Martin Hansen’s Outing

Still from Tarkovsky's Sacrifice.

Kjell Askildsen’s Selected Stories, translated by Sean Kinsella, will be published by Dalkey Archive Press in May.

Walking back towards the house, late one Friday afternoon in early August, I’d suddenly felt tired, as if I’d been carrying something heavy, although all I had been doing was tying up raspberry canes. I got to the steps, sat down on the second-to-last one, and thought: there’s no one at home anyway. A moment later I heard voices from the living room, and before I managed to get to my feet, my daughter, Mona, said: What are you doing sitting here? I stood up and said: I didn’t think there was anyone at home. We just got in, she said. We? I said. Me and Vera, she said. Vera and I, I said. Vera and I, she said. I began walking up the steps. Where’s mom? she asked. At Granddad’s, I said. I walked past her and into the living room, and thought: or wherever else she might be. Mona said: Can Vera and I sit out in the garden? Of course, I said. She asked if they could have a Coke. Where is she? I asked. In the toilet, said Mona. I said they could each have a Coke. I went up to the stairs and into the bedroom. The double bed was made. I wasn’t tired anymore. Vera, I thought, isn’t she the one who’s always staring at me? I went over to the open window, and I stood there as they walked across the lawn over to the garden table. I thought: she must be at least a couple of years older than Mona. After a while, I went into the study and got the binoculars. I looked at her very closely, for a long time. I didn’t look at Mona. I thought: you look good. Then I went over and lay down on the bed. I closed my eyes and pictured myself taking her. It wasn’t difficult.

A half hour later I was sitting in the living room with a cup of coffee and a glass of brandy, when I heard Eli coming in the front door. I got up so that she wouldn’t see me sitting idly. I took an encyclopedia from the bookshelf and opened it at a random page. She came into the living room. There you are, I said. Oh, yes, she said, it’s hard to get away from him, I’m all he has. I don’t think he’s got too long left. I sat down. Is Mona not at home? she said. She’s out in the garden, I said, with a friend. Has he gotten worse? Eli went over to the window. I don’t know if I like Mona spending so much time with that Vera one, she said. Oh? I said. She’s a lot older than her, almost sixteen, she should have friends her own age. I didn’t answer; for a moment I wasn’t sure if I’d removed the binoculars from the bedroom, and it made me feel slightly anxious. I asked her if she wanted me to make her a cup of coffee, but she had had at least three cups at the nursing home, she could, however, do with a glass of brandy. While I was getting it, I told her that my brother had phoned, that there was something he needed to talk to me about. Is that why you’re drinking brandy? she said. I didn’t reply. She sat down on the sofa. I handed her the glass. Is he coming here? she said. No, of course not, I said, I’m going to meet him in town. I walked over to the window. I looked at Vera and Mona and said: The raspberries are almost ripe. Yes, she said. I’ve tied them up, I said. Have you watered them? she said. It only rained three days ago, I said. I heard her putting down the glass and getting to her feet. I turned, looked at my watch and said: Well, I’d better get a move on. Are you going to be late? She asked. I don’t know, I said.

When I got into town I felt slightly at a loss. I rarely go out alone, and I don’t have a local. After having pottered around aimlessly in the streets for a while, I bought a newspaper and went into the bar at the Hotell Norge. It was empty. I bought a beer and spread the paper out on the table in front of me. I tried to think up things my brother would have wanted to talk to me about, but couldn’t come up with anything. I leafed through the paper while I thought: all you have to do is just let everything take its course, just refrain from trying to bring things to a halt. I left the bar an hour later; I was slightly drunk and correspondingly buoyed. A train of thought led me to recall something my father used to say to me, when as a boy I wasn’t allowed to do something and I said: I will; He said: Your will is in my trouser pocket. And for the first time I wondered what his trouser pocket had to do with anything.

While I walked along puzzling this peripheral problem—what my will was doing in my father’s trouser pocket; did he have his will in there too?—I came to a part of town I rarely frequent, and when I caught sight of a pub called “Johnnie,” I felt an impulse, probably the very intention of the name, and went in. The premises consisted of a bar and three or four small tables. All the tables were taken. I went over to the bar and ordered a whisky; I wanted to get out of there quickly. Ice? said the barman. Neat, I said. A man came over to the bar. He spoke to me, he said: Good to see you again. I looked at him. I thought I might have seen him before. Likewise, I said. So you recognize me? he said. Yes, I said. That was some night, eh? he said. Yes, I said. Do you live here? he asked. Here? I said. Yeah, here in town? You know I do, I said. No, I didn’t know that, he said. No, maybe I never mentioned it, I said. I finished my drink. I’m sitting over there, he said, come on over and have a chat. I told him I had to be getting on, I was already late, I was on my way to meet my brother. That’s a pity, he said. Some other time, I said. Yes, he said. Regards to Maria, that’s her name, isn’t it? That’s right, I said. Then I left. I felt completely sober. I wondered if he’d ever meet whomever he thought he’d met.

I ended up roaming the streets; it was only half-past nine and I didn’t feel like going home. Although, I didn’t feel like doing anything else either. I walked over the bridge and all the way to the railway station. There were a number of people standing on the platform waiting for a southbound train. A voice came over the PA and announced the train would be eight minutes delayed. I went into the station restaurant, bought a beer at the bar and sat down at a table by the window. I managed to drain the glass before the train arrived. When the train left, I went to the toilet. There must have been someone standing in one of the cubicles waiting for a victim. I felt a blow against my head, and then nothing, before I came around, alone, on the floor. I threw up, and just then the door opened. I wanted to stand up. A voice cried something out. I think he thought I was drunk, and I wanted to say something, but I wasn’t able to. I don’t remember everything very clearly. I didn’t make any more attempts to get to my feet. After a little while I was picked up and helped out of the toilet and into an office. I was set down on a chair. I had vomit on my jacket. I was ashamed. I was driven to the hospital in an ambulance. A doctor shone a light into my eyes and ears and asked me a few questions, which I answered, and then he left. I lay there staring at the ceiling, and then he came back and asked how I felt. I told him my head hurt. I’d say it does, he said, you have a mild concussion. I asked if I could call home to get my wife to come and collect me. Just a moment, he said and disappeared again. I sat up. A nurse came in with my jacket and my shirt; I’d thrown up on them as well. We got most of it out, she said. Thank you, I said. There’s a payphone out in the hall on the right hand side, she said. I don’t have any money, I said. No, of course not, she said. She left. I put on my shirt. She came back with a cordless phone, then she left me on my own. I tapped in the number. It took a long time for Eli to answer. It’s me, I said, do you think you could come collect me, I’m at the hospital, at the A&E, it’s nothing serious, but I’ve had my wallet stolen and I’ve—At the A&E? she said. Yes, I said. Oh Martin, she said. It’s nothing serious, I said. I’m on my way, she said.

She came half an hour later. She was quite calm; she had that soft expression she sometimes has when she’s asleep. She stroked my cheek. She said she had spoken to the doctor. I pulled on my jacket. She looked at it. I’ve thrown up, I said. I know, she said. We walked through the corridor and the waiting room and out to the car. Wasn’t William with you? She said. No, I said, I was alone. She didn’t say any more. My head was pounding. I’ve been on my own all night, I said. She didn’t answer. We drove over the bridge and past Hotell Norge. Didn’t he show up? she asked. He didn’t call, I said. After a while I turned and looked at her; she pretended not to notice. When we were almost home, she said: Are you taking advantage of the situation to tell me something you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to bring yourself to say? I’m just telling it like it is, I said. Yes, okay, she said, but why? What’s the point of all this sudden honesty? I didn’t reply. She drove in the gate and pulled up in front of the garage. I got out of the car and walked to the front door. I unlocked it and went inside. I poured myself a glass of brandy and knocked it back. What are you doing? she said from behind me. My head is sore, I said. The doctor said you weren’t to drink alcohol, she said. Come to bed instead. I didn’t know what to do. Then I realized that it didn’t matter what I did. Okay, I said.

I’d been lying there a while when she came into the bedroom. She turned off the light before getting undressed, either because she saw I was awake, or in spite of it. She didn’t say anything before getting into bed, then she said: I’ve told Mona you were going to meet William. Presumably you don’t have any objections to saying he didn’t show up? I didn’t reply. Have you? she said. No, I said. Good night, she said. Good night, I said.

It took me a while to fall asleep. I thought about what she’d said: What’s the point of all this sudden honesty? Then I thought: what does she know about me that I don’t know that she knows?

Then I thought: what does she know about me that I don’t know that she knows?

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When I awoke, she was already up. I tried to go back asleep. My head was sore. It was past nine. I had to go to the toilet, and I made as little noise as possible so that she wouldn’t hear me. I didn’t flush. I went back to bed, but couldn’t sleep. I got up, parted the curtains slightly and saw Eli and Mona sitting at the garden table, eating breakfast. I dressed quickly and went down to them. Mona wanted to know everything. Eli went to fetch me a cup of tea. Mona couldn’t understand why I’d been at the restaurant at the railway station. I explained it to her. So it was actually Uncle William’s fault, she said. It wasn’t as if I needed to go there just because he didn’t turn up, I said. No, but still, she said. I didn’t reply. She continued quizzing me. Eli came back with the tea; she sat down. Did the ambulance have its siren on? asked Mona. I don’t think so, I said. But the lights were flashing? she said. Let your father eat now, said Eli. I don’t know, I said. We sat in silence for a while. Then Mona mentioned that she had to do something before she went to the beach, and Eli asked whom she was going with. Vera, said Mona, and I waited for Eli to say something about that, but she didn’t. Who’s Vera? I said. You know who she is, said Mona, the one who was here yesterday. Oh right, I said. Eli didn’t say anything. Mona stood up and left. Now it’s our turn, I thought, but Eli just asked how I felt. I replied that I was fine, apart from having a slightly sore head. Good, she said. She got up and began to clear the table; she only had enough room on the tray for half of the things. I watched her as she walked across the lawn, I thought: she hasn’t even asked me how much there was in my wallet. Then I remembered how she’d stroked me across the cheek, and when she came back I wanted to say something, but she beat me to it. She asked if I’d told Mona that William hadn’t shown up. Yes, I said, and she thought it was his fault things turned out the way they did. So what? she said. No, nothing, I said. No, because it couldn’t possibly bother you, she said, after all it’s quite natural for one lie to lead to another. It’s not the way you think, I said. What do you know about what I think? she said. Tell me what you think I think. I didn’t reply. She cleared the rest of the table with jerky movements then she said: Tell me, was it in a moment of weakness or of strength that you came clean about William? I didn’t reply. She left. I thought: fuck her.

After a while I stood up and walked past the raspberries over to the only spot in the garden where you can’t be seen from the house. I hadn’t found the answer to that last question she’d asked me. I sat down on the stump of the big, diseased birch tree that we’d felled four years ago; I sat facing the cypress hedge that backed onto the side road; through one of the gaps in the hedge, I could see the broken fence-pale which Eli still hadn’t noticed, and which I still hadn’t got around to replacing, and suddenly it struck me that my non-disclosure and falsehoods were prerequisites for my freedom, and that my admission in the car had been an expression of indifference arising from the situation, which had nothing to do with honesty.

Rather elated at having clarified this, I got up and went back to the garden table. The veranda door was open. I intended to tell her that I was sorry for having said it wasn’t true that I had arranged to meet William. Just then she came out onto the veranda. I’m off to visit Dad, she called, and then went back inside.

I sat there until I was sure she had left, and then went in, closed the veranda door, locked it, and went up to the bedroom. I kicked off my sandals and lay down. I thought about her having said: Oh Martin, and that she had stroked my cheek. After a while I slipped into a doze filled with images: changing landscapes I had not seen before, and of which there was nothing frightening, but which nevertheless filled me with such a strong feeling of unease or anxiety that I had to get out of bed and pace back and forth on the bedroom floor. It helped. It’s always helped. But I didn’t lie down again.

A little while after Eli got home—we hadn’t spoken to one another, she was standing by the kitchen window looking out—I went over to her, laid my hand gently upon her and told her I was sorry for having said that I was going to meet William. Yes, well, she said. I withdrew my hand. It didn’t have anything to do with you, I said. Oh Martin, she said. I didn’t know what else to say, but I didn’t leave. She turned and looked at me. I met her gaze. I couldn’t make out what was in it. This doesn’t change anything, she said. No, I thought. Does it? she said. No, I said.

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