I don’t know how she managed to get out, but suddenly she’s just standing there. Again I am struck by how well she has aged. Every time I look at myself in the mirror, my face looks like a photograph of drought-stricken flatlands in Africa, where the earth is full of cracks and nothing can live or grow any longer. Else’s face is like a savannah where everything looks just as it did twenty years ago.
“I’m going home,” is all she says and hands me five hundred kroner.
I know only too well where home is and look at my cell phone lying in front of me beside the steering wheel. I accept her banknote and smooth it out, even though it has never been folded, while I search for signs that she recognizes me. But her face is like a page in a diary that has never been written. No questions asked, no attempts to find any answers. Her mascara is brushed on perfectly, her lips are shiny red, and her eye shadow is, as usual, the same color it was back when I thought she could have been one of the women from ABBA.
I look at my phone again and glance into the interior of the bus behind me through the rearview mirror. About a half-dozen people are seated there. High-spirited stragglers, but also some who have just ended their shift and had a drink with colleagues before catching the last bus home before Christmas. I know I should call. I know I should stall while I try to get someone to come. But I am reluctant. I don’t think I can handle the looks, the way something evasive will slide over the eyes of the other passengers, something a bit patronizing, while Else’s eyes will just become helpless. Maybe even reproachful.
“No charge on Christmas Eve,” I say and hand back the banknote along with a ticket. Else nods and smiles and moves all the way to the back of the bus. I swallow and think back to the time when she would always sit in the front seat.
The snowfall started this morning as a silent sifting. Like when you lift up a bag of sugar in the store and there are almost invisible holes in the packaging. Now it looks like the bottom has broken apart completely and the snowflakes are as large as moths seeking out the headlights of the bus. For me, it’s been many years since it made any difference whether Christmas was white. The ground could have been covered only with beads of rime and the spruce trees along the road been as stiff as pokers, like blue-green souvenirs the autumn couldn’t be bothered to clear away, or all blanketed with snow, as they are now. It makes no difference. The Christmas spirit is something a person has within and there are no longer any seasons inside me.
I stuck the bottle of aquavit from the bus service company in my bus driver bag. Should all else fail, at the very least the taste of it will remind me of Christmas. Both Arne and Berit have invited me over and expressed genuine concern about my spending Christmas Eve alone, but I said that it wouldn’t cost me anything to drive the last run of the day again this year. That the old drivers did the same for me when my children were small. Both of them said that they understood, and I will see them all anyway at Christmas breakfast tomorrow. They will save some of the presents, at least the ones that are from me to my grandchildren. I told them I’m looking forward to it, and it’s true, at least in a way. I also told them that I have put their presents under the Christmas tree at home and that I will think of them when the time comes to open them. That’s not true. At least not the part about the Christmas tree. I couldn’t find any reason to have a Christmas tree this year, a sixty-one-year-old man alone in a huge house. But I’ve hung up the star in the window and put out what I have in the way of Christmas elves and angels, so at least from the outside it looks like Christmas.
When the children were little, yes, until they were teenagers and also on a few sporadic occasions after they’d moved into studio apartments in Oslo, we had a tradition of going out to find a tree together. Eventually, as they grew older, they went alone, but at first they always sat on the big sledge my father had used for hauling in wood from the stockpiles he had throughout the forest. Their mother was always dressed in her red Christmas cape, while the children wore red stocking caps that reflected whatever Christmas program was popular on television that particular year. I’ve always been a pretty poor fisherman and have never even held a rifle in my hands, so these times with my wife and children out in the forest filled me with a sense of connection to my parents, the first Forest Finns to settle in the town of Skogli. There was something about going out into the woods with a saw over my shoulder that made me feel self-sufficient. It’s another feeling altogether to sit behind the wheel of a bus. But even though I was the one who sweated away with the saw, the one who got his face full of snow when it sprinkled down from the branches, it was always the children who chose the tree. We agreed about that. Many of our friends shook their heads when they saw the spindly tree branches we’d decorated, but if Christmas isn’t first and foremost for the children, who is it for? I remember one year in particular when Arne insisted we take a warped spruce tree because it reminded him of something from Lord of the Rings. I have never read Tolkien and don’t know what or who the spruce tree supposedly reminded him of, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a finer Christmas tree.
I pull up at the last stop before the city limits and let off two men who I believe are nurses. I smile, nod, and wish them a Merry Christmas.
There are street lights illuminating the road headed out of Kongsvinger now, all the way to the turn-off down to Skogli. It wasn’t like this before and I remember we drove here, just the two of us, after we got married. That was also in December. I felt oddly shy in a way I’ve never felt since. It had nothing to do with my expectations about the wedding night; we had essentially got all that business out of the way and it was precisely for that reason we had to get married when we did, before the bulge under her wedding dress became too conspicuous. Nonetheless, I was tortured by a kind of feeling of inadequacy, by a sense that I lacked all the qualities a good husband should have. What did I know about being a father? I had never picked up a child, never held one close to my body, and kids had always made me feel a little ill at ease. Children seemed fragile and my hands better suited for gripping things tightly than for lifting something with care. But it all worked itself out and I believe I was the first man in the village to take paternity leave, at least in a manner of speaking. Of course no such schemes existed back then, but I spent my holiday learning how to be a father.
I try to swallow away the salty taste in my mouth and think about the time I carried my wife over the threshold of our new house. Although we didn’t make love that night, we slept with our fingers intertwined. Since then my hand has never stopped searching for hers at night, not even now when she’s no longer there.
I stop at the turn-off leading to the abandoned railway station and let off a guy I went to school with. When he shakes my hand and wishes me a Merry Christmas I can smell the alcohol on him and I think that he’s the kind of man who never makes it all the way home, even though he managed to catch the last bus this evening.
Only one more stop remains. I glance into the rear-view mirror and Else is sitting and looking out the window as if she’s never been here before. I pass Lake Flyktningsjøen where the children learned to swim and stop in front of the abandoned store where in the early years we used to do our Christmas shopping. At Eben Ezer Church all the lights are on, but this year there’s no nativity scene out front. The sheriff never did find out who set it on fire on New Year’s Eve last year.
“Last stop,” I say and the young couple seated halfway back in the bus stand up. I have to avert my face a bit, so they won’t see how touched I am by the way they hold hands as they step off the bus. Else also gets to her feet. I reach for my phone, but turn around instead.
“You can just stay seated, tonight I’ll drive you all the way home,” I say and Else does as I say without any apparent misgivings. I think about my car which is parked outside the bus garage and know that I am committing a serious dereliction of duty. But it’s Christmas and after forty-one years on the job, I don’t have a single blemish on my driving record. Once upon a time that was something that filled me with pride.
Through the driving snow I can see the lights blinking on the trees along the road, and I hope I left the lights on in the house so it won’t be waiting there like a snowbound tombstone in the night. I take the turn up by Lake Flyktningsjøen and almost graze one of the lights at the railway crossing. On one single occasion I drove a truck up these hills. That was when I transported cement for the foundation wall, but I’ve never driven a bus here and skid my way into first gear. I did forget to turn the lights on in the house itself, but our old Star of Bethlehem is shining hospitably in the kitchen window.
“Here we are,” I say and turn toward the back of the bus.
“How dark it is,” Else says and a look of bewilderment comes over her as she gets out of her seat.
“That’s just because the lights aren’t on,” I say and turn off the ignition.
“Are you getting off too?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say and nod. “I’ve parked the bus now. It’s Christmas Eve.”
“Yes, of course,” she says. “It’s Christmas Eve.”
I lead her off the bus by the hand and into the house, help her take off her coat, and show her into the sitting room.
“I just have to make a phone call,” I say and go into the kitchen and close the door behind me. Then I call the home and let them know where she is.
When I come into the sitting room, she’s taken the wedding photograph down off the wall.
“What a beautiful bridal couple,” she says.
“Yes,” I say and wrap my arms around her. “People always used to say that you and I looked like a couple of film stars when we were young.”
“Hele veien hjem” © Levi Henriksen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Diane Oatley. All rights reserved.