Ambulance

I'm lying on my back in the ambulance, firmly strapped to the stretcher and we're driving very fast through town, somebody's placed an oxygen mask over my mouth, and the man sitting next to me in a red and yellow jacket, who goes constantly from watching me to watching his bleeping instruments, asks me if I can hear him, but doesn't wait for an answer, and he flicks various switches, attaches things to my body, to my chest, he yells out to the ambulance driver, "Faster, drive faster," and then, "We're losing him," and I'm about to say I can hear him, but he turns his face away, he's preparing an injection, I think, and I lie completely still, staring into the ceiling, we're on the motorway, and each time we pass a streetlamp, a shaft of light flashes across the roof and vanishes to the left, and he asks if I can hear him, "Can you hear me," he talks so loud, his voice almost cracks, "You must be used to this," I think to myself, "surely, you must have seen worse than this," and I try to grip hold of the stretcher on the turns, but there's no sensation in my left arm, as if it's not there, and my right arm feels weak, practically without strength, and again he asks if I can hear him, looks at me, straight at me, lifts my eyelids, points a flashlight into my pupils, and I want to shut my eyes because the light's so bright, but he forces them wide open and I roll my eyes and he yells to the man at the wheel that he must drive faster, because I'm dying, and I consider how everything's happened so fast, and then my focus slips, disappearing into the driver, who turns his head to see the patient lying firmly strapped at the back of the ambulance, and I think "He's not going to pull through, I must drive faster, drive as hard as I can," and I've switched my blue lights on, and at the back of the ambulance the man whose name I don't remember is trying to establish contact with the patient, I call switchboard, state our position, tell them we're on our way, request necessary equipment to be put on standby, we're just ten minutes away.

I lie firmly strapped to the stretcher, everything's bleeping all round, and the man in the red and yellow ambulance jacket sits next to me, swinging from side to side as the ambulance swerves through the streets, sirens blaring, and I stare at the roof, saying nothing, and he asks if I can hear him, my eyes meet his, I raise my head, very slowly, and nod, I can hear him, "Good," he says, "we're nearly there," and I lay my head back on the pillow, it aches, I try to hold the stretcher tightly, but there's no strength in my hands, I realize I'm pissing myself, it's warm in my crotch and I lie completely still, there's nothing I can do, I can't stop it, I can only lie there feeling the urine seep through the my pants, down over my thighs, through my trousers and out onto the mattress, it'll get cold, I'm so tired, it'll have to stay there, and the man at my side takes my hand, even though I've pissed myself, and tells me I must keep looking at him, "Look at me," he says, "just keep looking at me," and I look at him. I think I know his dad, but I'm not totally certain, and in no state to ask, I lie motionless and the only thing that's missing now is the classical music, the film score, John Williams. Strings. Trumpets.

It snowed earlier today. Huge flakes that didn't settle, but melted almost as soon as soon as they touched the ground. I'd been to a café for the first time in years, I'd spoken with a kid, a moment of shared contact--he'd told me that he was starting school in the autumn, he was excited about getting to know the others. I'd dropped into the cinema, and then gone to the supermarket and bought a ready-made dinner, Thai crackers, two beers and the TV Times. I'd got in the car, driven home, let myself in the flat, hung my coat on the hook in the hall, turned the oven on, heated the food, eaten, sat down in my chair, and then watched TV. I'd ordered an Abflexer and anti-rust enamel from VR-Shopping, phoned an order in, I'd begun to wait.

It's two months since she left. Anna. My wife. Fifty-eight days, and the memory hasn't faded. She arrives back from work, the night shift, I'm waiting up, in the living room, and as she hangs her jacket up I can already see that things can't go on; I can see that she wants to talk things over now, and I take a deep breath, sit up in my chair, brace myself, let it come, and when she starts talking, I act as though it's all coming as a complete surprise, when she starts accusing me, says I hardly see her, that it feels as though I'm tired of her, when she says it's months since I've rung our son on my own initiative, when she says all these things, I act as though it's coming as a shock to me that she, she of all people, could accuse me of such things, and I act as though I don't understand, and all to trigger feelings of guilt in her, to make out she's the difficult one, the demanding troublemaker, it's cowardly I know, but I do nothing, just sit there and take it, I don't answer her when she confronts me, that I'm tired of her, that I'm tired of my son, he lives down in town somewhere, and if I think about it, I haven't even been there, but I've got his address somewhere, there's a note hanging on the bulletin board in the kitchen I think, he works as a psychologist in town, owns his own practice, has for a few years now, and I have grown tired of her, grown tired of him, grown tired of myself, and that's why I sit in the chair in the living room, and pretend to be taken by surprise, as if I'd thought everything was fine, when she suddenly called me a beast. Two days later she moves out, after twenty years, it's all pretty unspectacular, I'm not at home, I'm at work, sitting in the projectionist's room staring through the projector window, where I watch the same films over and over, and the only thing that changes is the audience's reaction to certain scenes, laughter that always comes at different moments, according to age groups and time of day, there's such diversity in the people out there, an ocean of varying laughs, coughs and clearing of throats, and in the weeks that follow I wonder whether one of them out there might be her, I think perhaps she might be sitting out there, watching the same films over and over, knowing that I'm here working, knowing that I've started to miss her. The films roll on, day in day out, the light from the projector above the heads out in the auditorium, hers among them too perhaps. They settle in their chairs, listen to the music, to the massive string sections, as the hero or perhaps heroine returns home, and stands by the water's edge, wishing they were far away, somewhere quite different, and the empathy hangs heavy over the cinema, and I swap reels without the audience even noticing, set the music a touch louder, let it roll, and when the hero's best friend dies in a fight, and the hero and his sweetheart decide to name their first love child after his friend, and there's a close-up of the baptism, the water, pure clear water runs over this new head and the child cries, and the film cuts to the priest, then back to the father, both wearing reconciled expressions, and a lonely trumpet settles gently over the final images, before the credits roll and the screen turns black, and the music accompanies the sound of hundreds of seats as they clap shut, of popcorn bags thrown into bins, and of people leaving, going home, and then I'm the last person left, standing in the projection room, until the music is finished, and then I lean close up to the window, and gaze out into the auditorium, there's always someone left behind who wants to watch the credits, as if they knew someone involved in the production, there's always one head to be spotted, and I always exit my room, walk into the auditorium, to check, but it's never her, and I couldn't have expected it really, and then the auditorium fills with a new audience, and the next film needs setting up, and it'll be dark, and the music will swell, and two and a half hours later their friend will die.

It's hard to say when it began. When I began distancing myself. When I began to disappear from her. There are so many possible instances. It could have started at any moment. When I began falling apart before her, dissolving in front of her coffee cup. Hands forever clenched under the table. Tight-lipped. Eyes closed.

I lie there gazing up at the roof and we drive fast, through the tunnel, in toward the hospital, and the man in the red and yellow jacket hovers over me, holds my hand, tells me everything will be fine, that I must breathe calmly, try to relax. "Look at me," he says, "keep looking, look at me, I'm here, it's all going to be fine," he says, over and over. I try to squeeze his hand back, but I have no strength, and my hand rests swinging in his fist in rhythm to the movement of the ambulance, and the man at the wheel calls switchboard, informs them where we are and asks if the equipment is ready, and I have a sense of something building up, and the feeling in my hand is returning, my fingers tingle, in the hand that isn't quite paralyzed, my strength returns and I squeeze tight, as hard as I can, I see the man's face twist and he shouts something or other that I can't figure out, and a flashing begins across my retina, the car gathers speed and an enormous pain rushes through my body like lightning, down my back, out through my fingers and I close my eyes, hear them yelling at each other, "Drive for fuck's sake, he's having another one," he yells, and I let go and slip off into the auditorium, and away into the screen, slip into the film, and I'm on a battlefield, somewhere in Europe, Verdun perhaps, and I'm lying in a trench with a bunch of German soldiers, and we look at each other, they're shouting something at me, but I can't hear them, the sounds of the grenades as they crash down throwing earth and body parts above me, are too loud, besides, above the whole landscape, there's the most infernal din of what can only be a heroic film score, and I'm nudged in the back by a bayonet, it just passes through my jacket and I crawl on all fours out of the trench, out onto the field, and the other soldiers crawl out after me, I look ahead, load my rifle, scan one way then the other, but it's impossible to see anything other than the explosions, earth and grass wrenched from the ground and showering us, a rain that stings the eyes and turns the ground to mud and makes it impossible to cross, we hang back, the damp seeping through our clothes, into our boots, and it reeks of vomit, I feel a hand touch my back and I turn, see a face calling to me, he has a red face and he's calling, but I can't hear what he says, and I look ahead, see white clouds of smoke move toward us, grenades landing close by, down in the trench, that go off and release thick, white smoke, I'm handed a gas mask, I pull it over my face and I'm dragged down into the trench again, together with the others, and there we sit motionless, crouched, knees up under our chins as the gas creeps over the edge growing thick before us, and the only thing I hear is my own gurgling breath, and the music, constantly over the whole scene, but most of all the gurgling, quick breathing, and a soldier coming into view over the side of the trench, in the midst of the heavy, creeping gas that spills over the ground and down into our pits, he is dressed in a red and yellow uniform, and he yells at me, yells that I must keep looking at him, but I can't answer, I have my gas mask on and I can't say anything to him, can't take it off, try to stretch my arm out to pull him toward me, down toward safety, but he doesn't want to, he resists, bends over me, tears the mask from me and slaps my face, and I'm back in the ambulance, unable to move, gazing at the ceiling, staring straight ahead, hoping we'll be there soon, I'm so tired now, and tomorrow I've got to get to work, and maybe she'll come, she'll understand that I didn't mean it, that I want her to come back, I don't know why I cast her aside, why I haven't talked to my son, I've got to be at work tomorrow, got to go into the auditorium and look for her, sooner or later she's bound to come, she knows I'm there, and she never answers the phone, and I have to ring my son, I must ring Mats, find out how things are, I need to be there now, I'm your father, for heaven's sake, I must ring you, just let me get there now, I'll ring you tomorrow, from work, from the hospital, just let me get there now, just help me now, then I'll call you both, in the morning, I promise, and I'll be a good listener, both ears wide open, I don't know what happened, I just got so sad, one day I just disappeared, and you noticed it, I know you did, but now I'm here, if you can just help me now, get me through this, and I'll come out on the other side again, look, here I am. I'm going to ring you. I'll give you the biggest hug ever. I stare at the ceiling, I can't move. Absolutely paralyzed.

To hate yourself in the mirror.

To know that you need somebody more than you are needed.

Earlier today it snowed, for the first time in a couple of months, even though it's the middle of winter. I sit in my armchair, munching the Thai crackers I bought, eat three or four mouthfuls, throw the rest in the trash can in the kitchen, go back, sit and watch television, wait for her to ring, after fifty-eight days, or perhaps for the courage to do it myself. I look at everything that's on, flicking channels, finding nothing worthwhile, the film channel is showing nothing but films I wearied of when I was showing them myself last year, cookery shows and crocodile hunts and a documentary about Erich Maria Remarque, it's only moderately interesting and over simplistic. But, nonetheless, I go on watching these scraps, trash, and maybe this is the moment it really hits home, that I've got nothing to do, now she's gone. I'm bored, physically bored. It aches in my arms, a tingly feeling, outermost in my joints.

I'm half asleep almost, in the night some time, I'm still sitting in the chair, because I don't dare call her, instead I call the number on the screen, start to play one of those TV games some of the channels have started to show at the end of their programs, to hold the public and keep ratings up, even if their entertainment value is way below par. I've done this a few times over the last months, almost every night, come to think of it, mostly Jackpot, but also Cabal and pinball, whatever's going. There's Jackpot on the channel I'm watching now, and I call the number that appears on the screen, tap the letters into the keypad and call myself Las Vegas, it seems somehow fitting, in spite of everything, you have to enter the spirit of it. I'm the only one playing, but the nation is not asleep. Across the bottom of the screen, text messages roll from right to left, mainly kids, boys and girls in their rooms all over Norway, with nothing better to do, who, it occurs to me, ought to be out and about, in each other's company, who should be snuggled up together, loving each other, chatting for as long as they can, or who ought to be asleep. Instead they're discussing the contents of their pockets, and I key in the numbers, set the jackpot wheel spinning, stop it again, win nothing, and then wait a moment, until the rules flash onto the screen, not exactly complicated, but built on a logic you have to know, keypad-logic. Then I start all over again.

After a half hour perhaps of to-ing and fro-ing, with two wins on the trot, and then bankrupt again, I begin to feel ill, I set the wheel spinning but without luck, I'm not getting anywhere today, tonight, I don't know why, and there's a tingling in my fingers, a feeling of unease in my outermost joints that refuses to go, I put my mind to it, try to get the wheel to stop on matching symbols, an attempt at finding something I can control, can have command over, but it seems almost impossible, and I sit impassive in front of the screen.

Maybe a half hour later, a new player finally appears, and my sense of loneliness is immediately numbed, I see it as a kind of attempt at making contact when the participant signs himself in as "Caesar's Palace," a casino in Las Vegas, the only one I've ever been to, once, a long time ago, when I was still married, or perhaps just before we got married, at the tail end of the eighties, just me and her, flying to Los Angeles and then on to Henderson Airport, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States of America. The person who's started playing, Caesar's Palace, has clearly got the knack, he or she wins hundreds of credits, and the idea hits me, I have to contact this person.

But I sit for a while before making a move, just registering that he's constantly winning, with a matching row of cherries, and finally three $$$, a thousand credits, then he logs off, achieving the top score of the night, and I fetch my cell from my jacket pocket in the hall, find the text function and send a message to the number that's flashing at the bottom of the screen. A minute later it appears alongside the other generally confused messages from the kids. I text:

Well played, Caesar! Las Vegas. Who are you?

As soon as it comes up on the screen I realize how clumsy my message is, childish, I could have made it so much better, it is doesn't invite contact, but I still hope he, he or she will do it, will answer, and that we can talk, I need contact with somebody, and I can't handle going to bed, alone.

He answers. Only one minute later, and I receive an answer from Caesar, a man of thirty, half my age, and I notice a warmth start to rise from somewhere in my body, up over my back, out into my arms. And without a moment's thought I take my cell out again, enter the text function, but my fingers have begun to grow clumsy, tingling at the tips, and I have difficulties tapping the letters in, but I succeed and send my number to the screen, send a message to him, out on the TV, Call me. Please. Followed by my number. I get up, I'm terribly thirsty and I go out into the kitchen to get some water, and I look out of the window, into the backyard, out onto my neighbor's window, Merete, she's been widowed for nearly twenty years now, she hardly ever leaves her flat these days, her legs aren't good, but she usually sits at her window, looking out over the backyard, watching everything, a human security camera, and I look out of my window, our eyes meet, and she smiles. I smile back and open the kitchen cupboard, take out a glass, turn the tap on, let it run, cool, fresh water over my hands, that seem to vibrate as I fill the glass with water, look over at her, just glimpse her waving, observe the glass slip from my hand, hear the telephone, my mobile in the living room, ringing, and a pain rushes through my body, and I stiffen, electric, everything spinning, flashing, and on the other side Merete sees me collapse over the kitchen bench, hit my head on the side, land on the floor on my back, and the light vanishes.

But that was earlier. Now I'm lying here, firmly secured in an ambulance, somewhere in town, on my way to hospital, and leaning over me is an ambulance man trying to keep me alive, he turns up the level of oxygen in my mask, opens my shirt, attaches something to my chest, shouts to the driver that we must go faster, and I hear the sound of myself gurgling through the mask, and none of us knows that in sixty-four seconds we're going to crash.

It's Merete who calls for the ambulance. It's Merete, from the other side of the yard, who stomps impatiently through the corridors and up the stairs together with the ambulance crew to show them the way, while I lie in the kitchen having heard the sound of the ambulance seconds before, and thinking, somebody has to come and get me, now, please. There I lie looking toward the door, waiting for it to open. And far, far away in the living room, my cell rings again.

"We're nearly there," says the voice in the ambulance. And I lie motionless.

"I'm frightened," I slur my words, and the man in the ambulance replies, coming very close, "You what?" And that is all I manage to say.

Things aren't so bad. That's what I think to myself in the moment I hear the driver scream, the ambulance skidding at a bend, and realize we're out of balance, and the ambulance capsizes, for an instant I see the instruments, the bandages, flutter above us, sailing weightlessly about the ambulance, slowly, as if everything were standing still. Before we hit the car and everything stops.

In the time that followed, deus ex machina, seen from above: I am still strapped to the stretcher, flung through the door, together with the man in the red and yellow jacket, out into the road, into the ditch, it's dark out, the snow has stopped, and the road is wet, somewhere someone screams, but I can't turn to look, forced to stay put, on the side, and I can see there's a car lying next to the central barrier on the other side, opposite me, at the bend, and the man behind its wheel sits motionless, he touches his face, looks at his hand, registers he's bleeding, places his hands on the wheel, staring right ahead, as if he's waiting for somebody to come and fetch him, and just as he finally utters a sound, just as he yells out, and screams through the smashed windscreen, an airbag finally shoots out from the dashboard, the new type, throwing his head back into the neck support, and for a split second he sits upright, stunned, nosebleed running over his lips before his head collapses forward banging into the wheel, setting the horn off, and the noise is relentless, his head rests there, an infernal din coming from the car, and simultaneously, out of view or perhaps in my imagination, from somewhere close, that same implosive sound, followed by another car horn, of slightly different pitch, and in the seconds that follow, a third, further away, a chain reaction of ghastly sound, but my ears can't locate these noises, I see the flashing of ambulances, police cars, fire engines. And the ambulance man who was sitting next to me and who got thrown out of the doors with me, is sitting at my side, landed on the grass, clearly unhurt, he coughs, gets up slowly, takes his jacket off, puts it over me and looks down at me, trying to smile, looking at me, breaths heavily, asks if everything's all right, and I say, "Yes, yes, fine," he tells me to hold out, "just hold out a bit longer," he says. And somehow it seems that I know him, from somewhere or other, but the faces float and I can't place him, and he's holding my hand firmly, hard, not letting go, and a woman gets out of one of the fire engines, she comes toward me, comes over to me, lifts the stretcher, loosens the straps round me, and it might have been Anna, it might have been Anna who had come back, but it wasn't, I don't know her, and I'm put on another stretcher, someone lifts me, runs towards one of the newly arrived ambulances, puts me in, and I am strapped in again, I lie there and stare at the ceiling, the white, plastic ceiling that's easy to clean, to wash clean of blood, and an oxygen mask is placed over my mouth, I close my eyes as the ambulance starts up, slip into the cinema, the auditorium, through the screen, back to Verdun, and I daren't look over the edge. But the smoke creeps over the ground, down toward us.

First published as "Ambulanse" in Ambulanse (Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, 2002). By arrangement with Gyldendal Norsk Forlag. Translation copyright 2007 by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik. All rights reserved.