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from the September 2019 issue

In a Ditch

Jan Kristoffer Dale's short story follows a weekend trip derailed by an unexpected participant.

They picked him up on Friday afternoon. Kenneth had thought it was only going to be Terje, Tor André, and him on the trip to the cabin in Kverve. But sitting down in the backseat, he saw that Tor André had brought along his workmate, Espen. He looked a few years younger than Kenneth and the others, and dressed differently too. Not to mention his posh, Eastern Norwegian way of speaking. Kenneth noticed Tor André had even started to dress like him: skinny trousers and tight-fitting shirts instead of his usual plaid. Terje was in the back, too. As Kenneth climbed in, Terje grinned and smacked him on the thigh.

“Get out of it,” Kenneth growled.

He threw his bag on the floor and it landed with a clink.

Tor André turned around. “Just bung your stuff in the back, mate. There’s tons of room.”

“Yeah, but give us a beer first!” Terje teased, giving Kenneth’s leg another slap.

 

Kenneth opened the boot and tossed his bag in.

“You lot bring your skis?” he asked, getting back into the car.

“Just them two,” Terje replied, using his beer to gesture towards Tor André behind the wheel, and Espen in the passenger seat.

“Yep,” said Tor André. “We spoke ’bout it at work.”

Espen turned round to face them and swept his shoulder-length hair behind his ears.

“Would you rather go back and get yours?”

“Nah,” replied Kenneth. “Don’t have no skis what’d work.”

Espen shrugged and turned his attention back to the road. Tor André started the car. Terje cracked open a beer bottle with a jerk of his keys. He took a swig, closed his eyes, and leaned back against the headrest.

Kenneth sighed. “Ahh . . . Yep, that’s the taste of weekend.”

Terje agreed and Tor André nodded. Espen stayed quiet. Stared ahead, with his eyes trained on the narrow, freshly-ploughed gravel road ahead.

“I’d forgotten you lived so deep in the forest,” Tor André said.

“Yup. But it ain’t that bad,” Kenneth replied. “Only twelve minutes and you’re in Osedalen.”

“Twelve minutes?” cried Espen. “It feels as though we’ve been driving forever!”

“Bah, just you wait till we get to this cabin,” said Kenneth. “That’s far into them woods!”

Espen didn’t respond.

Terje drained the last of his bottle and threw it on the floor.

“Oi,” yelled Tor André. “I don’t want no beer on that floor. Beer smells. And I’m not the only one what drives this car.”

“Bah.” Terje wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “I’ll pick it up when we get there.”

 

They stopped off at the Spar in Osedalen to buy beer and food for two days. They couldn't make up their minds about dinner. They usually just made a big pizza when they arrived, but this time Espen and Tor André wanted to roast a lamb shank with potato gratin.

“Espen says he’ll make the lot from scratch,” Tor André explained. “And on Saturday he reckons he can make some kind of pasta.”

“I didn't think we’d be spending so much cash,” said Terje.

“Can't we just get something simple?”

“Oh come on, you lot!” moaned Tor André. “We always have pizza. Let Espen make us something different. You won't regret it.”

As Espen picked up meat, cheese, cream, potatoes, onions, garlic, and greens, Kenneth was reminded of his TV license bill, and the looming car insurance renewal.

“Let's divvy it up at the till,” said Espen.

Just as Kenneth was ready to pay, Espen heaped two joints of lamb, a bag of potatoes and a carton of single cream on top of Kenneth’s shopping.

“Wait up,” said Tor André, coming over with his own basket. He plonked in tomatoes, garlic, fresh pasta, and two bottles of something Kenneth didn't recognize.

“Am I supposed to be shelling out for all this?” Kenneth asked.

“Terje pulled out,” said Espen. “He got himself a pizza.”

“So you and me and Espen’ll split the rest,” explained Tor André.

Kenneth glanced at Terje, waiting at the back of the queue with his own basket. He was getting beer, three frozen pizzas, and a bag of pick ‘n’ mix.

The girl on the till looked up at him. Tor André and Espen glanced at each other.

“Are you feeling like pizza?” Tor André asked.

“Nah,” said Kenneth. “It’s fine.”

 

Terje took his six-pack into the backseat and cracked open another bottle. Kenneth did the same.

“Take it easy back there,” warned Tor André.

Terje shook his head and took another swig. On the way up past the old factory in Frolands Verk, Tor André and Espen chatted about a seminar they both attended. Kenneth opened another beer, glaring at Terje.

“You could’ve chipped in,” he hissed.

“Nobody told me we were gonna have this bloody posho food,” Terje grumbled.

“Me neither,” Kenneth muttered, gazing out the window. It was starting to snow.

 

Tor André left the motorway at the turn-off for Kverve, turning onto a narrow gravel road with high snowbanks on either side. Kenneth cast a sideways glance at Terje, who was checking his phone. Its background was a photo of his partner, Charlotte, and his three-year-old son. Charlotte was out of work, and they lived in her parents’ basement. Terje had a job making blasting mats for construction work. Kenneth looked at Terje’s hands: The ends of his fingers were black. Nails ground down to his fingertips. Kenneth regretted saying yes to the trip. He could have stayed home with Heidi this weekend. She had been doing night shifts at the hospital, so this Saturday she would sleep the whole day through. When she woke up late that night, she would be all hot and sweaty. Her blonde, curly hair running wild. He liked her like that. They hadn't slept together for more than two weeks, and he felt his belly getting warm at the thought. The two hundred kroner Kenneth had set aside for the trip should really be going towards the cost of all the food Espen had picked up, but Kenneth had brought along his poker set. Besides, Kenneth had been looking forward to playing cards and, if all went well, he might be able to get back some of the money he lost down in Osedalen.

“All ready for a rand when we get there?” he said, seeing Terje nod.

“A rand?” Espen asked, swiveling round in his seat.

“A rand of poker,” Kenneth repeated.

“You all play poker?”

“For fun.”

“You know, I've never played,” Espen said, adding: “But I do play a bit of chess.”

Kenneth just nodded, and Espen turned to face forwards again.

“He's a right Magnus Carlsen,” said Tor André.

Kenneth could see Espen was grinning.

“The fact people even talk about that like a sport really gets on my nelly,” said Terje.

Silence. Then after a pause, Espen spoke up:

“But you know, it actually is a sport.”

“Nope. No sweat, no sport,” Terje declared, dropping another beer on the floor.

Tor André spun around.

“I told you, not on that floor!”

Espen shrieked, “Hey! HEY!”

Tor André spun back to face the road, and jerked the wheel, hard. Kenneth felt his seat belt clamp across his chest and his stomach somersaulting as the car careened off the road. Everyone screamed. The radio cut out. Kenneth felt himself bite his tongue, and tears sprang from his eyes. Tor André cursed and wrenched the door open. The others followed him out, and Terje had to crawl out from Kenneth's side. Kenneth stayed there in the ditch, gazing up at the road. They had narrowly missed driving straight into a group of birch trees, and only now did Kenneth realize how steep the ditch was. He felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. He spat into the snow, and noticed it was red. He could taste iron.

“Bloody Nora,” said Tor André.

Tor André wandered over to the car and climbed inside. When he started it and tried to reverse, its wheels spun in the snow. He tried again, but it wouldn’t budge. Kenneth watched him thump the steering wheel.

Terje had lit a fag and was blowing smoke in Espen’s direction.

“Well, come on lads!” Tor André was waving them back to the car. Kenneth followed Espen and Terje. The snow reached their knees.

“You lot go round the front and shove, and I’ll give her some gas,” he said.

Kenneth gave Terje a pat on the shoulder and gestured for him to follow. The car was buried in snow up to its headlights. Terje brushed them clean.

“She’s in deep,” Kenneth said.

They lined up shoulder to shoulder. It was steep, so Kenneth had to dig his feet into the snow as he leaned against the bonnet with both hands. On one side stood Terje, while Espen was on the other. Tor André counted down from the driver's seat:

“One, two, three!”

Kenneth put all of his weight in. He heard the revs rising. The tires spun and sprayed snow high into the air, but the car refused to move an inch.

From inside the car, they heard Tor André yelling “Push!”

“Give it some, then!” Terje shouted. Kenneth could see he was looking towards Espen.

“I am pushing,” Espen replied. His face was red.

“Pfft. Not enough,” Terje grumbled, turning back to the bonnet.

They took a break and Terje smoked another cigarette. Tor André gave another countdown. There was now a powerful stench of exhaust, and Kenneth was starting to feel dizzy and sick. He spat out some more blood and looked over at Terje, who was biting down on his lip and pushing. Espen slid backward in the snow and fell flat on his stomach. Tor André stopped pressing the accelerator and got out to help him up. Espen brushed the snow off his knees and readjusted his puffer jacket.

“That's too bloody steep,” said Terje, letting out a puff of smoke.

“Not half. We ain’t budging,” Tor André agreed.

“How is the car itself?” Espen asked.

Tor André zipped his jacket back up and tugged his beanie down over his ears.

“Reckon she’s fine,” he said. “It’d be tough to see nothing now.”

He fell quiet for a moment as he regarded the car. Then he said, “Me uncle lives up the road. He’s got a tractor. I'll see if he can come tow us.”

           

They got back into the car. Kenneth asked whether Espen wanted a beer, but he shook his head.

“He don’t drink beer,” Terje grumbled, removing yet another bottle from the six-pack. Espen turned round to face Terje.

“Well that's probably a good thing, too?” Terje made no response. Just popped off the bottle cap and took a big swig. Kenneth looked over at Tor André, who was holding his mobile to one ear. He put it down on the dashboard.

“Went to voicemail,” he said.

“Is it much further to your cabin?” Espen asked,

“A good three K,” Tor André replied.

“Well that's not too far!”

“Nah,” said Tor Andre. “But we gotta get back home again, ain’t we? And there ain’t no way we’re getting all our stuff up there on foot.”

“Would you mind turning the heating up a tad?” said Espen.

Tor André started the car and said:

“So how's school, Ken?”

“Fine.”

“Are you still at school?” Espen asked.

“Just doin’ a couple of adult courses,” Kenneth explained. “At the people’s college.”

Espen said nothing.

“Coz I ain’t got the grades for uni,” Kenneth added.

“Well it's never too late, mate,” Tor André said. “Reckon it’s a good thing what you're doing.”

Terje had polished off another bottle. He wound down the window and tossed it out into the snow.

Kenneth could see Tor André shaking his head. Terje bent down, fished all the other bottles off the floor, and threw them out the window too.

“There!” he said. “Now you don't gotta worry about no beer anymore.” He grabbed a cigarette, opened the door and stepped out. The instant he closed it, Tor André’s phone started to buzz. He answered it.

“Hi. Yep. I did.”

He listened for a moment, then laughed.

“Well, we’ve had ourselves a little accident. Slid off the road. Right now we're in a ditch a couple of kilometers from your farm.”

Tor André paused to listen.

“Yep, that’s what I were thinking.”

He waited for a moment, his clean-shaven jaw illuminated by the blue screen on his phone.

“You there now?”

He nodded and cast a few glances around the car.

“So we'll wait then,” he said. “Cheers, uncle.”

He hung up and turned to face Espen.

“He’s down Arendal right now, but they were away to head up soon anyway. He said he’d be up as fast as he could.”

Espen slumped back into the headrest and groaned.

“That's an hour, easy.” Kenneth said.

“Yeah I know,” Tor André replied.

After half an hour of waiting, Kenneth went to the boot and dug out a bag of crisps. He shared it with the others. The salt burned the cut on his tongue. The bleeding had stopped, but it still felt swollen.

“Which subjects are you studying?” Espen asked.

“Social sciences, Norwegian, and math.”

“And what would you like to study at university?”

Kenneth thought for a moment.

“Wasn’t you thinking of being an engineer?” Tor André asked.

“Yeah, maybe. Dunno. We'll see.”

He thought about the books that lay unopened at the end of his kitchen table. It was so much easier to do anything else but open them. Yesterday he had decided he was going to start his Norwegian language textbook the moment he came home from work, but before he knew it he had mopped the corridor, gone upstairs, and run a bath. Then he had prepared some dough and popped it in the oven. He liked housework. It helped him relax, and he liked seeing things through. When he flicked through the Norwegian textbook after buying it, it had hit home that he didn't even know the difference between masculine and feminine nouns. Or the difference between regular and irregular verbs. More than nine years had gone by since he had left secondary school. That was where he had met Tor André. They had grown up as neighbors in Jomås. Terje hadn't finished high school, instead training to be a welder, and had got a job straight out of school in a factory in Arendal. He had worked there right up until the day it was knocked down. Which was when he got this job making blasting mats. Tor André hadn’t known what he wanted to do after school, so he spent three years doing odd jobs. He worked behind the counter at a Shell in Arendal and delivered copies of the local paper, Agderposten. But one day he made up his mind, and applied to study business and management studies at Agder University. Now he had a career in Arendal. A house and a good wage. All while Kenneth had been skipping from job to job ever since secondary school. Lately he had been working at a warehouse in Skeidar, out near Stoa.

“It takes time to sort your life out,” said Tor André. “Spent a few years working myself.”

Kenneth looked at Espen, who nodded.

“And what’s your story?”

“Me? After school I went straight to university,” Espen said.

“Yeah? What’d you do?”

“Well, I read various things, but my master’s was in business management.”

“Same as Tor André?”

“Well, yes. Almost.”

Terje let out a snort. Tor André stared at him.

“What’s your problem?”

Terje didn't respond. He just opened the door and got out.

“He's pretty sloshed,” Espen said.

Kenneth agreed. “Yep.”

“It's good you're holding back a bit, Ken,” Tor André said. “Can't all get off our faces.”

He checked his watch.

“Reckon my uncle’s gonna be here soon.”

           

Kenneth opened the car door and got out. Up on the road, Terje was talking into his phone.

“Just get over here, mate,” said Terje before hanging up. Then he looked up at the sky, opened his mouth and caught a snowflake on his tongue. For a fleeting moment, Kenneth thought he looked like a little boy.

“Wanna fag?”

“Nah, think I’m alright,” said Kenneth. “Actually, go on then.”

Terje held out his lighter and a red packet of Prince. Kenneth took one and lit it. He hadn't smoked for over three years. He felt a tickle in his throat, then the smoke warming his lungs.

“I'm off,” Terje said.

“Off?”

“Yep. No way I’m about to waste another second of my bloody weekend with them two. Tor André ain’t the same when he's here.”

“Espen, you mean?”

“Yeah. I can't stand it! He gets too fucking big for his boots. You remember the last time we went on a night out with them? The only stuff they spoke ’bout was school and work. You should’ve heard ’em when we drove up to get you. Espen’s brought cava with him. Tor André did too! And he was even saying how he had to go out of his way just to get hold of some beer he could actually drink. Time was, when he used to drink exactly what we drink now.”

“Oh come on! We’ll play cards. Screw what they’re drinking.”

“They ain’t gonna want to play no cards.”

“Well how you getting home?”

“I phoned a mate what’s coming to get me. Could probably take you up to Jomås at the same time.”

Kenneth took another drag. He looked down at the car in the ditch.

“I can't fucking stand them sorts of person. And Tor André’s turning out just the same. Posh pricks. Are you gonna end up like them as well?”

“Like them?”

“When your studying’s done? Gonna go and give up poker and homemade pizza?”

“I was looking forward to kicking my feet up this weekend,” Kenneth said.

“Yeah, me as well. But I didn’t know he was bringing along that little shit.”

 

Kenneth went back to the car where Espen was showing Tor André pictures of a girl on his phone.

“I met her last week. She’s a very sweet girl.”

“Not half,” Tor André agreed.

“Although perhaps she was a little bit . . . simple.”

“How do you mean like?” asked Tor André.

“Just you know, simple. A little bit . . . provincial.”

“Well that's no surprise if you met her in Arendal,” laughed Tor André.

Kenneth spoke up: “Both you and your bird are from Arendal.”

“Yeah, and your bird’s from Froland,” Tor André replied.

“Well so’s me and Terje,” said Kenneth.

The boot opened. They turned around. Kenneth watched Terje getting his bag out.

“What’s he playing at?” Tor André said.

They got out of the car. Terje was walking toward the gravel road. Kenneth and the others followed him. When they got to the turning, Terje dropped his bag to the ground.

“What’re you doin?” Tor André asked. “You going walking on ahead?”

“Nope. Waiting for a lift.”

He had a half-drunk beer bottle in his hand. He held it to his lips and chugged until the bottle was empty.

“Have a good’un,” he said, tossing the bottle into the ditch.

“You’re leavin?” asked Tor André.

“Yeah, I’m fed up of all this.”

“Well it’s your sodding fault we’re standing here, ain’t it?” said Tor André.

“You’re the one who drove into the ditch,” Terje replied.

“Just let him go,” said Espen.

“And who the bloody hell asked you about anything? None of us even invited you!”

“Nah, I invited him,” said Tor André, “And it’s my cabin.”

“No, it’s your old man’s cabin,” Terje spat, picking up his bag. “So go have fun with all your fucking queer food.”

Tor André laughed.

“’Kay, now you’ve gotta pull yourself together, mate.”

Terje turned to look at Kenneth.

“We’ve got room for you, too, Ken. I think those two probs wanna be alone.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean!?” Tor André shouted.

“Don’t matter. Can’t be fucked.”

“Wait,” Kenneth shouted, but Terje was already turning the corner.

“Fuck him,” said Tor André. “He turns into such a fucking dick when he’s drunk.”

“He was looking forward to this.”

They went back to the car. Kenneth found himself a beer, opened it, and drank it as quietly as he could in the backseat.

“You know, I think the trip is going to be a lot more enjoyable now,” Espen said.

That was when they heard the tractor. A quiet, far off grumbling. Kenneth lifted the bottle to his lips and drank. The sound got louder. He turned around, looked up at the road, and saw the headlights shining through the snow and the bare birch branches.

 

“I ei grøft,” from Arbeidsnever. © Kolon forlag 2016. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2019 by Bruce Thomson. All rights reserved.

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