Authors: Karl Ove Knausgaard,Don Bartlett
‘Where did you put them? I can’t see them anywhere?’
‘By the flower,’ she said.
Flower? I went back, peered between the flower pots on the windowsill, no, not there.
Could she have meant the yucca?
Yes, indeed. They were in the pot. I grabbed them, brushed the earth off over the pot, took them to the bathroom and wiped off the rest, then put them under the chair where her jacket was.
The interruption for cake, which had occupied all the children’s attention, might give her a chance for a new beginning, I thought, perhaps it would be easier to be there after that.
‘I’m going to have a piece of cake too,’ I said to her. ‘I’ll be in the kitchen. Just come and find me if there is anything you want, OK?’
It was only half past six according to the clock above the kitchen door. No one had left yet, so we would have to wait for a while. I cut myself a thin sliver of the cake on the worktop, put it on a plate and sat at the other side of the table as my seat was occupied.
‘There’s coffee as well if you’d like some,’ Erik said, looking at me with a kind of pregnant smile, as if there lay more in the question and what he said than met the eye. For all I knew, it was a technique he had learned so as to appear important, more or less like the tricks the average writer resorts to when trying to lend his stories the semblance of immense profundity.
Or had he really seen something?
‘Yes, please,’ I said and got up, took a cup from the pile and filled it with coffee from the grey Stelton pot nearby. By the time I got back to my seat he was on his way out of the room. Frida was talking about a coffee machine she had bought, it was expensive and she had been torn, but she had no regrets, it was definitely worth the money, the coffee was fantastic, and it was important to spoil yourself with such things, perhaps more important than was generally thought. Linus talked about a Smith and Jones sketch he had seen once, two guys sitting at a table with a cafetière in front of them, one presses the plunger, but everything is pushed down, not just the coffee grains, until the jug is empty. No one laughed, and Linus hunched his shoulders and raised his palms.
‘A simple coffee anecdote,’ he said. ‘Anyone got a better one?’
Vanja stood in the doorway. Her gaze took in the table, and when she had found me, she came over.
‘Do you want to go home?’ I said.
‘Right, do you know what?’ I said. ‘I do too. I’ll just eat this cake first. And drink my coffee. Do you want to sit on my lap in the meantime?’
She nodded again. I lifted her up.
‘Nice you could come, Vanja,’ Frida said to her with a smile from the other side of the table. ‘Soon it’ll be fishing time. You want to join in, don’t you?’
Vanja nodded and Frida turned back to Linus. There was a TV series on Home Box Office she had seen, but he had missed it, and she couldn’t praise it enough.
‘Do you want to?’ I asked. ‘Shall we wait for the fishing game before going?’
Vanja shook her head.
In the game each child was given a little fishing rod which they would cast over a sheet behind which an adult sat waiting to attach a bag containing a prize, some sweets or small toy or the like. In this family they would probably fill it with peas or artichokes, I thought, manoeuvring my fork down past Vanja to my plate, where I cut off a piece with the edge – brown crust under the white cream, yellow inside, with red streaks of jam – twisted my wrist so that the piece of cake remained on the fork, raised it past Vanja, and inserted it in my mouth. The base was too dry, and there was far too little sugar in the cream, but with a mouthful of coffee it wasn’t too bad.
‘Would you like a bit?’ I asked. Vanja nodded. I forked a piece into her open mouth. She looked up and smiled.
‘I can go into the living room with you,’ I said. ‘Then we can see what the others are doing. And maybe join in the fishing game as well?’
‘You said we were going home,’ she said.
‘I did. Let’s be off.’
I placed the fork on the plate, finished off the coffee, put her on the floor and stood up. Looked around. No eyes met mine.
‘We’ll be on our way now,’ I said.
Right then Erik came in with a small bamboo pole in one hand and a plastic Hemköp bag in the other.
‘We’re going to do the fishing now,’ he said.
Some got up to join in, others remained where they were. No one had noticed that I had said goodbye. And since people’s attention around the table had been drawn in different directions now, I saw no need to say it again. Instead I laid my hand on Vanja’s shoulder and led her out. In the living room Erik shouted ‘Fishing!’ and all the children hurried past us to the end of the hall where the cover, a white sheet, hung from wall to wall. Erik, who followed them like a shepherd, told them to sit down. Standing in the hall with Vanja and putting on her jacket, we could see right into the room.
I pulled up the zip on her red bubble jacket, which was already a little tight, set the red Polarn O. Pyret woolly hat on her head and buttoned up the chinstrap, placed her boots in front of her so that she could stick her feet in them herself, and zipped them from the back when she was ready.
‘There we are,’ I said. ‘Now all we have to do is say thank you and we can go. Come on.’
She raised her arms towards me.
‘Can’t you walk?’ I said.
She shook her head, keeping her arms outstretched.
‘OK,’ I said. ‘But first I’ll have to put on my things.’
In the hall Benjamin was the first to ‘fish’. He cast his line, and someone, I suppose Erik, caught it on the other side.
‘I’ve got a bite!’ Benjamin shouted.
The parents standing along the wall smiled, the children on the floor shouted and laughed. The next second Benjamin yanked at his rod, and a red and white Hemköp goodie bag came flying over the sheet, attached by a clothes peg. He removed it and took a few steps away to open the bag in peace and quiet while the next child, Theresa, grabbed the fishing rod, helped by her mother. I wound my scarf round my neck and buttoned up the reefer jacket I had bought on offer last spring at Paul Smith in Stockholm, put on the hat I had bought at the same place, bent down over the pile of shoes by the wall, found mine, a pair of black Wrangler shoes with yellow laces I had bought in Copenhagen when I was at the book fair, and which I had never liked, not even when I bought them, and which furthermore were now tainted by the thought of the catastrophe that had befallen me there, as I had been incapable of answering sensibly a single question the enthusiastic and insightful interviewer had asked me on the stage. The reason I hadn’t thrown them out long ago rested exclusively on the fact that we were hard up. And the laces were so yellow!
I tied them and stood up.
‘I’m ready,’ I said. Vanja stretched out her arms again. I lifted her, walked along the hall and stuck my head into the kitchen where four or five parents were chatting.
‘We’re off now,’ I said. ‘All the best, and thanks for a nice evening.’
,’ Linus said. Gustav half-raised his hand to his forehead.
Then we went into the hall. I patted Frida’s shoulder to catch her attention. She was standing by the wall, smiling, fully absorbed in the scene on the floor.
‘We’re off now,’ I said. ‘Thank you for inviting us. It was a lovely party. Very nice company.’
‘But doesn’t Vanja want to catch a fish?’ she said.
I made a very expressive kind of grimace, intended to mean something on the lines of ‘You know how illogical children can be.’
‘Right, right,’ she said. ‘Well, thanks for coming. Take care, Vanja!’
Mia, who was standing alongside, with Theresa in front of her, said, ‘Just a moment.’
She leaned over the sheet and asked Erik, who was on his haunches, if he could give her a goodie bag. He certainly could, and she passed it to Vanja.
‘Here, Vanja. You can take this home with you. And perhaps share it with Heidi if you want.’
‘I don’t want,’ Vanja said, holding the bag to her chest.
‘Thank you very much.’ I said. ‘Bye, everyone!’
Stella turned and looked at us.
‘Are you going, Vanja? Why?’
‘Bye, Stella,’ I said. ‘Thanks for inviting us to your party.’
I turned and went. Down the dark stairs, through the hall and onto the pavement. Voices, shouting, footsteps and the noise of engines rose and fell continuously in the street. Vanja wrapped her arms around me and leaned her head against my shoulder. Which she never did usually. This was Heidi’s way.
A taxi swept past with its roof light on. A couple with a buggy passed us; she had a scarf round her head and was young, twenty maybe. A rough complexion I saw as they walked past, her face was thick with powder. He was older, my age, and kept looking around nervously. The buggy was the ridiculous type with a thin stalk-like rod going from the wheels which the basket-seat with the child rested on. Coming towards us from the other side of the road was a gang of youngsters aged fifteen or sixteen. Black combed-back hair, black leather jackets, black trousers, and at least two of them wore Puma trainers with the logo on the toe, which I had always thought looked idiotic. Gold chains around their necks, slightly unsteady, clumsy arm movements.
Shit, they were still up in the flat.
Should I just leave them there?
No, that was too pathetic. We were right outside the door.
‘We have to go back up,’ I said. ‘We’ve forgotten your golden shoes.’
‘I don’t want them,’ she said.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘But we can’t leave them there. We’ll have to take them home with us, and they don’t have to be yours any more.’
I dashed up the stairs again, put Vanja down, opened the door, stepped inside and grabbed the shoes without looking any further into the flat, but could not avoid doing so as I straightened up and met Benjamin’s eyes. He was sitting on the floor in his white shirt with a car in one hand.
‘Hi!’ he said, and waved with the other.
‘Hi, Benjamin,’ I said, closed the door behind me, lifted Vanja and went back downstairs. It was cold and clear outside, but all the light in the town, from street lamps, shop windows and car lights, seeped upwards and lay like a shimmering dome above the rooftops, through which no starry lustre could penetrate. Of all the heavenly bodies only the moon, hanging, almost full, above the Hilton hotel, was visible.
Vanja clung to me as I hurried down the street, our breath like white smoke around our heads.
‘Maybe Heidi wants my shoes?’ she said.
‘When she’s as big as you she can have them,’ I said.
‘Heidi loves shoes,’ she said.
‘Yes, she does,’ I said.
We continued for a while in silence. By Subway, the big sandwich bar beside the supermarket, I saw the white-haired crazy woman staring through the window. Aggressive and unpredictable, she walked back and forth around our district, more often than not talking to herself, always with her white hair tied in a tight knot, and in the same beige coat, summer and winter alike.
‘Will I have a party when it’s my birthday, daddy?’ Vanja asked.
‘If you want,’ I said.
‘I do,’ she said. ‘I want Heidi and you and mummy to come.’
‘That sounds like a nice little party,’ I said, shifting her from my right to my left arm.
‘Do you know what I want?’
‘A goldfish,’ she said. ‘Can I have one?’
‘We-ell . . .’ I said. ‘To have a goldfish you have to be able to take care of it properly. Feed it, clean the water and so on. And you have to be a bit bigger than four, I think.’
‘But I can feed it! And Jiro’s got one. He’s smaller than me.’
‘That’s true,’ I said. ‘We’ll have to see. Birthday presents are supposed to be secret, you know, that’s the whole point about them.’
Oh bugger! Oh bugger!
said the crazy woman, who was now only a few metres ahead. Warned by the movement, she turned and looked at me. Oh, her eyes were evil.
‘What are those shoes you’re carrying?’ she said behind us. ‘Hey,
! What are those shoes you’re carrying? Let me have a word with you right now!’
And then louder: ‘Bugger! Oh BUGGer!’
‘What did the old lady say?’ Vanja asked.
‘Nothing,’ I answered, squeezing her tighter to me. ‘You’re the best thing I’ve got, Vanja, do you know that? The very, very best.’
‘Better than Heidi?’ she asked.
‘You’re both the best, you and Heidi.
‘Heidi’s better,’ she said. Her tone of voice was completely neutral, as if she were stating an incontrovertible fact.
‘What nonsense,’ I said. ‘You little monkey.’
She smiled. I looked past her and into the large almost deserted supermarket, where the goods lay gleaming on each side of the narrow avenues of shelves and counters. Two women sat at their cash desks staring into the middle distance waiting for customers. At the traffic lights across from us a car was revving, and when I turned my head I saw the sound was coming from one of those enormous jeep-like vehicles that had begun to fill our streets in recent years. The tenderness I felt for Vanja was so great it was almost tearing me to pieces. To counteract it, I broke into a jog. Past Ankara, the Turkish restaurant with belly dancing and karaoke on the menu, and its door, where well dressed men from the east often stood in the evenings, smelling of aftershave and cigar smoke, but which was empty now, on past Burger King, where an incredibly fat girl, wearing a hat and fingerless gloves, sat alone on the bench outside devouring a hamburger, then over the crossing, past the Systembolaget and the Handelsbanken, where I stopped as the lights were on red, even though there were no cars in any of the lanes. All this while holding Vanja tight to my chest.
‘Can you see the moon?’ I asked, pointing to the sky as we stood waiting for the lights to change.
‘Mm,’ she said. And then, after a short pause, ‘Have any people been there?’