The Emergency Stairs
There are student flats above and below them, and another across the landing. The students quite often party together, from Thursday to Sunday. For example, Laura might be sitting reading a book early on a Thursday evening when she’ll hear the clinking of bottles out in the cold concrete stairwell, hushed voices, and steady footsteps on their way up, and then she’ll know that in about four hours’ time she will hear loud, shrieking voices bouncing off the walls as the party makes its way back down, and later, if she’s unlucky, she’ll hear the even louder noises of a nachspiel at three in the morning. And if she’s extra unlucky, the noise will be from the flat above, where they are dancing and jumping around to “Let’s Dance” on the wooden floor that is Laura’s ceiling, under which Laura is lying on her side with her knees pulled up, eyes open, with her duvet between her thighs under her big belly, and an orange earplug bursting out of the ear that is turned to the ceiling.
* * *
It’s not possible to live here with a baby, Laura and Karl Peter have decided, after just such a night. It makes them sad, because they like their flat on the third floor of the old brick building in Møhlenpris, the Manhattan of Bergen, as Karl Peter likes to call it, even though he’s never been to New York. They like the feeling of being alive that they get from living there, they like the idea of a melting pot, all layers of society living on top of each other, the football pitch that’s missing one corner because there wasn’t room, the Ping-Pong table on the pavement in Konsul Børs’ Gate, the light that’s caught between the buildings on the straight streets as the sun goes down. But the drug addicts are a problem; Laura and Karl Peter don’t like the dealer who lives on the other side of the street, on the ground floor, and they don’t like the needles outside the main door, nor are they particularly fond of the structure of the so-called chimney houses, of which there are so many in Møhlenpris, one of which they live in themselves: they’re brick on the outside and wood on the inside, which means that the houses act like chimney pipes in the event of a fire and draw the flames up through the floors with great speed and efficiency, and for precisely that reason they’re not happy that they have a smoke detector that goes off all the time and that the landlord has done nothing to fix it. All in all, it’s time to move.
* * *
Laura and Karl Peter are twenty-four and twenty-eight, respectively, and 164 and 198 centimeters tall. One is dark, the other is fair. At the time of writing, Laura is standing in the roughly one-square-meter hallway between the kitchen, the bathroom, and the bedroom. When I say “at the time of writing,” I’m of course referring to myself, not Laura. She’s not writing, I am. It might perhaps have been more correct to write “at the time of writing, I have wet feet,” because it’s true, I have wet feet, there’s a big hole in my boots. And I can’t get new ones. But anyway. Back to Laura. She opens her mouth and prepares for what in linguistic terms is sometimes called externalization, in other words, language as speech. Karl Peter, come here, she shouts. She can hear that he’s sitting at the piano in the living room, tinkling away, which is why she shouts so loudly. Laura has just picked off all the masking tape that was stuck around the doorframe to the emergency stairs, it’s the first time that Laura’s seen the emergency stairs, and what she sees shocks her. How could they have lived here, in this fire hazard of a house, for three years, without knowing? The thought rips through Laura, causing her heart to beat faster than she feels is good for the baby.
* * *
Recently, Laura has had the disconcerting feeling that everything is double. She suspects it has something to do with the fact that she’s pregnant and that it’s firing up some sensory center or other in her brain that she doesn’t know the name of, but that she remembers only too well—that’s to say, she doesn’t remember the sensory center itself, but its effect—from some overwhelming anxiety attacks in her intense young woman stage from ages nineteen to twenty-one, when she would suddenly get the feeling that things were not what they seemed, that the wallpaper was coming toward her, or that the ringing wasn’t in her ears, but in the air outside her head, etc. Yesterday on the street she saw a man walking a dog, which she later found out was a Neapolitan mastiff, the kind of mastiff that has a face that is so wrinkled and pendulous that it looks like someone has made a mistake, because what on earth is the purpose of all that excess facial skin, what evolutionary advantage could that dog face have over other dog faces, where the skin lies tight over facial bones, why did the cheeks need to fall like curtain folds, as though the whole face were a crushed, molten drop, an enormous horror-movie mask, she could just picture the dog trying to eat, its entire face mushed against the dog food, then it turned and glared at her with its aggressive dog eyes deep in all that sagging flesh, and she felt as though the mastiff were quivering, as if he had doubled right there in front of her.
* * *
But right now Laura stands there holding in her hand all the masking tape that’s been taped around the door to the emergency stairs. Her face is an ordinary human face. The masking tape is ordinary masking tape, stuck neatly and smoothly over the gap between the door and the doorframe, just as it had been when they moved in, and Karl Peter wanted to leave it as it was. To stop any drafts from getting in. They live in a flat full of drafts. There’s also a draft from the large gap under the balcony door, at the opposite end of the flat. A cold draft circulates through the flat at floor level, like a chilling, repetitive thought, a depressing sigh, a sign, Laura has sometimes thought, a warning from the flat of what it’s really like to live in a building owned by a man who does whatever he can to avoid ensuring his tenants’ safety, who can’t fix the fire alarm even when he’s getting complaints every week, who tricks and fiddles with the electricity supply, who doesn’t replace the windows when they’re cracked, who does nothing about gaps and drafts. If they take off the tape, they’ll have to buy more. Then he, Karl Peter, will have to do the taping. And that would be so boring. Laura, on the other hand, likes to be prepared. She likes to visualize things, in the way that downhill skiers visualize the course before they push off. In the event of a fire, she wants to know the terrain. When Karl Peter has been out on tour with his band, Laura has gone to sleep with a flashlight and a knife under the bed, with this in mind: In case of a fire, or break-in, the emergency stairs are the way out, that’s how she’ll escape. She first has to turn the key in the door out to the emergency stairs, then she’ll have to just push it with all her might, because she won’t have time to pull off all the tape. Last year, she went to bed like this one hundred and fifty-six times; this year, so far, it’s been only seventy-seven. False security often feels remarkably like real security, and it has worked for Laura, she has managed to sleep, even though the knowledge that she lives in a firetrap has bothered her almost every day since they moved in, and even though she knows that the hand holding the knife (if she manages to grab it from under the bed where it’s lying, should an intruder suddenly appear in the bedroom) will wither into trembling, prickling fear, and be incapable of stabbing, and even though she knows that she will probably die of smoke inhalation before she’s managed to get to the emergency stairs—and that if she doesn’t die, she might panic and not be able to turn the key in the lock, if she’s even able to find the key, which is so easy to see in broad daylight, when you’re not enveloped in thick smoke.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Kolon forlag
Translation copyright © 2022 by Kari Dickson