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Authors: Audur Ava Olafsdottir

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BOOK: The Greenhouse
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Fifty-two
 

I suffered from earaches as a child, so I fasten the blue bonnet with the lace brim around my daughter before taking her out, ensuring, however, that her two curly locks remain visible. Then I set off with the child on a tour around the village. There is no denying that the baby carriage and I attract plenty of attention; the reception I get from the villagers is very different and a lot warmer when I’m with the child than when I’m on my own. I also notice something I’d never really thought about before, and that is that there are no children wandering around this place; I’m the only person with a small child in the village this morning.

I prop up my daughter so she can look back at the pedestrians who are watching her. She attracts both admiration and interest on our first trip down to the bottom of the main street. The women seem to give me more attention in my first fifteen minutes with the baby carriage than they have in the entire approximately two months I’ve been here alone in the village. Women’s emotional lives seem pretty complex to me, and their reactions are often unpredictable. When I’ve finished pushing the carriage four times up and down the village street, I have the idea of taking my daughter into the church to show her the altarpiece with the baby Jesus that resembles her.

The uneven stonework on the floor causes the carriage to totter, so I leave it inside the church’s entrance under a painting of doomsday and take the pacifier with me. Still, I don’t expect anyone to object to the child being in the church, even if there is a mass going on. There are just a few old women on the benches. I don’t walk straight to the picture with the child, but sit at the back to give my daughter a chance to acclimatize herself to the semidarkness. Then we gradually make our way toward the chancel at the front of the church and I show her the first paintings, one after another, reading out the inscriptions for her. We take our time with each painting; the child is interested and agile in my arms. We look at Mary Magdalene with her long red hair; then I halt when we get to Saint Joseph. The painting shows a careworn old man with drooping shoulders, weighed down by life’s burdens. I put some coins in the box and light a candle. The inscription says that Saint Joseph was a loyal husband, as well as a devout and hardworking man. He was a foster father, I think to myself, and took on the responsibilities he was given. I’m not a foster father the way Joseph was; my daughter has the same kind of earlobes I have and a birthmark in the same spot of the groin. She’s the flesh of my flesh, if I can put it in theological terms. Nevertheless I feel some sympathy for Saint Joseph; he must have felt lonely in bed.

—My brother Joseph, I say jokingly. Then I remember the postcard I was going to send to Jósef because he likes to collect stamps.

—It’s a boy, I say when we reach Mary on the throne with her child. My daughter stops wriggling in my arms and becomes incredibly still and serious. She stares wide-eyed at her double with rosy cheeks, dimples, and two yellow curly locks on his forehead. Now that I’m standing here beside the painting with my daughter, I just can’t get over the striking resemblance. Even the ears are the same; I hadn’t noticed the folds in baby Jesus’s ears before. A woman is kneeling in front of the painting and, when she stands up, glances back and forth at my daughter and the painting in wonderment. I know what’s going through her mind.

On our way out I ask the woman who sells plastic saints in a little stall by the entrance for some more information about the painting. She says there are more questions than answers about it. Out of curiosity—and also because she’s sometimes asked—she’s tried to get some information on the piece, from Father Thomas among other people, but without any great results; there is even some uncertainty about who the painter is.

—It is generally believed, though, to be the work of a little-known woman painter, the daughter of a master from a neighboring province who has since been almost forgotten himself, says the woman handing my child a plastic saint to look at. The child pushes her small index finger through the gilded halo.

 
Fifty-three
 

My main concern right now is shopping for food. I didn’t expect to have to cook more than one dinner for the mother and child and it’s caught me off guard. Even though it hasn’t exactly been said in so many words, I’ve been catapulted into family life with a woman and child sleeping in the next room. This isn’t the result of any premeditated decision on my part, and I’m given no time to prepare myself. From now on I have to shop differently and cater to the needs of three people.

What might Anna like? Is she likely to prefer raspberry yogurt or forest berry yogurt? One should always be wary of a woman’s interpretive skills. Still, Anna isn’t likely to check the fat percentage and then to glare at me with disapproval, as you sometimes hear. If any conclusions can be drawn from last night’s dinner it’s that Anna eats anything that is put in front of her; she gobbled up the food and then had seconds.

—Is it OK if I finish it off? she asked when I’d finished eating, and she polished off the meat and sauce in the pan.

Although it isn’t very practical to have to take the baby carriage everywhere, I have to admit that it’s great to be able to load food on the rack and under the child’s feet. I’ve no experience of buying food, but we start with fruit and I buy three of every kind because there are three of us in the home at the moment. I buy three apples, three oranges, three pears, three kiwis, and three bananas because Flóra Sól says
ba ba ba
and points at bananas. Then I add strawberries and raspberries. Next I buy another bag of potatoes because I have to think of dinner again. I’ll probably end up cooking veal and boiling potatoes like yesterday. Even though I don’t quite know how I’ll cook them I also buy some different types of vegetables. The grocer pops everything I gradually point out to him into a paper bag and immediately scribbles some figures on a sheet. I follow the same method for the vegetables, three tomatoes, three onions, three peppers, and three pieces of some violet thing that might be a vegetable or a fruit, I’m not sure.

As I’m coming out of the butcher’s with the veal, I meet Father Thomas. He greets me with a handshake, and then he just can’t take his eyes off the child, as if he is discovering a new reality. Flóra Sól gets all excited and lets me know that she wants to get out of the carriage and meet the priest. I pick her up and hold her in my arms as we chat, as if to assert my role as a father. My daughter smiles at Father Thomas, and he pats her on the head; then she goes all shy and lays her head on my shoulder.

—A beautiful and intelligent child, he says. The pair of you together have probably lowered the average age demographic in this village; there aren’t many young people around here.

I tell the priest that I won’t be coming to the garden for another two to three days, but that I’ll be back, I’ll be getting a babysitter for a few hours in the afternoon. I don’t mention Anna because that would complicate things, and I haven’t told her about the garden yet.

—Brother Matthew is going to water the plants while you’re away, says the priest.

Before I know it I’ve asked him if he knows any food recipes.

—Nothing too complicated, I say, I don’t have much experience. Then I tell him that I did veal in red wine sauce yesterday and that it went down well, and that I have veal again tonight. After that I need to start varying it a bit.

My question doesn’t seem to throw the priest in the least, or he doesn’t show it if it does. He says he never actually cooks himself, but he can think of a few films that might be good for me to watch. If he were to mention the first ones that come to mind they would be
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
, which is actually fairly unconventional and doesn’t really apply in this case;
Eat Drink Man Woman; Chocolat
;
Babette’s Feast
;
Like Water for Chocolate
;
Chungking Express
; and
In the Mood for Love
, he says, apologizing for his translations of the titles, because he’s quoting them loosely from memory.

One of the movies focuses especially on a chocolate confectionary. The basic theme is the struggle between good and evil, with the parish priest as the baddie and the woman who makes the chocolates representing the forces of good, says Father Thomas chirpily, as he fleetingly greets an old woman walking by.

—They don’t really go into measurements and proportions, he adds, but these films can still put me on the right track when it comes to cooking. He says that my daughter and I are welcome to pop by when we’ve finished shopping and check out his videos.

Since the shopping is formally done and my daughter and I don’t strictly speaking have anything special to do, we follow him back to the guesthouse. He takes some films off the shelf and lines them up on the desk; then choosing one movie, he opens the case and slips the tape into the VCR. Father Thomas says no director depicts the love of food like this one, but it takes him several minutes to find the scene he thinks might guide me in my cooking. Meanwhile my daughter watches him with interest.

Asian faces appear on the screen, women with great hair-dos and beautiful dresses. The scene Father Thomas chooses for me is about two minutes long and shows people carrying noodle soup in buckets down narrow corridors and damp passageways.

The next film the priest chooses is an opening scene in which the hero is slaughtering a hen with a sharp knife and preparing a very elaborate meal in an incredibly short time. The thing that draws my attention in this film is the hero’s beautiful collection of knives; hundreds of razor-sharp implements cover the entire wall of the kitchen in the background. The priest takes the tape out and slips a third video into the machine. He fast-forwards a moment, then rewinds, and looks hesitantly over his shoulder at my nine-month-old daughter:

—This one isn’t suitable for children, he says.

 
Fifty-four
 

On the way home it occurs to me to look into a small children’s clothes shop next to the barber’s. I spot a floral dress in the window that might fit my daughter. The furnishings are archaic and the children’s clothes a bit old-fashioned. The owner of the shop is an old woman, close to ninety. She’s happy to get some customers into the shop and immediately pulls out two floral dresses, one with blue checkerberries, the other with pink roses. I stand Flóra Sól up on the counter and loosely measure up the dresses against her. Still, I’m not sure the designs suit a person whose body is mainly built around the waist. Then the woman remembers a yellow dress she has stored away in a special place at the back, with a pattern of white lilies, an irresistible crocheted lace collar, and crocheted yellow stockings to match. I go for it and buy the floral dress and stockings. As I’m about to pay, the woman points out that my daughter needs a coat to go with the dress and says she’ll give me a good discount. She returns quickly with one wrapped in plastic, tiny, a burgundy woolen coat with double lining and a stitched collar and pockets. I put the coat on my daughter and stand her back up on the counter. She is undeniably short in this full-length coat, but the color suits her as she stands there upright on the counter, looking like a porcelain doll in a museum, a miniature adult. Some more people have come into the shop, and my daughter wins the admiration of two of the shop owner’s elderly lady friends who have popped in. I walk out with the burgundy coat, yellow dress, and stockings.

In the evening I cook veal in wine sauce again, but instead of frying the meat in slices, I chop it into pieces and make a veal goulash for the mother of my child and nine-month-old daughter. Then I boil the potatoes like the night before, only this time I mash them.

After dinner I put my daughter into the dress and coat to show them to her mother. The child repeats the performance she gave in the shop on the kitchen table and claps her hands in approval.

Anna laughs and claps back, admiring her daughter for a moment, and then sinks back into her book. I’m a bit worried about how absentminded she can be when she’s with the child; she plays with her daughter for brief spells, they frolic about, laugh and titter, but then it’s as if her mind is totally elsewhere and she loses interest, hands me the child, sits at the kitchen table, and opens her books. Although I don’t think she’s more interested in her research than Flóra Sól, I do nevertheless worry about how fleeting her cheerful moments can be.

 
BOOK: The Greenhouse
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