In Wonderland (Translation of "I Æventyrland" from Norwegian)
Novel 11, Book 18 (Translation of "Ellevte roman, bok atten" from Norwegian)
Christmas was coming to Kongsberg too. Peter had a kind of mock exam just before the holidays and when it was over he packed and went home to Narvik to celebrate there. He had only one suitcase with him when he left, and his father accompanied him to the station. The train arrived, and Bjørn held out his hand to him. ‘I’ll be back,’ Peter said. ‘After Christmas. It’s so nice staying with you.’ His father smiled and wished him a pleasant journey. You’ll be back after Christmas, he thought. But you won’t stay for very long. That I know.
Christmas came. Bjørn Hansen celebrated Christmas quietly, all alone, only interrupted by dinner at Berit and Herman Busk’s the second day of Christmas, as usual. Peter returned at the beginning of January, and in the middle of that same month Bjørn Hansen left for Vilnius.
Where is Vilnius? Vilnius is situated somewhere or other in Europe. It is impossible to state it more precisely. You take the train from Kongsberg to Oslo, fly from Fornebu to Kastrup in Copenhagen, and after an hour’s wait in the transit hall you board a plane bound for Vilnius. After a flight of an hour and twenty minutes, you land in the airport of Lithuania’s capital. Then you are one hundred and twenty miles from Minsk, if you travel in an easterly direction. Riga is one hundred and eighty miles to the north-west, Warsaw two hundred and forty miles south. It is four hundred miles to St Petersburg, five hundred and fifty to Moscow, and five hundred and twenty miles to Berlin. Midway between Berlin and Moscow, somewhere in Europe. To the Baltic coast, with Lithuania’s most important seaport, Klaipeda, and to the bathing resorts, it is one hundred and fifty miles.
So Bjørn Hansen found himself in Vilnius. He was staring out of the window of his room on the eighteenth floor of the typical Soviet-Russian hotel Lithuania, down at the city on the other side of the river Neris. An old, venerable city. In Europe. A castle rose proudly on the top of a hill, together with Gedimina’s tower, and below it lay the city with its churches, buildings, towers and walls. Bjørn Hansen was moved by the view from the window and decided to go out at once. Shortly afterwards he was crossing a stone bridge over to the other side of the river, where this old city was located. A city with a skeleton from the thirteen hundreds. A centuries-old home for Lithuanians, Poles, White Russians and Jews. Now a Lithuanian population with a large Russian minority. A place with narrow cobbled streets and a smell of coke. With smoke rising and settling on the city. A smell of coke and rancid cooking oil. Bjørn Hansen hurrying through the streets in his western clothes, quite drab by Norwegian standards. Everyone looked at him. They stood watching him from cramped courtyards. In their worn, old-fashioned clothes. With bundles under their arms. Bent over and hunchbacked. But they observed him with eyes shining with curiosity. He was an envoy from America. Cabbage and potatoes. Rolls of fabric in the shops lining the streets. A man pulling a cart full of empty milk bottles. It rattles. Bjørn Hansen hurried along, actually feeling rather uncomfortable. The old city gate, from the 1500s. St Kasimir Church. A theatre from the 1700s. The palace of the archbishops. The new City Hall, from the 1700s. The university, from the 1500s, with St John Church. The Gedimina Square with the cathedral and the freestanding bell tower. Ding-dong.
It was cold and he shivered. It was the middle of winter. People were hurrying through the narrow streets. Suddenly it began to snow. It was such a dark day in Vilnius, and suddenly it began to snow. Yes, here, in this city, Bjørn Hansen got to see it snow in Central European fashion. The snow felt wet and heavy upon Vilnius, which long ago was called Lithuania’s Jerusalem and between the wars was a Polish provincial town. Large white snowflakes in the air, which came floating down, got sucked up by the ground and evaporated. The snow fell in heavy white flakes between the baroque buildings, over the tortuous narrow streets, down on the people’s padded shoulders and into their hair, wetting it. All at once the streets were full of schoolchildren, who tried to catch the snowflakes in the air. They suddenly entered the street from small, narrow openings in the row of houses, dressed in school uniforms and carrying their books in satchels, which they hastened to get rid of by putting them on cornices, into niches in the walls, or onto stairs, before they ran into the middle of the street to catch the snow with their eager hands. They clapped as they caught the snow in the air, at a quick pace, in the vain hope of catching enough snowflakes to make a snowball. Bjørn Hansen hurried on through the city while observing this strange sudden scene which unfolded so spontaneously before his eyes. He again came to the old stone bridge across the river Neris and to his secluded hotel, Lithuania, which throned it on the other side.
He shook the melted snow from his hair as he stepped into the reception of Hotel Lithuania. The reception was deep and dark, in a pompous style of the 1960s. Thick carpets on the floor, dim lighting, with, at the very end, a long reception desk with twinkling small lights. In front of it stood a party of people, who were jovially greeting another party with hugs and exaggerated gestures. Bjørn Hansen hurried up, because he knew the people who made up one of the parties. It was the party to which he, too, belonged and they were now greeting their Lithuanian hosts. For Bjørn Hansen was in Vilnius as a member of a delegation. He had been handpicked for a Norwegian delegation of municipal civil servants bound for Lithuania for the purpose of teaching the Lithuanians democracy. And now, here they were, greeting those who were to be taught. They would have discussions and conversations with Lithuanians who were selected to fill important positions in the local administration of this ex-Soviet republic, which had now declared its independence. The object was for the Norwegians to give the Lithuanians some good advice on how local democracy can function in a sensible way, so that the local population can both be governed and take part in the governing. It was not unreasonable that such a delegation would take along a Norwegian town treasurer, nor that this Norwegian treasurer was Bjørn Hansen, because, after all, he had served as such for almost twenty years, and had also during that time held several positions of trust within the Association of Norwegian City and Borough Treasurers.
The conference, which began immediately after these introductions in the vestibule, took place in the very hotel where the Norwegians were staying. There followed three more days of meetings, interrupted by sightseeing in Vilnius and a day trip around and about in Lithuania. The last evening featured a festive dinner, whereupon the Norwegian delegation returned to Oslo. Bjørn Hansen had little to say about the conference itself. He must have felt rather indisposed, both because of abundant partying in the evenings and his own thoughts. But he noticed, from the very start, that this meeting between Norwegian and Lithuanian municipal administrators had a peculiar air about it. The Norwegians were idolised. More so than he actually cared to be, because what they were idolised for was not their own worth as individuals but their desirable nationality.
The Lithuanians were dreaming they were in Bjørn Hansen’s shoes. They looked upon his shoes as extremely elegant and even pointed at them. And as a result Bjørn Hansen felt it was strange to find himself in his own shoes. His watch, too, had a promising aura about it. They looked upon the person wearing it as someone who manifested a natural superiority. Every now and then he was asked what time it was, even though the Lithuanians had their own watches. Then Bjørn Hansen extended his arm, looked at his wristwatch and gave the time the dial showed, in German. But the Lithuanians were not listening, they just looked, spellbound, at what was revealed on Bjørn Hansen’s wrist as he jerked his shirtsleeve back so that his watch came into sight, a natural movement he had made thousands of times previously without it causing any commotion whatsoever. And these were not ignorant people from the Lithuanian countryside, the direct descendants of dumb serfs. They were well-educated people who had been selected to be local leaders in the new Lithuania. They represented the backbone of the new Lithuania. And Bjørn Hansen was not the only one who became the object of their endless admiration simply because he walked about in his own clothes. The entire Norwegian delegation experienced the same thing. And since they were rather sober, some might say rather grey, Norwegian municipal bosses, few of whom, if any, could be said to be smartly dressed, it was not surprising that the mood of the Norwegian delegation became quite elated, and inevitably many of them felt extremely flattered. For Bjørn Hansen, however, it led him to understand that the plan he had come to Lithuania to carry out could not fail.
Therefore he left the hotel before breakfast on the second day and hailed a taxi. He was anxious but calm. He asked the taxi to take him to the largest hospital in Vilnius. The problem was to find the right man; if he did, everything would go like clockwork. Dr Schiøtz had given him some good advice as to how he should proceed, what kind of specialist he should look for, and how high up the hospital hierarchy he should go, and when the taxi stopped outside a gigantic hospital complex, he managed, with the help of a German-Lithuanian dictionary, to find his way to Dr Lustinvas.
He told Dr Lustinvas that although his request might appear rather strange to him, he still asked permission to fully explain why he had sought him out. Dr Lustinvas nodded, inviting him to speak. He was a man of about thirty, dressed the way doctors dress everywhere in the world, in a white coat. Bjørn Hansen presented his request. Not once while he related what services he wanted the doctor to carry out did Dr Lustinvas show any sign of emotion. He neither gaped nor raised his eyebrows. Even though it must have seemed completely insane to him, he appeared quite unmoved; rather indifferent, in fact. It didn’t matter to him. He listened, and when Bjørn Hansen had finished Dr Lustinvas gave a shrug and said that, if it really were true that Mr Hansen wanted this, he could not see that there existed any serious obstacle to having it done. But, he added, naturally such an operation could not be undertaken for free, something Mr Hansen must surely understand. The only thing he wondered about was whether Mr Hansen realised that he would have to pay the fee in cash, so he sincerely hoped that Mr Hansen had borne that in mind when he left his native country to come here, and had taken the necessary measures in advance. When Bjørn Hansen confirmed this, Dr Lustinvas nodded, showing thereby that he was satisfied with his new patient. But when Bjørn Hansen mentioned the sum he had expected to pay, Dr Lustinvas gave a start. Had he heard correctly? Was it possible? Was this man from the West offering him $10,000? For barely anything at all? Dr Lustinvas repeated the sum: $10, 000? In cash? Bjørn Hansen confirmed it. Dr Lustinvas rose and gave Bjørn Hansen his hand. He was visibly moved, and although he tried to hide it, he didn’t quite manage to. Dr Lustinvas’s hand trembled.
At the end of this conversation, after Bjørn Hansen had paid an advance of $1,000 and they had arranged what happened next at their leisure, Bjørn Hansen could return to the Hotel Lithuania and the conference. He came back just in time for lunch. No one found it strange that he had been away in the morning, because the night before had been pretty boozy and the Lithuanian participants in particular gave him a jolly welcome when he finally turned up. Thereafter he participated fully in the remainder of the conference, both in the meetings, the sightseeing tours, the dinners and the rest of the partying, while he kept hidden the fact that his thoughts were elsewhere. He drank moderately, but made the most of what little he drank in an exceedingly drunken manner. After a festive dinner in the hotel’s assembly hall on the last evening, the festivities continued in the bar and the adjacent room. The time had come to swear eternal friendship, and Bjørn Hansen gladly drank a toast to his new friends. He was invited up to the room of one of the Lithuanians in order to continue the fraternal celebrations with a number of others, something he would not have turned down under normal circumstances. But now he said he would drop by a little later. He had to get a breath of fresh air first. He said this with a crooked smile and in a slightly snuffling voice, which made the others understand that, indeed, he needed some fresh air straightaway. Then he put on his overcoat, handed in his key at reception, as is the custom, and stepped out into the late January evening. When he knew he could no longer be seen from the hotel, he straightened his back and strolled through the streets with firm, relaxed steps. It was snowing. The same snow as before. Heavy white snowflakes upon the sparsely illuminated European city of Vilnius. He reached the hospital, where Dr Lustinvas stood on the stairs to receive him.
He was led into the hospital and taken, via some back stairs, to a room with a bed. This was his room, a private room. Dr Lustinvas left him alone while he got ready. He undressed and hung his clothes in a tall wardrobe in the austerely furnished room. Then he lay down on the bed. After a while Dr Lustinvas entered, accompanied by two nurses. Under Dr Lustinvas’s supervision, Bjørn Hansen was bandaged and put in plaster according to the medical rules that applied to a case of this kind.
It gave rise to concern when Bjørn Hansen did not show up the next morning. Neither at breakfast, nor when the Norwegian delegation gathered at reception to leave for the airport. Nor was his suitcase among the Norwegian delegation’s luggage, which had been brought together at reception and was watched over by a cloakroom attendant. An inquiry at the reception desk yielded the information that the key which Bjørn Hansen had handed in the previous evening had not been picked up again. When they let themselves into his room, they found it empty, but with his things still there. They called the airport and had him paged, in case, for some obscure reason or other, he had gone straight there without bothering to take his luggage. They were now beginning to be seriously concerned. The bus to the airport was already waiting, but no Bjørn Hansen could be tracked down. Then a very upset member of the Lithuanian delegation pulled the leader of the Norwegian delegation aside. He had received a message from the hospital to the effect that Bjørn Hansen had been admitted after a traffic accident, and had been operated on for his injuries. His condition was serious but not life-threatening.
What now? The plane would soon leave and it was time to get to the airport. But could they just take off and leave Bjørn Hansen behind in a Lithuanian hospital seriously injured? Maybe one or two of them should stay and give him support? The Lithuanian delegation leader assured them that this was not necessary. First, it wouldn’t do him much good for a long time and, second, he was in the best of hands. In case anything came up, the embassy in Warsaw had already been notified. An embassy secretary would visit him as soon as the time was ripe. This soothed the Norwegian delegation sufficiently to persuade them to leave for home together at the appointed time.
Bjørn Hansen remained in Vilnius Hospital for several weeks. He was Dr Lustinvas’s patient and nobody else was allowed near him without Dr Lustinvas’s permission. Sometimes Dr Lustinvas visited him with some other doctors, who would stand in the middle of the room. He could hear Dr Lustinvas talking to them in an undertone. Or else Dr Lustinvas would pay a call accompanied by a flock of nurses, one after another, like a little procession, and then the visit with the envoy from the West. Once a day a nurse came to change his bandages and to rub him thoroughly with ointments. Two nurses took turns at it, the same ones who had bandaged him and put him in plaster that first evening. They were young and sweet and nursed him with all possible care. Sometimes they would talk to him in Lithuanian, smiling when they realised he didn’t understand a word. Once in a while they both came, in the company of Dr Lustinvas, and then Bjørn heard them talking about him among themselves, the nurses’ voices sounding mournful. Dr Lustinvas would come over to his bed and stand there with a worried look in his eyes. Or he would sit down beside him, take his hand to feel his pulse or listen to his heart with the stethoscope. Every day he updated the curves on a chart that hung on the wall above his bed.
One day Dr Lustinvas gave him an injection that made him pleasantly drowsy. Shortly afterwards, Dr Lustinvas returned, accompanied by a gentleman who spoke Norwegian, Bjørn Hansen could tell, but unfortunately he was so drowsy that he did not quite catch what the man said or wanted. Afterwards, Dr Lustinvas explained that it had been the secretary at the Norwegian embassy in Warsaw, and he pointed at the primitive bedside table which had flowers and assorted chocolates on it. At his next visit Bjørn Hansen would supposedly feel better, and the embassy secretary would bring him a bundle of Norwegian newspapers and other reading matter.
Dr Lustinvas treated Bjørn Hansen with great respect and with routine medical expertise. Bjørn also came to suspect that he had not been given ordinary hospital food but a special diet, for he could find no fault with his meals. Dr Lustinvas alternated between giving him encouraging words and showing him sympathy. On the day when he came to report that what had occurred was irrevocable, in the sense that he must now confront the fact that he had to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, the doctor pressed his hands as he told him. He had sat down right beside Bjørn Hansen; indeed, he had moved his chair, which already stood near the bed, putting it exactly in such a way that, when he sat down on it, he was eye to eye with his patient. That day, too, he had a procession of nurses with him. They were lined up along the wall as he broke to Bjørn Hansen the news that there was no going back, and they stood there with grave faces, staring straight ahead and looking deeply grieved, including the two young women who had received him the first evening and who later had taken turns nursing him. They stood there in the background like a wailing Greek chorus, albeit dressed in white.
Bjørn had visitors. First, the leader of the Lithuanian delegation, who lived in Vilnius, and later the secretary of the Norwegian embassy in Warsaw. During both these visits Dr Lustinvas was present, and when the Lithuanian was there he often took the floor himself, probably telling his countryman in their common language something about the accident and its consequences for his Norwegian patient. When the embassy secretary was there, Dr Lustinvas did not say anything, but he was there all along, in the background. This last meeting, by the way, came off very smoothly, with talk about this and that, and it was clear that the embassy secretary also was reluctant to touch directly on the reason why Bjørn Hansen found himself in a Vilnius hospital.
He was Dr Lustinvas’s own patient and the doctor watched him zealously. He might suddenly pop up at Bjørn Hansen’s bed, often alone. Then he would sit down and look at him, ask him how he felt and whether he found any fault with the treatment. Suddenly he would begin talking about himself. About his being a Lithuanian and a Catholic. About the Lithuanian steppes, where he had spent his childhood. About how he hated Russians and communism, yet had much to thank them for. Without them, he would not have been a doctor, but a slave of the soil. Without ,them Vilnius would not have been the capital of Lithuania, but a city in Poland. ‘Tomorrow, perhaps, Vilnius will again be a city in Poland. It depends on the Germans. We have wandered a lot and will continue to wander. Perhaps to the banks of the Dnieper, what do I know? But if Germany wants to have Stettin and Breslau, Königsberg, Danzig and Memel back, then Poland will want to have Vilnius back and we must start wandering eastwards. But I’ll manage,’ Dr Lustinvas added, ‘because God is behind it all.’ This is what he told his patient. This remarkable man from the rich West who was lying full length in his bed, bandaged and plastered by the book. A man to weep over, if you sat down at his bedside and reflected on what had happened, seen from the patient’s point of view. But Dr Lustinvas did not think about that. He was very vague when he touched on such things. But he was glad to sit at Bjørn Hansen’s bedside. Bjørn Hansen thought that the two sweet nurses must have been initiated, they were in on the secret. But no one else needed to know anything. Only Dr Lustinvas and two dark-haired beauties in nurse’s uniforms.
Dr Lustinvas sat by the bedside of this remarkable man, who must have transformed the doctor’s life. That, perhaps, was why he came so often, in order to be in the vicinity of this man who had made an entirely new life possible for him, a future he had not even dared dream of before Bjørn Hansen showed up. The sum of $10,000 had fallen from the sky straight down into Dr Lustinvas’s lap. A wealthy man with a crazy idea in his head had turned up in his life. This bandaged and plastered man from the West was God’s gift to Dr Lustinvas, and that was also how the doctor treated Bjørn Hansen. One day Dr Lustinvas will have to go to confession, of course, Bjørn Hansen thought, though he is not likely to do so until I’ve left; but will he then speak about this as a sin he has committed or as an undeserved miracle on life’s journey and a blessing?
And those two little sweet nurses treated Bjørn Hansen in the same way. With great respect and much consideration. One day Dr Lustinvas rolled a wheelchair into Bjørn Hansen’s room, closely followed by both nurses. The nurses helped Bjørn Hansen into it, and after Dr Lustinvas had instructed him in the use of it – as well as given him, in vague terms, some good advice about how a paralysed man actually behaves, both when he is being helped into a wheelchair and when he sits in it – the two nurses rolled Bjørn Hansen out into the corridor and placed him on a covered veranda. Bjørn Hansen could then verify that spring had arrived in Lithuania. The birds were singing and the trees were sprouting fresh leaves. Soon he would leave the hospital and Vilnius. He spent yet another week there, mostly taken up with getting used to sitting in a wheelchair; he pushed himself up and down the corridors, or sat on the covered veranda with a blanket over his knees. Dr Lustinvas would sometimes turn up as Bjørn sat there, sit beside him and explain what it meant to have been born in Lithuania. He had brought a worn photo album and showed him pictures. Of his father, the kolkhoz peasant. Of his mother, a heavy-set Lithuanian country wife. Of his three brothers and his sister. He showed him a pendant of the sister, for she was dead; she died at sixteen, and so her picture was inside a pendant that Dr Lustinvas carried on a chain around his neck. Bjørn was shown pictures of Dr Lustinvas as a child, a young man, as a student, and as a junior doctor. Of Mrs Lustinvas and the two children, photographed inside a cramped, over-furnished flat. Mrs Lustinvas was also a doctor. Here in the hospital. ‘Too bad you haven’t met her,’ Dr Lustinvas said. The two children were six and eight. All the pictures looked typically stuffed, contrived. You were at the photographer’s, even if the photographer was a father (of the children), husband (of Mrs Lustinvas), or son (of his father and mother). The very interiors appeared stuffed, with all those things piled up high on the rickety dining room table around which the Lustinvas family were seated, except for Dr Lustinvas, who took the pictures. Dr Lustinvas dreamed of a Pax Romana: peace for the Lithuanians within the walls of the new German-Roman nation, which would check German expansion along the Baltic coast and towards the Oder-Neisse border, and in which Poles, Lithuanians, and White Russians could live in eternal peace – with the Russians as the barbarians on the other side of this new Roman wall. Dr Lustinvas’s children sat at the table and stared at Bjørn. Mrs Lustinvas stared at him. Dr Lustinvas as a young student stared at him. He had placed his hand on the shoulder of a fellow student, and both stared at Bjørn, inscrutably. Grandmother Lustinvas stared at her son, who had returned to the countryside as a junior doctor with a camera in order to take a photograph of his mother, and from inside that picture she now stared at Bjørn Hansen, the man from the West. Dr Lustinvas asked no questions about Bjørn Hansen’s family situation. He came from the Other Side and had no history. He came to Dr Lustinvas from outside, rich and unknown, asking a favour, and so he had changed Dr Lustinvas’ life, while he himself, for some unfathomable reason, sat in a wheelchair as a cripple. Dr Lustinvas had no questions to ask him. Not even about the world of wealth he came from did Dr Lustinvas ask any questions.
And so Bjørn Hansen was discharged. He was wheeled into Dr Lustinvas’s office, where he received a number of signed and stamped documents, which explained in detail his stay in Vilnius Hospital. Then he was driven to the airport. He was wheeled into the departure hall by the two dark-haired nurses. They walked side by side behind the wheelchair, both holding on to the handlebar while they pushed him towards the check-in window. Then one of them checked him in, while the other stood waiting behind the wheelchair. Afterwards they wheeled him towards the passport check and the international departure hall, still side by side, like two sisters, behind him. At the passport check stood a Scandinavian Airlines stewardess waiting for him. The two Lithuanian nurses handed the wheelchair over to this woman, who would now bear responsibility for all further transportation. But before delivering him to the stewardess, they bent down, both of them, first one and then the other, and embraced him, while bursting into tears.
It caught them unawares, both the cool stewardess, who stepped back a little, and Bjørn Hansen, who now slumped over, anxious both about being taken through the passport check and through those long corridors to the plane. But also about what would come afterwards. Meanwhile the stewardess seized the handlebar of the wheelchair, wheeled him through the passport check and through a door, which then closed, and since he sat with his eyes looking straight ahead and couldn’t turn round, he was no longer able to see the two nurses, who stood side by side watching him disappear through the automatic door and into his own world, which they did not even get a glimpse of before the door was closed.
On the plane he was given a seat at the very back, beside a single seat reserved for the crew, where the stewardess sat down, beside him, while holding firmly on to the handlebar of the wheelchair with one hand during the ascent. He shook his head when they brought the trolleys with food and drinks – anyway, it was ‘his’ stewardess who was in charge of serving drinks in this section of the plane. He sat looking straight ahead, hunched up, deep in thought. He was on his way home. He had never been so afraid, and on top of that he was worried that his fear would make him tremble all over. He feared he would not be able to go through with his project. He was sitting up in the air over Europe somewhere. Inside the cramped long body of an aircraft, at the very back. He sat hunched up in a wheelchair, looking glumly straight ahead. When the plane went down for landing, the stewardess sat down in the vacant seat beside him, keeping the same firm hold on the handlebar of the wheelchair. At Kastrup he was handed over to another stewardess for the last lap of the journey, between Copenhagen and Oslo. At Fornebu the personnel of an ambulance from Kongsberg Hospital took over. They were waiting as the stewardess wheeled him through the door to the open lobby, where the buzz of loud Norwegian voices hits you as you come out of the international departure hall, right after customs. He was immediately handed over to two white-clad men.
Spring had arrived in Norway, but it was cool, as he noticed during the short trip from the exit to where the ambulance was parked. It was mid-April, Tuesday of Holy Week, two days before Maundy Thursday, for Easter was late this year. He had been away for eight weeks. The ambulance drove to Kongsberg, via Drammen and Hokksund. Had he not always liked Norwegian landscapes, also the landscape along the Drammen River, between Drammen and Hokksund, and that between Hokksund and Kongsberg, with its flat fields and steep hills? The two white-clad men sat in the front seat, telling each other what they were doing for the Easter holidays, while Bjørn Hansen sat in the back, in his wheelchair, hunched up as before. When they arrived at the Kongsberg Hospital he was carried out in the wheelchair and taken straight to Dr Schiøtz, who was expecting him.
Dr Schiøtz received him in a manner befitting a practised physician: friendly but distant. There was also a nurse in the office, who assisted him. Among other things, she was helpful in transferring Bjørn Hansen from the wheelchair onto the examination table. My withered legs, Bjørn Hansen thought, remember that. But it was Dr Schiøtz who did the examination, the nurse was never in direct contact with Bjørn Hansen’s body. After the examination Bjørn Hansen was taken up to the X-ray department and Dr Schiøtz went along. The doctor took the X-ray pictures himself, turned Bjørn Hansen over on his stomach without assistance, and afterwards remained behind to wait for the developed pictures, while Bjørn Hansen was wheeled back to Dr Schiøtz’s office. Then he was alone with the nurse, but they did not talk. He lay with his eyes closed, covered by a sheet, until Dr Schiøtz returned with the X-rays in his hand. He looked worried. He waved to the nurse and they helped Bjørn Hansen up from the examination table and back into the wheelchair. My withered legs, Bjørn Hansen thought. Dr Schiøtz sent the nurse out, on the pretext of fetching some documents, so they could be alone, which the nurse understood.
With an expression of concern and in a low, friendly voice brimming with sympathy, Dr Schiøtz told him that the examination he had just undertaken fully confirmed the diagnosis made in Vilnius, a copy of which had been sent to Kongsberg Hospital. Bjørn Hansen, therefore, had to take it like a man, there was nothing else for it. Dr Schiøtz knew it was painful to have to adjust to there being no hope, but it couldn’t be helped. Dr Schiøtz had no problem understanding that Bjørn Hansen would now slide into a state of self-pity, perhaps for months. It was entirely human, but he still hoped that Bjørn Hansen would gradually realise that life had to and could go on, with him as a participant, in a society which, after all, devoted a great many resources to enable the handicapped to live a satisfactory life.
Bjørn Hansen desperately tried to achieve eye contact with the physician. He searched for his glance, deep within. He himself sat with his eyes wide-open, boring them into Dr Schiøtz’s eyes, into those eternally remote eyes, which remained remote, refusing to allow Bjørn Hansen’s glance to reach him, in that he just moved his glance the moment Bjørn Hansen sought it. He heard the addicted physician tell him that society would do all it could to give Bjørn Hansen a good life. He knew that Bjørn Hansen was having a hard time now, he said, but he should know, at this moment, that the rest of them would do everything in their power to help and support him, and as he said that he turned his eyes towards the man in the wheelchair, giving him a remote but friendly glance that betrayed nothing at all of the secret they shared, which Dr Schiøtz could have acknowledged without any cost to himself. Bjørn Hansen stared into the friendly physician’s eyes, which answered his gaze with the same imperturbable friendliness. There was a gentle knock on the door and the nurse came in; she placed a pile of papers to be filled out on the doctor’s desk. It was done as requested.
He was taken home to his flat. And left there. He remained alone. Bjørn Hansen sat in a wheelchair in his own flat. After a while the doorbell rang and Bjørn Hansen wheeled up to open the door. It was anything but simple. First, he had to unlock the door and leave it ajar, before turning the wheelchair around and backing up sufficiently to leave the one standing outside enough room to open the door and come in. It was the community nurse. A pleasant woman of about sixty who came to help him.
She asked what he would like for dinner, and when he couldn’t think of anything in particular she smiled knowingly and said that, in that case, she would buy something she thought was good. She came back with a bagful of food, which he paid for. She served him salmon with cucumber salad. While he ate she walked about in the flat and smartened it up. She had bought flowers and decorations. Yellow catkins which she put on the tables and shelves. Ten yellow tulips which she put into two vases, one on the coffee table and one on the windowsill. By his plate she put a flaming yellow napkin. Now they could ring in Easter, she said. When he had finished eating, she took his plate, glass and cutlery and washed up. Then she left.
He sat in a wheelchair in a newly cleaned (Mari Ann), tidy and smartened-up flat. His son was not there, but he had left a letter. He wrote that he had found another furnished room, it was the most practical thing to do. Anyway, he had never intended to stay with him longer than necessary, only until he had got himself another place. Now he had found one in a residential area, a short distance from the town centre, in the basement of a villa, where he had a bachelor flat with a private entrance. Incidentally, he would visit him one day at Easter, since he would not be going away but would stay home and read. Best regards from Peter.
At Easter a community nurse came every day and prepared food for him, did the housework and helped him with what he needed; there were two of them taking turns now; after Easter he would become acquainted with several more. They all had a key and let themselves in. Already before Easter was over they insisted that Bjørn Hansen should himself try to take part in preparing his meals, that was the best way, they said, one had to try to do as much as possible oneself – ‘It’s for your own good. Being self-reliant gives you a positive attitude to life,’ they said.
One day the doorbell rang. Twice. But Bjørn Hansen didn’t open. For some reason or other he got the idea that it might be Turid Lammers and he didn’t want to see her. He hadn’t seen her in the five years since he moved out of the Lammers villa, apart from a few times at a considerable distance, and then he had turned round or made a detour. Nor had she looked him up, but it occurred to him nevertheless that it could be Turid Lammers when the doorbell rang. She was bound to be driven by a deep need to see him, with her own eyes, sitting in a wheelchair. And then they could have resigned themselves, she to her pity, he to his purification. He would do everything in his power not to be seen and to avoid talking to Turid Lammers in his present physical condition. But it did not need to have been Turid Lammers who rang the bell. It could, for example, have been Herman Busk. But he wouldn’t open for him either. Not now. Not yet.
However, it had not been Herman Busk. He rang up right after Easter and had been away at the time. He wanted to come over and see Bjørn Hansen, but Bjørn Hansen told him that, honestly, he wasn’t up to it yet, he must become stronger first, and Herman Busk understood. But a week later he rang again, and then about once a week for some time. Bjørn Hansen declined to meet him, but for entirely different reasons from the one he had for avoiding Turid Lammers.
Some time after Easter he wheeled himself through the streets to the Town Hall, where the Treasury was located. He had no problems travelling by wheelchair through the streets of Kongsberg, neither physically nor psychologically. He greeted some remote acquaintances and they returned his greeting as naturally as they could. At the Town Hall he managed to get in on the ground floor, but not higher up, to the first floor, where the Treasury was. Instead of making the effort of carrying the wheelchair with him in it up to the first floor, his subordinates came down to the ground floor, where he had manoeuvred himself into the space behind the information counter. There he was served coffee, well, also rolls and Danish pastry, which the junior clerk had been sent out in a hurry to buy. They said he looked very well.
As he was about to say goodbye and wheel himself out onto the street again, the alderman came, so he had a conversation with him, while the Treasury employees went back to their work. After a bit of waffling, during which the alderman enquired whether his sense of humour was still intact (I’ll be damned if I ever distinguished myself by a great sense of humour here in the Town Hall, Bjørn Hansen thought gruffly), he came to the matter in hand. About what would happen when the period of his sick leave had expired. The alderman assumed that Bjørn Hansen would then apply for a disability pension, so that they could start the process of appointing a new treasurer without delay. In the alderman’s opinion, Jorunn Meck stood out as a very interesting candidate, what did Bjørn Hansen think of that? Bjørn Hansen was taken aback. He had no intention of resigning as treasurer. He had taken it for granted that he would continue as before – after all, nothing stood in his way except for the practical problem of getting from the ground floor to the first. But to the alderman it seemed all but indisputable that Bjørn Hansen would resign as treasurer now that he was disabled. He said, however, that there was no need for him to be completely cut off from the Town Hall milieu. ‘We would like to take advantage of your expertise as a consultant,’ he said. Bjørn said nothing to that. If he had been genuinely disabled, he would have protested most sharply, but not now, he simply didn’t have the strength. His head swimming, he wheeled himself out of the Town Hall and through the streets to his flat on the other side of New Bridge.
Home. In his own flat. In a wheelchair. The former treasurer of Kongsberg. Fifty-one years of age. The days went by. Time passed. The community nursing office was very satisfied with him. They thought he showed a positive attitude. He demonstrated a strong desire to master the small everyday problems by himself, and in an astonishingly short time he was able to do the shopping, prepare his meals, do the dishes and the laundry himself (except for awkward items like bed-linen and the like). All that remained for the home help to do once a week was the cleaning (Mari Ann had quit and would sit her A levels in the spring) and the heavy laundry. However, a community nurse visited him once every twenty-four hours. To check on him, in case he should need help with something, which might well be the case. For example, to fetch a book from a top shelf. Or something could have happened to him which left him helpless. The days went by. Time passes. The high point of the day was the expedition to the supermarket to do the shopping. First, the laborious operation of getting through the door of his own flat. Then into and out of the lift. Next, to get through the front door and fairly sail along the street to the supermarket, where it was cool and the floor was level and pleasant to roll along on. In the mornings there were few customers; he was almost alone among the mountains of merchandise. He wheeled his way down the aisles as though he were in the middle of a street, with enormous accumulations of, say, toothpaste, detergents, oranges, salami, cheese, milk, green apples, red apples, and hamburgers on both sides. He took his time in there, sometimes more than an hour, rolling back and forth in the streets of the supermarket and picking up what he needed. He came to know the staff very well, both the women at the checkout and those who ran about supplying the shelves with constantly fresh tomatoes, mince, cream, fabric conditioner. He had the impression that they liked him. He was a kind of dignified invalid. Not obtrusively noisy or cheerful. Not steeped in suffering. But friendly and resigned in all his dealings.
Sometimes he would also wheel himself down to Lågen to look at the river. Or he rolled about the streets. Then he would often strike up a conversation with old acquaintances, who all seemed relieved that he had confronted his fate with such composure. Did that make him feel ashamed? No, he considered their reactions with an inexpressible remoteness. About the same as when his son visited him, just after Easter. If the doorbell rang now, he opened the door. The worry that Turid Lammers might be standing outside he now regarded as fanciful. And Herman Busk would not come. He spoke to Bjørn Hansen by telephone. Then Bjørn could interrupt the conversation if he felt something emerge from deep down that made it impossible for him to continue. Outside the door a seller of raffle tickets or a child might be standing. Or sometimes the community nurse (one of three women), or the home help, a black man about thirty who came once a week. Did he fear being found out? Not at all. For that, his case was too unbelievable. He did not have to sit on tenterhooks when visited by the community nurse, wondering whether he behaved correctly at every moment. Even if he should get excited or be careless, make movements that a trained nurse knew were incompatible with the movements a man who was paralysed from his hips down could possibly make, she would never have registered it. For the possibility that he might do it did not exist for her, so that, even if she had seen something, she would still not have seen anything. Indeed, even if she had seen him get halfway to his feet in the wheelchair to reach a volume in the bookcase, she would not have believed her own eyes. Of that he was absolutely certain.
Dr Schiøtz was behind all the arrangements that made it possible for Bjørn Hansen to live without the least fear of being found out. It was the doctor who had explained to him that he had nothing to fear, not even from the first examination at the hospital, when Dr Schiøtz coldly and calmly allowed a nurse to assist him. And, indeed, the nurse had suspected nothing, even though she had helped lift the town treasurer out of his wheelchair and onto the examination table. Although Bjørn Hansen had concentrated intensely on simulating a paralysed person, he was still an amateur and could easily have been found out by a nurse’s sharp eye, if such vigilance had been within the bounds of possibility in such a situation; the secret happened to be, of course, that it was not.
It was Dr Schiøtz who had arranged everything; Bjørn Hansen was the actor who performed his simulations, but according to Dr Schiøtz’s instructions and convincing interpretations. The most important of the physician’s arrangements were those that he undertook in order to prevent Bjørn Hansen from coming into contact with anyone who might have been able to unmask him. Other doctors, in the absence of Dr Schiøtz, ergotherapists and physiotherapists. In other words, to prevent Bjørn Hansen from having to stay in a convalescence home and being subjected to rehabilitation and expert training programmes. Sunnaas Hospital was a threat, which only Dr Schiøtz’s authority prevented Bjørn Hansen from becoming acquainted with. Dr Schiøtz pointed out that it was unnecessary to send the patient there, a training programme at home was an equally effective solution and much less expensive – an argument that proved irresistible. In order to hinder a Kongsberg physiotherapist from treating Bjørn Hansen, however, Dr Schiøtz had to do a bit of juggling, he had told him, but it would work out all right and not be discovered, unless this whole case were to unravel for other reasons.
Bjørn Hansen found himself in a wheelchair. In his own flat. Wheeled himself about in the flat, letting time pass. Enjoyed looking forward to his strenuous expeditions to the cool spaces and streets of the supermarket. He could not complain. In fact, that would be quite unthinkable. This had been his plan, which he had put into effect. However, fundamentally, he was the creation of Dr Schiøtz.
With more than a touch of displeasure, he began to look upon himself as an artwork signed Dr Schiøtz. Bjørn Hansen now realised that Dr Schiøtz had knowingly chained him to a wheelchair, for life. He could have prevented it (when Bjørn Hansen was sent to his Kongsberg Hospital office in a wheelchair from Vilnius on the Tuesday of Holy Week, he could, once the two of them were alone, have said, ‘We’ll stop now,’ and then Bjørn Hansen could have gone no further), but he did not dare to. On the contrary, he pushed on, inexorably. In an unendurable atmosphere (a ‘dangerous game’) he had staged that last journey over to the Other Side, from which there was no return without catastrophic consequences for both of them (and from Dr Lustinvas). Up to this point they would both have gone free (although not Dr Lustinvas): Dr Schiøtz because he would have exposed Bjørn Hansen’s deception and left no clues that pointed back to him (in case Bjørn Hansen should try to implicate him, as a hypothetical possibility); and Bjørn Hansen because he had obviously gone mad and consequently would have been reported ill and consigned to psychiatric treatment before he could resume his position as treasurer of Kongsberg. But instead, Dr Schiøtz had carried out the plan mercilessly, without even asking Bjørn Hansen if he really wanted to go on, in those few seconds before it became serious and he was committed to it for life. It was as though Dr Schiøtz feared that Bjørn Hansen, who after all sat in a wheelchair and knew he would remain there, even though he did not need to, but had to if he took this last little step without protesting about it, might nonetheless give the alarm at the last moment, before this preposterous and dangerous game had turned serious. What were Dr Schiøtz’s motives? What forces could be driving him?
Why had Dr Schiøtz forced this through? What possible joy could it give him to chain a healthy person to a wheelchair in this way? It was certainly not in order to see him sitting there, for at the beginning of September Bjørn Hansen could report that he had not seen Dr Schiøtz since the ‘examination’ at Kongsberg Hospital five months ago. At first he had thought it was because Dr Schiøtz refused to take the risk of calling on him because someone, say, the community nurse, might then ‘surprise’ them together. But why would that have mattered? A doctor calling on one of his patients, what suspicion could be aroused by that? None at all, at least not if they were ‘surprised’ only once, which would not be very probable, even if Dr Schiøtz had called on Bjørn Hansen both often and regularly. But Dr Schiøtz had called him. He had spoken to the doctor on the telephone. Three times in the last two months. He had then been the caring doctor who rang up to encourage him. In a gentle voice he had asked how he was doing, and when Bjørn Hansen had replied that ‘life must go on’, he had praised him. He had given him sound advice about building up the strength in his arms, because now the arms alone must, after all, replace much of what arms and legs jointly had done so simply and efficiently before. Finally he had asked about some practical matters, such as the fact that Bjørn Hansen, on the alderman’s recommendation, had applied for a disability pension, besides asking about whether Bjørn Hansen had received the insurance money he was entitled to. It was no great sum, only 160,000 kroner – it was an ordinary travel insurance. But by enquiring about it – as he did every time he called – Dr Schiøtz was hinting at what bound their fates together, because it had been part of their agreement that Dr Schiøtz would receive half of the insurance money. In fact, at some point during the planning stage they had discussed whether Bjørn Hansen should take out a larger insurance but had decided against it, because it was too risky to take out an insurance of that size shortly before the accident it was to cover occurred. But by referring to this modest travel insurance every time he called, Dr Schiøtz had given Bjørn Hansen a secret sign that he had not ‘forgotten’ him or repressed their common project, which had now been realised, but that he still felt bound by it, which Bjørn Hansen heard with a sense of relief.
At the beginning of September the insurance company informed him that the money had been released and deposited in his bank account. He had the community nurse take out 20,000 kroner. A few days later he contacted Peter and had him take out 25,000 kroner, of which he gave his son 5,000 kroner, which made him very happy. He met his son in front of Kongsberg Engineering College, on the open plaza there, which was flooded by a bright autumn light; sitting in his wheelchair, a plaid over his knees, he handed his son 5,000 kroner before rolling home again. He rang up Dr Schiøtz at the hospital. During their conversation he mentioned that the insurance money had arrived. Then he put 40,000 kroner in an envelope and waited. Dr Schiøtz came the same evening.
Bjørn Hansen received the doctor sitting in his wheelchair; he opened the door to him in his laborious way and rolled ahead of him into the living room. Dr Schiøtz met his own creation, which at the same time was Bjørn Hansen’s own project. This meeting ended in dismay for Bjørn Hansen, for when Dr Schiøtz had left, Bjørn Hansen remained behind, totally isolated and with a picture of himself that really gave him a fright. At first he had been disappointed because his attempt at achieving contact with the doctor was rejected. Every invitation to a mutual understanding was refused. Dr Schiøtz was on a mild high and all he was interested in was the money. What Bjørn Hansen had understood as a formal confirmation of their pact – in the sense that Bjørn Hansen, by giving Dr Schiøtz the envelope, had fulfilled his obligations and Dr Schiøtz, by receiving it, confirmed that he, for his part, had taken on these obligations, so that the handing over of the money was to be seen as a symbolic act that bound them ever closer to each other – was lost on Dr Schiøtz; for him the money was the main thing, and the only reason why he happened to be there. This was obvious from his behaviour. Looking restlessly about him, his face lit up when he caught sight of the envelope, which Bjørn Hansen had laid on top of the sideboard, the sole item there. ‘Is that . . .?’ asked the doctor, and when Bjørn Hansen nodded he snatched the envelope. He put it in his inside pocket and looked at his watch. ‘Very sorry,’ he said, ‘but I have to go now. I have an important appointment.’ Bjørn Hansen looked at him – that was the moment when he felt dismayed.
For this didn’t make sense. It was just a game. It wasn’t about the money. From the very start there had always been something evasive about Dr Schiøtz in regard to his cut of the money. As a condition of joining in, he had then said that he must have half of the insurance. But soon afterwards he had rejected the idea of taking out a more lucrative insurance, because it was too risky. But was it? Bjørn Hansen didn’t think so; no great risk anyway. But regardless, Dr Schiøtz was not willing to take any risk so that he might be able to stuff, let’s say, a million kroner straight into his pocket. But for a paltry 80,000 he sets to work. And is extremely eager to get his hands on the money. Rings up three times to ask if it has arrived. And when it does arrive he comes at once. It didn’t add up, not at all. Was he trying to make Bjørn Hansen think he had done it for the money? For 80,000 kroner? What was 80,000 kroner to Dr Schiøtz? Nothing. True, he was a drug addict, but he got his drugs from the hospital, free of charge. He had plenty of money and, besides, he had in no way, in all the years Bjørn Hansen had known him, given the impression of being greedy or tight-fisted. So why was he now trying to make Bjørn Hansen believe that this was exactly what he was – that he would do practically anything for 80,000 kroner?
Dr Schiøtz was looking for a motive he could live with, that was the only explanation Bjørn Hansen could see. To live with, vis-à-vis himself and vis-à-vis Bjørn Hansen. But also, in the last resort, the crux of the matter, Bjørn Hansen presumed: to live with if he fell and was ruined, if, that is, the whole affair should somehow or other come to light. And there was only one way it could come to light now: either Bjørn Hansen or Dr Schiøtz ‘cracked’. If the doctor did, he would need a motive in order to explain his actions. Then he could say he had done it for the money, and Bjørn Hansen could confirm that, because he had noted Dr Schiøtz’s behaviour: the fact that he came as soon as Bjørn Hansen had obtained the money and that the money was the only thing he was thinking about. The doctor’s motive was greed, financial gain. And this, of course, society would swallow, because it was so despicable that nobody would think of admitting it unless forced to do so. Yet Dr Schiøtz found it absolutely necessary to cling to this despicable and untrue motive. If he were exposed he was finished, ruined, he knew that full well. Nevertheless he found it necessary, when he imagined himself struck off, ruined, unmasked, to be able to say that he had done it for money. And for that he now needed Bjørn Hansen. To confirm his alleged motive after an imagined exposure, something so important to him that he was willing to increase the risk of being exposed. For the chance that Bjørn Hansen might ‘crack’ was, of course, increased considerably now that, from Dr Schiøtz’s viewpoint, it must have dawned on him that Dr Schiøtz was not a fellow conspirator, someone he was morally obliged to protect, with the consequence that he must never ‘crack’, because then his co-conspirator would be ruined, but someone who went along purely for the money, even if he might have had a certain intellectual curiosity about the project, Bjørn Hansen supposed Dr Schiøtz thought that Bjørn Hansen was now thinking. But why was this so important to him? It could only mean that Dr Schiøtz did not want to have his real motives exposed to public scrutiny. He had done it for money. Not because he . . . Oh, what were Dr Schiøtz’s motives?!
Bjørn Hansen had no way of knowing. But he knew they were of such a nature that Dr Schiøtz could not acknowledge them even to himself. He could acknowledge, if necessary, that he had condemned Bjørn Hansen to a wheelchair because he was willing to do so, for money, but not for anything else. That was when the true horror of this act dawned on Bjørn Hansen. Who was Bjørn Hansen? Who sat (voluntarily) in a wheelchair? What was so terrible about Dr Schiøtz, his fellow conspirator, preferring to be judged as a despicable and greedy human being rather than have the spotlight thrown upon what was really at stake?
‘It’s only half the amount,’ Bjørn Hansen said, limply. ‘It’s 40,000, not 80,000. I won’t risk withdrawing more. Not for the time being. You’ll get the rest in six months.’ The doctor looked at him and nodded. ‘That’s all right,’ he said. He stood there shifting from one foot to another, eager to get going. Bjørn Hansen threw up his hands. ‘Let’s say six months from today. Same place, same time.’ Dr Schiøtz nodded. He said a brief goodbye, without any pretence at being the thoughtful doctor visiting his patient.
After Dr Schiøtz had left, Bjørn Hansen remained alone. He was afraid of his own fate. He was completely alone, but someone else’s creation. He was someone else’s creation, but that someone else did not dare to be confronted by his handiwork – not in the eyes of others, nor in his own. What had he done? What was so terrible about this that even Dr Schiøtz had to prepare an escape route from the accusation that he was a party to Bjørn Hansen’s project? What was so frightening about Bjørn Hansen sitting voluntarily in a wheelchair, and about Dr Schiøtz having been instrumental in putting him there? To the doctor himself? Was it his motivation, or was it the act itself? Was it his reason for doing it, or was it the horror of Bjørn Hansen sitting in a wheelchair of his own free will? The reason for his involvement must, after all, have been similar to Bjørn Hansen’s own, although there is a difference between being a party to someone else placing himself in such a situation and actually being that someone else, Bjørn Hansen thought. He no longer gave much consideration to his own motives. He could no longer remember why he had been so obsessed with this idea. He knew he had been obsessed, but could no longer explain why. He sat there trying to think back, to find the thread that made him actually go through with it. It certainly wasn’t the life of a wheelchair user that fascinated him. Nor was it the thought of sitting in a wheelchair pretending to be paralysed when he wasn’t and thereby fooling everyone. It was not the irresistible fascination of making a fool of society – his friends, acquaintances, even his own son – that had driven him to this. What was it, then? He did not know. But he had done it. And when he thought about having done it and remembered the insane attraction he had felt when the idea struck him, he could accept that, deep inside, he felt a profound satisfaction at having carried out this act, which was now a fait accompli, and this profound satisfaction corresponded perfectly to the fascination he had felt at the thought that it was possible to carry out such an act, like an echo, an inward confirmation, a continuity, like a river that had finally found its course and now flowed calmly, unseen, through his innermost self. He had no problem dismissing any conception or idea he might have, and would continue to have, which might present a rational or praiseworthy explanation for it, because there was no such explanation. Every time he had tried, he would dismiss it mercilessly after a while. To call this act an ‘exploit’ or a ‘revolt,’ or a ‘challenge’, appeared to him to be pompous and slightly ridiculous. And he was incapable of seeing anything wonderful in being able to fool people into believing that he was paralysed and had to sit in a wheelchair when in reality there was nothing wrong with him (apart from his stomach, which still throbbed, and his teeth, which also still throbbed); it was really just stupid, embarrassing even, especially considering that he was drawing on society’s resources and subjecting people in the public health service, who were on the whole warm-hearted, often idealistic human beings, to a practical joke that in the cold light of day gave him a shameful, almost sickening taste in his mouth. Nevertheless, there was something about his having carried out this act that filled him with a moist, dark peace. That he neither could nor would deny, and it did not cease or come to an end even if Dr Schiøtz’s horror at this very same act also horrified him, in addition to his having to accept that now it was all up to him, as he sat there in his mute loneliness, to endure the sight of this act, which had given him insight, in a wholly fundamental way, into what is hidden behind the concept ‘to be led straight into perdition,’ with open eyes.
Yes, the meeting with Dr Schiøtz had given him a jolt. He was truly alone with it now. In his flat. Day and night. But then the telephone rang. It was Herman Busk. Bjørn Hansen was glad. Perhaps Herman Busk picked this up, for he at once invited Bjørn over for Sunday dinner, which he accepted with thanks. He had not seen Herman Busk since the ‘accident’, having felt reluctant to do so, although Herman Busk had often hinted that they ought to be able to see each other again, rather than just talk on the telephone. But now he had said yes.
Herman Busk picked him up on Sunday. He came up to the flat, which they left together, took the lift to the ground floor and entered the street. Herman Busk pushed him along the streets and roads to his villa in one of Kongsberg’s old residential areas. It was a fine sunny autumn day; the leaves on the trees had acquired a smouldering glow. There was a slightly nippy air, which had an enlivening effect on Bjørn Hansen in his wheelchair as he was rolled along by his friend Herman Busk. Herman Busk also seemed in high spirits, glad anyway. He spoke in a light and lively manner as he pushed the wheelchair along. When they arrived at the dentist’s home, Herman Busk rolled him carefully up the gravel-covered driveway. He manoeuvred him up the stairs, carefully and by trial and error, and entered the hallway. Berit came to welcome him. Wearing an apron, she emerged through the door to the kitchen, from whence came a delicious fragrance of roast lamb.
Herman Busk wheeled Bjørn Hansen into the drawing room, where the two gentlemen partook of some refreshment before dinner. Meanwhile Bjørn could hear and see Berit bustling about, sometimes in the kitchen, sometimes in the dining room, where she was putting the finishing touches to the table. Finally she came out and announced that dinner was served. Herman Busk got up and pushed Bjørn Hansen into the dining room. There the table was set, the same way he had seen it a hundred times before, except that where his chair had been there was now an empty hole, into which Herman Busk wheeled him. White tablecloth. An attractive china dinner set, crystal glasses, silver cutlery, and a white damask napkin nicely folded at each place setting. Herman Busk sat down in his usual seat. Berit brought in the dishes. Roast lamb, white beans and roast potatoes. Juice from the lamb for sauce. Simple and flavoursome. Mrs Berit insisted, now as before, on roasting the lamb a little more than was customary nowadays, so it was well done, and not pink inside, and although Bjørn Hansen usually preferred it pink, there was nevertheless nothing that could compare to Berit’s roast lamb, that he knew from experience, and now he was really looking forward to the meal. Herman Busk poured red wine and the dishes were passed around. Sunday dinner at Kongsberg, in the home of Busk, the dentist.
Conversation came easy and was carefree, as it should be. Berit and Herman Busk were both radiant at having their old guest and friend back at the dinner table again. But in the middle of the meal Bjørn Hansen felt that he had to go to the lavatory. He grew annoyed with himself – he could have remembered to go at home before Herman Busk came to pick him up, but he had no doubt been too excited. Now he tried to hold himself back, but after a while he had to admit that it wouldn’t work. He was very sorry. ‘It causes so much commotion, and it’s no fun for you either,’ he said when Herman Busk got up and wheeled him out to the lavatory. There they confronted a fresh ordeal. The lavatory was too small to accommodate the wheelchair. As opposed to Bjørn Hansen’s flat, Herman Busk’s house was not adapted to wheelchair users (Bjørn Hansen lived in a modern block of flats from the mid-1980s where disabled access was part of the regulations. If I hadn’t lived in that flat I would probably never have come up with the idea that has led me to where I am now, Bjørn Hansen had often thought, half jokingly). Herman Busk was desperate. He looked at Bjørn Hansen in bewilderment.
‘I’ll manage,’ Bjørn Hansen said, ‘but I would like to be alone.’
Herman Busk opened the door to the lavatory, placed the wheelchair with Bjørn Hansen in it by the wall and quickly left. He returned to the dining room, while Bjørn Hansen quietly got out of the wheelchair. He walked, on tiptoe, into the lavatory. It was the first time he had done this, having all along been particular about following the rules of the game, even when he was all alone in his flat and had been faced by some pretty demanding tasks, from the point of view of a wheelchair user. But now he had got up and was pissing, standing bolt upright as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
The Busks were waiting in the dining room. Out here Bjørn Hansen stood bolt upright pissing. What if they knew! Suddenly Bjørn Hansen felt an intense desire that Herman Busk should inadvertently come into the hall and see him standing there pissing. It wouldn’t have been so improbable. Herman Busk must certainly have wondered whether Bjørn Hansen had managed to get to the lavatory on his own or whether he should perhaps help, in spite of everything. But it was impossible. Herman Busk would never have been so tactless. Bjørn Hansen had asked to be left alone and Herman Busk understood why. He did not want to be seen in a humiliating position, like, for example, crawling along the floor towards the lavatory and hoisting himself onto the toilet seat, then making his way back again in the same humiliating (because someone was watching) way. He could trust Herman Busk. He knew that he and Berit sat in the dining room, at the dinner table, paying close attention, listening, ready to come running if they heard a crash (as he fell) and understood that he needed help. But otherwise not. He was completely confident of not being found out as he stood there, bolt upright, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Nevertheless, he was not able to relinquish his intense desire to be seen. By his friend Herman Busk, who would suddenly turn up in the hall and see him stand there, exactly as he had been before the ‘accident’ had struck him down so senselessly. He was certain that Herman Busk would understand. Hssh, Bjørn would have whispered as he pressed his forefinger to his lips in front of a gaping Herman Busk, who could scarcely believe his eyes. But when Bjørn Hansen made the sign for hssh, Herman Busk would have pulled himself together, nodded, and made a sign in return, with his hands, to indicate that he was happily surprised. He would become an initiate – and what more could Bjørn Hansen wish for himself than to initiate his friend Herman Busk into this incomprehensible thing that he had imposed on himself? Perhaps they could initiate Berit, too, although this was something Bjørn Hansen was less certain of. But Herman Busk would understand him. Not why he had done it, but that he had done it, and because he had done it he would accept it and let himself be initiated into it. Bjørn Hansen was certain that Herman Busk would understand it and accept it. If he stood here long enough, Herman Busk would sooner or later come out, for if Bjørn did not return, he and Mrs Busk would exchange uneasy glances, and Herman would have to overcome his reluctance to go out there and possibly see his friend in a situation he did not want to be seen in and which, accordingly, Herman Busk did not want to see his friend in. But something must have happened now, since it was so quiet out there and Bjørn had not returned. If I stand here long enough, Bjørn Hansen thought, my friend will sooner or later come out and see me, and I will have an ally in my life. But he refrained from doing that. He finished his piss, shook his prick, walked (on tiptoe) into the hall and quietly got back into his wheelchair. It would not have been right to do it. What he did was not right either, but this was what his life had become. He could not change that, not for a beautiful (and maybe dubious) dream that his friend might become an ally. His fate was to live without anyone being initiated into the hair-raising fact that he sat in a wheelchair as if paralysed without being so. He wheeled the chair down the narrow hallway and into the dining room, where Herman Busk had opened the door wide in anticipation of his coming back. Their faces lit up when they saw their unfortunate friend, who had at long last chosen to return as a guest in their home.
© Salon Strindberg, um 1920, Museiverket
The Rector of Reigi (Translation of "Reigin pappi" from Finnish)
The Bronze Horseman (Translation of "Медный всадник" from Russian)
Happy New Year, Happy New Fear (Translation of "С новым годом! С новым горем!" from Russian)
Victory Park (Translation of "Приморский парк Победы" from Russian)
Seaside Sonnet (Translation of "Приморский сонет" from Russian)
The slandering West believed its own lies (Translation of "Запад клеветал и сам же верил..." from Russian)
© Annie Beedy
|Paull, Susannah Mary||
The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen, Denmark. © Denny Richter
The Little Mermaid (Translation of "Den lille havfrue" from Danish)
|Scudder, Bernard John||
The saga of Egil Skallagrimsson (Translation of "Egils saga Skallagrímssonar" from Icelandic)
The Ambassador (Translation of "Sendiherrann" from Icelandic)
Son of the Sun (Translation of "Päiven parne'" from Sámi)
Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (Translation from German)