"Yes, that's right," he said gratefully, but the thread from Varberg soon became part of another story about a girl and a dance in the courtyard of the old fortress. He broke off in confusion in the middle of it, saying it was probably Kungälv fortress where he'd been dancing one light summer night and gotten involved in a fight with the girl's fiancé.
As he described his exceptional victory over the fiancé, he was quite clear and distinct, and the story lifted and glowed, only to collapse into a muddle of other memories of fighting and winning, stopping a bolting horse, and saving the life of a child who'd fallen into a harbor somewhere.
She took the cinnamon buns out of the oven, her despair unendurable. It was terrible, all this foolish boasting, a decayed mind blurting out jumbled memories.
Memories? Perhaps they were just tall tales that had simply become enlarged over the years.
I don't want to grow old, she thought. As she poured the coffee, she thought, how can I ever be truthful? But aloud, she said, "Your tablecloth's beginning to wear out. We must go and buy another tomorrow."
When he'd finished his coffee, the old man went over to the television, the blessed, loathsome television. There, in a sagging armchair, he fell asleep, as usual. She was able to prepare dinner and even managed a short walk through the oaks between the mountains and the house.
They plowed through dinner, beef burgers with cream sauce and cranberries.
"I only get food like this when you're here," he said. "The girls who keep coming don't have time to cook real food."
There was reproach in his words. When she didn't appear tounderstand, he emphasized it again.
"You could just as well do your writing here."
"I have a husband and children."
"They could come and see you," he said, and she thought, actually he was quite right. She could perfectly well finish her book up there in her old room. Truth, she thought, smiling in all her misery, how do I tell the truth? Suppose I said that I don't get a moment's peace in your house, Dad. I just don't know how I'll stand two more days without going mad.
"I wouldn't disturb you," he said.
There was an appeal in his words and she felt tears coming. But she started talking about the computers she needed for her work, machines that couldn't be moved.
Truth, she thought as she sat there, lying to her father's face. When he got up and thanked her for the meal, his voice was frosty. I don't like him, she thought. I'm afraid of him. I can't stand him. I loathe him. The difficulty is that I love him.
She did the dishes. A neighbor came in, a man she liked, an amiable man. He was cheerful as usual, stroked her cheek, and said, "It's not easy, I know." She felt an incomprehensible fear as her eyes met his, as if a shadow had flitted through the kitchen.
"You go on in to Dad," she said, hearing the unsteadiness in her voice, "and I'll fix a drink."
With fumbling hands, she laid a tray with the gin bottle she'd brought with her, tonic, a bowl of peanuts. Premonitions? No. I'm tired and an idiot. She said it several times half aloud, tired and idiotic. He's still young, healthy and happy, the kind of person who lives long. As she served the drinks, she said as if in passing, "And how are you, Birgir?"
He looked at her in surprise and said he was well, as always. She nodded but didn't dare meet his eyes all evening.
They went to bed early, at about nine, when the old man suddenly became tired. She helped him to bed, as gently and compliantly as she could. His dignity was vulnerable.
She took a cup of tea up to her room. That was part of it all. Her mother had insisted on it, a cup of tea with honey before they went to bed. As she drank the sweet liquid, her childhood came to life, memories in her senses. The smell of honey in tea, a blue flowery cup, and the shriek of gulls falling from the sky in insolent joie de vivre outside.
She flung open the window and watched the screaming flock as it headed out to sea, above Asper Island and Köpstad Island. The next moment she heard the blackbird singing from the oaks where the may was in bloom.
It was too much; a melancholy of that kind was unbearable. She determinedly took a sleeping pill.
The golden light woke her early. Perhaps not just the light, for in her dreams she'd heard birdsong from the garden, as lovely and strong as the spring itself. For a moment she lay still, trying to distinguish the voices, the chaffinch's joy, the cheerful signals of blue tits, and the whirr of swallows as they flew low in toward the eaves.
The swallows have arrived and are building their nests under the eaves, she thought, for a moment able to feel that everything was as it should be.
She slipped down to the kitchen, and as soundlessly as a ghost she got herself a cup of coffee, stole a cinnamon bun, and crept silently back upstairs, remembered that the sixth stair creaked and successfully stepped over it. The old man snored in the bedroom.
She meditated, the birdsong assisting her into her own silence and the knowledge that nothing is harmful even if all is suffering. For a while, she even succeeded in thinking things weren't too bad for her mother, that she had gone beyond pain. And that her father's memory was so short, he couldn't keep up his bitterness.
Then she took out the photograph of her grandmother and gazed at it for a long time.
Hanna Broman. Who are you? I knew you, oddly enough, almost only from hearsay. You were a legend, magnificent and questionable. So amazingly strong, Mother said.
I must have images of my own. You lived until I was an adult, a wife, and a mother. But the photograph bears no resemblance to my memories of you. That's understandable. The photo was taken when you were young, a women in her best years. I saw you only as old, a stranger, tremendously large, enveloped in huge pleated black dresses.
So this is what you looked like in the days of your strength, when you walked six miles with a fifty-kilo sack of flour from the mill to the village on the border. There you bartered with it for coffee, paraffin, salt, and other necessities.
Can it be true? You carried the heavy sack on your back, Mother said. But only in spring and autumn. In the summer you rowed, and in winter you pulled a sledge across the ice.
We were born into different worlds, you and I. But I can see now we are alike, the same forehead and the same jagged hairline. The same broad mouth and short nose. But you don't have my chin, no, yours is strong and obstinate. Your gaze is steady, your eyes keeping their distance. I remember they were brown.
Anna looked into Hanna's eyes for a long time. She thought, we're looking at each other for the first time ever.
Who were you? Why did we never get to know each other? Why were you so uninterested in me?
Suddenly Anna heard a question, the child who said, "Why isn't she a proper gran? Whose lap you can sit on and who tells stories?"
And her mother's voice. "She's old and tired, Anna. She's had enough of children. And there was never any time for stories in her life."
Was there bitterness in that voice?
I must go to what I myself remember.
When Anna was small and Grandmother was still able to walk the long way from the bus stop to the house by the sea where Anna's family lived, Grandmother sometimes came to see them in the mornings. She sat on the kitchen sofa in the aroma of cakes and newly baked bread, and the table was laid with a fine cloth and the best cups. She brought comfort with her, like a cat settling in the corner of a sofa and purring. She purred, too, Anna remembered, creaking like a corncrake at night. When she wasn't talking.
Even her talk brought pleasure, a strange language, half Norwegian, easygoing, sometimes incomprehensible.
"Us here," she said. "Indeed, that's it." She always succeeded in surprising herself and others because her words flew out of her mouth before she had time to think. Then she looked surprised and stopped abruptly, shamefaced or laughing.
What had they talked about?
Their neighbors in the block. About children it had gone badly for, about men who drank and women who were ill. But also about weddings and new children born and parties and food and however could people afford it.
For the child, Anna, it was like lifting the roof off a dollhouse and seeing crowds of people. Like a game. But for the two women, it was reality, and serious. They had a living interest in the Höglunds' delicate children, and Johansson the master painter's boozing. Not to mention Mrs. Niklasson's peculiar illness.
Gossip. Not malicious, nor kindly. For the first time, Anna thought now that the endless talk was an orgy of emotions. They wallowed in the misfortunes of others, tut-tutted and lived out their personal needs without ever becoming personal. Talking about yourself was impossible. Shameful.
Grandmother flushed easily.
"Don't you ever cry, Gran?"
"No. No point," she said, flushing scarlet.
Mother was also embarrassed and scolded the child. There was a lot you couldn't ask Grandmother, who probably thought impertinent children should be reprimanded and that Johanna's spoiled daughter had no manners.
"You were so damned practical," Anna said to the photograph.
Perhaps I'm wrong, she thought as she turned her eyes away from the photo to look beyond the window, past all those small houses where anonymous people lived wall to wall and scarcely even knew each other by name. Perhaps you both had a sorrowful longing back to the village you came from. And you were trying to restore the connection and the village feeling when you came to the big city.
Anna could hear her grandmother snorting at that explanation. She liked the city, the electric light and running water, the nearby shops, and the right to close your own door.
Grandmother would come for Sunday dinner. Dad fetched her in the car, and she wore long black jet necklaces and white ruffles at her throat. She said nothing at the table until addressed, and was always submissive to her son-in-law.
Anna suddenly remembered, a perfectly clear memory, she thought with surprise. All around the dinner table were amazed voices turning over and over the schoolmistress's words about Anna being gifted.
Gifted? That was an unusual word. The teacher had talked about high school. Grandmother flushed and snorted, finding the talk indecent. She took a long look at the girl and said, "What use'd that be? She ain't nothing but a girl. She'd get superior and it'd come to nothing."
Perhaps those were the words that settled Anna's future. "Nothing but a girl" had aroused her father's anger. He, who would otherwise never admit to his grief over his only child being a girl.
"Anna'll have to decide for herself," he said. "If she wants to go on at school, she's to do so."
How had I forgotten that Sunday, that conversation, Anna thought, going back to bed and looking at the photograph again. You were wrong, you old witch, she thought. I went on at school, I took exams, I was successful and moved in worlds you couldn't even dream of.
I became superior, too, just as you said, as everyone said. And as far as you're concerned, you became a fossil, a primitive leftover from a vanished time. I excluded you from my life. You were a painful reminder of origins I was ashamed of.
That's why I never got to know you and have no memory of you. But it's also why your photograph speaks so strongly to me. For it says quite clearly that you were a gifted girl, too.
Your prejudices were different from mine, that's true. But you were right sometimes, especially when you said that I wouldn't get away, either. For me, too, a woman's life awaited me.
I didn't carry sacks of flour from the mill to the village, Grandmother. And yet I did.