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Authors: Olaf Olafsson

Tags: #Literary, #General, #Historical, #Fiction

The Journey Home: A Novel

BOOK: The Journey Home: A Novel
13.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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Many thanks to Victoria Cribb
for her invaluable assistance when writing this book.

International Acclaim for Olaf Olafsson’s

The Journey Home

“Compelling. . . . Akin to Thomas Mann. . . . An astonishing story of confusion, loss and denial. . . . Olafsson has . . . creat[ed] a woman of such complexity and uncalculated charm that he will leave readers wishing that they could actually meet her before it’s too late.” —
Chicago Sun-Times

“Luminous. . . . Searing in its quietness, overwhelming in its intent, this novel of silence stands witness to the heroic nature of life.” —
Booklist
(starred review)

“A quiet and beautiful novel.” —
The Times
(London)


The Journey Home
[is like] watching an old Bergman movie. . . . Disa’s tentative exploration of her memories has a cumulative effect. And by the time she reaches home, you may discover yourself, as I was, completely caught up in this dying woman’s last attempts to make her life worth living.” —Alan Cheuse,
All Things Considered,
National Public Radio

“As lucid and unostentatious as a sheet of ice.” —
Bookforum

“[An] accomplished novel. . . . The cool undercurrents of history shiver the surface of this serene fiction. . . . Olafsson writes in a spare but moving English. . . . Comparisons will likely and deservedly be drawn to Ishiguro and Michael Ondaatje.” —Publishers Weekly

“Absorbing. . . . Poignant, deeply affecting. . . . Bleak yet utterly beautiful. . . . Bears more than a passing resemblance to Kazuo Ishiguro’s work. . . . [An] unforgettable experience.” —
South China Morning Post

“Highly recommended. . . . An intricate tale of a strong and complex woman. . . . Olafsson, a gifted writer, smoothly moves the story between past and present. . . . Well-crafted.” —
Library Journal

“Memorable. . . . Fresh and compelling. . . . Suspenseful right up to the end. . . . This is a book that can bear rereading. One to keep.” —
The Washington Times

“An exceptional novel. . . . Engrossing. . . . A tremendous accomplishment. . . . A great triumph of novelistic imagination.” —
The Observer
(London)

“[A] brilliant narrative. . . . Sections of Olafsson’s novel are almost unforgettable, his descriptions of nature in particular.” —
Corriere della sera
(Italy)

“A striking character study. . . . Olafsson’s evocative novel records both a literal homeward return and a journey into the mind, heart, and memory.” —
Kirkus Reviews

“With masterful skill and elegant prose, Olaf Olafsson gradually reveals his fierce heroine and her complicated story.
The
Journey Home
is an eerie, suspenseful novel, one that delivers surprises until the very last beautiful page and that happily remains with the reader long after that.” —Margot Livesey, author of
Criminals
and
The Missing World

“Graceful and moving.” —
Time Out London

“A poignant, finely wrought novel. . . . Disa, the heroine, is a wonderfully ripe creation.” —
Sunday Telegraph
(London)

1

I’m getting ready to leave.

The fire is crackling with a familiar sound in the hearth and the aroma of last night’s baked apples still lingers down here in the kitchen. The sky is awakening; I can just make out a pink glow in the east. It’s as if my dog has sensed that I’m about to go. Instead of lying by the fire with eyes closed as she usually does early in the morning, she’s trailing me around, rubbing herself against my legs. All is silent in the house; I’m the only one up, having slept badly as I’ve always done when I’ve been about to make this journey. But this time I am going to do it. Whatever happens, I am not going to let myself have a change of heart now.

I open the window to let in the morning breeze and take a deep breath. A bird perches on a branch outside the window, a blackbird, not unlike an Icelandic redwing, gazing at me with a slightly sad eye. A mist lies over the fields and the dew-laden grasses stir gently in the wind. It has been a hard winter but now spring has arrived and a pleasant sulfurous smell rises from the wood where the leaf mold has started to rot. The trees have turned green at last, their branches losing that gray look, and the breeze picks up the hesitant chuckling of the brook, carrying it over like a postman with good news in his bag.

When I awoke I saw two horses down by the brook. It was three o’clock in the morning. Without turning on the light, I wrapped myself in a warm blanket and watched them through the window. They moved slowly, blue in the bright moonlight. Suddenly one of them seemed to take fright. It bolted away over the fields, disappearing from sight behind Old Marshall’s cottage, as if into thin air. I glanced back toward the brook but the other horse had vanished as well. This filled me with misgiving, though there was really no reason why it should, and I went downstairs to the kitchen to be comforted by the lingering aroma of last night’s supper. I knew no better way of clearing my mind.

I blow on the embers in the hearth, then put on two good-sized, dry logs. The fire soon warms the room, reviving the scent of last night’s supper like an unexpected memory. I wait for my nose to wake up too, wanting to recapture the aroma of the trout which I’d fried with a sprinkling of ground almonds, and the rich, tender wild mushrooms. And the apples which I love to bake after they have soaked in port for a long, quiet afternoon. My dog rubs up against me, whining unconvincingly in the hope that I’ll scratch her behind her ears, and laying her head in my lap when I sit down in front of the fire. It is beginning to grow light outside, a pale blue-gray gleam illuminating the mist in the fields.

I sit a little longer, trying to summon the remembered aroma of the mushrooms and trout, but can’t, no matter how hard I try. The apples won’t let them through. “Strange,” I whisper to myself, but I know better. Lately they seem to have been haunting my memory, the bowl of apples which greeted me when I arrived for the first time at the house in Fjolugata. And to think I believed I had actively begun to forget those days.

I grind coffee beans in my old mill and turn on the ring under the kettle before going up to get dressed. My dog follows me upstairs. “Tina,” I say, “dear old lady. You’ll keep an eye on everything while I’m gone, won’t you?”

Anthony is up and about. I can hear him in the shared bathroom which divides our bedrooms. I feel he has aged a bit this winter but his expression is still as open and candid as ever. I thank providence that our paths should have crossed. I don’t know what would have happened otherwise.

My mood lightens at the sound of his humming as he rinses out his shaving brush in the sink. “De-de-de-de-dedum-dum.”

I was awakened before dawn as so often before by the ringing of a telephone. I sat bolt upright in bed, waiting to hear the sound again but was aware of nothing but the echo of the dream in my head. I have become used to this annoyance but it never fails to upset me.

The suitcases are waiting down in the entrance hall; I pause on my way upstairs as they catch my eye. Handsome, leather cases, given to Anthony by his father before the war. They must have been in the family for decades, accompanying them to Africa and America. And India too, of course. Strongly made, yet soft to the touch.

I glance out of the bedroom window. The sun has risen and its rays are stroking the mist from the fields, gently as a mother caressing her child’s cheek. This time I will do it. This time I won’t have a change of heart.

It’s always been my habit to hang a mirror in my kitchen. Sometimes these mirrors have been nothing special, with spotted glass and frame coming unstuck, but they invariably come in handy when guests turn up unexpectedly. A quick glance in the glass, wiping off the condensation if necessary, to make absolutely sure that I haven’t got gravy on the tip of my nose or flour in my hair, then I can greet my guests with a confident smile. The trick is to have a small shelf under the mirror where you can keep lipstick and a powder compact.

It was at the house in Fjolugata that I first came across a mirror in a kitchen, though I had completely forgotten the fact until the other day. The mistress of the house must have had it put up. Anyway, I immediately noticed it hanging beside the cooker the first time I set foot in the kitchen. It was a small mirror, hardly more than eight inches in diameter, with a beautiful frame: blue with hand-painted flowers of white, green and red. The mirror in the kitchen here at Ditton Hall is a larger affair and the frame is not blue but of dark mahogany. I found it down in the cellar the first time Anthony and I explored the house together.

For some reason, these two mirrors have shown a tendency to merge recently. When it happens it’s as if I am whisked away and suddenly stand face-to-face with myself as I was more than twenty years ago, a young girl wearing a scarf over my fair hair to prevent the smell of food getting into it. I can even hear the mistress of the house upstairs and smell cigar smoke from the study. Sense his presence and begin to tremble for no reason. I don’t know how long this lasts but I’m always confused when I come to myself, with an odd look in my eyes. As if I had been delirious. And I can still sense him standing behind me.

Marshall came trudging up the path toward the kitchen door, pausing by the brook to look down. The bridge was obscured by mist and Anthony and I stood by the window watching it hide the old man from view until he moved on again.

“He wants to get started on his spring chores,” commented Anthony. “Look, now he’s turning back to examine the handrail again. He’s noticed a patch of flaking paint or a loose plank or something.”

I was lost in thought, so we remained standing there in silence for a while, looking out at the fields, the brook and Old Marshall on the bridge, and I suddenly felt so unsteady that I had to grip the windowsill and sit down.

“Do you really think it makes any sense for me to leave right now?” I asked eventually. “With all the spring chores to do and the first guests arriving in under a month.”

He patted me on the shoulder, then stooped to kiss me on the forehead.

“You’re going now.”

I handed Marshall a cup of tea as he came in.

“The rail on the bridge needs painting,” he said. “No point in putting it off.”

We looked outside. With the mist concealing any bald patches and loose planks, there appeared to be nothing wrong with the bridge. Nothing at all.

When I told Anthony the verdict last autumn he walked a little aside.

I sat down in the conservatory, wrapped myself in a blanket and looked out at the mist over the fields. Outside the glass a drip fell from the fading creeper. I was grateful to him for not breaking down in front of me.

I took his hand when he came in and asked him to sit down beside me. Just as he seemed on the point of saying something, we both caught sight of a butterfly fluttering from flower to flower in the conservatory. Its movements were slow but carefree, as if it was unaware of the autumn outside or had decided to ignore it.

“I thought they had all gone,” said Anthony.

“Not this one,” I replied.

“I used to miss them in the winter when I was a boy,” he said. “Once I dreamt I could follow their trail.”

The sun was low in the sky. We watched the butterfly in silence as it flitted from one sunbeam to the next. It was like watching candlelight reflected in a mirror as its silvery wings glittered in the late afternoon light.

Dr. Ellis’s office hours are between two and four on Tuesdays. His waiting room contains five chairs, a table in one corner and a potted plant on the table. Above the plant hangs a reproduction of a sunset by Turner. Rather faded. I usually turn up at the appointed time on Tuesdays but sometimes Dr. Ellis kindly lets me come later in the day after dusk has fallen, which suits me better.

The first time we spoke, I said I hoped he looked after his patients better than the plant in the waiting room. Dr. Ellis is a serious man but I thought I glimpsed a hint of a smile. Since then he’s had plenty of opportunities to be taken aback by my tendency to joke, especially the time he explained the results of my preliminary tests.

The waiting room windows face west and the view from them isn’t much, though I wouldn’t exactly call it an eyesore. Across the street there is a low, brick terrace with a barber’s shop, newsagent and draper’s at street level and flats on the upper two floors. Next to the barber’s is a patch of wasteground where boys sometimes play football, and in the distance there is a railway line with little blue shelters on either side.

“Eighteen months,” replied Dr. Ellis when I pressed him.

“Are you prepared to put that in writing?”

“Twelve to eighteen . . .”

“I’ll take twelve.”

At around noon an old train comes rattling along the tracks, puffing wearily as it draws to a stop between the two shelters. In the twilight there are no trains, but sometimes swallows flit around the brick houses on the other side, as noiseless as the souls of the departed.

Anthony rose to his feet during dinner last night, announcing that he wanted to say a few words. We’d just finished the mushrooms and the snails I had served with them for fun, but hadn’t yet touched the trout. I was miles away, I can’t remember where, when Anthony rose slowly to his feet and waited for me to notice, before clearing his throat and addressing us. We were sitting at the long table in the old dining room with the lights off and three large candlesticks on the table. I had laid it with a white, embroidered cloth and the blue-patterned plates which Anthony bought long ago in Paris. There aren’t many left but there were enough for us last night.

There were eight of us: Anthony and I, Old Marshall, Miss Lynch who looks after the rooms, and the headwaiter, Sean Truelove. I’d also invited Mr. and Mrs. Wakefield from nearby Old Bridge Farm (they provide us with partridges, eggs, ham and cheese) and Old Marshall’s daughter Lydia who lives in Bridgwater and is married to a doctor. They have a five-year-old son who comes to see us from time to time. I love having him keep me company in the kitchen. He always sits at the table in the corner between the cooker and the window where he can look out over the fields to the stables on the other side of the brook.

I slip him tidbits at every opportunity. He eats slowly and quietly and if he’s in a good mood he’ll sing a song with me. Then the sun will come out from behind the clouds and shine through the window, casting the boy’s shadow onto the wall beside my mirror. Putting down my wooden spoon or ladle, I’ll watch him for a while, quite forgetting myself, because all at once it’s as if his shadow has acquired a life of its own and could belong to any small child. Lost in a reverie, I watch its slow, calm movements until he breaks in with: “Can I have some more bread?” or “Please, can you sing me another song?”

Anyway, as I was saying, Anthony rose to his feet and announced that he wanted to say a few words. It’s been our habit ever since we first moved in together—if I can describe our relationship in those terms—to hold this dinner every spring just before we open the house to guests. We always invite the staff along with some of our neighbors, particularly those who help us out with provisions or with running the house.

There’s no denying that in those first years it was sometimes difficult to put a good face on things during these evenings. Everyone knew that the hotel was only just breaking even, though I held my head up high and stuck to my guns. I have never been one to complain, but my hands are a constant reminder of the struggle during those years: they’re not very feminine now, poor things. I also tried not to take to heart the locals’ comments on the menu, which seemed exotic in those days of rationing and isolation. Some of them even made fun of the vegetables I took such pains to grow in our greenhouse, such was their ignorance. “Philistines,” I said to Anthony; “I won’t let them get me down.”

Miss Halsey was with us for the first eleven years, but now Miss Lynch has been working here for six summers. Truelove has been with us from the very beginning and has really done us proud. And dear Old Marshall has been with Anthony’s family ever since Anthony can remember and is devoted to him, more like a brother than a faithful servant.

BOOK: The Journey Home: A Novel
13.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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