The sound of cowbells keeps me awake at night, but eventually I fall asleep, I suppose, because the same sound wakes me up again every morning. Cling clang, all day, all night. More than once I’ve got up and looked out at the dark, windswept landscape, trying to catch sight of the cows behind the white flagpole in the light from a solitary window. The night nurse’s shadow passes back and forth across the glowing frame, but never a cow to be seen. So I go back to bed, eat crisps to stave off the worst of my hunger, before crawling back under the white institutional sheets, I lie on my right side and instead of the cowbells, listen to the old woman dying in the room next door. Gurgling and groaning, she coughs out suffering sounds and the last remains of her life in my ear.
We sleep side by side, like a married couple, but with a thin wall between us. I pity myself the most, not being able to sleep, I haven’t seen her. Perhaps it’s now I’ll get the feeling, I often get this feeling that I’m lying on my own deathbed, time passes so quickly. But it’s not yet. I’ll see the woman for the first time tomorrow, my last day here, she’s a bundle of clothes on a gurney, but so far I’ve only seen nurses going in and out of her room with frying pans. Bodil, who is the closest I’ll get to having a big sister, said that the frying pans are bed pans. The woman is dying in the mornings as well, and in the middle of the day, when I’m forced to rest on my bed, or on the floor with my legs on top of or under the bedside table for variation. I’ve learnt that here, how important it is to balance rest and activity. Death is hardest to deal with at night, maybe because falling asleep reminds me of slipping away.
I’m woken by a crash, open my eyes, in the dim light I can see the contours of the knots in the panelling. ‘Did you hear that?’ I say, without daring to move, a friend lies behind my back, on the opposite side of the little room, two other friends in the room across the corridor. ‘No,’ she says. But then why is she awake in the middle of the night? Cautiously, I turn over onto my left side, switch on the bedside lamp. The bed has collapsed at one end, so she’s lying with her head on the floor, legs in the air, looking at the ceiling. She acts like nothing’s happened. But.
This isn’t happening now, I’m not a little girl who’s brought friends to Nanna and Grandpa’s summerhouse, I’m lying like some old person in a nursing home, in the far west of the country. I should’ve been a young student in another city, I should’ve been more in the middle of things.
The cows have been up for a long time, shouldn’t the radio come on soon, I want to drown out the dying woman’s next coughing fit. A voice forces its way out of the speaker, talking about a new Jewish museum, despite the tragic history of the Jews, they have a fantastic sense of humour, it’s been a great help to them. “What’s the difference between a Rottweiler and a Jewish mother? The Rottweiler lets go in the end.” But.
It’s still a long way off, I’ll wake up every morning longing for death, I’m not sick, just ugly, the world will soon see how ugly I am, and I wish I were a Jew in a concentration camp, hungry for life. Schopenhauer, who got so angry with a man, an unknown man, simply for being ugly, punished for nothing, his whole life. He stood up from the cafe table, went straight over and knocked the man down. But.
I get up and turn off the radio, can’t face or don’t dare listen to it, I have to shield myself from sounds, I’m going to be a good patient like the others, always careful not to crochet too much, have too long conversations, take too many steps, read too much at a time. I’ve been given time off from my studies to get better, I’m going to get so much better during this stay and I don’t understand why I just get sicker and sicker each day. I rang several times through the autumn to make sure that I would get a place, and the support-group-lady said yes, and that I didn’t need to ask anymore. She told me about the stairs up and down to the dining room, there was a lift but it made a lot of noise and some of our programme would take place in another building, fifty metres away, could I manage that? ‘I think so,’ I said. ‘Besides, it’s a while till November, I’m sure I’ll be much better by then.’ I understood from her silence that she thought I was suffering from delusions, and I remembered how before football I’d call the trainer and would always have to apologise that I still couldn’t make it. ‘But I’ll definitely come next week,’ I’d say. In the end the trainer asked me to stop calling, just like this lady. I felt stupid, wondered if they weren’t missing me. ‘Just come when you can Kjersti,’ he said, that was years ago.
‘Playing for the men’s national football team has always been a dream of mine,’ I told them over breakfast, I dream so much whenever I manage to fall asleep and can’t help myself from sharing it with the others, it’s so strange to see people every morning. No one is interested in other people’s dreams, only those who think the dreams mean something, that they say something about your personality, and they’re the people you should watch out for. ‘But now my day dream has become my night dream as well,’ I continue, ‘the daydream has followed me into my sleep.’ When I need comforting, I deliberately daydream that I’ve scored the winning goal and I’m being borne aloft in triumph by a team of strong men, Mathea will dream about the same thing, that she’s being carried around on the grass, she’s always found the idea of being carried appealing. But.
I don’t know who Mathea is yet, and I don’t know if these memories from the nursing home can be trusted, the nausea and the hunger, the pain like a nail in my eye, the old ladies who want me to pull up their support tights, old men who ask me to buy porn magazines, the smell of rotting bodies and doses of medicine, hidden behind a haze of accordion music and cakes for dessert and the ear-splitting noise of the TV in the corner, the old people have to have the volume so loud, so that they get all the news from the real world, the world is another place, and so very far away. Could it be that all I remember is the fear that this won’t help, that I’m not doing it well enough, that I’ll never be a computer engineer.
I received a letter informing me that dressing gowns were obligatory, Mum’s bought me a long yellow one and I look like Big Bird walking between the showers and my room. I lock myself into what looks like a prison cell, this stay marks the true beginning of my isolation, my disappearance from the outside world, the lonely grave of Paula Schultz, a coma she was going to lie in for four years. My re-emergence into the world will also begin with a stay in prison, but somewhere other than this.
I take out the birthday present for the woman I’m too big to pretend is my older sister, her birthday is the day before mine, my birthday is tomorrow. I hope Bodil remembers. She knocked on my door, after I’d been sitting for hours alone in my room, for fear of arriving late I’d come a day before the others, and I realised right away that Bodil was ill and that she would come to mean a lot to me. She was already something more, more than this first encounter. She gave me a poem by the woodcutter poet, to console me when I wasn’t able to come along to the accordion evening. There are moments when all words are grey, when sorrow is an autumn sight; a withered rush frozen fast in the river ice. Years from now, after my first real interview, I’ll send the poem to the journalist, desperate to show him that I’m a human being. But.
Before I came here I was reading about paragliding and rafting, this place is a Mecca for extreme sports. I’ve rafted before, I’m not actually the kind of person who lies really still with their legs on top of or under the bedside table, I’m a person who rafts. The spray in my face as I balanced on the edge of the inflatable boat, paddling as hard as I could, the Australian guide shouted ‘left!’, but Erik, on the opposite side of me, thought he shouted ‘right!’, and when he slammed into my shoulder with his full weight, I went over the side and ended up in the river. I disappeared down the rapids, on my back keeping my legs up so as not to get caught in the rubbish on the bottom, bikes and prams people have discarded, you can drown that way. I wish it had been me that Erik knocked overboard, it should have been me, I was the one he loved and I should have been the girl under the water. But it was another girl, my heart friend, her name is Hanne.
‘I’m sure this will do the trick, dear,’ Erik’s mother said, November had arrived and with her words echoing inside me and my luggage in tow, I stood at the train station. Many hours later I arrived at the Mecca for extreme sports, I was no longer thinking about rafting and paragliding, just how I would get to the nursing home, there were no taxis at the rank. I am strong, and I had a map, but this was a lot further than my mailbox, and I thought about the long, shaky train journey I’d just made, all the words in the audiobook, with each word I became more and more afraid there were too many of them, and I thought about how little I’d slept, I got up at five in the morning to get there in time, I thought that the others must already be getting to know each other.
My worries drove me on, like a whip, dragging my suitcase over the gravel toward the main building, outside there was a people carrier with some really old people inside. The man in the wheelchair, left on the stairs, fear showing in his face like a mask I could just take off, the waving hand like a broken branch in the wind, but no words, why didn’t I go over and tell him that they hadn’t forgotten him. You are not forgotten.
‘The others are coming tomorrow,’ said the reception lady. ‘Nothing’s happening today.’ On the way up to my room I saw shrivelled people drowning in chairs that were far too big, carcasses creeping hunched-over along the corridors, one palm flat against the wall, as if to convince themselves that they were still there. I shouldn’t really be here, I was so happy to be here, why am I always so sad. Anne Mari and I could have been twins, had it not been for the fact that I only have two younger brothers, she studies in the city nearby, but she couldn’t visit me. Her life is so full it’s nearly overflowing, our lives are moving in opposite directions and maybe that’s why I need to call her my twin sister.
I sat down on my bed, I don’t know if it was the white walls or the far too colourful curtains, or the people dying, as we all are, or just that no one was happy to see me, it doesn’t take much to knock me off balance. I had to explain to the reception lady who I was, that I’d be living here, she thought I was a visitor at first. She handed me a room key without looking up, and when I asked whether there would be any meals during the day, she said that dinner had come and gone, they eat so early in the country. Dad calls me a bottomless pit, Mum says “my starving daughter”, I turned away, the receptionist was already looking in another direction.
Group translation from the BCLT summer school, 2012
Produced by Marta Eidsvag, Paul Garrett, Rachel Hand, Tim Hansen, Sean Kinsella and Mahala Mathiassen.
Group leader: Kari Dickson.
In the presence of and in consultation with the author.
With thanks to NORLA for their support.