August 1991. The Stars.
She was fourteen years old and sure that if she shut her eyes tight and concentrated she could see the stars through the roof.
All around her, women were breathing. Regular, heavy night-time breathing. One was snoring, and that was Auntie Sara whom they had allocated a mattress beneath the open window.
She closed her eyes and tried to breathe like the others. It was difficult to sleep, especially because everything around her was so new and different. The sounds of the night and the forest beyond the window in Østgård were different. The people she knew from the meetings in the Citadel and the summer camps were somehow not the same. She was not the same, either. The face and body she saw in the mirror this summer were new. And her emotions, these strange hot and cold currents that flowed through her when the boys looked at her. Or when one of them in particular looked at her. Robert. He was different this year, too.
She opened her eyes again and stared. She knew God had the power to do great things, also to allow her to see the stars through the roof. If it was His wish.
It had been a long and eventful day. The dry summer wind had whispered through the corn, and the leaves on the trees danced as if in a fever, causing the light to filter through to the visitors on the field. They had been listening to one of the Salvation Army cadets from the Officer Training School talking about his work as a preacher on the Faeroe Isles. He was good-looking and spoke with great sensitivity and passion. But she was preoccupied with shooing away a bumblebee that kept buzzing around her head, and by the time it moved off the heat had made her dozy. When the cadet finished, all faces were turned to the Territorial Commander, David Eckhoff, who had been observing them with his smiling, young eyes which were over fifty years old. He saluted in the Salvation Army manner, with his right hand raised above his shoulder pointing to the kingdom of heaven, and a resounding shout of ‘Hallelujah!’ Then he prayed for the cadet’s work with the poor and the pariahs to be blessed, and reminded them of the Gospel of Matthew, where it said that Jesus the Redeemer was among them, a stranger on the street, maybe a criminal, without food and without clothing. And that on the Day of Judgement the righteous, those who had helped the weakest, would have eternal life. It had all the makings of a long speech, but then someone whispered something and he said, with a smile, that Youth Hour was next on the programme and today it was the turn of Rikard Nilsen.
She had heard Rikard make his voice deeper than it was to thank the commander. As usual, he had prepared what he was going to say in writing and learned it off by heart. He stood and recited how he was going to devote his life to the fight, to Jesus’s fight for the kingdom of God. His voice was nervous, yet monotonous and soporific. His introverted glower rested on her. Her eyes were heavy. His sweaty top lip was moving to form the familiar, secure, tedious phrases. So she didn’t react when the hand touched her back. Not until it became fingertips and they wandered down to the small of her back, and lower, and made her freeze beneath her thin summer dress.
She turned and looked into Robert’s smiling brown eyes. And she wished her skin were as dark as his so that he would not be able to see her blushes.
‘Shh,’ Jon had said.
Robert and Jon were brothers. Although Jon was one year older many people had taken them for twins when they were younger. But Robert was seventeen now and while they had retained some facial similarities, the differences were clearer. Robert was happy and carefree, liked to tease and was good at playing the guitar, but was not always punctual for services in the Citadel, and sometimes the teasing had a tendency to go too far, especially if he noticed others were laughing. Then Jon would often step in. Jon was an honest, conscientious boy whom most thought would go to Officer Training School and would — though this was never formulated out loud — find himself a girl in the Army. The latter could not be taken for granted in Robert’s case. Jon was two centimetres taller than Robert, but in some strange way Robert seemed taller. From the age of twelve Jon had begun to stoop, as though he were carrying the woes of the world on his back. Both were dark-skinned, good-looking, with regular features, but Robert had something Jon did not have. There was something in his eyes, something black and playful, which she wanted and yet did not want to investigate further.
While Rikard was talking, her eyes were wandering across the sea of assembled familiar faces. One day she would marry a boy from the Salvation Army and perhaps they would both be posted to another town or another part of the country. But they would always return to Østgård, which the Army had just bought and was to be their summer site from now on.
On the margins of the crowd, sitting on the steps leading to the house, was a boy with blond hair stroking a cat that had settled in his lap. She could tell that he had been watching her, but had looked away just as she noticed. He was the one person here she didn’t know, but she did know that his name was Mads Gilstrup, that he was the grandchild of the people who had owned Østgård before, that he was a couple of years older than her and that the Gilstrup family was wealthy. He was attractive, in fact, but there was something solitary about him. And what was he doing here anyway? He had been there the previous night, walking around with an angry frown on his face, not talking to anyone. She had felt his eyes on her a few times. Everyone looked at her this year. That was new, too.
She was jerked out of these thoughts by Robert taking her hand, putting something in it and saying: ‘Come to the barn when the generalin-waiting has finished. I’ve got something to show you.’
Then he stood up and walked off, and she looked down into her hand and almost screamed.With one hand over her mouth, she dropped it into the grass. It was a bumblebee. It could still move, despite not having legs or wings.
At last Rikard finished, and she sat watching her parents and Robert and Jon’s moving towards the tables where the coffee was. They were both what Army people in their respective Oslo congregations called ‘strong families’, and she knew watchful eyes were on her.
She walked towards the outside toilet. Once she was round the corner where no one could see her, she scurried in the direction of the barn.
‘Do you know what this is?’ said Robert with the smile in his eyes and the deep voice he had not had the summer before.
He was lying on his back in the hay whittling a tree root with the penknife he always carried in his belt.
Then he held it up and she saw what it was. She had seen drawings. She hoped it was too dark for him to see her blushes again.
‘No,’ she lied, sitting beside him in the hay.
And he gave her that teasing look of his, as if he knew something about her she didn’t even know herself. She returned his gaze and fell back on her elbows.
‘This is where it goes,’ he said, and in an instant his hand was up her dress. She could feel the hard tree root against the inside of her thigh and before she could close her legs, it was touching her pants. His breath was hot on her neck.
‘No, Robert,’ she whispered.
‘But I made it for you,’ he wheezed in return.
‘Stop. I don’t want to.’
‘Are you saying no? To me?’
She caught her breath and was unable either to answer or to scream because at that moment they heard Jon’s voice from the barn door: ‘Robert! No, Robert!’
She felt him relax, let go and the tree root was left between her clenched thighs as he withdrew his hand.
‘Come here!’ Jon said, as though talking to a disobedient dog.
With a chuckle Robert got up, winked at her and ran out into the sun to his brother.
She sat up and brushed the hay off her, feeling both relieved and ashamed at the same time. Relieved because Jon had spoilt their crazy game. Ashamed because he seemed to think it was more than that: a game.
Later, during grace before their evening meal, she had looked up straight into Robert’s brown eyes and seen his lips form one word. She didn’t know what it was, but she had started to giggle. He was mad! And she was . . . well, what was she? Mad, too. Mad. And in love? Yes, in love, precisely that. And not in the way she had been when she was twelve or thirteen. Now she was fourteen and this was bigger. More important. And more exciting.
She could feel the laughter bubbling up inside her as she lay there trying to stare through the roof.
Auntie Sara grunted and stopped snoring beneath the window. Something screeched. An owl?
She needed to pee.
She didn’t feel like going out, but she had to. Had to walk through the dewy grass past the barn, which was dark and quite a different proposition in the middle of the night. She closed her eyes, but it didn’t help. She crept out of her sleeping bag, slipped on some sandals and tiptoed over to the door.
A few stars had appeared in the sky, but they would soon go when day broke in the east in an hour’s time. The cool air caressed her skin as she scampered along listening to the unidentifiable sounds of the night. Insects that stayed quiet during the day. Animals hunting. Rikard said he had seen foxes in the distant copse. Or perhaps the animals were the same ones that were out during the day, they just made different sounds. They changed. Shed their skins, as it were.
The outside toilet stood alone on a small mound behind the barn. She watched it grow in size as she came closer. The strange, crooked hut had been made with untreated wooden boards that had warped, split and turned grey. No windows, a heart on the door. The worst thing about the toilet was that you never knew if anyone was already in there.
And she had an instinct that someone was already in there.
She coughed so that whoever was there might signal it was engaged.
A magpie took off from a branch on the edge of the wood.Otherwise all was still.
She stepped up onto the flagstone. Grabbed the lump of wood that passed for a door handle. Pulled it. The black room gaped open.
She breathed out. There was a torch beside the toilet seat, but she didn’t need to switch it on. She raised the seat lid before closing the door and fastening the door hook. Then she pulled up her nightie, pulled down her knickers and sat down. In the ensuing silence she thought she heard something. Something that was neither animal nor magpie nor insects shedding skin. Something that moved fast through the tall grass behind the toilet. Then the trickle started and the noise was obscured. But her heart had already started pounding.
When she had finished, she quickly pulled up her pants and sat in the dark listening. But all she could hear was a faint ripple in the tops of the trees and her blood throbbing in her ears. She waited for her pulse to slow down, then she unhooked the catch and opened the door. The dark figure filled almost the whole of the doorway. He must have been standing and waiting, silent, outside on the stone step. The next minute she was splayed over the toilet seat and he stood above her. He closed the door behind him.
‘You?’ she said.
‘Me,’ he said in an alien, tremulous, husky voice.
Then he was on top of her. His eyes glittered in the dark as he bit her lower lip until he drew blood and one hand found the way under her nightie and tore off her knickers. She lay there crippled with fear beneath the knife blade that stung the skin on her neck while he kept thrusting his groin into her before he had even got his trousers off, like some crazed copulating dog.
‘One word from you and I’ll cut you into pieces,’ he whispered.
And not one word issued from her mouth. Because she was fourteen years old and sure that if she shut her eyes tight and concentrated she would be able to see the stars through the roof. God had the power to do things like that. If it was His wish.