And our house is down there too. See it, down there? There, just behind the school, there, I say pointing, but nobody answers, and when I stop talking I can hear only the sound of air around me, wind, it’s blustery and I zip up my jacket, peer over the edge, it’s a long way down, and there below me the lights have come on, and I turn up the gas so that the balloon keeps rising, it’s not snowing, I am on the way up, the snow has stopped and below me, down there, is the motorway.
And I am vanishing.
It’s fifty years, ten months, and six days since I met you down there, I was sitting outside the Cathedral School and you came out of one of those doors there, in the spring, 1948, it was so sunny, you had so many friends, I sauntered across the schoolyard, it was a different world then, do you remember, even the trash cans were different, the garbagemen more cheerful, they were different times, there were different sounds that came through the window on summer mornings at the log cabin in Hommersåk, there were days, there were evenings, and you had your friends with you, and I played a bit of guitar, because that’s what one did, I played the guitar for you, the three songs I knew for you, and you sang, sat on the terrace and sang, and the world sang back to you. I’m standing in the hot-air balloon now and I’m rising, rising up toward you and you are someplace up there, standing there smiling, they were good years, and somewhere or other down there we lived our lives, and of course our feelings were complicated at times, dinner plates thrown at walls, kids who cried, who had to be driven to soccer club, there was band practice and Constitution Day, trips every Sunday, pancakes on Tuesdays and I often needed time to myself, but I don’t need that any more, and they were good days down there and I look out over the basket, look down, over the city, and as I rise I look back down on where I’ve come from, and now I’m coming up to you and up here is where you’re to be found, and we had a nice house, a nice brick house with a white fence and a garden with moss in the lawn and deckchairs from April till September and lawnmowers which roared across the neighborhood. I loved you so much, you remember? I still do.
You are vanishing.
I am vanishing.
The kids are vanishing.
I miss you. You’re dead now, it’s been four weeks and it’s so empty at home, I just go around dusting, shifting papers, getting nothing done, I just end up sitting in the chair and looking out of the window, and the windows should have been cleaned, but I can’t find the thing you used to use, what’s it called, a squeegee, no, that’s what we used in the shower, wasn’t it? So the windows stay as they are, the rain will probably wash away the worst, or the kids will do it, because now I’m on my way up, I am, I am on my way, my fantastic, beautiful fellow being, I am on my way up to you, do you see, here I come, and there is nothing I miss down there, there is nothing I regret, does that make sense?, that I would do it all the same again, regardless, and now I am coming as well, if you are ready, have you saved me a seat, I don’t have so many things with me, a small suitcase, shaving things, a couple of shirts, and I watered the flowers in the garden yesterday, so they’ll be all right for a few days, won’t they?
Hello there, people, I am vanishing.
Everyone is vanishing.
We will all be forgotten and we will all be remembered, and our children and our neighbor’s children will remember us and our names, but not everything we did, but a little of who we were, and we shall also be forgotten for who we were, but our names will live on, and we are to be found someplace down there, fingerprints on trees. We have existed, we have been here and we have left our mark on everything, we have been here and now we are gone and our kids stand down there looking up and getting stiff necks and then they go home and sleep with their wives and their husbands and then they have children and then they vanish, and that’s how it will continue forever, people whom we can love are born all the time. All the time. And up here all is well, hello, hello, down there, I shout it out over the basket’s edge and the balloon rises and I see the streets down there, the cars, it is dark, but there is light coming from the streetlamps and the cars on their way home or to secret lovers and wives and husbands and children, and I hear the sound of doors being opened and people embracing, I hear the sound of presents being opened and I hear the sound of ambulances on their way to rescue less fortunate souls and I see the tower blocks below and there are people living everywhere, and some of them we loved and some of them we hated, and we had a big house and many parties and on Sundays there were many glasses left with lipstick on the rims, and we washed them up when we got back from our walks, and the children sat in the living room with their Wellingtons on, and we covered the whole of Europe in the eighties, and we have existed down there and we have left tracks behind us, I am happy with that, aren’t you? And I pull the line, so that the balloon turns to one side, I swing to the left and empty some boxes of photographs of us over the basket’s edge and the pictures flutter down toward the earth and I am rising, I become aware of the air getting thinner, and the pictures of us are scattering themselves over the whole town and someone will find them, pick them up, take them home and wonder who we were, wonder who it was that dropped these photographs of themselves over the whole town, and it’ll be written about in the Stavanger Evening Post, a news story, a serial, and we will come to be remembered for the pictures of us, and I’ve only chosen pictures where I’m holding you, or where you’re smiling, we are vanishing, and soon I will be with you, I’m on my way up, to you, and I am thinking of our fellow beings.
It was the summer of 1962, the year war almost broke out and the kids started school, we moved into the new house and you stood in the kitchen and hung up the curtains, new white curtains in the big windows and you wanted more children, and I said I thought we might be able to arrange that, and we had friends and we had children, and we had hellish times and quarreling, and I know not everything was great, I know there were letters from you to me, about things you couldn’t bring yourself to talk about, I know there were days we each had our suitcases standing in the hallway, on standby, but neither of us left, we couldn’t, and I was so angry with you, and you didn’t talk to me for a week, and I thought about leaving, but I didn’t know what I’d do with myself, but I just wanted to go, and I can’t remember why I was so angry, but that was the year I joined the balloon club, you remember?, but what you don’t know is that I bought a balloon that year, yes, I bought a whole hot-air balloon, the very one I am standing in now as I empty our photographs overboard and rise and rise, the air is thin and I am on my way up, toward you, to you, my fellow being.
It was Oskar who set up the balloon for me, he’d been doing it for ages, and he knew what I needed, but I couldn’t talk to you about it, you would probably have talked me out of it, so we didn’t go fishing that weekend, we went to Sweden and bought the balloon, the basket, gas tanks, everything necessary, and I hid it all down in the cellar, the folded balloon and the basket laid together, everything stayed down there in the innermost room for thirty-six years and this morning I unlocked the room, this morning I went in and fetched it all out, pulled it out with me onto the lawn, this day, in February, and I was worried that the equipment might not work, but it did, and Oskar came over to help, and we loaded everything onto his truck, we drove out to the old soccer grounds and he helped me rig the burner on the basket, fill the balloon with gas, attach the lines, he did most of it, I stood and watched him, helped him when he asked, and well into the evening the balloon had started to point upward, Oskar and I sat on the back of the truck, drank a bottle of wine he’d brought, we talked about everything that had been, and we looked at the old pictures I’d dug out and begun to put in the boxes I was going to take, and then we stood there, with the balloon, we smoked a cigarette and talked a little, not about anything important, just chat, and I climbed into the basket and Oskar went over the most important things with me, it was so long since I’d even seen the balloon, I’d forgotten all of it, but he explained everything, showed me how to open and close the valve, how to adjust the height, he told me everything he knew, the morning and the evening are the best times to fly, he said, and then he began to loosen the moorings, and I got the last box of photographs on board, and one of the kitchen chairs, and the suitcase, I put the little leather suitcase between my legs, and I turned the gas up, and Oskar let the moorings go, it was almost night already and he said good-bye, and I said good-bye and then he vanished below me, he stood and smiled up to me and waved. Oskar. And now here I am, here, right up here, and it is beginning to get cold, the air has begun to get thinner, but it has stopped snowing, and I can see the whole town, the lights.
Aurora. You. You, fellow being, wife, how I loved you, dear God, how I have missed the sound of your coming down the stairs in the evening, the smell of you, it has begun to disappear from the house, from your dresses, from your things in the bathroom, from all the rooms, from the bedclothes, which I had to wash in the end, I inhaled the final traces of you from the chairs we had sat in.
I was seventy-two last week. Did you remember me then? Did you think of me then? I blew out the candles alone. All seventy-two. I bought myself a cake down in the shop, sat in your chair, ate the cake, straight from the dish. I watched a program on TV, cried, waited for you to come in through the door with a parcel for me, for you to say, “I hadn’t forgotten you, I just had to go away for a while.” When I went to bed, the sheets were cold and they smelled of fabric conditioner. The balloon is rising.
But Olav did stop by, with Hilde and Kjersti, they’d knitted a pullover for me, in red, I had to put it on straightaway, not a bad fit, very nice, and I am wearing it now. It says Granddad on the chest, in white. With uneven letters, and loose threads that dangle over my trousers. Marianne rang later in the evening, she apologized, she had to stay at work, it was a live broadcast, but I never found the channel.
I am vanishing. And I empty the photographs out of their boxes, because it has stopped snowing.
To have done your bit. Given the kids a good start, summer holidays in the car and a hand to hold, worked for years on end, cut the garden lawn in the summer. Decorated Christmas trees. Voted for and against the EEC, EU, to have done your bit, and then to walk into your living room one morning, after your wife has died and there is only you left, one morning, and you go down the stairs, you go into the kitchen, a whispering symphony of slippers over the floor, you put the coffee on, you sit in a chair. You wait. And nothing happens.
Growing old together with you. I had made so many plans, I wondered if we might decorate the living room, put new windows in, bigger ones, make the room lighter, change the curtains, they must have been nearly twenty years old, I had booked tickets for Hawaii, Honolulu, for Easter, I never said anything, it was meant to be a surprise, but then you fell ill, quite suddenly, you don’t remember perhaps, but I woke up one night and you weren’t in my bed, and I shouted to you from the bed, but you didn’t answer, do you remember? And I was so frightened for you, Aurora, and I got up, went onto the landing, shouted out to you, went down the stairs, into the kitchen, and there you lay, on the floor, quite still, you had fallen down in the middle of the floor, I don’t know why you came down here, you were just lying here, and I talked to you, called your name a hundred times, and then you came back, sat up, drank a bit of water, and I rang Olav, woke him up, and Olav came and drove us to the hospital, you sat in the back seat with me, you said nothing, just sat there, staring straight ahead and you put your hand in my lap and Olav drove us to the hospital, and I stayed with you that night, they put an extra bed in, and I stayed with you that night, but you won’t remember that, you slept the whole time, and they told me that it wasn’t certain that they would be able to find out what was wrong, but they wanted to keep you in for a few days just to be on the safe side, and I took the bus home later that morning, I stopped at the shop on the way home, bought dinner, some meatballs, I couldn’t bring myself to cook them, so I ate some crispbreads instead and you died on the other side of town, just as I put the pot of jam back in the fridge and closed the door, you were gone.
That evening, that first evening alone, and the house is so unbearably large, the rooms grow and the hall stretches on, I sit in the chair and try to watch the evening news, to act as if everything is normal, and Olav is working overtime, and Marianne is in New York, and there is no one who can come, and I am tired, but don’t want to go to bed, so I keep myself awake as long as I can, until I fall asleep in the chair. I wake up in the middle of the night, I go into our bedroom, take off my clothes, put my socks over the chair, lie down under the duvet and wait for you to come in from the bathroom, but the door stays closed. I wake every half hour. I’ve got a headache and I’m thirsty.
The morning after I sit at the desk up in the loft, and write the text which will go in the paper, and it says that you were sixty-nine years old and that you died peacefully in your sleep and that you were loved. It says that the ceremony will be concluded at the grave. I go in and see you one last time, your cheek is cold, and there’s a lot to organize. I let Marianne and Olav draw lots for the tickets to Hawaii and Marianne wins. It’s a good funeral, on the Tuesday after, you get to be laid next to Lars Hertervig, and Marianne plants a little tree, some kind of herb tree, I think, but I’m not quite sure, and then we are back home, me, Marianne, Olav, and Hilde and Kjersti who wonder where Grandma is, and Olav points out of the window, but otherwise everything is quiet and I hear the sound of biscuits being eaten and the soft sound of the thermos being opened and coffee being poured into the cups for those of your friends still living, and they sit in our chairs, in our sofa. And Oskar. Oskar goes into the kitchen to make more coffee.
I am vanishing. It’s nothing to feel sad about. The whole time people are born whom we can love. The whole time.
It has begun to get cold up here. The air feels thinner, but I do not know if this is really the case or whether it’s my imagination, expectations, I don’t even know how high I am, but I open my jacket, put on another pullover from the suitcase under the chair, button up my jacket again and turn up the gas so that the balloon rises faster, and I sit on the chair. Sometimes I dreamed of you, yes, quite often. I dreamed of the summers at your parents’ log cabin with your friends, dreamed that you said no to me at the church on the day we were married, seventh of July 1953, I dreamed of you, you stood in the door of our bedroom, you had come back, you were dead, and I could not talk to you. I lay in the room with my eyes wide open, breathed in the smell of you. I know there weren’t only good days, of course there were times once in a while I was on the verge of hating you, just as you came close to doing, or perhaps there were some days when you did hate me, of course I knew you were sitting there crying in the laundry room, and I cut down the whole hedge before coming in to get you. I know that. But none of it is important.
The spring of ’48. Do you remember the Cathedral School, the white buildings, the benches, the avenue of trees and between them the stone paving? I sat on the bench and studied geography or the periodic table and you came out from one of the doors, with your friends? Do you remember that? Do you remember what happened next? How I taught you to dive at Vaulenstranden Beach, even though the water was cold? I remember it well, I stood behind you on the diving board and lifted your arms up so that you would enter the water with the least resistance. And I got to hold you, and afterward I was allowed to come with you all to barbecue sausages on the rocks by the shore, and I smoked out the mosquitoes, tapped my pipe out against the rocks, and stayed behind when you all cycled home, wandered about a bit, swam, caught jellyfish and laid them out on the jetty to dry. Went home to bed, didn’t sleep a wink. Did it ever occur to you that I never achieved very much on my own? When I was alone?
I am rising, rising quickly, and I am sitting on the chair in my basket, and it’s swinging from side to side, it’s night and overcast now, I am on my way up, I am vanishing and there is nothing I regret, I have everything I need and I miss you terribly and I hope you are there now.
Please be there.
Aurora. Mother found it hard to pronounce your name at first. Arr-a-ra, she said. Arr-a-ra. I practiced it with her the morning you came to lunch with us, and when she opened the door for you, standing there with her motherly apron and the wafting smell of food, didn’t she say hello Aurora, do come in and join us?
And everyone will be forgotten and everyone will be remembered and the names live on jubilantly, amid the crowds, and I stretch out my arm, turn up the gas till the tap will go no further, the balloon rises, I look out over the edge and there’s our house too, there, down there, next to the school, can you see it?, I say. But no one answers, and I am breathing in the thin air, and it starts to get difficult, I am high up, I do not know how high, but higher than is possible and I think what a beautiful being you are, and I throw the chair overboard to gain extra lift, I watch it sail down, turn and land in the water. And then I am gone.
First published in Ambulanse (Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, 2002). By arrangement with Gyldendal Norsk Forlag. Translation copyright 2004 by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik. All rights reserved.