Book excerpt

In the Wake

A Novel

Per Petterson


Chapter One
It was something to do with a face. I had never seen it
before, yet I did recognise it, but as it comes to me now,
the thought of it is unpleasant. Someone gave me a gin.
I had had enough already. I see my hand around the
glass, the glass is full to the brim, and then I do not
remember anything more except that face, and now I
stand with my forehead against the glass of this
bookshop door, and I kick at the door. They have to let
me in. I do not know how long I have been standing
here. I have been out of this world and now I am back,
and I don't feel well. Why doesn't someone come and
let me in? I kick the door. People are passing on the
pavement behind me, but I don't turn round, just
squeeze my face to the glass and my nose is flattened
and I stare at the rows of books. It is dark in there, but
light outside. It is morning, the sun feels hot on my
neck, but I dare not turn round. That glass of gin was
yesterday and miles and miles from this street in
central Oslo.
Someone gives a little cough and says: "I don't think
there's anyone there yet. It's probably too early."
I know that voice, it's the lady from the kiosk next
door. I have known it for years. She is right behind me.
I could pick her out with my eyes shut in the middle of
Aker Brugge on a crowded Saturday afternoon in June.
I've been buying Petterøe 3 tobacco and Dagbladet and
a Kvikk Lunsj chocolate bar from her since 1981. And
then I remember. I do not work here any more. I
haven't worked here for three years. I stand perfectly
still holding my breath and wait for her to go away. It
is a good idea not to breathe, my side hurts every time
I suck the air in. But then I have to breathe, and there
is a squeak from my throat or further down, and the
pain in my side is there at once. It is lung cancer, I'm
convinced it is, and I feel so sad because I have lung
cancer and will certainly not be here for long.
It is quiet behind me now so she must have gone,
and then I start to cry, with my nose pressed to the
glass door, and I look in at the rows of books, see that
the shop has grown since I stopped working there,
more floor space with more shelves for many more
books I shall never read because I am going to die of
lung cancer.
I am forty-three. When my father was this age I had
just been born, and he never touched a cigarette in his
whole life. He only had a drink with Sunday dinner;
one pint because he deserved it. The body should be a
temple of life, he said, not a whited sepulchre. He was
a skier and a boxer, and when he breathed, the air went
straight into his lungs, and did no harm at all for the
air was much cleaner then. If he ever coughed, it was
because he had a cold, and he rarely did. Now he is
dead, but through no fault of his own. If I die now it
will definitely be my fault. That is the difference
between us, and it is a big difference.
I cough and look down; I see my hands. They have
an emptiness I cannot account for and they are dirty,
there are grazes on both palms, but I feel no pain. They
just hang there. Then I remember a high grey wall and
its rough surface, I am falling and holding on at the
same time, and I remember utterly still water in a pool,
chlorine blue water with black lines on the bottom. It is
a public swimming pool, and it is not yet open, it is
quite silent, only a man all in white walking by the side
of the pool, and I try to work out just where it is that I
am standing watching this from, but I can't. I am all
over the place, I am like God, I am omnipresent. I can
see the clock on the wall quite clearly, but I cannot
make out what the time is. There is a palm tree in one
corner. It is Bislett baths, I think. Then the grey wall is
Bislett stadium. But I have not been to Bislett stadium
since I was ten and with my father and saw Raufoss
beat Vålerenga FC two-nil. He was shattered. Didn't
say a word all the way home.
I feel the sun on my neck, it is burning or something
is burning, and maybe it is Sunday. I don't remember.
I see only my eyes in the glass and the books beyond,
and I don't know what day it is.
"Go and see what the weather is like," my brother
would say every time it was Sunday morning and
winter, and I would have to get out of the bottom bunk
and go to the window and pull the heavy curtain aside
and look out through the frost flowers.
"It's sunny," I say, "sunshine and fine weather."
"Sunshine," he says, "fucking shit."
"Fucking shit," I say, and the snow was so white it
hurt your eyes, and the smell of frying bacon floated up
from downstairs, and we knew that he had been awake
for several hours, preparing the skis and loading the
rucksacks. Now they were ready in the hall with the
thermos and sandwiches in the side pockets and extra
sweaters and socks and ski scrapers and three lots of
Swix varnish in case of a sudden thaw or if the mercury
dropped, and two oranges apiece and perhaps a Kvikk
Lunsj chocolate bar if we were lucky, and the rucksack
would be sure to weigh twenty kilos each.
But that is a lifetime ago, and he has been dead for
nearly six years. I remember an office on Drammensvei
with a red cross on the door, a fireman is showing a
video from the inside of the boat with a landscape of
half-naked, prone bodies: THE CORRIDOR OF DEATH, the
front page of Verdens Gang said, that video was on the
inside of my eyes; skin, I see skin, velvety dull in the
flickering light of a lamp moving onwards, restless
shadows between elbows and hips, shoulder blades and
necks, a sea of hushed softness where nothing moves
but the light which brings life to what is not living. The
camera runs and pauses for a moment before what has
turned black, where the flames have devoured it all,
finished the job, and then it swings into a cabin where
a woolly penguin lies alone on a bunk, the door to the
bathroom ajar, the dark crack hiding the bath's
obvious secret. My feet are freezing as I stand here with
my nose to the door remembering the cold creeping
into my feet that time in that office, and my stomach
wildly burning. But my face was calm, and the woman
sitting next to me said:
"Rewind, for heaven's sake, I have to see that
penguin one more time." An air-raid shelter in
Baghdad was what I thought, for a year had passed, I
do not know where, and it was spring 1991 with
surgical bombing, electronic warfare, a war on the
screen, a video game.
"Rewind," she said again and again, and the fireman
did, goddamnit, and she turned to stone.
I really don't feel well. The cold crawls from my feet
to my hips and I start to tremble, my teeth chatter, my
forehead shudders against the glass as it does when
you sit on a bus with your head against the window,
gazing out, and the diesel engine makes everything
vibrate. I think I am going to be sick, but I mustn't be
sick here. People go by on the pavement, and it can't be
Sunday because I hear from their voices that they are
young, students from the business school next door,
and as they pass me they stop talking, and I will not
turn and look at them looking at me. I look down at my
shoes. They are scuffed, my shirt is hanging out of my
trousers below the unzipped jacket, and I see my belt
dangling in front of my half-open flies. They were not
like that yesterday. When did those trousers come
undone? Perhaps I have been raped. Perhaps someone
dragged me into a doorway on my way past Bislett
stadium or into a changing room at Bislett baths and
grossly abused my butt while I was out of this world. I
close my eyes and concentrate, hunting for traces all
through my body; some remnant soreness, and what I
do discover is that I feel wretched. It isn't easy to say
what is what. I have to see a doctor. I may test positive.
There are people in this town who would not blink
twice at planting a seed in my blood, a virus that will
tick and go deep inside what is me and one day after
several years, when I least expect it, explode like a time
bomb, one day when my life does not look as it does
right now, a day when I have the sun on my face.
I take a deep breath. The pain in my side damn near
makes me jump. It's my lungs, I had forgotten. I groan.
Someone behind me stops and says something I do not
want to hear. I stand very still, waiting, and then I hum
a bit, and the someone walks off again. I raise my right
hand to feel whether my hair is wet. It is bone dry and
feels as stiff as a doormat and far from clean. I could do
with a shower, a shower and a steam bath. I like steam
baths these days. I did not before. I always dreaded the
walk from the bus stop to Torggata baths and then up
the stone steps to the cloakroom and the showers, and
it was cold in the changing room and in the shower
room before the water was turned on, but when the
warm water ran through my hair and down my neck,
over shoulders and stomach, it felt good, and I closed
my eyes and wanted to go on standing there. It was
fine, for a moment everything was just fine.
"Open your eyes and come along," he said and
opened the door to the steam bath and I went in,
because nobody had told me that you could say no. I
went in and there was a blazing creature with a power
that sucked each breath from my throat much faster
than I could keep up with, and very soon I was empty,
and fighting for air.
"It's important to sweat all the shit out," he said, "turn
your insides out and really cleanse yourself," but I could
not sweat. I stood in the steam, dry and thin, and saw the
naked men along the benches, heads in hands,
glistening, panting, with their big stomachs on their
thighs and their big cocks, and none of them could speak
because the creature had swallowed the air and pushed
against the walls, and there was no space left for anything
else. And I could not sweat. I was eight years old, my skin
burned, and I did not know it was important to be
cleansed, that the inside of my body was not clean, where
my thoughts lived, and the soul.
I walked unsteadily across the floor to the trickle of
water running from a tap on the wall and into a
porcelain sink, and I drank and drank, and when I had
finished he came over, filled his hands with water and
let it run over the stones so the stove spat loudly and
fresh steam poured forth, and the men on the benches
grumbled. He laughed and bent down, put his hands
flat on the floor and swung himself up into a handstand,
stretched his legs up together and with his heels
lightly touching the burning wall he smiled upside
down and started to do push-ups with his head tapping
the floor and his legs straight up. His cock bounced
against his flat stomach with a sound I could have done
without, his muscles swelled under his shiny skin, and
sweat poured down his chest. He could breathe where
no-one else could, and I counted to myself half aloud:
ten, eleven, twelve and on as I always did when he did
that kind of thing. I kept my eyes on his body, up and
down, up and down, and knew I would never look like
that if I lived to be a hundred, not that graceful, not that
solid, and I remember the hospital chapel where we
had to fetch the coffins many years later. They were
ranged in a line along the wall, and outside, the long
black cars waited in line on the drive. We could see
them through the windows, the cars stood quite still
with their back doors open, and one driver had his
back turned and his elbow against the bonnet,
smoking and looking down at Holberggate, and the
man from the undertakers cleared his throat and said:
"First, I ought perhaps to say that the coffins probably
are not as heavy as might be expected." He ran a hand
through his hair, looking desperate, and we glanced at
each other, my brother and I, and then we bent down,
took hold of the handles and lifted, and we just stared
straight ahead when we realised he was right.
I am so tired. I lean my whole weight against the
door. I could fall asleep now, and maybe I am asleep,
and dreaming, or maybe remembering a dream. I am
in the apartment at Veitvet. My mother and father are
there, and my two younger brothers. I know they are
dead, and I know that they know, but we do not talk
about it. I try to figure out how they could have come
back. Suddenly I cannot remember where their graves
are, but it can't be far away, maybe on the lawn by the
hedge beside the road. The apartment looks as it did
then, in May of that year; half-empty bookshelves, a
pile of pictures on the coffee table, cardboard boxes on
the floor. The clock on the wall has stopped. They go
around helping me, giving me things they think I
should have, and I find books I imagine my daughters
would like. I take a few small things for myself and
sneak them away, put them in the pocket of my jacket,
and then I feel bad because I am cheating my brother,
so I take them out again. All the while I can hear them
talking softly in the living room. I go up to the next
floor and into the room that once was mine. I open the
window and put my head out. On the balcony below
me, my father is standing in the sun. He stands quite
calmly, his eyes closed and arms crossed. He fills his
shirt completely. It is quiet, he is fine, but I don't like
the neighbours to see a dead man standing on the
balcony sunning himself. I close the window and go
down again. At the bottom of the stairs is the old
wooden bookcase with carvings along the top and the
sides. I sit on the floor and lean my head against the
middle shelf as I have done so many times before. I
press against the books and then everything broadens
out and I can look in. There are rows of books in many
layers, it is a whole room with yellow light streaming in
from a window I have never seen before, and it fills me
with wonder, and yet everything is familiar. I take hold
of Tolstoy with one hand and Nansen with the other
and pull myself right in. It closes behind me and the
whole time I hear them talking softly in the living
I straighten up, my face lets go of the door and I
stand without a foothold in the world, listening. I hear
no steps from either side and then I undo my jeans and
push my shirt down as well as I can as fast as I can, and
try to do up my flies. It's not easy, my empty hands are
stiff and have hardly any feeling, and the buttons are
obstinate. One of them gets into the wrong buttonhole,
but I get it done eventually. I try to do my jacket up, but
the zip is ruined, it's hanging loose, several teeth are
missing at the bottom so I can't fit the ends together.
Maybe someone has tried to tear it off. I think about
the dream and remember I had it several years ago,
that I wrote it down, that I put it away somewhere. So
I have not been asleep. I look around me on both sides.
It is all quiet on the street. I take a few steps along the
big display window, the glass glitters, it is spring
sweeping in from the fjord and brushing my neck as it
passes, and the latest books are behind the glass. Rick
Bass has brought out another collection. I have been
waiting for it. I like his stories, they are full of
landscape and air and you can smell the pine needles
and the heather a long way off.
I must get out of this town. I clench my fists and
then I get it. My briefcase has gone. I turn and look
back, but there's only a bundle of newspapers by the
door. I look all the way down the street, past the business
school to the city workers' offices on the corner,
but there's nothing there, not a shadow, nothing but
fag ends students have dropped on the pavement and
an "open" sign outside the little sixties café.
It was only an old leather briefcase of the kind
working people used a long time ago, they had them on
their laps in the bus on the way to work, and in them
the Arbeiderbladet and sandwich box and betting slip.
We found three of them left in the bedroom cupboard
when we cleared out the apartment. None of them had
been used, so he must have been thinking ahead to the
days of his pension and bought them cheap out of
surplus stock, and they had lasted longer than he had
expected. He had written his name in marking ink on
the inside of the flap in letters he learned at school
some time in the twenties, and as my brother used a
yuppie briefcase I took all three. I use them constantly,
there have been shots of me in the paper carrying one
of those cases, and when people come up behind me
calling and I turn round, they say: "Hi, Arvid, I
recognised you by the briefcase."
There was a fat notebook in that case almost filled
with writing, and my glasses which cost 2000 kroner
and a book by Alice Munro, Friend of My Youth. I am
reading it for the third time, I have all her books,
because there is a substance there, and a coherence
that does not embellish, but conveys that nothing is in
vain no matter what we have done, if we only look
back, before its's too late.
I don't know. I don't know if that is true. I am a bit
dizzy because I dare not breathe deeply, it hurts so
much every time I try that I hold back, and then there
is not enough oxygen for the brain. I wipe my hands on
my trousers, clear my throat and walk into the kiosk.
There is room for three inside if you keep your elbows
tucked in. She is squeezed between the counter and the
shelves of cigarettes. I take the Dagblad from the stand
and say: "Dagbla' and a Coke."
She says nothing and her eyes grow round with
surprise behind her glasses, and they do not look at me
but at something just by my ear. I raise my hand, but
there is only my ear. I try again and she gives a little
cough again and a cautious smile, standing very still.
She does not understand what I say. The sound of the
words is perfectly clear in my head, but they are not the
ones that she is hearing. I don't know what she hears.
Then I see the fridge full of bottles on the outside of the
counter. Of course, it is self-service. I turn and take
hold of the handle, and because I feel so weak I pull it
rather hard so I will not be embarrassed if it wont open
at the first try. The door flies open, the fridge shakes
and two bottles come sailing out, crash to the floor and
roll away, but they do not break, they are half-litre
plastic ones. One is a Fanta, the other a Coke. I bend
down and wince as the pain in my side stabs at me, and
I pick them up like a very old man and put the Fanta
back in the fridge and the Coke on the counter. She
doesn't say a word, just looks straight past me with her
round eyes. I feel in my jacket pocket and mercifully
find my wallet there. It is a miracle, I realise that. I open
it cautiously. The Visa card is in its place and the bonus
cards for Shell and Fina and Texaco and the library
cards for Lørenskog and Rælingen. But no sign of notes
and coins. She looks at my wallet and I take out the
Visa card instead and then she stares at it as if it were a
completely new invention. I look at the till. It might
date from the early sixties, and anyway it does not have
a card facility. I don't know what to do. I am so thirsty
I can think of nothing else. She clears her throat and
says distinctly and very slowly with generous
movements of her mouth so I can read her lips: "You
need not pay. It's on the house." She looks straight at
me for the first time and gives me a big smile. It is an
offer I cannot refuse. I ought to say something. I lick
my lips, but my mouth is totally dry, my tongue
swollen, and then I just pick up the Visa card and the
newspaper and the Coke and back out of the kiosk. The
light is blinding, so I walk diagonally across the street
to avoid the sun and over the car park where there used
to be a Texaco station and between the museums
towards the University Hall and the railway station.
Halfway there I can hold out no longer. I stop and open
the bottle. The brown Coke spurts out of the nozzle all
over my trousers, my shoes and the newspaper. I start
to weep. I have been on my way down for a long time,
and now I am there. At rock bottom. I hold the bottle
away from my body until it stops running and then,
weeping, drink what little is left, and I throw the empty
bottle into the nearest litter bin. I chuck the wet paper
after it. Without glasses I couldn't read it anyway. And
then I walk on.
Copyright © 2002 by Per Petterson. English translation copyright © 2002 by Anne Born. All rights reserved. Per Petterson was a librarian and bookseller before publishing his first book in 1987. In the Wake is the first of his novels to be published in the U.S. Out Stealing Horses, his second novel, will be published by Graywolf Press in June 2007. He lives in Oslo, Norway.