Authors: Dea Brovig
Our weekend in Vienna had come to an end and my husband and I sat in a taxi to the airport. When the driver learned we were Norwegian, he became enthusiastic. He had spent some time in Norway, he said. Several years, in fact, touring the country in a circus when he was a young man.
From the back seat of the car, I considered the little I could see of him: the balding crown of his head above his headrest; broad shoulders hunched on either side of a fleshy neck. He was Bulgarian and had spent his youth training in one of the country’s Communist Era sports academies. His dream had been to compete in the Olympics. ‘But not everyone gets to the Olympics,’ he said. So he joined a circus. He assured us that many ex-athletes did.
While my husband put my questions to him in German, I remember leaning forward in my seat, impatient for his answers to be translated back to me. What was it like to be in a circus? What had been his act? He had been a strong man, he said.
I loved the idea of it: a strong man from the Eastern Bloc travelling in a circus a generation ago, down roads that wound around Norway’s fjords and into the thin air of its mountain ranges. I thought of the towns on the southern and western coasts where my father and in-laws grew up, of the strict pietism that reveals itself in their anecdotes of hellfire sermons and glossolalia, and I wondered how these small communities had welcomed our driver and his companions.
‘Some people were friendlier than others,’ he said. ‘Some were very friendly.’ His eyes met mine in the rearview mirror. ‘I have a child in Norway. Well, not a child anymore.’
Our driver had not met his son or daughter. Long before the child was born, the circus and its performers had moved on. When he next looked at me, I must have appeared surprised by his confession, because his great shoulders shrugged. ‘It may not have been mine,’ he said. ‘The girl liked the circus.’
This is the memory I have of a conversation which, soon after my return to London, saw me writing the first chapter of what would later become
The Last Boat Home.
The story has changed shape several times since then, but I have never been able to forget about the girl who loved the circus, and who was left behind with a baby in her arms.
The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.
An Enemy of the People
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgement: yea, I judge not mine own self.
For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified:
but he that judgeth me is the Lord.
1 CORINTHIANS 4:3-4
For where God built a church, there the Devil would also build a chapel.
THERE WOULD BE
pain, she knew.
Else looked for her mother at the window, but saw only the dark shape of the barn across the yard. The wind chased the snow, blowing flurries over the prints she had left behind. She would be back soon. Once she had walked the stretch to Tenvik’s farm and used his telephone, he would drive her home and they would wait together for the hospital car.
Else rested her temple against the cold glass and imagined how it would happen. A tearing of the guts, a hatching, a birth. Even now, it did not seem real. She knew girls who, at that moment, were sitting in their classrooms counting the minutes until break, while she tallied the seconds between her last contraction and the next. When it began she gripped the edge of the dining table, taking deep breaths until it passed. She resumed her pacing between the window and the oven, moving in and out of its radius of heat. Wood smoke coiled under the ceiling. The room smelled of bonfires and she remembered the flames against the water on Midsummer’s Eve. She wiped the sweat from her neck
with hands that shook. She pressed them to her belly as if to soothe what was inside.
She would not think about the baby. She would focus instead on the certainty of pain, sharpening her fear to a single point to avoid the broader terror of what would follow.
Nothing had changed in the yard when Else next stopped at the window, but she lingered there and searched the pale landscape. The barn’s roof was heavy with snow, but it was still standing. She closed her eyes and conjured up the gentle scrape of Valentin’s saw, pretending for as long as she could manage that she was the girl of a year ago, who caught the ferry after school and arrived home to interrupt his labour with a dinner tray. She wondered where he was and pictured him sipping from a mug of coffee in his caravan, wrapped in a blanket, just as he had been on that last morning. The thought of the strong man fortified her and Else stirred and continued her journey across the floorboards. A new contraction folded her over the table. She clutched its edge and held on.
THE NIGHT MISTS
have burned away by the time Else arrives at the harbour. In spite of the sun, the morning is fresh and she tugs her shawl tighter around her shoulders against the chill. She crosses the square where migrant workers have set up their stalls for the weekend market and stops by a trawler docked at the foot of the Longpier.
The fisherman greets her with a nod and she calls to him above the shrieking seagulls perched on his net.
‘Any shrimp today?’
‘Still no luck,’ he says. ‘They’re predicting a bad summer for shrimp. I’ve got crayfish or crab.’
‘Three crabs, then,’ Else says. He selects the shellfish from a crate and, while he packs them in paper, she studies the fjord washing away from the pier, catching the sunlight as it goes, glinting silver, green and black like the scales on a mackerel’s back and belly.
Else pays for the crabs and drops her bundle into the canvas bag she has brought with her before turning again to the square.
She lets her eyes skim the faces of the market’s few customers, hoping for a glimpse of Marianne, though she doubts her daughter would surface here at this hour. Havneveien is deserted but for a pair of joggers, who advance at a brisk pace from the town hall. With a sigh, Else retraces her steps to Torggata and climbs the hill towards home.
She has come as far as the kiosk where Liv chooses her Saturday pick-and-mix when a voice startles her.
‘Else Dybdahl,’ it says. ‘Is it you?’
A man stands in her path. He grins and a sour taste spreads over her tongue.
‘Lars,’ she says. ‘Are you back? I hadn’t heard.’
‘Then things must have changed here more than I’d realised,’ he says.
‘Have you come for the summer?’
‘You really haven’t heard?’ asks Lars. ‘I took over my parents’ place in March. Our plan was to wait for the kids to finish school before we moved down, but we got ahead of ourselves and came last week. A few extra days of sea air can only do them good. And I have some things to take care of at the shipyard.’
Else raises her eyebrows to show surprise, though he has not told her anything she didn’t know. While he speaks, she is tempted to peek past him at her reflection in the kiosk window. She stares the impulse down, knocks it flat and sets her mouth in a line that she hopes will convey impatience.
‘And how are you?’ he asks. ‘How is Marianne?’
‘We’re fine,’ Else says.
‘I hear she has a little girl now herself.’
‘Now and for the past eleven years.’
‘Eleven years!’ Lars whistles. ‘She’ll be in school with my eldest. Her name is Liv, isn’t that right? How does it feel to be a grandma?’
‘Just fine,’ Else says.
‘And what of the old gang? Rune lives in Oslo, I know. Do you have any news of Petter?’
‘I bump into him now and then,’ Else says and inspects her watch.
‘Well,’ says Lars. ‘We’ll be seeing each other, no doubt.’
‘No doubt,’ she says.
‘You look good, Else. Not how I remember my grandmother looking at all.’
Else’s shoulders are tense when she resumes her climb, chewing her cheeks and keeping her eyes on the tarmac at her feet. She takes the corner at Krogveien and tightens her hand around the key in her pocket, pressing its grooves with her thumb. With each swing of her legs, the shawl that hangs loose over her arms flaps at her sides, tacking wings to her shadow. Her canvas bag knocks her thigh as she hurries to Vestheiveien, where the spruce trees between the houses smell of Christmas.
As soon as she arrives at number 43a, Else checks the coat stand in the hall. Marianne’s jacket is still missing. She changes into a pair of slippers and pads to the kitchen to place the wrapped crabs in the fridge. She starts the coffee machine and waters her basil, pausing to glance at the oven clock, whose digits do not move fast enough for her liking. Her body is weary after a restless night. She closes her eyes and touches her chin to her chest, stretching her neck, rubbing solace into her muscles before she tiptoes into the corridor.
Upstairs on the landing, she lingers in the doorway of her daughter’s room where, once again, no one has slept in the unmade bed. She shuts the door on the jumble of clothes that hides the carpet, on the tubes of lip gloss that clutter the desk along with perfume bottles and slivers of underwear and balled-up stockings. Else carries on down the corridor to Liv’s room, expecting to find her asleep. The bed there is empty, too. In the hour since she last looked in on her, her granddaughter has kicked her duvet to the
floor, where it sits in a heap of purple moons and shooting stars, a discarded universe.
She discovers Liv in her own bed, the double duvet pulled to her nose. Else lies down beside the figure tucked up in the middle of her mattress. Daylight pierces the join of the blanket-thick curtains, lifting the darkness enough to make out a flutter of lashes on Liv’s cheek. Else can tell she is awake. She extends an arm across her granddaughter and nestles her forehead against her temple.
‘Where were you?’ Liv asks through the quilt that covers her mouth.
‘I went out to get dinner.’
‘Did you go fishing?’ Liv asks.
Else smiles and, when she is done arranging herself, Liv turns into her embrace.
‘Mamma didn’t come home last night,’ she says.
‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ says Else.
‘I know. She probably just met someone.’
‘How did you sleep?’ Else asks in order to change the subject.
‘All right,’ says Liv. ‘I heard you downstairs.’
Else shifts her weight to free the arm pinned beneath her and begins to stroke Liv’s hair. Her fingers are still sifting the strands that fall back onto the pillow when the front door opens and shuts like a handclap. Her shoulders relax for the first time since bumping into Lars and she holds her breath, straining to hear the click of her daughter’s heels on the floorboards. She listens to Marianne climbing the stairs. Finally, there comes a tap on the bedroom door.
‘You’re home,’ Else says.
A silhouette seems to float through the darkness. ‘I saw you made coffee,’ Marianne says. ‘I brought up a cup.’ She sets the mug on the nightstand just as Else flicks the reading lamp on. A
soft light brightens Marianne’s eyes. Her cheeks bloom with the chill of early morning and, at a guess, more than a few late-night glasses of wine. Her miniskirt shrinks up her thighs when she lowers herself onto the bed. Ignoring Else and Liv’s protests, she crawls over their legs and slips fully clothed under the duvet.