This room smells like lavender. I haven’t been able to find any vases or bottles of essence, so I assume its just part of the room itself, seeped somehow into the hundred-year-old wood of the walls and the floor. For now I don’t mind it, but perhaps tonight – god, why do they make all this noise? Shouting out at each other, laughing and slamming doors since they woke this morning. And now I hear one of them coming up here, Heidi, surely, never giving me a moment’s peace. I might pretend to sleep, but it’s too late, right now it’s too late.
“Fred, are you awake? Are you coming down for lunch? I was just wondering if you were coming down to eat with us. Guro’s put it out on the table in the dining room. You shouldn’t hide in your room like this. It’s not good for you. Come down for lunch, Fred.”
When she walks away she leaves the door ajar, the way my mother used to do, a kind of power move the older use upon the young. I am not that young, but with Heidi I might still be a child.
The winding stairs are hollow and echo in dead wood with each step I take, but downstairs they don’t hear me come because they are still making so much noise. It is mostly Nils and his father, but I hear Guro and Heidi there too.
“You didn’t see my catch last year, you weren’t there.”
“You got that fish from Coop, I’m sure of it. Did you see how it was filleted? Professional job. Besides, there was bag by the bin, you definitely got it from the shop.”
“OK, OK. Today we go out, I’ll show you how to fillet a fish tonight. Coop! You young shit, I’ll show you.”
Peter’s laughter is a roar, and his baiting son roars too but his voice cannot compete.
Eight of them and me. Heidi, laughing with the others stands, looking up the stairs from the dining room doorway, waiting for me to descend.
I have outgrown these trips. It is my first now in five years, with all of them. I am twenty-five. I wear a man’s skin now, and I don’t belong here, where I am still a child. Heidi is smiling at me and watching and it’s irritating, because I don’t know what she is looking for. She asks probing questions that are followed up with useless advice. No children of her own, and she must meddle with others’. I would like to gently nudge her, or perhaps not-so-gently knock her out of my way as I move by, and see the smugness bounce from it and away as she tumbles.
At the table is Guro, my father’s other sister, with her husband and their twin children. The twins are side by side, Nils already filling his plate and Erin waiting, as she always does, for him to finish and pass the bowl to her. They are nineteen. They sit, inseparable, before the open windows that let the light in bright, and outside I can see people in shorts stopping at the house to look, point, and move on down the path and into the forest. We have never rented the main farmhouse before, and the house, so old and so large, is a curiosity to visitors, like it had been to us on our earlier trips to the island. It was Heidi’s idea to all stay together this time, and to spend time in close quarters. It could only have been Heidi’s idea.
Where is my father?
Anita is there, beside his empty seat. She is small and nervous, and smiles at me when I enter. They have been together these past four years, since her daughter, Victoria, was just four years herself.
Heidi says, “You can sit there, Fred, Henrik’s just gone to find Victoria outside.”
As I take my seat between Guro and the empty chair which Victoria will shortly occupy, I hear Guro fussing about the food, saying that my father and Victoria should come in soon or the flies might get it first. She is a crumpled, soft sort of person, her straight blonde hair is pulled weakly from her face and her clothes hang limply from her body. She is not small, but she looks it, and I glance over at her twins, wondering suddenly how they came to be from this meagre person flickering at my side. The twins are both strong and bold, Nils especially, with the life inside him barely contained in his solid, wide chest. His sister, a little lighter, is nonetheless a vibrant shape, haunted only slightly by the ghost of her mother’s image. Both children look more like Peter, Guro’s husband, a great blonde bear of a man who balances his size with relentless cheer that grates me, but I don’t show it.
Erin passes me the bread and I take two slices and send the basket over to Anita. Sitting alone between my father’s and Victoria’s unoccupied chairs at the end of the table, I have to stand up to reach her.
“Thank you, Fred.”
I hear Victoria now, banging her way in, and for a moment Anita’s face changes so completely that I am startled, as it is like looking at a different person. It is relief that alters her, and as Victoria comes in Anita smiles and holds her arms out to the girl, and even though Victoria avoids the hug, her mother beams and can be a person again, now that she is completed by her daughter’s presence.
My father follows, his neat clothes so incongruent with the loud and untidy mood set by Nils and Peter and their boisterous, unending banter. His shirt is ironed and tucked into his pressed jeans, and he wears thin-framed glasses that form a mask on his serious face, despite their small and invisible design. I worry that my face is too much like his: serious, expressionless, and it is why I must work so hard to meet people now.
“Were you sleeping?”
I nod at him and he nods back at me, and I wonder why I lied because I haven’t slept in two days.
They eat and talk simultaneously. Victoria is the loudest, and nobody minds her high-pitched chirping. Cutlery rings out against white porcelain plates made in Porsgrunn and she drops her knife frequently on the floor, then noisily retrieves it to be reused, unwashed.
I can feel Heidi’s eyes on me. My blood starts to warm and I ignore her, putting the bread in my mouth and preventing her from asking me any stupid questions.
This morning she asked me how things were with my studies. It is a stupid question, but she knows the answer, but she barely waited for my answer before she was ready with advice plucked, I can only assume, from the air rich with arrogance that surrounds her. The advice she gave me was entirely irrelevant, but I nodded and pretended to take it.
She knows everything.
She knows nothing.
I notice, for the first time, that Erin isn’t talking. She’s normally the quieter than her brother, who overshadows everyone, but she isn’t ordinarily silent. Their mother is fussing over the meal, getting up to fetch more coffee. Peter tells us a story about a drunk man he met at the pier two days ago to make us all laugh.
Heidi asks Erin if she wants more bread. She shakes her head, and still she doesn’t speak. Heidi is looking at me again and I forget about Erin. I want her to stop looking. I want her to stop fucking looking.
My mother once made my girlfriend cry on this island. Ex-girlfriend. We three stood at the open-air church, hidden just off the main road, talking about the future. Sofia joked about marriage in a beautiful place like this. My mother didn’t want to talk about that, started talking passionately about living life fully when we’re young and not always rushing ahead and Sofia, that was her name, thought she didn’t want her to marry me. And so that night she cried. She didn’t know my mother.
My father tells me I am like her. Passionate and emotional. He said our emotional spectrum was greater than his, and is what makes us different, special, my mother and I, because of our African blood. I know he’s talking shit now, because now that she’s dead, my spectrum is truncated, a size I can probably fit between two fingers. I feel so little and I don’t mind. I think it was only her that was special, a connecting point for others to release their feelings before or upon or through.
“We’re going down to swim after lunch, want to join?”
I look up at Nils, who seems to have directed the question at me. His confidence is irritating. I’m twenty-five and he is nineteen. I don’t want to swim with him. I look at Erin and she smiles at me.
I reach over for coffee, and the pot is empty again, so Heidi flutters away to fetch more from the kitchen. Nils is laughing again with his mouth open and I didn’t catch the joke. He almost chokes because his goddamn mouth is full, and when he stops coughing he starts laughing again, and Peter calls him an idiot and laughs even louder.
At the pier Nils is already in the water and Victoria, who I brought along with me, throws her small body from the stone platform almost on top of him and he shrieks as he moves out of her way. Erin watches them.
“You won’t swim?”
She smiles and nods, and walks quickly over to the edge, jumping in and gasping. I follow.
As she plops into the water Nils teases her, telling me he’s tried to get her to swim all morning, that she needs the exercise, that her skin is so pale she is almost a ghost. I don’t laugh, but she does, and for a moment she does look like a ghost, laughing quietly with her bully brother. After a while I climb out, cold, and in need of sun. Erin follows.
We sit, warming our skin, smelling the salt from the fjord. Her flesh goes quickly pink as the sun dries it, and she covers herself with her towel in protection. Sheep bleat behind us in the browning field. There has been a drought this year and the green is slow to come. I catch a whiff of them, the sheep, and it feels out of place with the ocean scent and I like the mismatch, one warm one cold, soft and hard. I feel good, and I lie down to take the sun and everything else into my uncovered skin.
The peace is broken only by Victoria’s shrieking and Nils’s shouts, and we watch the two playing, both now eight years old.
“Was it difficult to come this year?”
Erin doesn’t look at me when she talks, only scratching her pale fingernails on the rock beneath. She keeps her voice light, but her face is fading beneath something heavy. I remember how she was at lunch. How she pushed the food around her plate and said nothing. I don’t know what to do with this.
“Yes. I almost didn’t come. But Heidi didn’t stop asking. I felt I didn’t have a choice. But I’m glad I’m here now.”
“Is Heidi getting on your nerves?”
“Yes. Can you tell? It’s her nosiness. The way she wants us all to account for ourselves to her. I think it’s because she doesn’t have children.”
It sounds so much worse said out loud. Erin only laughs.
“Is it hard now that your father is with Anita?”
It is not, and I tell her. Anita has made things better for everyone. Victoria has too.
“My mother was not happy. She never was. My father, I suppose he’s happy now.”
“She came to swim here with us last time we were here.”
I look at her, surprised. My mother, I can remember so few instances when she would swim. She would joke that it wasn’t in her heritage to throw herself into the cold ocean at every opportunity. She liked to lean upon those stereotypes when they suited her. I didn’t mind. It was part of her big personality.
“It was the year you didn’t come. Five years ago? The year before she died. We were fighting, me and Nils, and Mamma was stressing. But your mother she came and made it OK. And she got into her swimsuit and swam with us and told us we were seeing a rare sight and should stop fighting and appreciate it.”
I don’t know what to say.
She could do that, fix things in an moment by doing something bold or saying the right thing. Her energy, when her mood was good was tangible and it would burn right out of her sometimes. I had forgotten.
“You and Nils. You are like night and day.” I say this instead of talking more about my mother.
“You think he is a bully, don’t you?”
I am silent again.
“He is. He can be. But – ” and she turns around, almost unconsciously, to see who is coming, but there is nobody, “he has to be that way and I have to be like this.”
“My father, you know him. He’s good. But…”
Nils is still shrieking with Victoria in the water. She’s dunked his head under and he is pretending to drown, bobbing up now and chasing her as she squeals.
Erin continues, still scratching her finger on the warm stone.
“It’s like, he’s not like a person. Mamma too. They are what you see. Jokes and worries. There is nothing more to them.”
“I don’t think that’s true. Maybe they don’t show it. Maybe you should…”
She interrupts me.
“He’s not well, Nils.”
As she whispers his name, Nils calls out to her and she waves him away. But she will go shortly to him, we both know.
“He won’t talk about it. I thought maybe you could -”
“You know, because of your mother.”
She breathes, and she goes on.
“Last year, he tried -”
My stomach seizes as I wait for her to finish, but she looks away.
“He tried what?”
“If it weren’t for Heidi. She knew something was wrong. She got him help, got him to a doctor in time, and you know he actually told us it was an accident? Because he had this injury, you know, from soccer. And he said it was an accident that he just overdosed, but I know he is lying. Heidi thinks he should talk to someone. Like you, maybe. I don’t know, how do you talk about these things?”
She looks at me and I cannot breathe so I look away at Nils, with his blonde hair flopping about his strong young face.
“Don’t tell him I told you.”
I shake my head.
Nils calls over to her again, hurling weak insults at her about her soft, round body and she laughs and hops into the water again.
“We can talk later,” she said, before she left.
After a while, the sound of slippers clapping on the hard rock brings Guro and Heidi, with pull-out chairs and jugs of cordial.
Guro starts to fuss immediately, something about forgetting chips, something about the kids making a noise. She leaves, still muttering to herself and Heidi sits beside me, a small smile on her face and a glass of raspberry cordial in her hand.
“I brought some ginger beer too,” she says, reaching into the bag, and she watches me as she hands the can over. I take it, my mother’s favourite drink, and I look at it for a while before opening it.
“I’m glad you came, Fred. We’ve missed you.”
Her soft hand touches my warm shoulder and the ginger beer, as I raise it to my mouth, burns my eyes and makes them water. I blink the stinging away and take a sip.
In the water, Nils is shrieking as he hoists Victoria into the air, before tossing her gently back into the water. Erin laughs and swims around them. It is not long before I finish my drink and leave my warm spot to join them.