Her blond curls are soaked in blood.
The ground has opened up and tried to swallow her. Only her head and torso are visible. Her rigid body is propped up by the damp earth; she looks like a single long-stemmed red rose. Blood has trickled down her back in thin, elongated lines, like tears on a melancholic cheek. Her naked back resembles an abstract painting.
He takes hesitant steps inside the tent, glancing from side to side. Turn around, he tells himself. This has nothing to do with you. Just turn around, go back outside, go home, and forget what you’ve seen. But he can’t. How can he?
Only the swishing branches of the trees reply. He takes a few more steps. The air is suffocating and clammy. The smell reminds him of something. But what?
The tent wasn’t there yesterday. To someone like him, who walks his dog every day on Ekeberg Common, the sight of the large white tent was irresistible. The strange location. He just had to look inside.
If only he could have stopped himself.
Her hand isn’t attached. It’s lying, severed, next to her arm as though it has come undone at her wrist. Her head slumps toward one shoulder. He looks at them again, the blond curls. Random patches of matted red hair make it look like a wig.
He edges up to the young woman, but stops abruptly, hyperventilating to the point where his breathing stops. His stomach muscles knot and prepare to expel the coffee and banana he had for breakfast, but he suppresses the reflex. He backs away, carefully, blinking, before he takes another look at her.
One eye is dangling from its socket. Her nose is squashed flat and seems to have disappeared into her skull. Her jaw is dented and covered with purple bruises and cuts. Thick black blood has gushed from a hole in her forehead, down into her eyes and across the bridge of what remains of her nose. One tooth hangs from a thread of coagulated blood inside her lower lip. Several teeth are scattered in the grass in front of the woman who once had a face.
The last thing Thorbjørn Skagestad remembers, before staggering out of the tent, is the nail varnish on her fingers. Blood red.
Just like the heavy stones lying around her.
Henning Juul doesn’t know why he sits here. In this particular spot. The crude seating, let into the hillside, is hard. Rough and raw. Painful. And yet he always sits here. In the exact same spot. Deadly nightshade grows between the seating which slopes up toward Dælenenga Club House. Bumblebees buzz eagerly around the poisonous berries. The planks are damp. He can feel it in his backside. He should probably change his trousers when he gets home, but he knows he won’t bother.
Henning used to come here to smoke. He no longer smokes. Nothing to do with good health or common sense. His mother has smoker’s lungs, but that’s not what stops him. He wishes desperately he could smoke. Slim white friends, always happy to see you, though they never stay for long, sadly. But he can’t, he just can’t.
There are people around, but nobody sits next to him. A soccer mum down by the artificial turf looks up at him. She quickly averts her eyes. He is used to people looking at him while pretending they aren’t. He knows they wonder who he is, what has happened to him, and why he sits there. But no one ever asks. No one dares.
He doesn’t blame them.
He gets up to leave when the sun starts to go down. He is dragging one leg. The doctors have told him he should try to walk as naturally as possible, but he can’t manage it. It hurts too much. Or perhaps it doesn’t hurt enough.
He knows what pain is.
He shuffles to Birkelunden Park, past the recently restored pavilion with its new roof. A gull cries out. There are plenty of gulls in Birkelunden Park. He hates gulls. But he likes the park.
Still limping, he passes horizontal lovers, naked midriffs, foaming cans of beer, and wafts of smoke from barbecues burning themselves out. An old man frowns in concentration before throwing a metal ball toward a cluster of other metal balls on the gravel where, for once, children have left the bronze statue of a horse alone. The man misses. He only ever misses.
You and I, Henning thinks, we’ve a lot in common.
The first drop of rain falls as he turns into Seilduksgate. A few steps later, he leaves behind the bustle of Grünerløkka. He doesn’t like noise. He doesn’t like Chelsea Football Club or traffic wardens, either, but there is not a lot he can do about it. There are plenty of traffic wardens in Seilduksgate. He doesn’t know if any of them support Chelsea. But Seilduksgate is his street.
He likes Seilduksgate.
With the rain spitting on his head, he walks west toward the setting sun above the Old Sail Loft, from which the street takes its name. He lets the drops fall on him and squints to make out the contours of an object in front. A gigantic yellow crane soars toward the sky. It has been there for ever. The clouds behind him are still gray.
Henning approaches the junction where Markvei has priority from the right, and he thinks that everything might be different tomorrow. He doesn’t know if it’s an original thought or whether someone has planted it inside his head. Possibly nothing will change. Perhaps only voices and sounds will be different. Someone might shout. Someone might whisper.
Perhaps everything will be different. Or nothing. And within that tension is a world turned upside down. Do I still belong in it, he wonders? Is there room for me? Am I strong enough to unlock the words, the memories, and the thoughts which I know are buried deep inside me?
He doesn’t know.
There is a lot he doesn’t know.
He lets himself into the flat after climbing three long flights of stairs where the dust floats above the ingrained dirt in the woodwork. An appropriate transition to his home. He lives in a dump. He prefers it that way. He doesn’t think he deserves a large hallway, closets the size of shopping centers, a kitchen whose cupboards and drawers look like a freshly watered ice rink, self-cleaning white goods, delicate floors inviting you to slow dance, walls covered with classics and reference books; nor does he deserve a designer clock, a Lilia block candleholder from Georg Jensen, or a bedspread made from the foreskins of hummingbirds. All he needs is a single mattress, a fridge, and somewhere to sit down when the darkness creeps in. Because inevitably it does.
Every time he closes the front door behind him, he gets the feeling that something is amiss. His breathing quickens, he feels hot all over, his palms grow sweaty. There is a stepladder to the right, just inside the hall. He takes the stepladder, climbs it, and locates the Clas Ohlson bag on the old green hat rack. He takes out a box of batteries, reaches for the smoke alarm, eases out the battery, and replaces it with a fresh one.
He tests it to make sure it works.
When his breathing has returned to normal, he climbs down. He has learned to like smoke alarms. He likes them so much that he has eight.
© 2010 Gyldendal Norsk Forlag