Reflections in a fjord

Aasta Rigmor Planting

THE SUMMER house, or hytte, in Son, is painted yellow, and rather smaller than my memory had it. There it was light blue, hanging to granite rocks high above the town on the eastern side of the fjord, 30 miles south of Oslo. Black and white photos in the family album show it as various shades of grey at different times over the decades.

Faces familiar, and not so familiar, stare out of them. My own is among them. A shy, smiling boy of ten holding a long twig threaded through the gills of young mackerel caught in the fjord one scorching afternoon. So far away, yet so close to touch, it sometimes feels as though I could step through those shiny grey windows into the past. In those moments I yearn to. My Norwegian mother swore the house was unpainted when she was a girl. That’s unusual in Norway, so it’s doubtful.

Terje, my eldest cousin, and I, approach the wooden steps to the terrace.

The June of 1959 was one of the hottest on record in Northern Europe. I was ten years old. My Scandinavian cousins were baked chocolate brown; their hair bleached white as summer sand when the family were reunited in Oslo. We were on a pilgrimage of sorts, mother, father, my three sisters, and I. Forty years on it’s the wettest June for 133 years. Just Mum and I make the pilgrimage this time, Dad has been gone four years. Terje’s wife and eldest son wait in the car with Mum, as he and I scout round.

The hytte stands tired, but virtually unchanged. From its rocky perch, clothed in fir and birch, it scans the grey and brooding fjord as it always did. If there is any neglect about the small wooden cabin it is in the sense that we have neglected our return for so long.

We climb the pine steps to the terrace. Through a window we spy a tray of bottles on a table. A pair of white perms swivel in sisterly tandem, bewildered strangers neither Terje or I recognise. Years before, there’d been a family squabble, now we don’t know whether we are welcome, or even if the family owns the hytte anymore. This is the house my mother and her family spent their summer holidays. A third perm rises, and seeing our faces mouths Mum’s name. It’s as though she sensed Mum was coming. It is her cousin, Bjørg; the same smile playing on her lips; the same deep brown eyes sparkling; the same olive complexion. But the shoulders are stooped now; lines etch deep into the sunburned skin. Here is the woman who gathered me up into the folds of her ankle length, traditional black skirt when she was twenty-nine. Crouching low, her arms enfolding me, she’d drawn me between her knees in a hug. The sweet perfume of womanliness, dark hair soft against my face, arousing those first stirrings of something yet unknown within me. Always lively and full of joy, I remember her. I longed for that moment to last forever. Approaching seventy, those dark tresses have turned to limp, white curls. On the day of my eldest cousin’s confirmation this was the woman who unbuttoned her blouse to show him her breasts, according to him. Two raisins on a plank of pine is how he cruelly described them.

As she opens the door her first question is whether Aasta is with us. I hurry back to the car to fetch my mother. It has been too long since they last saw each other. Now eighty, Mum picks her way with the aid of a stick across the uneven ground to the hytte. Tears prick my eyes as they embrace, reunited again. Understated as the greeting is, I have a hard job stopping myself weeping outright. It was one of those things that had to be resolved before it was too late. Bjørg is followed by her husband and son in turn. More embraces. That same son, Svein, barely two years old when I first saw him. A pot-bellied, middle-aged man stands before me, slightly balding, wearing a droopy moustache and smelling of drink.

We all crowd into the shrunken wooden building as we’d done those years before. Smaller in number, but most of us larger in size, we fill it much as we did that first time. I notice a gallery runs round one side of the room, yet doesn’t encircle it as it does in my mind’s eye. The red and green painted wooden rails are slightly worn and faded. My three cousins and two of my sisters had slept there. The vertical ladder still clings to the wall. I’d wanted to sleep up there as well but it was considered too steep for my youngest sister and I. One day I mounted the first few rungs in my parents’ absence, feeling rather braver than I deserved.

The furniture and layout have barely altered since 1935 when the hytte was built. It must have been the height of fashion then. Bentwood armchairs in Vienna Secessionist style, their slatted backs pierced with squares, loll around a long wooden table. The chest of drawers my late great uncle made from ply, stands beneath a window. Woollen weavings adorn pine walls. All as though the clocks had slowed and stopped. The same settee covered in the same cloth, just a little weary. The outside toilet still some way from the cabin, scarcely concealed by a clump of trees. The same stink of cesspit exudes; albeit, enjoyed by a far-removed generation of flies.

The drinks tray that had mysteriously disappeared appears again. Half-emptied glasses emerge from hiding places behind curtains on windowsills and beneath chairs. It’s a Norwegian thing.

Like a couple of excited children, Terje and I clamber the ladder to the gallery. Several beds lie side by side. We peer over the rails. For the briefest of moments, we are back in that former age once again. I have got to the top at last. Bjørg takes a photo.

To think so many slept in such a tiny place. There isn’t headroom to stand. We were almost twenty in number back then, three generations, two nationalities. A dozen or more of us had piled into my father’s new, shiny green Ford Thames Dormobile. Grandma, uncles, aunts and cousins, all squashed into a noisy hubble on the drive down from Oslo to join the others.

Few Norwegians had seen such a vehicle in those days and we drew inquisitive crowds wherever we went. Some thought it was an ice cream van and started to form a queue. And I can still clearly recall Dad’s winces and groans as he watched his precious beast hauled precariously into the air and onto the ship at Tilbury Docks before we set out on the voyage across the North Sea.

As the alcohol starts its flow again the stories tumble in its wake. The wartime tale in which my great uncle fell off his bike returning from trying to buy meat on the black market. According to the unlikely story, the marketeers plied him with illicit spirit. Befuddled with hooch they palmed him off with a large bag of peppercorns. Wobbling along the rocky path he, and it, tumbled into a carpet of blueberry shrubs. Hours passed before teeenaged Bjørg heard his plaintive cries while out searching for him.

The cabin’s boards resound with laughter. Bjørg giggling so much the words hardly come out as tears of laughter brim. I try to reconcile this old-age-pensioner with the skirt-clad thighs haunting my mind. It is almost impossible. The treacly tones cracked by nicotine and alcohol; the Norse lilt twittering and creaking with age.

Two of my late uncles rowed Dad, my youngest cousin, and I out into the fjord fishing that memorable summer. Each time a ship or motor cruiser passed the little boat would rock furiously in its wake. Afraid I might fall overboard, I clung tightly to the sides. As Uncle Hasse rowed shorewards we ran into a shoal of mackerel. Soon the air flashed blue and silver, as one after the other lines were pulled, each with a fish, time and time again. Our laughter ringing across the water. Thirty-two fish in all. To prove it, the photograph of me smiling. My khaki shorts hanging way below my knees. Between my hands the slender branch bowed by the weight of fish strung by their gills. Bony elbows dig into my waist, I can almost feel them, as I write.

On a table by the door of the hytte a pair of binoculars stands where they always stood. I used them to trail American liners gliding along the fjord forty years before. With its imposing view the hytte was an ideal spot to repell any invasion or counter-invasion. For that reason, a German gun battery was established on the rocks above in 1941. The hytte was commadeered for the battery crew’s quarters. Throughout the rest of the war my great uncle and and all the family spent their summers in Oslo.

Most of the houses round Son were requisitioned by the Nazis during the occupation. Family history has it that officers billeted at my great aunt’s flat in the nearby town of Moss were issued with amphetamines to stop them falling asleep. Taken with drink one night, the pills drove them berserk and they began taking potshots at the antique crystal lamp hanging in her dining room. Plundering her scant rations they threatened to ransack the place completely when she dared complain. She swiftly ceased. Two revolvers of the Norwegian resistance lay concealed behind wood panels. Fearing their discovery, she had them smuggled from the building under the drunken soldiers’ noses that very night. They were taken aboard a rowboat to the middle of the fjord and dropped into its dark depths.

Images of my sisters, cousins and I sitting round a table out on the terrace in the sunshine flood back. We are eating ‘pølser’ – Norwegian frankfurters – salad and bread followed by plump, sweet, Norwegian strawberries. Wasps buzz about the table. I try to brush them away from the food, careful not to eat anything a wasp has settled on. It proves impossible. My cousins seem oblivious to them. A two-year-old boy and a dog crawl around our feet. We ignore them. The boy is too young for us to bother with. My mother and her cousin sit inside the hytte with the rest of the adults, tipsy laughter leaks out. A pølser falls to the decking; the dog sniffs it. We all snigger as one cousin picks it up and offers it to the small child to eat, which he does.

The fjord is grey and misty this time round; granite glistens dark pink; the grass damp and lush with rain as the sun emerges from behind a cloud. Peals of laughter ring down the years, younger laughter now, uncracked, pure and sweet. Into the folds of that dark skirt, those arms gathering me, into hair nut brown against my cheek, the scent of womanhood warm and close, the scent of cloth and hair, and those places yet secret; that first conscious arousal; that first knowledge of sexual things.

Copyright © 2011, 2013 Bryan Hemming

Conil

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15 thoughts on “Reflections in a fjord

  1. I’ve only read the opening para and I can’t help but comment!

    The vividness of YELLOW and BLUE and then the contrast of black&white, and then the mention of grey seems to merge/fade….

    I don’t know, just struck me. Like it much. Don’t think it was deliberate (?), but yeah, just struck me.

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    • Yes, it is sort of deliberate. Children today are brought up with histories recorded in glorious technicolor, whereas my childhood often felt grey in more than one respect. But there was plenty of colour too, as you can see from the story.

      Just saw your comment pop-up, and couldn;t resist a peek. I’m in the middle of writing a post for the weekend. Thanks so much for taking the time to write again,

      Like

  2. Funny how your mother swears the house was unpainted, but yet that’s not the usual. Very curious she swore such – if only for support of this claim, a sibling? a photo? Just really curious, to me.

    “cousins were baked chocolate brown” – like that.

    Love your recall of family history and the revolvers and the Nazi pigs. You tell, so well.

    “younger laughter uncracked, pure & sweet” – gorgeous, Bryan. And beautifully rousing, sensual, hinting sexual, ah, fine closing, promising so much more in that department.

    You are SUCH AN EXCELLENT WRITER, it just HAS to be your day job???

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  3. it is the ‘pair of white perms swivel in sisterly tandem, bewildered strangers’ which is the most beautifully constructed and poignant sentence and how it compares to the bleached hair of childhood. Shall be following your tales from now on

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  4. It’s really heartening to receive comments where people pick a few words or a sentence that appeals to them. You picked a particular favourite of mine.

    I have three sisters. As a boy, I noticed how they sometimes made unconscious movements in concert. I’m sure brothers do it too, but I didn’t have any brothers to observe.

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  5. “The sweet perfume of womanliness, dark hair soft against my face, arousing those first stirrings of something yet unknown within me.”

    I love these lines. I can so relate to it. I’m following you 🙂

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  6. Pingback: Revista MBA » Archivo del Blog » Weekend Reads: WPLongform Picks

  7. enjoyed revisiting this Bryan- gains even more on re-read the way you so slip between the past and the distant past as easily as your aunt’s embrace -vivid
    p.s. did this side of family give you your gift of writing – realism without the brooding Ibsenesque though (the warmth and light of Spain must have melted that)

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    • Perhaps my Norwegian side did influence me to an extent. My Uncle Remi worked for Gyldendal, the Norwegian branch of the Danish publishing firm, as a rep. Gyldendal was Knut Hamsun’s publisher. Uncle Remi gave dad a collection of most of Hamsun’s novels in English, which I worked my way through in my early teens. You probably know about Hamsun’s connection with the Nazis. That never came over in his novels, which have often been compared with Dostoyevsky’s works. He was a bit of a brooder too, so I get it from reading both. As well other Russian writers, I was a keen fan of Anerican writers like Steinbeck.

      I wrote an article on Hamsun for the Indy, which can be read here: http://wp.me/p31pD9-3o

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