SOMETIMES, when I look at my reflection, I realise the only people who don’t know what we really look like are ourselves. We see an image the reverse of how others see us. The image they have, that’s the true one.
How I remember the defining moment I sat in front of a mirror with my mother at my side. Seven years old, for the very first time, I took a long, hard look at her reflection instead of mine. It wasn’t the same person. The mouth ugly and slightly-lopsided; the shock of asymmetrical eyes; the hair parted on the wrong side. It disturbed me. I felt ashamed, my mother was no longer perfect. Thus began the path to final realisation: the understanding of why we despise our own photographic likenesses. They’re the opposite way round. The disgusting fool with the crooked grin. He’s a perversion of how I really look. There’s something sly about the expression, he’s hiding something. He’s not me at all. He’s the wrong way round.
Only the famous learn to fall in love with their photographic images. By that I mean learn to love them as much as they love their own reflections. It’s only they who see themselves often enough to become accustomed to both: the image in the photograph and the false image; the image in the mirror, the one that lets us know, deep down, we’re all liars.
“It’s funny about curtains,” I said.
Glancing up from his notepad, Dr Finkel peered over his spectacles for the first time in almost twenty minutes. I had his attention at last.
“What’s so funny about curtains?” he asked. Unsure of exactly what was so funny about them, I affected a silly, pompous voice.
“Nothing’s funny about curtains if you look at them in that manner. But in Oslo I notice you draw your curtains so often you have forgotten how bizarre the ritual is. In Trondheim we tend to leave our curtains open, even on the darkest winter evenings, so those who want to see into our souls can. We have nothing to hide.” The implication blatantly obvious, I was being deliberately provocative, speaking like a tight-arsed preacher might, there seeming little better to do. These days, most Tuesday afternoons can find me on Dr Finkel’s couch.
“Curtains just keep the dark out and the warmth in.” Returning his attention to his notepad, the doctor resumed the doodle I’d interrupted. From my horizontal position I could make out the head of a mule. He was filling in one of the ears with a black, felt-tip pen. The mule was smiling.
“Then curtains are liars,” I said, desperate to regain what little notice I’d squandered. Dr Finkel liberated a weary sigh.
“Liars?” He intoned a question mark. But I could tell he had lost all interest, as he continued scribbling. “What makes you think that?”
“Because they conceal the truth.”
“Curtains aren’t so important,” he dismissed, “you can’t invest soft furnishings with human characteristics.”
But I already had. To all appearances an adherent of a Hollywood school of psychoanalysis in the 1940s, the doctor’s tastes in décor and fittings inclined towards black and white film noir. Sort of sinister Bauhaus with a smidgen of art deco flamboyance.
Battleship grey curtains hung in sombre attention before despondent grey, slatted blinds against a backdrop of sorrowful grey walls. A leaden, grey leather couch reclined glumly on a morose grey carpet, next to a sad, grey metal desk, on which a grey, aluminium, anglepoise lamp stared dispiritedly at a blank, grey blotter. Everything rendered in tasteful variegations of pathological monochrome, I had invested his soft furnishings with all the human characteristics of serial depression. All possessed an aura of latent violence, barely suppressed. But I hadn’t stopped there. Soft and hard alike, indications were, all the doctor’s furnishings suffered bouts of psychotic melancholia. Bipolar to the very last rouche and stick.
“What are you saying?” I protested “Are you trying to tell me curtains don’t cry out to tell us about people’s lives?” To enhance the uncompromising greyness, Dr Finkel sported a grey, Donegal tweed jacket, flecked with charcoal, over grey flannel trousers. He started on the mule’s other ear.
“I’m trying tell you that curtains aren’t as important as you are making them out to be. Curtains aren’t important. Full stop.”
“Not in the way you mean, they aren’t,” I told him, “but isn’t it supremely important they lie to the darkness about the light within, then lie to the lightness about the dark without? Isn’t it important they lie twice; to both dark and light at the same time?”
“You must have very good curtains,” Dr Finkel said, leaning back to admire his sketch of a mule’s head. With those words he confirmed what I’d suspected for some time. He was getting bored with treating me.
I’m crossing the road. There’s something wrong. I swivel my head. A black, early 1970s BMW is bearing down on me. Dusty bonnet and dirty windscreen, more or less as I’ve always envisaged them. Only this time it’s real. The chrome grill set between two pairs of unlit headlamps. I don’t remember those from the recurring vision. Nor the two overlapping fans of gleaming cleanliness the wipers left behind. The licence plate is bent. I can read the first two letters, BC, or are they EC? The silhouette of the driver, crouched behind the wheel, distracted and travelling too fast.
I enter a state of paralysis, my feet glued to the road. He must see me. He must. I want to think he’s slowing down to let me cross, while I know for a fact he’s accelerating. In that instant I realise there’s no way he can avoid hitting me.
Next moment, I’m tossed into the air and onto the bonnet. I bounce. I literally bounce, like a football. Twice, shattering his windscreen the second time, then spinning up into the air again. A glimpse of sky, the words running through my head: ‘I’m dead.’
As simple, and mundane as that. Split seconds. No pain. No apparitions of past life flitting before my eyes. Dying is full of meaningless detail. It’s all so stupid.
Perhaps I’m suspended between heaven and earth for those briefest of seconds that, in retrospect, seem an eternity. Suspended at the utmost limit of an arc, looking down. Suspended in time. Gnarled black tree fingers grasp for sky. I’m dead.
Only I’m wrong. I’m not dead. I’m lying in the road, the unfamiliar taste of grit mingling with blood and saliva fresh in my mouth. No, I’m not dead at all. My right arm hurts so much I want to scream. People gather round to look. I raise a hand to my brow then stare at my fingers. They’re dripping blood. Oddly enough, this comes as a surprise. My head is streaming blood. It’s everywhere. I lean forward so it’ll drip onto the road instead of my clothes. The things we think of. Now I’m not so sure it’s not smashed teeth instead of bits of grit in my mouth. I place a finger on a swollen lip, so numb it feels as though it belongs to someone else. The dentist’s bills, the toothless smile, cross my mind. How very vain I am. An age passes before I hear the siren.
I wake out of a recurring vision into an icy sweat, terrified. Unsure of where I am, what time of day it is, or if it’s day at all. There’s light enough to see I’m lying on the sofa in the flat at Sinsen, listening to sounds of heavy breathing, my own. I can feel my heart thumping my ribs like a tiny child trapped in a cage. For a fleeting moment I can’t remember what the vision was, and that makes me even more scared. But then I know it’s the same one. The accident. It frightens me so much I’m trembling. I look at the backs of my pale quivering hands till their swollen blue veins make me feel squeamish. I can’t stand swollen veins; they remind me of my grandmother’s calves.
Things start to come back. I recall lying down on the sofa earlier in the afternoon. I must’ve fallen asleep. I seem to be doing that rather often lately, well, since the first time I did it. I start to get up when I notice I’m lying on a throw I can’t recollect falling asleep on. Then I recognise it from my grandparents’ farm outside Trondheim. A scraggly, woolly thing, it used to cover one of the spare beds up in the loft. I’m wondering how it got all the way down to Oslo, when I see it’s not the only thing different about the room I fell asleep in. Three large, framed, sepia photographs dating from the 1930s hang on one wall. They weren’t there before. Yet they seem oddly familiar. One of a man driving a packhorse up a mountain trail. He wears a look of surprise as he rounds a bend. No doubt surprised to see a stranger standing on the track in front of him pointing a camera. Another, three women caught smiling out of a former age. With their trousers rolled to their knees they crouch before a rocky stream, high in snow-capped mountains, bathing their feet. I can almost feel the freezing water. A third photo shows …
I open my eyes. I’m lying on the sofa in the flat at Sinsen. The photos are gone. Three separate oil paintings of the same mountain log cabin with a turf roof hang in their place. Spring, autumn, and winter. Summer’s missing, but then it nearly always is in Norway. Examination of the blanket beneath me reveals it not to be the one of a few moments ago. This one’s faded indigo with lines of wool brocade, orange, green, and red. Set into the far wall – where I seem to recall a single window being – French doors open out onto a balcony. I don’t remember having seen them, or the balcony, before. Blue and white gingham curtains flutter softly in a warm breeze.
Rising from the sofa, I walk across the room and step out onto the balcony. The sun shines brightly from a cloudless, brilliant blue sky. The balcony wall is constructed from bricks painted sloppily in flaming red, topped by a jugendstil iron rail, bright green. A woman shielding her eyes with her hand stands gazing out onto the street below. It is Wenche, my landlady, or someone very like her. I follow her gaze down the hill into the city. A tram advertising Yellow Pages and Pepsi-Cola is hauling its way slowly up. As the last carriage clatters by I see it, alone, is grey. Towing a lengthening shadow, so reluctant to follow it seems to pull the carriage back down the hill, the tram struggles on, stretching and spreading its shadow behind till the gloom becomes overwhelming.
A Stalinesque cityscape of towering silhouettes takes form. Dark, grey clouds whip across a dark, grey sky. Out of which, steel-rod rain slashes the street, burnishing silver granite cobbles to black molasses, turning gutters to frothing torrents. Glistening steel rails slice then curve into a bend, and up the steep incline. Steel wheels scream and screech as steel rim drives steel rim the way it doesn’t want to go. Rigid carriages moan as they try to tear themselves from iron bogies. Feeble arms reach up and cling precariously to the shimmering electric cables suspended above, sending angry sparks cracking and hissing into a damp grey mist.
I always knew I would get knocked down by a car one day. The same image playing through my mind over and over again. The same paralysis at the realisation I wouldn’t get to the other side of the road. Since childhood I’ve seen the chrome grill of the car speeding towards me. The last thing I’d ever see. And that’s exactly how it turned out. Except that it didn’t.
I’m back in the room, lying on the sofa. I get up and walk across to the balcony, and through a different pair of glazed doors. A black and white kitten dozes in a single sunbeam on a multi-hued, crocheted cover. I seem to remember that from somewhere deep in the recesses of my past as well.
Cats of different sizes and colours appear from out of nowhere. Cats of pedigree, and cats of mongrel union. Dancing, prancing cats, cats with flitting tails. Lazy, purring cats. Biting, scratching cats. Rubbing, furry cats. Mangy, flea-infested cats. Cats, cats, cats. Cats with licky, little, sandpaper tongues. Multitudes of cats. But no Wenche. Perhaps, she’s toppled from the balcony into the street below. I look down vertiginously. As I begin to remember there is no balcony to the flat in Sinsen, all melts away.
I wake from dozing on the couch at the flat in Sinsen. I seem to be doing that rather a lot lately. Everything is back in its place, and all is back to normal. I become aware I must have woken from one dream into the next several times. It’s an odd sensation, but with growing repetition, much less disturbing. I get up from the sofa yet again. A black cat, I didn’t see before, sidles up to me, and rubs itself against the backs of my legs.
I wake and raise myself from the sofa, to walk across the room yet another time.
Catalogue, catacomb, catamaran, catastrophe, a cat’s trophy, a cat atrophied, the words flit through my mind. I’m drifting into a club near parliament, full of lesbians and homophiles. Transsexuals, transvestites, catamites, cat and mice, cats with mites, cats in ice. Alzheimer’s lite. Kattomeat. Katrina. Stacks of cats. Where do they all come from? Not my head, surely? Is it all in my mind, or is it coming in from without? I float to the bar on a carpet of cats. A girlboy places a bottle of foaming Carlsberg lite in front of me – it never foamed like that before – and boygirls kiss girlboys, dancing cheek to cheek, chic to chic, sikh to sikh. Faces melt to molten wax, clothes hang, empty sacks, empty cats. Cat o’ nine tails, cat of nine tales, cat with nine lives. Katrina.
My grandfather steps into the dawn mists carrying a small sack full of squealing, mewling kittens. Three days old. Four of them, still blind. He steps into the dawn mists with a slow, purposeful stride. He returns in less than half an hour bearing a different sack. The mists have lifted. This sack is an unsquealing, unmewling, empty sack. As light a feather. He returns in less than half an hour bearing an empty sack, light as a feather, and wearing a long, hard face of flint.
Like tiny rats they were, when they came out of the mother cat. Tiny, blind rats, their fur stuck to their skins with afterbirth. I saw them. I saw her take each newly-born kitten by the scruff of its neck in her jaws. One by one. She carried them from the kitchen and hid them in an outhouse. It took my grandfather three days to find them.
Like mobile potatoes, they were, in that sack, one clambering atop the other in their futile efforts to escape. He told me they didn’t know what happened to them. They knew alright. The mother cat knew as well. But still kept wondering if she might’ve left them somewhere else. Wondering about the house all day, wandering about the house, crying pitifully until she finally forgot she’d ever had them. They’re in the lake, I long to tell her. At the bottom of the same lake that took my mother in a row boat one misty, autumn morning. At times I daydream she might be searching its depths for those kittens. My kittens. It’s not cruel, Grandad says so.
When I’m a boy I still go to the lake and stare deep into its blackness. If I stare hard enough, I might see them, my mother, and my kittens. But all I see is my own screwed-up face staring back at me.
I stare into the mirror. “My name is Knut Hamsun,” I say out loud. But it sounds like a lie. That name belongs to history. A famous writer who died some twenty years before I was born. I am saddled with his name and all the unwanted comments such an unfortunate correspondence brings. For I am a writer too. It was a cruel joke my father played before abandoning my mother and I. But it wasn’t the writer’s real name. So, from the age of twenty-three, I started to call myself Knut Pedersen, for that was his actual name. If he stole my name, then I will steal his.
To read the second instalment of Pedersen’s Last Dream click here
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming Conil de la Frontera