From Cabin to Cabin
Etter frokost går vi ned til stranda. Vi går forbi de andre hyttene, der folk sitter på verandaene. Gresset foran verandaene er slått, buskene klippet, rutene pus- set, for dette er de normale menneskene. Til og med når de ikke er normale, er de normale. De kan føre de normale genene sine tilbake til svartedauen.
Stien vi går på er dekket av blåskjellskall. Mamma går foran, hun er rasende.
– Har du hørt på værmeldingen i dag, spør jeg, men hun svarer ikke, enda værmeldingen er noe av det hun er mest opptatt av. Hun har på seg morfars fillete bade- kåpe. Beltet sleper etter, tungt av sand og skitt. Alle som sitter på verandaene snur seg etter oss. De stirrer alltid på oss. Det har de alltid gjort. Kanskje det er den gamle badekåpa. Men mamma er ikke den eneste som går rundt i en gammel badekåpe her. Det hjelper ikke å stirre tilbake, da stirrer de bare enda mer, for de er de normale og vi er de gale og dette er bestemt en gang for alle i tidenes morgen.
Nede ved sjøen kryper familiene sammen på svaber- get, rundt hver sin kjølebag. Vi har ingen kjølebag med oss, vi har aldri eid en kjølebag. De andre familiene har kjølebager med mat innpakket i metallfolie og kaffe på termos og oppskåret frukt som moren deler ut.
Mamma har en ølboks i hver lomme på badekåpa. Hun åpner en av dem, legger seg ned på svaberget og lener seg på albuene og gulper i seg med høye stønn.
Jeg burde tatt med meg ungene og dratt, men jeg må vente til jeg skjønner at det er helt sikkert at hun vil at vi skal dra. Dessuten har vi ikke bil og jeg vet ikke når bus- sene går. Og så har vi med marsvinet. Bare høyet og sag- flisen fyller en egen bag, og så er det buret i tillegg. Det er typisk oss å dra rundt på et marsvin. Familiene på terras- sene og svaberget ville funnet en måte å unngå det på. De ville funnet en løsning som jeg ikke engang kan fore- stille meg, men som i ettertid ville virket helt glassklar.
Ungene setter seg tett inntil meg. Jeg kjenner varmen fra dem. De hvisker meg i øret.
– Hvorfor drikker mormor øl?
– Ja, sier jeg høyt og ser på mamma. – Hvorfor drik- ker du øl nå? Du
After breakfast, we go down to the beach. We walk past the other cabins with people sitting on the verandas. The grass in front of the verandas is mown, the bushes clipped, the paths brushed, because these are normal people. Even when they’re not normal, they’re normal. They can trace their normal genes back to the Black Death.
The path we walk down is covered with mussel shells. Mama is in the lead and she’s furious.
“Have you listened to the weather forecast today?” I ask, but she doesn’t answer, even though the weather forecast is one of the things she’s most obsessed with. She’s wearing grandfather’s tattered bathrobe. The belt drags behind, heavy with sand and dirt. Everyone sitting on the verandas turns in our direction. They stare at us. They always stare at us. Perhaps it’s the old bathrobe. But Mama isn’t the only one who goes around in an old bathrobe here. It doesn’t help to stare back, they just stare even more, because they are the normal ones and we are the crazy ones, and that was decided once and for all at the dawn of time.
Down by the sea, families huddle together on the rocks, each around their cooler bag. We have no cooler bag with us, we’ve never owned a cooler bag. The other families have cooler bags with food wrapped in foil and thermoses of coffee and sliced fruit which the mother shares out.
Mama has a can of beer in each pocket of the bathrobe. She opens one of them, lies down on the rocks, leans on her elbows, and drinks it in loud gulps.
I should take the children and leave, but I need to wait until I’m completely sure that she wants us to go. Unfortunately, we have no car and I don’t know when the buses run. And we also have the guinea pig. The hay and sawdust alone fill an entire bag, and then there’s the cage. It’s typical of us to go around with a guinea pig. The families on the verandas and the rocks by the shore would have found a way to avoid it. They would have found a solution that I could never have conceived of myself but which afterward would have seemed crystal clear.
The children sit tight against me. I feel their warmth. They whisper in my ear.
“Why is Grandma drinking beer?”
“Yes,” I say loudly and look at Mama. “Why are you drinking beer now? You know that it’s not sensible to swim when you’ve been drinking”.
Mama doesn’t answer, just drinks more and looks out to the horizon. It’s completely silent around us. The other families listen, waiting.
Mama opens the second can. She looks at the other families and raises the can in the air.
“It’s certainly no joke having several generations at the cabin!”
One of them takes it on themselves to answer.
“No, you’re dead right there!”
She looks around, pleased to have behaved so naturally and relaxed.
Mama has finished the second can. She crushes it and belches.
“No,” she says, and gets up. She sways a little. “I think I’m off for a swim.”
She finds the diving mask in the bag and takes it out, lets the bathrobe fall off onto the rocks, and walks down to the water. The children and I follow her. The other families follow us. Their faces follow us. The whole place reminds me of a bird colony.
“Should you really swim after drinking?”
It’s me that asks. I stand with my hands by my sides. The bird colony behind me, their eyes burning into my back.
Mama doesn’t answer. She slips down the rocks, straight through the seaweed. I would never do that, as who knows what creeps around in the brown clusters. Mama stays standing while she adjusts the diving mask. Stand on the bottom—that’s something I’d never do either.
She wears the diving mask so she can look out for stinging jellyfish. She’s as scared of stinging jellyfish as I am, we have that in common. I’m even scared of moon jellyfish, but she can swim through a sea of moon jellyfish, she just brushes them away. She’s become braver with age; I’ve become more scared. Nowadays I can’t even swim without having visions of being locked in a car underwater and trying to rescue the children.
When she’s finished putting the diving mask on, she starts swimming out to sea.
“Hey? Hey? Where are you going?”
She carries on swimming without answering.
She’s going to kill herself. She intends to wear herself out and drown, quietly and calmly. To punish me because I asked if she could speak a little more quietly while we were eating breakfast. “Can you lower your voice a little?” I asked. She had got up and stood in the middle of the veranda and was in the middle of one or another incoherent story and everyone going past on their way to the beach was looking at us. But they stare at us anyway, whether Mama is standing in holey old underwear and shouting or we’re sitting in complete silence at the table, so why couldn’t I just have kept quiet? Five days we’ve been here now, five whole days without trouble.
Perhaps she’ll just swim out to the nearest skerry. But no, she’s changing direction, out to the horizon. Out to the happy hunting grounds. Her head gets smaller and smaller.
“Mama, why’s Grandma doing that?”
“I don’t know.”
Her head is now a small dot, far out in the dark-blue waves. I think about ambulance boats, helicopters, Mama on a stretcher with her head covered. What should I do with the cabin? Should I sell it or renovate it? First thing I’ll have to do is buy a container. She buys so much crap at the dollar store, fills up the cabin with cheap things which break rather than expensive things which last. I think of an enormous economy pack of clothespins she’s just bought, clothespins which it’s not possible to open without the spring breaking, and some tea towels, twenty kroner for three, which it’s impossible to dry up with because they’re made of some sleek material which repels everything. The thought of those clothespins and tea towels makes me so angry that it brings tears to my eyes. While my mother kills herself, I stand on the rocks blubbering about tea towels.
“But what should we do, Mama? What should we do?”
The children tug and pull at me.
“She’s just doing it to scare us,” I say. “She’s a bit angry with me today.”
Her head is now nearly out of sight. I wouldn’t be able to see it if I didn’t know it was there. But now and then you can see a dark pinprick bobbing up and down in the waves.
“Mama, we have to take the boat and rescue Grandma.”
“I don’t know how to start it.”
“But we can use the oars! Mama, we need to hurry! Come on!”
They pull at me. I stay put, stiff, like a flagpole.
“But Grandma is just out for a swim.”
“NO! GRANDMA CAN’T DIE! WE HAVE TO RESCUE HER!”
The youngest sits down and begins to cry. Grandma can’t dieeeee. Grandma can’t dieeeee…. The bird colony holds its breath. Children sit in their parents’ laps and watch me. I want to go around the rocks and wring their necks, one by one, large and small, and when I’ve finished them all off, feel pleasure from a good day’s work.
Instead, I take the children’s hands and head toward the jetty, find the boat, and loosen the moorings. The outboard motor is pulled up and hangs toward the gunwale like a head with the chin leaning toward the breast.
The oars are worn and broken, there is almost nothing left of the blades. Also, we have a headwind. We barely move forward at all.
“Mama, you have to ROW! I can hardly see Grandma anymore!”
The headlines: Mother died while daughter stood and watched. Daughter refused to rescue mother. Mother drank beer and swam out to sea. Mother under the influence of alcohol died while daughter watched.
The sun shines and it’s very windy. That’s why everybody is sitting on the rocks and nobody is swimming. Nobody except Mama. I struggle with the useless oars; they are almost completely round and remind me of giant chopsticks. We battle on past the bird colony, one centimeter at a time. Some of them have got up and stand watching. Not because they want to help, but because they want to stay informed, keep up with what’s happening. They’re people who read newspapers and solve crosswords and know who’s won which medals in the Olympics and whether their car is running smoothly. People who like to understand everything. I know nothing about what they have in their cooler bags, or what they really think about, but why do they sit there on the rocks as if as one, with a single set of ears and eyes? It was people like these who voted for Hitler.
The children lean right over the gunwale and try to row with their hands.
“Sit still in the boat!”
Only now do I remember that I’ve forgotten to put their life vests on them.
The round oars slap around in the water. Water and air have changed places, water is as air, I can’t get any purchase on it. And the air around me is thick and heavy, like a kind of quivering, transparent jelly.
After the first skerry we see Mama. The children creep forward in the bow, they know they’re not supposed to stand up in the boat.
“Grandma! Grandma! We’re coming to save you!”
She is twenty, thirty meters away. I pull in the oars and look at her. She swims a few strokes, ducks under to look for jellyfish, and then swims a few strokes again.
“Grandma, don’t be afraid!”
The eldest turns toward me.
“Mama, she can’t hear us!”
“She can hear us alright. She’s just pretending she can’t.”
“Because she’s angry with me.”
“Why’s she angry with you?”
“Because we’re leaving for Grandpa’s tomorrow.”
We’re beginning to drift and so I put out the oars again. My arms are aching. Soon we’re by the farthest skerry and Mama is just a few meters away.
“Grandma! Grandma! You can’t die!”
Mama turns and looks at us. She pretends she has only just realized we’re here. Perhaps that’s so, perhaps she really has only just noticed us. The wish to be one step ahead, which I never actually manage to do, often makes me imagine things.
“What are you doing here? Get away from me!”
“The children get scared when you act like this. Can’t you come on board the boat? Please?”
Mama swims away to the farthest skerry, grabs hold of some seaweed, and hauls herself up. She crawls up the rocks, shrieks, and waves her fists at us. She’s red-faced and crazy looking.
“What are you doing, following me like this? That’s my boat! You can’t just take it like that. Go and put it back! Go and put the boat back!”
“You gulped down two beers and then came swimming, it’s obvious why we would be worried!”
“You know nothing about what I do when I’m here. You’re never here! You know nothing about my life! I like going for long swims!”
Now she begins to weep. She stands on the skerry with her swimming mask on her head and weeps because we’re leaving for my father’s tomorrow, and here I sit with an enormous and splintered chopstick in each hand.
“Grandma, don’t get upset!”
She stamps her foot like a small child.
“Go away, I said! You don’t know anything about my life! You can’t stay here any longer, you can pack up and go. It’s my cabin and it’s up to me.”
Two hours later, we sit at a bus stop. The guinea pig squeaks. The cars that drive past are full of gasoline and nuclear families. White faces peer at us.
While we packed, Mama lay in one of the bedrooms, talking on the telephone. Now and again we could hear her shouting. Out in the shed I found the wheelbarrow, which I loaded all the bags into, with the guinea pig on top, and we headed out to the main road. The last thing I did before leaving was open the door a crack and look in at Mama.
“Is it okay if we take the wheelbarrow? I can hide it in the field behind the bus stop, so you can maybe bring it back later.”
She put her hand over the mouthpiece.
“Get away from here. I can’t cope anymore! I’m at my limit! Just go away!”
The bus comes, we get on, and soon the whole bus smells of guinea pig piss. We should have changed the sawdust. The guinea pig growls each time the bus turns. It refuses to come out of its house, which is a shoebox the children have decorated with pink ink.
At Risør, my father stands waiting in the parking lot.
The children run toward him. “Grandpa! Grandpa!”
None of us mentions Mama. On the phone I had only said that our plans had changed and he didn’t ask why. But he was bothered that we had come a day earlier than agreed. Now he would have to explain it to Kari-Anne. “Will you be going home a day early too?” he asked while we were on the way to the bus stop and I was trying to hold the phone to my ear while simultaneously balancing the wheelbarrow with the bags and the guinea pig. “Yes, of course,” I answered.
“Ah,” he says, when he catches sight of the guinea pig. “Well, well, well, what have we here, haha, Kari-Anne is allergic, after all. She has difficulty breathing if she’s anywhere near animal hair. Haha! Why didn’t you mention it at all? What were you thinking? You know about her allergies. Haha. She’s always been allergic.”
He laughs and smiles because he thinks of himself as the type who is in control and takes everything with good humor. Yet it’s not the guinea pig that has upset him but the fact that we have come a day before we agreed. He hates it when plans are disrupted. I know this because children always know more about their parents than the reverse. Right from the moment of birth, children are gathering information about their parents, night and day, and in the end, they know everything.
I sit in the car and think about what my own children might already know about me.
“We can put the guinea pig in the woodshed. Or we can leave it outside, so long as we cover it with something to keep the rain out. It was impossible to find anyone to look after it during the holidays.”
Papa shakes his head, red in the face.
“Haha! That’s a good one. Next time Kari-Anne gets in the car, she’ll have an attack. Haha! The cage only has to be in the car for a minute for her to have an attack. The hair blows around and gets everywhere. Haha!”
He swings out onto the motorway and I work out how long we will be at his cabin. Seven days. That’s two days longer than at Mama’s.
“I was wondering about something. Is it okay with you if we go home three days early?”
“Three days early?”
He sighs. But he doesn’t ask why. Unlike Mama, who always thinks it’s too short regardless how long we stay, Papa would rather not have us at all. He thinks he wants us to come, but he’d rather be alone, or with Kari-Anne. That’s one of the many things I know about him.
“Yes, yes. If that’s what you want. You must do what is best for you.”
His face is a normal color again, and he doesn’t say anything more about the guinea pig, although now I too can see the white hairs floating around inside the car.
Four days later, he drives us to the bus stop again. Kari-Anne is with us, as they’ve decided to travel home too, since the weather is so awful. For four days we’ve sat inside the cabin and watched the rain pour down. We’ve played Yahtzee and Monopoly, eaten sandwiches and drunk tea. One evening, Kari-Anne and I sat up chatting, and the next morning Papa said that I mustn’t keep Kari-Anne up so late in the evenings. She isn’t as good at saying no as we are in our family, he said. But she was talking too, I said. It wasn’t just me doing the talking. That’s because she’s so polite, said Papa.
Each night I’ve tossed and turned in bed. Why are we here? Why do we do this? So that the children have contact with their grandparents, because we have nowhere else to go. We could be at home, go to the public baths in Frogner, stay up late, sit on the veranda. The children could lie in my bed and the youngest could use a pacifier and no one would comment on it. Nobody would say, Haha, does she really still use a pacifier, do you really let them sleep in your bed, haha, it’s no wonder you’re so tired all the time.
The last night there was a violent thunderstorm. The ground crashed and quaked. Lightning tore across the landscape and lit it up as if it were midday. I lay there with the children and noted how the insane racket made me completely calm. And while the children lay and chattered and gazed out to sea and shrieked each time lightning struck, eventually I slept.
We sit in the car, all five of us, and I think about how nice it would have been to be able to sit in it all the way to Oslo, but Kari-Anne coughs and sneezes the moment she gets in the car. “Don’t start,” says Papa when Kari-Anne says that maybe it will be okay, perhaps she can open the window and take an allergy tablet, and she doesn’t protest.
It’s raining heavily, and to avoid the rush, Papa drops us off at the bus stop two hours before the bus is due. Since it’s raining, he stays in the car while I unload. He seems angry, he acts as if I have exploited him, and enough is enough, there are limits. Kari-Anne turns and smiles at me, but she stays in the car too. I unload the guinea pig and all the bags, and Papa waves and drives away. I carry the bags into the bus shelter. The guinea pig’s shoe box is dark with rainwater and the sawdust stinks worse than ever, even though I changed it only yesterday.
I stand in the bus shelter while the children sit on the bench and draw and play, and I watch the rain pour down over the empty parking lot, forming large pools.
A seagull lands close by, I’m always surprised by how large they are. It beats its wings a little and wanders around in the rain. I watch and think about how I too am divorced, and how the children will have to go from one cabin to another, just as I do now. If my parents live long enough, the children—given that my ex-husband’s parents also are separated—will have six places to distribute themselves to at Christmas, birthdays, and holidays. Six different places to drop in at as everyone becomes frailer and frailer. Six different houses to clean up when everyone eventually dies, and with stepparents and step grandparents in addition. I stand in a bus shelter somewhere in Sørland and watch my daughters draw and play in ignorance of what awaits them.
The seagull takes off, listlessly, as if it really can’t be bothered. As if it doesn’t appreciate how wonderful it is to be able to fly. For it, we must seem glued to the ground. It flies low over the parking lot but finds nothing of interest. Then it rises and flies over the trees, in the direction of the sea.
“Fra hytte til hytte” from Orgien, og andre fortellinger. Oslo: Forlaget Oktober, 2010.
Image by Antonio Carrau.