Authors: Karl Ove Knausgaard,Don Bartlett
Vanja, who was sitting on the floor slightly apart from the other children, looked towards us. I put Heidi down, and it was as though Vanja had been waiting for that: she got up at once and came over, took Heidi by the hand and led her to the games shelf, from which she passed her the wooden snail with feelers that whirred when you pulled it along the floor.
‘Look, Heidi!’ she said, taking it out of her hands and putting it on the floor. ‘You pull the string like this. Then it whirrs. See?’
Heidi grabbed the string and pulled. The snail toppled over.
‘No, not like that,’ Vanja said. ‘I’ll show you.’
She placed the snail upright and slowly dragged it a few metres.
‘I’ve got a little sister!’ she said aloud. Robin had gone to the window, where he stood staring out into the backyard. Stella, who was energetic and presumably extra lively since it was her party, excitedly shouted something which I didn’t understand, pointed to one of the two smaller girls, who handed her the doll she was clutching, took out a little buggy, placed the doll in it and began to push it down the hall. Achilles had found his way to Benjamin, a boy eighteen months older than Vanja who usually sat deeply absorbed in something, a drawing or a pile of Lego or a pirate ship with plastic pirates. He was imaginative, independent and well behaved, and was sitting with Achilles now, building the railway track Vanja and I had started. The two smaller girls ran after Stella. Heidi was whimpering. She was probably hungry. I went into the kitchen and sat down beside Linda.
‘Will you go and see to them for a bit?’ I said. ‘I think Heidi’s hungry.’
She nodded, patted my shoulder and got up. It took me a few seconds to figure out the subject of the two conversations going on round the table. One was about the car pool, the other about cars, and I inferred that the conversations must have gone off in opposite directions. The darkness outside the windows was dense, the light in the kitchen was frugal, the creases in the Swedish faces around the table were in shadow, and eyes gleamed in the glow from the candles. Erik and Frida and a woman whose name I didn’t remember were standing at the worktop with their backs to us, preparing food. The tenderness I felt for Vanja filled me to the brim, but there was nothing I could do. I glanced at the person speaking, gave a faint smile whenever there was a witticism and sipped at the glass of red wine someone had put in front of me.
Directly facing me was the only person who stood out. His face was large, his cheeks were scarred, features coarse, eyes intense. The hands on the table were large. He was wearing a 50s-style shirt and blue jeans rolled up to the calf. His hair was also typical of the 50s, and he sported sideboards. But that was not what made him different; it was his personality, you could sense him sitting there, even though he didn’t say much.
Once I had been to a party in Stockholm at which a boxer had been present. He was sitting in the kitchen, his physical presence was tangible, and he filled me with a distinct but unpleasant sensation of inferiority. A sensation that I was inferior to him. Strangely enough, the evening was to prove me right. The party was hosted by one of Linda’s friends, Cora, her flat was small, so people were standing around chatting everywhere. Music was blaring from a system in the living room. Outside, the streets were white with snow. Linda was heavily pregnant, this was perhaps the last party we would be able to go to before the child was born and changed everything, so even though she was tired, she wanted to try and stay there for a while. I had a drop of wine and chatted to Thomas, who was a photographer and friend of Geir’s; he knew Cora through his partner, Marie, who was a poet and had been one of Cora’s instructors at Biskops-Arnö Folk High School. Linda was sitting on a chair pulled back from the table because of her stomach, she was laughing and happy, and I was probably the only person aware of the slight introversion and faint glow that had come over her during these last few months. After a while she got up and went out, I smiled at her and turned my attention back to Thomas, who was saying something about the genes of redheads, so prevalent here this evening.
Someone was knocking.
‘Cora!’ I heard. ‘Cora!’
Was it Linda?
I got up and went into the hallway.
The knocking was coming from inside the bathroom.
‘Is that you, Linda?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I think the door lock has jammed. Can you get Cora? There must be some sort of knack to it.’
I went into the living room and tapped Cora on the shoulder. She was holding a plate of food in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other.
‘Linda’s locked in the bathroom,’ I said.
‘Oh no!’ she said, set the glass and the plate down and dashed out.
They conferred for a while through the locked door. Linda tried to follow the instructions she was given, but nothing helped, the door was and remained jammed. Everyone in the flat was aware of the situation now, the mood was both amused and excited, a whole flock of people were in the hall giving advice to Linda while Cora, flummoxed and anxious, kept saying that Linda was heavily pregnant, we had to do something now. In the end the decision was taken to ring for a locksmith. While we waited for him I stood by the door talking to Linda inside, unpleasantly conscious of the fact that everyone could hear what I said and of my own helplessness. Couldn’t I just kick the door in and get her out? Simple and effective?
I had never kicked a door in before. I didn’t know how solid it was. Imagine if it didn’t budge. How stupid would that look?
The locksmith arrived half an hour later. He laid out a canvas bag of tools on the floor and began to fiddle with the lock. He was small, wore glasses and had the beginnings of a bald patch, said nothing to the circle of people around him, tried one tool after another in vain, the damned lock wouldn’t budge. In the end, he gave up, told Cora it was no good, he couldn’t get the door open.
‘What shall we do then?’ Cora asked. ‘She’s due soon!’
‘You’ll have to kick it in,’ he said, starting to pack his tools.
Who was going to kick it in?
It had to be me. I was Linda’s husband. It was my responsibility.
My heart was pounding.
Should I do it? Take a step back in full view of everyone and kick it with all my might?
What if the door didn’t give? What if it swung open and hit Linda?
She would have to take shelter in the corner.
Calmly, I breathed in and out several times. But it didn’t help, I was still shaking inside. Attracting attention like this was anathema to me. If there was a risk of failure it was even worse.
Cora looked around.
‘We have to kick the door in,’ she said. ‘Who can do that?’
The locksmith disappeared through the door. If it was going to be me, now was the time to step forward.
But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
‘Micke,’ Cora said. ‘He’s a boxer.’
She swivelled to fetch him from the living room.
‘I can ask him,’ I said. In that way I wouldn’t be hiding my humiliation at any rate, I would tell him straight out that I, as Linda’s husband, didn’t dare to kick in the door, I was asking you, as a boxer and a giant, to do it for me.
He was standing by the window with a beer in his hand chatting to two girls.
‘Hello, Micke,’ I said.
He looked at me.
‘She’s still locked in the bathroom. The locksmith couldn’t open the door. Could you kick it in, do you think?’
‘Of course,’ he said, eyeing me for a moment before putting down his beer and going into the hallway. I followed. People moved to the side as he made his way to the door.
‘Are you in there?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ said Linda.
‘Stand as far back from the door as you can. I’m going to kick it in.’
‘Right,’ Linda said.
He waited for a moment. Then he raised his foot and kicked the door with such force that the lock was knocked inwards. Splinters flew.
When Linda came out, some people clapped.
‘Poor you,’ Cora said. ‘I’m so sorry. Subjecting you to that, and then . . .’
Micke turned and went.
‘How are you?’ I asked.
‘Fine,’ Linda said. ‘But I think maybe we should go home soon.’
‘Of course,’ I said.
In the living room the music was turned down as two women in their early thirties were about to read their gushing poems. I passed Linda her jacket, put on mine, said goodbye to Cora and Thomas, my shame seared inside me, but the last duty remained, I had to thank Micke for what he had done. I made my way through the poetry audience and stopped by the window in front of him.
‘Thank you very much,’ I said. ‘You rescued her.’
He blew out his cheeks and shrugged his shoulders. ‘It was nothing.’
In the taxi on the way home I hardly looked at Linda. I hadn’t risen to the task. I had been so cowardly as to let someone else do the job, and all of that was visible in my eyes. I was a miserable wretch.
When we were in bed she asked what was wrong with me. I said I was ashamed that I hadn’t kicked in the door. She looked at me in astonishment. The thought had not even occurred to her. Why should I have done it? I wasn’t the type, was I.
The man sitting on the opposite side of the table radiated some of the same vibes the boxer in Stockholm had. It didn’t have anything to do with the size of his body or muscle mass, for even though several of the men here had well-trained powerful upper bodies they still made a lightweight impression, their presence in the room was fleeting and insignificant like a casual thought. No, there was something else, and whenever I met it I came off worse, I saw myself as the weak trammelled man I was, who lived his life in the world of words. I sat musing on this while taking occasional peeps at him and listening to the ongoing conversation with half an ear. Now it had turned to various teaching styles, and which schools each of them was considering for their children. After a short intermezzo in which Linus talked about a sports day he had attended, the conversation moved to house prices. There was agreement that house prices had soared over recent years, but more in Stockholm than here, and that presumably it was just a question of time before the tide would turn, maybe they would even fall as steeply as they had risen. Then Linus turned to face me.
‘What are house prices like in Norway, then?’ he asked.
‘About the same as here,’ I said. ‘Oslo’s as expensive as Stockholm. It’s a bit cheaper in the provinces.’
He kept his eyes fixed on me for a while, in case I might exploit the opening he had given me, but when this proved not to be the case, he turned back and continued chatting. He had done the very same thing at the first general meeting we had attended, though at that time with a kind of critical undertone, because, as he had put it, the meeting was drawing to a close and Linda and I still hadn’t said anything, the point was that everyone should have their say, that was the whole idea of a parents’ cooperative. I had no idea what to think about the matter under discussion, and it was Linda who, with a faint blush, weighed up the pros and cons on behalf of the family, with the whole assembly staring at her. First on the agenda was whether the nursery should get rid of the cook who was employed there, and instead go for a catering firm, which would be cheaper, and second, if they did that, what kind of food they should opt for: vegetarian or the standard? Lodjuret was actually a vegetarian nursery, that was the principle on which it had been founded in its day, but now only four of the parents were vegetarians, and since the children didn’t eat much of the numerous varieties of vegetables that were served up, many parents thought they might as well dispense with the principle. The discussion lasted for several hours and scoured the subject like a trawl net on the seabed. The meat percentage in various types of sausage was brought up; it was one thing that the sausages bought in shops had the meat percentage printed on the label, but quite another what catering companies did with their sausages, because how could you know how much meat they contained? To me sausages were sausages. I didn’t have the slightest idea about the world that was opening before my eyes that evening, least of all that there were people who could delve so deeply into it. Wasn’t it nice for the children to have a cook who made food for them in their kitchen? I thought but didn’t say, and I was beginning to hope that the whole discussion would pass without our having to say anything, before, that is, Linus fixed his astute and naïve eyes on us.
From the living room came the sound of Heidi crying. Again I thought of Vanja. Usually she solved situations like these by doing exactly the same as the others. If they pulled out a chair, she pulled out a chair, if they sat down, she sat down, if they laughed, she laughed, even if she didn’t understand what they were laughing at. If they ran around calling a name, she ran around calling a name. That was her method. But Stella had seen through it. Once I happened to be there and heard her say, You just copy us! You’re a parrot! A parrot! That hadn’t deterred her from continuing, so far the method had proved too successful for that, but now when Stella herself was holding court it probably did inhibit her. I knew she understood what this was all about. Several times she had said the same to Heidi, that she copied her, she was a parrot.
Stella was eighteen months older than Vanja, who admired her above all else. When she was allowed to tag along, it was at Stella’s grace, and she had this hold on all the children in the nursery. She was a beautiful child, she had blonde hair and big eyes, was always nicely, sensibly dressed, and the streak of cruelty she possessed was no worse and no better than that displayed by other children at the top of the hierarchy. That was not why I had problems with her. The problems for me were that she was so aware of the impression she made on adults, and the way in which she exploited this charming innocence. During my compulsory duties at the nursery I had never fallen for it. No matter how sparkling the eyes she clapped on me when she asked for something, my reaction remained one of indifference, which of course confused her, and she redoubled her endeavours to charm me. Once she had stayed with us after nursery to go to the park and sat beside Vanja in the double buggy while I carried Heidi on one arm and pushed them with the other. She jumped out a few hundred metres before the park to run the last stretch, which I reacted sharply to. I called her back and said that she was to sit nicely in the buggy until we arrived, there were cars around, couldn’t she see them? She looked at me in surprise, she wasn’t used to that tone, and even though I was not satisfied with the way I had resolved the situation, I also thought that a
was not the worst thing that could befall this creature. But she had taken note of it, because when, half an hour later, I swung them round by their feet to their immense glee, and then knelt down to fight with them, which Vanja loved, especially when she took a run-up and knocked me over onto the grass, Stella, when it was her turn, kicked me on the calf instead, and that was all right once, all right twice, but when she did it a third time I told her, That hurts, that does, just stop it now, Stella, which of course she ignored, now it had become exciting, and she kicked me again, with a loud laugh, and Vanja, who always aped her, also laughed, whereupon I got up, grabbed Stella around the waist and stood her up. ‘Listen to me, you little brat,’ I felt like saying, and would have done had her mother not been coming to collect her in half an hour. ‘Listen, Stella,’ I said instead, harshly, with annoyance, looking her in the eye. ‘When I say no, I mean no. Do you understand?’ She looked down, refusing to answer. I raised her chin. ‘Do you understand?’ I asked again. She nodded, and I let her go. ‘I’m going to sit on that bench over there. You can play on your own until your mother comes.’ Vanja sent me a bemused look. But then she laughed and tugged at Stella. For her, scenes like this were everyday occurrences. Fortunately, Stella dropped the matter at once, for I was really skating on thin ice – what on earth would I do if she began to cry or scream? But she went with Vanja over to the big ‘train’ which was teeming with kids. When her mother came she had two paper cups of latte in her hand. Usually I would have gone as soon as she arrived, but when she passed me a cup of coffee I had no option but to sit down and listen to her chatter on about her job, while squinting into the low November sun and keeping half an eye on the children.