I saw her again today. She came out from the liquor store in Majorstua, the bottles pushed down into a worn brown bag, and I sensed shame, shame is the only word I can use—shame. It was twenty years since I’d seen her last.
Georg and I had been to the Frogner Baths. We’d taken the plunge from the tenth board for the first time and were a bit sore. But we were walking on air—by heck were we—we were world champs. Some girls from the same year at school had been standing by the pool and seen us. They’d most likely have passed on the news already, that Georg and I had dived from the tenth board. We were twelve years old and this was a big day—the biggest. It was the start of June; we were growing our hair long, but hadn’t got further than halfway down our foreheads and three straws at our left ears. We bought a burger to share and chased along the Church Road tramlines. The sun rose into the sky; the lilac hung in thick bunches and I knew something of the dreaming of birds.
“You coming home with me for lunch?” I asked.
“What’re you having?”
“No bloody way.”
“Chops and pancakes.”
We went past the fountain on Gyldenlove Street. The jet went straight up, it shot up again and again but never overflowed. It was a circle of water, I thought. It was an amazing day—we’d dived from the tenth board and the girls had seen us. A horse came galloping through the trees in the alley. But I could see no rider. The dun creature was steaming; it was living copper—a sculpture that had torn itself loose. Then it was gone, but I felt the drumming on the slope, like shocks through my own body.
“Mette was there,” Georg said.
“Which d’you think’s nicest?”
I thought about it. It was actually an intricate question. I knew that Georg was rather keen on Mette. For that reason I said Vivi, that I thought Vivi was nicest. Just at that moment the fire alarm went off at Briskeby and the fire engines thundered out of their garages and disappeared somewhere in the direction of Homansby. Perhaps Bislet had caught fire in the heat, or possibly a cat was at the top of a tree in Adamstue and couldn’t get down. It was the start of June and soon it would be the summer holidays; Georg was going to Ildjern and I was heading for Denmark to ride the railway lines, eat red sausage, and maybe get hold of a Beatles record nobody in the class had heard. We were walking on air; we were world champs.
“Were you scared?” Georg asked suddenly.
“Scared? No, not particularly.”
“But I was a bit nervous. Just before.”
We hurried down Frederik Stang Street. Georg stopped outside a stairwell and pointed up to the first floor.
“That’s where Siv lives.”
“Siv in Class B?”
“Yup. She’s screwed.”
“With who then?”
But Georg just went on. I stayed standing there a bit, looking at the window on the first floor before running after him. That was how Georg was at times; I didn’t quite know whether he just made things up. I liked Georg. This is what he came out with now:
“You know the Skillebekk postman? The one with the beard?”
“Sure, the one with the massive shoes?”
“He’s screwed his mother.”
“Now you’re putting me on, Georg.”
We went past the Red Cross. Some patients stood at the windows peering out at us; they looked like prisoners in their light blue pyjamas—condemned lifers—and maybe they were too. A couple of them even waved.
“Now you’re putting me on,” I said again, almost annoyed.
“Nope. He’s screwed his mother.”
“But how d’you know?”
“Just do. That’s why he has a beard.”
It hadn’t been so warm yet that year. The dogs crept along what shadows were to be found; bright red, sweating tongues trailing the pavements. The ad for Freia Chocolate at Egertorg melted that evening and ran like a thick stripe of gold down Karl Johan Street. We ran into the stairwell where I lived on Thomas Heftye Street, and it was fine and cold there. Cool was what those who knew about such things said; a type of escape I can describe it as now, between outside and hope—somewhere there was still time to turn, where there was a choice. But we didn’t turn, we raced up to the third floor, the aroma of dinner coming from every door. Our trunks had dried ages ago and we were walking on air, we were champs. And when we came to my floor, we leaned out over the railing and this is the story I’m trying to tell: Georg and I lean over the railing, look down to the ground floor.
“Almost as high as the tenth,” said Georg.
“Just almost,” I said.
And it was then the cleaner appeared. She carried her bucket and mop out from the basement, stopped, put them to one side and straightened her back before bending over the bucket once more.
I turned to Georg. And he looked at me. We laughed. For one reason or another we’d had the same thought.
“Gob,” I said quietly.
“You first,” Georg said, just as quietly.
I swirled together a monumental mouthful of saliva; it tasted of chlorine and toothpaste, hamburger and chewing gum, goat’s cheese, pens, and milk. I swirled it round. There was barely room for it in my mouth. And she was still standing down there, the cleaner, bent over her bucket. She wore a kind of blue coat, had yellow gloves on her hands, and had on a headscarf and long boots too, on the warmest day of the year.
“Hurry!” Georg whispered. “Hurry up!”
I held on to the railing, leaned out as far as I could. It swirled round and I aimed—and I gobbed. I saw it fall—a great, grey-white mass, heavy and solid. It landed on her neck, and before I could retreat she’d turned around and looked right up at me. And I met her gaze. It was just bewildered, as though she didn’t understand what had happened. Georg stood glued to the wall, but I couldn’t wrest myself from the railing, couldn’t move away. She looked at me, the cleaner, astonished—then she grew almost sad. That’s how I remember it, that sad look, as though she was disappointed, as though she’d expected something completely different of me, the boy on the third floor. But that was almost nothing in comparison with what happened now. She straightened up and slowly drew her hand over her neck, slowly looked at her hand, how the thick spit hung between her fingers like white spiderwebs. She wiped the saliva onto her blue coat, just as slowly, and once more she looked up at me. And anything else would have been better; she could have called, shouted at me, run up the steps and whacked us with her brush—but she did none of those things, she just looked at me as she slowly wiped the spit from her hand. Then she bent over her bucket again and began scrubbing down there, as I walked backwards in to the wall and Georg said, quietly, that he wasn’t hungry after all and had to go home.
This is what I dwell on, twenty years later, as I see her emerging from the liquor store, this gaze still staring at me up all those floors. She went across the road as the lights changed. And I admit it, I followed her. I followed her to the Corner Café. It was a number of years since I’d been there and nothing had changed: the interior, the menu, the waitress, the paintings on the wall—everything was as it had been. And perhaps it was that which made me see her even more clearly, and how time had ravaged her. Her face was heavy; the skin lay in folds round her eyes and she constantly looked down, down and away, as though at any moment she risked looking right into a mirror, something she’d never have endured. Her clothes, even the brown handbag in which she’d hidden the bottles from the liquor store (but not well enough, an edge of the red bag stuck up through the zip) were dirty—they were the kind of clothes we used to give to the Salvation Army each Christmas. Everything about her made me think of erosion, that time eats away at us and in the end renders us invisible—not even our shadows are left in peace.
She ordered a coffee and a pastry, and sat down at a window table. She glanced out as she drank carefully from the cup which she held with both hands. I stood at the counter and observed her; it was as though I leaned over the railing again and looked down through my own life. And I wondered how old she could be. For my part I was now thirty-five; maybe she’d been the same age back then—it was hard to believe. And I remembered she hadn’t come back after the summer holidays; we got a new cleaner, and Georg and I never mentioned a thing of what had happened.
I bought a cup of tea and went over.
“Is this free?’ I asked, nodding in the direction of the seat.
She seemed bewildered, almost mistrustful, and she had every reason to be. There were several empty tables in the place; there was actually just one customer there, and now I was insisting on sitting at her very table.
She made no answer, shrugged her shoulders imperceptibly, and looked out of the window. It had begun to rain. A gang of kids with wide jeans and baseball caps on back to front ran into McDonald’s. A girl in a tracksuit was standing at the Majorstua steps selling Class War. A drunk was lying outside the newsagent’s, his cheek against the asphalt. It was a Saturday in the strangest year in my life.
I sat down. I drank my tea and lit a cigarette.
“Do you recognize me?” I asked her.
She turned slowly, holding round her cup, and shook her head as she looked down. And of course I should have stopped there; I should have said something nice, got up and gone out without turning round. But I didn’t; I went on. I made myself believe she needed an explanation, that I owed her that.
“I lived on Thomas Heftye Street,” I said. “You cleaned the stairs there.”
She sat leaning over the ashtray with her half-eaten pastry.
“You must be confusing me with someone else,” she said.
“Number 8. The third floor. Twenty years ago, at least. I remember you.”
All at once she looked up. She said, almost angrily:
“You’re mistaken! I’ve never cleaned staircases! I don’t know you!”
Then she got up, took her handbag and started towards the door. There she stopped for a moment. She lifted her hand, drew it quickly over her neck.
Translation of “Gugg.” Copyright Lars Saabye Christiansen. By arrangement with Cappelan. Translation copyright 2010 by Kenneth Steven. All rights reserved.