I’ve had a lot of time lately, and I’ve been thinking about the King and Queen. They were Crown Prince and Princess then, of course, but what if they hadn’t had a son second time around? Would they have just had to keep going? There’s got to be a boy after all, hasn’t there, a future king? Imagine the Crown Princess after giving birth eight times, after the eighth girl she’d have looked totally exhausted.
That’s how things were for Ellen anyway. Ellen Bergkvist; Junk Billy’s wife. Women that have loads of kids tend to get a bit blowsy. It gets more and more difficult to shed the extra pounds each time. With Ellen it was the exact opposite. She ended up looking like an X-ray of herself. A pile of bones with a scrap of black material draped round them. I swear! If she’d stood behind any average sized pine tree, she’d have vanished.
Rakel arrived in July 1973, Leah April 1974, Sara February 1975, Maria May 1976, and Rebekka December 1977. Then a few years passed during which Billy and Ellen didn’t have any more kids, and people in Skogli started to breath a sigh of relief on her behalf. They thought Willy had finally come to his senses and realized that’s how things are sometimes, that some folk only get girls—or boys.
As I grew older I’d sometimes hear the men boast that it was only good lovers that had daughters. Well, if simple and uncomplicated equates with good, perhaps that goes some way to explaining all of Ellen and Billy’s daughters. I’d only just turned twelve—it was early June—and my father had sent me over to Junk Billy’s to find out if he had a dynamo for our Volvo 142. I took the short cut by the railway tracks and climbed over the fence at the back of the old closed-down ski factory that Billy Bergkvist had purchased and transformed into a workshop and junkyard. Although transformed is scarcely the right word, as Billy hadn’t done much more outside than put all his old scrap motors there, the ones he’d previously had stacked up next to his house. And the summer of 1979 was the first year—within my lifetime—that it had been actually possible to see that the Bergkvist’s house had a ground floor at all. You’ve probably seen those pictures of tall mountains, where the clouds lie like a white wreath of hair around the peak, that’s exactly how it was with Junk Billy’s house, except in this case, the clouds had slipped to the foot of the mountain. In time as the girls and I all grew older, I wished the wrecks had been left where they were, but I’m running ahead of myself now. I was about to tell you about the dynamo.
At the back of the factory stood three giant concrete manhole rings. They’d lain there for years, and us kids used to play in them. The rings were rolled close in to each other like half an Olympic symbol, and that day I’d only just crept inside the middle one, when I saw Billy and Ellen right in front of me, next to a rusty, old Anglia. Billy shoved Ellen away from him slightly, like in the detective films on the telly, so she was standing there, her legs parted and her hands on the bonnet. Then Billy pulled her long skirt up over her, rather like when an umbrella’s turned inside out. Then he fiddled a bit with his fly, and he was off. His movements put me in mind of when Granddad tried to get going on a bike. No longer quite as supple in his knees or ankles, and always having a spot of bother getting a proper seat. Then it was just to chug ahead. That’s what Junk Billy was like. After a couple of thrusts, he pulled out a cotton-wipe and dried himself off, before letting his wife’s skirt drop down over her again. The thing that made the biggest impression on me wasn’t how mechanical it all was, how quickly it was over, or that she didn’t wear knickers. No, what I remember most are Ellen’s legs. They were the same color as a birch tree in spring. You know, before the snow’s melted and the trunk isn’t dirtied or stained with dust and pollen yet, but shines so white you have to look away when the sun hits the bark.
Ellen Bergkvist always wore long skirts and loose golfing jackets, as though she wanted to cover herself up as much as possible. That must have been what made me feel so detached from what I saw. I’d already started fantasizing about the mothers of several boys in my class, and all this baring of naked female flesh, ought to have got me tugging at my fly. But I failed to feel any excitement over Ellen Bergkvist, even though she was the first woman I’d seen naked, or at least partly naked.
I don’t remember if I actually succeeded in buying a dynamo for the Volvo that day, and I don’t know if that was when Ellen got pregnant again, but Naomi was born in the beginning of March 1980. Folk began to say they hoped Ellen was putting pebbles in her wellies as she went out in the terrible autumn winds that year. Her skirt and jacket would flap about her like a torn sail, and on sunny days her shadow would trail behind her like a cow’s tail. There were those in Skogli who, fired by the first International Women’s Day, suggested the village should organize a petition against Junk Billy —but for or against what? The petition therefore, to the best of my knowledge, never got beyond the planning stage, feminism was the preoccupation of the few, and most Skogli folks were of the opinion that the women demonstrating on March 8th, weren’t proper women anyway. As to Billy, he hadn’t done anything against the law, quite the opposite, he kept to the woman he married, and nobody thought he was violent, even if he could probably be a bit over-insistent.
Of course the simplest thing would have been if folk had stopped taking their cars to him, but even if some of villagers did think Billy was a beast he was still quicker, cheaper and generally superior to the mechanics in Kongsvinger. So Junk Billy went on changing clutches and head gaskets, straightening dents and fixing new exhausts, and all the while dreaming of adding and son to his name on the sign over his entrance.
It was Ruth and Esther that did it, the twins, born in April 1981. Ellen was never the same after their arrival. Not that she looked any skinnier than over the last few years, nor that her health seemed any the worse, but she started to talk to herself when she was out and about. When folk stopped to ask how she was, Ellen would start singing “What a friend we have in Jesus” or “Just as I am” or other songs of the sort. Then, on the day before Midsummer, she simply disappeared. When Junk Billy was woken by the sound of the twins’ screaming, the bed was empty on her side, which it continued to be until the beginning of the cray-fishing season. After that too, of course, but at least Billy no longer had to wonder what had become of her. A couple of lads from Overgrenda were the ones to find her, in the deepest part of the Baklengs River. She’d tied two wheel rims round her ankles, and virtually crucified herself to the countershaft of an old Volvo.
There were those who claimed Junk Billy polished the rust off the wheel rims afterward and sold them for a fiver apiece. I don’t think it was true, but he certainly didn’t cut back on his work. In those early days, after they’d first found Ellen, I thought that every blow he brought down with his plate-hammer was a way of trying to beat the pain flat.
That winter the first home-help arrived at the Bergkvists’, but she stayed no more than a couple of months, and that was the pattern of things to come. I don’t know if it was just that Billy’s needs were as great as ever, or if it was just habit, or if he still dreamed of painting those two words after his name on the sign above his entrance. Whatever the case, he continued to lift the skirts and dresses of all the women who came to help him raise the girls, though I don’t think he got much use of the cotton-wipes. Girls from the North and from Kongsvinger, a couple of Swedes and even a Pole, old as well as young; none of them stayed long enough to make much impression on Skogli before they were off again. Gradually, as his daughters grew up and the eldest got big enough to look after the youngest, Junk Billy stopped hiring home-helps to raise them, and that is how my problems began, or the start of my problems, I might say.
Like so many lads from the forest, the oceans beckoned. In truth the difference between the two isn’t so great, there’s that same billowing sensation. You get to feel equally small whether it’s experiencing an autumn storm tear through the forest like a frothing ocean swell, or watching gigantic waves crash like falling trees on the ship’s deck. Although there’s more weather on the ocean, that’s for certain—and more often too. I suppose that’s why the old Skogli seadogs are forever drawn to water. Before the ice on Baklengs River starts to melt, and when the opening in the frozen lake is no bigger than a bathtub, you’ll see them sitting in their cars, engines running, scouting for the first signs of spring. Gradually as the sun starts to get a hold, and the ice begins to crumble, they bring out their deckchairs, wrap themselves up in their thickest outdoor clothes and settle comfortably down, steel thermoses in their laps, like needles on compasses. When summer arrives, they bring out those floral patterned swim-trunks that have succeeded in going out of fashion and coming back in again, several times over since they were new. And so they sit there for hours in the shade of the spruce trees scowling at the day, under caps that bear the names of small American towns, familiar only to sailors. But you’ll never find them close to the water, even less in it. Those old seadogs put me in mind of Graaten, who after he’d given up drinking, would pop into the Old Town Hall Pub in Kongsvinger every single Friday to order a double whiskey. Sometimes it would take only fifteen minutes, usually an hour, sometimes two, before Graaten had glared at that glass sufficiently long, so as not to touch it. Then one Friday he didn’t turn up. He’d not left a letter or anything.
As for myself, I took to the oceans at about the time the wind started to go out of Norwegian shipping, for the Norwegian seamen at least. I’d not managed more than a couple of trips and a few tattoos—luckily, where I got these I can’t remember—nor why—before English suddenly became the language that we had to speak on board. All those underpaid Filipinos made us last remaining Norwegians stick out like oddballs, but I still managed to see Galveston and Baton Rouge, Singapore and Sydney, names that bring a lump to my throat even today. Places I guarantee I’d never have seen if I’d not been a sailor.
I succeeded in keeping myself afloat for a few more years after the bad times, or the new times, started, I’m still not sure what to call them. Anyhow, I worked on some cruise ships for a time, but that was appalling. Cramped cabins and passengers who thought they owned me, who snapped their fingers and expected us to come running, bowing and scraping, “Yes, Bwana” or “No, Massa.”
Then I got myself aboard some container ships, and my pay took another nosedive. Though it was still enough to get by on, and more. As soon as I’d stopped acting the drunken sailor each time we came into port, I managed to put a bit of money by, and at least start to consider the notion of getting myself an education: Maritime College, perhaps? Whatever it might take to keep me on the oceans. Then, in April last year I was standing there in the shipowner’s office in Durban trying to plan a future, when the phone call came that Mum was dead.
Those were the kinds of things I generally came home for, after I’d had my first engagement. Father had a stroke on my second trip, and my uncle died while I was away too. So the occasional Christmas and funeral were all I’d really seen of Skogli during the past twelve years, especially as after signing myself off I generally used to like traveling further in the countries I’d arrived in, keeping myself going as cheaply as possible while I waited for the next engagement. But I did come back once without its being Christmas, or anybody being carried off in a wooden box. About one and a half months before Mum died my kid brother, Finn, disappeared. It wasn’t that anybody followed his tracks down to the Baklengs River, or that his car had been suddenly found covered in blood. No, he just vanished. One morning he didn’t come down for breakfast, and when Mum went to check if he was too ill to go to work, his bed was empty and some of his clothes and a bag had gone. I went to the police with Mum and talked to his mates. I thought maybe he’d got himself involved with something, that he might owe folk money. I wasn’t naïve enough to believe everybody in Skogli was content with beer and spirits to get in the mood for the weekend. But none of Finn’s mates had noticed anything particular, apart from him being a bit quieter than usual perhaps.
When I had to leave again two weeks later, we still had no idea what had happened, but the day before I was about to travel, a letter arrived from the parking company at Gardermoen Airport to say that Finn’s car had been left in the short-stay parking lot for three weeks. When I was back aboard ship again, Mum called to tell me she’d had a postcard from Malaysia.
I’m fine. Need to get away a bit. Don’t worry.
That was all Finn wrote the first time. Then more postcards followed in similar telegram-style from Australia and New Zealand. In the end it looked like he’d simply continued in a straight line across the Pacific Ocean, because the next—and last—postcard Mum got was from Tierra del Fuego—The Land of Fire. So before making the journey home to bury her, I contacted the Norwegian Embassy in Santiago and placed announcements in the biggest papers there, in fact, I postponed the funeral for as long as I could, but Finn failed to show up.
So I had to follow my mother’s coffin to the grave alone, and it felt like the hole in the ground was in me, when the priest made the sign of the cross and crushed the lumps of earth over the lid or the coffin. When we’d laid Dad in the ground, I’d had both Mum and Finn, now my closest family consisted of a few cousins and an elderly great-aunt whom I only ever saw when somebody died.
So there I was, suddenly on my own in a house that was in pretty good decorative order. There was a bit of forest that came with it as well, and the property stretched a good distance up from Baklengs River. Last time I’d spoken to Finn we’d begun fantasizing how we’d divide some of the land into plots. After Junk Billy had moved all his old motors down to the ski factory, Mum and Dad’s farm had become one of the best locations in all of Skogli once more.
Still there wasn’t much I could do, leastways not much I felt I could do so long as Finn was away. I contacted the Salvation Army and wrote to all the Norwegian Seaman’s Churches, but eventually I started to suspect him of sending his greetings just as he left a place. Making him harder to track down.
I spent a lot of time brooding over what he was really up to and why he’d gone off. Wanderlust, perhaps, I had no problem relating to that, but it was his secrecy I couldn’t understand. Was it all some sort of kid-brother jealousy thing? Had Finn got fed up with all the gaudy postcards I’d sent him? Was this his way of taking revenge for all my: “The food is great, weather is good, wish you were here, Tom.” Perhaps. It was simply that Finn had never had an ounce of the seafarer in him, not one, I couldn’t imagine him taking to the oceans even if he were born when half Norway’s menfolk went to sea. When it came to things practical, Finn was always the one to stand at the back with his hands in his pockets. But when it came to computers–programming—the things that fill my head with a gigantic conchlike din, Finn was superb. He was earning at least £20,000 more than me a year, when he disappeared. I spoke to the blokes he worked with as well. They had no explanation for why he’d been in such a hurry to leave either.
For those first few weeks after Mum’s funeral it was all right being at home. I tidied the house, gave most of her clothes to the Salvation Army, painted the barn and changed the windowsill on the old pig house. When I was finished with what needed doing—or at least the things I thought needed doing—I started taking my brother’s BMW down into Kongsvinger. But folk my age were mostly at work or had moved out of town. There were limits to how rewarding I found it to sit in Café Mega with my hands round a cup of bitter coffee, studying the pensioners who sat glowering at the Kosovo Albanians in the smoking area. Two days after standing rather forlornly in front of the railway station in Kongsvinger, watching as the kids marched by on Constitution Day, banners aloft and cheering through the streets, I dropped in on Junk Billy and asked if he needed any assistance. Not that I was much of a mechanic, but I had two strong arms and thought I was averagely good with my hands. The pay wasn’t great—that’s for certain—in fact the money would have been pretty lousy even for a Filipino, but at least I had something to do while I was looking for Finn, or rather: while various organisations round the world tried to track my brother down.
There are moments when I regret not being a better time waster, or then again, perhaps regret isn’t the right word. Sometimes I wonder if things wouldn’t have turned out different if I’d been more laid back. Who knows, chances are things would have turned out exactly the same anyway.
Anyhow, Junk Billy hadn’t met anyone since Ellen went in the river. When the home-helps stopped turning up, I don’t know what he did—if anything—to get a woman permanently. It’s hard to believe a bloke that was used to getting his leg over whenever he pleased in his married life, would suddenly manage to suppress all those desires. Which was why someone suggested that Billy trawled the lonely-hearts columns in the papers on a daily basis, and flooded various newspaper offices with reference-marked envelopes on a weekly basis. If this was true, the response must have been pretty dismal, since nobody remembered ever seeing any lonely hearts visiting Billy’s.
Other villagers claimed that he regularly travelled into Oslo or over the border into Karlstad to buy himself love. And perhaps that was true, although I don’t necessarily think that makes a man a worse bloke if he can’t get womenfolk any other way. What I am certain of, however, is that Billy never tried it on with any of his girls. For a time the rumors caused the child protection agency to send psychologists with mummy and daddy dolls to talk to the girls, and educationalists with Dictaphones to record everything Billy said throughout prolonged and exhaustive interviews. Yet the eight Bergkvist sisters displayed disappointingly few—if any—behavioral problems, and although there was little doubt that Billy had hoped for a son when each was born, he loved his daughters and worked long, hard days. Besides which, things came easily to the girls, and all of them were at the top in their class. And neither was it just their grades that were impressive. No, even the least pretty among the Bergkvist sisters had a face you’d see on a soap label.
I think it was on my third day, or perhaps even my second, that it began. I’d just loosened the bolts for the engine on an old Lada, and was about to winch the whole damn thing out when the oldest daughter, Rakel, popped up from nowhere, wondering if I needed any help.
I shook my head and smiled, but those old Russian bangers are the pits. The engine was totally stuck, and after a good deal of snorting, bending, and banging about with various tools, I hadn’t got anywhere. Well, as I’ve said, I’m pretty good with my hands, but I have to admit to being distracted when Rakel leaned over the bonnet and started pointing. She was dressed in dungarees and not much more. OK, she had a white bra on, but she might just as well have been naked underneath, fact is, I’d have preferred it if she had been, then I wouldn’t have had to fantasize about how she really looked. I might have drooled a bit, cleared my throat a couple of times, and that would have been it. As things were I couldn’t stop staring. It didn’t help that she had bare feet with jet-black varnish on her toenails, an almost perfect match with her long, black hair that reached almost all the way down her back. All the Bergkvist girls have hair like that, not as long, but the same color. Which scarcely makes them look like their parents, since Ellen was mousey, and with his ginger hair Junk Billy could be mistaken for an Irishman or Scot. But I’ve seen cases like that in Skogli before. The blood of the forest Finns that lies dormant in most of us means that children can suddenly get this slightly foreign appearance. Besides which the old sugar route to Sweden went through our village, and before that again, there were always plenty of gypsies here in the summer. In the outhouses and the barns, blood was mixed.
If the Bergkvist sisters had been born a few centuries earlier, they might easily have finished up at the stake, that’s how pretty they were—and alike. Theirs was more than any ordinary sibling resemblance: I had real problems in telling the ones that were closest in age apart. And as to the twins, who were now full grown—fifteen years of age and ready for confirmation—just forget it!
“I think you’ve forgotten the last bolt under the starter, that’s why you can’t get the engine out,” said Rakel, after I’d been to fetch a crowbar to try to ease the Lada engine out from below.
She was right of course, and from that day on the sisters simply kept turning up whenever I was working. Usually one at a time, but occasionally in twos or threes. To begin with it didn’t really strike me as strange: If I’d spent my whole life in Skogli, I might have found it interesting to hear about other places too. At any rate, I was only too willing to tell them all about Galeileo’s in Galveston, with the best king prawns on the entire Gulf coast, about Space Needle in Seattle, and about Jimmy Hendrix’s being buried in the town. I told them about dingoes in Australia, about the world’s best chicken in Sumatra and about the time I nearly ate dog in Taiwan. But eventually they were no longer content with just listening to my tales. On the days I came to the factory by car, they’d always insist on hitching a ride with me home. And when I say they, I mean there might sometimes be as many as six or seven. It must have been quite a sight seeing my brother’s car packed to bursting with the Bergkvist sisters. That was partly why I started using my dad’s old Tempo—a 1957 model, 125 CC—when I didn’t just walk. It’s scarcely two miles from my house to the factory, but when I failed to sneak off at the end of work unnoticed, Rakel, Leah, Sara, Maria, Rebekka, Naomi, Ruth and Esther would regularly try to outbid each other in their explanations as to why they had to have a ride. This bickering was about as exciting as things got for several weeks.
All that was to change on Midsummer night. Skogli Community Association had decided to organize an old-fashioned Midsummer. Pretending not to have seen Kongsvinger’s Chief Fire Officer wagging his finger in the local papers, they’d built the biggest Midsummer bonfire by the lakeside that anybody in the village had seen for twenty-five years. Which was where I went, and which was where Junk Billy’s daughters went—all eight.
A country-dance trio from Charlottenberg played for as long as there was anything left in the bottles, and I waltzed the Bergkvist sisters back and forth over the unsteady, sandy platform until I’d lost track of who I’d danced with and whose turn was next. Matters were not eased by my having a reputation as a sailor to live up to. The problem being that I’ve never been very good at the whole alcohol thing, and soon I was feeling like the time our ship was left waiting for permission to dock at Cape Horn, right where the Pacific and the South Atlantic meet. Eventually I had no choice, I had to use the old finger down the throat trick.
It was a little later when I stood there gulping water down, that Sara appeared at my side and asked if we should take a swim. When I said no thank you, she suggested we pick flowers. I could of course have gone on refusing, a thirty-something old sailor does not join a pretty girl picking flowers without some idea where things might lead, at least not late at night. But I have to admit that despite its being a while since I’d last been with a woman, I never imagined there’d be anything more than a bit of petting. A little skin against skin without full nudity, people were dancing close by, for heaven’s sake. Still, it wasn’t just that Sara was a whole lot more than “burn at the stake gorgeous,” she also did things completely differently to any of the womenfolk I’d been with before. Which doesn’t say much necessarily, since the type of women I was used to never did more than they absolutely had to, but Sara was different in other ways too. Women often get something vulgar about them when I sleep with them, something artificial and unnatural. Sara didn’t say a word, didn’t utter a sound, was just movement, movement and a glance that never left mine, not even when things went off track rather too fast in my eagerness, and she had to help me get going again. And that’s how it happened, behind a windfall tree some hundred yards from the beach, while the sound of the accordion gurgled in the background and the flames of the Midsummer bonfire licked the sky. I can still feel her hands on my skin, remember how the taste of half-digested vodka and burned hotdogs made me avoid breathing on her—at least to begin with.
Afterward, Sara and I walked back to the beach. She wanted us to hold hands, but I thought that would be too stupid. Embarrassing almost. If you see? I didn’t want to show off about what we’d done, I’ve never been the type to brag about my conquests. That was something I learned pretty early out at sea. When somebody boasted about how many times they’d done it, it usually meant they hadn’t. So when we got back to the party, I kept my mouth shut and tried to pretend nothing had happened. We didn’t seem to have been missed on the whole, but a couple of Sara’s sisters suddenly seemed conspicuously green-eyed and desperate to dance. I couldn’t keep it up past midnight, when I pretended I needed a piss and snuck home through the forest. I started off walking, but broke into a run. It felt as though the spiky, dry spruces were blocking my path, reaching out to grab me, closing in on me until I could no longer breathe. I missed the sea.
At home I stood under the shower for a long time, brushed my teeth until my gums burned, and crept under the duvet as exhausted as after a dogwatch.
I don’t know how long I’d slept, but when I opened my eyes the June night was at its darkest. I’d been dreaming about Indians. I was standing next to a tepee together with squaws and children watching some cavalry or other galloping down the hillside. At first, I thought it was the dream that had woken me up, then I noticed a movement, not just a movement, but a person. A woman. Sara Bergkvist let her dress slip to the floor, and flung the duvet from me. Her skin was so warm I wondered if she’d been asleep next to the bonfire. I had just been fighting the blue-coats, and felt a sensation down my gullet as if my stomach contents had been pulled out through a tube, but when she began to kiss me and her long hair flowed over my face, my mind went completely blank. No thoughts, no words, just an avalanche descending a long slope.
Usually I finish in silence. What a man says on such occasions holds about as much water as when anybody starts on about God or professes to like you, to like you a lot, when they’re under the influence. This time, however, it was even better than behind the windfall tree, and something punched a hole in that bag inside of me, and the words started to gush.
“You are so pretty—gorgeous,” I said. “You are the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen, Sara.”
“Rakel,” she said.
“You are the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen, Rakel!”
But by then it was too late. I couldn’t do anything to stop myself.
That night I started sleeping with a locked door.
Next morning I spent a long time in the kitchen. Drank a whole day’s coffee ration before even getting dressed properly. More than anything I wanted to take a day off sick, but it’s hard to swing the lead when the man you work for is your nearest neighbor.
With way too much coffee—far too fast—scalding my throat, I sat and wondered what I should do. In the course of a few hours I had had unprotected sex with two of the Bergkvist sisters. Not that I thought I’d infected them with anything, I’d always been careful to use rubbers when I went ashore. Nor was it the fear of the sisters having given me anything that made my heart thump so violently in my chest. I’d have had a more tranquil start to my day however, if on the previous evening—and night—I’d managed to pull out in time at least. But it’s hard to pull out when you’re underneath.
It wasn’t as if Junk Billy had installed a clocking-on machine exactly, but I turned up too late that day. I didn’t succeed in getting moving before the postman had dropped the summer-thin local paper and a postcard from my brother into my mailbox. A postcard that was naturally addressed to Mum. Finn was working his way northward. The last postcard had been sent from Lapaz, this one was posted in Managua eight days ago. I thought again how I really ought to be contacting a solicitor now, and getting advice about what to do with the land. It ought to be possible to sell the forest and land to begin with, then split the proceeds in two and put half onto a blocked account in Finn’s name.
Junk Billy didn’t say anything in particular as I walked down to the factory at about ten. Luckily none of the girls were to be seen, and I got a fair bit done before the twins turned up later in the afternoon. For the first time I noticed that one of them was heavier and somewhat more buxom than her sisters, but I tried not to stare too hard and reminded myself that I was actually employed to do a job. Taking the cylinder head of an old Opel as my bible, I swore never to involve myself intimately with either Sara or Rakel again.
Just before I left for home, most of the remaining sisters turned up as well, and Rakel and Sara both sneaked up to give me kisses and cuddles when the others weren’t looking. That put me in a slightly lighter mood, proving as it did that neither of them knew about the other, and they didn’t know the whole truth.
At four I called it a day, and with both the BMW and the Tempo parked in the garage, I was free to walk home in peace. The first thing I did when I got home was to rub myself down with soap and dive into the small lake. The residue of the soap lay like an oil slick on the water as I walked back in and pulled on a pair of shorts and clean T-shirt. I rolled my jeans and put them on the back seat of the car, thinking that I might stay out late tonight. It was a Friday after all. The last in June.
As I drove into Kongsvinger I thought of Finn, and how strange it was he never phoned. It seemed only natural that the thought of Mum, and how things can happen to folk suddenly when they’re sixty, might have come to him once in a while.
I started to imagine all the things we’d do when he returned, because nobody ever just stayed away, at least not nowadays. It was in the old days that rebellious sons in Skogli would beat their fathers or run off with the family silver, and that nobody would hear from them for the next ten to fifteen years, until a postcard would suddenly drop into the mailbox with a picture showing Chicago skyscrapers or some similar landmark.
Kongsvinger stretched out as usual along the slopes on either side of the River Glomma. I remember one of the sailors in Skogli saying that the town looked like San Francisco with its hilly position, but after I’d been there myself I didn’t think it was a good comparison. In fact Kongsvinger looks more like Duluth, Minnesota, especially in the winter when the Glomma runs like an icy shiver through town and the gray-blue hills seem almost to shrivel and sink down toward the town center. But now it was summer in town. Sleepy summer. The heat had driven the pensioners in under their garden parasols, the Kosovo Albanians out of their leather jackets, and most folks off the streets.
I ended up in a restaurant that boasted about its genuine Argentinean style steaks, but I’d have liked to see where in Argentina the chef had been. Still the restaurant was air-conditioned, its chairs were comfortable, and I got a thorough read of the American newspaper I’d picked up at Narvesen’s. As I ambled back to the car, it had got a bit chillier, but I let my jeans stay on the back seat. The outdoor restaurants were gradually starting to fill with folk making an early start to their weekends. But I didn’t fancy a beer, and on impulse I dropped by a sports shop ten minutes before closing time, and bought a box of worms and a fishing rod. Nothing elaborate but perfectly adequate to try out the trout in the pool where the Baklengs River widens, right above the closed-down sawmill.
I was at the pool for a couple of hours, and even if the fish I caught weren’t exactly whoppers they’d go a treat in the bottom my frying pan. I’d found a plank of wood over in the garage and was standing gutting my fish when Sara, yes, I checked to be certain this time, turned up asking if I fancied popping over for some coffee. I tried to apologize and say I wouldn’t be able to sleep afterward, but my words fell on deaf ears. So after putting my trout in the fridge, and washing the fish blood off, I walked across the yard and knocked on the door of the Bergkvist family home for the first time in probably ten years. But it wasn’t that it had been such a long time since my last visit that made this one so special. No, the strange thing was that all the sisters were in on a Friday night, and it seemed that they’d spent the day baking a cake each. So I sat there in the sofa, between one of the twins and Sara, and my plate scarcely had time to empty before it was weighed down with yet another slice of cake.
Billy was in exceptionally high spirits, and telling stories about the old days. I thought how his bad reputation in the village was quite undeserved, and that it wasn’t right to blame him for his wife’s death.
We passed some pleasant hours, but the close of the evening turned out to be extremely troublesome. On my last voyage I’d had daily stomach cramps, and after various tests the ship’s doctor discovered I suffered from lactose intolerance. In other words I’m allergic to milk products. When I finally rose from that coffee table, my stomach was rumbling like an engine room. Back home I sat on the toilet for so long my feet started going numb.
I’d just flung the toilet window open, and was standing there washing my hands, when there was a knock at the door. Through the chink in the curtain I could vaguely make Rakel out. I wanted to pretend I’d dropped off really, but I thought it would be a shame if Billy saw her standing there like that. I let Rakel in, and put both locks on the door as I closed it again. I tried convincing myself I was doing nothing wrong, at least nothing illegal, and I suddenly felt I’d been rather rash to make that vow of celibacy earlier in the day. Besides, I’d be fibbing if I said I didn’t think anything more was going to happen, and that it hadn’t been in the back of my mind as I’d popped into the Shell station to pick up a couple of packets of the ultra thins, the most sensitive.
I woke alone, with the duvet wound round me like a toga, but Rakel was still very present in the room. The hollow left in the pillow from her head, the long hairs on the sheet and a smell reminiscent of lily of the valley on the duvet. I stayed in bed until the phone rang. It was the Salvation Army. A seaman’s priest in New Orleans had spoken to Finn and told him his mother was dead, and he’d asked if he wanted to borrow the phone to call home. Finn had said he wanted to wait until the next day, and then just disappeared during the night.
Of course I was worried. Really worried. What kind of bloke gets the news that his mother’s dead, and still doesn’t bother to ring home? What kind of trouble could my brother actually have managed to get himself mixed up in?
I’d not dwelled on these thoughts very long before the phone rang again. It wasn’t Finn now either, but Junk Billy. His sister was “lying at death’s door,” and he was taking the girls up to Elverum with him. Billy wondered if I’d take care of the house and feed the cats.
Things happened fast with his sister. The very next evening Billy rang and told me it was over, but that the girls and he would stay in Elverum until the funeral. I was instructed to open the workshop next day and keep business ticking as well as I could.
Later that evening I rang New Orleans and caught the priest just before the service. There was no doubt it was my brother he’d spoken to, but beyond the fact that Finn was traveling light and looked to be in good shape, the priest had nothing new to add.
I spent a good week, an easy week. Business was slow, but that gave me more time to pick out parts from the latest cars that had come in. Besides which I visited a solicitor too, and got a pile of papers I needed to fill out, if I wanted to sell the property. I rang the shipowners too during the week, and they said they’d be in touch as soon as anything came up.
When Junk Billy and the girls came home on Friday evening, I was careful to be up by the trout pool and to remain there until past midnight. Next morning I slept late into the day with the telephone connection pulled out. Then I crossed into Sweden, to Charlottenberg, to buy some cheap chicken and pork fillets, and just to enjoy the feeling of being somewhere completely different from Skogli. It was the hottest day so far that summer. The air was practically as dead and oppressive as when I’d driven through Death Valley. The car seat burned against the back of my knees and sweat settled like a sticky film over my face despite my driving with all the windows down. By the time I arrived back in Skogli it felt like my skull had swelled and was shoved into a tight swimming cap at least two sizes too small.
I flung the meat into the freezer, yanked my trunks on, ran out without closing the front door, and slipped into the lake. The water was piss-warm, as if it had been standing in a plastic bucket all day. It may not have been directly cooling or refreshing, but at least it was wet and it was lovely to lie there and float on my back. I closed my eyes and imagined I was a cloud in the sky, a big, fat bad-weather cloud with a belly full of thumb-sized raindrops. Or wait—a ship, that’s what I was—Tom Kleven out on the oceans again, that ever present sense of wistfulness as I watched the land seem almost to sink behind me, until it was all evenly flat, and then completely gone. Yet however sad it is to watch the coast flatten out, there’s no better feeling than watching the land begin to rise again ahead of the ship. The horizon being built jigsaw piece upon jigsaw piece, details of the landscape emerging. Nothing gives me a greater sense of being on my way, than when the sea smooths out toward land after weeks with just nothing—or everything—just sky and water—all around me. That’s why I don’t like traveling by plane, don’t like diving down through the clouds, the best journeys are always those that take time to begin and to end.
I lay like this and floated like a rubber dingy, until first one splash and then another practically made me keel over.
“Hi,” said Rakel.
“Lovely water,” said Leah.
I nodded and offered my condolences. Asked how Billy was and how the funeral had gone.
The girls answered fine to my first enquiry and then said it had been sad to lay Aunty in the ground.
Leah asked me if this was the warmest water I’d ever swum in.
“No,” I said, “this is like iced water compared to the Dead Sea.”
“Isn’t that ever so salty?” asked Rakel.
“Horribly,” I said.
“It must be fantastic for people that are bad at swimming, then?” wondered Leah.
“I nearly drowned,” I said.
Both girls laughed, but it was true. I nearly drowned in the Dead Sea. I went out into the water a little beyond the sign that marked where it was actually permitted to bathe, and like now, I lay there floating on my back. I’ve always liked floating. Then, when I glanced back into land just minutes later, the undercurrent had carried me far out. Of course I got scared and turned over onto my stomach to try and swim back. It was then the panic set in. My legs floated to the top, and I lay there floundering almost halfway out of the water. For each stroke I took I was carried further out. I was completely convinced I was going to drown. I think it took nearly half an hour for me to get back to land, and it was with my last ounce of strength that I stumbled up onto the beach. My heart pounded so hard my ears bunged up. The water I’d swallowed scalded like moonshine down my gullet, and it felt like my arms were ready to come off at the shoulders. I’ve never been so exhausted, either before or since. With my luck it was amazing I didn’t drown.
It was hardly my memories of the Dead Sea that drove me out of the water though, but Maria and Sara came to join us for a swim too. Eventually it became impossible to remain in the pool without more or less accidentally bumping into one of the Bergkvist sisters. And though I’m no better than most men and there have been times when I’ve fantasized about having two women together, but four—even sisters—is a bit much. That’s the sort of thing that might send a man straight to hell. Being so many in the pool, made the water extra cloudy too, and when I felt my swim trunks being stroked for the second time, without seeing by whom, I made my excuses and said I had to make a phone call.
Inside the house I locked the door behind me, and ripped my wet trunks off. It felt as if I’d had foreplay with four women and I was proud that I’d succeeded in tearing myself free. I took a couple of paracetamols and went upstairs to try to sleep.
Ruth—or was it Esther—was lying naked on the top of my duvet. On the bedside cabinet there was a glass of something that looked like whiskey. But it wasn’t where she’d got hold of that, that astonished me most. No, it was that her skin looked like marble, as though she was the only one of the Bergkvist sisters who didn’t take to the sun, and Esther’s breasts—or Ruth’s—were massive, with nipples the color of coffee beans, and I couldn’t take my eyes from them. And yes, I wish I could say I’d contented myself just to stare, that I was a man of high morals, that I’d told her to put her clothes back on. I wish I could say I was a rational man, who hadn’t allowed himself to be tempted by a fifteen-year-old girl. But no. I’d already allowed myself to waver, I’d already been in the bedside cabinet for the condoms and was halfway onto the bed, when the telephone went. It was Naomi. I’d put some parts on the wrong shelves down at the factory and Junk Billy had injured his back lifting them. She asked me to come straight down.
It was after that Saturday I started attending Eben Ezer. It wasn’t the first time I’d been of course, because although both my parents were Norwegian Church members, it was easier to send Finn and me to Sunday School with the Pentecostals rather than taking us all the way to Kongsvinger. So I’ve got several picture cards from Eben Ezer, with the tree laden with apples and nets laden with fish. Everything I know about the fear of God, I learned there. No offense intended, but God is far closer to the Pentecostals. My parents were never active churchgoers, but they made sure to attend the Christmas and Easter services. They used to take Finn and me with them a couple of times during the year as well, usually round the anniversary of one of our grandparents’ death. Though if there hadn’t been so much getting up and down from the pews all through the service, I think I’d have dropped off. The priest those days spoke with a gentle southern dialect and his sermons would wander in a tone of voice that made it hard not to close your eyes. With the Pentecostals things were far less predictable. After I’d been confirmed I attended a few meetings, and every single one followed a different pattern from the last. I never dared to relax at Eben Ezer, because it was impossible to know when your neighbour might suddenly burst into tongues or alleluias of praise, and in doing so attract attention from the pulpit. Still, I haven’t had a lot to do with the Pentecostals since going on the oceans, although I’ve sat through church services in five different continents. Over the years the Norwegian Seaman’s Church has become as much a place to visit for the newspapers, coffee, and Norwegian cakes as for God. This Sunday, however, I was not looking for either comfort or good cheer. I needed to sit on the edge of my seat, I needed a finger pointing to my heart, and more than anything I needed focus—clear focus. And the Reverend Brimstone, the leader of the congregation, certainly lived up to his nickname that evening.
“You will find no shortcuts to heaven. It is gruelling work. Gruelling work, friends, if we are ever to meet God, Jesus and the Heavenly Host,” the Reverend Brimstone proclaimed and concluded by slamming the pulpit so hard that the huge church bible tumbled to the floor with an almost equally loud bang.
Gruelling work, I thought on Monday morning as I combed my hair through with water. Gruelling work, I thought as I took the gearbox out of an Opel Vectra, the latest car we’d had brought in. Gruelling work, I thought, when one of the twins—I think it was the same one as on Saturday—asked if I might soon need help with a big spring-clean of the house.
I don’t know how many times I muttered the words gruelling work to myself in the days that followed, and come Thursday I was back at Eben Ezar.
“To believe,” the Reverend Brimstone almost said in a whisper before opening the floodgates. “To believe, is to be forever certain where you are going. To believe is to stand with both feet firm upon the ground and your heart in Heaven.”
Afterward he gave me a long handshake and handed me a bible. I’d already underlined several verses by the time I was back for the next meeting.
It wasn’t that there was anything that strange about it—after all Junk Billy and Ellen had been Pentecostals, even though I think Billy stopped attending meetings after she’d disappeared into the river—but nevertheless I was surprised when, just minutes into the meeting, Ruth and Esther sneaked in on either side of me. My Bible lay open in my lap on the Book of Ecclesiastes, where that very morning I’d underlined: “To laughter I said: you are mad! And to joy: what use are you?” I hadn’t found a red pen so I’d used green, despite it not being the color most of the congregation used. Green didn’t give the words the same illusion of their burning, but it wasn’t the misuse of color that preoccupied me that evening. No, because although I attempted to leaf randomly through the Bible several times in the hope of coming across some words I could lean on, that might give me strength, I had difficulty in gathering myself with a twin on either side. They were dressed in sleeveless frocks, and despite their skirts stopping virtuously far below the knee, I could see more than enough skin. And it suddenly came clear to me that as long as I lived in Skogli, there’d be nowhere for me to hide, nowhere I’d find peace. The Bergkvist sisters would always be there. They’d have boyfriends of course, live-in lovers and husbands eventually, perhaps they’d even start moving away, but it was going to take time. It was going to take a very long time with eight of them, and even though the eldest was in her mid-twenties, I’d never heard anything about any boyfriend traffic over at Junk Billy’s. Besides it would take quite a man to be with one of those girls, at least if the other sisters went on being as hospitable as they’d been to me.
Well, at least I succeeded in driving the twins home that night without anything untoward happening, even if they did quarrel over who was going to sit in front. The pale, slightly plump one, whom I’d now discovered to be Ruth, won, and I asked her if she didn’t like being in the sun, like her sisters.
“D’you think I should have more of a tan?” she answered. And I immediately regretted asking.
“No, of course not. Not everybody likes the heat.”
“I like heat,” said Ruth, “but not at the moment.”
The rest of the summer was equally hot. During the third week of July the Kongsvinger Fire Brigade were practically operating a shuttle system in Skogli, coming out to the start of three forest fires. The following week two tires exploded down at Junk Billy’s, first the back tire of a Volvo, and then the front tire of an Opel. When I wasn’t working I usually went for a swim, but stayed well clear of the small lake. Instead I started to drive up to a lake further in toward Sweden, where it was possible to lie in the shade and think of nothing. There were only two times when anything happened between myself and the Bergkvist sisters, and considering all the opportunities that presented themselves I didn’t think that was bad. Rakel swam with me once alone, and Sara found my car in Kongsvinger one evening when I’d been out eating. Both Rakel and Sara were more than I’d ever dreamed of, and had there been just one of them, I’d probably have been a married man today. But firstly, it was impossible to choose, and then if it really was love, I didn’t know with whom, or whether it was with both.
I’d heard nothing more from Finn since New Orleans, and had given up hope of him ever bothering to call. The first Saturday of August, I was on my way to the solicitors in Kongsvinger to find out if it would be possible to arrange a sale of the land, when Markus Grude’s car rolled into the yard. The County Sheriff was not smiling as he got out.
I’ve been sitting in here for half a year now. The trial finished just after Christmas and I won’t have completed my sentence until next year. It’s fair enough, but I miss the oceans. When the shipowners rang and offered me an engagement in October, I couldn’t go because the police had confiscated my passport. I don’t know how good my chances are of getting out to sea again now. If the shipping company get to know I’ve been inside, or even worse, what for, I can forget getting signed on by any Norwegian ships. I haven’t managed to arrange the sale of the farm either. When I come out, nobody will be able to stop me moving back to Skogli, but I don’t consider it a possibility. Junk Billy has made it quite clear what kind of plans he has in mind for me, and if being a neighbor to the Bergkvist sisters was complicated before, it’ll be as good as gaping over the barrel of a gun now. So I’ve been giving Yukon a bit of thought. Last time I was away, I got to know this machinist, who we all just knew as Gold Digger. Wherever he went he always carried a little nugget of gold in his shirt pocket over his heart, a gold nugget he’d dug up himself. Gold Digger had a cabin at his brother’s place in Canada, and I’ve thought how if everything else goes down the shoot, I’ll write to him. Gold Digger often talked about how remote it was up where his cabin was. Remote is good. Remote means a long way from the nearest woman.
It was odd to read about myself in the local papers, by the way. The journalists made studious notes all through the trial, presenting me almost like a cross between an adventurer and Casanova. And afterward I was asked if had any regrets, but no, can’t say I do. At the end of the day, just to have experienced one woman like the Bergkvist sisters, would give any man the feeling of at least having lived life to the full once. No, the way I see it, this whole episode has turned out to everyone’s advantage, well, apart from mine, that is. Ruth gave birth to a son just over a month before I was locked up, and in March Rakel and Sara both gave birth to boys. So Junk Billy can just start to practice painting the words “and son”—or let’s say “grandson”—on his sign. It even ended well for Finn, assuming he’s still alive, of course. I’ve not heard any more from him. Anyway, when I finally understood why he’d gone, I decided it was just as well not to go denying things. I can’t I say I feel bitter at Ruth either, after all Finn and I are the same blood, and it can’t have been easy being fifteen, and have your dad and the Sheriff both breathing down your neck, wagging their fingers at you and droning on “who, who, who?” Of course it was easier for Ruth just to nod over the fence rather than point down the highway. I could have protested and demanded blood tests of course, but for starters I’d never have managed to lie my way out of Sara and Rakel, and secondly I’m still his big brother. It’s better that only one of us should be shamed in Skogli for all eternity, rather than both of us sitting in the stocks. Besides, it can’t have been much fun being Finn either. He had to live at home with Mum and Dad, while I saw the world. So there seems to be some justice—in a way—to my sitting in here for him, while he goes collecting stamps in his passport.
“There is a time for everything,” it says in Ecclesiastes. I’ve spent the last few months reading the bible that the Reverend Brimstone gave me, and again and again it strikes me: I am not the first to have got into such a dreadful corner. Men of God, kings and wise men, they’ve all been here. The thought makes it easier to get through the nights, because it can be hard of course, very hard. I’m not used to being shut in, and since I was eighteen I’ve scarcely spent four months on land before I was out on the oceans again. I still get dizzy from floors that don’t move under me. If I stand on my bed and stretch as far as I can, I can just glimpse the Glomma River, like a shimmer through the center of town. Or perhaps it’s wishful thinking that I see her, but at least I know she’s there, that she runs all the way down to Fredrikstad, and out to the ocean. That’s comforting.
© Levi Henriksen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2007 by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik. All rights reserved.