Photo: Tom Salt
A novel by Stig Sæterbakken

Extract translated from the Norwegian (Siamesisk, 1997) by Frøydis Herrmann

Chapter One

The light had gone in the bathroom when I went in there this morning. Obviously he hadn't noticed anything. He was sitting in the pitch dark chewing gum as usual when I opened the door, the light from the hall falling diagonally across the room, cutting him in two - I could see the spine of the chair and the back of his head, nothing more - all the silver paper glittering as if precious, in an idle swirl around him.

"In here again?" he asked, I thought I ought to tell him about the light, but refrained, it would have been bothered him unnecessarily.
"Do you know what you just ruined?" he roared, I heard him shouting something about his concentration, but by then I was already on my way out to phone for the caretaker. I left the door open, I don't know why - or perhaps I do - it's because I can't get used to him not being able to see. I keep telling myself that it makes no difference, all the same I can't bring myself to do it, I feel it would be burying him alive if I turn off the light when I leave the room. I don't know, perhaps I'm superstitious, but I have the notion that he'll die if he sits in the dark for too long.

I dialled the caretaker's number which Edwin had once upon a time noted on a scrap of paper and pinned on the wall above the phone. The caretaker was new, the number the same. He answered after the very first tone, I was glad to hear his voice was so crisp and clean, I didn't need him to repeat anything of what he said. At first I didn't know what to say, I had phoned without giving it a thought, but in the end I somehow managed to stutter forth what was on my mind. He said he could come straight away, I said that that would be marvellous. But I regretted it as soon as I had put down the receiver, realising that I hadn't expected him to come so quickly, I had reckoned on time to tidy up a bit and make myself presentable before his arrival. But it was too late to think about that now, things were running their course, he would probably not be bothered about the state of things here, for him it was just another job, changing a light bulb in a bathroom wasn't such a big deal after all, quite likely done in a jiffy. That would be preferable, with regard to Edwin. It's as if I can't convince myself what is for the best, pretend he isn't there, or on the contrary, involve him all I can in what's going on, and then afterwards I'm ashamed that I posed such a question, that I made a problem out of it at all.

Is it too cold for him in there, in only his tracksuit?

He was younger than I had expected, much younger than I had expected, so much so that I got flustered when I opened and hesitated a touch before I let him in, it was the first time I had seen him close to. He had on a blue windbreaker and glasses. Some specks of paint, white, on the frames gave him a somewhat dishevelled look - that was my first impression of him - although the glasses were otherwise quite in order, and, for all I knew, very expensive. He said nothing, didn't even introduce himself - which disappointed me - I had looked forward to hearing his distinct, clear voice again. "It's in here," I said and showed him the way, I reckoned he wanted to get down to business without further ado. A hint of fragrance hung in the air, aftershave or deodorant, it smelt clean. I pushed open the door for him, he opened a yellow banana-shaped bag he was carrying, took out a torch, turned it on and shone it into the room without going in, it was as if he thought he was standing on the edge of a cliff. The ray of light fell upon Edwin who had turned away - he knew that someone had come - his neck resembled a dried up root. The caretaker looked at me, I didn't know what to say. I followed him in. He shone the light on the lamp in the ceiling, shell-shaped, full of small black shadows. Then Edwin let out a belch, the caretaker jumped, dropping the torch, it fell to the floor with a bang throwing a heavy blanket of darkness over us, I had shut the door behind us without thinking. Edwin belched again - this time even I jumped - a smell expired from him. Then the light came back, right in Edwin's face, but he didn't even blink, his eyes looked as if they were made of plastic. The caretaker found somewhere to put down the torch, he fixed it at an angle so that he got as much light as possible up on the ceiling. I told him I would leave the rest to him, I realised I would only be disturbing him if I stayed in there, I said there was a stool out in the hall that he could use if he needed something to stand on. I left the door open, I thought it best, seeing the youngster was there for the very first time, I don't know what I would have felt if I had been him.

I hurried out to the kitchen and put on the coffee, strong as I assumed he would like it, fetched the fruit loaf from the breadbin, cut some pieces and laid them out on the little blue dish with a stem. I took the dish out to the living room, laid the coffee table with the cups left over from Edwin's mother, I had to polish them over with my apron first. I smoothed out the tablecloth and lit the candles, the wax lay thick round their wicks, it was only at a pinch that I got them lit without burning my fingers. I peeped out, the caretaker had fetched the stool from the hall, he was standing on it, his arms in the air, either screwing down the old or attaching the new, his shadow on the wall oozing out then contracting, making him look as if he was hovering in mortal danger. I thought I heard voices - were they talking together? - Edwin had been silent all the time I was in there, just as I had expected, I found it hard to believe that he had struck up a conversation with the young man. Most likely he wanted to be left alone again as soon as possible. I went out to the kitchen and fetched the coffee - I listened, but heard nothing - put the pot on the mat on the table and went out to the bathroom. The caretaker was just getting down from the stool and went over to the switch by the door. A few flickers, and then everything was back to normal again, I clapped my hands to show him that I thought he had done a splendid job. I went over to Edwin - he was sitting as before, his face turned away, neck twisted - and patted him on the shoulder, the smooth material like silk to the hand. "There you are, my boy," I said, "now you have light in your room again." The caretaker had put his things back in his bag, he was standing with it in his hand, looking a bit at a loss what to do next, so it seemed. "A job well done," I told him. "A job truly well done." And that's what it was, it was as if everything in there was brighter, the taps were shining like candelabras. "So young and so skilful," I said, partly to myself, but mostly so that he would hear, I shook my head to emphasise how impressed I was.

He made signs of leaving. "By the way," I said, "there's something I was meaning to ask you to look at... Seeing I have you here anyway," I added, I wanted it to appear as convenient as possible for him. I led the way to the kitchen, sure that he would follow, he seemed like a conscientious man. I asked him to open the fridge door, which he did, it was pitch dark in there, he realised at once what was the matter, I didn't have to explain a thing. He opened the bag again - it looked like it housed all a man could possibly need - and mumbled something I didn't quite catch - was it just on the phone he talked so clearly and distinctly? - and in the bat of an eyelid he had changed the little bulb. He pressed the button beside it a few times to demonstrate that everything was now in working order. Before he shut the door he poked his hand into the freezer - was it to test the temperature? - I don't know, most probably, because he adjusted the thermostat a touch afterwards.

"Goodness," I said. I like it when people do a bit more than strictly necessary. He smiled, bothered? "Time for a cup of coffee before you go?" I asked, and he didn't seem surprised, he had probably noticed the table was laid on his way in.

I poured the coffee and passed him the dish. He ate with an appetite - it struck me that the slices were unnecessarily thin - a piece of fruit loaf could otherwise be quite a meal - he downed the coffee in two gulps, which wasn't saying a great deal, they don't hold much, those white cups. He didn't say a thing, he hadn't said anything since we sat down at the table, he had been eating and drinking, fair enough, but now he had declined the offer of some more cake, now he was simply sitting there, and that puzzled me. If I didn't know better I would have thought he was waiting to be paid for what he had done. But maybe it was typical caretaker behaviour. I wanted to ask him something to detain him a while, I knew he dabbled with painting alongside his caretaking duties, he had a room in the basement he had equipped for himself. According to Finborud who lives above him it smells of turpentine throughout the flat when he is down there painting, besides, people are talking, saying he has taken liberties, that a flat, free of charge plus telephone is sufficient. All the same, he was a nice boy, people appeared to be satisfied with him, even though he had been here but a short time, agreeable when approached about something, nearly always at home when phoned, so I heard, but then again he had an air about him - I don't know why - of being a lonely person. Last summer he had on a brightly coloured cap and mowed the lawn with a motorised lawnmower driving it like a car, it was obvious he thought it was fun, he was very thorough and he took his time.

"So you're a painter as well, beside all of this," I said. He nodded, slightly disheartened I thought - because he didn't get enough time alongside all his duties - or was it because he was dissatisfied with his efforts so far? I don't know. I felt I had to say something more, once I had begun. "I suppose it must be a different kettle of fish painting pictures and not stairways?" I tried to make it sound like a question, an invitation, to get him to answer, open up a bit, it's difficult to take an interest in something one knows hardly anything about. But he merely grinned, wasn't there a hint of contempt present too? I became uncertain, I couldn't keep my eyes off him, I was sitting waiting for him to say something, but it didn't look as if he was going to reply. I wondered how old he might be, there was something both grown-up and very young about him, as though he knew what he needed to know, but nothing more.

"I suppose it takes a lot of time," I said, I couldn't think of anything better, he looked up at me then, sort of inquisitively, but I didn't hear what he said - if he said anything, I wasn't quite sure - could he be talking so softly on purpose? "What?" I said, in a way that could be interpreted in any fashion. "The caretaker job, that is," I added, it was as though he demanded it, an explanation. Later I thought it was that that had seemed so youthful, him sitting there, sort of defiant, even though we didn't know one another, waiting for something of interest to be said, before he bothered to answer. He put the cup down, brought out a packet of cigarettes and lit one, without asking, making himself comfy, but I didn't object, on the contrary, there was something refreshing about the unfamiliar smell that had suddenly filled the whole living-room. He peered at the glow of each puff he took, it was as if he could carry on like that for hours. His jacket, the way he was sitting, hunched over, appeared too big for him, the dark brown buttons resembled snail shells, small silent conquerors of the shiny blue.

Then he said, and his voice was just as clear and distinct as it had been on the phone: "I'm going to paint a dog for Mrs Gustafsen." Really, I said, for some or other reason I envisaged straight away how the picture would be. "She's given me a photograph to paint from." I considered asking him if it was difficult to get a resemblance, but I wasn't sure if that was the right thing to say. I was of a mind that whatever I said, it would be an insult. "She told me the pay would be good," he said, and shrugged his shoulders, as though it was of no consequence - the money maybe, but not the picture - perhaps he reckoned it was beneath his dignity, at the same time it was obvious he was proud about being asked. I supposed since he had mentioned it, that he didn't get such commissions often, even though he tried to make it sound as if it was something he was well accustomed to. Then he put the cigarette out in the cup, it was my fault, I hadn't thought to provide anything like that. We sat a while, saying nothing. Then there came a scream, terror-ridden, from the bathroom, the boy started, but tried to make as though nothing had happened. It was quiet, then another scream - it sounded as if someone was pulling his tongue out - the boy looked up, our eyes barely meeting, and I saw despair in them, a deep despair, of that I am sure, making him feel helpless, so helpless that he couldn't conceal it.

What was it about his despair that made me so elated? Because that's what I was - elated - there's no other word for it - a joy, a sudden quivering joy, filled me, pressing tears to my eyes. I looked at him, I sensed, with gratitude - I didn't know what to say - he probably wanted to get up and go, but it seemed as if he didn't think he could, as if something was holding him back. In the end he said: "How can he bear it, just sitting in there?" He looked away, as if the question wasn't directed at me at all. I smiled, I had been expecting him to say something like that, I said - my lips were trembling - that he was an old man and that it's different for an old man than for someone young like himself. He nodded, a wrinkle had settled between his brows - I noticed he had scars from the chickenpox, had that happened recently? - but it appeared as though the young man was, if not directly interested, then at least curious, in a strange, slightly reluctant way.

"He isn't always that easy," I said, a bit unsure as to how much I should say. The caretaker didn't answer - but I hadn't expected him to either - it wasn't so much what he said, if he said anything at all, that was important, it was just that he wouldn't object if I confided in him.
"No," I said, "it isn't always plain sailing." But I didn't say anything more. I felt that if I started I wouldn't be able to stop, and there was no knowing what might escape me, I knew that I would sooner or later regret most of what I said, so it was probably best to keep tight...I don't know...

A voice could be heard from the bathroom.
"Erna? Eeernaaa?"
Sorrowful, not shrill, like before, not louder than I could easily have missed had I been standing in the kitchen carrying on with something. I chose not to hear. But I was surprised that he called. Did he think the young man had gone?

The caretaker - for a moment I had forgotten all about him - sat nodding his head, I couldn't help feeling that he wasn't really listening, that his friendly attention was nothing more than mere politeness? I asked if he wanted some more coffee, but perhaps I shouldn't have, because he declined and said that he ought to get going, there were other things demanding his attention, as he put it. He got up. "Well, thanks again," I said. "I suppose there's something all the time," I added, to show him that I didn't take it as just an excuse on his part. I followed him out. He hesitated slightly as we passed the bathroom - it was as if he couldn't bring himself to leave without saying something more, perhaps he was searching for a remark that sounded natural - or was he pondering whether he should poke his head in and say goodbye? - Whether it was rude of him not to? - But the door was shut, he carried on, slowly, as if he didn't quite know where he was going.

"By the way," I said, unsure how best to make my next move.
He stopped.
"Did you talk to him whilst you were in there?"
I realised that I had to choose my words with care.
"I mean, did he say anything to you?"
The caretaker just stood there, with the same slightly distracted look on his face.
"With me it's all the same old stuff," I said, "so I wondered whether he had said anything to yo

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