Each day that whole summer, apart from the week when she was to learn to swim, Andrea stood at the quay and waited as the Prince drew in to land. It wasn’t the passengers she wanted to see, as they came along the gangway with all their luggage-cases, rucksacks, and great parcels from town wrapped in brown paper. It wasn’t the ice-cream man who held an interest for her, the man who used fingerless gloves and put on a hat with earflaps each time he opened the freezer that he called his office. Neither was it the ticket collector with one thumb on his counter, nor the captain with the sunglasses he wore no matter the weather that she waited for each and every day.
No, Andrea waited for Buffalo.
Because it was Buffalo who threw the rope. He stood forward on the deck, a couple of steps from the railing, so as to get the throw right, the rope wrapped around his left hand and the knot held in the other. Then he swung it in a bow over his head, or along the line of his shoulders if there was a good deal of wind, then he let go and the rope furled out, circle after circle, bow after bow from Buffalo’s left hand, and the knot landed over the bollard that was bolted fast to the edge of the quay.
Buffalo never missed. As Prince glided in slowly toward the fenders Buffalo secured the rope three times, as it tightened and there came almost a song from it, as suddenly it slackened and the drops of water were ranged like a translucent curtain in the clear light between the ship’s side and the sky above the fjord.
It was the finest thing Andrea had ever seen.
And when Prince was to turn again and start back once more for town with a new set of passengers, or travel on to Ildjern which was almost at the open sea, and when the ticket collector had rung the ship’s bell, Buffalo would whip the knot from the bollard with no more than a flick of his wrist, and gather in the rope before it had gone underwater. The knot only skiffed the waves and no more before it vanished over the railing between Buffalo’s hands.
Andrea stood there until she could no longer see Prince, the most stylish of all the ferries that plied between the capital and Nesoddland. Sometimes it looked as if the white ship flowed in the air, especially when the sunlight was strong and made everything different, vaguer, dizzy. Then Prince became a swan on the fjord and Andrea had to shield her eyes, and she saw Buffalo roll the rope up and hang it to dry under the ship’s deck. After days of rain he would tar it, and then Andrea would be sure she could catch its sharp smell, all the way in to where she stood by the bollard on the quay. Then Buffalo would wipe his white forehead with the back of his hand, light a cigarette, and lean against the railing.
Andrea always raised her own arm in greeting.
And one day Buffalo raised his arm to wave back.
Andrea ran home. The older boys called after her from where they waited their turn by the diving board beyond the red bathing hut. They called her name and dived, they hung in the air like gold inverted commas, landed soundlessly to swim in the backwash of bigger ships.
Andrea pretended she hadn’t seen them, that she didn’t know them. Their laughter was strange and different. But Buffalo had waved to her. Buffalo had seen her. She ran up the steep slope to the holiday house. It flickered in the midst of the brown heather by the fence, a fire without flames. Her shadow was thin and mysterious in the light of the low sun at her back. She couldn’t hear anything, no sound of voices, so perhaps they’d gone for a walk as they did when they were happy. Once she’d seen then hand in hand and she’d almost started to laugh; she stood hidden behind a red currant bush and saw them walking hand in hand, but she’d managed to control herself all the same and not laugh. Her father’s notebook lay on the balcony, together with his flight timetable, his newly-sharpened pencil and an eraser. Her mother’s blue bathing suit was hanging over the wicker chair to dry just as it had hung there for several days now, scorched and pale. Andrea hurried upstairs and let herself into their room. The bed wasn’t made; the comforter had fallen onto the floor and there was a heavy smell, like that of rotten fish. She went over to the window and lifted down the fire rope from its great hook. It was heavier than she’d imagined. She only just managed to hold it. She thought of Buffalo’s arms that were dark brown, almost black. She imagined she saw her parents down by the front door, where the hedge was drowned in a haze of red scent and insects, but it was nothing, nothing at all.
Andrea carried the rope out with her, over to the well behind the house where she wouldn’t be seen, into the shadows beneath the birches that criss-crossed the sky in green, moving stripes. There was a tree stump there she could aim at. She put one end through the fastening to make a knot. Then she rolled up the rope as she’d seen Buffalo do and closed her eyes. Now I’m onboard, she thought; now I’m onboard ship and the ship is called Prince-I can feel it rocking, rocking. She opened her eyes, swung the knot as hard as she could, and threw it. It didn’t reach far enough-just fell right in front of her feet. She had to hurry to roll it up again, for the quay was coming nearer and nearer all the time. She threw a second time and saw that now the knot lay curled around the stump, and she felt herself trembling in the nice way that one sometimes does. She was almost completely carried away with her own triumph and just laughed and laughed. At last she came to her senses and knew what she had to do; she pulled the rope tight and Prince gently came alongside the quay without so much as a bump against the fenders. She counted no more than five passengers who went ashore, and only two came onboard. A moment later she heard the ship’s bell and she just gave a flicker of her hand as she’d seen Buffalo do, but the knot remained where it was around the stump. The rope only flickered slightly, like some brown, hairy snake in the grass. She tried once more, harder, more quickly. It was no good. It didn’t work. Her hand burned, almost as if she’d held her fingers round a flame. In the end she had to go over to the stump and lift off the knot. She imagined Buffalo’s hands that were always dirty, that had to be because of the tar he used after it had rained, and his hands must have smelled just like the rope. She took four steps backward, turned around, rolled up the rope, swung the knot and threw, opening her left hand so the rope uncurled, and missed. She gathered the rope in again and the waves were stronger now, she could hold her balance just and no more. With the curl of the rope in her left hand and the knot in her right, she threw it, low and quick. This time she did it-almost.
And each evening that summer, apart from the week when she was to learn to swim, Andrea stood at the well, under the birch trees’ green light, throwing the rope out in the direction of the old stump.
Then her mother called her from the house; it was supper time. They’d been somewhere for a walk and now they’d come back. Andrea hoped they were still happy. She left the rope there in the grass and ran back to the house. Her mother was in the kitchen, pale despite all the sunshine. The light seemed to go right through her and she cast no shadow. She had a blue-striped apron on and was barefoot. For some reason it made Andrea so happy, the fact that her mother went about without shoes. She looked at her mother’s mouth to see if there was a smile there, to see if the lips were turned up rather than down.
Her mother nodded toward the tap.
“Wash your hands before you have supper. And don’t use too much water.”
“They’re not dirty.”
Her mother took both her hands in her own, turned them over and just shook her head.
“Not dirty? Really? Where have you been with those hands?”
“At the well.”
Her mother sighed, an almost soundless sigh. She could sigh with her eyes too when she rolled them, when the whites of them showed. She let go of Andrea’s hands.
“Why aren’t you with some of the other youngsters?”
She went to fetch the milk from the fridge. A blast of cold air poured into the room.
Andrea didn’t answer. The others? Why should she bother about them?
“Where have you been?” she asked instead.
“Just for a walk.”
Andrea went closer to her.
“Barefoot? Did Dad go barefoot too?”
Now her mother smiled at last. Her mouth grew, her face spread wide with smiling.
“No, silly. I took my shoes off when we came home. My feet get so swollen in the heat.”
Andrea looked down at them. She could see that her mother’s feet were swollen; they looked like dough, like wet yeast. The toes seemed far too small and the nail of one of them was completely yellow and almost grew right into the flesh. It was ugly.
Her mother stroked her cheek.
“Hurry up now. It’s late.”
Andrea took the bread and the milk jug out onto the balcony and sat down with her father. He wrote slowly in his notebook and then rubbed out a wrong calculation, blew away the remains and began again.
He was sunburned. Through his thin hair, when he sat bent over like that, she could see his scalp. It was pale red and uneven, dented, and on his forehead were flakes of dry skin which sometimes loosened and hung in the air, too light to fall.
“Everything’s on time so far,” he said.
Then her mother stood there in the entrance to the shadowy living room. She had put her shoes on again. Her mouth was small now.
“Hands,” she said. “You forgot to wash your hands.”
Andrea hurried into the kitchen, but before she turned the tap she smelled her fingers. The skin smelled dry and tight; she stuck her forefinger quickly into her mouth and licked it. It tasted almost as it smelled, and she thought of tar-tar and sunlight and great circles of hemp.
Then she let the water flow over her hands, the hands she suddenly believed were far too small, that seemed no longer here at all. She heard her mother climb the staircase to the upper floor and close the bedroom door behind her.
When Andrea went out onto the balcony again, her father hushed her before she’d said anything. She hadn’t actually been going to make a sound, as if she knew intuitively that she should be quiet. She just sat down as carefully as she could and drank a little milk, but she didn’t feel hungry. A wasp hung over the slice of bread that was spread with orange marmalade, its wings almost invisible, a golden point in the middle of an entire summer. She brushed it away with the back of her hand, quite unafraid, and glanced quickly at her father. He was listening. He sat there with his eyes shut and listened. His nose was red too, a red lump in his face. He might almost have been dreaming. But he was awake. He listened, impatient, his eyebrows occasionally rising and falling. Then he smiled, his mouth lifted, he opened his eyes and looked at his watch. Then Andrea heard it too, that noise that swelled and swelled on the other side of the fjord, which spread through the dry haze of that still, blue evening. Then they could see it, the plane that rose up from the runway, almost vertically, and Andrea felt a pull within her head and heart. She saw the passengers and stewardesses tumbling backward as the plane rose and rose until at last it finally swung, and for a time one wing shone, bright red, before the plane passed into the thin golden clouds to the south and vanished.
Her father started writing in his notebook.
“Last departure of the day,” he said. “DC-8 to Copenhagen. Eight minutes late.”
He stuck the pencil in his shirt pocket and looked up.
“That goes for you too, Andrea. Off to bed now.”
“Are you going up yourself now?”
Her father looked the other way.
“I’ll stay here for a bit yet. It’s such a lovely night.”
A yacht stood still right out in the middle of the fjord. The wind waited.
Andrea went up to her room. She poured some water from the jug into the washbasin, dipped her face into it and laughed, her mouth still underwater. Everything just frothed about her and she leaned her head backward, breathed out and listened. Nothing, not the slightest sound from her parents’ bedroom one wall away, one thin wall away, where her mother slept in silence alone in the double bed. Andrea only heard herself: her hands, her hair, her heart, her tongue. She brushed her teeth quickly, without using too much water. Then she undressed. The warm air flowed softly over her skin. There was no mirror in her room but she could see herself reflected in the window, caught between the light within and the dark without, so thin, so crooked and angular. Andrea was in between, on a thin piece of glass.
She didn’t get to sleep before her father had gone to bed. He came upstairs and went into their room. Now her mother too was awake. Andrea could hear them through the thin wall; her father as he pushed his slippers neatly under the bed, her mother as she lit a cigarette and coughed.
“Sometimes I just want to get away from everything,” she said.
His voice was far away.
“Don’t talk like that. Please.”
“Don’t talk like that. You and your pathetic planes. Don’t you understand anything?”
Then all fell quiet. There was no more to be heard. The house lay in silence within its walls. Andrea slept lightly. She dreamed of heaven, of whether one could touch it if one rose high enough and were to lay one’s palms against its blue. Of whether it was cold as a skating rink, all strewn with stars, or warm as the ring of a cooker that God had forgotten to switch off. Then she fell into a plane where she was all alone.
All of a sudden her father was there in her room. It was still dark. He leaned over her.
“Have you been playing with the fire rope, Andrea?”
She drew in her feet.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Where is it?”
“Beside the well.”
He shook his head and went quickly toward the door. He turned round.
“What if the house went on fire? What would we do?”
Andrea shut her eyes. She heard her father walking through the grass. When he came back each step he took was heavy and he breathed deeply. Then all those sounds were gone again, as if nothing at all had happened. Andrea neither slept nor was completely awake; she was somewhere in between, in the same way that she’d seen herself in the window where the light and the dark met. And as she sank toward sleep, ever deeper and deeper, she thought of what her father had said-what if the house went on fire? Tomorrow she would leave the rope by the well again, hidden in the tall bracken behind the stump, and if the fire started on the stairs they wouldn’t get out. Her father would run over to the window and find the hook bare, and her mother would shriek and try to trample the flames with her naked, swollen feet.
Andrea woke up, roused by angst and shame.
On one such night she went into her parents’ room. They were asleep and their faces were full of peace. They lay there like two strangers, on their respective sides of the bed, in their respective dreams. Were they smiling in their sleep? Or were they just pretending they were asleep? Her mother’s fingers were golden. Ash lay scattered about from her bedside table. Andrea put her hand gently on her father’s red forehead, and slowly he moved away from it. She saw that the fire rope hung where it was supposed to be on its hook by the window.
On the following day she was back at the quay, early enough to catch sight of Prince away in near the lighthouse in a wave of heat. The boys lay on rock ledges and sunbathed down beneath the bathing hut, their feet in the seaweed. The water dried on their smooth, brown skin until they got up and raced to the diving board and plunged in, one after another, laughing. Andrea sat by the bollard and waited. Her dream was so thin she almost didn’t notice it at all. Her shoulders began to burn. She’d got a midge bite just above her knee. She decided she wouldn’t scratch it. And suddenly she realized she wanted Buffalo to miss so that she could be the one who put the rope into place. With both hands she would lift the heavy rope that stank of tar and salt, and put it round the bollard, she and no one else. Andrea hoped that Buffalo’s aim would be successful and she wished that he might miss.
She heard someone calling. She thought at first it was one of the boys up on the rocks and had no wish to listen to them. But it wasn’t any of the boys. Prince was getting close and Buffalo was standing at the rail calling her. Andrea got up and moved out of the way. Then Buffalo threw out the rope; he swung the knot above his head, let go, and it landed over the bollard. Buffalo didn’t miss. He pulled and pulled again on the rope until Prince butted the fenders, the great tires that hung there, black wheels that expanded soundlessly in the sunlight.
A few people came ashore. Some went onboard. An old lady with a parasol had to be supported by the ticket collector. The ice-cream man pulled his hat down over his ears and ate a nut ice. The captain polished his sunglasses with a white handkerchief.
And Buffalo leaned over the railing, slapped the rope three times and looked at Andrea. She laid her hand quickly on the rope and it shook, she felt the reverberation through her whole body and under her feet.
“Hi,” Buffalo said.
Andrea went still closer, carefully, didn’t say anything.
“You’re here today as well then?”
Buffalo was smiling.
“Why aren’t you off swimming?”
“I can’t swim.”
Buffalo wiped the back of his hand across his forehead as he always did, and his forehead was quite white, unlike the rest of his face that was chestnut, like old leather. It was said that Buffalo had walked barelegged right across America and back again. He had stayed with Indians and ridden buffaloes along great rivers. All this was boasted of Buffalo, and he had a blue tattoo on each arm and a scar under his left eye that resembled an anchor. Now he put both hands on the railing and they smelled just as she thought they would, but of something else too, of fruit perhaps, soft apples in the September grass.
“What’s your name?” Buffalo asked.
“Andrea,” she answered softly.
“Andrea. That’s a fine name. Never knew anyone called Andrea before.”
She looked up at him. He wasn’t making fun of her. He scratched under his eye as if he wanted to rub out the scar.
The ticket collector rang the ship’s bell; three short rings followed by three long.
“Don’t sit there again,” Buffalo said, pointing at the bollard.
He wasn’t annoyed. He’d simply said Don’t sit there again. Andrea nodded.
Then he loosened the rope, jerked his hand so that a judder went through it, and drew it in as Prince backed out into the water. Buffalo waved to her until the sun had made him invisible, or perhaps it was Andrea it was impossible to see where she stood there on Tangen quay in her thin white dress in the very heart of the light that July of 1964. She kept waving for a while, just to be sure. Then she ran homeward. Buffalo had seen her. Buffalo had spoken to her. Now he knew what she was called. Andrea. She called out her name as she ran. Andrea. I am Andrea.
Her parents had already finished their dinner. Her mother lay asleep on the divan in the living room. There was a pile of cold mackerel left in the kitchen. Andrea ate the cucumber salad instead, with her fingers, without having washed them first. She listened quietly to hear if her mother had woken up over in the shadowy corner of the room. Quiet, everything was quiet, still as gossamer. The milk in the fridge was sour. She drank some water from the tap instead and dried herself with her dress.
Then she sat with her father out on the balcony. He was waiting for the next plane to take off. He wore sunglasses and above his nose there was a piece of paper, which he’d torn out of a newspaper. Andrea leant closer. She could make out the cheapest bikinis of the season for only-the rest was gone. She leaned back quickly and tried hard not to laugh. Her father stopped writing for a moment, looked at her over his sunglasses.
“What’s so funny?”
Andrea shook her head.
A plane suddenly took off on the other side, a cloud of silver that rose in a great arc and came right over them, then vanished in the clouds to the east and left behind a low thunder. Her father checked the time and wrote in his notebook, his hand trembling slightly.
“The Caravelle to Stockholm,” he said. “Six minutes early. Amazing.”
He took off his sunglasses and rubbed his eyes. The piece of paper remained where it was for a moment, then dropped onto the table between them. His nose was peeling. His eyes were red. All of a sudden Andrea felt sorry for him.
“Are you going for a walk later?” she asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Don’t think so,” he said quietly. “Your mother isn’t feeling too good.”
“Is she ill?”
Now Andrea was whispering herself. Her father scratched his nose.
“No. It’s just . . .”
He fell silent, looked at his fingers, almost as if he’d forgotten what he was going to say.
“What were you doing up there at the well? With the fire rope?”
He looked at her.
“Throwing the rope?”
“Yes, onto the stump.”
“Isn’t that a funny game for a girl?”
Andrea said nothing.
“Wouldn’t you rather be with some of the others?”
“Aren’t I allowed to do it?” Andrea asked quickly.
“Of course, yes. Just so long as you hang the rope up again afterward. You don’t want us to have to jump out of the window if the house goes on fire, do you?”
“It won’t go on fire!”
Her father laughed.
“Of course not. I’m only joking . . . Quiet!”
Yet another plane took off and flew straight into the sunlight that streamed from the other side of the sky. He wrote in his notebook, in the columns of departure times and types of aircraft: DC-7, London. Andrea looked at his hands that were thin and pale, covered with fine, golden hair. Even his watch was too large for him, hung loose round his wrist.
“Guess how long the flight is from Copenhagen to Tehran?” he asked.
Andrea had no idea.
“Flying with SAS Coronado,” he went on. “Just guess.”
“Nine hours and ten minutes.”
Andrea went upstairs and sneaked into her parents’ room. The bed was made up now. The room smelled very clean and of tobacco. Her father’s brown slippers were lying beside the potty. A half-smoked cigarette lay in the ashtray on her mother’s bedside table. The filter was red with lipstick. The window was open and the curtains breathed slightly with a white restlessness. She struggled with the rope and took it out with her to the well. She stood there and threw it over and over again, that heavy knot in that small hand. She had to go closer to the stump and the earth swelled beneath her with great breakers. Almost everyone was already seasick, even the ice-cream man; all of them longed to reach dry land as soon as possible. Andrea kept throwing the rope and finally she did it and the knot encircled the stump, just as on that first day. She pulled for all she was worth and secured the rope tightly round the rusty iron ring on the cover for the well. She waited until all the new passengers had come onboard, then heard footsteps at her back-her mother. She was carrying a bucket and put it down in the grass. Andrea suddenly felt dizzy. She would like to have said that there was no more room, that they couldn’t take any more passengers, otherwise the boat would capsize. But she said nothing. Her mother sat on the stump and lit a cigarette. She took a deep drag, closed her eyes, and slowly breathed out smoke, there amid all that greenness.
Her mother opened her eyes and looked at her.
“Oh, Lord. Your dress is filthy!”
Andrea pretended she hadn’t heard. She loosened the rope from the handle. Her mother didn’t move from the stump.
“I’m talking to you, Andrea.”
Her name sounded so different when her mother spoke it; heavy, almost like a threat, a stone.
“I can easily wash it myself.”
Her mother sighed and smoke flowed from her mouth.
“What do you do down at the quayside every day?”
“Look at the boats.”
“All right. Just so long as you’re careful.”
Her mother said nothing for a time. A plane rose and disappeared into the southern skies. She stubbed out the cigarette under her shoe.
“I may go into town before you two.”
Andrea turned to face her.
“Don’t sit there again,” she said.
Her mother laughed abruptly. She suddenly looked stupid.
“Don’t sit there again.”
She got up slowly from the stump. The two of them stood there, just a few feet from each other, in silence. Andrea held the rope with both hands. Soon it would be dark. A cloud drifted through the branches of the birches. The bracken rustled. They could hear the fjord; the waves against the seaweed, the sound of their backwash.
At last Andrea’s mother lifted the bucket that lay on its side in the grass.
“Will you give me a hand, Andrea?”
Her mother went over to the well. Andrea hesitated a moment, then hurried after her. They shoved to one side the ancient wooden cover that was crawling with spiders and black, glistening beetles. Andrea leaned over the well mouth, stared down into its deep, almost green, shaft. The water level was low; she could just make out her reflection. Her mother wound down the bucket, whipped it round, and when it was full they hauled it up between them. Andrea felt a sinking in her stomach as they pulled the bucket up; she leaned so far over she could have fallen in now . . . She could have fallen in at any moment, down through the narrow shaft with its spiders and beetles, and nobody would have heard her when she landed. Together they pushed the lid back into place. Andrea felt cold.
“Shall I carry the bucket?” she asked.
“Take the fire rope instead.”
Andrea pulled it behind her through the grass. Her mother walked a couple of paces in front of her, didn’t spill so much as a drop from the bucket.
“Don’t use so much water from the tap,” she said. “We must try to save.”
Andrea caught up with her.
“Why are you leaving before us?”
Her mother stopped and picked up the bucket with her other hand.
“I’ve just something to sort out. We can talk about it some other time.”
Andrea’s father appeared on the doorstep by the kitchen. He gazed up at them, smoothed back his thin hair. Then he slowly turned and went inside again.
That night Andrea dreamed that there was no water left in the well. When she let down the bucket there was just a hollow dunt, over and over again, and the spring dribbled slime and rust whenever she went to drink from it. Afterward she dreamed that the fjord had gone dry and that Prince ran aground beyond the point and capsized among seaweed and empty shells.
She was awakened by the rain. The rain had come. She got up and ran over to the window. There was rain as far as her eyes could range, so heavy that the heather and the grass were afloat, and each and every leaf a green tongue in the downpour. Now she could wash her dress. Now she could drink just as much as she wanted. She got dressed quickly and went downstairs. There was nobody there. The living room table was set, the breakfast things hadn’t been cleared away. There was eggshell on the blue cloth. A crumpled napkin. She took a mouthful of cold coffee from her mother’s cup but couldn’t bring herself to swallow it. There was a newspaper on the floor. Had she slept in? Was it already late in the day? It didn’t matter as long as she still got to Prince in time. Maybe she could borrow an umbrella from her father, a big black gentleman’s umbrella? The sun was boring. Rain was magic. Rain was freedom. She could do what she liked. She could go through the rain till her dress was clean. But as she was about to hurry off out, her mother suddenly appeared in the doorway, blocking the way out onto the balcony.
“Where are you going?”
Andrea stopped and looked at her. She wasn’t wet. She must have been standing there the whole time under the awning.
“Down to the quay.”
Her mother smiled and came closer.
“Have you forgotten, Andrea?”
Andrea was suddenly frightened. She began backing away.
“What?” she whispered.
Now her father stood there too. His face was full of rain and his hair ran down in rats’ tails from his head. Her mother turned toward him and gave a laugh.
“She’s forgotten. And she was looking forward to it so much.”
Her father was shaking the rain from himself.
“You’d better remind her then.”
Her mother squatted in front of her, put her hands on her shoulders.
“You’re going to learn to swim. The class begins today.”
Andrea stared past her mother. Her father was drying his face with a handkerchief.
“It’s raining,” she said.
“That makes no difference. Go and get your suit.”
“It’s raining,” she repeated.
Her mother’s mouth showed that impatient curl and there was a sigh in her eyes.
“You’ll get wet anyway, won’t you? And you can borrow my big towel.”
Andrea bowed her head.
“I don’t want to,” she whispered.
“Don’t want to? You’ll be the only one who can’t swim. D’you want that?”
Andrea closed her eyes. She wouldn’t be there to meet Prince. Now Buffalo would have to throw the rope on his own. What if he missed?
“I can’t,” she said.
“Can’t? What d’you mean, you can’t?”
“I’ve just had breakfast.”
“You jolly well have not. Now come on, we’re going.”
Her mother carried the big bag with her bathing suit, her life jacket, the thermos, and the large towel. Her father walked alongside holding the umbrella over them, getting just as wet as before. He wanted to come too even though he never went to the beach-Andrea couldn’t remember him swimming a single time. Her mother walked with her arm in arm, as if she was scared Andrea might run off.
“Next year you’ll be able to get your swimming badge,” she said. “Just think of that!”
The others were there already. They stood shivering by the water’s edge, all shrunk into themselves, four girls and one boy huddled together, frozen blue shadows between the rain and the sea.
Then Andrea saw Prince glide past out there beyond all the rain. Buffalo leaned against the railing; he was wearing a green sou’wester and he couldn’t see her, of course. He didn’t see her because he couldn’t know she was there. Andrea was about to wave to him but changed her mind at the last moment, put her hand behind her back instead.
Her mother smiled down at her.
“D’you know any of them?”
Andrea shook her head. Prince disappeared round the side of the islet.
She had to change in the bathing hut. She took off her clothes slowly. There were names and hearts and arrows carved into the walls, and some of the words she only dared say in her head before she had to turn away, not wanting to look at any more. It smelled horrible in there, as it did in her parents’ room when they hadn’t aired it properly, or in the outdoor loo at night. On the floor lay an empty cigarette packet and a flattened beer top. Someone had left a diving mask behind. There was a crack in the glass; perhaps someone hadn’t wanted it any more and had just chucked it in there. Andrea drew the mask over her face and sat down over in the corner. She heard the shrill sound of a whistle; it sounded terribly far away.
The door opened. It was her mother.
“Are you coming?”
Andrea looked at her through the cracked visor. Her mother was a thin, lopsided fish on the seabed, her tall fin erect outside the cabin of a sunken galleon.
“Oh, Lord, what on earth are you doing?”
“I can’t get my life jacket on.”
Her mother dragged her onto her feet, ripped off the diving mask and pulled the life jacket tightly round her. Andrea felt the knot of it against her back, digging into her skin like a drawing pin.
She went down to the edge of the beach and stood at the very end of the line. Andrea was the oldest. They all glanced quickly at one another and tried to smile, with blue lips that had forgotten how to talk, that seemed to have disappeared into their mouths. All the parents stood on the jetty close by with thick jumpers, rainwear, gloves, boots and umbrellas. They smoked and drank coffee out of big mugs, and called out encouragingly, clapped and laughed. The peripatetic swimming instructor wore a yellow track suit that was visible under his see-through raincoat. From his neck there hung a whistle and in one hand he held a boat hook. Then he shoved them forward, one after the other, and Andrea felt the hook on her shoulders as they had to wade out into the water. The cold rose within her like an electric shock from feet to forehead. She could hear the instructor’s hoarse voice: In, get right in, you sissies, and all the laughter of the parents. Andrea lay on her front in the cold, gray water, and a wave hit her smack in the face. For a moment she couldn’t breathe and she flailed her arms about and kicked with her legs before realizing the water was still shallow, that it barely reached her knees. The life jacket was heavy and clammy against her body, and the knot burned into her back.
The swimming instructor squatted in the water and shouted through the rain:
“Deeper in! You’re not in your bathtub at home!”
He poked Andrea onto her front with the boat hook and pushed her toward the waves out past the diving board. Andrea closed her eyes and floated on her side, like a helpless bird. She imagined she heard an engine deep down in the water and she listened to it; its sound was strangely beautiful. She wanted to go further out still now, where they wouldn’t be able to reach her. She tried to push out with her feet and make an arrow of her hands. Then she felt the boat hook again, its tug under the cord of the life jacket, and she was dragged ashore. On dry land her mother bundled her into the towel and the other five were wrapped up in ones equally huge; five white faces that shook, that looked at each other again for just a moment as their mothers dried them so hard it hurt. Their fathers stood with their backs to them, smoking in the rain; they paid the swimming instructor for six lessons and he counted the money over and over again.
That was the way the days went that week, the week Andrea wasn’t on the quay when Prince docked. It kept on raining; the life jacket got heavier, the knot tighter and tighter, and the water felt colder than ever. The boy was the first to give up. No one said a word as he crawled ashore, got his things and went off, his life jacket in his hand. He walked hunched, his neck white, thinner than glass, all alone. Their parents had lost interest in the end and stopped coming; they had other things to do, and soon it was just the peripatetic swimming instructor who was left standing on the jetty. He grew impatient and bad-tempered; he barked at them, smoked an ever-increasing stream of cigarettes and dunted them so violently with the boat hook that they all but went under. When Andrea went to bed at night she had bruises on her skin and a deep dent from the knot of the life jacket in the small of her back, just where it was almost impossible to reach with her hand.
On the final day the swimming instructor climbed down from the jetty, took off his shoes and socks, turned up the legs of his pants, and jumped into the water, using the boat hook as a support.
“Right, off with your life jackets!” he shouted. “Now for the real thing!”
They had to help each other undo the knots. It was still raining; it had never stopped and their fingers were soft and white and wrinkled, like blotting paper. They fumbled and shivered as they stood there, all but naked, and then the instructor blew his whistle and they jumped, one after another, out into the hard water, and they floated, they floated after all. Andrea managed four strokes, then she had to let her feet sink again to the bottom and she pretended to swim as she just tiptoed over the shore between shells, seaweed and stones. One final time she felt the boat hook dunting her, dragging her, bruising her.
“Get your legs up, you little cheat! You don’t fool me!”
Andrea stood up instead and waded past him. He tried to stop her, but she shoved the boat hook back at him and he lost his balance, fell backward with a great splash. Andrea got her clothes and towel and went up to the house without looking round a single time.
Her father was sitting on the balcony in his waterproofs. The wicker chair was empty and her mother’s bathing suit was gone. Andrea waited. Her father looked down at his notes; the lined pages were all blotted.
“Lots of delays,” he whispered. “It’s the weather, of course. Difficult conditions.”
“In her room. Don’t disturb her.”
Her father sharpened his pencil until it broke. Then he started all over again.
“Do we have any tar?” Andrea asked.
“Tar? In the shed, maybe.”
He looked at her for a moment and a smile spread across his face.
“Have you learned to swim then?”
He bent over his notebook again as the sound of a plane sank through the clouds. Andrea hung her life jacket over the wicker chair and went upstairs, stopped outside her parents’ room. She heard footsteps going back and forth across the floor. She bent down and peeked through the keyhole. Her mother was packing a case. She smoothed a green dress and carefully put it in. She fetched three pairs of shoes, put them in small bags, and placed them on top. Finally she stuffed her faded bathing suit into a corner of the case, but immediately changed her mind and brought it out again, shoved it into the wastepaper basket by the basin. She took a quick drag from the cigarette that lay in the ashtray, pressed down the cover of the suitcase and clicked it shut. Then she sat down on the bed to finish her cigarette.
Andrea didn’t dare go in, she didn’t dare fetch the fire rope. She could tar it tomorrow; tomorrow she could do it after she’d been to see Buffalo. Instead Andrea went to lie down, even though it was still early, about midday or thereabouts. If they came and asked why she was lying down she would say that she was ill, that she’d got fever from standing a whole week in that cold water. She could say she had a sore back, and she only had to show them all the bruises from the boat hook. But no one came at all. She could hear nothing but the rain, the never-ending rain against the roof and on the window and in the trees. Then she went to sleep nonetheless.
She woke up because she’d been sitting up in bed. She’d said the words aloud, the words she’d read in the bathing hut, the words the boys had carved into the walls with a knife or perhaps with a piece of glass. She hid her face in the comforter; had anyone heard her? Everything was still-it wasn’t raining. She pushed back the comforter. Perhaps she’d only said them inside her head, those other words? Suddenly she saw that there was a parcel lying on her bedside table. She tore off the paper and found a small box inside. Inside the box was a watch. A Certina, with a red, braided nylon strap. There were letters engraved on the square clock face and Andrea read them, one after the other, individually-waterproof. She didn’t understand what the letters made up, nor did she know why she’d been given a present. It was just an ordinary day, the third of August, 1964, and the time was twelve minutes past ten.
She fastened the watch and ran downstairs. Her father wasn’t on the patio; only his notebook lay there, its pages sodden and illegible. She couldn’t hear her mother anywhere either. Andrea called softly but no one appeared, no one answered. She waited for a time. The air was cold and clear; she could count the needles on the pine tree by the flagpole. A jagged edge of breeze blackened the fjord, making the waves choppy. Then she couldn’t wait another moment. It was twenty-five to eleven. She put on an old jacket, buttoned it all the way up, and went off down to the quayside. She had no need to run now that she had a watch.
And Andrea saw Buffalo on deck, the rope in his hand, as Prince glided in toward the quay. Buffalo threw the rope, and the heavy smell of tar spread through the air, and Buffalo didn’t miss. Andrea went over toward him as he was tying up. The rope creaked. Buffalo looked up. He was wearing a scarf and gloves.
“Hi, Andrea. Where have you been then?”
He hadn’t forgotten her.
More passengers went onboard then came ashore. Soon it would be autumn. The ice-cream man stood with his back to them.
“Why do you tar the rope?” Andrea asked.
“So that it won’t fall to bits,” Buffalo answered.
The ticket collector rang the ship’s bell.
Buffalo looked at her again.
“So did you learn to swim?”
Buffalo laughed and loosened the rope.
“Either you can swim, Andrea. Or else you can’t.”
Once more the rope danced as the knot rose from the bollard and Buffalo drew it in and up over the side. Prince backed out into the water and Buffalo waved. She waved back, but something made her turn round, perhaps because the ticket collector had opened up the little gate to the gangway again. Andrea turned round and heard her the same instant she saw her: her mother coming down the road, trying to run, the case banging against her hip as she waved with the other arm and called out. Andrea saw everything; her mother trying to reach the boat, the empty diving board, Buffalo rolling up the rope as each circle became smaller and smaller. She saw Prince turn, heard her mother’s calling and the laughter that came from the bathing hut. Andrea ran to the shelter on the quay and hid there, squatted behind the mailboxes. Her mother hadn’t seen her. Now her mother had stopped right at the edge of the quay; she’d put down her case and was standing there getting her breath back. She had sunglasses on. It was four minutes past eleven. Everything was made ready for docking. Buffalo raised his arm and took aim, but for a second he hesitated because he looked at Andrea instead of at the bollard, and when he threw the rope he let go too soon and missed. Andrea got up, hesitated, but had already made up her mind, and what followed no one quite dares say exactly, for all of it happened so fast. The ticket collector maintained that Buffalo tripped on the rope, and the captain reckoned he just slipped, for the deck was wet after a whole week’s rain. The ice-cream man has still not said a word.
At any rate Andrea leaped forward to put the knot in place. She had to sort things out because Buffalo had missed. Her mother turned toward her in astonishment and cried out before anything had even happened. As Andrea bent down to lift the rope, Buffalo pulled it toward him, and Andrea didn’t let go because she was going to fasten the knot herself. She was pulled with it and fell into the sea, down into the black swirling foam beneath the fenders and the ferry.
They dragged the fjord for Andrea for five days. Buffalo went onto dry land for good and he carries a rope with him across beaches and over rocks. Shutters are nailed over the windows of the holiday house. A suitcase stands on Tangen quay. And somewhere, deep in the fjord, time keeps on flowing.
From The Jealous Hairdresser, published 1997 by Cappelan. By permission of the publisher.