Table of Contents
ASTRID & VERONIKA
LINDA OLSSON was born in Stockholm, Sweden. She graduated from the University of Stockholm with a Bachelor of Law, then pursued a career in banking and finance until she left Sweden in 1986. She has lived in Kenya, Singapore, Britain and Japan and has been a permanent resident in New Zealand since 1990. In 1993 she completed a Bachelor of Arts in English and German literature at Victoria University of Wellington. In 2003 she won the
Short Story Competition. She lives in Auckland and this is her first novel.
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in New Zealand under the title
Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs
by Penguin Books (NZ) 2005
Published in Penguin Books (USA) 2007
Copyright © Linda Olsson, 2005 All rights reserved
Pages 259–267 constitute an extension of this copyright page.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
[Let me sing you gentle songs]
Astrid & Veronika / Linda Olsson
Originally published under title: Let me sing you gentle songs
eISBN : 978-1-101-53694-0
1. Female friendship — Fiction. 2. Sweden — Fiction.
I. Title. II. Title: Astrid and Veronika.
823’.912 — dc22 2006050660
The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
For Anna-Lisa, my grandmother, my friend
I drift around my rooms and write to shadows, thinking as I always did, that writing only can make peace, can right and heal that which a life made sordid.
BO BERGMAN, ‘Sömnlös’ (Sleepless) inÄventyret
July 1942, Västra Sångeby, Dalarna, Sweden
When the sun dipped behind the wall of trees, we lay down and the white night swallowed us. It has been night ever since.Veronika
November 2002, Karekare, New Zealand
Above us the pitiless sun, while the world swirled incomprehensible around the stillness that was the two of us. Then the violent crashing of the victorious sea.
There had been wind and drifting snow during her journey, but as darkness fell, the wind died and the snow settled.
It was the first day of March. She had driven from Stockholm in the gradually deepening dusk that seamlessly became night. It had been a slow journey, but it had given her time to think. Or erase thoughts.
She turned off the main road by the church, then on to the narrow steep road up the hill, and took the last turn on to the unsealed road. No cars had passed here since the new snow had fallen and the road had a pristine soft whiteness between the rounded banks of packed snow. She drove slowly, her eyes adjusting to the darkness. She had been told there were only two houses up here, and she saw them outlined against the sky. Both lay dark; there were no lights anywhere.
She passed the larger house and, further along, left the road altogether, driving through the snow into the front yard of the second house. She parked near the steps leading up to the porch. A path had been cleared in preparation for her arrival, but new snow had fallen since and it was now just a soft indent in the white blanket. When she stepped out of the car, she saw stalks of dead grass sticking through the snow, and there were icy patches just underneath. Being careful not to slip, she trod cautiously as she moved back and forth between car and house, emptying the boot and back seat. The only sound as she carried bags and boxes into the house was the brittle crunching of snow under her feet. She kept the headlights on and the light slanted across her footprints in the snow.
The neighbouring house was a silent shadow, looming in the darkness beyond the tunnel of light where she walked. The air was dry and cold and her breath left her lips in whiffs of white vapour dissolving in the night. The sky was a black infinity without stars or moon. She felt as if she had dropped through a tunnel into a world of absolute silence.
That night, she lay in a bed where her body was an unfamiliar shape, in this house that didn’t know her yet. In the silent darkness, it was as if she were nowhere. She felt light as air.
Next morning the sun was barely able to penetrate a white sky. She opened the window to a light wind and the possibility of more snow in the air. She stood looking out, pulling her red bathrobe tight over her chest. She thought about her journey, but refused to let her mind follow the road back to the starting point. Instead, she thought about the many journeys before. Unpacking in unfamiliar places, making a home wherever a certain journey ended, with her father the only constant. She knew that this journey was different. All her life she had travelled in his company, her hand in her father’s, on their way towards a new overseas posting. Since her mother left it had always been the two of them. And somehow, even the most exotic place had become just another stop on their journey together. But the father she had visited in Tokyo in December now had his own life, separate from hers. They were no longer fellow travellers. This journey was a solitary one. A flight, an escape. A journey without a goal. Her life felt as uncertain as the light. Poised in a white nothingness.
She closed the window but remained standing, looking out. She could see beyond the river and the village, into the blue distance of forests and mountains. The landscape before her seemed ancient, rounded mountains polished by ice and wind, slow-moving rivers and still lakes. It was land that provided sparingly, and only after hard toil.
She turned and looked across the field. What had been in shadow the evening before was now starkly exposed in the bleak morning light. The other house was larger than it had seemed: a generous two-storey wooden building that might once have been painted yellow but was now fading into indistinct pale grey, blending in with the colours of the sky and the snow. The windows were empty black squares. Still no signs of life.
There was firewood in a basket by the stove, thoughtfully prepared with fine dry sticks on top and larger pieces underneath. She decided to make a fire, and she also turned on the electric cooker to heat water for a coffee. She sat at the table with the mug between her hands while the fire slowly began to crackle.
She had arrived without a timeframe and had brought only a few bags with her personal belongings, books and CDs. The decision had been sudden, leaving little time for preparations. In fact it hadn’t been so much a decision as a series of almost unconscious swift actions. She felt she had no plans, no thoughts; yet at some level, her mind and her body had taken action and catapulted her into this pool of stillness.
By the second day the house still kept its distance. There were signs of recent renovation — new wallpaper, new bathroom fittings and tiles. New cupboards in the kitchen, smart and practical but a little out of place. It was a modest, unassuming house with an abandoned quality about it. Minimally furnished, with a table and six chairs in the kitchen, two small sofas and a coffee table in the sitting room, and two beds in the upstairs bedroom. The wooden floors were crisscrossed by strips of hand-loomed rag rugs and the windows had no curtains, just plain white blinds. She hadn’t bothered to have the telephone connected, but she had brought her mobile. She kept it turned off, in the drawer of the bedside table.
She was an orphan tenant in an orphan house.
Her life slowly found its own organic rhythm. After a week she had established her morning routine. She got up early, had coffee at the kitchen table and watched the room absorb the growing daylight. It felt as if the house had accepted her, as if they had begun their life together. The soles of her feet had become familiar with the wooden steps of the staircase, her nose accustomed to the smells of the walls, and she was gradually adding her own imprint, leaving minute traces. She shifted the sofas around in the sitting room so she could sit and look out the window, and she bought a potted geranium for the kitchen windowsill. She had created a workplace of sorts on one end of the kitchen table: the laptop stood open, ready to register words; her notebook, dictionaries and pens were neatly stacked on one side. Fingers poised on the keys, she spent time staring into the screen, but what little writing she did, she erased again.
Each day began with a walk, regardless of the weather. Unless she walked all the way down to the village, she rarely saw another person. One morning, a deer stood watching as she walked across the front yard. It remained there, still, its eyes locking with hers, before soundlessly turning and disappearing behind the barn in one swift movement. She saw the tracks of moose and foxes in the snow. The nights were still cold, and in the darkness winter reclaimed what had been conceded during the days. Each morning began grey and icy.