Read an Excerpt
Two men had stopped outside the gate. Time to check them out. Frank Frølich skipped down the last two steps, went through the gateway, past the two men and out into the street. They didn’t react. He thought: They should have reacted. Why didn’t they react? He shoved his hands deep into his jacket pockets and with lowered eyes continued walking. In the window of the fishmonger’s, a man was shovelling ice into a polystyrene box. He shot a quick glance back over his shoulder. Neither of the men was taking any notice. They were still fidgeting with their rosary beads. One of them said something and both burst into laughter.
A rusty cycle stand creaked. A woman was pushing her bicycle into it. She walked past the boxes of vegetables on display. She opened the door to Badir’s shop. The bell over the door jingled. The door closed behind her.
Frank Frølich felt as though some wild beast were gnawing at his stomach: a customer in the shop? Uh-oh. That wasn’t supposed to happen at all.
He leapt into the road. A car braked sharply. The car behind hooted its horn and almost crashed into it. Frank Frølich ran up the pavement. He passed the bicycle, the boxes of mushrooms, grapes, lettuce and peppers – went through the door into the shop, which smelt like a rotten-apple cellar with the added sickly-sweet odour of oil.
The woman was alone in the shop. She had a shopping basket hung over her arm and was walking slowly between two lines of food shelves. There was no one else in sight. No one was sitting by the cash till. The curtain in the doorway behind the cash machine flapped gently.
The woman was short in stature. Her black hair was gathered at the back of her head. She was wearing jeans and a cut-off jacket. A small rucksack swung from her shoulder. Black gloves on her hands, fingers clutching a tin can. She was reading the label.
Frank Frølich was two metres away when it happened. He glanced to his left. Through the shop window he saw the police car on the other side of the street. They had started.
Suddenly he launched himself at her and dragged her down with him. Half a second later there was a screech of brakes. The man who sprang across the counter was one of the two with the rosary beads. Now he was holding a gun. A shot was fired. There was a jangle of broken glass. The display case containing tobacco and cigarettes tipped over. Another shot was fired. And then chaos. Sirens. Barking voices. Clattering heels. The noise of a door and glass breaking, shattering in a never-ending stream. The woman lay still beneath him. Cigarette packets showered down onto them. She was probably around thirty years of age, smelling of perfume. Her blue eyes glinted like sapphires. Finally Frank Frølich managed to tear his eyes away. Then he discovered her hands. Fascinated, he lay watching them industriously working away. Long fingers clad in leather, small hands automatically stuffing packets of cigarettes into her rucksack, which had come loose in the fall. Then he became aware of the silence. There was a draught from the door and window.
‘Frølich?’ The voice came from a megaphone.
‘Is the woman all right?’
‘You’re a policeman,’ the woman whispered. She cleared her throat to speak.
He nodded and finally let her go.
‘Wouldn’t be a smart idea to pinch anything then?’
He shook his head, fascinated yet again by how efficiently the small hands took the cigarettes out of the rucksack. He rose to his knees.
They stood there looking at each other. She was attractive in a vulnerable sort of way; there was something about her mouth.
‘Sorry,’ he mumbled. ‘This shouldn’t have happened. Someone should have stopped you. Long before you came into the shop.’
She continued to stare.
‘There was a foul-up somewhere.’
‘Are you all right?’
She nodded again, put her arms to her sides. As yet he hadn’t looked around him, gained an overview of the situation. He heard the cold sound of flexi-cuffs being tightened around wrists and the curses from one of the men arrested. That’s what it’s come to, he thought. I rely on others.
‘May I take your name?’ he asked in an unemotional voice.
‘Have I done something wrong?’
‘No, but you were here. Now you’re a witness.’
The autumn days passed. A gloom pervaded the daylight hours and time crystallized into work: larceny – petty and grand, murders, suicides, robberies and domestic violence; everyday life – a series of incidents, some of which make an impression, while most are soon forgotten. Your consciousness is trained to repress. You crave a
holiday, two weeks on a Greek island in the summer or, slightly shorter-term, a long weekend on the ferry to Denmark. Drinking, shouting, laughing, homing in on a woman with just the right kind of husky laugh, who has warm eyes and thinks pointed shoes are absolutely great. But until that happens: days like photographic slides – images which flicker for a few seconds before disappearing, some easier to remember than others, but then those disappear too. Not that he thought any more about her. Or perhaps he did?
Perhaps he occasionally remembered the sapphire blue eyes, or the feeling of her body pressed against his – there on the floor of Badir’s shop. Or the man who was now slowly but surely being dragged through the mill of penal indictment, soon to be convicted of the organized smuggling of meat and cigarettes, then resisting arrest, threatening behaviour, illegal possession of a weapon and so on. Soon to swell the ranks of those waiting for an available cell to serve their term. Despite such thoughts crossing his mind, there was one thing Frank Frølich was pretty sure about, and that was he would never see her again.
It happened one rainy afternoon in late October. Darkness was drawing in; a cold wind was blowing up Grensen in Oslo city
centre. The wind caught hold of people’s clothing, replicating Munch’s paintings: shadows of figures ducking away from the driving rain, huddling up, using their umbrellas as shields or – if they didn’t have an umbrella – thrusting their hands into their pockets and sprinting through the rain in search of a protective ledge or awning. The wet tarmac stole the last of the daylight, and the water trickling into the tramlines reflected the neon glare. Frank Frølich had finished work and was feeling hungry. Accordingly, he made for Kafé Norrøna. The room smelt of hot chocolate with cream. He immediately wanted some and queued up. In front of the cash till, he changed his mind and asked what the soup of the day was.
‘Italian. Minestrone.’ The serving lady was the impatient kind, sour expression and limp posture.
He took his tray of hot soup, a roll and a glass of water. Found a place by the window, eased himself onto the stool and stared out at the people hurrying down Grensen with upturned collars. A woman rested her chin on the lapels of her jacket to keep it closed. The
rain worsened. The reflections of car lights and flashing neon signs swept across house walls. People in the street resembled cowering
children, hiding from a booming voice somewhere above.
Frank Frølich put down his spoon and turned round. There was something familiar about her face. About thirty years of age, he thought. She had black hair, partly covered by a woolly hat, held in place like a beret. Her complexion was pale, her lips were bright red and her eyebrows formed sharp angles, two inverted Vs high on her forehead.
Classy, he thought. It struck him that she wouldn’t have been out of place in a black-and-white still from a forties film. She was wearing a long, clinging woollen skirt and short jacket. Her outfit emphasized her figure – hips, waist and shoulders.
‘Torggata,’ she said, tilting her head, becoming a little impatient at his slow-wittedness. ‘Marlboro, Prince, cigarettes.’
Then he remembered: the eyes and especially her mouth. Which lent her an air of vulnerability. But the small wrinkles around her mouth told him she was older than he had at first believed. Instinctively, he searched for the blue of her eyes – without being able to find it immediately. Must be the light, he thought, must be the harsh neon light which deadened the blue. The lightbulbs in Badir’s shop must have been the regular variety.
‘You let me go.’
He suddenly felt uneasy and looked for ways out. Not much was left of the soup and he had paid. Something about this encounter put him on edge; the situation activated a slumbering sensation at the back of his mind. He would have to rebuff her approach, but he was slightly reluctant. She was standing quite close to him, looking into his eyes. It would be unpleasant turning his back on her. He said: ‘My pleasure. You hadn’t done anything wrong.’
‘You don’t think so?’
‘I took three packets of Marlboro and a Snickers bar.’
He pushed his bowl away. ‘So you’re a thief, then.’
‘You saw, didn’t you?’
‘Saw what?’ He put on his jacket and patted his pocket to check he had his wallet.
‘You saw me.’
For a brief moment, the words unsettled him. You saw me. She could have expressed herself differently, but this was a message which he could not misunderstand. It was an attempt to present herself not just as an object for his attention, but to suggest
she owed him a favour because he had done something for her, something that would have to remain a secret.
‘I have to go,’ he announced. ‘All the best . . .’ He reflected. Her name. She had told him her name. He had even made a mental note of it. In the nick of time the name emerged in his consciousness. He said: ‘. . . Have a nice evening, Elisabeth.’
He stood still for a few seconds as the glass door slid to behind him. The wind had dropped a little, but the rain was still pouring down. Buttoning his jacket, he shook himself, as if to rid himself of the discomfiture of the incident. He took the few metres to the underpass leading to the Metro at a brisk pace. Here, he went into his usual Metro trance to the accompaniment of the smell of refuse, used air, wet woollens, autumn and influenza; elderly women ran gloved fingers under their noses; men raised their eyes to God in a quiet prayer to be spared another bout of angina, here in this tight scrum of humanity in which everyone was blind to each other’s existence. He squeezed back against the glass wall of the Metro carriage, touched the condensation on the glass; only to wake from the trance when the doors shut at Manglerud and the creature of habit in him liberated itself from its corner to step
closer to the doors as the train braked on its approach to Ryen
station. The doors were two metal lips which opened, ready to spit him out. At this altitude, the rain had turned into the autumn’s first sleet showers. Car headlights shone on the tarmac of the ring road and were devoured by the blackness. He trudged up the hill as cars sped by.
Something must have caught his attention, a sound or a shadow behaving differently, as he approached the entrance to his flat. He stopped and turned. The street light by the petrol station was directly behind her, outlining her silhouette in yellow light. She stood still. He stood still. They were alert to each other’s every move. Her hands deep in the pockets of the short jacket and her facial expression in shadow. Her hair cascaded down onto
her shoulders, with the light from the street lamp like an aura above the woolly hat, the tight jacket and the skirt covering her knees.
It was just the two of them – in the dark. No one else around.
The remote drone of the traffic. A street lamp buzzed. He walked towards her with determined steps. She didn’t move. He walked into the road and then around her, forcing her to follow him with her eyes and turn towards the light so that he could see her face.
They were staring into each other’s eyes throughout this whole carousel movement. He detected something in her gaze: an
energy, something he couldn’t define in words, something it was difficult to confront without speaking. ‘Are you following me?’
‘You’d rather I didn’t?’
The response took his breath away – again.
Finally she lowered her gaze. ‘You saw me,’ she said.
Those three words again. ‘And?’ he said.
They stood close to each other. He had gone right up to her but she hadn’t budged. He could feel the warmth of her breath on his cheek.
She took his hands in hers.
His mind froze. He cleared his throat, but didn’t move. She had heavy eyelids and long, curly eyelashes. At the end of each lash a tiny drop of condensation had gathered. Her breath streamed like mist from between the half-open lips, caressing his cheeks before it dissipated. As she spoke, the words nestled against his cheeks.
‘What did you say?’ was as much as his voice could manage. His mouth was only a few centimetres from hers as she softly whispered: ‘I forget no one if I kiss you.’
Then he released his hands and clasped her slender face between them.
Before leaving, she stood for a long time in the shower. He lay on his back in bed listening to the murmur of the water.
When she closed the front door behind her, it was four o’clock in the morning. Then he got up and went into the bathroom. He stood with his forehead against the tiled wall as the water stroked his shoulders. His mind was on the hours that had passed. The way his body towered over hers. The way she had held his gaze as he breathed in again and again, then let it out loudly, breathing in again and again, letting it out loudly again and again. The beads of sweat between her breasts, reflecting thousands of facets. The way her soft breasts rose and fell to the rhythm of her breathing before he thrust the breath out of her. The desire raw, untamed, hungry – the kind that leaves in its wake guilt, shame, abortions, fatherless children, HIV. He could still feel the pressure of her fingers as
she grabbed him hard around the waist, ten nails digging into him. She wanted more, yet had less breath because she could see the countdown flicker behind his eyelids.
Afterwards, alone, his head pressed against the tiles: Frank Frølich twists the tap to red and allows himself to be scalded by boiling-hot water – recalling the strange tattoo on her hip as she straddles him backwards. He cannot picture this without becoming aroused yet again, feeling the urge to do it once more, knowing that if she had walked in through the door at that moment, he would have thrown her down on the bathroom floor, or in there, over the desk – and he would have been unstoppable.
Such thoughts are a virus. In the end they disappear, but it takes time. Eventually everything passes. Three days, possibly four,
a week – then the thoughts release their grip. In the end your
body is left numb and begins to function normally, glad that it is over.
Six days went by. He was back in shape. But then the mobile phone on his desk bleeped. One message. He read it. A single word: Come!
He automatically tapped in the sender’s number and sent it off to enquiries. His phone bleeped again. Another message. This time with the sender’s name and address: Elisabeth Faremo.
Frank Frølich sat down. His body was tingling. He lifted his hand. It wasn’t shaking. Nevertheless, this woman had thrown a switch. He had assumed he was symptom-free and unaffected, assumed he had come to terms with the intoxication. But no. Bang. Feverish. Unable to think. A bundle of pent-up energy. He was charged up. As a result of one solitary word!
He sat looking at the small phone with its illuminated display. It began to vibrate in his hand. The phone rang. The same number.
‘Hi, Elisabeth,’ he said and was surprised at the clarity of his voice.
Two seconds of silence. Long enough for him to think: Now she knows I have looked up her telephone number. She knows the effect she has on me, she knows she can throw a switch and raise my temperature to fever pitch by keying in a message. But then came the gentle voice he had not heard for several days: ‘Where are you?’
‘Police HQ, Grønland.’
It was his turn to speak. He cleared his throat, but he had
hardly drawn breath before she interrupted: ‘Don’t you have a break soon?’
‘What’s the time?’ he asked, looking at the place where the
clock had been that had hung over the door until a few weeks
ago but was no longer there. Just two wires protruding from
‘No idea. Around lunchtime.’
‘Where shall I pick you up?’
‘Are you driving?’
‘I’ll be at Lisa Kristoffersens plass, near Voldsløkka.’
‘In ten minutes.’
He couldn’t think. No room in his head for anything but images: the curve of her back, the roundness of her hips, the black hair flowing across the pillow – the sapphire-blue stare.
He threw on his jacket and left. Down the stairs and into the street. He started the car and drove off. What was the time? He
didn’t have a clue. He didn’t give a shit about anything in the world, concentrated simply on not hitting pedestrians. Accelerated. As he was driving down Stavangergata she appeared from nowhere, came walking towards him on the pavement. With her came the scent of late autumn, perfume and throat lozenges. She took a seat without uttering a word.
He fixed his eyes on the wing mirror. Breathing normally, despite her sweet fragrance. Cold, controlled check of the mirror. He waited until the road was clear, then signalled and drove off – conscious of her constant gaze, directed at his impassive profile. She wriggled out of her lined brown leather jacket.
Finally, after passing the turn-off for Nydalen, she broke the silence: ‘Aren’t you happy to see me?’
He stole a furtive glance at her. She was feline. Two huge blue eyes with large pupils, the look of a cat. He could feel his pulse
racing. Temples pounding. But he maintained his mask. ‘Of course I am.’
‘You don’t say anything.’
Her hand over his, on the gear stick. He glanced down at the hand – the fingers, glanced at her again. ‘Hi. Nice to see you again.’ The words stuck in his throat. He was driving towards Kjelsås, Brekke and Maridalen.
What am I doing?
Lips stroking his cheek. The hand that slipped off his and under his jacket. It was as if she had filled a recently tuned engine with high-octane fuel and pressed start. His heart was beating so fast and so hard that the blood in his ears was thumping. Trees on both sides. He slowed down, drove into the lay-by, over to the copse, away from the road. Came to a halt. Put the car in neutral and
let the engine idle. As he snatched another sidelong glimpse, she covered his lips with hers.
When she spoke, it was the first time for an hour: ‘Would you mind driving me somewhere?’
‘What are you going to do there?’
Wrong question. Her eyes narrowed.
The atmosphere melted away.
He breathed in and stared at the trees outside – collected himself to look at her again. The daggers in her eyes had changed into a kind of preoccupied sheen – she regarded him from inside a private room where she did not want to share anything with him. The voice from a cool, smiling mouth: ‘I’m going to look for a job.’
He pulled into the kerb and dropped her off in Moltke Moes
vei. He sat watching her. A tiny amount of snow had fallen overnight; he noticed it now for the first time. The snow had
melted into a slush in which her footsteps left large puddles. The woman who until a short time ago had been a very part of him was now reduced to a slight figure lifting her feet much like a cat not wanting to get its paws wet. Is it possible? Is this small stooped
figure, a mere nobody wrapped in cotton, wool and skin, is this the creature who has me totally in her power, who makes my heart pound so hard that I feel my chest will explode?
Drive! Far away! After a couple of weeks she will be forgotten, airbrushed out. But as the slender form disappeared into the Niels Henrik Abel building he switched off the engine, opened the car door and got out. He followed her. Why I am doing this?
Because I want to know more about her.
She had continued through the building to the other side. He followed fifty metres behind her. A mini-tractor came across the snow-covered flagstones. He moved to the side and walked past students conversing in low voices in twos and threes. She went into the Sophus Bugge building. He stopped a good way behind her, observing her through the high windows as she disappeared into an auditorium.
If she was a student, what was she studying? He entered the building through the heavy doors.
He walked towards the broad door leading into the auditorium. Reidun Vestli’s name dominated the timetable. It was she who was now giving the lecture.
He took a seat outside and picked up a newspaper lying there. He was plagued by doubt. What would he do if she came out and saw him?
He closed his eyes. I’ll tell her straight. I’ll tell her it isn’t enough to have casual sex in a parked car – I want to know who she is, what is going on in her mind, why she does what she does . . .
Do you yourself know why you do what you do?
Frank Frølich sat staring blindly at the front page of the newspaper. A photograph of a military vehicle. Civilians murdered.
An incident which engaged people’s attention all over the world. Dagsavisen had given it front-page status believing that he would care, would be lured into immersing himself in all the verbiage they managed to spawn about this incident. But he didn’t care. Nothing at all was of any significance now, nothing, except for Elisabeth, this – from where he stood – completely anonymous and rather delicate woman with the pale face, red lips and eyes of a blue he had never seen before. Her existence meant something, meant a great deal. He had no idea why. He only knew that she did something to him – physically, but also mentally, something which aroused a craving in him he had only read about, heard about, something he had never given credence to – and now he was
spying on her.
He had met her three times.
That phone message: Come! His brain was immediately empty of all other images except those of her body – her lips, her eyes. And barely half an hour later they were caught up in a sexual intensity he had seldom experienced the like of before. The word – did she know what she had set in motion? Was she doing it on
At last the door opened. Out streamed a faceless mass of students. Most wearing their outdoor clothes. He looked at his watch. It was four o’clock. The lecture was over. He had butterflies in his stomach. What if she sees me?
There were fewer and fewer students emerging now. Soon there wouldn’t be any more. Had she passed him?
Slowly Frank Frølich stood up. He walked warily towards the door and opened it.
He was at the top end of the auditorium, behind the rows of chairs looking down on the lectern. There were two people down there. Elisabeth was one of them. The other woman was talking to her in a soft voice. She was in her fifties with black hair in a kind of page-boy cut, wearing a long black dress.
They were standing very close to each other. They may have been very good friends. They could have been mother and daughter. But mothers don’t caress their daughters like that.
He was spotted.
The two women looked up at him. Both very calm, as if they were politely waiting for him to retreat. He searched for something in Elisabeth’s eyes, but he found no signs of recognition, no suggestion of guilt, no shame, nothing.
They stood like that for several seconds, three pairs of eyes meeting across rows of chairs, until he backed out and left.
Copyright © 2005 by K. O. Dahl. Translation copyright © 2007 by Don Bartlett. All rights reserved.