Authors: Per Petterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
“What the hell is this? Alcohol Concern, is it?!” Rough laughter came rolling from the counter in a wave towards the door, it hit me in the face and I burned with shame and the heat from the stove after the cold outside.
who should be ashamed!” I shouted though he had not said anything about
being ashamed of myself, but there was nothing but shame in there now. The door behind me burst open, a cold draft swept up my back as the laughter rolled backward to the counter. A hand clamped down on my shoulder. It hurt and I did not need to look around to know who had arrived.
“Go outside and wait till I come,” said my father. His voice was gentle, almost kind, and his hand was hard. I did not want to go out. It was cold outside and warm inside, but also filled with huge staring eyes, so I turned, took two steps and stopped in the doorway.
The sound of a crash came from the other end of the room. Jesper had landed on the floor, he kicked and floundered and the baron snarled:
“Miserable peasant boy! Are you mad?”
“I’m no peasant, I am a proletarian!” shouted Jesper. Laughter rose again. The regulars at the Aftenstjernen had not had such entertainment since New Year’s Eve, but Jesper had read Nexø’s books and Pelle the Conqueror was his latest hero. He was going to be an industrial worker and a shop steward and lead his comrades towards the red sun and the New Human Being. Not a brick or a haystack would be left of the old world, and certainly no baron who was generally so drunk when he was going out to hunt in his forests that he could not even walk across his yard without falling on his back, and then crawled on all fours through horse dung and straw to his dovecote, let the pigeons out, and shot them instead. And that’s no lie.
My father walked through the inn he knew so well with a different light through the windows, now I could see his back and Jesper in there. Jesper was kneeling and brushing dust off his jacket and trousers with one hand while he fended the baron off with the other, and then he looked up and stiffened. He took a big breath and got cautiously to his feet, he did not take his eyes off my father’s and he was biting his lip. Now no one spoke. I closed my eyes and waited for the sound that was about to come, for my father’s dark voice and his hands that could crush whatever he liked, I had seen that in the workshop when he could not make something work, but it was Grandfather who said:
“Well, if it isn’t our joiner-master master-joiner. The prodigal son of agriculture, the good shepherd of sawdust. What’s he doing out so late with practically the whole of his family? Isn’t it warm enough at home?”
My father stopped short in the middle of the floor.
“Jesper, just you come with me,” he said in a low voice, and Jesper went on looking him straight in the face and began to walk.
“Hey, hey, what’s the hurry. Now we’re all here together we may as well have a drink, surely? Hee, hee. You stay here, Jesper.” Grandfather opened his hand and stretched it out. Jesper stopped, but he did not turn around, and it was I who called:
“He’s coming with us!”
My father turned in a flash.
“Be quiet, girl!” he said sharply and the shame was there again and the big eyes, but Jesper was frightened, only I saw that. He stood stiffly between Grandfather and my father, one tall and thin, sneering scornfully in his beard, the other with a bulge at the top of his back almost like a hump and his jaws pressed hard together. No one looked at the baron any more. He did not like that, he put his hands to his sides and said in a voice full of sand and gravel:
“What a damn fool family drama! Hell, do we have to listen to this!” He spat on the floor and Grandfather turned and punched him right in the stomach, the baron’s back struck the counter and he slid down and came to rest on the floor with his furs like a garland around him. Grandfather picked up the baron’s glass and downed it in one gulp.
“Now, Master Joiner,” he said, and I could not understand what was wrong with my father’s name that it could not be spoken aloud, his name was Magnus, Grandfather knew that well enough, but his voice sounded different from the one I was used to: “Why don’t you just go home if you won’t drink with your own father? You were never like the others, were you? You have never known why, born in pain and begotten in more than pain, a thorn in the flesh from the start. Go home to your warm house and leave the boy with me.”
He rocked backward and forward on his heels, but each word rang clear and everyone in the Aftenstjernen sat still and listened, and when he had finished they all looked at my father. He had nothing to say, he just stared straight ahead of him with clenched fists, his back rounder than ever. I tried to catch Jesper’s eye and managed it. I beckoned him to me, held his eyes with mine and whispered:
“Come on, come.” He came to himself and began walking, and then he did something no one had expected. He went right up to my father and put his arms around him and gave him a hug. One man laughed, but there was no shame in it this time, he just laughed and started to clap and a moment later everyone joined in. They laughed and clapped and stamped their feet on the floor. My father straightened his back and smiled cautiously, he nodded to someone he knew, took hold of us both by the shoulder and led us towards the door. There Jesper turned on his heel, pointed at the baron and shouted:
“You’re doomed!” The laughter rose again and my father seized Jesper by the collar and lifted him over the threshold, but I knew he was not angry any more.
Before I closed the door behind us I saw Grandfather standing alone with the baron’s empty glass in his hand, and for a moment it occurred to me that he thought Jesper had meant
hat my mother was good at was telling stories. And singing songs. She was a composer of hymns. Her maiden name was Aaen, she came from Bangsbostrand, due south of the town where we lived. There they were almost all fishermen and every one of them was a Christian, and the Aaens were more Christian than the rest. The members of that family always spoke in a much more educated manner and did not use the Vendelbo dialect as did most people in the district who were not newcomers, and they were so Christian that when they started a cooperative it was called The Cooperative Society of Our Lord. I think it still exists. Those who did not belong to the Co-op faced the winter with foreboding, and when the fishing failed they stood at the door of Our Lord and begged to be let in, but by then it was too late. That was how they learned their lesson.
I do not know why they felt themselves superior. They had no reason to. Possibly it was because the family possessed a camera. A wealthy German had left it behind in payment for the loan of a boat when he stayed as a tourist one summer and rented a house down by the beach. His name was Eisenkopf.
There are a lot of photographs from that time, one of them shows my maternal aunts on their way up Søndergate from Møllerhuset Allé, they are wearing big hats and long dresses with all kinds of trimming and stuff, and they do not look like fisherman’s daughters. But that’s what they were. Anyway I am sure my mother felt she had married beneath her although my father came from Vrangbæk, which is no small farm even today. One of my uncles became sexton of Bangsbostrand church and had white skin and soft hands, but his son Kurt works at the shipyard and Aunt Else was never anything but a fisherman’s wife and in the end a fisherman’s widow when her husband Preben went down with the
north of Skagen one moonless January night. She only just scraped through the following years with support from the congregation.
My mother had a piano that my father had bought and adapted when the old cinema closed down. It still had the sound of silent films and when she played it and sang it was a mixture of Chaplin and Christianity that seemed improper to me, but I don’t think she thought of it like that. She sat on the stool and felt her way over the keys and wrote down sentences and words in big brown books. The piano remained with her for the rest of her life, and when she finally moved to a rest home the piano went too. Even though she lived in another world most of the time she could sit down and play and sing and suddenly stop and say:
“Oh, wasn’t that a really lovely hymn. I wonder who wrote it?” And then after a few minutes she would smile and put her hand to her face and whisper to herself:
“But of course, I did!” Then she laughed with a pride I felt was equally improper. Many people thought she was probably as good as Kingo, the renowned Danish seventeenth-century hymn writer, but she never sent her hymns out anywhere and only the family and friends in the congregation were allowed to hear them.
Personally I could not stand them.
Jesper was fond of her. He remembered her birthday and called her Lillemor because she was so short, and he was not above teasing her mercilessly about it. Then she would hit him with the dishcloth, give up, and start to blush and giggle. If I tried anything like that there would be a slap and no laughing.
My mother told us about Sara in the woods and about the Man from Danzig. She sat on a chair by the door and Jesper and I lay in our beds as the man sailed through the room in his ship more than a hundred years before from what was Germany, a solitary helmsman with stinging eyes and the wind in his hair, with a cargo for Norway, and the weather was dark and stormy and the visibility poor. He was aiming to sail close to the island of Læsø between Sweden and Denmark and he looked out for lighthouses and steered by any he could see. Suddenly lights were everywhere. He tugged at the tiller and steered to starboard, realized that was wrong and turned to port again, and the lights came from all sides and then he hit bottom with a crash and stuck fast, then started to take in water. In the dark he heard the roaring of breakers and splashing of oars and the thumping of small boats against the hull, and he thanked his Lord he was saved. But the men who climbed aboard didn’t even look his way, they glided across the deck toward the hatches, and in no time his whole cargo had vanished over the rail and the men had gone with it. Without the cargo the ship lifted off the reef and floated out into deeper water, and there it sank quietly until it vanished with the man from Danzig still on board, and my mother began to whisper:
“The spit where he went aground is known as the Man from Danzig to this day.”
“Damn it, right scum, they were,” said Jesper after my mother had gone. It was all dark inside and dark outside, an endless January darkness, but I knew from the direction of his voice that he was sitting up in bed, and he meant the men from Læsø who had lighted lanterns to trick the man from Danzig into going aground so they could plunder the cargo. He was right, of course, and I was exasperated because what I dreamed of at night was the Man from Danzig at the bottom of the sea amid kelp and seaweed with eyes like burning charcoal and long wavy fingers that stretched out to grab me. But I realized that was because of the way my mother told the story, and I wondered for a long time whether she felt sorry for him at all. Perhaps she had relations on Læsø, or perhaps they were so poor there they felt they had to be wreckers. That was something else to wonder about.
That winter everything turns into ice. There is snow in the streets, snow on the fields, and the ice lies shining on the frozen sea right out to the small islands called Hirsholmene when the wind blows low from the north and sweeps aside everything in its way. It has been cold before, but not so cold as this, and no one has seen this much snow for twenty years. Some say it was once possible to walk dry-shod to Sweden and back again, but that must have been long ago, and I think the cold has something to do with Grandfather, that it comes seeping in after someone has hanged themselves or taken their life in some other way, and it seems to happen particularly in a town where such a death has occurred. But my father says it is cold all over Denmark, and that is really too much to blame Grandfather for, so the theory does not hold water, even though Jesper rather liked it.
I’m in the classroom looking out of the window at the wind tearing at the trees and I hear it howling around the corner of the school. The old windows are not windproof, there is a fiendish draft along the wall and those of us sitting in the window row have put on all our outdoor clothes. Marianne whose desk is in front of me has a big red scarf around her neck, her breath issues like frosty vapor while those along the opposite wall near the stove take off almost all their clothes and smirk sweetly and meanly at us on the outer row. In particular that slob Lone, the headmaster’s daughter. She is pretty. She wears a newly ironed dress every day, has fair curls, and gets good marks. So do I. Get good marks. The two of us are far ahead of the others. She is because she gets everything free, I am because I work hard. If I am ever to get away from this place and right to the other end of the world, I need good marks. First the middle school and after that the sixth form, then my door will open. My mother thinks I am good at learning and sometimes even tells me so, but she despairs of Jesper, who takes things more lightly because he’s going to be a worker in the shipyard and a socialist and train himself for opposition. If you are going to be an activist you do not need to do lessons. That’s the first commandment, thinks Jesper, and believes he’s well on the way. So he is in trouble at school and gets scolded at home.