Authors: Karl Ove Knausgaard,Don Bartlett
The week when I’d had nursery duty and in principle had been like any employee ran more or less like clockwork; I had worked a lot in institutions before and soon had all the routines off pat, which the staff were not accustomed to seeing with parents, nor was I a stranger to dressing and undressing children, changing their nappies and even playing if it was required. The children reacted to my presence in different ways, of course. For example, one of them who hung around without any friends, a gangling white-haired boy, wanted to crawl up onto my lap all the time, either to have a story read or just to sit there. I played with another one for half an hour after the others had gone, his mother was late, but he forgot all about that when we played pirate ships. To his great delight, I kept adding new features like sharks and marauding boats and fires. A third boy, on the other hand, the oldest there, immediately discovered one of my weak spots by taking a bunch of keys from my pocket while we were at the table eating. The mere fact that I didn’t stop him, even though I was angry, allowed him to follow the scent. First of all, he asked if there was a car key. When I shook my head he asked me why not. I haven’t got a car, I said. Why not? he asked. I haven’t got a licence, I said. Can’t you drive a car? he said. Aren’t you an adult, then? he asked. All adults can drive cars, can’t they? Then he jingled the keys under my nose. I let him do it, thinking he would soon tire of it, but he didn’t; on the contrary he persisted. I’ve got your keys, he said. And you can’t get them. He kept jingling them under my nose. The other children watched us, the three members of staff as well. I made the mistake of lunging for the keys. He managed to pull them away in time, and laughed and jeered. Ha, ha, you didn’t get them! he crowed. Again I tried not to show my annoyance. He started banging the keys on the table. Don’t do that, I said. He just smiled cheekily and persisted. One of the nursery staff told him to stop. And he did. But continued to dangle them from his hand. You’ll never get them, he said. Then Vanja broke in.
‘Give the keys to daddy!’ she said.
What kind of situation was this?
I acted as if nothing was happening, leaned over the food again and went on eating. But the little devil continued to tease me. Jingle, jingle. I decided to let him keep them until we had finished eating. Drank some water, feeling my face strangely flushed over such a tiny matter. Was that what Olaf, the head of the nursery, saw? At any rate, he ordered Jocke to hand back the keys. And Jocke did, without any fuss.
All my adult life I have kept a distance from other people, it has been my way of coping because I come so incredibly close to others in my thoughts and feelings they only have to look away dismissively for a storm to break inside me. That closeness naturally informs my relationship with children too, that is what allows me to sit down and play with them, but as they lack any veneer of courtesy and decency that adults have, this also means they can freely penetrate the outer bulwarks of my personality and then wreak as much havoc as they wish. My only defence, when it all started, was either sheer physical strength, which I was not able to use, or else simply to pretend I wasn’t bothered, possibly the best approach, but something I wasn’t so adept at, since the children, at least the most forward of them, immediately discovered how uncomfortable I was in their presence.
Oh, how undignified this was!
Everything was suddenly turned on its head. I, who wasn’t fond of the nursery Vanja attended, who just wanted it to look after Vanja for me so that I could work in peace for some hours every day without knowing what she was doing or how she was, I who didn’t want any closeness in my life, who could not get enough of distance, could not be alone enough, who all of a sudden had to spend a week there as an employee and get involved in everything that happened, but it did not stop there, for when you dropped off your children or picked them up it was normal to sit for a few minutes in the playroom or dining room or wherever they were, and chat to the other parents, perhaps play a little with the children, and every day of the week . . . I usually kept this to the bare minimum, took Vanja and put on her coat before anyone discovered what was going on, but now and then I was trapped in the corridor, a conversation was initiated, and, hey presto, there I was sitting on one of those low deep sofas making agreement noises about something or other that was of no interest to me whatsoever while the brashest of the children yanked and tugged at me, wanting me to throw them, carry them, swing them round or, in the case of Jocke, who incidentally was the son of the kind book-loving banker Gustav, was content merely to stab me with sharp objects.
Spending Saturday afternoon and evening squeezed between others at a table and eating vegetables with a strained but courteous smile on your face was part of the same obligation.
Erik lifted down a stack of plates from a cupboard above the worktop while Frida counted knives and forks. I took a sip of wine and could feel how hungry I was. Stella stopped in the doorway, her face red and a little sweaty.
‘Is it time for the cake now?’ she called.
Frida swivelled round.
‘Soon, sweetheart. But first we have to eat some proper food.’
Her attention wandered from the child to those sitting around the table.
‘The food’s ready,’ she said. ‘Help yourselves. There are the plates and cutlery. And you can take some food for your children too.’
‘Ah, that sounds good,’ Linus said, getting up. ‘What is there?’
I had planned to stay seated until the queue had died down. When I saw what Linus had returned with – beans, salad, the ever-present couscous and a hot dish I assumed was chickpea casserole – I got up and went into the kitchen.
‘Food’s in there,’ I said to Linda, who was standing with Vanja wrapped around her legs and Heidi in her arms chatting to Mia. ‘Shall we swap?’
‘Yes, that’s good,’ Linda said. ‘I’m ravenous.’
‘Can we go home now, daddy?’ Vanja said.
‘But we’re eating,’ I said. ‘And afterwards there’s cake. Shall I get you some food?’
‘Don’t want anything,’ she said.
‘I’ll get you something anyway,’ I said, and took Heidi by the arm. ‘And you come with me.’
‘Heidi’s had a banana, by the way,’ Linda said. ‘But she’ll probably want some food as well.’
‘Come on, Theresa, let’s go and get something for you,’ Mia said.
I followed them in, lifted Heidi into my arms and stood in the queue. She rested her head against my shoulder, which she only did when she was tired. My shirt stuck to my chest. Every face I saw, every glance I met, every voice I heard, hung like a lead weight on me. When I was asked a question, or asked a question myself, it was as if the words had to be dynamited out. Heidi made it easier, having her there was a kind of protection, both because I had something to occupy myself with and because her presence diverted others’ attention. They smiled at her, asked if she was tired and stroked her cheek. A large part of my relationship with Heidi was based on me carrying her. It was the basis of our relationship. She always wanted to be carried, never wanted to walk, stretched up her arms as soon as she saw me, and smiled with pleasure whenever she was allowed to hang from my arms. And I liked having her close, the little chubby creature with the greedy mouth.
I put some beans, a couple of spoonfuls of chickpea casserole and a dollop of couscous on a plate and carried it into the living room, where all the children were sitting around the low table in the middle, with a helpful parent behind.
‘Don’t want anything,’ Vanja said as soon as I set the plate in front of her.
‘That’s OK,’ I said. ‘You don’t have to eat if you don’t want to. But do you think Heidi wants some?’
I speared some beans on the fork and raised it to her mouth. She pinched her lips together and twisted her head away.
‘Come on now,’ I said. ‘I know you’re both hungry.’
‘Can we play with the train?’ Vanja asked.
I looked at her. Normally she would have stared either at the train set or up at me, begging as often as not, but now she was staring straight ahead.
‘Of course we can,’ I said. I put Heidi down and went to the corner of the room where I had to press my knees against my body, almost into my chest, to make room between the tiny children’s furniture and the toy boxes. I took the railway track apart and passed it piece by piece to Vanja, who tried to reassemble it. When the pieces didn’t fit she forced them together with all her strength. I waited until she was on the point of throwing them down in fury before intervening. Heidi constantly wanted to tear the track up, and my eyes searched for something to give her as a diversion. A puzzle? A cuddly toy? A little plastic pony with large eyelashes and a long pink synthetic mane? She hurled all of them away.
‘Daddy, can you help me?’ Vanja said.
‘Course I can,’ I said. ‘Look. Let’s put a bridge here, so the train can go over and under it. That’ll be good, won’t it.’
Heidi grabbed one of the bridge pieces.
‘Heidi!’ Vanja said.
I took it from her, and she began to scream. I took her in my arms and stood up.
‘I can’t do it!’ Vanja said.
‘I’ll be there in a sec. I’m just going to take Heidi to mummy,’ I said, and went to the kitchen carrying Heidi on my hip like an experienced housewife. Linda was chatting with Gustav, the only one of the Lodjuret parents with a good old-fashioned profession, and with whom for some reason she got on well. He was jovial, his face shone, his short always neatly dressed body was robust and stocky, his neck strong, his chin broad, his face chubby but open and cheerful. He liked talking about books he had enjoyed, the latest of which were by Richard Ford.
‘They’re fantastic,’ he would say. ‘Have you read them? They’re about an estate agent, an ordinary man, yes, and his life, so recognisable and normal. Ford captures the whole spirit of America! The American mood, the very pulse of the country!’
I liked Gustav, especially his decency, which was thanks to nothing more complicated than his having a basic, honest job, which incidentally none of my friends had, least of all myself. We were the same age, but I thought of him as ten years older from his appearance. He was adult in the way our parents had been when I was growing up.
‘I think perhaps Heidi ought to go to sleep soon,’ I said. ‘She seems tired. And probably hungry too. Will you take her home?’
‘Yes, just have to finish eating first, OK?’
‘Now I’ve held your book in my hand!’ Gustav said. ‘I was in the bookshop, and there it was. It looked interesting. Was it published by Norstedts?’
‘Yes,’ I said with a strained smile. ‘It was.’
‘You didn’t buy it then?’ Linda asked, not without a teasing tone to her voice.
‘No, not this time,’ he said, wiping his mouth with a serviette. ‘It’s about angels, isn’t it?’
I nodded. Heidi had slipped from my grasp, and when I lifted her up again I noticed how heavy her nappy was.
‘I’ll change her before you go,’ I said. ‘You brought the changing bag, didn’t you?’
‘Yes, it’s in the hall.’
‘OK,’ I said, and went out to fetch a nappy. In the living room Vanja and Achilles were running around, jumping from the sofa onto the floor, laughing, getting up and jumping off again. I felt a surge of warmth in my breast. Leaned over and picked up a nappy and a packet of wipes while Heidi clung to me like a little koala bear. There was no changing table in the bathroom, so I laid her on the floor tiles, took off her stockings, tore off the two adhesive tabs on the nappy and threw it in the bin under the sink while Heidi watched me with a serious expression.
‘Just wee-wee!’ she said. Then she turned her head to the side and stared at the wall, apparently unmoved by my putting on a clean nappy, the way she had done ever since she was a baby.
‘There we are,’ I said. ‘That’s you done.’
I grabbed her hands and pulled her up. Then folded her tights, which were slightly damp, and took them to the bag on the buggy, whereupon I dressed her in some jogging pants I found, and then the brown bubble-lined corduroy jacket she had been given for her first birthday by Yngve. Linda came in while I was putting on Heidi’s shoes.
‘I’ll be coming soon too,’ I said. We kissed, Linda took the bag in one hand, Heidi in the other, and they left.
Vanja ran at top speed down the hallway, with Achilles in tow, into what must have been the bedroom, from where her overexcited voice could be heard soon afterwards. The thought of going in and sitting at the kitchen table again was not exactly appealing, so I opened the bathroom door, locked it behind me and stood there motionless for a few minutes. Then washed my face in cold water, dried it carefully on a white towel and met my eyes in the mirror, so dark and in a face so rigid with frustration I almost started with alarm at the sight.
No one in the kitchen noticed that I was back. Except for a stern-looking little woman with short hair and ordinary angular features, who stared for a brief moment at me from behind her glasses. What did she want now?
Gustav and Linus were discussing pension arrangements, the taciturn man with the 50s shirt had his child, a wild boy with blond, almost white hair, on his lap, and was discussing FC Malmö with him, while Frida chatted with Mia about club evenings she and some friends were going to start. Meanwhile, Erik and Mathias compared TV screens, a discussion which Linus wanted to join, I could see that from his long glances and the shorter ones to Gustav so as not to appear impolite. The only person not deep in conversation was the woman with cropped hair, and even though I looked in every direction apart from hers she still leaned across the table and asked if I was satisfied with the nursery. I said I was. There was perhaps a bit too much to do there, I added, but it was definitely worth the investment of time; you got to know your children’s playmates, and that could only be good, I opined.
She smiled at what I said without any great fervour. There was something sad about her, some unhappiness.
‘What the hell?’ Linus said suddenly, thrusting his chair back. ‘What are they