Read To Siberia Online

Authors: Per Petterson

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

To Siberia (18 page)

“Haven’t you any luggage?” he asks.

“I didn’t get as far as that,” says Jesper.

“I’ve brought what he needs,” Uncle Nils says, lifting a big bag, carrying it to the edge of the pontoon and swinging it over to the man standing there. There’s something familiar about that man.

“Well, that’s all right, then,” says the fisherman, “get them all on board now, and get on out. We can’t stay
here
any longer. There’ll be another patrol along soon.”

Ruben and his family help each other on board, then Uncle Nils turns and looks at me for the first time and waves before he takes the hand of the man who has been standing waiting in the boat while we have been on the pontoon, and then he jumps over.

“Come along, Jesper,” says the fisherman, “your turn.” But Jesper is standing staring at the man in the boat, and when he finally turns around he’s wearing a happy grin.

“Well, kiss me till midnight. If it isn’t Ernst Bremer! Sistermine, I’ll be darned, it’s Ernst Bremer!”

“Sure thing it’s Ernst Bremer,” says the fisherman, “on board with you now!” And Jesper comes over to me and puts his hand on my cheek. I let him.

“See you, Sistermine, it won’t be long,” he says and I say nothing and he goes quickly to the edge of the pontoon and hops on board.

Ernst Bremer starts up the engine at once, quietly at first like a faint hum and the boat turns till the bow points at the opening in the breakwater, it glides off in the dark until I can no longer see it. We stand waiting until it is safely out on the open sea, and then the motor rises to a roar, louder and louder and then fainter and fainter as it disappears right out to sea on its way to Sweden.

“No one can catch up with that boat now,” says the fisherman standing beside me on the pontoon.

“If you say so,” I say. He turns in surprise and looks at my face, and then he looks at the sweater and the old fishing trousers and the photograph I still have under my arm that Jesper forgot in his delight at seeing Ernst Bremer, and he opens his mouth to say something, but closes it again. I just stand there. He strokes his face, and then he says:

“You can’t go in through the harbor now. There’s a guard right inside it and two in the harbor square. And besides, there’ll be a patrol along soon. You live on Lodsgate, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I say.

“You’d better stay the night in my boat, then you can go in early tomorrow morning when the curfew’s lifted.”

“If you like,” I say.

I still don’t know the fisherman’s name, or if he’s still alive, but I let him use my body that night in his boat. It gave me no pleasure, but he didn’t say “No, thanks,” and then
that
was done with. When Jesper came home almost two years had passed, the war was over, but by then I had already run away to Copenhagen.

III

 

 

I
  am twenty-two. He is thirty-six. He has curly red hair and seems shy, but he likes to talk. He talks about the Jotunheim and Valdres mountains. I don’t know what I’m supposed to think about that. The shiny bus flashes past on Uelandsgate. It fills up the whole café window, I turn and look out, and he talks about eternal snow and ice and how beautiful it is with the whiteness right up to the sky and the strike of the valleys in between, and that it’s possible to cycle there too, if you can find the right roads. He talks about Helge Ingstad. I don’t get it, what is the strike of the valleys in between, and who is Helge Ingstad?

“I’m used to cycling,” I say, “but not in the Jotunheim.” He’s pleased I’m Danish. It makes me different, and that’s exciting. They’ve had nothing but Germans here for a long time; eins, zwei, drei, links—links. He’s not very tall, but he’s taller than me and seems younger than thirty-six, he’s as eager as a boy, and his hands are hard and dry. I like that, I like his hands. He does all kinds of sport, boxing, long-distance running, football.

“Vålerenga is my team,” he says, “Tippen Johansen, goalkeeper,” and that must mean something, but I just look at him. I haven’t got to know many people, it is not so easy. But I don’t look too bad now, and I’m good at swimming.

“You can swim in the Bunnefjord,” he says. “We have a cabin there, we built it ourselves.”

“Who are we?” I say. He doesn’t even smoke and he is not like anyone I met in Copenhagen or Stockholm. Maybe he’s a bit too eager, a bit too shy. He blushes easily and after all he’s thirty-six and probably has not had much experience. But he’s not one of those who stand outside the door after work with a cigarette in one corner of their mouth barring the way and shouting:

“Here she comes, the Danish one!” I do not come. I go through the café and hop out of the kitchen window, past the dustbins towards the entrance and out on to the street where I can get the trolleybus to Carl Berners Square. He doesn’t tell dirty jokes.

I clear the table where he’s sitting in an alcove, put his plate and cutlery on the tray, and ask him if he would like anything else. He’s had enough, but he wants to stay on, he wants a sweet.

“Caramel pudding,” he says, smiling. I have to laugh. He looks so self-important. He puts both hands on the table and spreads his fingers. I look at his hands. A heavy truck goes by, shaking the building.

“I can’t really afford this,” he says. He leans back, he’s enjoying himself now, he has a powerful chest and his shirt is tight. It is so hot this summer, but his hands are still hard and dry.

“Afford to eat here every day, I mean,” he says and that must mean something too, but I don’t say what I ought to say, just go and fetch his sweet. I seem to do nothing but walk and walk. Some days I walk down Uelandsgate into town instead of taking the bus across it, and it’s quiet in the streets in the evening, but hot too, and in such a gray town the house walls give off heat, the sun has just gone down behind the roofs, and I’m sweaty under the arms, in the groin, and I think it must be obvious. I should have had a bath, but there’s not much room where I’m staying with Aunt Kari. My room is on the inside facing the courtyard and I can stay there as long as I work in the café. Aunt Kari is not my aunt, but my mother’s, and she speaks in a mixture of Danish and Norwegian that is hard for everyone to understand. I only have a few things of my own in my room, some books I always keep with me and the four glasses I was most successful with at the glassblowing factory in Søder where I stayed with Uncle Peter in his weird house, and he is not my uncle, but my mother’s. He had a stripy cat which stood on its hind legs and saluted like Hitler when Peter played the Swedish national anthem on the gramophone. I did not think it was funny, and we had an argument.

“You’ve no sense of humor,” he said, “you take everything so seriously.” That is not true, but no German soldiers had been standing about in Stockholm. It was a wild place, I liked it, but I could not stay there any longer, there were too many crazy people in the house, they hardly ever slept like other folk, and when Uncle Peter had money and wasn’t blowing glass he was always drunk, and sometimes he forgot who I was and came into my room at night with his hair standing up and a haze before his eyes as thick as velvet. The first time I let him stay, and he wept and wept, but later on I didn’t want to, and then I had to climb out of the window on to the fire escape so as not to have to fight.

The café is known as Aunt Kari’s, not its real name, we just call it that, and it
is
hers. Over the door it only says
Kafé
in gold on black glass. Nothing more. On each side of the sign is an advertisement for Blue Master Virginia cigarettes, we sell them at the counter, and the packet has a picture of a blue horse on it. It reminded me of Lucifer, and I bought a packet once, but they were stronger than the ones I was used to.

I walk down Hausmannsgate and catch myself thinking of his hands, but I’m sweating so much it turns out wrong when I think the thought right through, and then I need a bath again, so I turn down Torggata and walk the whole way from Ankertorget to Torggata Baths with my jacket over my arm and my arms held slightly out so they won’t stick, but they do all the same. I hear my own steps on the sidewalk, a boy with grazed knees runs past and shouts out something I don’t understand. Maybe it’s something about me.

Almost every day I see him coming over Kiellands Square from the Salomon Shoe Factory on the other side where he has been since he was fourteen, he tells me, and always at precisely quarter past five.

“This is the third time this week,” he says, shaking his head as if he can’t understand why he has fallen into such costly habits, but he’ll soon be foreman and then everything will be much better. He wags his tail like a puppy, and I look at myself in the kitchen mirror when I carry out the trays and don’t object to what I see when I look close enough. My mother was wrong, my long ringlets vanished in Copenhagen on the way from the Telephone Exchange to Vesterbro, but despite that the men stand at the door after closing time waiting with their essential patriot’s hairstyle and their cigarettes.

I didn’t mean to come here after Stockholm, I’d intended to go to London, but I did not have the money then, so I made my way up here to Aunt Kari to see a new town while I saved up for my ticket and waited for my documents. You need documents for everything now, it’s 1947, and I should have had a letter from Jesper. I have not seen him for four years, but he knows where I am. He has gone to Morocco, and I have come to this town at the very end of the fjord where everything was gray and green on the way in on the boat, and then nothing but gray for days and weeks. There are still signs everywhere of those who left and it is hard to breathe when there is no wind. Only in the evening the dust and rubbish whirls in the gutters, and I sit by an open window in a bus going to Galgeberg, I know he lives near there. I walk down Vålerenggata past a big yellow wooden house with
First Ebenezer Congregation
on a sign on the ground floor, and I remember the Baptists next door on Asylgate and wonder, is this where my journey is to end? On the first floor a lady is standing at the window looking down on the street where I walk. Her hair is in a gray bun on her neck and she looks down with a commanding air. The Queen of Ebenezer, I think, and I realize she is his mother, for this is where he lives and I can see him in her. She looks strong and perhaps beautiful, our eyes meet, and I am the one who looks away first.

I go farther on before I stop, turn, and take another way back past low houses with low fences. He is thirty-six and still lives at home with the two he calls mama and papa. I take the bus right to the last stop on the other side of town and
walk
home. It takes me an hour and a half. I walk along the streets with my nose in the air looking for the horizon, but nowhere does the sky meet the sea or a plain, nowhere is there a line that is straight. Just gray hills around the whole town; you can climb them and buy a view for money.

A man laughs at my accent when I ask the way.

“Was German any better?” I ask. Every day the newspapers are full of cases against those who thought German was better. He blushes and points to the left.

“Past Salem, and then straight down,” he says.

I say “thanks a million” in my broadest Danish and turn my back on him.

There are steps and columns at Torggata Baths and steps and columns at the Deichmanske Library. First I go to the baths and let a lady in white scrub me all over with soap till my skin is pink and shining in the lamplight. She tells jokes while she works and has hands like a carpenter’s. I close my eyes and give myself over to her hands, it tickles in my stomach when I lean back, and she scrubs my front and says:

“Have you heard the one about the German soldier who missed the tram on the eighth of May, Liberation Day?” There’s steam around me and her laughter is dark and soft, I smile without opening my eyes, I am sinking, and then I shower on the way to the pool and jump straight in and swim a thousand meters. Twenty times up and down without stopping, and I pay no attention to those who dive and jump and play in the water. I breathe as calmly as I can and swim with regular strokes among all the bodies, and then I go into the steam bath and sit on the bench until my head is as clean as my body and my thoughts rest in my skin. After yet another shower I go out and down the steps between the columns with a body that is heavy and light at the same time, and the city air strokes and tickles my neck. I go around the corner onto Henrik Ibsensgate and walk up the street in the shade and farther on up the slanting steps in the sun from Garborgs Square to the square in front of the library and the steps up to it between the columns to the main entrance and then up the steps from the cloakroom to the loans section. Then I have to sit down. If I walk fast like that in the heat I shall have to go to the baths a second time, and I can’t afford that. Twice a week is enough.

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