It was early Sunday morning. I had taken a deckchair from the veranda and carried it down to the corner of the garden, next to the flagpole, and was sitting there reading The Anarchist. My brother and his wife weren’t up yet. I glanced up at the house now and again, at their bedroom window, but the blinds were down. I’d got to the part where Esch seduces Frau Hentjen, where she reluctantly lets go of the curtain, allowing him to force her into the dark alcove, and over to her conjugal bed, and I felt myself aroused by the rape-like scene. Just then Elisabeth, my sister-in-law, appeared in the open bedroom window, but I pretended not to see her.
A little while later she called me in for breakfast. There were only the two of us. She said David had a headache. She sat opposite me, and I took even more pleasure in looking at her now than I had the previous night, which may have been partially due to my still being in the grip of my earlier excitement. She sat looking at her plate for the most part, and the few times I made eye contact, she glanced quickly away. Mainly to keep an all too insistent silence at bay, I asked her the type of questions it was reasonable to ask a sister-in-law you’ve known for less than twenty-four hours, and she answered with striking eagerness, as if each new question was a lifeline to be clasped. But she still avoided my gaze, and with her eyes averted, mine were allowed free rein. And what I saw, led me to fantasise and picture things with obvious references to Frau Hentjen’s reluctant submission in the dark alcove.
After breakfast I went across town to see my mother. My boy, she said, stroking my cheek. She had grown so old, there was hardly anything left of her. I walked ahead of her into the kitchen. I sat down at the table. Oh Frank, really, she said, we should sit in the living room. Can’t we just sit here, I said. She made a pot of coffee and thanked me for the cards, especially the one from Jerusalem. You’ve been to Jerusalem, imagine that, she said. Did you visit Golgotha? No, I said, I didn’t make it there. Ah, she said, that’s a pity. Your father and I talked about it so often, about Jerusalem being the place we’d most like to visit, and Golgotha and Gethsemane were the two spots we’d most like to see. I didn’t answer, but I smiled at her. She put two cups on the table and asked if I’d like a slice of cake.
I told her I had just eaten breakfast. She glanced at the clock on the shelf beside the window, and then she asked me what I thought of Elisabeth. I said that I thought she was very nice. Do you think so? she said, well, I hope you’re right. What do you mean? I asked. Oh, I don’t know, she said, I don’t think she’s too good for Daniel. No one’s good enough for Daniel, I said. Anyway, she said, let’s not talk about it anymore. We didn’t talk about it or anything else for a while. I hadn’t seen her in two years; time and distance had made me repress my dislike of her; now it stirred. You haven’t changed, she said. No, I answered, what’s done is done.
I sat there for almost an hour; I did my best to avoid any topics that could emphasise the distance between us, and the visit could have petered out in a conciliatory atmosphere if she hadn’t found it necessary to tell me how many times she’d prayed that I’d find my way back to Jesus. I listened to her awhile, then I said: Stop going on, Mother. I can’t, she said, tears welling up in her eyes. I stood up. Then it’s probably best I go, I said. You’re very hard-hearted, she said. Me? I said. She walked me to the door. Thank you for the visit, she said. Goodbye, Mother, I said. Say hello to Daniel, she said. Not Elisabeth? I said. Of course, her too. God bless you, son.
I went straight to the restaurant at the railway station and drank two pints. I calmed down somewhat. A train arrived from the south. It remained at the platform for a couple of minutes, and just before it began to move again, Daniel alighted from one of the carriages. With an intuitive feeling of having seen something I wasn’t supposed to see, I quickly turned my head the other way. When I couldn’t hear the train anymore, I looked out at the platform again. It was empty. I stayed sitting a little while longer, then I drank up and left.
When I got back to my brother’s house, Daniel hadn’t come home. I told Elisabeth that my mother said hello. Didn’t you run into Daniel? she asked. No, I said. He went to meet you, she said. At Mother’s? I said. Yes, she said.
I fetched The Anarchist from the living room and walked down to the end of the garden. The deckchair was in the sun, so I moved it beneath the shade of the apple tree. Elisabeth came out onto the veranda and asked if I’d like a cup of coffee, and a little while later she brought it down to me. She was slender and petite, and as she walked towards me across the lawn, I thought how easy it would be to lift her up. Thank you so much, Elisabeth, I said. She smiled and went straight back to the house, and I was left to contemplate the gap between a risqué thought and a concrete act.
Daniel came home half an hour later. He’d changed into shorts and a colourful shirt that was unbuttoned and thus displayed that hairy chest of his that I’d once envied him, long ago. He lay on his back in the grass and closed his eyes to the sun. We chatted about nothing in particular. At one point a woman opened a window in the house next door, and just after that she came out into the garden and sat down where I could see her. Daniel told me about a colleague of his, whom he claimed I knew, and who had recently died of bowel cancer. The woman in the garden next door went back into the house. I was bored. I said I had to go to the bathroom. I brought the empty coffee cup with me. Elisabeth wasn’t in the living room or in the kitchen. I went up the stairs to my room.
She was standing one step above me and we were looking right at one another… I should have held her gaze a little longer, I thought. I went up to my room and lay down on the bed.”
Through the window I could see that Daniel had got to his feet and was standing, looking through The Anarchist. Not really your kind of thing, I thought. The woman came out of the house next door; I could see her mouth moving, and Daniel went over to the fence. I flopped down on the bed, thinking that I shouldn’t have come, that I should have remembered how little I had in common with Daniel. I only lay there for a few minutes, then I walked down the stairs and out into the garden. Daniel wasn’t there. I leafed back through the book to read the scene between Esch and Frau Hentjen again, but just then Daniel came out of the neighbour’s veranda door. He jumped over the fence. He looked in high spirits. I was just helping the neighbour move a cupboard, he said, and then he went over to the water tap by the cellar door and rinsed his hands. Do you want a beer? he called. Yes, please, I called. I put the book on the grass. He came back with two bottles of pilsner. Has Elisabeth gone out? I asked. She’ll be back soon, he replied. He lay down on the grass and told me I shouldn’t sit in the shade. I didn’t reply. Ah, this is the life, he said. I didn’t reply. Isn’t it? he said. Sure is, I said. Elisabeth came from around the side of the house. I got to my feet. Take a seat, I said, and I’ll fetch another chair. She said it was okay, she could get one herself. I went up to the veranda and brought back a folding chair. She hadn’t sat down. Thank you, she said. My brother’s a gentleman, said Daniel. Yes, she said. She sat so she could see both of us. I just want to make a good impression, I said. Did you hear that, Elisabeth? said Daniel. Yes, she said. When you were a kid, Daniel said, you used to always bring Mom home a bouquet of wildflowers, do you remember? I didn’t remember. No, I said, I don’t remember that. Do you not remember? Mom was always saying: that’s my boy, and sometimes you got a slice of bread with sugar on top. Do you not remember me snatching it out of your hand once, and then stamping on it in the gravel at the bottom of the steps? No, I said, I don’t remember that. I can’t remember anything from when I was small. You must have been at least seven or eight, he said. I don’t remember anything from when I was small either, said Elisabeth. Daniel laughed. What are you laughing at? asked Elisabeth. Nothing, he said. She bowed her head and looked down at her hands, I couldn’t see her eyes. Then she threw her head back abruptly and stood up. Right, well, I’ll just go and… she said. She left. I closed my eyes. Daniel didn’t say anything. I thought about how he had altered something in the story about the slice of bread: He had eaten half of it, and I was the one who had knocked it out of his hand, making it land on the gravel. I opened my eyes and looked at him, and I felt a mild distaste at the sight of his hairy chest. He lay there smacking his thin lips, and then he said: What do you think of her? I like her, I said. He sat up and took a swig of the bottle, then leaned back and looked up at the sky, but he didn’t say anything. I got to my feet and walked across the lawn, towards the little vegetable patch where lettuce, chives and a row of sugar snap peas were growing. I thought: how am I going to stick this for a week. I pinched a pea pod loose, and Daniel called: Elisabeth is toying with self-sufficiency. I ate the pod, then I walked back to Daniel and said: I’ve always wanted a vegetable garden with sugar snaps, turnips and radishes. In that case, he said, Elisabeth is just right for you. Don’t you want her anymore? I asked. He looked at me. What’s that supposed to mean? he said. It was a joke, I said. He stared at me and then he lay down and closed his eyes. I said I had a letter I needed to write, and I picked up my book and left. I met Elisabeth on the way upstairs. Your vegetable garden is lovely, I said. Oh, that, she said. I tasted a sugar snap, I said. She was standing one step above me and we were looking right at one another, and again I thought: she’d be easy to lift up. Just help yourself to them, she said. Thanks, I said. I looked away, and she continued on down the stairs. I should have held her gaze a little longer, I thought. I went up to my room and lay down on the bed.
I was awoken by a thunderclap. The sky was dark and I was cold. I got up and closed the window. Lightning split the sky, followed right after by a fierce downpour. It was nice to look at.
I went down to the living room. Daniel was standing by the veranda door. The storm had put me in a conciliatory frame of mind, and I went over to him and said: Isn’t it spectacular? Spectacular? he said. The apple trees are being stripped of fruit, and look at the sugar snaps. I looked at them; some of the stalks lay on the ground. Yes, that’s a pity, I said, but they can be tied up again. I don’t think so, he said. Sure they can, I said, I’ll do it.
At dinner the tension between Daniel and Elisabeth was so acute that every attempt I made to get a conversation going fell flat on its face. In the end we sat there in silence. Something irresistible built and built within me…”
After a while the storm passed, and the leaves and grass glistened in the sun. I asked David for some twine. You’ll have to ask Elisabeth, he said. She was in the kitchen. She looked like she’d been crying. She gave me a ball of twine and a scissors. I went outside. There were four or five unripe apples lying under each of the three apple trees. I tied up the pea stalks, it didn’t take long, and then I went up and sat down on the veranda. I didn’t feel like going inside.
At dinner the tension between Daniel and Elisabeth was so acute that every attempt I made to get a conversation going fell flat on its face. In the end we sat there in silence. Something irresistible built and built within me, and before I’d finished eating, I put down my knife and fork, stood up and said: Thanks, that was lovely. I was aware of Daniel looking up, but I didn’t want to make eye contact. I went up to my room and got my coat, and then I went out. I made my way through town to the restaurant at the railway station. I sat with a beer and a feeling of unease pounded away inside me. A man with a beer glass in his hand came over to the table and asked if he could sit down. I rebuffed him, but he still sat down. I stood up and went to find another table. He sat three tables away, staring at me. I pretended not to notice. I drained my glass and went to get another beer. When I returned, I sat down on the opposite side of the table, with my back to him. I thought about Daniel, how he had got off the train, how he had rinsed his hands after being at the neighbour’s, and how he had laughed at Elisabeth. I thought about Elisabeth, too. Then my tormentor came and sat down opposite me. I’m not so easy to shake, he said. Get lost, I said. Tut-tut, he said. Get lost! I said. Tut-tut, tut-tut, he said. I got to my feet. I took the glass and threw its contents in his face. Then I turned to go. I walked quickly, but didn’t look around before I’d reached the door. He wasn’t coming after me, he was sitting, drying his face with the tablecloth.
I arrived home just as the sun was going down. I let myself in. The house was quiet. I walked into the living room. Daniel was sitting there. Well, well, he said, you’re back. I didn’t reply. Where’ve you been? he said. For a walk, I said. I sat down. You just up and left, he said. I didn’t reply. He didn’t say any more; he sat looking out of the window. Has Elisabeth gone out? I said. She’s gone to bed, he said. He continued looking out of the window, and then he said: Might be for the best if you were on your way. The thought had occurred to me, I said. Not that I mind having you here, or anything, he said. No? He glanced at me, but didn’t reply. I stood up. I went over to the table by the veranda door and fetched The Anarchist. It’s Elisabeth, he said, she’s not quite herself at the moment. Oh? I said. I don’t really want to talk about it, he said. I walked towards the door. I’ll leave tomorrow, I said. He said my name just as I was closing the door behind me, but I pretended not to hear. I went up the stairs and into my room. It was beginning to get dark, but I didn’t turn on the light. I sat down by the window. Apart from the grasshoppers, everything was quiet. I wasn’t tired, I felt much too cold inside. After a good while I heard footsteps on the stairs, and the sound of a door being opened. Then it went quiet again.
I undressed in the dark because I had an image of Elisabeth in my mind, which I was afraid wouldn’t withstand the light. And perhaps I brought the image over into my sleep, because at some point during the night I was awoken by a dream about a woman lashed to the belly of a large animal.
In the morning it was raining, a quiet, steady downpour. I heard sounds from downstairs, and I didn’t want to get up, I wanted to wait until Daniel and Elisabeth had gone to work. While I lay waiting, I fell asleep.
I woke up again around nine, and twenty minutes later I went down the stairs and into the living room. It wasn’t raining any longer, and I wanted to go out into the garden, but the key to the veranda door was gone. I walked into the kitchen. The breakfast things were out and a place had been set for me, and beside the plate lay a sheet of paper. It read: Pity you have to leave. Elisabeth thinks so too. Hope it’s nothing serious. Just leave the key under one of the seat cushions on the veranda. Thanks, Daniel.
I read it twice. Then I understood.
I put the sheet back exactly as I’d found it, then I went up to the first floor and into Elisabeth and Daniel’s bedroom. I hadn’t been in there before. The bed was made. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. there were no clothes over the backs of the chairs, and there was nothing on the nightstands to show who slept where. I opened the door to a closet where dresses and suits were hanging. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. I went out of the bedroom and into my room. I began packing my suitcase. It didn’t take long. I carried it down to the hall. It was almost two hours until the train left. I sat down in the living room. I’d had a persistent thought in my head that had refused to budge since I’d read his note. I tore a page from the notebook and wrote: Such a pity about Elisabeth. Hope it’s nothing serious. Give her my best. I’ll leave the key in the post box. Frank.
From Kjell Askildsen: Selected Stories, translated by Seán Kinsella.
Kjell Askildsen (born 1929) is widely recognised as one of the greatest contemporary Norwegian writers. Written in an unadorned style, with flashes of pitch-black humour, his minimalist short stories are finely balanced between despair and hope, memory and expectation. Kjell Askildsen: Selected Stories is published by Dalkey Archive Press. Read more.
Seán Kinsella was born in Ireland and holds an MPhil in literary translation from Trinity College, Dublin. He has previously translated work by Frode Grytten, Bjarte Breiteig and Stig Saeterbakken, and lives in Norway with his wife and two daughters.
Author portrait © Finn Ståle Felberg