The Last Boat Home – extract
In the mid-1970s, sixteen-year-old Else dreams of escaping her home on Norway’s southern coast, of leaving her father to his moonshine and her mother to her prayers. A travelling circus brings with it the promise of a world beyond the God-fearing community she knows, enticing her and Lars, the son of the richest man in town. In this extract, Else returns home after sneaking away to meet Lars in a local paddock and coming face to face with three circus men, who have stayed behind for the winter.
‘There you are,’ her mother said. ‘I was beginning to wonder if you’d got lost.’ She smiled at her sewing as Else arrived in the dining room. ‘Are you hungry? I took a loaf of bread out of the oven half an hour ago.’
In the kitchen, Else sawed the end off the warm loaf. She peeled the lid from a tin of mackerel in tomato sauce and, after heaping the fish onto her slice, carried her plate to the dining table and sat across from her mother. Between them on the table, lengths of fabric had been arranged in piles beside the sewing machine. Her mother squinted through her spectacles as she fed material under the presser foot.
‘Who’s that for?’ Else asked.
‘Ninni,’ her mother said. ‘I still haven’t finished the dress pattern she brought me a month ago. What’s the weather like out there?’
‘Grim,’ Else said.
‘Your father’s taken the trawler out early. They’ve forecast a storm tonight.’
Else watched her mother rub her forehead where concentration puckered the skin and tried not to mind the weariness of the gesture. Even so, the guilt that unsettled her each Sunday at church stirred her stomach like a spoon. She let herself imagine for a moment her mother’s shame if she and Lars were ever to be caught. She crammed the remains of the bread slice into her mouth and returned her plate to the kitchen.
‘I thought I’d go fishing,’ she said from the doorway.
‘Now?’ asked her mother.
‘That’s what I thought,’ she said.
‘But it’ll be dark soon.’
‘I’ll keep to the front of the house,’ she said. ‘I won’t stay out long. Some fresh fish for supper would be nice, don’t you think?’
The idea of doing something useful had already made her feel better. Else washed her dish and, in the corridor, zipped up her waterproofs and stepped into her shoes. She left the farmhouse and made her way under the branches of the morello cherry tree to the boathouse. At the top of its stairs she laid a palm on the door, whose cracked paint flaked off when she gave it a shove. Inside, the vinegar stink of homebrew stung her eyes. It was stronger than it had been when she’d last had reason to come in here. Since then, a sponge mattress had been pushed against the wall beneath the pair of oars that rested across the ceiling beams. Its flower-print sheet was stained and dusty. The Norges jars her father used for decanting were lined up at its foot.
Else crouched by the workbench cluttered with fishing equipment and studied the distillery that was hidden under its shelf. While the fjord slapped the hull of the skiff docked under her feet, she followed the curl of a hose from a sealed pot into a bucket. She considered committing an act of sabotage – piercing the rubber with a fishhook, or twiddling the dial of the camping stove and emptying its gas into the air – but instead stood and chose a line from a tackle box, unsnagging its weight and hook before tugging open the trapdoor in the floor.
When she had finished lowering the oars through the hatch, she climbed down the ladder to the stacked rock ledge on one side of the boat. She loaded her gear before untying its ropes and clambering aboard. With an oar in hand, Else nudged its blade against the walls of the dank moorings, pushing the skiff from the cobwebs into open air. She left it there loosely knotted and crossed the pier to tear a cluster of mussels from the water, shaking the drops from the seaweed-sewn shells. After finding a stone with which to crush them, she balanced a foot on the skiff’s gunwale and pushed off from land. The boat bobbed while she fitted the oars in the rowlocks. It turned on the current until, perched on the middle bench with her back to the shipyard, she started to row.
A slow ache crept into her arms as the farmhouse withdrew behind the trees. Else gritted her teeth and dragged the oars under white-capped waves. With each stroke, she resented the Johnson motor that her father had bought the previous year and forbidden her to use. It seemed to dare her from the stern of the boat, where it tilted its propeller out of the fjord, cocking its bulk to one side like the head of a sneering passenger.
By the time she had rowed far enough and decided to pull in the oars, the day’s mist had graduated to a drizzle. Else drew up her hood and smashed a mussel with her stone, stabbing its meat with her hook before dropping the weight into the water. The line slipped through her fingers towards the schools of fish that she imagined streaking colour under the skiff, diving and weaving in synchrony as their scales gleamed in the black depths. She was glad for the rain that pocked the fjord’s skin, knowing the fish would bite more readily because of it.
She thought suddenly of the Brothers Bezrukov tumbling and twirling in their net and yanked the fishing line. Perhaps Lars was right: they were men like any other. However Yakov had made her feel, all he had done was offer her a cigarette. Else recalled the strong man spreading his hands over the horse’s belly and heaving her out of the sawdust towards the Big Top’s roof. The animal had not kicked while he held her in the ring. She had not protested at all.
Else yielded to the bright daze that came with memories of the circus while the raindrops grew fat, skating over her waterproof trousers and beating the canvas hood that covered her ears. By the time her line jerked, the benches were slick. Water swished under the planking of the rowing boat. Her fingers were raw and clumsy with cold and she winced when the fishing wire nicked her flesh. She was surprised by how far the skiff had drifted. Behind her, the shipyard’s empty graving dock carved a slab out of the shore. She let her catch fight the hook before easing it in and landing a coalfish in the boat. It thrashed, thumping the hull with its tail while its mouth gaped and its gills flared pink.
Else caught it in her palms and bent its neck until she felt a pop. She guessed its weight at around a kilo. It would do. After wiping the slime from her hands, she rescued the oars from the bottom of the boat and rowed for home. The cloudbank flashed like the inside of a shell. The coastline blurred behind sheets of rain as the boat pulled away, smearing the shipyard’s construction sheds into brown dabs and washing the barns and farmhouses clean from sight. The old tomato tin that her father kept aboard for the job of bailing spun along the hull, thudding dully as the rain pelted its rust. Else strained against the wind that swept her off course no matter how her muscles burned.
When she craned her neck to gauge the distance to the farmhouse, the Aaby farm took shape in the murk. She backed an oar to correct her bearing and carried on rowing until, some minutes later, she looked around again. Else frowned at the choppy water that still separated her from home. She rowed with all of her strength, though her arms cramped with the wasted effort of fighting the current. The trees thinned and there was the boathouse, there was the straight stroke of the pier. Her mother stood at its end huddled against the downpour, clutching a sou’wester to her head. Else crossed the oars by her feet before raising a hand in the air to signal that all was well. Her knee connected with something hard. A rowlock jiggled in its socket and tipped overboard.
Even as she watched it sink from sight, Else thrust an arm after it into the water. Swearing under her breath, she ran her fingers along the gunwale for the missing cord that should have fastened it to the skiff. On the opposite gunwale, a shoelace secured the remaining rowlock. Else swivelled on her bench and shouted into the rain.
‘Mamma!’ she called. ‘I lost a rowlock!’
Her sleeve leaked an icy stream down her arm when she picked up the oars. Every stroke sent the unfixed oar skidding along the slippery wood. Rain clattered in the boat.
‘I lost a rowlock!’ she called.
Her mother cupped a hand to her mouth, but Else could not hear her. She turned again to face the shipyard and seize the oars and, as she struggled to row, the skiff’s prow wrenched to the portside. She glared at the Johnson engine, remembering her father’s instructions. She balked at the thought of openly disobeying him. Still, she lifted in the oars and threw herself at the petrol can that was pushed under the bench at the boat’s stern, pumping its hose before grasping the motor’s pull rope in her fingers.
The engine would not start. As Else checked the shift lever the wind snatched at the boat, driving it further from land. She tried again. The motor grumbled and spat smoke into the air before it died. Else eased out the choke and tried again. With each failure she looked for her mother, who paced the pier and waved her arms over her hat. Else tried again. And again. She jammed in the choke and tried again. She considered rowing again but the boat had drifted too far; she was too tired.
But this time, when she tugged the pull rope, the engine sputtered awake. Else twisted the grip of the throttle control arm, savouring the tremble of rubber under her palm. The tomato tin rolled down the hull’s planking and bumped the toe of her shoe when she opened the throttle and the prow pitched out of the water. It juddered with each smack of a new wave, hurling spray into the rain as Else approached land.
Her mother ran up the pier to meet the skiff. With her hands on the gunwale, she guided it in.
‘Are you all right?’
‘Yes,’ Else said.
‘Thank God. What did I tell you about going out in this weather? We’re lucky the boat wasn’t damaged. You know we couldn’t have afforded to get it fixed.’
Else killed the engine and, after tipping the propeller out of the tide, used the oars to manoeuvre the skiff under the boathouse. Her mother helped her tie its ropes before hurrying to the farmhouse, leaving her to hoist the oars out of the boat and through the trapdoor. Else climbed after them up the ladder. Once inside, she replaced her father’s fishing line in the tackle box. With her fingers hooked under the coalfish’s gills, she plodded into the rain and across the sodden yard.