MY FATHER STANDS before us. A box camera in his beautiful hands. The long, spring shadow of his narrow frame points directly at me. I wear a white, voile dress, and black, patent leather, ankle boots. Sitting on a small, wooden chair in front of the old house in Lille Tøyen. My eyes squint against bright sunshine, I can barely make him out. My two sisters stand either side of me. I am the youngest at two years old. The shutter clicks.
The room I sit in all day long is lined with chairs. Backs against the walls. Each staring into the centre where nothing stands. Just like a waiting room in a railway station. Edna sits beside me. We wait for a train that never comes.
“Ragnhild, there’s someone here to see you.” I look up. A young nurse in a light green uniform is walking towards me. She is smiling. “Look who’s here,” she says. Another woman trails behind her. Tall, thin, and pale. Slightly stooped. She is also smiling. Her hair is grey. A complete stranger. She bends to kiss my brow.
“Hello, Mum,” she says.
“Hello,” I say.
“How are you?”
“Fine,” I say.
As the young nurse leaves the tall, thin stranger pulls up a chair. She sits down and reaches out to touch my hand.
“I brought some mints.” She dips into her handbag and produces a pack of Polos.
“Thank you,” I say. It costs nothing to be polite. Now that I think about it, there is something vaguely familiar about the stranger. The girl from Tromsø cousin Karl married. She looks a little like her, but the girl from Tromsø is much younger. Perhaps it’s her mother.
“How is Karl?” I ask.
“He’s dead, Mum,”
“He died from lung cancer. Back in Oslo. Nearly fifty years ago. You live in England now.”
“Karl’s dead? That’s terrible.”
The doorbell rings. I rush to answer the door. Karl Svensen is standing before me. Tall and blond. Piles of wavy hair swept back from his forehead. He is smiling broadly. Behind him stands a slender girl. She has dark brown tresses to her shoulders. Her eyes are sparkling. Karl is holding her hand.
“This is Turid,” he tells me, pulling her forward, “she’s from Tromsø. We’re going to get married.” The girl lowers her head shyly before glancing upwards, from him to me. For a moment I don’t know how to respond to the unexpected news. Then I laugh.
“Mama!” I call, “Dagmar, Randi! Come quickly, cousin Karl’s here. He says he’s going to get married!”
“Married?” I hear Dagmar and Randi cry in unison, as they come running to the door, closely followed by our mother. She is wiping her hands on her pinafore.
I wake. I am sitting in my chair by the window. My middle-aged daughter is sitting next to me. Tall, pale, and thin, she looks ill all the time.
“Do you have to go?” I ask her.
“Not quite yet,” she says. “You fell asleep.”
“I’m tired,” I tell her. Even though I sleep for most of the day I’m always tired. I always want to sleep. It’s better then. “Where’s Bob?” I ask. He isn’t sitting in his chair. My daughter squeezes my hand.
“Dad’s dead,” she whispers. “You remember, it’s more than ten years since he passed away.” It’s news to me. I swear I saw him only moments ago. Tears fill my eyes.
“Dead? Oh, no, not Bob.” The tall, thin stranger kisses my cheek.
“I’ve got to go now,” she says, “David’s going back to university tomorrow, and I promised to help him pack. You know what he’s like; he’ll forget everything left to his own devices.”
“Yes,” I say, but know neither David, nor the tall, thin stranger.
“Bye-bye,” she says, and kisses my brow. “We’ll have you out on Sunday if the weather’s good. The forecast says it’s going to be sunny. Geoff wants to have one last barbecue before the cold weather sets in.”
“That’ll be nice,” I say.
“You mustn’t worry,” she says. She’s right, whoever she is. But there’s something nagging at the back of my mind, and I don’t know what it is. “And stop chewing your knuckles, you’ll make them bleed again.” The tall, thin stranger disappears. Nice of her to take the time to come and visit.
When I spot Bob he is waiting on the corner of Karl Johan’s. Late summer evening crowds jostle by. Red, white, and blue Norwegian flags flutter everywhere. Bob holds a small bunch of flowers. Several have bent stems and their heads droop a little sadly. I stand and gaze at him for a moment before he notices. I want to remember him like this forever. He looks so handsome in RAF blue. He sees me and waves.
As his lips brush mine I feel the bristles of his short moustache prickle my face. I can smell beer and tobacco on his damp breath. There is something comforting about it. It reminds me of Christmases with my grandfather. Beer and tobacco, damp breath and sloppy kisses.
Everywhere, soldiers, sailors, and airmen mingle in the many different uniforms of the allied forces. Five long years of nazi occupation are at an end. Bob hands me the flowers and takes my arm. He leads me towards an open-air bar. He asks me a question in English. My face tells him the words mean nothing to me. He indicates by tipping a cupped a hand to his mouth.
“Do you want a beer?” he repeats. I understand. I never drink, but this is a celebration. I smile and nod my head.
I sit by the window. In my chair. I always sit there. Edna sits beside me. That’s her chair. I always sit in the chair by the window. Rarely looking out these days. There doesn’t seem much point. I never go out. It’s a different world out there. Their world. A world that has become alien to me. A world where I no longer fit. A world I have grown far too old for. It’s my chair; I always sit there. Edna sits beside me. That’s her chair.
“Bob was such a good man,” I tell her, “he was so kind.” Edna is searching her bag. “I miss him terribly.”
“I know it’s in here somewhere,” Edna says. She’s always losing something or other. “If I could find it, then I could go up to my Aunt Dot’s. She lives round here somewhere. She’d help me out. I could get the bus home if I could just get to her place.”
“You are home,” Dora says. Dora sits on Edna’s other side. “You live here. We all live here. This is our home.” I am filled with a sense of dread to hear those words. I will never go home. I will never go back to Norway. I live in England now. I will never live anywhere else again. I will die in this big, old house that I don’t know. I will die among strangers. I will die in a waiting room waiting for a train that never comes. How did I ever get here?
“Nei,” I say to Bob, pushing away the hand fumbling with my blouse. Yet I want him to touch my breasts at the same time as feeling incredibly nervous at the prospect. We are lying on the palace lawns concealed by bushes. Bob breathes beer and whisky into my face. He takes no notice of my protests. His wet, sloppy mouth covering mine, he shoves his tongue inside. I never imagined love would be like this: someone else’s tongue probing my mouth. I find myself thinking it’s the first time anything has been there that I’m not meant to eat, when I realise that it can’t be. Such a stupid thought. I suppress an urge to giggle. It’s not at all what I’d expected. Raw, live flesh moving around. His tongue tastes of nicotine. I resist a strong temptation to bite into it. Now his hand is inside my blouse. I reach up mine to pull it away. “Nei, nei, ikke her,” I say, but he takes no notice. Though he can’t understand Norwegian, and I can’t speak English, he must know I am telling him I want him to stop. He pushes me down onto the grass with the weight of his body. He’s frightening me. He pulls up my skirt, I try to resist. I’m terrified. I want to shout out. At the same time, I don’t want to cause a scene. Though I struggle as much as I can, my underpants are soon below my knees. As he pushes into me the pain is indescribable. Every muscle in my body straining. Each fibre I possess desperate to expel the force within me. His body crushing mine. I feel trapped and terribly afraid. I want to scream with fear and pain.
“You’re going to have a bath, Ragnhild.” I wake to see a woman in a light green dress standing over me. Though I can’t recall seeing her before she seems to know my name.
“I don’t want a bath,” I tell her. It’s a damn cheek.
“Yes, you do. You haven’t had one for a week.” She is smiling.
“I had one yesterday.”
“No, you didn’t. I’ll wash your hair, and make you look nice. You know you like that.”
“The water’s too cold.”
“How do you know that? “
“It’s always too cold.”
“You don’t know it’s cold, you’re not there yet.”
“I tell you, it’s always cold.”
She puts her arms beneath my armpits and starts yanking me to my feet. I cling to the chair with all my might.
“God, you’re a strong for such a tiny one!” she grunts, “Just let go.” She is panting and there is anger in her voice. Only slight, but it is anger all the same. “Isobel,” she calls across the room to another woman. “Give us a hand, will you? Ragnhild’s playing up again.” I see a black woman in a light green dress hurry over. “She doesn’t want her bath.”
“Come on, Ragnhild,” Isobel says. “You want to be clean, don’t you?”
“No!” I say. It doesn’t matter whether I am clean or not anymore. I’m not going anywhere. Clean was for the other world. I don’t live there now.
“Your daughter is coming to fetch you to take you out this afternoon,” Isobel says. “It’s a lovely day to be going out.”
“I don’t want to go out,” I say. But I do, so I relinquish my grip a little. I had forgotten. I shouldn’t forget things like that. I don’t have so much to remember these days, unless I’ve forgotten, that is.
“That’s better.” The two of them ease me into a wheelchair.
A black and white photograph stands on the chest of drawers before me. Three little girls posed in front of an old house. The long, spring shadow of a photographer points at the youngest in the middle. She is sitting on a small wooden chair, her eyes squinting against the bright sunlight. The two other girls stand either side of her. I wonder who the little girls are. Outside my window a grey squirrel scrambles up the chestnut tree.
“Hello, Mum.” I turn to see a tall, thin woman standing in the doorway. “How do you feel today?” I stare at her. I have never seen her in my life before. She is a complete stranger. Her face lined with life’s troubles. She looks old. “Geoff’s waiting in the car,” she says. There is something about her that frightens me, but I don’t know what it is, and I don’t want her to know that I am frightened. I force a smile. I don’t know this middle-aged woman, and I don’t know where she is taking me. I feel very tired, very tired. I want to someone to put me to bed.
“Can you put me to bed?” I ask her.
“Don’t be silly, it’s only twelve o’ clock,” the tall, thin woman tells me. “We’re taking you out today. Geoff’s got a barbecue ready. We’re having lamb and sausages.”
“I don’t like lamb.”
“Yes, you do, you’ve always liked lamb.”
“I never liked lamb.”
“You don’t have to have lamb. You can have sausages.”
“I don’t like sausages.”
“Yes, you do, you love sausages. You’ve always loved sausages.”
“I don’t like them anymore.”
“I can do you some fish. I’ll wrap it in tin foil with some herbs and pop it on the barbecue.”
“I don’t like fish. They always give us fish here. The whole place stinks of fish.”
“Of course, it doesn’t. Don’t be silly.”
Bob stumbles towards me, the stench of beer on his breath. I move behind the sofa to put it between us with my back close to the wall. He manages to lean over
“You daft bitch!” he shouts and strikes me across the face. I cover my head with my hands. I am trembling uncontrollably. I know not to say anything. It will only make matters worse. He stands in front of me, his face almost in mine. Red and bloated, like a balloon inflated to bursting. “Why don’t you fuck off back to Norway like you’re always telling me you will!” he yells, flecks of spittle flying. “Do you think I fucking care! Well, do you? Do you? Do you?” I can’t look him in the eyes, I am so afraid. “And take them little buggers with you while you’re at it! I’m fed up with the lot of you! I’m off!” I know what that means. He will go back to the pub. And I won’t see him until tomorrow morning or even the afternoon. At the same time as feeling relieved, I am filled with a deep sense of uncertainty. I am sure he has another woman. He slams the door behind him.
“Don’t leave me!” I scream at his back, and begin to weep. The children creep downstairs from where they have been hiding, and put their arms around me. They are sobbing their eyes out.
“We had a lovely little kitten once,” I tell Edna, “I used to give it cream from the top of the milk, sometimes. Bob didn’t like me to. He’d get cross if he saw me. So I always did it when he wasn’t there. I used to lean my head right over to listen to it purr. It was so loud. It had a tiny, little tongue, pink as tinned salmon, and little droplets of cream used to splash onto its whiskers as it lapped it up. And when it finished lapping cream it would clean itself, licking its paws and wiping its face. Bob didn’t like me to give it the cream from the top of the milk. I loved that kitten. One morning the the milkman ran it over. I cried for days afterwards. I cried more over the death of that little kitten than I did when my mother died. He loved the cream from the top of the milk that kitten.”
“We had a cat once,” Edna tells me. “It were twenty-two years old when it died. We buried it in a shoebox underneath the pear tree. Ginger it were. A ginger tom. We had it done so that it didn’t smell the house out. My Derek said that that cat understood every word we said. I can’t remember its name. It would look up at you when you spoke to it like it were listening. It would cock its little head to one side. Ever so clever, cats are. They’re cleverer than dogs. I wish I could remember its name.” Edna sighs. “I better be going soon, I want to get home before it gets dark.”
“You are home,” Dora says, “this is your home. This is where you live. This is where we all live.”
“But I don’t sleep here.”
“Yes, you do. You’ve got a room. We’ve all got rooms.”
“Where is it?”
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s your room.”
“I don’t think I’ll stay here tonight. I think I’ll go home tonight.”
“This is your home. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
“Do you know what time the last bus goes? I’ve got a timetable somewhere. It’s in my bag.”
The pain is indescribable. Each fibre I possess desperate to expel the force within me. I don’t want this thing. It is tearing me apart. I neither want it in or outside of me. I scream. Suddenly, there it is, upside down and bawling with new life. Everyone smiles, except for me. I am terrified by it. Before long, a nurse places it in my arms, disguised in a soft, white blanket. I have never seen such an ugly baby. It’s mine.
My father sits on a bench in Karl Johan’s. Between his knees he has an ivory handled cane with a gold band. He wears a light brown homburg and gold-rimmed spectacles. His beard is trimmed to a point. Letting go of my younger brother’s hand I rush towards him.
“Papa!” I cry. His beautiful hands are clothed in kid gloves.
“Ragnhild,” he says, and laughs as I throw my arms about his neck, “my sweet, little Ragnhild. And Hans.” My young brother stands a little distance off with his hands clasped behind his back. “Haven’t you got a hug for your father?” With a shake of his head Hans looks down at his shoes.
“Come on, Hans,” I say, “it’s Papa. He won’t bite you.” Leaning his cane against the bench our father removes a glove, slender finger by slender finger, and puts a hand into his coat pocket.
“I’ve got something for you,” he says, and pulls out a little paper cone of sweets. “Here you are,” holding it out to Hans. Hans moves forward to snatch it. But before he can get a finger on it my father has drawn his own hand back, and catches Hans up in his free arm. Hans struggles as my father kisses him. He sets him down and gives him the sweets. Then reaching into his coat again he pulls out a manila envelope. “This is for your mother,” he says, and hands it to me. “I don’t know what she does with it all. Anyone would think I was made of money the way she carries on. Tell her to make it last, there won’t be any more for a good while.” He gets to his feet and brushes his coat with his hand. “There, I must go now, business calls.” He bends over to kiss my cheeks. “Give my love to Dagmar and Randi. Tell them to drop by sometime, I haven’t seen them in ages. And you be a good boy Hans.”
Hans and I linger by the bench after he leaves; sucking boiled sweets and watching all the people go by. We pass Grand Hotel on the way home and peer through the restaurant windows. Papa is sitting at a table with a pretty woman. He is smoking a cigar and drinking wine. They are laughing.
“I hate Papa!” Hans tells me and runs off. But I can’t bring myself to feel the same about him, so I say nothing.
It is warm, and I am sitting beneath a large parasol in a garden. There is a cat stretched out on the grass. Occasionally, a few wisps of smoke waft before my eyes. I can smell charcoal burning, and the acrid scent of scorching meat. I am trying to remember how to get back to where I live. Mother, Dagmar and Randi will be getting worried by now. I must’ve been out for some time. A tall, thin woman brings me a glass filled with spirit. I don’t remember seeing her before. Her hair is almost white.
“Here you are, Mum,” she says, and sets the glass on the table before me. “I’ve brought you a whisky.”
“I didn’t ask for one,” I say.
“I know you didn’t,” she says. “But I thought you might like one before lunch.”
“I haven’t got any money.”
“Don’t be silly, you don’t need money, it’s free.”
“Everything’s free here,” a man in an apron says. He stands over a barbecue. There is something in the way he says it that annoys me. I suspect he is laughing at me.
“Geoff’s got a trout from the freezer. He’s going to grill it just for you. You like trout, don’t you?” For a moment I am not even sure what trout is, let alone remember whether I like it or not, so I nod my head. “David sends you his love. I just spoke to him on the phone.” I nod again. “He seems to be settling into the new flat.” How nice these people seem, but I am not sure I trust them. Who is this David? He sends me his love indeed. Best to stay quiet and keep a close eye on all of them. An awful tiredness sweeps over me.
“Ginger, that were it,” Edna says, “it were Ginger. I remember now.”
“What was ginger?” Doris asks.
“It were,” Edna says.
“I wish I knew what you were on about.”
“The cat, it were ginger, so we called it Ginger.”
“We had a lovely little kitten once,” I say. “I used to give it cream from the top of the milk.” And I know no one hears.
How tiny babies are. I am almost too afraid to take it. I seem to recall that my first was larger. And infinitely more beautiful. I cradle it in my arms. Barely a few days old and I already feel an irrational dislike towards the little creature. Its face all screwed up, I can see it’s about to bawl its head off. I want to hand it back before it does. I’m sure all of mine were better looking than this thing. My daughter certainly was. Though you’d hardly know it to look at her nowadays. Tall, thin, and pale, her hair is already greying.
“Isn’t he lovely?” My daughter doesn’t appear to notice how ugly the thing is. Its face all red, the skin on its forehead wrinkled, and its scalp is flaking.
“I think it wants its mother,” I say, holding it out to her.
“David,” she says, “he’s not an it. He has a name, David. We named him after Geoff’s father. It’s a family tradition. Don’t you like holding him?”
“Of course, I do. But babies need their mothers in the first few days.”
“Yes, but he has to get used to his grandparents as well. Dad, do want to hold him?”
“It’s been such a long time I don’t think I’d know how to.” My daughter takes the tiny creature from my arms and gives it to Bob.
“This is granddad, David.” Suddenly it’s gurgling, and a little grin stretches across its ugly face. “He likes you, Dad.”
“They always like the men,” I say. My daughter. The stupid woman is going to spoil the thing, I can see she is.
Hans stops at the tram stand. His little legs are tired and he refuses to go any further. I keep telling that him we don’t have the money to take the tram, but he won’t listen. He tells me there is money in the envelope Papa has given me. I tell him that we can’t use it. Mama would kill us. Eventually, I relent and open it. Just as I have my fingers on one of the notes, a man rushes up and snatches the envelope out of my hand. I run after him screaming, but he is too fast for me. I walk slowly back to the tram stop. Hans bursts into tears.
“Now you’ve done it!” he cries, “we’ll never be able to go back home to Mama now!”
“Don’t be stupid!” I say, “of course, we will.” But I make no effort to move. “Anyway, it’s all your fault, if you hadn’t insisted on getting the tram this would’ve never happened.” It’s the wrong thing to say. Hans cries all the more. “I’m sorry,” I say, trying to put an arm round him. He shrugs it away.
“I want to go home!” he bawls. But I make no effort to move.
Every day is the same. As is everyday. I don’t know whether it’s Wednesday or Friday. Though devil knows why I should choose those two days. It could just as likely be one of the others.
“What day is it?” I ask Edna.
“How should I know?” she says. And I think the same: how should she know? “Tuesday, innit? What day is it Doris?” Doris is sleeping. Every day is the same. The room we sit in all day long is lined with chairs. Backs against the walls. Each staring into the centre where nothing stands. Just like a waiting room in a railway station. We are waiting for a train that never comes.
“What day is it?” I ask Edna.
“I dunno Friday innit? I should be getting down to me mum’s she’s expecting me.”
“You’re Mum’s dead.” Doris says.
“Yeah, she’ll be expecting me. I wonder if anyone’s going my way, if not I’ll have to catch the bus. I’ve got a timetable somewhere.” Edna starts rummaging in her handbag. “Who’s been putting these in my bag?” She pulls out fresh paper tissues all screwed up. Her bag is full of them. It is usually empty. “That’s the second time today that’s happened. You wait till I catch the bugger that’s doing it.”
I hear birdsong. A summer breeze rustles the poplars. And a tortoiseshell cat, slinking from a hedgerow, pauses to listen. Bob is weeding the allotment, oblivious. From a red and yellow striped deckchair, eyes half-shut, I observe him unnoticed. He’s not bad looking for 79, even with that beard. Though slightly worn the worse for years of drink, and more than on the flabby side, he’d like me to think he’s still well-built. And he is, but more in the way of an antique sofa. Though he’s lasted long enough, he bulges in all the wrong places. For some unknown reason I don’t want him to know that I’m watching him. I want to remember him like this forever. I think how glad I am we stuck together. He’s not such a bad sort, I’ve seen worse. We’ve had our ups and downs, don’t we all? We get over them. Since the stroke he’s been a godsend. I don’t know how I could’ve managed without him. Cooking and cleaning, washing up, he’s done everything. I can’t complain. You have to make the best of things. We haven’t had it so bad, when all’s said and done. I hope he isn’t doing too much. Dear Bob. He cries out in pain as the trowel glances his thumb a blow and he swears at me, as though I am to blame.
We sit staring into the centre of a room where nothing stands. Just like a waiting room in a railway station. Nobody says a word. In the corner of the room stands a television. They keep it on all day. I can hardly see it, and I can’t understand a word they’re saying. I wish they’d turn it off.
“I wonder what time it is?” I ask. And am almost startled to discover it’s me who’s talking, and wonder for how long I have been doing it.
“I dunno,” says Edna. “Soon be dinner time won’t it?”
“You had your dinner hours ago,” Doris says. “We all had dinner. Don’t you remember? It were fish.” And she’s right, the whole place stinks of fish.
“Must be Friday,” I say, “we always have fish on Friday. I think it must be Catholics running the place. That’s why we always have fish on Friday.” Edna is busy stuffing screwed up tissues into her bag. “Catholics always have fish on Friday,” I say. The whole place stinks of fish on Fridays. I can smell boiled fish. It must be Friday.
“I could murder a cup of tea,” Edna says. “Do you think there’s somewhere we could buy one?”
“They serve tea free in here,” Doris says, “I keep on telling you. You don’t have to pay, everything’s free.”
“How do I know? I’ve never been here before.”
“You live here,” Doris says. “We all live here.”
“I want to be going soon, before it gets dark,” Edna says. “I wonder if there’s anyone here going my way. I think I’ll go round my mum’s. She’s expecting me. I’ll probably have to take the bus. I’ve got a timetable somewhere.” She starts rummaging in her bag. “Who’s been putting these in my bag?” She pulls out fresh paper tissues all screwed up. Her bag is full of them. It is usually empty. “That’s the second time today that’s happened. You wait till I catch the bugger who’s doing it.”
I wish Bob would cut that beard. It makes him look so old. Sometimes I don’t recognise him. Like a shrunken dwarf hunched over the flowerbed, a trowel in his hand. Nasty little man. I hate him. I can’t bear to look. As I close my eyes I hear the chinking of the trowel against small stones, and grunted breaths. He’s angry now. At me, even though he hit his own thumb. He was so good looking when he was young. Ice blue eyes and dark curly hair. He had a little moustache. It used to prickle my cheek. How proud he was of that little moustache. How happy I was when he shaved it off. I wish he would shave that beard off. It makes him look so old. I hear are the sounds of birdsong, and the soughing of wind through poplar trees. Something is missing. No chinking of trowel. I open my eyes. A tortoiseshell cat is sitting by the flowerbed licking its paws. Bob is lying on the ground next to it. There is something awkward in his pose.
“Bob?” I whisper. He doesn’t move and I know he is dead.
“Don’t know what’s up with her,” I hear Edna say in the distance. “She’s been like that for hours.” Hours, but it seems only seconds since I was a child.
“She’s sleeping, leave her alone.” Doris and she are drifting away. But I’m not sleeping; I’m wide-awake. Everything is crystal clear. He stands before us. A camera in his beautiful hands, my father.
“Come on, Ragnhild, wake up,” a new voice calls from afar, “it’s time for supper. Ragnhild? Wake up. Are you all right? Quick! Somebody come! I think there’s something wrong with Ragnhild! She’s not breathing!”
Not this Ragnhild. Might as well be talking about someone else. I’m so tired, and so very, very alone. Sitting on a small wooden chair in front of our old house at Lille Tøyen. My eyes squint against bright sunshine. The shutter clicks.
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming