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from the December 2008 issue

Martin Hansen’s Outing

Walking back to the house one Friday in early August, late in the afternoon, I suddenly felt tired as though I had been carrying something heavy, although all I had been doing was tying up some raspberry stakes. When I reached the stoop, I sat down on the bottom step, thinking: After all there's no one at home anyway. A moment later I heard voices coming from inside the living room, and before I had time to get to my feet, my daughter Mona said: Oh, are you sitting here? I stood up and said: I didn't know anyone was home. We've just arrived, she said. We? I said. Me and Vera, she said. Vera and I, I said. Vera and I, she said. I started to walk up the steps. Where's Mom? she said. At Grandpa's, I said. I walked past her and into the living room, thinking: Or wherever else she might be. Mona said: Can Vera and I sit outside in the garden? Of course, you can, I said. She asked if they could have a Coke. Where is she? I said. In the bathroom, Mona said. I said they could have a Coke each. I went upstairs and into the bedroom. The double bed was made, but I no longer felt tired. Vera, I thought, isn't she the one who is always staring at me? I went over to the open window and was standing there when they walked across the lawn to the garden table. I thought: She must be at least a couple of years older than Mona. After a few moments I went into the study and got hold of the binoculars. I studied her very closely, for a long time. I didn't look at Mona. I thought: You look good. Then I went over and lay down on the bed. I closed my eyes and imagined that I took her. It wasn't difficult.

Half an hour later I was sitting in the living room with a cup of coffee and a glass of brandy when I heard Eli coming in. I got up so she wouldn't see that I was sitting there idle. I took an encyclopedia from the bookshelf and turned to a page at random. She came into the living room. Ah, there you are, I said. Oh dear yes, she said, getting away from him isn't at all easy, I'm the only person he's got really. I don't think he'll last much longer. I sat down. Isn't Mona at home? she said. She's out in the garden, I said, with a friend. Has he got any worse? Eli went over to the window. I don't think I like Mona seeing so much of that girl Vera, she said. Oh? I said. She's much older than her, almost sixteen; she should have friends her own age. I didn't answer; I was in doubt for a moment as to whether I had removed the binoculars from the bedroom, and that made me rather uneasy. I asked if I could get her a cup of coffee, but she had drunk at least three cups at the nursing home; she said she could do with a glass of brandy though. As I fetched it, I said that my brother had phoned, that there was something he had to talk to me about. Is that why you're drinking brandy? she said. I didn't answer. She sat down on the sofa. I handed her the glass. Is he coming here? she said. No, of course not, I said, I'm going to meet him in town. I walked over to the window. I looked at Vera and Mona and said: The raspberries are almost ripe. Yes, she said. I've tied them up, I said. Have you watered them? she said. It's only three days since it rained, I said. I heard her putting the glass down and standing up. I turned round, looked at my watch and said: Well, I'd better be off. Will you be late? she said. I've no idea, I said.

When I arrived downtown, I felt slightly at a loss. I'm not in the habit of going out on my own, and I don't have any local bar. After wandering around aimlessly for some time, I bought a newspaper and went into the bar in Hotel Norway. It was empty. I bought a beer and spread my newspaper out on the table in front of me. I tried to think of something that my brother might have wanted to talk to me about, but couldn't come up with anything. I leafed through the paper, thinking: Just let things take their course, just let things be, that's all.

I left the bar an hour later; I was slightly inebriated and correspondingly lighthearted. Pursuing a line of thought, I recalled something my father was in the habit of saying when I was a kid. If I were not allowed to do something, I used to say: Yes, I will! Then he would say: Your will is lying in my trouser pocket, and for the first time I puzzled over what his trouser pocket had to do with it.

While I walked along toying with this peripheral problem—what the connection between my will and my father's trouser pocket could be and whether he also kept his own will there—I came to a part of town I rarely frequent, and when my eyes lit on a bar called Johnnie, I had an impulse to do what the name probably intended me to do, I went inside. The premises consisted of a bar and three or four small tables. All the tables were occupied. I went over to the bar and asked for a bourbon; I wanted to get out again quickly. On the rocks? said the bartender. Neat, I said. A man came over to the bar. He spoke to me, he said: Nice to see you again. I looked at him. I thought I might have seen him before. Nice to see you too, I said. So you do recognize me then? he said. Yes, I said. That was quite an evening, eh? he said. Yes, I said. Do you live here? he said. Here? I said. Yes, here in town? You know I do, I said. No, I didn't, he said. Well, perhaps I didn't mention it, I said. I finished my drink. I'm sitting over there, he said, won't you come and have a chat? I said I had to be on my way, I was late already, I was supposed to be meeting my brother. What a pity, he said. Some other time, I said. Yes, he said. Give my regards to Maria, that was her name, wasn't it? That's right, I said. Then I left. I felt completely sober. I wondered if he would ever meet the person he thought he had met.

I carried on walking, roaming the streets; it was just half past nine, and I had no desire to go home. As there was nothing else I wanted to do I walked across the bridge and all the way to the railroad station. A number of people were standing on the platform waiting for a southbound train. An announcer on the public address system said that the train was eight minutes late. I went into the station bar, bought a pint at the counter, and sat down at a window table. I managed to empty my glass before the train arrived. When it left again, I went to the restroom. Someone must have been standing in one of the cubicles waiting for a victim. I felt a blow on the head, then nothing, until I regained consciousness, alone, on the floor. I threw up, and just then someone opened the door. I wanted to get up. A voice shouted something or other. I thought he might think I was drunk, and I tried to say something, but couldn't. I can't recollect everything clearly. I didn't make any further attempts to get up. Not long afterward I was lifted up and helped out of the restroom and into an office. I was seated on a chair. I had vomit on my jacket. I felt ashamed. I got driven to the hospital in an ambulance. A doctor shone a light into my eyes and ears and asked some questions which I answered, then he left. I lay looking at the ceiling, then he came back and asked me how I was feeling. I said my head hurt. That I can well imagine, he said, you have a slight concussion. I asked if I could phone home and ask my wife to fetch me. Just a moment, he said and went away again. I sat up. A nurse came in with my jacket and shirt; I had vomited on that too. We have wiped off most of it, she said. Thank you, I said. There's a public phone outside in the corridor on your right, she said. I don't have any money, I said. No, of course not, she said. She went out. I put on the shirt. She came back with a cordless phone, then she left me on my own. I pressed the number. It took some time before Eli answered. It's me, I said, I wonder if you would be able to fetch me, I'm at the hospital, in the ER, it's nothing serious, but I've had my wallet stolen and have . . . In Emergency? she said, Yes, I said. Oh, Martin, she said. It's nothing serious, I said. I'll be right there, she said.

She came half an hour later. She was quite calm; she had that soft expression she sometimes has when she is asleep. She stroked my cheek. She said that she had talked to the doctor. I put my jacket on. She looked at it. I've thrown up, I said. I know that, she said. We walked along the corridor, through the waiting room, and out to the car. Weren't you and William together? she said. No, I said, I was alone. She didn't say anything else. My head was thumping. I have been alone all evening, I said. She didn't answer. We drove over the bridge and past Hotel Norway. Did he not come? she said. He didn't phone, I said. After a few moments I turned round and looked at her; she pretended not to notice. When we were almost home, she said: Are you using this as an opportunity to tell me something you couldn't bring yourself to say otherwise? I'm just telling you how it is, I said. Yes, right, she said, but why? Why so honest all of a sudden? I didn't answer. She drove through the gate and stopped in front of the garage. I got out of the car and went to the front door. I unlocked it and went in. I poured a glass of brandy and downed it. What on earth are you doing, she said standing behind me. My head hurts, I said. The doctor said you weren't to drink, she said. You should go to bed instead. I didn't know what to do. Then I realized that it didn't matter what I did. All right, I said.

I had been lying down for a while when she came into the bedroom. She turned the light off before she got undressed, either despite or perhaps on account of seeing that I was awake. She didn't say anything until after she had got into bed, then she said: I've told Mona that you were going to meet William. You don't mind telling her that he didn't come, surely? I didn't answer. Do you? she said. No, I said. Good night, she said. Good night, I said.

It took some time before I went to sleep. I thought about what she had said: Why so honest all of a sudden? And then I thought: What does she know about me that I don't know she knows?

When I woke up, she was already up. I tried to get more sleep. My head hurt. It was past nine. I had to go to the bathroom, and I went as quietly as I could so she wouldn't hear me. I didn't flush. I lay down again, but couldn't sleep. I got up and peeked through the curtain and saw Eli and Mona sitting at the garden table having breakfast. I got dressed quickly and joined them. Mona wanted to know everything. Eli went to get me a cup of tea. Mona didn't understand why I had been at the railroad station bar. I explained why. So it was really Uncle William's fault, she said. I wasn't obliged to go there just because he didn't come, I said. No, but all the same, she said. I didn't answer. She kept on asking about it. Eli came with the tea; she sat down. Did the ambulance have its siren on? Mona said. I don't think so, I said. But flashing lights? she said. Give your father a chance to eat, Eli said. I don't know, I said. Nothing was said for a while. Then Mona talked about something she had to do before she went to the beach, and Eli asked who she was going to the beach with. Vera, Mona said, and I expected Eli to say something about that, but she didn't. Who is Vera? I said. You know, said Mona, the girl who was here yesterday. Oh yes, I said. Eli didn't say anything. Mona got up and left. Now it's our turn, I thought, but Eli just asked how I was feeling. I answered that I was feeling fine, apart from a slightly sore head. That's great, she said. She got up and started clearing the table; she only managed to get half of the things on the tray. I watched her walking across the lawn, thinking: she hasn't even asked how much there was in my wallet. Then I remembered how she had stroked my cheek, and when she came back I wanted to say something, but she beat me to it. She asked if I had told Mona that William didn't come. Yes, I said, and then she thought that what happened was his fault. Well, so what? she said. Oh, nothing, I said. I mean, it surely won't bother you, she said, after all it's quite common that one lie leads to another. It's not what you think, I said. How do you know what I think, she said. Tell me what you think I think. I didn't answer. She cleared the rest of the table with abrupt movements, then she said: Tell me, was it in a weak or a strong moment you took back that lie about William? I didn't answer. She left. I thought: fuck her.

After a while I got up and walked past the raspberries and over to the only place in the garden where you can't be seen from the house. I hadn't found the answer to her last question. I sat down on the stump of the big, diseased birch that we had chopped down four years ago; I sat facing the cypress hedge that looked out onto the side path; through one of the gaps in the hedge I could see the broken stake in the fence which Eli had not discovered yet, and which I had put off repairing. Suddenly it struck me that my covering up and lying were essential if I were to feel free and that my admission in the car had been an expression of indifference caused by the circumstances and had nothing to do with being honest.

Quite elated at clearing this up, I got up and went back to the garden table. The veranda door was standing open. I thought I would tell her I was sorry that I had said it wasn't true I had arranged to meet William. Just then she came out onto the veranda. I'm going to see Father, she called, then she went inside again.

I remained sitting there until I was certain she had left, then I went inside, closed and locked the veranda door and went up to the bedroom. I kicked off my sandals and lay down on the bed. I thought about how she had said: Oh Martin, and how she had stroked my cheek. After a while I fell into a light doze full of images: changing landscapes I hadn't seen before and that had nothing frightening about them, but which nevertheless filled me with such a strong feeling of unease or anxiety that I had to get up again and walk rapidly up and down the floor. That helped. It always does. But I didn't lie down again.

Shortly after Eli returned home—we had not spoken to each other, she was standing at the kitchen window looking out—I went over to her and, touching her gently, said that I was sorry I had told her I was going to meet William. Yes, yes, she said. I withdrew my hand. It had nothing to do with you, I said. Oh, Martin, she said. I didn't know what else to say, but I didn't leave. She turned and looked at me. I met her gaze. I couldn't fathom it. This doesn't change anything, does it, she said. No, I thought. Or does it? she said. No, I said.

Read more from the December 2008 issue
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