It was late November, dark in the morning when I woke up and dark again by four in the afternoon, and if I then stepped out of the small cabin where I was, deep in the forest of Nordmarka near the capital of Norway, I wouldn’t have been able see my own hand in front of me.
I had spent a week in the cabin and had been hoping to stay there for longer in order to read, to catch up on sleep and to dream, but the University of Oslo Symphony Orchestra was giving its annual carol concert in the capital’s festival hall and I had promised a friend, who plays the viola, I’d go. Besides, I had just read that repetition is the reality and the seriousness of life, that repetition is the daily bread of everyday life, its blessing fills you up, and seeing as I had attended the orchestra’s carol concert for three years in a row, I hoped that it would indeed prove to be a blessing.
I packed my things and tidied up and when I drove down the steep hills from Ringkollen to Klekken, it started to snow. Large snowflakes twirled slowly in front of my windscreen and headlights making it hard to see and driving on the unlit, narrow, winding road demanded my full attention; soon the world would be dazzling, white and shimmering, and anything sharp and pointy would be smoothed over. It was something that happened every year at this time, it recurred and repetition is the reality and the seriousness of life. Hope is like a new garment – stiff, tight and glittering – but until you try it on, you won’t know if it fits or suits you, and memory is like an old garment: no matter how pretty it is, it no longer suits you, you have outgrown it. Repetition, however, is like a durable garment which hugs you tenderly, but never constricts or swamps you. I was glad that I hoped for nothing, but why then this feeling of dread?
It was dark again when I reached Sandvika because there had been no snowfall here as there had been on higher ground. I took the exit east to Oslo rather than west to Kristiansand and Nesøya as I usually did, joined the main road and became a part of the heavy Sunday-afternoon traffic crawling with agonising slowness towards the city centre. At long last I was able to park underneath the festival hall and I walked through windy, Sunday-empty streets towards the main entrance, past glum figures wrapped up in heavy parkas and dark scarves, bracing themselves against the icy wind. As I approached the hall, I saw several people waiting on the steps outside, the doors were not open yet so we had to wait, and waiting is challenging, especially in the cold; I wished for the time to pass quickly. We wish for time to pass quickly. We have one single life on this earth, a split-second of earthly existence in the endless expanse of time, and yet we don’t feel that it can pass quickly enough. Yes, I get it. It is hard to live your life in a way that matches that knowledge, perhaps it is impossible. I positioned myself so that no one could see my face, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath while I gave myself a reassuring talking-to, aware of the presence of my irritating, mortal fellow human beings, their breathing and the sounds they made when they moved, when they tried to keep warm by rubbing their arms, shifting their weight from one foot to another, how they moved up the steps as more people arrived, the queue compacted and closed up and it grew more crowded around the entrance, their impatience and their fears. There are no people anywhere else, only here on our little planet; there may well be plenty of intelligent life out there, but there are no people, not in any of the billions of galaxies, we are a rare and threatened species, and so wicked towards one another. I heard a metallic click, I opened my eyes and saw the heavy doors glide open before I entered as one of the first.
The instruments were set out on the stage; I took a seat so that I could see the viola, third row to the left, the same seat where I had sat the year before, another repetition. The audience surged in, but spoke quietly just like last year, this space commanded solemnity. We began to warm up, some people took off their coats, there were couples and pensioners, families with young children, an adult daughter with an old mother, an adult son with his parents and vice versa, I alone was on my own. Young children climbed up onto their parents’ laps, it made me emotional, I never went to a concert as a child, it wasn’t in my blood, how might my life have turned out if I had been to a concert as a child and it had been in my blood? Then perhaps what happened next wouldn’t have brought back the memory. There were empty seats to my right, a man stopped, behind him was a woman, behind her a girl aged fifteen or sixteen, their daughter, I thought, the invisible bonds vibrated. The man tapped the daughter’s shoulder and pointed to the seats, she nodded and went to sit next to me, her mother followed, then her father, there was just enough room for them, they were so close that I could feel the girl’s padded jacket against my arm, she wasn’t happy. I couldn’t insulate myself against her unhappy presence, she didn’t want to be there, she had been made to come, squeezed in between her mother and a strange woman, staring at the programme while her mother looked at her with disapproval because she wasn’t happy, because she wasn’t grateful, her mother exchanged knowing glances with her father, no matter what they did, the girl wasn’t happy, she wouldn’t be happy, she stared at the programme in silent protest. At six o’clock the doors were closed, the lights dimmed, the musicians entered, I waved to the viola player, the hum in the auditorium died down. The conductor took a bow, everything was silence and anticipation, the hands of the girl next to me with her eyes on the programme trembled as did mine, the conductor turned to the orchestra, raised the baton and the music began.
Carols from northern Norway, Blessed be the day over the fjords, Blessed be the light over land, the girl’s mother wriggled out of her coat, unwrapped the chequered Burberry scarf from around her neck, folded it on her lap and patted it with restless hands, she didn’t want to be there either, she was there for the girl’s sake, but the girl wasn’t grateful. The father had bought expensive tickets so the family could have a nice time together before Christmas, but the girl wasn’t happy. God’s peace upon the mountain and hill, God’s peace upon the animals in the stall. The mother leaned towards the girl and whispered: Take off your jacket, she pinched her through it, bowed down to her ear, elbowed her, whispered more loudly: Take off your jacket. The girl closed her eyes, her mother hissed her name, my name, a hard sound, but the girl didn’t want to take off her jacket, she was hiding inside it and that was why her mother wanted her to take it off, draw her out from her hiding place, her shelter, We are unyielding, just like you, You bless with eternal words, The people who live here in the north, we clapped, the girl didn’t clap. Her mother glanced at her father who shook his head. O holy night, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. The mother tugged at the girl’s jacket, harder this time and closer to her, intruding on her personal space, why was that jacket so important? Because it had turned into a battle which the mother had to win. The girl unzipped the jacket, her mother yanked at a sleeve, her parents paid the bills, they paid for her keep although it couldn’t cost them much given how thin she was, but they had paid for her jacket and could make demands, and no one else, the friends I hoped she had, was there, she was forced to be alone with her parents and for their benefit at the University Symphony Orchestra’s carol concert so that they could exercise their power and feel reassured. Something had happened, something terrible had happened the week before which had to be fixed, which had to be mended, her parents needed it to be. The mother’s threatening gaze and a sudden gesture from the father that signalled: Take off that damn jacket! The girl slowly peeled the padded jacket off her left shoulder with her right hand, her elbow came near my elbow, she eased the jacket over her right shoulder using her left hand, but she didn’t pull her arms out of the sleeves and the jacket ended up stretched across her back, half off, half on, like a weird straitjacket. She bowed her head towards the programme and closed her eyes, I could see that she was crying. She was trapped and paralysed and she couldn’t stay where she was without foundering, but neither did she have anywhere to go or anyone to turn to, she was fifteen or sixteen years old and dependent. I wanted to put my arm around her and whisper in her ear that everything would be all right, but I couldn’t know that, it probably wouldn’t, it didn’t look like it, and nothing I could say would take away her pain, Lovely is the Earth. I could do nothing for her, and even if I could, it wouldn’t have made any difference because the people she longed to be understood by, the ones at whom her anxious hope was pinned, were her parents. Generations will follow the course of generations, and we are tied to our family from our first breath to our last, and the last carol had been played and we clapped and got up and the girl pulled her jacket back over her shoulders and they walked out in front of me, three lost, unhappy people, hopelessly entangled. Concert-goers pushed and shoved impatiently from all sides because life couldn’t happen fast enough and I lost sight of them in the crowd. The musicians had gone backstage, but I didn’t join them to say hello to the viola player, instead I stepped out into the cold and the dark while the girl continued to prey on my mind. I didn’t go to the island where my house is as I had planned, but drove back to the forest because Grøndals vei had returned to me; my last November in the first-floor maisonette in Grøndals vei came back, the place where I spent my formative years, as people say, a lower-middle-class area on the lower side of Tåsenveien. On the upper side of the mighty Tåsenveien were smart villas with large gardens while on the lower side were smaller houses with smaller gardens and several terraced houses and below them again the housing blocks for workers from the nail factory. On my first day of school we were asked to draw the place where we lived; later I wondered if the reason was that our drawings would tell our teacher a great deal about each child’s socio-cultural background as I guess you would call it today.
Photograph © Joerg Bushchmann / Millenium Images