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The fourteen years I lived in Bergen, from 1988 to 2002, are long gone, no traces of them are left, other than as incidents a few people might remember, a flash of recollection here, a flash of recollection there, and of course whatever exists in my own memory of that time. But there is surprisingly little. All that is left of the thousands of days I spent in that small, narrow-streeted, rain-shimmering Vestland town is a few events and lots of sentiments. I kept a diary, which I have since burned. I took some photos, of which twelve remain; they are in a little pile on the floor beside the desk, with all the letters I received during those days. I have flicked through them, read bits and pieces, and this has always depressed me, it was such a terrible time. I knew so little, had such ambitions, and achieved nothing. But what spirits I was in before I went! I had hitchhiked to Florence with Lars that summer, we stayed there for a few days, caught the train down to Brindisi, the weather was so hot it felt as though your head was on fire when you poked it through the open train window. Night in Brindisi, dark sky, white houses, heat as in a dream, big crowds in the parks, young people on mopeds everywhere, shouting and noise. We lined up by the gangway to the big ship going to Piraeus, with lots of others, almost all young and carrying backpacks like us. It was 120 degrees in Rhodes. One day in Athens, the most chaotic place I have ever been, and so insanely hot, then the boat to Paros and Antiparos, where we lay on the beach every day and got drunk every night. One evening we met some Norwegian girls, and while I was in the toilet Lars told them he was a writer and had been accepted to start at the Writing Academy in the autumn. They were discussing this when I returned. Lars just smiled at me. What was he up to? I knew he was prone to telling little fibs, but while I was standing there? I said nothing, decided to give him a wide berth in the future. We went to Athens together, I had run out of money, Lars was still rolling in it, he decided to fly back home the day after. We were sitting in a terrace restaurant, he was eating chicken, his chin glistening with fat, I was drinking a glass of water. The last thing I wanted to do was ask him for money, the only way I could get any out of him was if he asked me whether I wanted to borrow some. But he didn’t, so I went hungry. The next day he left for the airport, and I took a bus to the suburbs, got off near a motorway on-ramp and started hitchhiking. After no more than a few minutes a police car stopped, the officers couldn’t speak a word of English, but I got the message that hitchhiking wasn’t allowed there, so I caught a bus back to the city center, and with the last of my money bought a train ticket to Vienna, a loaf of bread, a big bottle of Coke, and a carton of cigarettes.
I thought the trip would take a few hours and was shocked to learn it would be more like two full days. In the compartment were a Swedish boy of my age and two English girls who turned out to be a couple of years older. We were well into Yugoslavia before they figured out that I had no money, nor any food, and they offered to share theirs with me. The countryside outside the window was so beautiful it hurt. Valleys and rivers, farms and villages, people dressed in ways I associated with the nineteenth century and obviously worked the land the way they did then, with horses and hay carts, scythes and plows. Part of the train was Russian, I walked through the carriages in the evening, spellbound by the foreign letters, the foreign smells, the foreign interior, the foreign faces. When we arrived in Vienna one of the two girls, Maria, wanted to exchange addresses, she was attractive and normally it would have gone through my mind that I could visit her in Norfolk some day, perhaps start a relationship and live there, but on this day, wandering through the streets on the outskirts of Vienna, the idea meant nothing to me, I was still consumed by Ingvild, whom I had met only once, at Easter that year, but whom I later wrote to. Everyone else paled into insignificance compared with her. I got a lift with a stern-looking blond woman in her thirties to a gas station on the motorway, where I asked some truck drivers if they had any room for me, one of them nodded, he must have been in his late forties, dark complexioned and thin with deeply glowing eyes, first though he had to have something to eat.
I waited outside in the warm dusk smoking and watching the lights along the road that were beginning to become more and more distinct as evening fell, surrounded by the drone of traffic, occasionally interrupted by the brief but heavy slamming of doors, the sudden voices of people crossing the parking lot on their way to or from the service station. Inside, people sat silently eating on their own except for a few families who swamped the tables they sat around. I was filled with an inner exultation, this was precisely what I loved best, the familiar, the known – the motorway, the gas station, the cafeteria, which weren’t familiar at all actually, everywhere I looked details differed from the places I knew. The driver came out, nodded to me, I followed him, clambered up into the enormous vehicle, put my backpack in the back, and settled in. He started the engine, everything rumbled and shook, lights were switched on, we set off slowly, gradually sped up, but were still lumbering, until we were safely coasting on the inside lane of the motorway, at which point he glanced at me for the first time. Sweden? he said. Norwegen, I said. Ah, Norwegen! he said.
Throughout the night and well into the next day I sat at his side. We had exchanged the names of some soccer players, Rune Bratseth in particular, had excited him, but since he couldn’t speak a word of English that was as far as we got.
I was in Germany, and I was very hungry, but without a krone in my pockets all I could do was smoke and hitch and hope for the best. A young man in a red Golf stopped, his name was Björn, he said, and he was going a long way, he was affable, and in the evening when he had gone as far as he was going to go, he invited me into his house and gave me some muesli and milk, I ate three portions, he showed me some pictures of his holidays with his brother in Norway and Sweden when he was young, their father was crazy about Scandinavia, he told me, hence the name Björn. His brother’s name was Tor, he said, shaking his head. He drove me to the motorway, I gave him my cassette of the Clash’s triple album, he shook my hand, we wished each other good luck, and I took up a position at one of the on-ramps again. After three hours a tousled bearded man in a red 2CV stopped, he was going to Denmark, I could have a lift all the way. He asked me questions, was interested when I said that I wrote, I wondered if he might have been a professor of some kind, he bought me food at a cafeteria, I slept for a few hours, we reached Denmark, he bought me more food, and when I finally left him I was in the middle of Jutland, only a few hours away from Hirtshals, so I would soon be home. But the last part of the journey was more difficult, I got lifts of thirty-odd kilometers at a time, by eleven in the evening I had advanced no farther than Løkken, and I decided to sleep on the beach. I wandered along a narrow road through a low forest, here and there the asphalt was covered with sand, and soon dunes rose before me, I walked up them, cast my eyes over the shiny gray sea lying in front of me in the light of the Scandinavian summer night. From a campsite or a cluster of seaside cabins a few hundred meters away came the sound of voices and car engines.
It was good being by the sea. Breathing in the faint aroma of salt and the raw breeze off the water. This was my sea. I was nearly home.
I found a dip in the sand and unrolled my sleeping bag, crept inside, pulled up the zip, and closed my eyes. It was unpleasant, anyone could stumble across me out here, that was how it felt, but I was so tired after the past few days that in an instant I was gone, as if someone had blown out a candle.
I awoke to rain. Cold and stiff, I struggled out of the sleeping bag, pulled on my trousers, packed everything, and set off for the town. It was six o’clock. The sky was gray, there was a light, almost imperceptible, drizzle, I was freezing cold and walked fast to generate some heat. I’d had a dream and the images were still tormenting me. Dad’s brother, Gunnar, had been in it, or his anger, that was because I had drunk so much and done so many bad things, I realized now as I hurried through the same low forest I had walked through the previous evening. All the trees were motionless, leaden, beneath the dense cloud cover, more dead than alive. The sand lay in mounds between them, swept up in their changing and unpredictable yet always distinctive patterns, like a river of fine sand grains traversing the coarser tarmac.
I came onto a bigger road, continued along it for some distance, put down my backpack by a crossing, and started thumbing. It wasn’t many kilometers to Hirtshals. Though what would happen there, I had no idea. I had no money so it wouldn’t be that easy to get onto the Kristiansand ferry. Perhaps I could arrange to have a bill sent on to me? If I came across a kindly soul who appreciated the predicament I was in?
Oh no. Now the raindrops were getting bigger as well.
Fortunately it wasn’t cold though.
I lit a cigarette, ran a hand through my hair. The rain had made my hair gel sticky, I dried my hand on my thigh, leaned forward and took the Walkman from my pack, rummaged through the few cassettes I had with me, chose Skylarking by XTC, put it in, and straightened up.
Had there been an amputated leg in the dream as well? Yes. It had been sawn off just below the knee.
I smiled, and then, when the music began to flow out of the tiny speakers I was taken back to the time the record came out. It would have been the second class at gymnas. Mostly, though, I was filled with recollections of the house in Tveit: sitting in a wicker chair drinking tea and smoking and listening to Skylarking, head over heels in love with Hanne; Yngve, who was there with Kristin; all the conversations with Mom.
A vehicle came down the road.
When Miss Moon lays down
And Sir Sun stands up
Me, I’m found floating round and round
Like a bug in brandy
In this big bronze cup
It was a pickup truck with a company name on the hood in red, probably a builder on his way to work, as he raced past he didn’t even look at me, and then the second song seemed to rise out of the first, I loved this segue, something rose in me as well, and I punched the air several times as I slowly danced round and round.
Another vehicle hove into view. I stretched out my thumb. Once again the driver was sleepy and didn’t acknowledge my presence with so much as a glance. I was obviously hitching on a road with a lot of local traffic. But couldn’t they stop anyway? Take me to a main road?
Only after a couple of hours did someone take pity on me. A German in his midtwenties with round glasses and a severe expression pulled over in a tiny Opel, I ran toward him, threw my backpack onto the backseat, which was already full of baggage, and got in beside him. He had come from Norway, he said, and was on his way south, could drop me off by the motorway, it wasn’t far, but it might help. I said, yes, yes, very good. The windows misted up badly, he leaned forward as he drove and wiped the windshield with a rag. Maybe that’s my fault, I said. What? he said. The mist on the window, I said. Of course it is, he hissed. Okay, I thought, if that’s how you want it, and leaned back in my seat.
He dropped me off twenty minutes later, by a big gas station, I walked back and forth outside asking everyone I saw if they were going to Hirtshals and whether they would take me with them. I was wet and hungry, my appearance was a mess after all the days on the road, and everyone shook their heads until, a long time later, a man driving a van I could see was full of bread and bakery products smiled and said, come on, jump in, I’m going to Hirtshals. The whole way I kept thinking I should ask him if I could have something to eat, but I didn’t dare, the closest I came was to say that I was hungry, but he didn’t take the hint.
As I was saying goodbye to him in Hirtshals a ferry was just about to leave. I ran over to the ticket office with my backpack heavy on my back, breathlessly explained my situation to the clerk, I had no money, would it be possible to have a ticket anyway and have the bill sent on to me? I had a passport, so could produce ID, and I was reliable. She smiled nicely and shook her head, she was unable to help, I had to pay cash. But I have to get across! I said. I live there! And I haven’t got any money! She shook her head again. Sorry, she said, and turned away.
I sat down on a curb in the harbor area with my backpack between my legs and watched the big ferry slip its moorings, glide away, and vanish from view.
What was I going to do?
One possibility was to hitchhike south again, to Sweden and then go up that way. But wasn’t there some water that had to be crossed as well?
I tried to visualize the map, wondering if there was a land connection between Denmark and Sweden somewhere, I didn’t think there was, was there? So you would have to go right down to Poland and then up through Russia to Finland and from there into Norway, was that right? A couple of weeks’ hitchhiking then. And you would probably need a visa or something for the Eastern Bloc countries. Of course I could go to Copenhagen, that was only a few hours away, and then do whatever it took to get some money for the ferry to Sweden. Beg on the streets if necessary.
Another way would be to get Mom to transfer some money to a bank here. That wouldn’t be a problem, but it might take a couple of days. And I didn’t have any coins to phone home.
I opened another packet of Camels and looked across at the vehicles that were quietly rolling in and joining the new queue as I smoked three cigarettes, one after the other. Lots of Norwegian families who had been to Legoland or the beach in Løkken. Some Germans heading north. Lots of camper vans, lots of motorbikes, and, farthest away, the juggernauts.
With a dry mouth, I took out my Walkman again. This time I inserted a Roxy Music cassette. But after only the second song the sound became distorted and the battery light came on. I put the Walkman back and stood up, swung my backpack over my shoulder, and set off for the town center, through the few dreary Hirtshals streets. Now and then hunger gnawed at my guts. I considered going to the bakery and asking if they could spare me some bread, but of course they wouldn’t give me any. I couldn’t bear the thought of such a humiliating rejection and decided to save my efforts until I was in serious discomfort, and wandered back toward the harbor. I stopped in front of a kind of café-cum-snack-bar, where it would surely be possible to get a glass of water at least.
The girl nodded and filled a glass from the tap behind her. I sat down by the window. The place was nearly full. Outside, it had started raining again. I drank the water and smoked. After a while two boys my age came in the door, wearing full rain gear. They undid their hoods and looked around. One of them came over to me. Were the seats free? Of course, I said. We got into conversation, it turned out they were from Holland, on their way to Norway, and they had cycled up. They laughed in disbelief when I told them I had hitchhiked from Vienna without any money and now I was trying to get on the ferry. Is that why you’re drinking water? one asked, I nodded, he asked if I would like a cup of coffee, that would be nice, I answered, he stood up and went off to get me one.
I left with them, they said they hoped we would meet again on board, took their bikes, and were gone, I plodded over to the truck queue and began to ask the drivers if they would take me along, I had no money for the boat. No, no one was interested, needless to say. One by one they started their engines and trundled on board while I walked back to the café and sat watching the ferry, which, once again, glided slowly away from the quay and became smaller and smaller until, half an hour later, it had disappeared.
The last ferry left in the evening. If I didn’t get on it I would have to hitch down to Copenhagen. That would have to be the plan. While waiting, I took the manuscript from my backpack and read. I had written a whole chapter in Greece, on two mornings I had waded out to a little island and from there to another island with my shoes, T-shirt, writing pad, pen, cigarettes, and a paperback copy of Jack in Swedish in a little bundle on my head. There, in a hollow in the mountainside, I had sat all on my own writing. It felt as if I had arrived at where I wanted to go. I was sitting on a Greek island in the middle of the Mediterranean writing my first novel. At the same time I was restless, there was nothing there, only me, and it wasn’t until that was all there was that I experienced the emptiness. That was how it was there, my own emptiness was everything, and even when I became immersed in Jack or was bent over my pad writing about Gabriel, my protagonist, what I noticed was the emptiness.
Sometimes I dived into the water, dark azure and wonderful, but I had hardly swum a few strokes before it occurred to me there might be sharks there. I knew there were no sharks in the Mediterranean, but I still had these thoughts as I scrambled up onto the shore dripping wet and cursing myself, it was idiotic, scared of sharks here, what was this, was I seven years old? But I was alone beneath the sun, alone by the sea, and utterly empty. It felt as if I were the last human on earth. It rendered both my reading and writing meaningless.
Yet when I read the chapter about what I considered to be a seamen’s pub in the harbor quarter of Hirtshals I thought it was good. The fact that I had been accepted at the Writing Academy proved I had talent. Now all I had to do was demonstrate it on paper. My plan was to write a novel during the coming year, and then have it published next autumn, depending on how long it took to print and that kind of thing.
Water Above/Water Below it was called.
Copyright © 2010 by Karl Ove Knausgaard
English translation copyright © 2015 by Don Bartlett