Photograph by Matthew Murdoch / Flickr

They sat reading. Neither of them had spoken for a while, when she suddenly said: “When we go to Yugoslavia I’m going to get one of those sunhats I didn’t buy myself last year.”

“What page are you on?” he asked.

“Thirty-three. Why?”

“Just wondering.”

She did not say any more and continued reading. For reasons he did not understand he found himself thinking about an exchange he had heard the previous night through the open window. First, a man’s voice, from the street: “I couldn’t be bothered flirting with you anymore.” Then the voice of a woman, from a window (he thought): “Why not?” “I never get anywhere with it, do I?” That was it, not a word after that.

She was reading. He was sitting with his book open but was not reading; he looked at her. He thought: what was it that made her think of a sunhat?

After a while she put the book down.

“I’m going to fry an egg,” she said. “Do you want one?”

“No, thanks.” He didn’t like fried eggs.

She went out to the kitchen and he picked up her book and turned to page thirty-three. He could find nothing there to account for the calling to mind of a sunhat or Yugoslavia. He thought: I can’t figure her out, I thought I knew her, but I understand less and less about her. He decided to read all the pages preceding number thirty-three, maybe the answer lay there, but she came back in to fetch a cigarette, and he quickly put the book down again. Because he felt like a snoop and thought she had seen him looking at the book, he said:

“Is it an exciting read?”

“Exciting? Interesting.”

“What’s it about?”

“A person who wants something else . . . I don’t know how to put it . . . someone who thinks she’s doing fine but still longs for something. And she doesn’t quite understand why, but sort of does, in a way. You know, the way people are.”

“People?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not that way.”

“Well, you.”

“Am I not people?”

“What do you mean by that? Oh, the egg!”

She began to hurry towards the kitchen, but turned, came back, and picked up the book.

He did not read any further. He thought: what did she mean by well, you? He tried to interpret the way she had said it but was unable. I’m going to read that book, he thought.

She returned, having eaten the fried egg in the kitchen; which struck him as unusual, she normally brought her evening snack into the sitting room.

He remarked upon it.

“Why did you eat in the kitchen?”

“What?”

“You ate in the kitchen,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“You usually eat in here.”

“Do I? No, I sometimes eat in the kitchen. What’s with you? I eat in the kitchen all the time.”

He didn’t answer. He thought about it for a moment, but failed to see how that could be right. I eat in the kitchen all the time. That couldn’t possibly be true.

“I think I’ll go to bed,” she said.

He looked at her but did not reply. She made eye contact, then in a calm, almost impassive tone said:

“I think I’m going mad.”

“Oh?”

“I said I think I’m going mad.”

“Maybe.”

She looked at him, a hardness in her eyes, but only for a second.

“Maybe,” she said.

He looked at her, coldly, and he was aware of it, even though he felt a hot unease within.

“Maybe,” he repeated. “And what’s brought on this madness?”

He saw her raise her shoulders. Then let them sink.

“Good night,” she said. Then stood for a moment, before leaving.

He felt she had duped him and was withdrawing with a victory of sorts. He felt like he had been the loser and worked himself up. Bloody woman! he thought, what has she got into her head! Trying to make herself interesting, coming up with this insanity—her!

After a while he calmed down, but was not calm. He went to the kitchen and took a bottle of beer from the fridge. It was a quarter to ten. He returned to the living room, sat down, then got to his feet, and began pacing back and forth on the green carpet, pausing now and again to take a gulp of beer, while thinking conflicting thoughts. He thought: as if she has anything to complain about? And: she wants something else. Someone who thinks she’s doing fine but still longs for something else. You know, the way people are.

One thing—due to whatever connotations she had in her head—had suddenly turned into something else entirely. Something harmless had become something complicated, serious. I think I’m going mad. She had meant that in one way or another, but in what way?

He fetched another beer, dismissed the idea she might have discovered something, about Anne, for instance, or Lucy. That was unlikely, she didn’t know anyone in those circles, and he had taken every conceivable precaution.

He could not figure it out; he finished his drink and switched off the lights.

She was in bed reading. She barely glanced up before reimmersing herself in her book. He pretended nothing was wrong. He thought: she’s acting as if nothing’s wrong, fine by me, I won’t go there.

He lay down, then turned his back to her as he switched off the lamp on the nightstand and said good night.

“Good night,” she said.

He could not sleep. After a good while he became aware she was not turning the pages of the book. He lay listening to make sure. No, she was not turning them. Believing she had fallen asleep, he was about to stretch across to switch off the lamp on her nightstand but found she was lying with her eyes open looking at him over the top of the book. Her gaze was quite calm, yet there was something about it he found unsettling, something distant and simultaneously searching.

“Is my reading bothering you?” she asked. “Do you want me to turn out the light?”

“No, no,” he replied. “I just thought . . . since you weren’t reading.”

“Yes I am. You can see that.”

He jerked the book from her hand and looked at the page number.

Thirty-eight. He gave it back, without saying anything.

“Why did you do that?” she said.

“You’ve read five pages since you went to fry an egg,” he said.

“I’m thinking every now and then.”

“I figured that much!”

“You remind me of my dad,” she said.

He made no reply for a while, then said:

“I thought you liked him.”

“Did you? Well I was fond of him.”

What a thing to say, he thought, what the hell does she mean by that!

“Ha-ha!” he said, turning away from her.

“Dad was always playing God,” she said. “If you know what I mean.”

“No!” he said. “Nor am I interested! And now I’d like to go to sleep!”

“Of course, yes. Night-night.”

Seething with anger, he suddenly got up, seized his duvet, pillow, and sheet and went to the living room, slamming the bedroom door behind him. He threw everything on the sofa, switched on the main light and strode purposefully out to the kitchen to fetch a bottle of beer. You remind me of my dad. Dad was always playing God.

Later, he went and took another bottle, and thought: I’m not going to the office tomorrow, will serve her right, she’ll see the mess she’s made.

Eventually he lay down, and eventually he slept.

He awoke with the sun in his face. For a moment or two he was disoriented, then he remembered everything.

He got up, walked quietly into the bedroom and got his clothes. She didn’t wake up. He made a simple breakfast, then went out to the car and drove to the center of town. The electrical firm he was employed at had secured parking spaces for senior office staff on a demolition plot a few minutes’ walk away; it helped make the company a more attractive workplace.

He had a lot to do and didn’t think very much about what had happened, but on the drive home, everything loomed so large that for a moment he considered punishing her by eating out. And although he thought it would certainly serve her right if he did, he decided that would only postpone matters and strengthen her hand. And he was not going to grant her that pleasure.

He let himself in, and all that met him was strikingly similar to what he usually encountered on coming home. She was friendly, and dinner—pork chops and stuffed cabbage—was ready. At first he was relieved, then he grew annoyed. Initially participating in the everyday chit-chat, then growing silent.

“Is there anything wrong?” she asked, but without concern, as though she might have asked: would you like more potatoes?

He decided not to answer. Then he said:

“No, why would there be?”

“I don’t know, was just wondering.”

Neither of them spoke after that. After eating, he went for a liedown, as was his habit. What’s the problem? he thought. I do love her after all.

He did not sleep, but lay down longer than usual. He could see no reason to get up.

She normally came in and woke him after a half hour so his afternoon nap did not affect his sleep at night. Today she did not.

After an hour he got up. She was not in the living room when he came in. A sheet of paper lay on the coffee table: “Just gone for a walk, Eva.”

Oh, he thought, so she’s suddenly just gone for a walk.

He was used to getting a coffee after his rest. He went out to the kitchen and put on the coffee maker.

He suddenly remembered the book. He wanted to read what she had read. He began to search for it, first in the living room, then in the bedroom, then finally the kitchen. He couldn’t find it. He looked in drawers, behind the books on the bookshelf, in the kitchen cupboards, but without success.

He drank two cups of coffee. She did not come home.

He turned over the sheet of paper on the coffee table and wrote: “Just gone for a walk. Harry.”

He went for a walk. He set out in the direction of the park, but changed his mind as there was a good chance Eva had gone there; she might think that he was looking for her.

He took a side street and headed north. After that he wandered aimlessly, thinking about himself, until finally arriving at the conclusion that he should have stayed at home; he would have been better off sitting on the sofa, looking composed when she arrived back.

He hurried home.

She was sitting on the sofa, looking composed. She glanced up from her book, smiled, then continued on reading. But it was a different book, he saw right away that it was much thicker than the one she had been reading the previous night.

He weighed up the cost of victory against defeat and decided he was going to take control of the situation. He turned on the cold-water tap, let the water run while studying his face, and thought: she has nothing to complain about—what the hell does she have to complain about! He turned off the tap and walked quickly into the living room. He said:

“If you’ve so much to complain about then you can just leave.”

She looked at him, quizzically at first, then with that hard expression he had seen the night before.

“Leave? What do you mean by that?”

“If you’re not happy with things, well then you can just go, can’t you?”

“Oh? Can I? Go where?”

“Anywhere.”

She put the book down, without closing it, but with the cover and back facing up, the way he had been taught not to lay down a book. Then she said:

“Why don’t you sit down?”

“I’m fine standing, thank you.”

“Please sit down, Harry.”

He took a seat, looked down at his hands, and began scratching at his left thumbnail.

“We need to talk,” she said.

He did not reply.

“Can’t we talk together,” she said.

“Talk away.”

“Talk together, Harry.”

He scratched at his thumbnail.

“I feel isolated, Harry. I know what we agreed, but it . . . back then I didn’t know what staying at home all day would mean. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against the things I do, but it’s not enough, and well . . . I’m stuck here all day long feeling . . . So, this morning I applied for a job, and it’s mine if I want it, I’ve said yes, but I can of course change my mind, but I told them I can start at the beginning of the month.”

There was a long silence, then he said:

“I see.”

“I think I have to take that job, Harry.”

“Oh? In other words I’ve no say in the matter.”

“You don’t understand. You’re going to be happy about it too.”

“I just don’t know what’s in my own best interests, is that what you mean?”

“You don’t know how I feel.”

“You think you’re going mad.”

Her tone of voice, no longer intended to be persuasive, took on a harsh, cold timbre that left him perplexed when she said:

“Don’t you dare not take me seriously! Don’t you dare!”

He realized he had gone too far, but was incapable of admitting it, so he said nothing, but suddenly felt extremely uneasy and insecure.

There was a long silence. He glanced at her; the last thing she had said still showed in her face, her expression simultaneously aggressive yet impassive.

“What kind of job is it?” he eventually asked.

“At the department store.” Her tone was cold, implacable. “In the kitchenware section.”

Most of the customers there would be women, he thought.

“This is all very sudden,” he said. “And we did have an agreement, after all.”

“I’m aware of that. But that was then. Besides, you said that most of my earnings would be eaten up by tax.”

“And you thought keeping house couldn’t be anything but wonderful.”

“Yes. I did. We were wrong, both of us.”

“We’re not going to be much better off, if that’s what you think.”

“We won’t be any worse off, at least.”

She spoke as if she knew and he did not pursue the issue. All in all she spoke differently, the aspect of semi-inquiry behind her words, which he was accustomed to and liked so much, was gone.

He was hit by the realization he had lost. He could not prevent her from doing what she wanted. He had a choice between being defied or of being accommodating in such a way so as not to suffer defeat.

He thought for a moment, then rose to his feet and said:

“Do you want a beer?”

“Now? No, thanks.”

He returned from the kitchen, placed the glass and the beer bottle down on the coffee table, but remained standing.

“I can see now that this means a lot to you, and you do know that I’ve always had your best interests at heart, even though I may not always have been able to see what really was in your best interests.”

“But still more able than me?” she interjected.

He did not understand what she meant, but he found the impatience with which she said it hurtful. Here he was, about to grant her her wish, and she cut him short like that!

He shrugged resignedly, then poured the beer into the glass, but remained standing.

“Sorry,” she said. “I interrupted you.”

He took a drink.

“Be that as it may,” he said, “what I was intending to say was that I think you should take the job, although you’re probably planning to do that, regardless of what I think.”

He met her gaze, she had a strange look in her eyes, and he was unable to interpret it. He looked away and took a swig from his glass. Then he waited, but she did not say anything. He waited and waited, took another gulp, emptying the glass, before filling it up again.

Finally, with her eyes fixed on her lap, in a tone of voice he was still unable to interpret—it sounded so flat, as though the words were coming from far away or almost as if from out of nowhere—she said:

“Of course, you know I wouldn’t do it if you didn’t think it was right.”

*

Copyright, Kjell Askildsen, 2020. Published by Archipelago, 4/27/2021.

Kjell Askildsen

Kjell Askildsen is widely recognized as one of the preeminent Norwegian writers of the twentieth century and among the greatest short-story authors of all time. He entered the literary scene in 1953 with the collection of short stories From Now on I'll Take You All the Way Home, which received glittering reviews in the Oslo press, but was banished from the library in his hometown. It was not until 1987, after the publication of A Sudden Liberating Thought, did he receive critical acclaim. Askildsen has received numerous literary awards, among them are: The Norwegian Critics’ Prize (1983 and 1991), the Brage Honorary Prize (1996), the Swedish Academy's Nordic Prize (2009), and in 1991, he was nominated for the Nordic Council’s Prize for Literature. His books have been translated into more than fifteen languages.

Séan Kinsella

Seán Kinsella holds a master’s in philosophy in literary translation from Trinity College, Dublin. Kinsella has translated Norwegian crime novels by Stig Sæterbakken, Frode Grytten, Tore Renberg, and Bjarte Breiteig into English. He lives in Norway with his family.

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