Alfred and Nora – a short story by Tania Kjeldset, translated by Don Bartlett

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Fair Is Creation

Alfred used to call her the Young Lass. Rarely Petra, which was her name, their only grandchild. Nora leaned over the railing and gazed across the treetops. All the subtle hues. From lemon-yellow to dark green tones. She wasn’t able to enjoy the sight as she once had. It was the words Young Lass. He hadn’t said them when they picked up Petra in the car. He didn’t this morning either when she brought coffee to them in bed.

Nora ran her hand along the railing; it had splintered in several places. A woodpecker probably. It pecked at everything. Between the wild spirea bushes she could make out Alfred’s red jumper. He was holding his arms aloft as though wading through deep water. Pushing forward down to the river in the strange way he did. He used to hack down the undergrowth when they opened the cabin in spring. Standing in the jungle, swinging a scythe with his long arms. Afterwards he would come up to her, steam rising from his skin, sweat running down his neck. But that is a long time ago now.

A gust of wind swept across the cherry tree, sending a storm of white flowers after him. Alfred moved to the side. He hadn’t touched the scythe for three years. He forgot to empty the bird boxes. Didn’t notice the poor state of the timber on the southern side. Didn’t notice her either. But he would always go to the river. He didn’t forget that. Not the river and not the spruce tree.

‘Be careful!’ she shouted. He raised an arm and waved to show he had received the message. But he didn’t look up at the cabin, where she was. The newspaper lay on the chair. He had been doing the crossword. He had managed a couple of clues. Then gave up and put it down. She watched him until she could no longer see his red jumper.

‘Is Grandad going down to the river again?’ Petra was standing in the doorway. She had found a dress she used to wear and held it to her face. Nora could feel the sadness. It was a long time since Petra had been a little girl running around in a blue-checked summer dress.

‘Yes, he likes going there, you know,’ Nora said, taking the dress from her. She examined it to see if there was a seam she could take out or a hem. There wasn’t and she knew there wouldn’t be.

‘Summer dresses shouldn’t be tight,’ Nora said, passing her the dress. ‘They should be as light and airy as cumulus clouds in the sky. And they should give off a fragrance. Of pressed cotton.’ She winked at Petra. ‘That’s how it was when I was young.’

‘Right. I was just tidying the drawer.’ Petra pushed the dress into her hands as though it were something she didn’t want to acknowledge, something that smelled. She had pulled a striped top over her head and her long legs stretched out from a pair of ultra-short shorts. Just having her around was a gift. Even the decaying cabin took on a conciliatory glow when Petra gave vent to her joy at seeing anything that Alfred had made for her. She inspected the doll’s house with fond sighs and lifted pieces of furniture he had made. Sat on the swing with her phone, sending messages into the world. Slept in the hammock, with music in her ears. She wore the white wire around her neck like jewellery.

‘What are you listening to now?’ Nora asked. It was so strange the little earbuds didn’t fall out, she thought.

‘Music for the Christmas concert. There’s sooo much to learn.’

‘Bit odd to be practising carols in May,’ Nora said.


‘Well, bit tricky … to get into the Christmas mood …?’

‘It’s obvious you aren’t in a choir,’ Petra said. ‘I’m not thinking about that now. I’m just training my voice and learning the lines. Thinking about other things.’

‘Such as what?’

Petra had no answer to that. Or she didn’t want to answer. Her arch grin suggested the latter.

‘I’m going down to see Grandad,’ she said.

‘That’s kind of you.’

Petra reacted with surprise.

‘I’m not doing it to be kind, Grandma.’

It came as a sort of question. Or a mild reproof. She stood fingering one wire. Petra had such a sensitive mouth.

‘He’s stopped calling me young lass,’ she said.

Nora just nodded. All of a sudden her throat was thick.

‘Actually, I’m too big,’ Petra added.

‘Yes, that’s probably why,’ Nora said quickly.

She took the dress with her into the bedroom and laid it in the suitcase. She would wash and iron it. Pack it in a box. As she did with the clothes she had a special fondness for. She hoped some of the wearer’s fragrance would remain as a soothing memory. If she kept ironing them. Life was full of self-deception, she thought. Nothing lasts. But opening this box gave her a sense that she was holding onto something permanent nevertheless.

Alfred followed the noise. The roar of the waterfall. As the water seethed and boiled. He stood in the middle of the bridge and stared down blindly at the masses of foaming water. The racket transplanted itself into his body; his throat smarted. His eyes filled with tears. All the things he had built with his own hands. The doll’s house. The annexe. The new gate. He tried to summon up one single detail. A door handle. A colour. But he couldn’t visualise anything.

And he hadn’t recognised the cabin.

The bench was missing a board, but you could still sit by the river. And the Spruce was here, fortunately. Most of its branches pointed downwards. It still towered defiantly in the air though. Ailing, it stood beside small, anonymous trees whose names he couldn’t remember. Once he had kissed Nora beneath this tree.

‘The Spruce’s here,’ Alfred said.

He said it several times. His voice was hoarse and slightly unfamiliar.

‘And over there’s an oak.’

He spoke a little louder now. No one could hear him down here. The words wove elegantly into the roar of the river. A large bird landed on a rock. It was black and white. Beautiful actually. He saw it every day from his window. An unpopular creature. Noisy.

‘And I suppose it’s a crow,’ he said.

But the word didn’t feel right. It almost did, but not quite. It was a maybe. That was how it was now. Words disappeared like morning dew in the sun. Out of habit he put a hand in his pocket to take out his bird-watching binoculars. They weren’t there. Never mind, Alfred thought. A bird is a bird. They fly away. But the Spruce is here. It isn’t going anywhere. It doesn’t ask any questions either. He closed his eyes. The river flowed into his auditory canals, splashing and gurgling. He pictured the forest full of old men. They were walking towards the river bank, in a silent procession. He wondered where they came from. But when he turned, it was his grandchild watching him. She had white wires hanging from her ears and asked softly if he had been asleep.

Petra took the thingummies from her ears and asked if he wanted to listen. It was a song he had taught her, she said. She had such long hair now. Almost down to her stomach.

‘Have I taught you songs?’

Petra laughed. ‘Sooo many,’ she said, bending over him. Her hair tickled. She put something in his ears, they were the earbuds. Now he was supposed to close his eyes too. But what he most wanted to see was her. And there was so much he had to take in before he forgot again. Her warm eyes. The birthmark on her neck. Her hands, bedecked with so many strange rings. Petra placed her hand over his eyes and closed them.

‘That’s it,’ she said. ‘Now I’ll put on the sound, Grandad.’

The voice came to him like a caress. The sad melody. Everything was so familiar. He was standing by his brother and singing. They were wearing white shirts. Through the church windows he could see it had started to snow. The words were just there. They came of their own accord. Alfred gazed across the river and sang: I know of a heavenly stronghold, shining as bright as the sun; there are neither sin nor sorrow, and never a tear is shed.

Petra sat down beside him and took out the earbuds. ‘You know all the words, Grandad,’ she said. He told her he and his brother used to sing at funerals. Often it was the hymns that opened the floodgates. But he could never look at the mourners’ faces. He hunted for something else. A candle, a window. In the old Varhaug church they could look out onto the sea. And then he had to think hard of something completely different. Because you couldn’t sing if you were on the verge of tears.

‘But you know that, don’t you,’ he said.

‘What did you think about then?’ Petra asked.

‘Often it was girls,’ Alfred said.

Petra laughed. She put her hand in her pocket and took out a bag of some black things. They looked like small boats.

‘These are your favourites,’ she said. ‘Liquorice boats.’

Alfred shook his head. He didn’t even know what liquorice was. She coaxed one into his mouth. It was hard. It didn’t taste like chocolate.

‘What else do you remember,’ he asked. ‘About me?’

Petra gave this some thought. She took another boat.

‘You used to call me young lass.’

‘Did I?’

Petra nodded. ‘But it doesn’t matter, Grandad,’ she said quickly.

She stood up. Almost before she had arrived she was on her way. He looked at her.

‘I’m losing words, Petra. Everything I’ve learned. Memories. They burst like soap bubbles in the air. But I will ...’

Petra reached out a pale arm and held his chin. ‘I know, Grandad,’ she said. ‘Don’t give it a thought.’


Ages Are Coming

Alfred lifted Petra’s duvet to his face. The aroma of her last visit still lingered in the room. Sun cream perhaps? Or perfume? There were little traces of her everywhere. A blue elastic band on a peg with some long hairs attached. The basket she used for her swimming things. On the dresser were the white earbuds. Perhaps she had more of them. He put them in his ears. Total silence. They just fell out again.

Nora was banging the cupboard doors in the sitting room. She was obviously annoyed about something. She kept giving him jobs to do all the time. She was flying around checking all the windows. At this moment she was emptying the fridge. Or was she washing up? Should he do that? What was he doing in Petra’s room?

On the dresser was one of their old photo albums. Nora had spent the summer looking at pictures. Alfred sat down on the bed and opened it. They were photographs of their first time here. Nora was sitting in a deck chair reading. Alfred leaned over the photo. The colours were faded. She was wearing the blue blouse, the one he recognised. She had her hair tied up with a light-coloured scarf. The door banged open and there she was, the same Nora, but not as cheery as in the photo.

‘Why don’t you answer me when I call you?’

‘Did you call me?’

‘Did I call you?’ Nora rolled her eyes heavenwards.

‘I’d prefer not to drive home in the dark. You forgot to check the window catches, didn’t you.’

Window catches? What were they again? Alfred immersed himself in Nora’s young face instead. She had only two blouses. He knew they dried within an hour in good weather. He also knew the material of one of them was feather-light, verging on transparent, while the other one was stiffer, harder to iron. If Nora wanted to wear that one, she always arrived a little late at wherever they had arranged to meet. And when they were able to hug each other, finally, there was still the smell of the hot iron in the material, one he was always to associate with solemnity later.

‘The pillow cover is still on,’ Nora shouted. ‘And the duvet cover. You were supposed to change the bed linen!’

He turned. There was a little hollow in the pillow from Petra’s head. As though she had just been lying there.

‘Like this.’ Nora stretched over him. In one angry flourish she grabbed the pillow and removed the cover. ‘You never talk to me any more,’ she said.

He looked at her. There were fine, grey stripes in her short hair. Her eyes were heavy. She didn’t look happy. And that was perhaps his fault. He extended a hand towards her.

‘I feel so alone, Alfred.’

‘Sit down for a while then, Nora,’ he said.

Alfred stroked Nora’s back. In fact, it had been a long time, he realised. This back that he knew so well. He showed her the photo. Told her he had often stood in the gateway staring at the garden. At the clothes line. Nora looked at him.

‘I didn’t know that. Why?’

‘I stared at your blouses. You had just the two. One short-sleeved; one sleeveless.’

She leaned against him and yawned.

‘You might be right at that. We didn’t have a lot of money.’

‘The short-sleeved one was light blue,’ Alfred said.

‘And the sleeveless one?’

‘It didn’t really have a colour.’

‘That was the blouse you preferred,’ Nora said with a chuckle.

‘I’m afraid so, yes,’ Alfred said.


Angels Proclaimed It

‘You’ll catch yourself a chill,’ Nora said, laying her winter coat over his lap.

The church was well heated, but Alfred kept his coat on. He was thinner. He forgot to eat. She had to keep reminding him. They squeezed up on the hard wooden pews to make room for others. The buzz of voices was making her quite dizzy. Anticipation hung in the air. No one left the Christmas concert unmoved. You could see that in people’s faces as they streamed out of the church. They spoke in softer tones, walked closer together, than when they arrived. Alfred was fiddling with a plaster on his finger. He held it up to her, like a question mark. She pulled the plaster off and removed the cotton wool. No reason to go back over the doctor’s appointment now. It would only confuse him. She passed him the programme. There was a picture of the choir on the front.

‘See if you can find Petra,’ she said.

‘You mean the Young Lass, don’t you?’ Alfred said.

‘Yes,’ Nora said, somewhat taken aback.

Alfred leaned over the programme. His finger shook. He smiled when he located her face.

‘Where is she now?’

‘Standing by the door,’ Nora said. ‘That’s where the choir comes in.’

‘The choir, yes.’

Alfred squeezed her hand. ‘It’ll be fine, Nora,’ he said.

‘Give him time and space when he wants to say something,’ the doctor had said.

The lights went down. The congregation switched off their mobiles. Everyone waited for the conductor. Soon she would lead the choir through challenging waters. Every detail had to be right and their singing had to resound through the church and, not least, the hearts of all those attending. No small task, Nora thought, but this wasn’t unfamiliar waters for any of the singers. And there lay the difference. The audience didn’t have to sit in fear that someone might make a mistake or that the concert would come to grief. On the contrary, you could open your soul to the well-loved melodies. Maybe find yourself elevated. But she had forgotten the pastilles. She put her hand in Alfred’s coat pocket. No tin of pastilles. But there was a big piece of cardboard in there. Alfred had noted something down. YUNG LASS, it said.

The conductor stood facing the auditorium. She smiled, but it was the choir she caught with her gaze. Then she tapped the tuning fork on her head and gave them the tone. The start is everything, Petra had explained to her. Beforehand, there is nothing to bind the audience with the choir. But as the first note resonates in the church everyone is a part of the music. Nora put the piece of cardboard back in his pocket and said nothing. The choir opened with Silent Night. A muted, calm rendering. The altos shaped the notes so carefully that the sound rippled towards her like velvet. And the sopranos responded, taking the melody further, until it was picked up by another group of voices. Slowly they made their way up the central aisle.

‘There’s Petra.’

Entranced, Alfred watched Petra until she took her place with the others by the pulpit. Christmas concerts released something within him. He had this ability to become totally absorbed in music. To forget everything else. This must have been the link between the choir and the audience Petra had been talking about with such passion. But at this moment she was staring down the row of pews. Who was she smiling at? Nora leaned forward to see. Perhaps someone from her class was sitting there, a tall boy in a Marius sweater, dark curly hair, was that him?

Do things you enjoy, the doctor had said. Focus on whatever he can manage.

They had been sitting apart in the doctor’s surgery. A light, spacious room looking out on a car park. The doctor wanted to know when Alfred had been born.

‘Must be on there,’ Alfred had said, pointing to the screen.

‘But now I’m asking you,’ the doctor said in a friendly voice.

Seconds passed. The doctor waited. Alfred twiddled his fingers.

‘After the war,’ he said.

‘Which year?’

‘1946, I think.’

‘That’s correct,’ the doctor said. ‘Can you tell me how old you are?’

‘No,’ Alfred answered.

Nora squeezed Alfred’s hand. There wasn’t supposed to be clapping between songs. He had already forgotten a few times. Most of the time the choir held a note; it underpinned and connected the songs like a quivering string.

Songs are among the last things we forget, the doctor said.

He gave Alfred a piece of paper. ‘Can you read this to me?’

Alfred did. ‘Dove – Gun – Pepper.’ The doctor wanted him to repeat the words a little later. After they had chatted for a bit. Alfred nodded.

‘What words?’ he asked.

The conductor turned to the congregation again. The choir was regrouping. The girls stood in the side-aisles and ringed the auditorium. They were holding candles. Alfred watched closely. He had let his beard grow this autumn. It was white and a little lifeless, but formed a fine wreath around his chin. When the conductor raised her hand and the choir came in, he sat up straight. The limpid voices spilled through the church interior. Bright and sparkling. Petra had practised this hymn a lot during the summer. In the hammock under the chestnut tree. In the car on the way to the ferry. There were so many verses, she said. I know of a heavenly stronghold. Shining as bright as the sun. The flame from the tallow candle illuminated Petra’s face. She stood so erect and alive. There was so much future in her. Nora’s throat constricted. The song was about something quite different.There are neither sin nor sorrow. And never a tear is shed. About having peace, she thought, and glanced up at Alfred.

About being received. Did they think about that? The young singers. About what they were communicating? It was impossible to know. They probably did, but their thoughts most likely flew hither and thither, as indeed hers did. Not to mention Petra’s. Nora stared up at the ceiling with the enormous sun. Light was pouring in there too. Then she heard a grating noise. A noise that didn’t fit. It came from Alfred. He was humming. Nora nudged him.

‘It isn’t a sing-along now,’ she whispered. ‘That’s at the end.’

Alfred didn’t hear. Instead he went for it. Started to sing. He remembered the lyrics. He joined in with the girls’ crystalline voices. Muddying the tonescape. An old baritone, untrained. People had started to stir. Some hushed him. Alfred continued regardless: I am a weary traveller; May my path lead me. From here to the land of my father; God, protect me on my way. The choir sang. The conductor conducted. Her face was calm and concentrated. Then she turned to Alfred and smiled. She extended an arm, raised a hand and included him in the choir with a lofty gesture: ‘Sing louder! So that we can hear.’

Alfred’s voice trembled, a dark tone. It was far from perfect. But it was in tune. Nora tried to understand what had happened. Compassion, she thought. Charity? But can you deny an old man if he wants to sing? Does everything have to be perfect? She had been given a glimpse of Alfred as she remembered him. Confident and assured. He had forgotten the visit to the doctor. But she wouldn’t.

‘Where’s your heart, Alfred?’ the doctor asked. ‘Can you point it out to me?’

Alfred could. He didn’t need any time to reflect.

‘There,’ he said, pointing to Nora.

Lytt til musikken: stille grender fremført av Det Norske Jentekor, Tord Gustavsen & Anne Karin Sundal-Ask utgitt av 2L