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Authors: Mankell Henning

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A Bridge to the Stars

 

HENNING MANKELL

Translated by Laurie Thompson

 

 

This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

ISBN 9781849398114

Version 1.0

 

First published in 2005 by
Andersen Press Limited,
20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SWIV 2SA
www.andersenpress.co.uk

 

© 1990 by Henning Mankell
Original title:
Hunden som sprang mot en stjärna
First published in Swedish by
Rabén & Sjögren Bokförlag
Published by agreement with Pan Agency
English translation © 2005 by Laurie Thompson

 

This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

 

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data available

 

ISBN: 9781849398114

Version 1.0

 

The publication of this work was supported by a grant from the
Swedish Institute

 

Cover design by Nick Stearn

1

The dog.

That was what started it all.

If he hadn't seen that solitary dog, nothing might have
happened. Nothing of what later became so important
that it changed everything. Nothing of what was so
exciting at first, but became so horrible.

It all started with the dog. The solitary dog he'd seen
that night last winter when he'd suddenly woken up, got
out of bed, tiptoed out to the window seat in the hall and
sat down.

He had no idea why he'd woken up in the middle of
the night.

Maybe he'd had a dream?

A nightmare that he couldn't recall when he woke up.
Or maybe his dad had been snoring in the bedroom next
to his own? His dad didn't often snore, but sometimes
there might be an occasional one, a bit like a roar, and
then it would be all quiet again.

Like a lion roaring in the winter's night.

But it was when he was sitting by the window in the
hall that he saw the solitary dog.

The window had been covered in ice crystals, and
he'd breathed onto the glass so that he could see out.
The thermometer showed nearly thirty degrees below
zero. And it was then, as he sat looking out of the
window, that he'd caught sight of the dog. It ran out into
the road, all on its own.

It stopped underneath the streetlamp, looked and
sniffed in all directions, and set off running again. Then
it vanished.

It was a familiar kind of dog, common in northern
Sweden. A Norwegian elkhound. He'd managed to see
that much. But why was it running around just there, all
alone in the wintry night and the cold? Where was it
heading for? And why? And why did it look and sniff in
all directions?

He'd had the impression that the dog was frightened
of something.

He'd started to feel cold, but he stayed in the window,
waiting for the dog to come back. But nothing
happened.

There was nothing out there, only the cold, empty
winter's night. And stars glittering in the far distance.

He couldn't get that solitary dog out of his mind.

Lots of times that winter he'd woken up without
knowing why. Every time, he got out of bed, tiptoed
over the cold cork tiles and sat down on the window
seat, waiting for the dog to come back.

Once he fell asleep on the window seat. He was still
there at five in the morning when his dad got up to make
coffee.

'What are you doing here?' his father asked after
shaking him and waking him up.

His father was called Samuel, and he was a lumberjack.
Early every morning he would go out into the
forest to work. He chopped trees down for a big timber
company with an unusual name. Marma Long Tubes.

He didn't know what to say when his dad found him
asleep on the window seat. He couldn't very well say
he'd been waiting for a dog. Dad might think he was
telling lies, and Dad didn't like people who didn't tell
the truth.

'I don't know,' he said. 'Maybe I was sleepwalking
again?'

That was something he could claim. It wasn't
absolutely true, but it wasn't a lie either.

He used to sleepwalk when he was little. Not that he
remembered anything about it. It was something his dad
had told him about. How he'd come walking out of his
bedroom in his nightshirt, into the room where his father
was listening to the radio or studying some of his old sea
charts. Dad had taken him back to bed, but in the
morning he couldn't explain why he'd been wandering
around in his sleep.

That was ages ago. Five years ago. Nearly half of his
life. He was eleven now.

'Go back to bed,' said his dad. 'You mustn't sit here
and catch your death of cold.'

He snuggled back into bed and listened to his dad
making coffee, preparing the sandwiches he would take
into the forest with him, and eventually he heard the
front door closing.

Then everything was quiet.

He checked the alarm clock by his bed, on a stool
he'd been given as a present for his seventh birthday.

He hated that stool. It was his birthday present, but
he'd really wanted a kite.

He felt angry every time he saw it.

How could anybody give a stool to somebody who
wanted a kite?

He could sleep for two more hours before he'd have
to get up and go to school. He pulled the blanket up to
his chin, curled up and closed his eyes, and the first
thing he saw was that dog running towards him. It was
running silently through the winter's night, and perhaps
it was on its way to a distant star?

But now he was sure that he was going to catch that
dog. He would entice it into his dream. They could be
friends there, and it wouldn't be as cold as it was outside
in the wintry night.

He soon fell asleep, the lumberjack's son, whose
name was Joel Gustafson.

It was in the winter of 1956 that he saw that solitary
dog for the first time.

And that was the winter when it all happened.

All that stuff that started with the dog . . .

2

The house where Joel lived with his father, Samuel,
was by the river.

The spring floods would come surging and thundering
down from the distant mountains beyond the dark
forests. The house was where the river curved round
before continuing on its long journey to the sea.

But now it was winter, and the river was asleep
under its white blanket of snow and ice. Ski tracks
scratched stripes into the white snow.

Down by the river Joel had a secret.

Close by the stone buttresses supporting the big iron
bridge where trains shuddered past several times a day
was a big rock that had split into two.

Once upon a time the rock had been completely
round. The crack had divided it into two halves, and
Joel used to pretend that it was the earth. Whenever he
crawled into the crack, where it smelt of damp moss,
he would imagine being deep down inside the earth
that he actually lived on.

A secret was being able to see what other people
didn't see.

When he lay inside the crack, he used to think that
he could change reality into whatever he liked.

Dancing around in the furious eddies and whirlpools
caused by the spring floods were not logs, but dolphins.

The old uprooted tree that had stuck fast on the sandbank
where Mr Under, the horse dealer, used to moor
his rowing boat was a hippopotamus sticking its
enormous head out of the water. And there were
crocodiles under the surface of the water. Lying there,
waiting to pounce on their prey.

Inside the crack in the rock Joel used to embark on
his long journeys. In fact Joel had never been beyond
the dark forests. He had never seen the sea. But that
didn't matter. He would go there one of these days.
When his dad had finally decided to stop working as
a lumberjack. Then they'd go off travelling together.

In the meantime he could lie in the crack in the rock
and go off on journeys of his own. He could imagine
that the river was the strait between Mauritius and
Réunion, the two islands off Madagascar. He knew
what it was like there. His dad had explained how
careful you had to be when sailing through that
channel. There were dangerous sandbanks hidden just
beneath the surface, and if your ship capsized it would
sink four thousand metres to the bottom.

Joel's dad used to be a sailor. He knew what he was
talking about.

When Joel saw dolphins and hippos in the river, it
was his father's stories coming to life in his mind's eye.
Sometimes he would take one or two of his father's sea
charts down to the rock with him, to make it easier to
transform the river into the other world.

Now that Joel was eleven years old, he knew that it was
all make-believe. But it was important to take it seriously.
If he didn't, he'd be betraying his own secret world.

In winter the enormous lump of rock would be
covered in snow. He didn't go there so often then. Just
occasionally he'd ski down the slope to the river, to
make sure that the rock was still there. He'd establish a
ski track round the rock, and think that it looked a bit
like a fence. Nobody would be able to cross it and take
possession of his rock.

It was in winter when they used to sit in the kitchen,
Joel and his dad, and Joel would listen to all the stories.

In a glass case over the stove was a model ship. She
was called
Celestine
, and his father had bought her
from a poor Indian hawker in Mombasa. When his dad
hung up his wet woollen socks to dry underneath her,
the glass would mist over and Joel would imagine
Celestine
adrift in a thick cloud of fog, waiting for a
wind to blow up.

He used to think something similar about the house
they lived in. That it wasn't really a house but a ship
that was riding at anchor by the river, waiting for a
favourable wind. A wind that would blow them down
to the sea. The rickety fence was in fact a ship's rail,
and the attic flat they lived in was really the captain's
cabin. The rusty old plough half buried in the
abandoned potato patch was the ship's anchor.

One of these days the house they lived in would be
set free. The anchor would be hauled aboard and then
they would start gliding down the river, past the
headland with the old dance pavilion. Just past the
church they would be swallowed up by the endless
forest . . .

'Tell me about the sea,' Joel used to beg.

Dad would switch on the radio and twiddle a knob
until there was nothing to be heard but a murmuring
sound.

'That's what the sea sounds like,' he would say.
'Close your eyes and imagine it. The sea that goes on
and on for ever.'

They used to cuddle up on the kitchen bench when
his dad felt like talking about all the remarkable things
he'd experienced as a sailor. But sometimes he didn't
feel like talking about it. Joel never knew when that
would happen. Sometimes his dad came home from
work with his nose frozen stiff and his socks wet
through. But he was humming a tune and stamping his
feet and snorting like a horse feeling pleased with itself
as he shook off all the snow in the entrance hall, then
sat down at the table and asked Joel to help him pull
his boots off.

Joel would have boiled some potatoes when he got
back from school, and if his dad was in the right mood
he might well start talking about his adventures, once
they'd finished eating and doing the washing up.

But sometimes there would be the sound of heavy
steps on the stairs, a deep sigh as he pulled off his thick
jacket; his face would be grim, his eyes averted.

Then Joel knew that he needed to be careful. Mustn't
make a noise, mustn't ask about anything that he didn't
need to know. Just set the table, serve up the potatoes,
eat in silence the food his father prepared in the frying
pan, then withdraw to his room at the earliest
opportunity.

Two things were hard to cope with.

Not knowing why, and not being able to do anything
about it.

Joel suspected that it must have something to do
with his mother, and with the sea. The sea his father
had abandoned, and the mother that had abandoned
him. He'd often sat in the cleft in the rock and
wondered about that. He always started by thinking
about what was least difficult to face up to.

The sea.

If his father had been forced to abandon ship, how
come that he was washed up in this little town in the
north of Sweden where there wasn't even any sea? And
how could he find any satisfaction in going into the
forest every day to chop down trees when he'd never
succeed in felling enough for him to be able to glimpse
the open sea beyond?

How can you be washed up in a place where there
isn't even any sea?

How can you drift ashore in the middle of a vast,
dark forest?

What had really happened? Why did they have to
live here, in the middle of this vast, dark forest, so far
away from the sea?

Samuel, his father, was born in Bohuslän in the
south-west of Sweden, he knew that. Right next to the
sea, in a fisherman's cottage to the north of Marstrand.
But why had Joel been born in Sundsvall, in the northeast
of Sweden?

Mum, he thought. She's at the bottom of it all. The
woman who didn't want to stay with them. The woman
who one day packed a suitcase and took a train heading
south when his dad was out in the forest, working.

Joel didn't know how old he was at the time. All he
knew was that he'd been too young to remember
anything.

But old Mrs Westman on the ground floor had told
him. One day he'd managed to lock himself out and it
was twenty degrees below freezing and his dad
wouldn't be back home for several hours. She'd invited
him into her flat to wait. It was dark there, and smelt of
winter apples and acrid candles.

Mrs Westman was old and hunchbacked. He'd once
seen her lose her false teeth when she had a sneezing
fit in the garden. The whole of her dingy flat was full
of pictures of God. There was even a picture of Jesus
on the doormat. The first time he'd been there, or at
least the first time he could remember, he didn't know
where to put his boots to dry – they were covered in
dirty snow.

'Stand them on the doormat,' said Mrs Westman. 'He
knows what you're thinking and He's watching you
wherever you go. So why shouldn't He be on a
doormat?'

She let Joel sit on a reindeer pelt she'd spread out in
front of the open fire in the kitchen. He couldn't
remember how old he was then, but suddenly she'd
bent down over him with her hunched back.

'There were no evil intentions in your mum,' she
said. 'But she had a restlessness inside her. I could see
that as soon as they moved here, Samuel and your
mum. She was always itching to be somewhere else.
She came down with you one day and asked if you
could stay with me until your dad came home. She had
an errand to see to, she said. But I could see she was
restless, and I'd noticed the suitcase she'd left outside
the door. But I don't think there were any evil
intentions in her. It was just the itch inside her, whether
she liked it or not . . . '

Joel can sit in the crack in his rock down by the river
and carefully join together one thought after another
until suddenly everything becomes clear.

He has a father called Samuel who longs for the sea.

He has a mother who had something called an Itch.

Sometimes when his dad looks at him and his eyes
seem especially gloomy, Joel lies in bed worrying,
waiting for the clinking of a bottle in the kitchen when
Samuel thinks he's fallen asleep. He tiptoes to the door
and looks through the keyhole into the kitchen. His dad
sits on the kitchen bench mumbling away, stroking his
hand through his shaggy hair over and over again. He
keeps taking deep swigs from the bottle, as if he'd
prefer not to, but he can't help it.

Why doesn't he pour some into a glass? Joel
wonders.

Why does he drink something that seems to taste so
awful?

One morning when Joel wakes up, his dad has
fallen asleep at the kitchen table. His head is slumped
down on the table top, and his clenched fist is resting
on a sea chart.

But there's something else on the blue oilcloth table
cover.

A photograph, creased and well-thumbed, with one
corner torn off. It's a photograph of a woman. A
woman with brown hair, looking straight at Joel.

He knows immediately that it's his mother gazing
at him.

She's not smiling nor scowling. Just looking at him,
and he thinks that is what somebody with an Itch
looks like.

It says Jenny on the back. And there's the name of a
photo studio in Sundsvall.

Jenny. Samuel and Jenny and Joel Gustafson. If
they'd been a family, that's what they'd have been
called.

Now they are just names that don't fit together. Joel
thinks he must ask his father what really happened.

Not now, not today, but some other day when there
isn't an empty bottle on the kitchen table when he gets
up to go to school. Not until his dad has given the
kitchen a good scrubbing and everything has settled
down. One of these nights when the kitchen has been
cleaned up he'll be able to start talking to his father
again.

It always happens at night.

He's woken up by the noise coming from the
kitchen. There is a clanging and clanking of pots and
pans. His father is muttering and hissing and roaring
with laughter, much too loudly. That tells Joel he's
started scrubbing down the kitchen.

He gets out of bed and watches him through the half-open
kitchen door.

Samuel is splattering water all over the floor and the
walls. Steam is rising from the glowing stove and his
face is sweaty and shiny. He's scrubbing away like mad
at stains and specks of dirt that only he can see. He
throws a whole bucketful of sizzling water into the
hood over the stove. He squelches around the floor in
his soaking wet woollen socks and scrubs so hard, it
seems that doing so relieves him of a great pain.

Joel can't make up his mind if his dad is scared or if
he's angry.

What kind of dirt is it that he can see, but nobody
else can?

He can hear Samuel muttering and chuntering about
spiders' webs and clusters of snakes. But surely there
aren't any spiders making webs in the kitchen in the
middle of winter? And how could there be a cluster of
snakes in the hood over the stove? There aren't any
snakes at all in this part of northern Sweden.

Joel watches him through the half-open door and
realises that his father is scrubbing away something
that only he can see. Something that makes him both
scared and angry.

When Samuel has finished, he lies on his bed
without moving. He groans and doesn't open the
curtains even though it's broad daylight. He's still on
the bed when Joel goes to school, and he's still there
when Joel comes back home in the afternoon.

When Joel has boiled the potatoes and asks his father
if he wants to eat, he just groans and shakes his head.
A few days later everything is back to normal, as if it
had simply been a dream. His father gets up at five
o'clock again, has his coffee and goes off into the
forest. Joel can breathe freely again. It will be a long
time before he's woken up by his father sitting at the
kitchen table muttering away to himself.

It's easiest to think about all the things that happen
and make him wonder what's going on when he's
sitting in the crack in his rock down by the river.

One day he sits down at the kitchen table with a pen
and some paper and writes down all the things he thinks
about. He lists the questions he's going to ask his father.
Questions he wants answering before the first snow has
fallen in the autumn. When he writes down his questions
it's still the middle of winter. There are big mounds of
snow thrown up by the ploughs at street corners and by
the wall of the church. It's bitterly cold when he goes to
school in the morning. But spring will come one of these
days.

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