The Exile – a short story
Father’s Volvo was parked on the quay as we drew into Bekkelagskaia. From the ship’s rail I could make out his silhouette slowly growing larger as we approached. He had left the car and was shading his eyes against the sun, looking towards the ship. I had nothing to say to him. I had changed my mind about returning to Norway almost as soon as the ship set sail. One should never go back, I told myself. And yet for me there didn’t seem to be a way forward. I wanted Hazel, my wife, and Tor, my son, and they were in the past. I couldn’t go back to them. I could never go back.
Father came up the ship’s gangplank and shook me by the hand. “Trond,” he said.
“Far,” I said. There was a smile on his face and disappointment in his eyes.
“Thanks.” His eyes held me for a moment and swung me back into the merry-go-round of childhood and adolescence. The language, though coming instinctively to my tongue, seemed to change my centre of balance. An uncomfortable feeling, like the removing of several layers of skin. I wrenched myself free and looked out over the water to the islands. “It’s beautiful,” I said.
He followed my gaze towards Malmoya and Ulvoya. “Yes,” he said. “We have a beautiful country.” It was certainly different to the murky, smog-laden Humber which had been my point of departure from England. The physical beauty was a welcome sight.
We spoke little on the drive into Oslo, and I was thankful for my father’s tact, not least because I knew he was bursting with questions. But I needed a breathing space, and he could see that. He was calm on the surface, controlled; we were both calm and controlled.
My mother came out of the house and took my bag. She placed a dry kiss on my cheek and stood back with the same disappointed eyes as my father. The disappointment was genuine: I was their son and I had failed. But it also masked a triumph, for I had returned to them and to their beloved country, and they had always known I would. Not now, but later they would tell me so.
We drank coffee and talked about my journey. They spoke of cousins and old school friends, of the New Norwegian Theatre, and Scandinavian politics. Hazel and Tor were not mentioned, my marriage, my life in England were all avoided as taboo subjects. They were all there, larger than life in the midst of us, but heavily veiled. They would be brought out in the evening, after dinner, when my brother and sister would also be there. I would have to talk about it, confess, answer their questions. But it would be better later than now. There was a kind of safety in numbers.
I spent the afternoon in my room. My old room. The room in which I had spent my childhood. It had nothing to do with me. There were many things still there, things I had left behind years before. But there was nothing I wanted. Books I had never read, toys I no longer recognised. My mother would never throw them out. They reminded her of her little boy, her life as a young woman and mother. They reminded her of her dreams.
I wept on the bed. Weeping had become a habit. I no longer screamed with the pain, the injustice, the incomprehension. I wept quietly, alone and with dignity. The weeping was a kind of comfort now, though often it was difficult to stop. I didn’t have much control over it. It was easy to start and not easy to stop. I wallowed in self pity, in self justification. I seemed all right to do that. It harmed no one, and I hoped that eventually my tears would dry up, that my soul would not be too damaged by the damming up of my feelings.
The events of that day, the day of my arrival in Norway are burned into my memory. I have puzzled long over why that should be so, but I am still not really clear. Perhaps it is because returning to Norway was the first positive thing I did since Hazel told me the one thing I was not capable of hearing. I was welcome in Norway, of that I had no doubt. What I doubted was whether I wanted to be welcome in that way. What my parents, my brother and sister and friends welcomed was not the me I had become during my time in England, but something I had ceased to be. The Trond I had been in their imagination many years before, he child and adolescent who was experienced only in innocence.
I imagined at that time that I would spend only a few weeks in Norway, perhaps a month or two, before returning to England. But I was there nineteen months before the telephone call came, and I might have stayed for ever, tidily wrapped in the trivia of my flag waving family if it had not been for that one event.
The dining table was set with candles. Mother and father sat at the head and foot of the table. The rest of us were placed at my mother’s discretion. I to her right, with my sister, Siv between me and father. My brother, Jon, sat opposite me, and my sister’s husband, Ola, was next to him. We ate crayfish with Retsina, a ritual dish in the family, used only for special occasions. Father kept our glasses filled with the Retsina, and we each made a border on our plates with the heads of the crayfish.
My diplomatic father asked Ola and Siv about their children, and there followed several anecdotes about the absent generation. Then Siv turned to me.
“And what about Tor?” she asked.
“He’s well,” I said trying to keep any trace of emotion from my voice. “He’s not walking yet, but I don’t think it’ll be long.”
“And Hazel?” The table had become so quiet that I could hear their breathing. I swallowed and clutched at the napkin on my lap.
“She’s OK,” I said. “They’re both OK.” I wanted to go on, to keep talking, to maintain the initiative with myself, but at the mention of Hazel’s name my mouth dried up. It was all too close to me, the family’s expectations too pressing. I stopped talking and looked down at my plate, adjusting one of the cray’s heads, putting it in line with the others.
Silence hung over us for a few moments, and then Siv drew in her breath. “You don’t have to go into details,” she said. “But you’ll have to tell us something.”
“We’ve split up,” I said quietly. “We no longer live together.”
“Yes,” said Siv.
“And Tor is with Hazel?”
“They’re still in York, in the same house. I moved out two months ago.”
“Two months!” Siv was right to be surprised, I had only contacted them the week before I sailed.
“I didn’t say anything about it before. I thought there might be a chance of us getting back together.”
“It’s permanent, then?”
Mother moved her hand towards mine, but stopped short before she reached me. Our hands lay side by side on the table.
“Is there someone else?” asked Siv.
“No,” I said. I couldn’t tell them about him. I couldn’t even bear to think about him.
“But why, then, Trond?” asked my mother, echoing the question I had asked myself a million times. “We thought you were so happy, so suited.”
“Hazel needed to live by herself,” I lied. “It wasn’t her fault. We come from different cultures, we have different expectations. It just didn’t work.”
“But it worked for two years,” said my father.
“And then it didn’t work any longer.”
“And Tor?” he said. “Will we see him again?”
“Yes. Maybe not for a while. But when he’s older I’ll have him for holidays.”
My mother breathed a sigh of relief. She wouldn’t have been able to cope with her grandson never seeing Norway and not learning to speak the language.
“And there’s no hope for you and Hazel?” asked Siv.
“No.” I shook my head. “I don’t think so.”
They accepted it eventually. They all of them accepted it much more than I did. It had always been unacceptable to me, and I knew that it always would be. But as the months passed it became more bearable. I learned new techniques for dealing with it, kept it close to myself. Whenever the subject of marriage came up I sidestepped it, spoke in generalities and struggled to stop myself drowning in the turbulent sea of images of Hazel, my wife, Tor, my son; and the other one, the image of him who had destroyed it all.
Hazel and I exchanged irregular and pragmatic letters, and after eleven months in Norway I spent a few days in York to see Tor. Hazel invited me to the house, but I didn’t want to see him, so arranged for her to bring Tor to my hotel. He was twenty months old, and after clinging to his mother he tottered around the furniture quite independently. He was dark, with Hazel’s hair, but a distinctive Norwegian nose. He didn’t know me and wouldn’t sit on my knee, but before they left he let me hold his hand, and I ruffled his hair and managed to plant a wet kiss on his forehead. They stayed for two hours. Hazel was very pregnant.
I resolved to see him regularly after that, though the experience of meeting him and Hazel together had almost destroyed me. I would have to move back to England to be closer to my son. I couldn’t bear him growing up and not knowing who I was.
But it didn’t happen. I stayed on in Norway. I know now that I was waiting for that telephone call, but I didn’t know it then. For the next eight months my destiny was adjourned. All the time I was intending to return to England, but the forces of my will never came together enough for me to make the step.
Before breakfast on the 7th January 1989 the telephone rang.
It was his voice. My impulse was to put the telephone down. I felt the beginnings of rage stir inside me.
“Trond?” he said again. “Don’t put the ‘phone down. Just listen to me. Hazel’s dead. There’s been an accident.”
He was silent. I couldn’t think of anything to say. The rage disseminated and mingled with incomprehension and disbelief.
“Trond? Are you there?”
“Yes,” I said. “How? When?”
“She was in the car. She hit a bus.”
“He’s all right. He was with me. Both of the kids were with me.”
“I want him back,” I said.
There was a long silence. Then he said: “We’ll have to talk about it. Will you come here?”
“Yes,” I said. “And I want Tor back.”
“Let me know when you’ll arrive,” he said. “The funeral will be on Tuesday, the thirteenth.”
I put the telephone down and sank to my knees on the floor, my head in my hands. I expected to weep, to scream, anything. But nothing happened. I don’t know how long I stayed there, anaesthetised within a dull cocoon of dark silence, before I stood and walked out of the house, ready at last to pick up the remains of my shattered destiny.
I had lived in dread of seeing him, even of hearing his voice. Anything that reminded me of him was enough to throw me into a rage. If I read a book or newspaper and came across his name, I would stop reading. There was violence in me, a dark and overwhelmingly powerful force; a volcano that slumbered uneasily beneath the gentle contours of social manners, but that could erupt without warning into an inferno of destruction. I knew it was there, and that he could unwittingly be the agent of its release.
The voice on the telephone had not affected me in this way, because the message it brought had swamped those baser instincts and feelings. It left me only with the picture of Hazel crushed in the wreckage of her car. Gentle, stupid Hazel, who had destroyed me, and who had now destroyed herself. The picture was a moving image, like a clip from a film. There was a close-up of Hazel, head and shoulders at the wheel, a slight smile on her lips as she glanced into the mirror. Her eyes were bright and quick, like the eyes of a wild animal, and they held no presentiment of fear, saw nothing of what was to come.
The camera panned back and away to the right, and the images faltered into slow motion as the car concertinaed into the oncoming bus, the rear wheels lifting themselves clear of the ground and the nose burrowing deeper into itself. Her dark head shattered through the windscreen, sending a shower of crystals high into the air. And then, still in slow motion, the camera closed in on the body, wantonly recording the helpless, ragged shaking as it was flung from side to side over the crippled bonnet of the car, the legs still pinned under the strangled steering column.
Then there was stillness. Silence.
The picture slowly faded, leaving a shining white screen.
After the telephone call I walked. Hazel was dead, laid out somewhere on a slab, maybe in a deep freeze. She would never answer my questions now, never come back. I walked and talked with her in my head, seeing her as she had been on all the other occasions: at our wedding; the long holiday in Norway with crossed skis; cradling Tor in her arms the day after he was born. The adulteress was there too, in her furious love for him and her unreasonable hatred of me. But I could not hear what she said, only the incessant whining of my own pain, the chattering rant of my disbelief. And superimposed on all these flickering images was the one Hazel I had not yet met: the dead one.
I walked along Kirkeveien and stood dwarfed in the snow beneath Vigeland’s grotesque human monolith. Hazel was dead and I walked. The Buddha was right to recognise the fact of suffering. It is the only reality. He was wrong about everything else.
I took a short cut through the Slottsparken, past the National Theatre, and along Karl Johans Gate. It was snowing hard, very cold, and my chin and feet were numb. I had not eaten, simply fled the house and the black telephone. I sat under Per Krohg’s huge painting of the Christianian Bohemians in the Grand Cafe and watched their affluent descendants stuffing themselves from the smorgasbord.
The coffee was black and bitter, scalding hot, putting the illusion of strength back into my body. Strength which I wanted to conserve, but which I knew I would squander. I was ready to leave, to walk aimlessly round the city, when a child at the next table reminded me. I had a son. Tor, my English son. He would soon be three years old.
I had quoted Novalis to Hazel on the day he was born: Children are hopes. The nurse held him up to the glass and pulled away the shawl from his face. We were not allowed to meet.
A year later I had returned to Norway, leaving him with his mother. The bond between us, stretched to its limit, was torn apart.
After that we had spent two hours together in a York hotel. Before he left he let me hold his hand, and I ruffled his hair and managed to plant a wet kiss on his forehead.
And that was all there was between me and my son. Except that during our first year together he had become more important to me than food. In his absence I had hungered for him, sometimes literally clawing at my belly, my mouth and throat dry with longing. My soul had grown thin and emaciated without him, and whenever I formed his image, so small, so young, so far away, I felt the rhythm of my heart stumble with fear for him.
He needed me, of that I had no doubt. A boy needs a father. No one would ever love him as unselfishly, as impossibly as I did. I loved him totally, as a cow loves grass. And he didn’t want me to go. If he had had words he would have argued with Hazel more forcibly than I could. During the long discussions with Hazel before I left, the mention of Tor was taboo. Whatever I said about him was emotional blackmail.
Her mind was made up. She had convinced herself that Tor, as well as herself, would be better off without me. By that time she had build up a protective wall around herself. She no longer listened to my ravings, she was beyond my reach. She could only be touched by him.
Later I went to the telephone and dialled the numbers. He answered almost immediately, as if he had been sat by the ‘phone waiting for it to ring. His voice was quiet, subdued, but insistent.
“Hello. Hello. Who is it? ” He repeated the number I had dialled.
“It’s Trond,” I said.
“Trond? Oh, yes.”
“Listen. I’ve made some arrangements.” I kept the index finger of my right hand on the notes I had made.
“Are you coming?”
“Yes. I’ve booked a flight for tonight. I’ll stay in the same hotel as before.”
“You can stay here if you like.”
“No. I’ll stay in the same hotel.”
“What about Tor? He was getting ahead of my notes. I had to stay in command of the conversation.
“Can you listen to what I have to say. I’m trying to make arrangements.”
“Sorry. Go on.”
“I’ll stay in the same hotel as before. I don’t want you to come and see me there, or even to contact me, unless there is an emergency. Do you understand?”
“Yes, but. . . ”
“Good. Next, I want you to give me the name of the hospital and exact address so I can see Hazel.”
“We’re moving her out of the hospital. She’s going to a private funeral parlour.” He gave me the address and I read it back to him.
“The date and time of the funeral?”
“It’s not fixed exactly. I’ll have to tell you later.”
“No. You can tell Hazel’s parents. I’ll find out from them. Leave Tor there, together with all his clothes and toys, and I’ll collect him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll collect him from his grandparents.”
“And what? He’ll come back to Norway with me.”
There was a long silence. I thought he had rung off. “Hello,” I said.
“Yes. I’m still here. Are you serious?”
“Yes. He’s my son. You have no jurisdiction over him.”
“Maybe not, but he doesn’t know you. He doesn’t know what’s happening. You can’t just drag him away to a foreign country.”
“I want him back.”
“Maybe you do, Trond. But it’ll have to be a slow process. He’s part of a family here, you can’t destroy all his roots.”
“You can’t keep him. He’s my son.”
“But think about it from his point of view. If you really want him back I won’t interfere, but you’d have to give him time to get to know you. He’s crying for his mother at the moment.”
I could see that: Tor, my son, crying for his mother. It was a vivid picture. Part of me rushed away across the sea towards him, leaving a ghost holding the telephone in Oslo. My notes fluttered to the floor, and my mouth dried out, cracking my voice.
“Look after him,” I said helplessly.
There was a short silence. “Sure,” he said. “Don’t worry, he’ll be all right. Come and see us when you get here. We can talk and decide what to do for the best. It would be all right for you to stay here.”
“No,” I said. “I couldn’t do that.”
“Are you sure?”
“But you’ll come and see us?”
I nodded my head. “Yes,” I croaked. “Yes. I’ll come.”
The door opened and we stood facing each other. He smiled tiredly. He was frailer than I remembered, his pale face contrasted with the dark passage behind him, and for a moment I was out of my body and viewing our meeting from somewhere above. The ghost-like figure of him on the inside of the door, and the bulky otherness of me standing opposite him.
“Come in,” he said. His smile, finding no reflection in me, withered away. I followed him into one of the rooms at the back of the house, aware that I was acting a part, conscious that I was unprepared for the role, but that, in the circumstances, I was making a good job of it.
I loosened the buttons of my coat, a prickly sweat breaking over my neck and forehead. There was a smell of urine which became more prominent as we entered the room. Tor, aware of my alien presence, quickly picked up the toy cars he was driving along the carpet, and hid himself behind the man’s legs. The baby girl, left alone on the carpet, half shuffled, half crawled towards the sanctuary of her father. I tried not to take their flight personally.
He went down on his knees, enclosing each of the children with an arm, holding them close to his body. “It’s all right,” he told them softly. “We’ve got a visitor. Tor’s daddy has come to see us.”
They looked up at me, the tall giant, the all powerful stranger from another world. I smiled down on them, stupidly, the bitter-sweet ammonia stinging my nostrils and clinging freely to my skin. I couldn’t visualise the image I presented to them: Tor’s daddy, Odin, the great father.
“We’ll make a drink, shall we,” said the man, standing. “Will you have tea?” he asked.
“And some juice for Tor and Christine.”
I followed them into the kitchen. “Shall I take your coat?” he said. He took it to a hanger in the hall, unconsciously stealing the power. Odin, the Sun-being was obscured by the clouds of routine. I was a visitor in an English home. Their home. The awe of their first scrutiny was superseded by the expectation of lemonade.
“Good trip?” he asked.
“Yes, it was all right.”
He lifted Christine and strapped her into a high chair. Tor scrambled onto another chair next to her, and they were served with red juice in plastic cups with lids.
“Have you seen the body?” he asked, setting a tea pot and two cups on the table.
“No. I was going after lunch.”
“You’ve got the address?”
“Yes. I know where it is.”
“Good,” he said. “Christine, don’t pour it all over the table. It’s for drinking.” He took the cup from her and returned it the right way up.
“Do you like juice?” I asked Tor. He ignored me. “You look as though you do.” He put his plastic cup on the table and pushed it away.
“Oh, I’ll drink it, then,” said the man, reaching out for the cup.
“No.” Tor took it back quickly, holding it close to his chest.
“Tor, do you remember Trond?” said the man. But the child wouldn’t be drawn. Not only did he not remember, he refused to acknowledge my existence.
“Can I have a drink of your juice?” I tried. There was no response. Christine sprinkled the table again, and her father mopped it up with a dish cloth.
“More tea?” he asked. But I hadn’t yet started to drink the first cup.
“I would have liked to talk,” I said.
“Yes, it’s not really possible during the day. You could come back this evening.”
“Yes. About eight?”
“OK,” he said. Hazel’s expression. Everything was OK to her. “The offer of a room is still open if you change your mind. Tor and Christine would like that, wouldn’t you?”
Tor and Christine didn’t seem too taken with the idea. I shook my head.
“The house is bloody empty these last days,” he said, almost to himself. “Since, ever since. . . ” There was a perceptible crack in his voice, and I feared he would break down. Christine started banging the table with her cup, and Tor joined in, an almost rhythmic drumming, ancient, as if to resurrect some mysterious power from the beginnings of the world. They gradually increased the pace, rising to a crescendo which promised chaos. The man sat with his head in his hands, his will given up to some inner necessity, and I realised instinctively that if order was to be resumed, it was up to me to do something about it.
The drumming was insistent, like the insatiable rant of war.
“Shhhhhhhh,” I said gently, introducing breath into the situation, as one would introduce rain to a fire. “Shhhhhhh.” Tor stopped immediately, his cup poised in mid air, caught in its downward journey. Christine continued drumming for a few more strokes, but with less force, and at my third “Hushhhhh,” she stopped completely.
“You’ll give him a headache,” I said, indicating their father, who was emerging from his hands.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m over tired.”
“He’s too tired,” said Tor.
“I haven’t slept much,” he explained. “There’s so much to do. If someone else was here it would be better.”
I hesitated. Tor had spoken to me. I turned to him and said: “What about you, Tor? Are you too tired?” He ignored me again. “Could I help?” I asked the man.
He said nothing, only looked at me through tired grey eyes.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll stay for a few days.”
I slept during the afternoon, before checking out of the hotel and taking a taxi to Charles’ house. I could start to think of him as Charles now, after years of denying him a name, of begrudging his existence. I had no love for him, did not like him, but he no longer stood between me and Hazel, was no longer a threat.
He was ill. His eyes blazed with fire. He showed me the room I would use, told me to help myself to anything, then crept off to his own room, a tartan blanket wrapped round his shoulders, his whole body shaking with fever.
I explored the house. The house that had been my house, our house. The house from which I had been banished. It had not altered, the furniture was basically the same, the pictures on the walls, even the books on the shelves. Some of the carpets had been replaced, the walls painted, the curtains washed. The signature to everything was Hazel’s.
I made the tea on a tray and took it to Charles’ room, tapping lightly on the door and waiting for him to call me in. After a few seconds I knocked again and pushed the door open. The room was illuminated by the ceiling light, and Charles was face down on the bed, still fully clothed.
“I’ve brought some tea,” I said. He turned completely round in the bed, ending face down again.
“Charles? Are you all right?”
“Hazel,” he said, turning onto his back and lashing out wildly with his arms. “Don’t go.”
I placed the tea tray on a desk by the window and sat on the edge of the bed. There was a smell of sickness. His eyes were closed. His face was burning.
“I’m going to get you undressed,” I told him. He muttered something about the freezing cold, but he did not know what was happening. I managed to undress him and made him as comfortable as possible. Then I rang the surgery. I sat by the bed until the doctor arrived. Charles was delirious, calling out for Hazel and his mother, complaining about the weather, sweating freely, and shaking with cold.
The doctor said Charles’ fever would continue for some hours, that he would be weak for a few days. He gave me a prescription and left the house, slamming the front door behind him.
Tor awoke and started to cry. I went to his cot and he crouched away from me in the far corner. “I want Charles,” he said.
“Charles is not very well at the moment,” I said. “Shall I get you a drink? Or something to eat?”
“I want Charles,” he said. “And Hazel.”
He started to cry, and struggled when I tried to lift him from the cot. Christine began whimpering from the other side of the room. I took Tor out of the room, closing the door quietly behind us, hoping that Christine would sleep.
“No,” he was yelling, hitting out at my hand and face with his little hands. “I want Charles and Hazel.” I tried to turn the fight into a joke, pretending to duck his punches, and at the same time talking quickly about how exciting it was to get up in the middle of the night and drink red juice in the kitchen. He gradually quietened down as he realised there was no danger, and the situation might be to his advantage.
“Strong juice,” he said. “Warm. With sugar in.”
I followed the instructions, pouring it into one of the plastic cups I had seen used earlier in the days. He pointed out that I had used Christine’s cup, and that was the best way to spread germs. I transferred it to the other cup, which was identical to the first. I tried to put him at ease by acting the part of a funny man, but he was not to be drawn in that way. He observed me in silence, his face small and white, his eyes betraying nothing of his thoughts.
When I suggested that he should go back to bed, he agreed, but explained that his nappy was wet and I would have to change it. He showed me where the clean nappies were kept, and by trial and error I eventually managed it to his satisfaction. He went quietly to bed, allowing me to tuck the blankets around him; and when I looked into the room ten minutes later he was fast asleep.
Charles was still burning, but he had stopped tossing about and seemed as though he might sleep through the night. I washed and went to bed myself, wondering what the morning would bring.
The next three days were an initiation into fatherhood, or motherhood, or both. Charles tried to get out of bed the first morning and collapsed on the floor. His pyjamas and sheets were wet with perspiration, and I had to change everything before I could start on the children. Their clothes were wet too, my first attempt at putting a nappy on had not been too successful. By the time I had dressed them both, a job that took more than an hour that first morning, I had a pile of wet sheets and pyjamas to fill the washing machine.
Breakfast was chaos. The children had to have their own dishes which were submerged beneath a sink full of dirty pots. There was only a handful of cornflakes left in the box, and I had to fill them up on bread and jam and red juice. Christine dropped everything on the floor, all the time gazing at me with wide eyes, as if unable to believe I had happened to them.
There was no time to think. I was a slave to the day, which roared at me from a thousand different directions. Get the medicine for Charles’ illness, but first dress the children, find their outdoor clothes, make out a shopping list for cornflakes and food for the rest of the day, master the washing machine, find the soap powder, keep the children happy, give Charles something to eat, drink, read, go to the lavatory, change the nappies again, and again. By the time the children were back in bed in the evening the house was wrecked. I tidied away the toys, swept the kitchen floor, hung out the washing in the dark and refilled the washing machine, took a milky drink up to Charles, who was fast asleep. Then I sat at the kitchen table and fell asleep myself.
I woke with a stiff neck at 1.30 in the morning, dragged myself up to bed, and was awoken by Tor at 2.30 for the red juice treatment. Then we slept until 6 am, when it started all over again.
On the day of the funeral Charles and I went together, leaving the children in the care of a neighbour. Charles was still weak from his illness, and I had forfeited so much sleep that I found it difficult to concentrate on the service. There was a dim beauty about it, and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment in the slow descent of the coffin. Like a reluctant soldier, I could have wished that it was not so, but there was a sense of destiny in my participation. Afterwards we exchanged greetings with Hazel’s family, with old friends. But there was not much to say. Hazel had gone. We had seen her off.
Charles went back to bed after the service, and I coped with the children for the rest of the day. In the evening I sat with Charles and he asked about the future.
“You wouldn’t think of staying on?” he said.
“For a few more days. Until you’re fit.”
“No. I mean for the foreseeable future.”
I shook my head.
“It would solve a lot of problems,” he said. “Tor and Christine are very close. They would both suffer if we split them up. And we could share the load if there was two of us.”
“It wouldn’t work, Charles.”
“Do you still intend to take Tor away?”
“That’s why I’m here,” I told him. “I can see it will have to be done gradually. I don’t want to cause any more trauma. I can only play it by ear.”
“What’s the plan then?” he said.
There wasn’t one. “I don’t know. I’ll stay for a few more days, and then try to find a flat close by. I want to introduce the idea to Tor gradually. Eventually we’ll go back to Norway, or find somewhere in England.”
He shook his head. “OK. But you don’t have to rush anything. You can stay here as long as you like.”
I never seriously looked for another flat. The following week Charles went back to his job with the Council, while I stayed at home with the children. There was plenty to do. The idea of moving out of the house gradually faded away, and I found myself adapting to the role of mother and house-wife. Once I tackled Tor about coming to Norway with me, and he seemed to think about it for a long time. Then he said:
“With Christine? And Charles?”
“No,” I said. “We could visit them sometimes. And sometimes they could visit us. But we wouldn’t live in the same house.”
He didn’t like the idea.
“We could live in a house by the sea,” I told him. “And in the winter there would be lots of snow.”
“No,” he said. “I want to live with Christine. And Charles.”
In the mornings I prepared breakfast, while Charles dressed the children. Then he went off to work. I washed the dishes, cleaned the house. Together with the children I did the shopping. After lunch we played games. I read them stories. Then we made dinner together, in time for Charles coming home from work.
Charles and I took it in turns to wash the dinner pots and put the children to bed. And in the evening we played chess or watched the television. Occasionally one or the other of us would go to the cinema, and once we hired a babysitter and went to the theatre together. A year went by like that. I enjoyed being with the children during the day, and I appreciated Charles’ company in the evening. He enjoyed his job with the Council, and was happy to relax with me when he came home. During the summer we took the kids to the seaside or into the country during the weekends.
Life was uncomplicated, and yet not without meaning. I had had enough of misery, of living close to madness. Charles and I had our fights occasionally, but we always managed to sort them out. I was constantly impressed by how easy he was to live with. He never sat down if there was something to do. And if everything seemed to be getting on top of me he would make a cup of tea, or take over my jobs for a time.
I didn’t make his life so easy. I have always been moody, and too easily slip into depression. Sometimes when he returned from work I had barely started on the dinner, and he would roll his sleeves up and start washing carrots or boiling the rice. Other times the kids would be too much during the day, and I would nag about how easy it was for him, while here I was slaving away at the stove, or the washing, talking in baby-talk from morning till night.
But he was strong. He managed it all. He would smooth away my depression, undermine my bad moods, and generally make life possible. He was a good man.
I still have the letter, so I don’t have to recall the wording. It was left on the desk in his bedroom:
It would have been painful for both of us to talk about the contents of this letter, and it would have solved no problems. The outcome would have been the same.
Quite simply, I have formed a relationship with someone else, a woman (you don’t know her) who needs me, and who I could not consider giving up for anything.
We are going away together (by the time you read this we shall have gone), and I am leaving you with both of the children. Tor and Christine. I hope and pray that you will care for them both.
It was written on blue paper in Charles’ large handwriting. On the envelope it says: To Trond. And he had stood it up against a stapler on his desk. His cupboard was empty. The drawers of the desk had been cleared. A picture had gone from the wall. The bed had been made.
I walked from the room as though it was possible to leave it behind. To close the door on his bedroom and seal inside the letter and the knowledge of the letter, the act and its implications.
But my will collapsed as I descended the stairs. My legs started to give, and I had to sit on the bottom step. I remember thinking that I wasn’t breathing, and having to take in great gulps of air. I thought, without any hint of panic, that I was dying. The physical processes of my body were no longer being driven.
“What are you doing?” Tor asked, sitting next to me on the step, resting his head on my leg.
“Sitting down,” part of me answered, the other part thinking that perhaps it was a joke, that even if it wasn’t a joke, Charles would regret leaving us and come back again. Yes, tonight; tonight or tomorrow he would come back. Christine was his daughter. We were a family. He couldn’t leave us. He couldn’t disappear.
“On the stairs?” said Tor.
“Yes. With you.”
“Christine’s in the ‘fridge.” He pulled me by the hand and took me into the kitchen. Christine was sat in front of the open door of the ‘fridge, drinking yoghurt from the carton. The remains of last night’s meal were littered on the floor around her.
None of us have seen or heard from Charles since.
Our house by the sea in Oslo is a large, old, wooden building. During the summer we spent a lot of time on the beach, fishing, playing with buckets and spades. Now it is winter and the children are in bed. Today we walked on the frozen surface of the fjord and I can see its silvery sheen from my window as I write the concluding words of this memoir.
I do not dwell. I have found an equilibrium in my soul. The two children with whom I live cannot help but remind me of the two adults with whom I lived in England, but they are faded memories, dead memories. At night they come to me in dreams, strangely intermingled with each other. Hazel turns and in a moment of metamorphosis she is Charles. He speaks to me from the other end of a long room, receding as I try to reach him, slowly becoming my faithless wife of long ago.
They are not bad dreams. They do not enlighten me, but they have nothing of the quality of nightmare. The night is beyond me. What happens in the region of sleep is of another world.
But the days are mine. They belong to me and the children. Tor speaks fluent Norwegian now, and Christine has learnt to run and laugh at the same time. Sometimes I think the period of exile is over.