One evening in April a thirty-two-year-old woman, unconscious and severely injured, was admitted to the hospital in a provincial town south of Copenhagen. She had a concussion and internal bleeding, her legs and arms were broken in several places, and she had deep lesions in her face. A gas station attendant in a neighboring village, beside the bridge over the highway to Copenhagen, had seen her go the wrong way up the exit and drive at high speed into the oncoming traffic. The first three approaching cars managed to maneuver around her, but about 200 meters after the junction she collided head-on with a truck.
The Dutch driver was admitted for observation but released the next day. According to his statement he started to brake a good 100 meters before the crash, while the car seemed to actually increase its speed over the last stretch. The front of the vehicle was totally crushed, part of the radiator was stuck between the road and the truck's bumper, and the woman had to be cut free. The spokesman for emergency services said it was a miracle she had survived.
On arrival at the hospital the woman was in very critical condition, and it was twenty-four hours before she was out of serious danger. Her eyes were so badly damaged that she lost her sight. Her name was Lucca. Lucca Montale.
Despite the name there was nothing particularly Italian about her appearance. She had auburn hair and green eyes in a narrow face with high cheek-bones. She was slim and fairly tall. It turned out she was Danish, born in Copenhagen.
Her husband, Andreas Bark, arrived with their small son while she was still on the operating table. The couple's home was an isolated old farmhouse in the woods seven kilometers from the site of the accident. Andreas Bark told the police he had tried to stop his wife from driving. He thought she had just gone out for a breath of air when he heard the car start. By the time he got outside he saw it disappearing along the road. She had been drinking a lot. They had had a marital disagreement. Those were the words he used; he was not questioned further on that point.
Early in the morning, when Lucca Montale was moved from the operating room into intensive care, her husband was still in the waiting room with the sleeping boy's head on his lap. He was looking out at the sky and the dark trees when Robert sat down next to him. Andreas Bark went on staring into the gray morning light with an exhausted, absent gaze. He seemed slightly younger than Robert, in his late thirties. He had dark, wavy hair and a prominent chin, his eyes were narrow and deep-set, and he was wearing a shabby leather jacket.
Robert rested his hands on his knees in the green cotton trousers and looked down at the perforations in the leather uppers of his white clogs. He realized he had forgotten to take off his plastic cap after the operation. The thin plastic crackled between his hands. Andreas looked at him and Robert straightened up to meet his gaze. The boy woke up, bewildered. His father stroked his hair slowly, mechanically, as the doctor spoke.
When he got home Robert had a shower, poured himself a whisky, and puttered around the house for a while. Apart from a faint twittering, the only sounds were those he made himself, the parquet floorboards creaking beneath his bare feet and the ice cubes clinking in his glass. He never went straight to bed when he came home after a night shift. He sat on the sofa as it grew light outside, listening to the new recording of Brahms's third symphony that he had bought the last time he was in Copenhagen. He gave in to fatigue and imagined he was floating on the peaceful, swelling waves of the strings, studied the palings of the fence at the end of the garden, the birch leaves fluttering in the breeze, and the hesitant little hops of the sparrows on the paving stones, between the plastic lawnchairs on the terrace outside the wide bay window.
The house was actually too large for him. It was meant for a family with two or three children, but it had been going at a favorable price. Moreover, Lea came home every other weekend. He had a room for her with everything she might need. They had gone together to buy the furniture, and she chose the colors herself. He gave her a bicycle too, which awaited her in the garage, and a Ping-Pong table he set up in what was supposed to be the dining room. He preferred to eat in the kitchen. Lea was getting good at table tennis, she could now beat him every other time. She was just twelve.
He had grown used to living alone. It wasn't as hard as he had feared, he worked long hours. He moved out of Copenhagen two years ago, when he was divorced. At that time he and Lea's mother had worked at the same hospital. Six months after the divorce Monica moved in with the mutual colleague she had started a relationship with while still married to Robert. He didn't enjoy running into them in the corridors.
He moved to this particular town by chance, never having thought of taking a job at a provincial hospital. But he liked his work, and although the town depressed him with its red-brick suburban houses and provincial town properties with small bay windows and absurd zinc spires, after a time he learned to appreciate the qualities of the place. It boasted a white-washed medieval church, where organ recitals were given in summer, flanked by a couple of half-timbered merchants' houses at the end of the main street, and the woods, the seashore and a bird reserve at the end of a peninsula past an area of half-flooded meadowland. He liked to walk out there, surrounded by the huge vault of sky above the tufts of grass, the calm water reflecting the cloud masses and the wedge formations of migrating birds.
Now and then he would visit one of the couples among his colleagues. They were all married and most had children. As a newly-arrived single man he was met with friendliness and courtesy, but he always felt like a guest in their world, and he noticed that the women in particular confused his slightly reserved manner with arrogance. One woman had made a pass at him, she was a librarian and a few years younger than he was. He found her attractive and went out with her a few times, but when it came to the point he rebuffed her advances. It was not that he missed Monica. For the last year or two of their marriage they had lived in silence, like two strangers, the silence broken now and then by sudden pointless quarrels.
Not that there was anything wrong with the librarian. She had a beautiful figure and a sense of humor. He actually made the initial move himself when he asked her one day for a biography of Gustav Mahler. But he ended up rejecting her. Naturally she was hurt, and he had since stopped going to the library. It left him feeling chagrined, but he was unable to explain either to her or to himself why he had asked her to leave, one evening after dinner as they were sitting on his sofa listening to Mahler's fifth.
She was in a short low-necked dress and black stockings that night. Having slipped off her shoes and drawn up her legs beneath her on the sofa, she looked at him out of her large, appealing eyes as they sipped brandy. It was all so obvious, everything arranged without a single word, and he lost the urge to have anything to do with her. After she had left he told himself he could at least have gone to bed with her, as she had plainly offered, but when he woke up the next morning, alone as usual, he was relieved. He ran into her once in a while, that was unavoidable in such a small town. They greeted each other politely and, as they passed in the street, she tried to catch his eye.
Robert was responsible for Lucca Montale's care. It fell to him to tell her, a few days after the accident, that she was unlikely to see again. Her arms and legs were in plaster, most of her face covered with bandages. She didn't reply. For a moment he thought she was asleep, then she moved her lips, but uttered no sound. He sat down on the edge of the bed and asked what she wanted to say. The words came slowly, with difficulty. Her voice was faint and uncertain, it threatened to crack, and he had to bend over her to hear what she said.
She asked about the weather. He told her that the day was gray but promised to clear up, that it had rained. Yes, she said, she had heard it. Had it rained in the morning or during the night? In the night, he said. For a time neither spoke. He would have liked to say something encouraging, but couldn't think of anything. Everything that occurred to him seemed either foolish or simply wrong.
She asked whether Andreas was there. She used his first name, as if assuming Robert would know whom she had in mind. He told her Andreas would probably come later in the day. It felt odd to mention her husband by name, as if he knew him. He said Andreas had been there several times with their son, while she was unconscious. The boy's name was Lauritz. She wanted to see him. Then she corrected herself. He must come. Robert suggested she should arrange it with her husband. The next thing she said was surprising. She did not want to see Andreas. Only Lauritz. Could she count on her wishes being respected?
Yes, he said without thinking, if that was what she wanted. It sounded formal, almost solemn. He looked at the trees, just coming into leaf. She did not want anything. He looked at her again. Her voice was expressionless, without bitterness or self-pity. He stood up to go, she asked him to stay a little longer. He stood by the window, waiting for her to say something more. Was it certain? He asked what she meant, feeling foolish. That she would never see again? He hesitated. As good as certain, he replied. He said he was sorry, at once regretting it. She said she would like to be alone.
He relayed Lucca Montale's wishes to the sister-in-charge and asked her to arrange with the husband to let their son visit. A few hours later Andreas Bark was sitting in Robert's office. He was pale and unshaven, his dark hair tousled. He slouched in the chair and asked if he could smoke. Robert assented with a wave of his hand, which he placed on the pile of files in front of him. Andreas Bark took a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket, he smoked Gitanes. There was something aggressive about the spicy smell of dark tobacco. Andreas Bark looked out the window. It was clearing up.
He must apologize. Robert looked up, met his eyes, and said there was nothing to apologize for, he understood. It was the wrong thing to say, but now he had said it, and Andreas held his calm gaze with tired eyes behind the eddying cigarette smoke. It struck Robert they must be about the same age. There was something in his expression that reminded him of it in a mute, acquiescent way. As if they were old schoolmates who could rely on each other's sympathy.
Had she explained why she did not want to see him? Robert cleared his throat and brushed a hair from his white coat. Even if she had said anything about it, as her doctor he could not permit himself to pass it on. But in fact she had not said anything to explain her decision. Why should she confide in him, anyway? Robert immediately regretted his question. That was making too much of the point. The other man sank back into his chair and again looked out the window, where the pale sun created a chiaroscuro of shine and shade, then shine again on the grass and the wings of the hospital as clouds passed over it. He pressed down the loose tobacco at the end of his cigarette with his finger. He could bring Lauritz to see her during afternoon visiting hours. Robert said he would have to arrange that with the sister. But would he...Silence fell, and he was forced to look the unhappy man in the face again. Yes? When he spoke to her, would he tell her that...Andreas Bark broke off and said it didn't matter. They shook hands. Then he left.
Robert did not go straight home that afternoon. Instead he drove out to the beach, as he did occasionally when he needed exercise. He parked in the fir plantation, and continued on foot through the dunes. The beach was deserted as usual. The sky was as gray as the sand between the belts of dried seaweed with tiny air bubbles that Lea liked to crush between her fingers to make them crackle when they sat together on a Sunday looking out over the sea before he drove her to the station. The water was calm, its surface granulated in the offshore wind, and in the smooth, icy blue stretches the fishing stakes stood like trim markers from the coast out to the sharply defined horizon. Robert walked with long strides, head bent, absent-mindedly observing whatever passed through his field of vision, battered soaked herring boxes with rusty nails, crumpled starfish, milky jellyfish and empty white plastic bottles. Little waves lapped wearily at the shoreline, making the silence seem deeper, more intimate.
He walked right out to the point where, in a gentle, indefinable transition, the beach gave way to sand spits, tussocks of grass, reed beds and narrow meadows stretching inland, everything separated by the bluish white mirror of the water. In one place a dinghy was moored to a pole in the folded calm of the water-mirror, a small silhouette against the emptiness of sea and sky. Robert had a definite objective, a spar covered with little holes from ships' worms, where it was his habit to sit among the tall reeds to think, or just listen to birds' cries and the rhythmic, faintly whispering rush of wings, as he picked at the rotten wood.
He could have been more sympathetic to the man in his office with his cigarette and his despair. He felt sorry for him. He caught sight of a bird sitting among the reeds. It jerked its small head from side to side, forward and backward, with a mechanically ticking motion. He didn't know what kind it was, he was not very good with birds. Several times he had thought of buying a bird book with colored drawings that he could take on his walks, but the idea did seem slightly ridiculous. Should he also get himself a pair of binoculars and some green rubber boots and tramp around like a typical enthusiast?
He remembered that he would have Lea the following weekend. If it kept on raining they could always play table tennis and rent some videos. There had also been talk of planting a garden. He had already bought tools from the hardware store and been to the garden center for seeds. The tools were in the scullery beside the washing machine, painted red, with beechwood handles. He didn't even remove the stickers with bar codes. If the weather was reasonable they might get started. He didn't want to do it on his own even though he had the time. The idea was for them to do it together.
The librarian had questioned him about Lea, he had even shown her some pictures. While he talked about his daughter she had smiled and looked at him with her nice eyes, and he could sense that the small anecdotes raised him in her feminine esteem. That embarrassed him, and he shied away from talking more about it. Her encouraging gaze and understanding smile were pathetically disarming.
He lit a cigarette. Andreas Bark's masculine but painfully vulnerable face came to mind again. He didn't know what he could have said to him. After all, his wife was not dead. With a bit of luck and a few months' rehabilitation she would go on, blind but alive. The marital drama being acted out behind the man's tragic mien and her refusal to see him was a far cry from his medical field of action.
Throughout his years as a doctor it had often occurred to him that it was the reverse side of life that occupied him, the side with the seam. Just like dressmakers of old who had only an indirect glimpse of the glittering world of fine ladies, it was the sad moments in people's lives that he shared with them, when some functional fault or accident prevented them from getting on with their dramatic or uneventful existence.
After he had moved to the provinces and by degrees grew accustomed to his new and quieter lifestyle, he had to admit that Monica had been right when she reproached him for not being more ambitious. Naturally he wanted to be proficient, and he did try to improve, but he never dreamed of being a virtuoso. The appointment at a provincial hospital was anything but progress in his career, and he discovered, to both his surprise and relief, that he didn't mind. The hospital was the innermost sphere in his world, it was there that he spent most of his time, and it was from there that he looked out on the world of other people. Now and again they passed through his world, but to them it was an unpleasant parenthesis, which they hastened to forget.
Their lives were not his concern, only their bodies, and he had grown used to thinking of the human body as a closed circuit, separate from the life it lived. The organism was self-sufficient and unaffected by the dreams and ideas raging within it. That he found encouraging. He liked his work, he liked vanishing into it, completely engrossed in finding out what was wrong with people, and what should be done about it. He liked observing how every aim for beauty and social status was irrelevant when it came to the body's own solitary life, the vegetation of the organs and the soft, meaningless rhythm of the pulse. In his eyes the anonymous innocence of the interior organs offset the broken illusions of the exterior, socialized body, its ugliness, obesity and wear and tear.
One day he showed Lea an anatomical atlas with detailed color plates. He described what she was looking at and carefully explained the function of the organs, but she wrinkled her nose and asked him to close the book. She thought the pictures were distasteful and protested when he reminded her that she herself looked that way inside, like everyone else, whether they were beautiful or ugly. It amazed him that the interior of the body could be as terrifying as its exterior was seductive. Perhaps it was not the organs that caused the disgust but the revealing gaze that showed so matter-of-factly how vulnerable they were.
To the patients the hospital was an ominous place, with its clinical atmosphere of linoleum, white coats, disinfectant and rust-free steel, and they all had the same anxiety in their eyes, whether they tried to hide it or give it free rein. The hospital reminded them that whatever happened they would have to die some day, regardless of how the doctors managed to stave off the inevitable. When they abandoned themselves to his authority and placed all their hope in his white coat, he often asked himself if it was the terror of being admitted that made them so meek rather than the hope of being discharged again.
But he knew very well that horror and hope walked together, and he had become quite resolute, probably because he had seen so many sick people and despite everything had cured a good many. He had even grown less horrified by incurable diseases simply by encountering them regularly. Sometimes he thought that one day it could be he lying there afraid, but identifying with the dying did not make him more fearful than he would have been otherwise, to the contrary.
Horror and hope. Perhaps you had to be really frightened to know what hope was. Perhaps. He didn't hope so much for his own sake, and Lea was the only person in his life more important than himself. The only thought that did terrify him was that she might get meningitis or be run over by a truck.
The reeds whispered and swayed from side to side when suddenly a bird flew up, feverishly flapping its wings. He threw away what was left of his cigarette and heard the glow fizz in the muddy water. Again he thought of the mutilated Lucca Montale, how he had patched her up to the best of his ability. She had driven along back roads in the darkness, the mile markers, the grass, and the black trees rushing past her headlights. Not even at the furthest limits of her inflamed mind could she have imagined that twelve hours later she would wake up swaddled like a mummy only to be told she had seen the sun shining on the grass and through the trees for the last time. She had been electrified by the drama that had sent her out on the roads, and in her impassioned state she had ignored the fact that the most violent changes are brought about just as often by chance as by the travesties of the emotions.
She didn't want to see her unhappy, unshaven husband, who had waited for her ravaged body to decide whether to live or die. She insisted on this through all the havoc her impulsive drunken journey had occasioned. He must really have upset her. Robert recalled the insistent gaze of the other man, the restrained desperation in his eyes. Andreas Bark had been sweating, and Robert had had to open the window when he left to get rid of the smell of his desperate body and his French cigarettes.
He heard voices from behind the reeds, a young woman's laugh. Robert stood up. He did not want to be seen hunched on his spar in the forest of reeds like some queer fish sitting there dreaming. His legs tingled and felt slightly stiff. He went out into the open along a narrow spit that divided the submerged meadowlands from the lake. There was no one to be seen. Further along, where the spit widened, was a tall wooden shed, and when you walked past, the sky and the water on the other side glittered in the gaps between the perpendicular tarred planks of its walls. He could hear them in there, now the man laughed. The young woman said something in a fond, low voice. Then silence. Robert could make out their outlines in the narrow, bright spaces between the planks. He had paused, but then walked on hastily when he realized they might be keeping quiet because they had seen him out on the path.
Before his rounds the following morning the sister told him that Lucca Montale had had terrible nightmares in the night, followed by long bouts of weeping. They had given her a sedative. Two large bouquets were on her bedside table. The previous day there had been only the one that Andreas Bark had asked them to take in to her. An inconsiderate gesture, thought Robert. What use were flowers to her? Weren't they rather a signal to the people around her that others were thinking of her? The nurse asked how she was. She wrenched her mouth sideways in what was meant to be a sarcastic smile. She really did look like a mummy, swathed as she was in plaster and bandages, reduced to a pale mouth that uttered brief answers when she was spoken to. Her condition had stabilized, now it was just a question of waiting.
For what? The nurse looked at him, perplexed, as he considered how to reply. He sat down on the edge of the bed and cautiously put a hand on her right shoulder, the only visible part of her body apart from her jaw that was not bandaged or plastered. Well, he wasn't sure, he said, surprised at the gentleness in his voice. She made no answer, her mouth lay still in its folds, as if she were asleep. The nurse told her Lauritz would be coming in the afternoon. She spoke in an earnest, entreating voice. It was probably the best answer to give her. Lucca Montale asked her to take the flowers away, the stench was choking her. Robert and the nurse looked at each other.
As they walked along the corridor she told him the patient's mother had visited Lucca the previous day. She stayed in the room for no more than a couple of minutes before coming out again, visibly shaken. The nurse offered her a cup of coffee, but she drove back to Copenhagen at once. She looked surprisingly young, according to the nurse, who recognized her voice but was unable to recall where she had heard it before, this beautiful, expressive voice. Later in the day she remembered. Lucca Montale's mother was a broadcaster. The nurse asked Lucca if she was right, but the patient was very curt and replied that she did not want visits from her mother or anyone other than her son.
Her decision did not need to be enforced, her mother did not come again, nor did anyone else. When Lauritz visited her, Andreas Bark waited outside the room, hunched in despair. Robert greeted him when he passed and gave him brief reports on the patient's condition, controlling his impatience to continue along the corridor and escape the other's eyes. Andreas Bark must have registered his aversion, and Robert was relieved that he did not seek him out in his office again. Robert could not explain what it was about the man that filled him with such revulsion, but he didn't dwell on it. There were other patients and their families to look after, and Lucca Montale took her place in the rows of prone figures in hospital gowns whose faces and sufferings fluctuated according to the seriousness of their cases and how soon they were discharged.
He only saw her for a few minutes during his daily rounds, and as a rule he was the one who spoke, usually repeating more or less what he had said the day before. Under the circumstances everything went on as it should. He himself thought that sounded hypocritical, but why? If someone drank themselves senseless and drove recklessly down the wrong side of the road, there were limits to the miracles he could perform. She should be glad to be alive at all. Unless she had driven like a madwoman to get it over with once and for all. Get what over? Life, quite simply? Or whatever had made her wish she were dead? She probably hadn't made any distinction.
Every time he thought about her he grew more convinced that Lucca Montale must have decided to kill herself the evening she quarreled with her husband. But it made no difference what he thought. His task was to get her on her feet so she could be discharged to whatever awaited her outside. He knew no more about her than about his other patients. Besides, he only thought of her now and then, when he paused for a moment's reflection in his office, dictaphone in hand, looking on the hospital garden below. Otherwise not.
His days varied little. When he was at home he listened to music, Brahms, Mahler, Bruckner, Sibelius, the great symphonies that were like cathedrals, with the same shadowy heights, the same ribbed arches, and the same mysterious, colored light divided into rays, cones and rosettes on the stone floor. Exactly like the cathedrals in the south, which he and Monica had visited in the days when everything was going well or at least seemed to be. She did not share his taste in music, he had to listen with earphones in the evenings when they were alone, and then she reproached him for isolating himself. At least now he could fill the empty house with one symphony after another without upsetting anyone. He thought of nothing when he listened to music. It poured through him like an impersonal energy, a huge, transforming power, and as long as it filled him it did not matter who he was or where. He watched the evening sky behind the birch trees in the garden, the grass in the wind, the children on bicycles and the cars that occasionally passed along the road behind the fence, soundless as a silent film.
He went into Copenhagen once or twice a month and spent the afternoon and evening buying records, going to a concert or visiting old friends. He kept in touch only with friends from his life before he met Monica, and he rarely saw even them after he moved. Sometimes he went out to see his mother, she lived in a small flat in a block from the Thirties with a balcony where she could sit and look out over the harbor, the local heating station's row of slim chimneys, and the train tracks.
His father left her shortly after Robert was born and he had not seen him since; he moved to Jutland and probably started another family there. He was a barber, thinking of him seemed quite abstract. He might already be dead. When Robert was fifteen he decided to look for him. He succeeded in finding the address and telephone number. He still remembered the silence at the other end when he told the strange man who he was. They arranged to meet in Århus, on neutral ground, as his father said in a tired, hoarse voice. He must be a chain-smoker. But when he was on the ferry crossing the Great Belt Robert began to lose heart, and he got off the train at Odense. What was the point anyway?
Robert's mother did not marry again. She supported him on her own, at first by cleaning, later by working in the canteen of a large firm, where in time she was promoted to catering. The best time for her was when she worked in a home for children with behavioral problems. She rarely went out. When she retired she escaped to the world of novels. Robert was not sure how clearly she could distinguish between fictional life and the life going on around her. She herself was a spectator, terribly modest, content to be a witness from the humble corner of the world she allowed herself to occupy.
She loved Dickens and the Russians, Tolstoy and Dostoievski, and she had a weakness for Mark Twain, but her favorite book was Flaubert's Madame Bovary. When Robert saw the familiar volume open on the arm of the shabby easy chair by the balcony door where she liked to sit, he always asked if it wasn't too sad. She smiled mysteriously, of course it was sad, but it was so entertaining too, and she said it as if in some secret way the one thing was a prerequisite for the other.
As a rule she covered her faded hair with a scarf. Time had made her stoop and she was very thin, but taller than most women of her generation, tall as a man, and as long as he could remember she had worn the same kind of strong, mannish glass frames. She smoked about forty cigarettes a day, just as presumably her ex-husband had, thought Robert. That was the only thing they had in common apart from him. But she and Robert had come to a silent agreement that he would not comment on her smoking. He decided that she survived on a diet of cigarettes and novels.
She kept to a monotonous routine. The biggest event in her life had been the day he was admitted to the university. Not when he finished but when he started, as the first one in the family. As far as he knew she had not been with a man since his father left her. But that couldn't be true, he thought, and one day he asked her. She didn't reply, merely smiled mysteriously, in a way that prevented him from seeing whether she was protecting her feminine pride or shielding him from stories he didn't want to hear anyway.
Now and then she looked after Lea. She made all the fatty and unhealthy dishes that Lea loved but Monica and Robert refused to give her, and afterward she read aloud to her from Huckleberry Finn, always that and nothing else. When Robert came alone she asked him worriedly how things were. He was not just her only child, he was also her only connection to the outside world, and for over forty years he had been the one who gave meaning to her life.
Her ceaseless questioning made him impatient and irritable, and as a rule he snapped out brief answers, while at the same time feeling guilty at being so grudging. But at other times she did not ask questions when he came. On the contrary, she seemed distracted, as if he disturbed her reading. Not until he was on his way down the staircase with its terrazzo flooring and marble-patterned walls did it occur to him that she might only question him out of politeness and habit, to hide the fact that in reality she had lost interest in the noise and bother of daily life in order to devote herself to her daydreams at long last.
On Lea's twelfth birthday he was waiting in front of her school when she came out. She was surprised, it had not been arranged, he had gone into town on a sudden impulse. She stood there surrounded by her friends, who glanced at him shyly. She herself felt self-conscious. Her friends were going home with her, Monica was expecting them. He had bought her a pair of roller skates, and she tried them out there on the pavement, chiefly to please him, it seemed. He stood and waved as she went off to the bus stop with her friends, even though he was going the same way. He didn't want to embarrass them more than was necessary, so he waited until their bus left and took the next one. Twelve years. At that time they had really believed it was possible, he and Monica. They had both been tired of mucking around. They had more or less tried what there was to try, they thought. When she found herself pregnant they had already known each other a long time. They had jumped into it with their eyes open.
That was how they had put it to each other. Eyes open. But it was now hard to recall what he had thought at the time. Monica was a stranger again. She was friendly, there was no longer anything to quarrel about, and her new husband was equally friendly. That was how it turned out. As simply as that. She had stopped loving him and started to love someone else, and Robert had long ago stopped pondering whether one thing was the cause of the other or vice versa.
If he sometimes thought that love was like music, it was not because he was feeling poetic. Love was indeed just as invisible and hard to understand, perhaps because there was nothing to understand. An impersonal, transforming force, which found a way according to its own interior laws, oblivious as to whom and what it pulled along or left behind in its calm but restless flow. Music cared just as little about who played, the notes could not help it if they were played beautifully or awkwardly, on finely tuned instruments or a miserable broken-down one on which half the strings were missing.
That was not how he thought every day. There was no one he could confide such thoughts to. When he was alone he would almost fall into a trance of sorts, in which the thoughts landed and took off as randomly as the irresolute sparrows on the terrace. In the evening he read his professional journals, if he was not too tired. There was always a pile stacked on the floor. He merely skimmed the newspaper, and when he let it fall on the floor he had already forgotten the details of what he had read.
The only person outside the hospital he talked to regularly was Jacob, a young colleague who lived with his wife and their two small children in a house like his own not far away. They played tennis once or twice a week, and sometimes Jacob invited him over on a Saturday. Jacob had a frank, uncomplicated manner that made him very popular. He was one of the doctors the young nurses flirted with, boyish in appearance, well-trained, with hair like yellow corn. Robert could feel that Jacob looked up to him because he was older and came from a big hospital in Copenhagen, and this status compensated for the irritation at his heavier body and poor condition when Jacob beat him at tennis yet again.
Jacob's wife was dark-haired with brown eyes, and she was always well turned out in a relaxed way. She had an excellent figure, but there was something far too practical about her impeccable appearance, which prevented Robert from finding her attractive. Maybe that was why she didn't like him, or perhaps because as a divorced, single man he was a constant reminder of the dangers threatening their domestic idyll. But it might also be that she had detected Robert's suppressed distaste for sitting in their garden chatting about everything and nothing, while the children rushed around and clambered all over their father. Or was it quite simply because he smoked? As a rule she asked him to stay and eat with them, and Robert did his best to seem house-trained, remembered to pick the butts off the lawn, and tried to hold a conversation with her when Jacob was grilling steaks.
Jacob treated him like a friend, and the slight twinges of conscience Robert felt over his trusting openness made him behave as if they really were close friends. When Jacob confided in him, he responded with a confidential story of his own as a way of letting the younger man mirror himself in his experiences, and see in them what he found useful to see. He had gradually grown genuinely fond of Jacob, though he never quite got over the feeling that Jacob's apparently uncomplicated and hygienic happiness was distant from his own life. The games of tennis and the Saturdays in their garden became part of his routine, and neither Jacob nor his wife seemed surprised that he never worked up the energy to reciprocate.
Robert once told him about his divorce and how he had discovered that Monica was being unfaithful to him. It was a summer evening the previous year. They were in the garden, the children had been put to bed, and Jacob's wife lay on the sofa in the living room watching television. Jacob listened, his solemn expression quite unsuitable to his boyish face. He was obviously showing sympathy and respect for the confidence his discreet friend was placing in him, but Robert felt he could detect a touch of curiosity in the other's attentive gaze. As he told his story Jacob was sitting under the garden umbrella in his running shoes, his Bermuda shorts, and the T-shirt from a Greek island, as the glow from the barbecue died out. In the twilight, voices sounded from the gardens around them, and behind the hedges you could see the fleeting shadows of neighbors as they passed in and out through the terrace doorways.
As he was telling the story he felt it sounded like an episode from a Brazilian soap opera. He had been to a conference in Oslo, but when the last lecture was cancelled because of illness he decided to go home half a day earlier than planned. He did not know what to do with himself in Oslo on a raw Sunday in January. He called home from the hotel early in the morning before going to the airport. The answering machine was on. He asked himself later why he had not left a message instead of hanging up when he heard his own voice and the following long tone. When he let himself into the flat a few hours later Monica came out of the bedroom. She was naked, which surprised him, she always wore a nightgown in bed.
He asked where Lea was. She was staying over with a friend. He was going to kiss her but stopped when she looked at him with a stiff, almost hostile expression. It would be best if he went out again, just for fifteen minutes. At this stage of the story Robert made a point of describing in detail how he had stood in his own home in his overcoat, with snow in his hair, as his naked wife asked him to take a walk around the block, but Jacob was not amused. Monica remained standing there, fixing him with an unfamiliar gaze, and although it had begun to dawn on him that he had arrived at an inopportune moment, nevertheless he asked, almost as if to provoke her, why he had to go. For his own sake, she replied, and at that moment he heard through the door of the bedroom, which was slightly ajar, the jingling sound of a belt buckle.
What then? Robert smiled. Yes, what then? Jacob was becoming impatient. Did he go? No, he went into the kitchen and sat down at the table when Monica went back into the bedroom. He could hear their lowered voices in there. Shortly afterwards, steps sounded in the living room, they came closer, and then he saw his colleague pass by the open door to the kitchen. And then came the wonderful moment in the story. Jacob leaned forward expectantly in his chair and quite forgot to look sorry for Robert, who paused before continuing.
The moment, he said, lasted no more than a second, but his colleague, who had been in such a hurry to get away, could not resist taking a look. Perhaps he had imagined that Robert would be sitting with his back to the door, broken by grief, or he wanted to make sure Robert was not about to lunge at him with a bread knife. Anyway, the man did not lower his eyes, as you might have expected, when he passed the doorway, and when he met Robert's gaze he was so disconcerted that he nodded politely. As he would have done if they had passed each other, in their white coats, in one of the hospital corridors. Jacob sat back in his chair, crestfallen. Robert laughed. In fact it had been a relief. Jacob looked at him wonderingly. How? That was hard to explain.
Lea was to arrive late Friday afternoon. As usual they had arranged that he would pick her up from the station. He left the hospital some hours before and drove to a supermarket on the edge of town for the weekend shopping. He was tired, he was always tired on Friday, as if the whole week's fatigue had built up in him and weighed him down. As he pushed his cart along the aisles he caught sight of Andreas Bark and his little son. They didn't see him. He parked his cart behind the shelves of bread and cakes and went over to the big freezers with dairy products, trying to remember whether he usually bought blackcurrant or strawberry yogurt for Lea.
Again Lucca Montale came to mind, lying as she had for almost a week, her arms and her legs in plaster and her head wrapped in bandages. One of the nurses had several times offered to bring her headphones so she could listen to the radio, but she had refused every time. She just wanted to lie quietly, she said. She could not do anything else, blind and unable to move as much as a centimeter, reduced to being fed by a nurse and otherwise left to herself, as she had wanted. Robert had prescribed plenty of painkillers for her, presumably she spent most of the time dozing.
With each passing day she seemed more of a puzzle, not only because of her drastic action, but also her silence and self-imposed isolation. She seemed remarkably hardened, considering her condition. He could scarcely believe this was the same patient who, according to the nurse, had spent a night weeping heart-rendingly and inconsolably until the calming injection started to work.
When he visited her on his rounds he asked if she would like to talk to a psychologist. She waited a while before replying. About what? He couldn't help smiling. About her situation. Now she was the one who smiled, or at least twitched the corner of her mouth, which he had learned to interpret as an expression of her tough-minded sarcasm. Could a psychologist make her see again? He was about to reply with a pertinent affirmation, but stopped himself. It struck him that he didn't even know what she looked like. The only thing he had to help him was the recollection of the glimpse he had of the little photograph on her driving license. A narrow face framed by reddish-blonde hair, smiling confidently at the photographer as if nothing bad could touch her.
He decided on blackcurrant yogurt and put the carton in the cart with the New Zealand leg of lamb, Moroccan potatoes, and Chilean red wine. When he looked up again Andreas Bark stood in front of him holding Lauritz by the hand. They saw him, he said, as if that was sufficient reason for accosting him. Andreas Bark smiled a bit sheepishly and looked as if he regretted stopping. Robert didn't know what to say. He felt unprotected faced with the other man's appealing gaze, now he was out of uniform and they stood there each with their shopping cart, outside his domain, on an equal footing. The silence embarrassed them both, but then Andreas Bark clutched at a possibility. Robert had not yet been introduced to Lauritz. The boy stretched out his hand politely.
The feel of the small soft hand caught him by surprise. It awoke an unexpected and vivid memory of Lea's hand, when she was the same age. He had forgotten its weightless frailty and doll-like proportions. A recollection suddenly crossed his mind, how he had walked through streets and parks holding her sticky little hand, alone or with Monica, when they were still a family. As Lea gradually grew bigger he had forgotten the various stages of her early childhood, until he had only snapshots to remind him, shiny and inconsequential.
Robert resorted to the excuse of having to meet his daughter at the station, and at once regretted opening a door onto his private life. A white lie would almost have been better. Andreas Bark asked how old she was. The innocent question seemed far too intimate. Robert replied and smiled a goodbye, pushing his cart through the crowd with relief. Methodically and without looking from side to side he worked through his shopping list, past the cold counters with red meat and the shelves of brightly colored packages, the displays of barbecues and folding lawnchairs. All the time he had the feeling that Andreas Bark was watching his every move.
Throughout the day the cloud cover had thickened. It hung low over the town and a bitter wind tugged and tore at everything it could get hold of, making you think it was February instead of April. As Robert pushed his cart through the check-out, the parking lot was shrouded by a shining mist of rain behind the fogged-up automatic glass doors, and each time they opened he felt cold air on his neck and around the ankles. He paid and pushed the cart out under the porch roof, where people stood waiting, hoping it was only a shower. A few plucked up courage, bent over and ran, the wheels of their piled-up carts lurching over the asphalt, the men in shorts or jogging pants, the women with bare legs under their summer dresses. Inveterate optimists, thought Robert.
Water trickled from the roof gutter and landed with small explosions at his feet. The wind turned the rain into a carpet unrolling across the parking lot, and the dim light imparted a dull shine to the swells of rain-carpet. He glimpsed Andreas Bark in the group waiting there. He stood leaning against an old-fashioned lady's bicycle, looking out at the rain. The boy was on a child's seat on the luggage rack with his helmet askew. The bulging shopping bags hung heavily from the handle-bars. Robert thought of the totally wrecked car, which a local paper had printed on the front page, without naming the victim of the tragedy. A thirty-two-year-old woman. It might have been anyone, struck down by one of the countless accidents recorded daily in the press worldwide.
It looked like it was turning into an all-night show...Andreas Bark smiled gratefully as if he did not deserve Robert's taking pity on him, even speaking to him. His subdued, timorous expression seemed at odds with his pronounced features. That face seemed to characterize Andreas Bark as a man normally sure of himself. Now he was broken, and to add insult to injury he would have to cycle home in the rain like a Vietnamese peasant, weighed down by his burden. His gratitude had no end and several times he asked if Robert would be in time for his daughter's train, as they unloaded their bags side by side into the trunk.
They left the bicycle where it stood. Robert adjusted the safety belt on the back seat to Lauritz's small body. As they set off Andreas Bark asked if Robert minded him smoking. Of course not...He opened the window a crack and lit one of his poisonous cigarettes, and Robert almost regretted his humanitarian impulse. He had no idea what they could talk about, but the rain on the roof made it easier to sit in silence. Andreas Bark's leather jacket creaked a little, and the indicators ticked when Robert prepared to turn. Otherwise no sound except the drumming of the raindrops and the wipers' monotonous swishing on the windscreen. They drove over the railway line and on through the industrial district, Andreas Bark giving directions.
Suddenly he announced, out of the blue, Robert thought, that he had just had a première in Malmö. He was a playwright. Aha...Did he write in other genres as well? You had to ask something. He had once written poetry. But that was long ago, he went on with an amused grin. What was it about, his play? Oh, God, that was always hard to describe. The playwright smiled, and the smile seemed both shy and coy. That was why one wrote, wasn't it? To find out why. If Robert understood. He didn't, but he kept that to himself.
The road shone as it ribboned through the black fields, and the ploughed furrows followed its gradual rise toward the ridge ahead, where a transformer station painted brown was outlined against the gray watery shades of the clouds. But now it was finished, anyway. So he must have some idea what it was about. Andreas paid no heed to Robert's teasing, or he had not caught on to it. It was a psychological play. Not psychological in the traditional, psychoanalytical sense. It was rather, what should he say...existential. The sharp smell of liquid manure wafted into the car. Andreas closed his window and stubbed out his cigarette.
One could say it was about evil, he went on. Now there was no stopping him. On the cannibalism of emotions, on the repressed darkness, what was mute and unadjusted in us, beyond the social and linguistic order. When all was said and done, like all stories, it was probably about death. He fell silent, almost exhausted, thought Robert. Like someone bidding at an auction who finally realizes he is in no position to bid any higher. Then there was nothing but the sound of the windshield wipers and the rain on the roof, while the farms and fields streamed past surrounded by trees, like islands in a black sea of earth with their grain silos and white-washed barns.
They turned off down a narrow gravel road leading to the woods. A horse raised its head and watched them, wet mane sticking to its neck. Robert glanced at the clock beside the speedometer. He had to be at the station in half an hour. It was teatime. The nurse would give her a straw, and when she had gone the playwright's wife would lie motionless in the darkness, listening to the rain on the window. The same rain that was falling on her home.
It was an old farm laborer's house in red brick. Its thatched roof had been replaced with asbestos roofing. Toys were scattered around the courtyard and a tricycle lay on its side near a cement mixer and a pile of sacks covered with plastic. The woods were in the back of the house, the wind rampaging in the sodden beech leaves. He helped Andreas with his groceries. The kitchen and living room were painted white and could just as well have been in a fashionable apartment in town, with Italian furniture, art posters and rows of cast-iron pans.
On the kitchen wall hung a sheet of brushed steel on which shopping lists, recipes from magazines, and a few photographs were posted with magnets. It must be her, the auburn-haired woman with high cheekbones, in several of them. Would he like a glass of red wine? He looked at his watch. Yes, please, just a quick one. Andreas sat down facing him and poured two glasses. They had finished furnishing the house a month ago. Andreas stopped talking and looked at the boy, he lay on the floor playing with Lego. Then he met Robert's eyes and smiled tentatively. A vase of dead tulips stood on the windowsill, several withered petals had dropped.
The house was a wreck when they moved in. They did most of the work themselves, they really slogged at it. And now...He didn't know. It was all so new. Robert said something about rehabilitation, where and how, shifting his gaze from Andreas to the bulletin board behind him. Most of the photos had been taken around the house, which appeared at various stages of refurbishment. A sun-tanned Andreas mixing cement, in a mason's cap with a bare torso. Lucca painting window frames, in overalls, her hair tied carelessly at her neck and splotches of paint on her cheeks. In another photograph she was in a light summer dress with the low sun behind her, giving Lauritz a swing, the boy hung horizontally in the air and her skirt flew out like a pale flower of folds around her long legs.
He kept on asking himself if she did it intentionally...Andreas observed him in the pause that followed, wondering if he had gone too far. There was a picture of Paris as well. Robert recognized the red awning above the café table and the peeling trunks of the plane trees in the background. He said he had asked himself the same question. She was pale and dressed in a tailored gray jacket, with a blue silk scarf around her neck. Her hair was tied in a pony tail and she wore lipstick. Had she threatened to do it? The color film enhanced the red that framed the narrow dark slit of her mouth, as if she was about to say something. No, not exactly threatened. She was looking into the camera with her green eyes. Robert told him she had been offered psychiatric help several times. Had she...Andreas hesitated. Had she said anything about...them?
No, he replied. She had not confided in him, as he had said. The boy came over to Andreas, who lifted him onto his lap and kissed his hair. He sat there with his nose buried in the boy's hair before looking up again. The terrible thing, he said, the terrible thing was that that very evening...He looked down into his glass before taking a mouthful. Robert looked at the snapshot of Lucca Montale in a Parisian café again. For a moment it seemed as if he met her gaze. He could not decide whether she looked surprised because she was unprepared for being photographed, or had suddenly become aware of some connection he knew nothing about.
There was a large clock on the wall next to the bulletin board. Lea's train would arrive in ten minutes. The boy let himself slide down to the floor and ran into the living room. That very evening...Andreas went on and turned away his face. Robert stood up. The other man looked at him in confusion.
Copyright © Jens Christian Grøndahl, 1998
English translation copyright © Anne Born, 2002
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