FOLLOWING MY RUN IN with the gorilla at the Aker brygge shopping mall, Kari called a taxi and told the driver to take us to Majorstua. If only my arm hadn’t been in a sling I would’ve knocked the gorilla’s block off. Nobody messes with Knut Pedersen and walks away with his body intact, I can tell you. Even with one arm in a sling I reckon I could’ve given him a good run for his money. That’s why he had to radio for help. It’s their eyes you have to stare into. The fear is always in their eyes. By the look of his he was as scared as a rabbit caught in the lights of a speeding car at the dead of night. Paralysed into fear. I like that: a gorilla as scared as a rabbit. I couldn’t help sniggering to myself for a good part of the taxi ride. I would’ve let Kari in on the joke, but I knew she wouldn’t get it.
The taxi dropped us off outside an elegant block of flats. These days Majorstua’s about as fashionable as you can get. I don’t know how she could afford it on a nurse’s salary. She half-dragged, half-carried me up to the third floor and unlocked the front door to a flat. Once inside the main room, she dumped me on a sofa. The place wasn’t small by anyone’s standards, only to a Saudi potentate. Decked out with all sorts of crap women who fool themselves they’ve got good taste buy when they’re on holiday. Tourist tat. There were trinkets from Thailand on small tables, and embroidered textiles from Gujurat pinned to the walls alongside carved and painted wood masks from Bali or some such place. You know the sort of thing, all money and no taste. I hated her then. I hated her for her beauty, I hated her for her money, I hated her for her flat. Most of all, I hated her for not allowing me to see those gorillas off.
But, by that time, I was in no position to argue, the pills Lars gave me had really started to kick in. She cleaned the cut above my eye and dressed it with fresh lint. I don’t know what it was about those pills but they started to make the world look soft and pliable. I could’ve molded it into any shape I wanted. Kari asked me whether I was eating properly. I didn’t quite get what she meant. What business of hers was it whether I was eating properly. What did she mean? Was she trying to suggest I might be eating improperly? Did she think food dribbled out the corners of my mouth when I ate, or I dropped crumbs all over the floor? I was in no mood to quibble, just too, too tired.
It wasn’t the fact my grandparents were old, and would eventually die, that worried me. In their slightly bluish skin and wrinkled faces I saw confirmation I would be old one day. And I would die.
Occasionally, my grandfather takes me out fishing in a rowing boat by the soft light of the midnight sun, while we are on Værøy. He rows on beyond the lighthouse with smooth strokes. Oars scarcely skim the surface of the water as he leans forward for each new haul. Blue veins swell with blood on the back of his hands and the sides of his neck as he pulls, his breaths measuring time. There, on the backs of those strong hands, the sunburnt skin shows liver spots. I watch my grandfather’s oars dipping and skimming, dipping and skimming; shimmering droplets of water on the oars’ blades hardly have time to fall; dripping, dipping and skimming, dripping, dipping and skimming. When we reach what he considers the right place; the place the fish will be, he lays the oars in the boat, and we let out our lines. Sometimes, the place isn’t quite right, and taking up the oars again, he rows somewhere else. There is never a time we return without any fish.
Each time we catch a fish, he tears the hook from its mouth and throws it into a white plastic box, streaked with blood, where it thrashes about frantically. If the fish is too small, he throws it back.
Watching the fishes die slow deaths fascinates me. Eventually, their wearied thrashings subside, until I can just see them twitching from time to time. Sometimes, they don’t twitch for an awfully long time and I think that they are dead, but then they thrash about again. Some of them die straightaway; they just give up. I suppose they are the weaker ones.
Sometimes, a hook gets caught in a fish’s eye, and my grandfather has to prise it out. When that happens I can’t take my own eyes away from it. It makes me feel sick and satisfied at the same time. I want the fish to feel pain, but I hate myself for feeling like that.
After a while my grandfather takes a dying fish up, cuts off its head, and slits its belly open. There is a gurgling sound, followed by a sound like air blowing, a last desperate sigh. Blood spurts, and the guts spill out. He throws the head and guts into the sea for the gulls to squabble over.
The gulls always follow us when we go out fishing, they know my grandfather will throw the guts out to them.
I always know when he thinks we have enough. He takes out his tobacco pouch and rolls a cigarette. Placing it in the corner of his mouth, before lighting it, he says through tight lips, his words muffled,
“That’s enough, better leave a few for next time.”
When we get back to the fishermen’s quarters, he sets a huge pot of salted water on the stove, slices the fishes, and throws them in. He boils up masses of potatoes in another pot. That’s all we have, boiled potatoes, and boiled fish with great dollops of butter melting over them. We eat them until our bellies are almost fit to burst. It is delicious. My grandfather says that is the only way to eat fresh cod.
I don’t know whether it was the pills, or the warmth of the room, but I woke from a deep sleep, not knowing where on earth I was, thinking about my grandfather. The sort of sleep I hadn’t known for a long time; a dreamless sleep. Even though the pain in my arm wakes me in what seems like the early hours of the morning, I manage to fall asleep again, almost instantly.
I’m floating along the boulevards of Paris one midday when the sky begins to darken. I reach the Louvre. Looking up the sun is almost completely obscured by the moon. It’s a full eclipse and everywhere goes black. Everything falls silent, as though the sun has been responsible for all the noise in the world. There’s no birdsong, no sound of traffic, nothing. And then a ray of sunlight bursts out of the penumbra straight into the crystal pyramid that stands beside the gallery. Inside the pyramid I see a huge pile of gold coins. I feel the urge to float on to somewhere else.
A man stands at the crossroad before me. He is wearing a long flowing robe of many different colours. The colours keep changing as he moves. At one moment he looks like Herr Brand, the next he looks like my grandfather. He has a long white beard and carries a staff. He is talking to me.
“Excuse me,” I ask when the opportunity arises, “But I think I’m lost.”
“Where do you want to get to?”As he talks the letters to his words appear as multicoloured images on his robe.
“I long to go back to my past but I don’t know where it is, or how to get there.”
“So you want to travel through time?”
“I suppose so.”
“Suppose so? Can’t you be a bit more definite than that?”
“But that in itself is not exactly definite. Do you mean, yes, I can be more definite, or yes, I want to travel through time?”
“Both, I suppose. I can be more definite, and I do want to travel through time.”
“Well, it’ll have to be one or the other.”
“In that case, I want to travel through time, I think.”
“We all think, that’s why we are. But are we what we think we are? When we talk about travelling in time it is as well to define what we mean.” As he speaks, his robe fills with a multitude of of clocks, all ticking out of time. If that’s possible. Ticking out of time, when they’re not tocking out of time. Ticking and tocking out time. While one tocks another ticks. Anything’s possible here.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, from the moment of birth, and even before, we are all time travellers. Each second, each minute, each hour of each day we are travelling through time. This in itself is proof that time travel is possible, as it’s happening all the time. All through time. But what most people mean when they refer to time travel is the ability to travel faster through time. We want to speed up the process without getting old.”
“And is that possible?”
“Of course. The beginnings of the technology are already there. They have been there for countless millennia, since the beginning of time, in fact. But it isn’t speeding up that’s the trick it’s slowing down. One way is through the process of cryogenics.”
“It’s a fridge for old dead people with lots more money than sense. They freeze themselves when they die in the hope somebody invents something to bring them to life again. But I know a better example. I don’t suppose you’ve heard the story of the Siberian fly that flew through time from the Ice Age?”
“The Siberian fly that flew through time from the Ice Age. Are you deaf?”
“No, you’re not deaf? Or no, you haven’t heard about the Siberian fly that flew through time from the Ice Age?”
“No, to both.”
“Hm, you can’t be deaf then. Anyhow, as time flies, I better press on. In the 1930s a group of Russian archaeologists made a series of amazing discoveries in the icy wastes of Siberia. The most amazing of which was the discovery of a complete woolly mammoth suspended in ice. It had fallen into a crevasse and died. As time went on, it got buried beneath tons of snow. Gradually, the snow crushed to ice. There the Mammoth lay beneath the permafrost for tens of thousands of years until a team of archaeologists came across it.
“The technology to keep it frozen and the infrastructure to transport it to a laboratory, where experiments could be performed, didn’t exist in those days. So, with inspired Russian improvisation, they skinned it before slicing it up and building a barbecue on which to grill it. The party went on for days, helped along by the ample supplies of vodka the expedition had strapped to mules for the journey, and a group of itinerant balalaika musicians they ran into on the way. They were their way to give a concert at a gulag. Though the party had to make do with tin mugs, rather than crystal tumblers, ice was no problem.
“To hurry along to the point. As you can imagine, an entire woolly mammoth takes quite a bit of eating. But they didn’t want to waste a scrap. Soviet Russia was going through some hard times back then, and meat was difficult to come by. Eventually all that was left was a mountain of well-gnawed bones and some nastier bits of offal, which they threw to the huge pack of wolves that had assembled nearby. Not the tiniest bit of gristle remained. Otherwise, with what we know of DNA today, we could have cloned a woolly mammoth.
“But there was another, much less-known discovery. Trapped in the mammoth’s woolly coat when it fell into the crevasse had been a little fly, which had also become suspended in ice. As the scientists prepared their feast, with herbs and seasoning, the chinks of ice caught in the pelt began to melt. One of the cooks noticed the fly, and thought he saw it move. He called his companions over. Just as he was about pick it out with a pair of tweezers, the fly woke out of its tens of thousands of year’s nap and flew off. As most flies always do when you try to pick them up with tweezers. Or anything in fact. It settled a little way off, only for another scientist, as yet unaware of the fly’s remarkable journey through time, to swat it with his cap. Think of that. The poor thing had survived in a state of suspended animation for tens of thousands of years, only to live a couple of minutes before being swatted by a flatcap. The second scientist had believed it was just a stray fly that had settled on the feast. But that isn’t the point; it’s just another sticky subject for philosophers.
“The point is that though the preservation of a huge woolly mammoth in ice for so long, in itself, was incredible, the coming to life of the small fly was almost miraculous. It demonstrated something extremely important. It demonstrated that time travel was a distinct possibility. For, in effect, the fly had travelled thousands of years through time without ageing. So, far from speeding up to travel through time, scientists began to realise that there was another way, to slow the body right down until it stopped. Freezing the body is easy, reviving it is the bit of technology lacking at the present time. It will come of course. At present, though there are any number of people that are willing to have their bodies frozen after death – when the possibility of revival has all but disappeared – nobody has yet taken the risk of having their body frozen while alive, in the hope that the technology will be discovered in the future. And then there is the even more difficult part.”
“Well, the time travel I’ve been talking about all has to do with travelling into the future. Just like you said, when I ask most people, the time travel they would like to do is into the past. To see if Leif Ericsson really did discover America, or to assassinate Hitler before he could cause too much damage, that sort of thing. Though if they did see what most of the past was like, I’m sure they’d want to jump on the next time bus back to the present, if they didn’t get hacked to death first. The past is a violent place, I hear. And travelling into the past is a different kettle of fish entirely to barbecuing a Woolly Mammoth.
“Logic would have it that if to travel into the future you have to slow down the body, then to travel into the past, you would have to speed it up. Many scientists believed that if you could travel faster than the speed of light that you would start travelling into the past. But that is to confuse time with light. To show this we only have to look at aircraft travelling faster than the speed of sound. All that happens is that they travel in front of the sound they make. They don’t start hearing what somebody said yesterday, and it is similar with light. We are not composed of light, it just shows where we are at a given moment in time, or where we were, if we ever get to travel faster than it. In the same way that the night skies don’t show you where the stars are now, but where they were at the point that their light began its long journey towards us.
“Besides, there are a couple of drawbacks to attempting to travel at the speed of light. As you will know, the faster you travel the closer you will get to being in two places at the same time.”
“Of course, it stands to reason. If you travel to New York by a normal flight you will arrive there in six hours, if you travelled by rocket at twice the speed you will be there in three, ergot, you are that much closer to being in two places at the same time.”
“I meant no, I didn’t know that.”
“Therefore it stands to reason if you travel extremely fast indeed, the more places you will get closer to being in at the same time. In effect, that means that the faster you travel the longer you become, so you can’t travel faster than light, and you certainly wouldn’t be travelling through time. At most you’d be travelling with it, which is the same as you do when you stand perfectly still, or move about normally. You just get to the stage where you are more and more places at the same time. Not that you’d be able to see them, because you’d be travelling too fast for that.
“Yet, there could be another way. When light travels through water a strange effect takes place. You can see it just by dipping your arm in a bowl of water. If you look at the surface of the water you will see that your arm appears to bend at an uncomfortably sharp angle. But you know water can’t bend your arm like that. In reality, it is bending the light. Now if we were to extend that effect somehow, and bend the light right round, it stands to reason that it would start going back the same way it came. But far from travelling at the speed of light, it would be like two trains travelling in opposite directions, the speed it would be travelling at the differential between the two ie: twice the speed of light. But unfortunately light is a bit like rubber. The molecules of rubber have very good memories, so however much you bend and squash them, as soon as you let go, they always go back into shape. Light is more or less the same, it can be curved or bent, but it soon gets back to travelling in a straight line again. So to turn light back on itself for long enough is almost impossible. And even if we could, it’s doubtful we would end up going back in time. No travelling back in time involves a whole different way of thinking.”
“So you’re telling me it isn’t possible for to travel back in time?”
“Not exactly, how far do you want to go?”
“I had always wanted to see Ancient Egypt, but if that’s too difficult I’d settle for just going back twenty-four years, to the time my mother was alive, I’d like to see her again.”
“Oh, no, no, no, I can’t manage that. The most I’d be able to do is take you back a few seconds or so, and that would be pushing it.”
“But what use would that be?”
“You can only find out by trying.”
“So you’re telling me it isn’t possible for me to travel back in time?”
“Not exactly, how far do you want to go?”
“I had always wanted to see Ancient Egypt, but if that’s too difficult I’d settle for just going back twenty-four years, to the time my mother was alive, I’d like to see her again.”
“Oh, no, no, no, I can’t manage that. The most we’d be able to do is take you back a few seconds or so, and that would be pressing it.”
“But what use would that be?”
“There, what do you think of that?”
“You just went back in time.”
“Just then, it was only a couple of seconds.”
“What that? I thought it was déjà vu.”
“Most people do.”
“I think I want to go into another dream.”
“This is not a dream; it’s the others that are dreams. This is reality. Stay here. Who knows I might be able to send you back in time a full hour in time, before long. So we’ll be here for eternity locked in a circle, where death never visits, however much either of us begins to desire it.”
When I wake for a third time it is to notice the scent of fresh sheets. That was something I hadn’t known in a long time. It isn’t important to me, it’s a memory; something I know from what seems like a different age. Like the back of a hand brushing against my cheek. The lightest of touches.
I can see movement in the next room through a half-open door. It is Kari. She’s dressed in a flimsy short silk slip, pinning her hair up as though she is about to go for a shower. It’s obvious she doesn’t realise I’ve woken. The parts of her body I can see are brown, either from a recent trip abroad, or from one of those tanning studios. Her legs look even longer out of trousers. She is much more beautiful than Astrid, but I’m not going to consider it. Sensing something, she turns to see if I am awake, and I manage to close my eyes before she catches me staring at her. Satisfied, she goes into the bathroom, and I soon hear the sound of water gushing. Now is my chance, I slip from beneath the quilt and pull my trousers on. Damn my bloody arm! Getting dressed with one hand is the most difficult thing. I hear the shower turning off and manage to slip back into bed with my trousers half on. She comes out of the shower with a towel wrapped around her. It was obvious she’s forgotten something. Women like her always spend more than a few minutes in the bathroom. She is leaning over when the towel slips. I stop myself from gasping out loud. It has been too long since I’ve seen a naked woman. Her breasts are firm and brown, her nipples almost black. I can see the dark mound between her thighs. Completely unaware she is being observed she is in no particular hurry to pick up the towel. She rummages in a handbag for something. I can feel my prick hardening and will it to stop. It won’t listen. When she eventually goes back into the bathroom I find I have a corner of the duvet clenched between my teeth.
The swoosh of the shower resumes, and I slip out of bed again. I manage to get my shirt on, albeit haphazardly, and my quilted parka. As I slip out of the flat I hear her singing to herself above the waters of the shower.
I walk down Bogstad vei towards the palace. I could’ve done with a shower myself. And a shave. I stroke my bristles, she was right about that. I’ll go and see Lars, perhaps I’ll be able to use his razor.
The cold weather has slipped away overnight, it’s often like that in the run up to Christmas. Grandfather used to call it sandwich weather, periods of warmth interspersed between the cold. The ice is turning to slush. Just in front of me, a huge wedge of snow comes thudding down from a roof, narrowly missing an old woman. She has a silly, shocked look on her face. It happens all the time in winter. I can’t understand why she assumes an expression that made it look like the most unexpected thing to happen in her life. I wonder how she looked on her wedding night, and smile to myself.
My mouth is dry and I’m dying for a coffee so I decide to break into the 100 kroner note Lars laid on me, and go into a bakery where they still sell proper Norwegian coffee. None of that muck Americans call coffee, and charge you twice as much for.
Sixteen kroner, I am down to eighty-four. Rather than gulp the coffee I sip at it. If Kari comes by she’s unlikely she’ll see me as I sit well towards the back of the place. Kari with her crow black hair and name that sounds like the call of a bronchial crow. I can’t understand what she wants from me, except to get me back into that hospital where they will put me back into that cylindrical machine and hope that it works a second time. Oh no, they can’t fool me, they won’t get me into the cylindrical machine again.
I wonder whether it will even be wise to go back to Sinsen. Lars probably won’t mind me sleeping on his floor. I decide to go back and see if Wenche is there.
I can wait outside watching until Wenche goes out. She’ll have to go out at some point. Then I could go in. I need to use her computer. If it wasn’t for that stupid woman at Deichmanske library, I could use a computer there. But she can’t be there every day, there might be a chance for me to go there instead.
Walking through the palace gardens, I start to cheer up. Life looks a lot better from a regal prospect. I stop to sit on a bench and drink it all in. No wonder the king chose to live here. Right in the middle of a park. Of course, I couldn’t know whether he’d chosen to live in a park that was already here, or whether he’d just created his own park. I suppose I could find out, but do I really want to know anything so trivial? My mind is cluttered enough without his majesty butting in uninvited.
Guards march up and down, clouds of steam billowing from their mouths. Poor devils! The King’s Guard, out guarding the king when he’s probably spending all his money in China, or butting into his subjects’ daydreams. I can never work out why the Royals go anywhere at all. There’s always some reason why it’s important for Norway to sell things to the Chinese or Vietnamese, or whoever. Who in China has heard of Norway?
When the king visits they give the Chinese children little Norwegian flags to wave, red, white and blue. I mean, they must give them to them. You could hardly expect to go into a shop in China and buy a Norwegian flag, could you? What sort of Chinese businessman is going to keep a stock of Norwegian flags just in case the Norwegian king pops by? A bankrupt Chinese businessman, that’s what sort. I mean, you’ll find it difficult enough to get a Chinese flag in Oslo, and China is a much bigger place than Norway. There are more Chinese people living in Oslo than there are Norwegians living in Beijing, I bet. Besides, any Norwegian worthy of the description would take his own flag to China if he were intending to live there for any time. And he would have his own flagpole to raise it on as well. Feast days and flag days demand it. What Norwegian could honestly call himself that if he wasn’t able to hoist the flag on May 17th? That Norwegian might as well be a Dane. So it stands to reason there must be more Chinese flags around than Norwegian ones, doesn’t it? My grandfather always said if you want to make money in Norway, get into flags, there must be more flags in Norway than anywhere in the world, he said.
Of course, they probably make all Norwegian flags in China these days. They make almost everything there today. More than half the stuff you buy seems to be made in China. They have these entire cities where people do nothing but make things sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. I saw a programme about it on TV. And when they’re not making things they sleep in four-tiered bunk beds in dormitories that are so long it takes an hour to walk from one end to the other. Seems to me the king is wasting his time going to China. What’s the point of trying to sell them anything when they make everything themselves?
But the there was that king went who sold them an entire container ship of smoked salmon. He mus’ve been quite some salesman to sell smoked salmon to the Chinese. I never really thought of the Chinese eating Norwegian smørbrød. Pølser med lompe, Norwegian frankfurters in potato cake, that’s what he should take with him next time he goes.
I wonder if he’s missed his vocation being king. Strikes me as being a funny sort of king that goes around selling sandwiches to the Chinese. Still, we’ve got enough Chinese restaurants in Oslo, perhaps a few Norwegian cafés in Beijing wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
I get up and walk down towards Karl Johans gata wondering whether I would want to go to China. A man starts to look at me strangely and I realise that I am talking out loud to myself. I make a face at him and he quickly turns away.
Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming
Kari Bremnes from Svolvær, capital of the Lofotens, sings Denne Veien for NRK (Norwegian TV) in 2013