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MS Hitra

Captain Jonasen followed the dotted line in the atlas with his finger. What he would do after Buenos Aires he didn't know. As far as he was concerned life could end there. He closed the atlas with a bang and lit his pipe. It would soon be midnight and it was dark in the captain's cabin. He listened and waited. But no engines started up. All he could hear was the wind whistling through the air vent. And he didn't know exactly what he was in fact waiting for any more, either. He turned and looked through the porthole streaked with sea and salt. Penelope was right: it was an unprepossessing bridge.

***

Captain Jonasen had been a respected man in Sirenes before the bridge came. Year after year he had got up, put on the uniform with the MRF—Møre og Romsdal Fylkesbåtar—captain's insignia and piloted the ferry between Sirenes and Gjellestø. Apart from that, he had not done much that was of particular note, but in Sirenes it was what you didn't do that commanded respect. Captain Jonasen did not drink any more than most people, did not miss church services any more than other people and did not let his house fall into disrepair—he gave it a new coat of red paint every third year.

The ferry, MS Hitra, was also kept in good order. It needed to be because it was an old boat, built in 1949. Eight meters wide, 35 meters long with a 338-kilowatt engine which produced a speed of eleven knots. The official capacity was 150 passengers and eighteen cars, but if Captain Jonasen and crew used every centimeter of space and stretched the rules, there was room for twenty-one. It was the smallest boat MRF had in operation, but it was big enough as the crossing took a mere four and a half minutes. Including turnaround time there was an interval of twelve minutes between each sailing. In other words, between the first departure at six and the last at eleven MS Hitra darted to and fro across Var fjord eighty-five times every day. If you missed the last boat you would have to drive 160 kilometers around the fjord. The boat alternated between overnighting in Sirenes and Gjellestø. With a crew of twelve—seven living on the Sirenes and five on the Gjellestø side—working three shifts, those who found themselves in the wrong place when the boat moored for the night returned in a dinghy.

But there was one man who did not set foot in a dinghy, and that was Captain Jonasen. Hydrophobia—a fear which is more widespread among seamen than one would suppose—was the explanation. For him stepping on board anything smaller than MS Hitra was out of the question. So when they docked in Gjellestø after the last crossing Jonasen sat in the captain's cabin smoking a pipe and listening to the two men check the moorings, switch off the lights and lock the doors. He heard the outboard motor and the chief engineer's car start up and fade away as he contemplated the light in his red house in Sirenes through a porthole gray with sea salt. Then he stood up and went ashore. And beneath stars or clouds, in the summer twilight or the winter darkness, in rain or snow, he set out up the steep terrain of the almost deserted mountainside.

Her name was Elinor and she lived alone in the white house. It was the time when there had been only apple trees in the orchard. In spring Captain Jonasen had been able to smell the flowers and in autumn the apples long before he reached the gate and the gravel path leading to her doorsteps. Yes, that was how it had been. Elinor had worked in the kiosk on MS Hitra in the seventies when the boat had still been full almost every trip, before the new motorway was built and Sirenes became a backwater. Jonasen had been the fine, young captain from the local area with alert, blue eyes beneath dark curls, a firm gaze and a deep, hearty laugh. Helpful and obliging to a fault, whether he was with old dears, schoolchildren, be-suited commercial travelers or the mayor himself. In short, Captain Jonasen was the kind of man everyone liked. And Elinor had been no exception.

Now, the captain was already married, to Penelope. However, while serving coffee, Firkløver chocolate, and griddle cakes, Elinor considered that she was entitled to dream. It had not escaped her attention that whenever Jonasen came down to the ship's saloon, poured himself a coffee, and made some humorous comment about this or that, his eyes told a different story from his mouth.

The months went by and Captain Jonasen's mouth continued to talk about the winds, weather, and local gossip, and in the end Elinor was forced to take the initiative. At this time Jonasen still went home in the dinghy. So, when one day she told him that, as a responsible ship's captain, he would have to spend the night on MS Hitra in Gjellestø to go through the kiosk accounts, so that they could be handed in to the main MRF office in Molde the next day, he gave her a look of amazement. Then he nodded and conceded that, of course, it was his duty. He called Penelope to say he wouldn't be going home, and as the others left, Jonasen and Elinor sat down to examine the accounts. The cash desk takings tallied, the balance balanced and before Captain Jonasen knew what was going on he and Elinor found themselves in his cramped captain's cabin.

The next morning Elinor had a large swelling on her forehead from banging it on a protruding bulkhead, but her smile was like sunshine. Appearing on the bridge with coffee, she whispered that they would be more comfortable in her bedroom. Jonasen was well aware that she had the house to herself after Elinor's mother had moved south with her stepfather. That was the day Jonasen developed hydrophobia.

***

The gravel crunched beneath his shoes. Twenty years had passed since that first night and he still came and went every alternate night in what seemed like an eternal love shuttle between his two women. Penelope never gave her husband any reason to suspect that she knew what was going on. And to Captain Jonasen it seemed as though Elinor had found peace of mind with his explanation that there was a risk that Penelope would commit suicide if he ever left her. On one occasion—the wedding night—Penelope had indeed said that she could not live without him.

"It's getting colder," Elinor said in the doorway shivering.

"A north-westerly from Greenland," Captain Jonasen said, giving her a hug.

After she had fallen asleep he got out of bed, went over to the window, lit his pipe, and stared across the fjord. The light from the red house on the other side was flashing. He knew it was an optical illusion caused by fluctuations in the air temperature, but he could not help thinking that it looked like a lighthouse beacon. Or that Penelope was sleeping there.

And that he longed for her.

He experienced the same longing when he got out of bed in the red house and stared at the light from the lone white house up on the mountainside, where he was now. Every night it felt just as unbearable that he could not simply open the window and fly across the water into the arms of his beloved. To Penelope. Or Elinor. Wherever he was not. That was at least as peculiar as any optical illusion.

"Aren't you coming back to bed?" Elinor whispered from the bed.

Captain Jonasen puffed on his pipe.

"I was talking to the mayor on the ferry today," he said.

"Oh, yes?"

"He says it's a done deal. There will be a bridge."

"Oh, I don't know. They've been saying that for as long as I can remember."

"In two years' time. It's certain now."

They didn't say anything. Just listened to each other's silence. Then Captain Jonasen crept back into bed and kissed her forehead.

"Hitra and I will have to find something else," he said. "Could you envisage joining us on a little trip?"

"Where would that be to?"

"Buenos Aires, of course."

Elinor chuckled, but it was too dark for him to see her eyes.

***

"There we are," Penelope said, tightening Captain Jonasen's tie so hard that he almost suffocated. "Now both the king and the mayor will be happy."

She rested her hand on his shoulder as he buttoned up his suit jacket. Looked at him in the identical way she had the day they buried his father.

"You look nice today," Jonasen said, and he meant it.

Then they left the red house and set out down the road. The distant sound of band music came and went with the wind. They nodded to their festively dressed neighbors. As they came closer they could hear the echo of the snare drums being tossed hither and thither across the fjord.

"It's an ugly bridge," Penelope said.

The wind crackled in the microphone and swept the mayor's hair in all directions as he said how nice it was to see such a good turnout from both sides of the water and how the bridge would usher in a new era for all of those living around Var fjord. New links would be forged and old ones strengthened. First of all, though, there was one link which had to be cut, he smiled, and proudly presented the guest of honor.

"The King of Norway," whispered Penelope.

As the king spoke Captain Jonasen cast his eyes over the tiny, unlovely car ferry moored to the quay in Sirenes. MRF had no need of such a small ferry on any of their other routes, and for the moment no buyers had appeared. With the talk of scrapping MS Hitra, Jonasen had offered to take it under his wing for the company. And, since he had taken early retirement anyway, to maintain the boat until a buyer came forward. He had been waiting for an answer for a week now. That was what was going through Captain Jonasen's mind when something strange happened.

"I didn't know you were so beautiful."

Penelope sent her interlocutor an inquisitive smile.


"My name is Elinor," the woman continued, also with a smile.

"I have wanted to meet you for a long time."

From that moment on the voices around Captain Jonasen blurred into a muffled drone. He pinched his eyes and squinted at MS Hitra, which was bathed in a sudden, solitary pillar of sunlight that had appeared between the clouds. He was thinking that a fair amount of rust would have to be knocked off before she could be given a new coat of paint. The engine had been recently overhauled, but a few valves needed changing. And the boat coped without any difficulties in open sea. Twice they had sailed through rough weather outside the skerries to Bergen.

"Now I can see it. You must be Agnes's daughter," Penelope said. "I haven't seen you since you were a young girl. You've moved to town, have you?"

"No, I've lived here the whole time. I just haven't been to Sirenes for the last twenty years."

"Oh? How come?"

"Hydrophobia."

Captain Jonasen had the route clear in his mind. Le Havre. Porto. Lisbon. And then the big leap. Past the end of the world to Buenos Aires. Pampas steaks. Gentle rain in his hair. He had read it rained quite a bit. He liked that.

There was an outbreak of clapping and people cheered. It sounded like a train derailing when the band struck up a march. Captain Jonasen clapped, too, beat his palms against each other until they hurt, but he was unable to wake from the evil dream. For this was not real. At any rate, no more real than sailing MS Hitra up and down the river Plate with tourists. No less of a dream than a white linen suit and tango dancing in a café.

***

The lights of a single car turning off the bridge swept across his face. He put down his pipe and went outside. Glanced at the other side of the road and saw that Penelope had turned off the lights for the night.

It was four years since the king had cut the ribbon, Penelope had met Elinor for the first time, and Penelope had asked him to move out. That evening Elinor had met him on the steps and said he didn't need to walk up the mountainside any more.

The air was cold and clear, the sky high and empty apart from the moon, which looked pale and frozen. Soon it would be spring in Buenos Aires, but here autumn was on its way. MS Hitra was not built for autumnal storms in open sea, so it was too late for this year as well.

He saw the lone light on the Gjellestø side and the long reeds in the low tide tickling the black keel of the ferry in the white moonlight.

It would have to be next year.

Translation of "MS Hitra." From Karusellmusik. Copyright 2001 by Jo Nesbø. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Don Bartlett. All rights reserved.