middle of the windowpane was a greasy mark left by her forehead. She couldn’t even remember having gone across to the window. The queue to enter the farm was almost gone now – just a few people remained by the entrance, where a man dressed as Father Christmas was selling tickets. As she stood there the horse and sleigh passed by beneath the window, the mighty Dole horse seeming as if it had stepped straight out of history – the sleigh looked so strange with all the kids in their brightly coloured overalls in it. She automatically looked for Lea and Jens. They must still be out on the farm. They’d been gone for almost two hours; would probably soon be home. She had come across her diaries from that time a little while ago. She’d thought they’d been lost – that they had disappeared when her parents moved out of the house in the centre of town. Her mother was absent-minded; she suspected her of having thrown out the box along with everything else that had ended up being sent to the dump – had imagined the notebooks lying there, soaking up the damp, becoming unreadable. But then she was up in the loft one day, clearing out some of the children’s clothes, and there it was, the box, labelled Student stuff, Trondheim, all the way at the back of the top shelf. So much we forget; so much that Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


simply disappears for us. She must have put it there herself when they had moved from Kampen, and here to Sagene. Pathetic tiny relics from another time – a pair of boxer shorts, a worn-out T-shirt, three or four cassette tapes she’d been given, music from friends, from boys. And several notebooks filled with writing. She should have been relieved – she’d been looking for them for a long time – but relief was not what she felt. I think I’m doing better now, she had written at one point. I’ve only thought of Eskil 41 times. And then, a few days later: I can’t stop thinking about him. Two months later: I think I need to see him one last time, otherwise I’ll never be able to move on. In the black and red notebook she found his name everywhere – Eskil, Eskil, Eskil. Letters and notes were stuffed between its pages; newspaper clippings and old letters. And the handwriting changed – sometimes the characters were bold and slanting, others round – she read sections she couldn’t believe she had written. She wrote about love, and wondered whether she would ever experience it – this was before Eskil. She wrote about death. About Marguerite Duras. Marguerite, who lives in a tiny house in the countryside, who in the dusk turns on her many small lamps as she waits for her lover, the homosexual Yann Andrea Steiner. The young Duras, with gold shoes and a gentleman’s hat. A black car waiting outside the boarding school, ready to take the thin, white girl to her Chinese lover. The muntins that cast their shadow, dogs howling from the quay, the smell of spices, the city penetrating the room they inhabit while they are simultaneously hidden from the world. The way he breached her body – it couldn’t have been otherwise – desire written across her face, a visible craving. The girl is nothing but a child – four or five years younger than Magni. When she thought of the novel later, it was this sentence that remained for her, from the beginning of the book: ‘Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.’ Magni hadn’t understood it at the time, but the words were a kind of warning, a predictor of what would also happen to her and her body, her face. She was young, she had an unmarked face, an open gaze, no filter – not naive, but not small-minded, either. Now her face was built up of layers and furrows, deep lines around her mouth – a mouth that looked dissatisfied as soon she wasn’t smiling – dark circles under her eyes. The ankylosing spondylitis also made its mark on the outside of her body. She wasn’t one of those who were worst affected – there were many who suffered more greatly than she did – but it was bad enough that it changed her in a way that she wouldn’t have been changed were it not for the disease: the stiffness in her lower back that had gradually spread throughout her, the way she Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


moved, the tired look in her eyes. When she had good days, they always came with the following reservation: how long would it last this time, and how bad would she be when it ended? She was ageing more quickly than Jørgen. They both knew this, but pretended not to notice. On Wednesday evening, four days after they had met, she took the bus out to where he lived. She read To the Lighthouse while the bus, almost empty, glided past birch trees bleached by the autumn, a park where a man stood watching a child playing in the rain, past apartment buildings – before the driver changed gear and drove down the narrow roads that twisted their way up the hillside. The city was just as damp as she’d been told it would be – its climate the complete opposite of the valley where she grew up. Her hair and shoulders were wet – Magni had never owned an umbrella; hadn’t worn rain gear since she was a child. Every now and then she glanced at the piece of paper that told her which stop she should get off at. The bus was empty; it was just her and the driver. She got off, but when she was standing on the pavement she had no idea which way to go – was it to the right or the left? The roads extended to either side of her, broad and long – neither of them featured the name she had written down. Rainwater trickled down her neck. Above all, she wanted to just give up, to simply stand at the bus stop and wait for the bus that would take her back to the city – but of course that wasn’t an option. When she had made her way a little further down the hill she saw the blue and orange sign of a Statoil petrol station to her right. She crossed the road at the pedestrian crossing, went inside and asked whether she could use the toilet. A cheery, light-haired boy a few years older than her pointed to the corner, where a steep spiral staircase led down into the cellar. Magni walked unsteadily down the stairs, into a tiny room containing a toilet and cleaning equipment. When she wiped herself, the paper was soaked through and slick. Oh God, why did these things always have to happen to her? She imagined it running down her thighs when she arrived, wiped herself again, pulled up her trousers and washed her hands in the cold water. Back upstairs, she borrowed a map and the boy helped her to find the street she was looking for. It’s rare that anyone asks for a map these days, the boy said. He was nice, his face open, transparent. She wanted him to look her in the eye and say something along the lines of ‘Hey, don’t do it – don’t go see that guy up there. Go home, he’s not good for you.’ But he didn’t say anything like that. Instead, he pointed at a speck on the map and declared, satisfied, that that’s where it was. Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


Her heart beat hard when she saw where he lived. It couldn’t be far away, a little further down the street and to the right. It’s glaringly obvious, she thought. They can see it on me – everyone knows where I’m going. She bought a chapstick, because she felt she had to buy something. When she came out of the petrol station it had stopped raining. He stood in the doorway, waiting, as she came up the steps. He was as she remembered him – good-looking, short-haired, with narrow, smiling eyes. He was from the far north of the country – as far north as the border with Russia. Was that what people looked like up there – such golden skin, such dark eyes? So this is where you live, she said. She took off her shoes, set them neatly on a kind of heated mat. This is it, he said, walking ahead of her and throwing out his arms, inviting her inside in an official, ironic way. Curtains, blankets, pictures on the walls, a large, black table with many chairs around it. Several guitars hanging along the one wall; a large sound system against the other. How old was he? Nobody she knew lived like this. He disappeared and returned with a towel, which he held out to her. Would you like to borrow some clothes? he asked. She politely declined, wiped the moisture from her face and hair as she walked around, looking at the photographs on the walls. Several of them were of him, climbing up mountain peaks. In one of them he was surrounded by other tanned, cheerful-looking people, in front of a view across the sea. The mood of the novel she was reading was still with her – she’d been reading a little of it each day for the past week. In it, that which was once a family is dissolved. The mother – who the novel is about – dies. How she dies is never specified – only that it happens quickly. One of the sons dies, too, in the war, the First World War, that sheer massacre of young men who kissed their mothers and went away and died. The summer house falls into disrepair; years pass. Then they’re there once again, the young painter Lily Briscoe, the now grown children, the old father who feels so sorry for himself. Their grief lies just below the surface, but nothing much is said about it, about the dead. The dead mother, the sad father. Magni was moving away from her life – or at least that was how it felt – away from the person she was, or the person others had known her to be. An hour after she had arrived she lay in his bed, looking up at the ceiling. She was wearing her trousers and bra. Her T-shirt lay on the floor. She had never had sex with anyone – but she certainly wasn’t going to tell him that. He sat on the edge of the bed, bent over and Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


unzipped her trousers, pulled them down her thighs. She put her hands atop his and weakly shook her head. He kissed her on the stomach, she felt him pulling at her tight, wet trousers; she opened her eyes, he glanced up at her and continued. Her mother’s face flashed past – an inquisitorial look – she closed her eyes and lifted her backside, ever so slightly, and he coaxed her trousers and underwear down her legs. She felt his damp breath against her thigh and covered her eyes with her hands. That night, she hardly slept. He lay in front of her, curled up tight like a child. He was completely still; she could hardly hear his breath. She lay behind his back, fixed the back of his neck, so thin and brown, with her gaze. His skin was warm and extremely soft; she carefully bent forward so she could take in the smell of him. Was it possible for someone to smell warm? She knew that he was older than she’d first thought, but not how much older. He lay there, sleeping, not knowing that when he touched her, he opened a space. When she was little and visited her friend’s house, she would go straight to the conch shell he had set on a shelf and put it to her ear. It was the first thing she did whenever she visited him. The conch was fat and glazed, with darker flecks among the light, almost like freckles or moles. Its opening was jagged and narrow. It wasn’t until she put it against her ear, as her friend stood there waiting for it to be his turn, that she heard the sea. The whispering rushing of the sea – which she had never seen, and nor had her friend. She lay on her side, her knees drawn up. She knew she would be with many others in the future – that he had paved the way for those still yet to come. She knew almost nothing about him, only that he had photographs of himself on the walls and a large stereo system, that he worked in IT. Did she know, even then, that he was nothing to her, nor she to him? Her breathing slowed, deepened. She didn’t know she would come to love him. Had she done so, she would have put on her clothes and left. Finally she fell asleep, lay there dozing, woke again – each time equally surprised that she wasn’t alone, that he was there in front of her. Outside the morning slowly brightened, and when the alarm clock rang, it was as if she had only just fallen asleep. Her lecture on Russian formalism started in an hour. She heard them long before they made their way up the steps outside the apartment. Dear God, how those kids could make a racket – it was as if they had to shriek in order to get themselves up the stairs. It was hard to tell whether it was joy or frustration they expressed – sometimes they didn’t even know themselves, they switched from one to the other so quickly. Then they were there, Lea and Jens, red-cheeked and eyes shining with the cold. They kicked Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


off their boots and cast off their hats and threw themselves around in the narrow hallway. She stood there, looking at them in astonishment. Jørgen stood just inside the door, also red in the face, and with his hat in his hand and his hair sticking up. He put his hat on the bench; pulled off his jacket. Is everything okay? he asked. Yes – I think so. I just feel a little thick-headed, she said. My body aches, she said, stroking one arm across the other. She said she wasn’t quite finished preparing the food yet. That’s okay, he said. Kids – take your clothes into the bathroom! He chased after them, throwing hats and mittens and shoes in ahead of them. And your jackets, too – don’t just throw them on the floor! She had never told him about Eskil. Why had she never told him about Eskil? Why had she kept it a secret? Jag sitter og glor under torra träd og lyss til de hesa skriken. Jag ligger snart still under tomma träd og ruttnar bland fågelliken. All these poems and excerpts about death in her diary. Back then, she knew nothing about dying. Her grandparents were still alive, her mother still in good health – even the cat that lived back home with her parents was still alive. Blind in one eye, drooling and fat, but just as happy to see her each time she went home to visit. Hope the cat’s okay, she had written in a letter to her parents that was pressed between the diary’s pages, and which for some reason or other she had never sent. Don’t give him too much food, he was pretty fat the last time I was home. What was death to her back then? She could no longer remember; recalled only that it was sometimes hard to be alive. She hadn’t said anything about the diaries to Jørgen, either. She’d had her reasons, but they lay somewhere in the same gloaming as everything else that had happened back then. Something had happened, gradually, and during her thirties she had become someone other than who she had been, who she ‘really’ was. She looked back on her time in Trondheim, saw herself walking along the streets, to the library in town – how she was continually on the lookout for him, for his blue parka, for his car. After a time she started to sit in a café near his office, hoping to see him arrive or leave, but it never happened. To look back was to see herself as another person. On the rare occasions she met people she knew from back then it was as if they had been frozen in time, while she had taken rapid steps towards old age. Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


Meeting old acquaintances was like opening a trapdoor onto her past – they were exactly as they used to be. She often felt strangely comforted by this. They were healthy, she was sick, which meant that life went on. If she heard that someone she knew had got cancer or a chronic illness, she was so petty as to feel relief at this, too – that she was no longer alone in having a disease that reduced her life; that shrunk her possibilities and made the contours of a future seem less clear than they were for others. She had rid herself of Eskil eventually – she was finally rid of him, no longer saw his car anywhere, no longer looked for his parka. It was a long way from Trondheim to Oslo; twenty years had passed since she had been with him. She had two kids, a husband, a job – there was so much to think about all the time, she was so tired, she never usually thought about him. He might pop up in the newspaper every now and then – he was a big name in the Norwegian climbing scene, was repeatedly setting out on expeditions, had launched an app that hikers used. Whenever she saw a photograph of him she felt a pang of discomfort; quickly turned the page. In her dreams, it was different – there, he had free rein. He might pop up in her childhood home, be there along with her parents in the tiny house where they no longer lived. The house had been demolished when the new highway was built; it no longer existed. But in this non-existent house he would suddenly be there at the door. He’d been thinking of her for all these years and finally come to get her, he said. He would arrive only to disappear, so that she once again sat there with nothing but her longing for him. And when she and Jørgen slept together. Well – that part was difficult. After she had found the diary from that year a few months ago, and read it all and remembered how it really was, he had come alive for her again, his body, the smell of him, and sometimes she might think of Eskil when she and Jørgen had sex – she might close her eyes and feel Eskil’s mouth against her own, feel his hips moving behind her in the bed. It was Eskil who was there with her – as long as she kept her eyes closed it was him, his lips, his breath, a tall shadow in the darkness who did as he pleased with her. On such nights she would come with a long, agonising howl, and Jørgen would lay against her, astonished and happy, and with the expectation that something might have turned a corner for them, that they had found one another once more. How old do you think I am? he asked when they were sitting together on the edge of the bed the next morning. He was naked, his dick soft between his thighs. She felt a slight irritation stir within her, without quite understanding why. Because he was asking, and hadn’t simply told her, there and then? Twenty-six? she asked, squinting at him. He held out his arm, his hand flat, lifted it slightly, and smiled. Twenty-eight? He smiled wider, lifted his hand a Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


little more. Oh, so you’re over thirty, she said. She saw the scene before her now, with the light streaming in through the window, the sun shining on his skin, shining on a tiny scar he had on his shoulder, making his skin into a surface upon which everything was clear, like looking at a landscape from an airplane – signs, shadows, lines. Short, soft hair at his armpits. The small wrinkles around his eyes. Thirty-four, he said, as if his age were a burden to him, too – a kind of mistake he couldn’t rectify. What do you think about that? he asked, raising his eyebrows. Just put the potatoes on, and I’ll hang up the clothes in the meantime, said Jørgen. The kids stood on either side of her, showing her the Christmas decorations they had bought. She looked at Jørgen, surprised. Well, I didn’t have the energy to argue, he said in English with a strong Norwegian accent. Dad, I understand English, said Lea, and everyone laughed – Magni included. Yeah, yeah, said Jørgen, wiping a hand across his face. He looked tired. They were all tired. It was December, Jørgen had too much to do; Magni napped every day after work, so he had to pick up the kids from both kindergarten and school. Lea was defiant and difficult in the evenings. In two weeks they would leave for Thailand – they were renting out their apartment over Christmas, and it had to be cleaned and tidied before they left. She washed the potatoes and put them in a saucepan with water. They needed to relax, she wanted the kids to be happy, for them to see their parents happy. I don’t want to grow up, and I don’t want to die, either, Lea said one night when she couldn’t sleep. Oh! But why not? asked Magni. You and Dad – you’re never happy, Lea said, nothing but work and tidying up and feeling tired all the time, never any fun, never any time to play. Is that what you think? asked Magni. There’s lots of nice things about being a grown-up, she said. She wanted to say more, but couldn’t think of a single thing, and so simply stroked her daughter’s head. The kids’ voices disappeared into the living room. She wondered whether she and Jørgen would separate, just as many couples they knew had done in recent years. But it really wasn’t possible – she wouldn’t be able to manage everything herself, one week with the kids, then a week alone. They could never split up, she and Jørgen. Or at least not until the kids were old enough to look after themselves. Oh, haven’t you peeled them? said Jørgen. He stood there, peering down into the pan, his arms full of wet bedclothes. She looked at him with dull eyes; choked down the irritation she always felt whenever he corrected her. Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


Well, I suppose I could peel them, she said, and carried the saucepan across to the sink. The water was already lukewarm. She emptied the potatoes into a large bowl, peeled them one by one and put them back in the pan. And cut them up, too? he called from the guest room, which they also used as a laundry room, storeroom and library. It looked like a complete nightmare in there. She took out a knife and started to cut up the potatoes in the pan, but of course this didn’t work. She grabbed the chopping board and set the potatoes on it, cut them up, threw them back in the pan. Whitish fluid seeped out from each potato half, spreading through the water. She thought of Eskil, straight after the gym, sprinkling pineapple on a ready-made pizza before putting it in the oven. Who didn’t understand that she was being sarcastic when she said he really didn’t need to spoil her. Who once, late in the autumn, when the stubble in the fields was covered with a thin layer of snow, drove her up to the university one morning when she was late for a lecture. When she got out of the car he had kissed her deeply and said that surely they didn’t need to wait so long until next time, before he drove away. He never usually said anything about when they would next meet. Usually, she just had to wait and see. She thought about it all week. Didn’t need to wait so long. He wanted to see her again. So she wasn’t completely unimportant to him. Perhaps he went around thinking about her, just as she went around thinking about him – only he didn’t find it so easy to show it. That morning had been different from all the others that had gone before. She didn’t have a lecture until ten; he didn’t have to go to work, and he made eggs and bacon for them, set the table and lit candles. She asked whether she could help with anything, and he said no, she didn’t need to do a thing. When she emerged, freshly showered, from the bathroom, the food was ready. He seemed so eager, and she did everything she could to seem relaxed; didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. He wanted to see her again. Spend time with her. This was something – it wasn’t nothing. What they had – it would hardly last – but it wasn’t nothing. She set the pan back on the stove, then stood in the living room doorway looking over at the kids. They were in the middle of some make-believe – and then you said that, and then you did that, and then you were turned into a dolphin, and then a mermaid came along and… no, a ninja, and then… It was beautiful – they slipped into the game so quickly, coupling themselves to each other, pulling each other along into the world they built up around them with their words and gestures. They each had their own superpower – anything could happen – the apartment was a tunnel, or a river that they were floating along, around and around Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


between the rooms, but it was Lea who controlled the whole thing. She was the teacher, he the student; she was the mother, he her child. No, no, no, Jens, she said in a didactic tone – you were not invisible, you were just strong. Or: You have to wait for me, because you’re my apprentice. Lea would rather stay home and play with her little brother than visit friends. When Magni stood and watched them, it sometimes occurred to her that Lea was starting to get a little too old for this kind of game – that it might be holding her back, mentally. Peeking in on them in this state was almost intimate, as if she was seeing something that should be kept hidden or secret. Every now and then, when Magni stood and thought these thoughts, she felt that she was observing her surroundings through a membrane or film, that she wasn’t present, never quite managed to be emotionally present. Other times she would look at them and think: this, and feel her eyes fill with tears. I have this now – it didn’t exist before and in a short time it’ll be over – all of family life passing over her like a warm wind and then gone – because that was what her own childhood had been like, something light and warm that lasted and lasted, and then was over and seemed like another world, something she could no longer reach. In that world there had been no siblings, but a friend who was mostly like a brother, and with whom she had played the same type of secret games as Lea and Jens, but who had later disappeared from her life. How long could Jørgen stand it? she wondered. Occasionally, when he started a sentence in a serious tone, as he often did, she would feel her body tense with the certainty that now it was coming – now he’s going to say that we need to talk, this isn’t working anymore, I can’t breathe, I need some space to myself. She had seen the tension in him – how flat his expression could be, jaw clamped shut; polite, kind words delivered with no emotion behind them. So driven by duty, a farm boy who transferred the values of the farm to their apartment: do what you can, take only what you need. One day he had told her that there was significant power in being ill. She hadn’t expected this from him, didn’t think he thought that way, but it was right, what he said – the state of her health dictated his life and level of freedom – but he had said it without resentment or bitterness. She sometimes wondered whether he loved her, or whether he was simply afraid that if he left her, she would fall apart. She’d had many dreams about him leaving her, but over the past year or so the dreams had changed. She dreamed that they were separated, that she was continually moving into new lodgings while he stayed in their apartment with the kids. In one of the dreams she lived in one of the rooms in a huge house, just across the river from their apartment building. Her room, which had once been a swimming pool, featured floor to ceiling windows. The windows were covered with newspaper clippings, which she thought of as a kind of art project. On the floor alongside the walls, both in her room and the others, were dry leaves, Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


which whirled up whenever the doors were opened. It reminded her of the loft they had once rented in New Orleans. In the dream she tried to contact Jørgen, but it was so hard to call him, and when she finally got hold of him he was occupied with the kids and had asked all their friends to dinner. And what about me? she asked. Wasn’t I supposed to see the kids today? No, she should just rest, he said, they were managing fine on their own – she didn’t need to give them a second thought. Did she love him more because she needed him, because she wouldn’t be able to cope with all this without him? Did she truly love him? She might not have chosen him when she was still young – he wasn’t the type she had been looking for. She’d seen photographs of him in his early twenties – handsome, but completely harmless. No, she probably wouldn’t have chosen him back then. But when she met him she was a grown woman, and she remembered very clearly that it had felt right. She didn’t need to play any games with Jørgen, not in the way that she was used to – pretending, holding back, making sure to appear more indifferent than she really felt. He accommodated everything about her, with her illness and her fluctuating moods that occasionally made her feel as if cold, dark water was soaking into her clothes and pulling her down. What they had was good – they wanted the best for each other. And yet sometimes she wondered whether they had ever really loved each other, as people are meant to – whether what they had was enough. I turned down the heat for you, he said from behind her. She jumped, yelling loudly and putting her hand to her heart. God, you scared me, she said. He stood there, wiping a cloth around the hotplate, mopping up the water that had boiled over. He laughed a little. Did you manage to get some rest? he asked. She said yes, said she felt so strange. It isn’t long since I woke up, she said. He stood beside her, listening, opened his mouth as if he had something on his mind, but said nothing. Simply stroked her back, his touch very light. It would be better once she felt fully awake, she thought. But then she remembered that Eskil was dead, that he was lying in a hospital somewhere, dead in a bed. If she closed her eyes, she could be there in the room with him. She sat on a chair in the middle of the room, looking over at him, where he lay on the bed with a sheet pulled up to his chest. They had placed a cloth over his skull; one of his eyes was swollen. Just the two of them in the silent room, nothing existed around them. No wife, no children. She moved across to him and looked at his face, let her fingers trail across his jaw, over his soft mouth, closed eyes. When Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


her grandmother died, she had sat beside her bed this way. Her grandmother had been so afraid in the days before she died – that was the worst thing about her death, that it was such a long time coming – and the fear in her eyes. A tear had slipped from her eye at the exact moment she stopped breathing, running down towards her ear and neck. But Eskil hadn’t had time to grieve his death – he probably hadn’t had time to think a single thought. Or perhaps he had lay there for a while on the wet ground before he died. She had no idea. Did she have any reason to grieve? Twenty years had passed – she knew so little about him, his life, how things had turned out for him. Perhaps he had become someone other than the man she had known. Somewhere along the way he had found a woman, younger than him, settled down with her. He probably no longer stood at the centre of the room, drawing the attention of young girls. Somewhere there was a woman and three children who were in shock, parents who were in shock in the tiny village close to the Russian border. Yesterday he was alive, and now he was dead, and she couldn’t think about it – she could not think about it – because then something inside her would break, and it still hadn’t done so just yet. In the beginning, they had met once or twice a week. In her diary she wrote about how hopeless it all was, that they would never make it as a couple, that it didn’t mean anything, that it was just a fling. She had used the word fling. This fling made her feel elated – she had never experienced anything like it before, never before had anyone really seen her this way – and there’s something cocky about these early diary entries. This is crazy, it won’t last, she wrote, and: We don’t know what to do, as if the both of them were utterly perplexed, and not just her. She felt sorry for the person she was back then – the skinny girl who had just left home and hadn’t yet learned how to talk about her feelings. Who was doing everything she could – even in her own diary – to keep herself afloat and not drown. On the following Wednesday she was supposed to give him a call some time in the evening – that was the plan. The day stretched out ahead of her like a desert. They had a lecture on Woolf and modernism, but she couldn’t concentrate – thought only of him. This sense of unreality – that her heart wasn’t singular and located in her chest, but that she had many small hearts all around her body, in her ears, her fingers, her groin, tiny hammers pounding against her skin. Was this what it was like to be a guy, she wondered – to think about only one thing? She’d had sex with him – not once, but many times. To think that she hadn’t known about this before, an entire world behind the curtain, a new way of experiencing the world. It felt as if a glazed layer covered her eyes; she blinked, but couldn’t get rid of it. Everything within her pulled in one direction – everything in her wanted only to Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


go up there, up into the hills, up to his tiny apartment, but there were still hours to go until their agreed time, and after the lecture and study group were over she and some of the others went into town to see Hamlet at the cinema, as their drama lecturer had encouraged them to do. She sat between Julie and Lars – the film went on and on, and it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t that, but her body ached to jump out of the chair, out into the sun, to be in a place where she could simply wait for him, for the moment to come. Kenneth Branagh in the dark, hurrying away, fleeing the king’s men. He almost trips over a grave, and the gravedigger merrily bids him welcome and brings out a skull. It was the old fool, Yorick’s, here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft, and later it was only this that remained – Kenneth Branagh’s calm yet emotional monologue with the skull in his hand, the skull of a man he had loved as a child, who he had clambered on as a child. When they finally emerged from the auditorium and came out onto the street, it was like ascending from a great darkness. She hurried home on her bike, dizzy with hunger, ate some pasta, waited until two minutes past six – and then called him. She said she really wanted him to come to her place – didn’t want a repeat of the previous week, when she’d almost missed an important lecture. She could sense his hesitation. Well, or, we don’t have to meet up today, she said. No, no – I’ll be there, he said in his slightly drawling dialect. She felt the power in the fact that he was coming to her, that he wanted to see her so badly. Cold air seeped in from the narrow window by the telephone. They lived in what had once been office premises, there was only the three of them there – her, Camilla and Helge. Below them was a workshop; to the south a little shopping centre where she sometimes bought wine and flowers at weekends. Down by the fjord, a road ran in the direction of an industrial area; behind a fenced-in patch of ground strewn with wrecked cars was the motorway with all its tiny lights, one of its arteries heading into the city and up towards the university. Every day she took the bus from a bus stop on the other side of the road, and often stayed in the reading room until late in the evening. The university building was situated far out in the countryside; from the reading room she could look out across a field where cows wandered and grazed. Sometimes, she would fall asleep at her reading room desk – she read everything, but didn’t understand what she was supposed to be reading for, what her lecturers wanted from her. There was some code she hadn’t cracked – she was aware of that – but she didn’t know how to get inside it, into the theory, or to where the theory was more than theory; how she should knead it and shape it and make it her own – express it in a way that would render her understood. Sometimes it was as if there was a membrane between her and the world, her and the lecturers. The texts could Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


seem crystal clear to her, but then they would slip away as soon as she looked up from them, or tried to communicate what she had read in her own words. He’s not using me, we’re using each other, she wrote in her diary. It was just a week since she had last seen him; six days since he had driven her home before driving off to work. After she hung up, she remained standing there by the telephone and looked out of the window, following the taillights of the small, toy-like cars, the cold creeping in between the poorly sealed moulding to embrace her, demarcating her body against the room. When she had moved into the apartment it had felt like living on an island, a spot of light in the dark; almost in the countryside, a little too far from the town centre, but the light and the noise from the traffic meant that she could always imagine that she lived in a big city. One of the cars set off from the roundabout and was gone, and then his car was suddenly parked there below the apartment with the lights on. She waited for him to get out and ring the doorbell, but nothing happened. Okay then? She finally slipped on her shoes and went downstairs. He was standing beside the car, stayed standing there until she came all the way up to him. He seemed formal and reserved; a stranger. Would she go back to his place with him? I thought you wanted to see my room? she said. I’ve got a bit of a limp, he said with a grimace. When he saw her expression he laughed, said it wasn’t serious – that he’d twisted his knee while training. But I need painkillers, he said. I have some at home. She hurried upstairs and gathered up her things. Camilla was lying on the sofa, listening to music. She asked no questions, and Magni offered no explanation. One incident in particular stayed with her from this drive: that he said he needed to pick up a few things, swung into a petrol station and left the car with the engine running while he went inside. Do you want anything? he asked. She shook her head, watched his figure through the window, thought that it could have been her working there, just as she’d done in her hometown. Standing behind the counter and serving hot dogs and sweet buns to those making their way past, travelling onwards, families wearing sports gear in dark station wagons. I could have been the girl standing there, she thought. He might have come in and said something nice to her, before continuing on his way. It seemed such a long time since she had lived at home, with her parents and the cat. Three or four loose CDs lay in the centre console, along with his large black mobile and a packet of chewing gum. He came out, limping, with a carton of milk in one hand, a loaf Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


of bread in the other. It was so humdrum, so unsensational. It made her sad to see him like this – it made her so sad that it almost floored her, it was the first time she had sat in a grown man’s car and waited, waited to be taken home to his apartment, and for him it was obviously no big deal, something he must have done many times before. He turned up the volume of the music, smiled at her, and they drove through the city, over the hills, through the tunnel, up winding roads to the sound of Elton John’s voice, and down to the squat apartment block that contained his apartment. I’ll undress him first, and then I’ll take off my own clothes. This is what he makes me do. The next day she arrived at her lecture with her neck sore from his stubble, her mouth swollen and red. A tall and enthusiastic PhD student was giving a presentation on the Frankfurt School. He occasionally broke into song and recited poetry, in both Russian and Norwegian. He was clearly enraptured – filled with joy at the theories, at all the material he had at his disposal and juggled – a joy at standing there and communicating it all to them, and, Magni noted, at how Horkheimer, Adorno and the others had been forced to flee Germany when Hitler came to power, only to regroup – not just once, but several times over, in Geneva, Paris, New York – before they came together once again after the war, more pessimistic, this time without the same belief that society can be changed for the better. And then onto the only thing most of them would remember from his lecture, because they could relate it so directly to their own lives: Shklovsky’s estrangement effect, through which language, but also life, becomes automated – how we habitually go through our days without seeing our surroundings clearly, instead taking them for granted. A hundred years ago, she heard the lecturer say, Tolstoy wrote in his diary about wiping up dust: I was cleaning and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn’t remember whether or not I had dusted it. Since these movements are habitual and unconscious I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember. Magni imagined Eskil in bed; that she was lying beside him, touching his face. This was all she wanted – to stroke his face with her hands, following the lines around his mouth. It was impossible to remember, wrote Tolstoy, – so that if I had dusted it and forgot – that is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not. When they were together they walked around half-naked, ate a little and drank coffee; then they had sex, showered, washed their hair and dried each other’s bodies. He bent down and licked her thighs, found her clitoris. She closed her eyes. Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


If some conscious person had been watching, then the fact could be established. But if nobody had seen it – seen them – did they exist? Did he exist? Nobody stopped by when she was at his place, and the sunlight hit their bodies, and people got ready to go out for a walk in the countryside, in nature – nobody saw her as she came out from the bathroom and he lay there sleeping, completely still, and she thought of him as an animal, his thick, black hair so close to his skull, his brown eyes, this northerner who was so foreign to her, and she crept close to him and stroked his hair, and they were like two animals together. She slept little and poorly when she stayed over at his place. They both lay on their sides, like children; she breathed quietly, trying to fall into the rhythm of his breath, her face pressed up against his back, and sometimes she would feel a longing to penetrate him, a wish that his skin would open for her, so that she might find a place to live there. His eyes were cunning, and often filled with humour, but he rarely asked her about anything – had little interest in hearing her thoughts, finding out who she was. It was confusing that he wanted her, her body, but not who she was inside, and she began to feel tired and worn out. They spent all their time indoors, almost always at his place. He never asked her whether she’d like to go out somewhere, to the cinema, dinner, or a walk through the fields – where she knew he most liked to spend his time at weekends. Out in nature, out there using his body. If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been, wrote Tolstoy in his diary, as quoted in the article in front of her. She looked at the lecturer speaking at the front of the auditorium; couldn’t make out what he was saying. She doodled in the margins of her notebook so as not to fall asleep. When she left the lecture theatre and pulled on her jacket she felt a sudden thump within her, because she sensed that he was so close just then – almost as if he was there with her, just as he had stood in the tiny hallway that morning and held out her jacket, gallant and oldfashioned, and she had inserted each of her arms into the sleeves as he waited, patiently. He had never done that before. She lived two separate lives. When she was with the friends she had made on her course, she never spoke about Eskil. Only Camilla and Helge knew who he was, and they gave off vibes that seemed to encourage her to say as little about him as possible. Every now and again the three of them would be home together on a Friday or Saturday night, make pizza and drink red wine. These were pleasant evenings – they rented movies and ate in front of the TV. Sometimes it felt almost symbiotic, as if their bodies merged into each other, leaning in close to one another on the sofa, wearing each other’s borrowed clothes, sitting there in a mixture of friendship and mild desire, and the only thing that might interrupt the Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


snug half-dark was the ringing of the telephone. It was often Camilla’s boyfriend who called, and he too might stop by and slip onto the sofa beside them. But every now and again the phone rang and it would be Eskil, wondering whether she wanted to meet up, on his way home from the gym or a party. Is now a good time? When this happened, she couldn’t win. If she said no – as she sometimes wanted to – she would get so angry, because sometimes one or two weeks would pass without her hearing from him again, and then she would start to fear that there wouldn’t be a next time. She couldn’t contact him more than he contacted her – that was a rule she had set for herself – a rule that didn’t just apply to him, but to others, too. But mostly to him. Don’t ask for anything. Don’t desire more from others than they desire of you. One Thursday evening she was out with Helge and a friend of his; they met Julie and some of the others from their course at a tiny, dark bar in the city. Cheap beer, mirrored ceilings, bartenders all dressed in black and who were more interested in discussing music than serving the customers. Magni was wearing a black sweater and black trousers. She had borrowed Julie’s leather jacket, as well as her eyeliner. She felt like a girl in a movie. It was only four days since she had last seen him, and it would probably be a few more days before he got in touch again, there was no reason to be on red alert every time the telephone rang, and this bar wasn’t exactly the kind of place that he and others like him frequented. It was easy to be here – she had a good and interesting life, she thought. They had one beer, and then another; she sat beside Helge’s friend, who like most other people from Nordfjord had a strange double name, which she forgot as soon as he’d introduced himself – Leif Einar, Leif Bjarne, something like that. He was studying sociology or social work. He was open and cheerful, they were all in a good mood. Tomorrow would be Friday, and nobody had any lectures to go to. After two beers they decided to move on. They traipsed down the streets, past closed shops and into an Irish pub, where they stuffed themselves into a booth beside the window. Magni could feel that she was starting to get drunk, and that she wanted it, to fall into what the alcohol provided – giddy thoughts, recklessness, boundlessness. Helge set four beers on the table before them; Magni drank hers quickly. The guy with the double name leaned towards her. You hear that song? he asked. She nodded. A guy was singing – he rolled his ‘r’s – and the music drifted slowly along with simple piano chords between the vocals. He’s experienced it, he said. You can hear it in the way he sings. Experienced what? asked Magni. She could tell that it was about love, but she didn’t speak French. Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


Ne me quitte pas, he said – don’t end it. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? He looked moved. He looked like a nice guy. Had long, black eyelashes; big, wide and unmoving eyes. Curly hair. He’s experienced wanting something without ever getting it, or has lost something he once had, he said. I see, said Magni. She was tired of being lectured on music by every boy she met – on the whole, she wasn’t so very interested in music. But he seemed slightly different, a little less over-excited and self-centred. He said that when Jacques Brel had started to sing and play, nobody had liked the eager, dramatic way in which he performed his songs. They didn’t believe in him. To make money so he could make music he lived in a cheap hotel outside Paris, teaching, spending long periods of time away from his wife and their two children, who remained in Belgium, where he was from. Only he believed, he said. And then? asked Magni. She looked about her. Julie was sticking out her tongue to prove how long it was – she did this every time they went out drinking. And then things turned around. He struggled and struggled, playing run-down venues for little money. And then he suddenly hit the zeitgeist – or was so convincing that he helped shape it. I like his songs. Timing is important, he said. Magni also liked the music; it made her sad. I have lots of his LPs, said the guy with the double name. You should come over and have a listen some time. Suddenly the music was gone; the last of his words were loud in the silence. The others laughed. Yeah – Bjørn-Einar has a big, although somewhat suspect music collection, said Helge. A biiiiiiiiig collection he said, nodding suggestively. Helge pointed a finger a Magni. Your turn to buy a round, he said. She was stung that he’d felt the need to say it. It was fine – she was going to anyway, had thought several times that she should go up and get the next round – but then of course he had to say it. It was one of Helge’s traits that she didn’t particularly like – not that he was tight, but that he was so vigilant, the way everything had to be shared so equally all the time, whether they were out drinking in town or renting a movie together. She got up and went to the bar. Just as she was trying to hold the four glasses of beer between her hands something flickered at the corner of her eye, something that seemed to have something of Eskil about it: a bright orange parka, shaggy hair and stubble – someone who looked like he enjoyed climbing or hang-gliding, who came from a scene she had glimpsed but to which she herself did not belong. She immediately started to tremble; her Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


arms and legs were shaking, and she had to pull herself together so as not to let it show. The man walked through into the next room, which led out onto a backyard – she heard voices coming from out there, it sounded as if the men who were speaking came from somewhere up north. A wave rose in her body, a force that wasn’t controlled by her brain but came from her core, her intestines, her stomach, all those tiny pounding hearts. Of course – an Irish pub – of course he was here. Of course. She was completely unprepared; it was as if someone had slapped her hard across the face. She carefully carried the glasses of beer across to the table and set them down in front of the others. I’m just going to the loo, she said, and went back, walking slowly past the other room. A guy was in there throwing darts at the dartboard on the wall; further in people were standing around a pool table. She let her eyes take everything in and breathed out, relieved. None of them was him – he wasn’t there, he was somewhere else entirely. To her surprise, she realised that she hadn’t really thought about him all evening, until now. She went into the toilet and washed her hands before returning to join the others, her legs still shaking slightly. He wasn’t here. But he was definitely somewhere tonight – so where could he be? Helge and his friend were playing a game of rock-paper-scissors about something or other. She signalled to Julie, who immediately grabbed her jacket and came over to the exit. Can I bum one? Julie asked. Magni used to only smoke at parties every now and again, but she’d recently started to buy the occasional packet of ten. She didn’t smoke much – and she knew she’d have a terrible headache in the morning. But she couldn’t care less. She took a cigarette from the pack and gave it to Julie, then stuck one between her lips. Julie took out a lighter and lit both their cigarettes. They stood there, inhaling, the smoke rising quickly to the sky in thin trails. It’s a bit boring here, said Magni. I don’t suppose you fancy going somewhere else – a quick stop at Frakken, for example? Frakken? said Julie? No – why? Magni said she felt up for a bit of dancing. Nah, come on – that place is lame, only old people go there. Magni looked down, drawing the smoke deeper into her lungs, and shrugged her shoulders. I think that guy Bjørn-Einar kind of likes you, said Julie. ‘I have quite the large collection of French chansons.’ She mimicked his dialect, pouted her lips, and laughed loudly. Oh no – cut it out! said Magni. Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


Stay here for a bit, then? said Julie, stubbing out her cigarette. But she couldn’t stay – it had taken root in her body, the fact that he was somewhere – somewhere in this city – and that it would be nice to see him. Why not? She told the others she wasn’t feeling very well; she wanted to go home. Helge offered to walk with her, albeit half-heartedly, and she said she’d be fine walking alone. Julie gave her a strange look, but said nothing. Magni wound her scarf around her neck and went out onto the street. A wind was picking up – it grabbed and pulled at her jacket – and a few raindrops hit her face. It was dark, and she walked towards the light, first one bar, then another. He wasn’t at Frakken, where she had first met him. The bar was packed; she fought her way through the premises, saw nobody she knew, nobody she knew he knew. She walked to the left, up Søndre gate and into Bajazzo, still trying to think that this was normal, going around like this, looking for people you knew. Tried not to think of Julie, sitting in the Irish pub and wondering what on earth had got into her, why she had just left. She walked from place to place where she knew he tended to meet up with his friends. A man spilled beer on her jacket as she squeezed past. Another grabbed her arm, asking her what the fuck she was so upset about. Her heart hammered away at a wild pace; she tried to move as if she was simply stopping by, was just supposed to be meeting a friend, someone who wasn’t here after all – she had her speech all prepared. Finally she gave up and went home, hurrying past the people who came towards her with their arms around each other, shouting, waving, taking up the entire pavement. A sharp sound made her jump; she let out a shriek. What she at first thought was a gunshot turned out to be a rocket set off in the middle of the road. A guy pointed and laughed when he saw the terrified expression on her face. The sharp light of the streetlamps gave the pale faces of the people around her a sickly shine. How stupid was it possible to be? Perhaps he was in bed fucking some other girl right now. She had once asked him whether he hooked up with other girls, too. He didn’t answer, and so she had asked again. Not right now, he had said, finally, and smiled. Not right now – what the hell did that mean? And they weren’t even using condoms anymore. She could suddenly find herself pregnant – with both AIDS and chlamydia. She was so sick of it, so fucking sick of it all – of interpreting everything that happened around her, all the signs he sent out – sick of the fact that even when he wasn’t there, the world was still full of signs that put her body on red alert: a dark-haired head, a blue jacket, a similar car. Signs that might point to him, but which rarely did. She had become a person who simply waited, and she didn’t want to be that person anymore. Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


When she got home, she called him, tapping out his mobile number with trembling fingers. She got the answer machine. Yeah, well – you’ll see that I’ve called, she thought. Now the ball’s in your court. If you don’t come now, there’ll be no TV tonight, she called into the living room. Not a sound. She stood in the doorway and called out once more. Didn’t they want to watch any TV tonight? They looked up. Come on then, Jens, said Lea, getting up from the floor. It isn’t much fun to stand here making dinner if nobody comes to eat it, you know, she said. Just as her mother had said it to her; just as her mother’s mother had probably said it in turn. She put her hands atop their heads and steered them towards the table. So what’s for dinner? asked Jens. Meat stew – lamb! she said, her voice jolly. Both kids gave an exaggerated groan. She couldn’t be bothered to tell them off. They knew all too well that they wouldn’t be given anything else – or at least not while Jørgen was there. If she waited long enough, they would eat, sure enough. It’s already late, said Jørgen, sitting down at his regular place. They all had regular places. They would eat dinner together – then it would be time for TV, coffee, teeth brushing and going to bed, getting up, breakfast, work, sleep, tidying away pyjamas and underwear and half-drunk glasses of milk from breakfast, getting out the door, coming back in the same door, breathing in, breathing out. But right now it was time for lamb stew, tender after many hours in the oven – Magni felt almost normal, they often enjoyed their time together like this. She had a family; this was her life. She simply had to put Eskil behind her; pack all thoughts of him into a little white paper box and set it aside. The glare from the strong spotlights in the ceiling intensified all the greasy marks on the window. On the windowsill were newspapers from this week and last – they needed to be sorted, thrown out. I have to dim the lights, she thought, as she ladled out the food for both the children and herself; meat, potatoes, cranberry sauce for her and Jens, milk in their glasses. She noticed Jens sitting there wide-eyed, pointing at her. What is it, Jens? she asked. Look at your foooooooood! he shrieked, pointing at Magni’s plate.

Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


Pale rivers of white milk mixed with the stew. Magni was still holding the carton in her hand. Everybody laughed. Oh, no, she said. Jørgen already had a long strip of kitchen roll in his hand. Probably an interesting flavour combination, he said. But surely it’s nothing to cry over? said Lea. No, of course not, said Magni, wiping away her tears. But more simply came. Jørgen placed the kitchen paper in her hands, and she patted her cheeks with it. Tears continued to stream from her eyes. Maybe I’m starting to get Alzheimer’s, she said, attempting a smile. It’s okay, said Jørgen. I’ll take care of you. Two weeks passed, and she heard nothing from him. It was probably around this time that the image was imprinted on her brain – that which would make him pop up later, again and again, in her dreams – his vibrant blue jacket, his car, a little Peugeot, a 92 model. She knew the registration number off by heart, could still remember it – that and his telephone number. Every time she heard a northern dialect, she jumped. She slept poorly, her mind didn’t function as it should; she would read long texts without anything sticking, would sit in cafés with people she knew without saying a word. She couldn’t keep track of what anyone said. When they were out in the evenings, she tried to get her friends to accompany her to bars where she knew he and the other outdoorsy types might go. The city was no longer hers – she was no longer free – she looked for signs everywhere, walked slowly past his office. When she was home she stood looking out of the window in the room where the telephone hung on the wall, her body cold from the wind that crept in through the window frame. She was cold to the depths of her soul. One Wednesday, after the study group for her ex.phil course had finished its session, she went to the hairdresser in the shopping centre and asked him to cut off her long hair. Are you sure? he asked, a fist around her thick ponytail. She said it was something she’d been thinking of doing for a long time. The hair fell down around the gown; made a wreath on the floor around her. Her ears stuck out, naked, and to finish off he used the shaver, drawing it up her thin neck. It was short – shorter than she’d imagined. She looked like a little boy. She paid the amount he asked for with a sense of indulgence. As she walked home the cold crept in – it bit her ears, lay like a cold hand against the back of her neck. Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


She and the others from her course had planned to meet at a pub just beside the Nidelva river. The old building stood on stilts that plunged down into the water. The timber walls were tilted, as was the floor; lit candles burned everywhere you looked and they sold many different kinds of beer. As she walked into the premises, she saw him immediately. He was sitting with a large group at a large, round table in one of the rooms she passed – they were rowdy, all of them sporty-looking and with tanned faces, as if they had just arrived from a warmer continent – perhaps they had, for all she knew. Her initial reaction was to give the table a wide berth so that he wouldn’t see her, but then she did the opposite, walking across to him with long strides as she pulled off her hat. Hi, she said, louder than she had intended to. Around him sat seven or eight men and two girls – both older than her but younger than him. She may as well have been standing there naked. Oh, hi, he said – surprised, smiling. It’s you. I didn’t recognise you, with the hair and all. He introduced her to the people who were sitting closest to him – said her name, nothing more, nothing about how they knew each other. It was a month since she had last spoken to him. And still she’d waited until the last minute before going out on this Friday night, just in case he called. Now he was sitting here in front of her, acting as if everything was fine. Yeah, we’re celebrating Eskil’s birthday! said the light-haired guy sitting next to him, putting his arm around his shoulders and rocking back and forth. Thirty-five – an old man now! he said, looking at Magni with a twinkle in his eye. Magni recognised the man from the first night in the piano bar. It’s your birthday? she asked, surprised, looking at Eskil. Yeah, it is, he said. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, but this lot kidnapped me. How fun, she said. She wondered which of the girls at the table he was sleeping with. Judging by the look the dark-haired one gave her, it could well be her. Her stomach burned, her eyes were brimming; she mumbled something about having a nice birthday and then went into the ladies’ toilets and locked herself in a stall. She sat there on the toilet seat for a long time, pressing toilet paper to her face, trying to breathe calmly. It was nothing to cry about; she just had to get through it. But no matter what she thought, it didn’t help. The world had closed. She couldn’t go up to him; she couldn’t go back to her friends. Finally, she dared to creep out from the cubicle, let the cold water run from the tap, wiped her cheeks with a little wet toilet paper. She held her own gaze Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


in the mirror; her face was red and swollen. It was no good. A sob rose in her throat; she squeezed her eyes shut and took a few deep breaths. Then she picked up her jacket, opened the door and walked down the crooked hallway. The slant of the floor and the walls pulled her inwards and towards the wall, when what she wanted was to get out. It was crowded; a large group came swaggering into the narrow corridor. She bent her head and flattened herself against the wall, went up the stairs, up into the cold air and home. She could hear the telephone ringing in the apartment as soon as she was making her way up the stairs. She hurried inside, not stopping to remove her shoes, heart pounding and heavy, through the living room, which was empty. A couple of beer bottles and a few glasses stood on the kitchen counter; only the weak light of the traffic outside made its way in. She stood there before the telephone. She shouldn’t pick up. It was over, it was over – she’d been thinking it all the way home. And now she’d fucking had enough. She picked up the receiver, but the phone had already stopped ringing. She stood there listening to the dialling tone for a while, looking out at the traffic, the yellow and white lights of the tiny, toy-like cars below, their red taillights. From the fjord rose the plaintive cries of the gulls that continually circled throughout the night, always on the search for food. Her hair grew out again, ever so slightly – it lay around her head like a soft helmet. As she walked around town, on her way to the gym or to and from the library, she found herself constantly on the lookout for his car. If she glimpsed the back of a bright blue jacket, the softshell type, it could take hours for her to feel calm again afterwards. She had decided not to call him, and when she didn’t call, neither did he. Was it so easy for him to just leave it like that? she wondered. She hated him for it. One night she was staggering home from town, the streets shining, the wind almost blowing her off her feet as she stumbled along, and when she came to the roundabout by the shopping centre she had to stop and hold on to the railings beside the road. She cursed her high heeled shoes, her thin jacket; aggression swelled within her. When she got home she sauntered up the steps, dizzily coaxing forth her key and letting herself in. She called him. He seemed surprised when he heard her voice, said he was on his way out to pick up some friends on his way to a party. She asked him to come over. Maybe that’s not such a good idea, he said. But he came anyway, surprisingly quickly, ascending the stairs in his parka and slightly too short jeans. She stood in the doorway waiting, wearing tight black trousers and a sparkly top. He looked at her, at her swollen face. He dried her tears, took her hand, and led her to the tiny bedroom. Lay with her in the narrow bed. Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


Afterwards he wondered why she’d suddenly gone quiet on him; why she hadn’t called. She said that she’d thought it was over. He told her she was hard to read. She shook her head, not wanting to mention the imbalance between them. I called you, she said, but you didn’t pick up. When? he asked, genuinely surprised. I don’t know – a little over a month ago, maybe? she said. He thought about this. Then he laughed. So, that was it? he said. You called once four weeks ago, and that was it? That was probably when I was up in Jotunheimen, he said – I was away for a long time. I don’t see missed calls when my mobile is turned off – I’m not a mind reader, Magni, he said. She said that he had used her – said it point-blank, just like that. He said it made him sad to hear her say that – that he’d tried to keep his distance, that he liked her, but was afraid of getting to know her too well. That he knew things wouldn’t work out between them in the long run – she was too young, they were too different. That it was such a shame, because he thought she was so nice, and he liked her a lot. I like you, too, she whispered. His words were like a white compress on an injured limb; they calmed her. He wasn’t an asshole. Or, he could certainly act like one, but he was also this – someone who could have loved her. If only he hadn’t been so much older. If only they hadn’t been so different. If only everything had been different. But what did he know about who she might become, how she would grow? She didn’t have the language for this, nor the voice. She cried, knowing that she looked like a child, just a little girl naked in a narrow bed. They talked, she in a whisper, there in the bed. He lay behind her and held her. He lay behind her and held her for a long time, until she fell asleep. When she woke, he was gone. It was a long winter. Her skin itched like crazy; she broke out in a rash around her elbows and on her thighs, thought she had developed psoriasis, the way her mother had. She scratched her scalp with both hands, scratched her arms; put her head in her hands and cried when nobody was watching, felt how her body pounded, how she burned deep inside. She wondered whether it was possible to burn up from the inside out – burn and turn into a pile of ash. Would you mind fetching some firewood? she called from the living room. What? called Jørgen from another room. Wood! she said, irritation in her voice.

Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


Oh, of course! he said, excessively nice as always when she was in a bad mood – which only made her mood worse. A little later he came back from the shed with a big IKEA bag full of wood. He set the logs beneath the wood burner and in the wood basket. He lit a fire, and she stood there and watched the curve of his back, the energy in his strong arms, his competent hands. It suddenly occurred to her just how much he sorted out and organised – how much he did, without ever complaining. They’d soon be in Thailand, and the heat there would soak into their bodies, loosening up everything that was set and hard, making all the pain disappear, and every day she would swim and regain her strength. She was looking forward to having two whole weeks ahead of her with nothing to do. The white paper box unwrapped itself in her head. Eskil, Eskil, Eskil. In the days after he had been to her place for the last time – when it hurt so much, as if someone was twisting a screw into her belly – she had wished he would die. If he died, she wouldn’t need to think about him, would finally be rid of him. And she wouldn’t have to suffer anyone else having him, either. Lea and Jens had hung their Christmas ornaments on a decorative branch that stood in a vase on the floor. The elegant little angels hung there, a little out of place among all the decorations made at kindergarten. The kids sat in front of the TV, both with their feet tucked under them, as if hypnotised – he with a deeply serious expression, she with a blissful smile. Magni made herself a cup of coffee and sat on the daybed with the weekend papers. The snow that came down simply melted and turned to slush, or settled into dirty, wet drifts; the temperature hovered around zero, and it was so slippery that it was hard to stay standing. Leaves lay slick and wet on the ground. It was winter, dark in the middle of the day. And she clearly wasn’t done with him. She would stand at the balcony door for a long time, looking out at the traffic with a voice that said come, come, come, come to me, as if she could conjure him up in this way. She knew that one of the small cars that passed by at the roundabout might suddenly turn out to be his; knew that he drove past here on his way to and from the gym. If she thought about him enough, he might just think about her – might also occasionally glance up at the light emitted by her apartment on the first floor and think that perhaps he should get in touch with her again. She felt a low thrumming within her, hoped that it would reach out – that he would intercept it. Look at me, look at the light, hurry over here, here where the soft light from my room, from me, shows that there’s someone waiting, someone who is still waiting for you.

Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


But nobody could see her from the street – she was too far away. Perhaps her face was vaguely visible as a pale oval, a moon with dark craters. Nobody saw that her eyes were shining, her cheeks red – that she was so sad all she wanted to do was cry. Or, Camilla saw it. Helge saw it. One of the girls she was studying literature with wondered whether everything was okay; asked her if she’d lost weight. Her mother asked her whether she was planning a visit home soon. On the rare occasions she took the train home to her parents, her mother wondered whether she couldn’t stay a little longer. I can’t – I have lectures, she said. Her mother didn’t really get it – she would send her clippings from the local newspaper whenever jobs popped up, almost regardless of what they were: waitressing in cafés, cultural consultancy – she even sent her the job ad for a position as an IT consultant. Mum – hello! – I’m studying literature! said Magni. Her mother thought it wouldn’t hurt to have something slightly more concrete to fall back on. Then one day, as they were sauntering into town, Camilla said: Magni – there’s something I have to tell you about that guy, Eskil. Okay, said Magni, sensing all too well how her face remained flat and empty as Camilla spoke. She felt completely frozen inside. Camilla told her that it wasn’t the first time Eskil had been to the apartment, when he’d recently come and stayed over. That once, before Magni had moved in, he had chatted up one of Camilla’s friends who had been in town to visit her – had slept with her and then not called, not contacted her at all afterwards. She said her friend had also met him at the piano bar. That he was that kind of guy. Magni thought back to that first night. How he had stood at the centre of things, selfsatisfied, self-sufficient, on the lookout. Why didn’t you say anything that night at Frakken? Magni asked, perhaps already knowing the answer. I thought it was just a one-night stand, said Camilla, shrugging her shoulders. I just don’t like to see you going around pining for someone like that. Yes, said Magni. I understand. A memory from that year: that her father came to town on a business trip, and stayed over. It was mid-December; she was supposed to go back home with him the next day and stay there until after New Year. She knew that nothing more would happen with Eskil. No

Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


more encounters, no more telephone conversations. She would be gone for over three weeks; in that time, he would forget her. It was cold in her room – the air from outside made her fingers stiff, and when she read at her desk she had to sit there wearing a scarf and woollen sweater. Her dad took her to a shopping centre and bought her both a mobile phone and a portable electric heater. He pulled out his wallet, not looking at her as he paid for the heater; pursed his lips as he took out the few hundred kroner it cost. Couldn’t your boyfriend have bought you one of these? he asked in an irritated voice as he carried the cardboard box out to the car. She told him it was over – that it had never really been anything. It was over. Her diary said she’d written him a letter, which she had put in a stamped envelope and sent to him. What the letter had said, she couldn’t remember. She remembered nothing about writing it, or about sending it. She wondered whether what was written in her diary was true, or whether she had made it up – fabricated a continuation of their story. She did this, occasionally – wrote about things that had never happened, elaborated on everyday events, created dramas that were never read by anyone other than herself. Had she sent him a letter in the middle of February, two and a half months after they had last met? Had it been accusatory or conciliatory? She had no idea. Had it reached him? If so, perhaps it still existed somewhere – in a cardboard box he had stashed away in a loft, or a cellar, perhaps? The year after she completed her literature exams she moved to London, and then to Oslo. Oslo was blessedly far from Trondheim, but she continued to look for him – if in a different way than previously. Less acute, more phlegmatic – he had crept under her skin, appeared in her dreams. Life-sized, he approached her, sauntered away, put his arms around her and held her, so that it felt as if he would never let go. She almost sent him a message several times, but never did. Ten years after she had lived in Trondheim, and eleven years after she had known him, she was back there again. A group of students had asked her to come to their careers fair to talk about job opportunities for literature graduates. She was thirty-one; had met Jørgen a few years before and moved in with him. They’d started to talk about having children – he really wanted to have kids with her, he wanted her and everything she was. He didn’t care that she had a disease, he said – his genes weren’t all that great, either. She rarely thought about her time in Trondheim now – but then she had received this request. She had never become an Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


academic, never got her doctorate, although that’s what she’d intended to do. She worked at the National Library – with literature, but in a different way. She was on her way to the station to catch the night train to Oslo. She walked through the city, along Olav Tryggvasons gate with her rucksack on her back, and for each café and store she passed she imagined how it had looked before, as if two photographs were superimposed one atop the other, but she wasn’t thinking about him – she really wasn’t, not then. He came out of a sports store and was suddenly standing there, right in front of her. His hair was black with a little grey in it, but he was dressed just the same, in jeans and a parka. The gaze that met hers was that of an older man. Oh, sorry, he said jovially, and was about to walk on. She stared at him fiercely, almost about to say hello, but then just stood there with her mouth pressed firmly closed. Her hands were shaking violently – he must have noticed it. Confusion flittered across his face for a moment. She knew that she looked different now; that people who hadn’t seen her in a long time wouldn’t necessarily recognise her. Ten years – everyone changes in ten years. But then he recognised her. He opened his mouth, about to say something. He was obviously on his way somewhere but now he simply stood there, calmly, looking genuinely happy to see her. Many years later this was all still so clear to her – the earthquake that had raged through her body, the blue sky that day; how good she had felt after her presentation, the applause, the hug from one of her old lecturers. And then he had popped up, standing there in front of her and washing everything else away, erasing ten years of her life. She turned and walked away from him, into the bar she had just passed. She could hardly walk; had to will herself to move her legs, first one foot, then the other. Perhaps he stayed there on the street, looking after her; maybe he simply walked on as he searched his memory for her name. Something beginning with ‘M’ – there’d been so many. Back when she had lived here, the bar had been a little Turkish restaurant – the furniture, fixtures and fittings all black, the walls painted black, too. A lone man sat drinking beer at one of the tables, but otherwise the place was empty. She nodded quickly to the woman behind the bar, walked stiffly down the stairs to the toilets in the cellar. Her thighs were heavy, as if she’d just run a great distance. She sat on the toilet for a long time, her head in her hands. The stall looked exactly as it used to, the walls black and covered in graffiti. ‘Sleep through the day, howl at night’ someone had written. The word ‘howl’ was scrawled in huge letters, by a shaking hand. And names – names of all the people who loved each other; who loved, but without the feeling being returned. A + K. B + T. M + C. She sat there until she had read everything there Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


was to read on the walls, until her hands stopped shaking. Slowly, she made her way back outside. The bar was empty, as was the street. In the evening, after both kids had finally fallen asleep, she and Jørgen sat at opposite ends of the kitchen table and shared a beer. A candle burned on the table between them. The ceiling lights were dimmed; outside darkness had fallen. She said that someone she knew had just died. She said she didn’t know him very well – that they had occasionally found themselves at the same parties. When did this happen? Jørgen asked. I read about it in the news just now, she said. She said nothing about them having had a relationship – and anyway, she wasn’t sure she could really use the word relationship about what they had shared. She wasn’t in touch with anyone who knew him, hadn’t seen him for many years, had maybe never really known him. She thought of his head, the seal-like slickness of it; of him holding her, as he did when she dreamed about him. Thought of their faces, each right up against the other’s. She closed her eyes; took in the smell of him. He had three kids – that hit me really hard, she said to Jørgen. That’s understandable, he said. There’s something about death, she said. I feel it myself every now and then – the way my body works against me, makes me afraid of getting worse, afraid of dying or ending up useless. She said this in an even, flat voice, the one she always used to talk about her illness – it was nothing to dramatise, nothing new. And then some people suddenly end up falling into a ditch or off a mountainside, without ever having given death a single thought, she said. Oh, God. Three kids. You’re not going to die, Magni, he said. You’re doing really well, you just have to keep up with your exercises. She closed her eyes. No, I’m sorry, he said, that was a stupid thing to say. But you’re not going to die. He took her hands in his, and she let him. I know, she said. But time stops sometimes. Just like now. He didn’t ask for an explanation, and she couldn’t explain it. How when she was at her worst – as she had been lately – time seemed to disintegrate into many ‘now’s, and before each now was an empty space, and she didn’t know how to enter that space. How with each step she took, there was only emptiness before her. She breathed in, completed her menial tasks, one, then another, then breathed out and saw each moment for what it was – something that would never come again.

Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


She was used to counting the years that would remain to her if her condition worsened; used to thinking about old age, and what it would be like. She was used to worrying that her kids would fall seriously ill, looking for signs of the disease in them – perhaps because she didn’t expect that either of them would be permitted to walk free, when she had not. Each time the stiffness and the pain increased, she would undertake a new assessment: whether she would be able to continue as a mother, as a wife – whether she would be forced to give up her job or would continue to insist on living the life that others around her lived, and which took time from all the other things she was also supposed to do: exercise, sleep more, eat well. Her knees, her back, the condition of her internal organs. Her illness folded death into her life. But for Eskil, death was something else entirely. Death was a pair of scissors that cut. She felt a heaviness within her, but she didn’t want to cry. They sat there and looked out into the dark, looked at each other. She took his hands between hers – thought that of all the people in the world she was lucky to be with him. She thought this quite often, no matter how things were between them – that he was the best she could have had. She brushed her teeth alone in the bathroom, closed the door and locked it behind her. She didn’t usually do this – she knew it might seem strange – but she needed to be alone for a few minutes, needed to stand in silence and look herself in the eye and brush her teeth alone. Use the toilet alone. She sat on the toilet and peed, wondered why she wasn’t crying – she usually cried so easily. Why not now? As she sat there, she took out her mobile, sitting bent over in the half-dark with the screen shining onto her face. She logged on to NRK, waited to see an image of him, his name, more detail about what had happened. She scrolled down to the news story and saw the face of a handsome, bald man she had never seen before, standing on a mountaintop and smiling towards the camera. It was Anders Hovland who had fallen down a cliff and died, the article said. Anders Hovland, she read, without understanding what she was reading. ‘A highly respected member of Trondheim’s climbing community, he will be sadly missed by many. He is survived by his wife and three children.’

Translation copyright © Alison McCullough


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