Buzz aldrin what happene.., p.20
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       Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, p.20

           Johan Harstad
 
I said nothing. Looked at the floor. Ashamed. Ashamed from here to China.

  “You’re all the fucking same, the whole lot of you,” he said. “You just care about yourselves, and let me sit here like an idiot.” And then added: “I’m disappointed. Really disappointed.”

  I wanted to say something to improve the situation, for his sake mainly, it isn’t the worst thing to be the accused, to be the criminal, it’s far worse to be the person who’s disappointed, who’s been tricked into thinking Christmas is canceled, the person who can no longer trust anybody and has to take on the burden of being angry instead. But there was nothing I could say to rescue him.

  “I’m sorry.”

  “That’s not good enough, Mattias. Just not good enough.”

  We sat in silence awhile before he said anything more. I didn’t dare to leave. Didn’t dare to get up. Didn’t dare move a single muscle.

  “That book,” he began, “is the most important thing I own. That book is who I am.”

  Havstein was the Caribbean. I was an idiot. That’s how it was. The distribution of roles seemed fair enough.

  “All of us have something that’s terribly important to us, Mattias.”

  I thought about the box of space books in my flat in Stavanger, the book I’d got for my tenth birthday. It wasn’t the moment to talk about it.

  “I was working at the Rikshospitalet in Copenhagen when I bought that,” he went on. “I was living with a Swedish girl called Maria, was terribly fond of her. I think I was going around with plans of marriage and all that. But nothing came of it. She disappeared in the end, out of the house, out of town, out of the country, I think. There might have been lots of reasons for that. But I remember we weren’t having a very good time toward the end. We barely spoke, even though we both had a lot on our chests. Didn’t know where to start somehow. So we said nothing, just tried to play for time, hoped it would pass. And then one day on my way home from work, one of the last days before she left, I walked into a bookstore just to see if there were any books that might take my mind off the silence at home. There was snow in Copenhagen that day, a rare occurrence, it never settles at least. But that day it snowed, December 1980, and a bland version of Silent Night was playing over the stereo system to get us into the mood, and I felt it had to mean something, so I walked around looking for something to read, and then I found this book on the bargain table. Fielding’s Guide to the Caribbean plus the Bahamas. It seemed such an inappropriate time to be selling a book of that type, that must have been why I picked it up and looked at it. It was already five years old, but the sales pitch on the front and back promised it was the best book on that region: The Best, it said. The Best, Washington D. C. Star. The Best, Fort Lauderdale News. The Best, Miami News. I had no idea if they were big or small papers, I just believed what they said. Informs you how to avoid trouble spots in paradise, it said. Precisely what I needed. A guide to paradise, a book about something thousands of miles away. I’m not sure whether I seriously thought such a book could help us, or whether it was just a symptom of my feelings of hopelessness that I chose to put my trust in it, there and then. But I bought it anyway and took it home, and we didn’t talk that evening either. I stayed up into the early hours, and it was summer in my living room that night, I almost got sunburned, read from cover to cover, from Antigua to the Virgin Islands. Then I went straight to work. And when I got back that evening, she was standing there ready to leave. It was just as well maybe, I don’t know, things were going nowhere between us. I went on living in town, working at Rigshospitalet, worked a lot, met other women occasionally, but nothing much ever came of it somehow.

  “So I moved back to the Faroe Islands, in the summer of 1981. Brought the book with me, read it now and then, I was always rather fond of it. It brought me a touch of summer. We don’t get much summer up here. On the Faroes. And after moving to the Factory, I began to read it regularly, a little bit each night. I tried to keep it updated, looked for all the information I could find about the Caribbean, entered the changes in the margins, added information I was given, things I read elsewhere. I wrote to the authors, Harry E. and Jeanne Perkins Harman to ask about things they’d omitted, I even called them once, and they invited me to visit, but the time never seemed right. I’m not sure that I would have felt comfortable if I’d gone anyway. Harry had been an athletic star at Atlanta University, was a World War II veteran, he’d been a high ranking officer on a destroyer on the Pacific, Iwo Jima, Saipan, and Jeanne used to write for the New York Herald Tribune, Life, the New York Times, Business Week, was the regional correspondent for Time and had received the highest accolades from the governor of the Virgin Islands. And there was I, a Faroese psychiatrist who’d never ventured beyond the Nordic countries.”

  Havstein paused, probably waiting for me to say something. But I had nothing to contribute. He looked down.

  “This book means an enormous amount to me, you understand?” His voice was milder now, perhaps he’d given up being angry with me. “I’ve had this book nearly half my life.”

  “Yes,” I answered. “Yes.”

  “How on earth did you end up coming into my room anyway? And opening my bedside cabinet?”

  “I don’t know. I was bored. I do things like that. And I wondered what you always went up to read, night after night, while Ennen and I stayed behind. I suppose it was going around in my head.”

  “You could have just asked.”

  “I guess I’m not so good at that. You should get yourself a padlock.”

  “Maybe. Or you should get yourself some handcuffs.”

  We laughed. I was pleased to see him smile for the first time in what seemed like a hundred years, I dared to move again, just the merest squirm where I sat in my chair.

  “Have you ever been there? To the Caribbean, I mean?”

  He gazed around the room. Whether he was despairing over himself or the question, was difficult to tell.

  “No. Not yet. But I’m preparing myself.”

  “Still? Twenty years later?”

  “When I go, I don’t intend to go for a vacation. I intend to go for good.”

  “Why?”

  “I don’t know.” He gave a little sigh. “Which is probably why I haven’t gone yet.”

  We didn’t mention it again that day, nor on the days that followed, even though he must have realized I was thinking about it, even though I couldn’t get it out of my head that in many ways I’d taken one of the few things from him that he had for himself, and that the magic of sitting in his office, evening after evening, with his pen in hand and the Caribbean laid before him in words and pictures, must have diminished a little that day. Perhaps that was what made him come to me with the book one evening, as I sat talking to Ennen, he handed it to me and I accepted it quietly.

  “I think you might need this. If you want to borrow it.”

  “Thank you,” I said. “Thanks a lot.”

  He was about to go, when I plucked up the courage at last to ask: “How did you know it was me?”

  “Because the others have already stolen it before you.”

  “All of them?”

  “One by one.”

  And from that evening, every day, after I’d gone to bed, there was light and warmth and a blue sky on the ceiling of my room, my ears were filled with the sound of bathers, transistor radios, and small tropical storms.

  And then I remember, one day in early December, an afternoon, I was sitting in the living room with Havstein. He was reading the papers and asked out of the blue: “Have you made any plans for Christmas?”

  Had I made any plans for Christmas?

  Had I made any plans?

  “No,” I said, hesitantly, I’d thought I was going to stay here, I’d thought we’d all be celebrating Christmas together. “I don’t know, what do you think I ought to do?”

  Havstein went on reading the papers. Talked without looking up: “Have you considered going home?”

  Home?

  Now?


  Now that I’d started to function again at last?

  “I thought perhaps you’d like to celebrate Christmas with your parents.”

  “Do you think it’s a good idea for me to go back home right now?”

  He looked over at me, as if to reassure himself he’d reached the right conclusion, or perhaps because it was a stupid question.

  “I think it would be fine.”

  “I’m not so sure,” I said.

  “You can buy a return ticket, of course. And come back here, I mean.”

  “I suppose so.”

  I sat and thought about it. Going home. Christmas. Christmas in Stavanger, the conversations over dinner tables, in living rooms and bars that always centered on the lack of snow in town, the sleet and storms in Vågen. Christmas trees with bags of clothes under them and the Salvation Army collecting boxes and winter coats, and Christmas lights suspended between the buildings in the shopping streets, I thought how Helle and I would always buy a Christmas tree on Little Christmas Eve, never earlier, even though the choices dwindled as the prices rose, how we’d stand around what was always a scruffy tree in the living room and decorate it with our limited collection of Christmas decorations, how Jørn would want me to go out for a pre-Christmas drink at Cementen, how I’d never go. And The Butler and the Countess would be on repeat. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

  “Perhaps,” I said.

  “Think it over,” said Havstein.

  I waited a couple of days before doing anything, sounded out the terrain. Havstein was going to be with his family in Århus, he generally went there every other year, and every other year his family came to Tórshavn. Ennen was going to Tórshavn to be with her mother. Anne was going home to Mi∂vagur and Palli always went to a big family gathering in Kollafjør∂ur. If I stayed I was going to be alone. Wasn’t sure I wanted that. I wasn’t the best company.

  I made two telephone calls. One to Atlantic Airways in Vágar; yes, they still had some seats available on the last flight to Stavanger before Christmas, on Little Christmas Eve, it went at a quarter past three. I had twelve thousand krones in an envelope in my room. I said I wanted to pay with cash when I picked up the tickets. She wished me a Merry Christmas over the phone. She had a nice voice, like a soft package under the tree. The other call I made was to Father. Didn’t want to make it at the Factory, didn’t want the others to hear, I put my coat on, turned the collar up and went out into the wind, into the sleet, huddled in the telephone booth outside the shut down shop.

  “Hello?”

  “Hi.”

  “Mattias?”

  “Yes.”

  “Mattias? Is it you, Mattias?”

  “Yes, it’s me.”

  “Well, well, how are you?”

  “Fine, I think. I’m fine. Did you get my card?”

  “Yes, I did. Thanks. It looks nice over there. Wide open spaces.”

  “It is nice. You should have been here.”

  “I’ve been so worried about you. We’ve been so worried about you.”

  “There’s no need. There are so many other things to worry about.”

  “Like what?”

  “The Balkans, for example.”

  “What are you talking about, Mattias?”

  “I was thinking of coming home.”

  “For good?”

  “For Christmas. If that’s okay?”

  “Of course you can come home, Mattias. Any time. We’ve missed you. And everybody asks about you.”

  “Everybody?”

  “Yes, your aunts, your uncles, Grandma. Jørn. Helle.”

  He said the last name and instantly regretted it, he tried to suck the last letter back in, but couldn’t, the vowels had escaped now.

  “Helle? Have you talked to her?”

  Father hesitated.

  Double or nothing.

  Thefortyeightthousandkronequestion.

  Sorry, but your thinking time is over.

  “Well, yes, I …” mumbling across the Atlantic. He won the silver platter and the consolation prize. “She’s come over a few times. We’ve talked a bit. After you’d left. When you didn’t come back.”

  “I see. What did you talk about?”

  “About you.”

  “Only good things, I hope,” I said, in an attempt to be amusing. He didn’t laugh.

  “It hasn’t been easy for her either, Mattias.”

  “Hasn’t it?”

  “No.”

  “What can I say?”

  “You just left, you know. She had no idea what had happened. You just disappeared.”

  “She was the one that left.”

  “I know that, Mattias. I know. But—”

  Beeps over the connection. My money had run out. I had to rummage in my pockets for coins.

  “Hang on—”

  Put two more ten krone pieces in and the line went quiet again. Our breathing traveling through the air and into the receivers in our hands.

  “I’m coming on Little Christmas Eve. The flight arrives at Sola at four.”

  “Do you want me to come and pick you up?”

  “Could you?”

  “Of course. I’m so pleased, Mattias.”

  “Great,” I said.

  “Do you want a word with your mother too?”

  “Can you just say hello from me? And we’ll see each other next week?”

  “All right.”

  “Okay. Bye, then.”

  “Bye, Mattias. Look after yourself.”

  “I will.”

  Pause.

  Click.

  I went out of the telephone booth and straight home, and nobody noticed I’d been out.

  The others left on the Wednesday of the following week, in the morning, before I’d even gotten up, one after the other they came knocking on my door, I lay in bed getting hugs, we wished each other a happy Christmas and Ennen brought up some cocoa, we sat on the edge of my bed, cups steaming in our hands, as though we were on a hike, the only thing missing was a Kit Kat, and Havstein came in three times to make sure he’d written down the right day for my return, and to drill me again on what I had to do when I locked up and left, which lights had to be left on, what needed turning off, turning down, turning up, switching on, and to check I knew which buses I had to catch to get down to Tórshavn and to the airbus that left the quay two hours before the flight, that would make it one fifteen, was that right? Yes, okay, good. More hugs and Christmas wishes, and then everybody was out of the door and I lay alone in bed, the last person on the moon.

  But the bus didn’t come the next day. Not when it should. It came late, I’d gotten up early, or perhaps it was the other way around, I was packed and ready to go, sat in the hallway watching the hands of the clock go slowly around. The bus came almost an hour late and it was twenty past two when I got off at Oyrarbakki to wait for the next bus for Tórshavn, and forty minutes later I sat in the backseat of a taxi that did everything it could to drive faster, we raced through the tunnel under the Vestmanna Sound, then Sandavágur where we’d been to a village festival in the late summer and watched a boat race and Mi∂vágur flashed past on the left and I looked at my watch, stared out of the window looking out for my plane, but saw nothing, and as we passed Vatnsoyrar, coming in toward the airport, I saw my plane taxi along the runway and pick up speed. I got out of the car and sprinted toward the entrance.

  There I stood in the Vágar departure hall, watching my plane take off from runway 18, and disappear into the clouds, on its way to Stavanger, and the presents for Mother, for Father, for Jørn, the things I’d bought in Tórshavn during the months I’d been here, suddenly felt heavy and bulky in their bags. There was nothing I could do. I paced the departure hall hoping an idea might come to me of what I should do. Went into the souvenir shop and found our sheep, rows and rows of them, at sky-high prices. They sold horses too. And cows. A veritable barnyard. But only the sheep were ours. I bought myself a cup of coffee in the café outside. Waited. No
idea came, snow came, and sleet, an announcement of the four-hour delay of a flight to England. My cup was enormous, and I really didn’t want coffee.

  There was a married couple at the next table, about my age. They looked sad. Had that green tint in their faces that only English people have, always a giveaway, mint-green faces, indisputable proof of acid rain and eternal miners’ strikes during childhood. Here they sat, at an international airport with no tax-free shop or bar, quarreling. Here of all places. He’d obviously forgotten something. Difficult to tell what, they talked fast, quietly, and in some dialect you don’t hear on the BBC. He tried to take her hand, but she kept pulling it away. I’m sorry, he said. I’m sorry. So sorry. I drank my coffee. I was sorry on his behalf. Tried to picture them at home in their own surroundings, somewhere in England, maybe Scotland. Edinburgh maybe. Or Swansea, Wales. Tried to picture him tomorrow, if things didn’t improve, how he’d sit on his own in the living room that night, when she’d gone off to bed. She’d have told the kids, that daddy daddy daddy hadn’t been nice, that if it hadn’t been for you we’d have separated, and daddy daddy daddy who’s in the living room messing with the wrapping paper, fumbling with tape, daddy daddy daddy who never quite makes the grade will still try to make things right again, decorate the tree, put up the Christmas lights, and he stays up all night in the living room, he drinks tea, tries to put the lights up, but there’s one not working, one of the three hundred and twenty-five bulbs isn’t screwed in properly, so he tightens them all, until his hands ache with each turn, and then, as he reaches the very last bulb, it happens, the living room lights up, they’ll have lights for Christmas Eve, and then, cinematically-America, Happy Hanukkah, she stands behind him, arms crossed, his wife, Doris, to whom he’s been married for so long, the girl he met in school, they were twelve, she was the only one who looked good in the uniform, and it took years to capture her, four years on the rowing team because he thought she liked boys that rowed, but she didn’t, she’d only waited around for him, and he got her one evening, with fumbling faltering helpless childish movements and an unsure move toward her blouse at that party in that room, and the kids who are sleeping now and whom he adores are half him and half her. And now, there she is, standing in the doorway, she’s been standing there for half an hour, watching as he did everything in his power to rescue his family’s existence. He turns, looks at her, and the radio is on, in the background, a suitable song, Bing Crosby, probably, and they dance across the floor and she’s unsteady, hasn’t danced for years, but he’s light on his feet, swings her around, and now the children have come down, they stand at the doorway in their pajamas.

 

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