Excerpt from The Last Boat Home by Dea Brovig (Hutchinson - March 2014)
There would be pain, she knew.
Else looked for her mother at the window, but saw only the dark shape of the barn across the yard. The wind chased the snow, blowing flurries over the prints she had left behind. She would be back soon. Once she had walked the stretch to Tenvik’s farm and used his telephone, he would drive her home and they would wait together for the hospital car.
Else rested her temple against the cold glass and imagined how it would happen. A tearing of the guts, a hatching, a birth. Even now, it did not seem real. She knew girls who, at that moment, were sitting in their classrooms counting the minutes until break, while she tallied the seconds between her last contraction and the next. When it began she gripped the edge of the dining table, taking deep breaths until it passed. She resumed her pacing between the window and the oven, moving in and out of its radius of heat. Wood smoke coiled under the ceiling. The room smelled of bonfires and she remembered the flames against the water on Midsummer’s Eve. She wiped the sweat from her neck with hands that shook. She pressed them to her belly as if to soothe what was inside.
She would not think about the baby. She would focus instead on the certainty of pain, sharpening her fear to a single point to avoid the broader terror of what would follow.
Nothing had changed in the yard when Else next stopped at the window, but she lingered there and searched the pale landscape. The barn’s roof was heavy with snow, but it was still standing. She closed her eyes and conjured up the gentle scrape of Valentin’s saw, pretending for as long as she could manage that she was the girl of a year ago, who caught the ferry after school and arrived home to interrupt his labour with a dinner tray. She wondered where he was and pictured him sipping from a mug of coffee in his caravan, wrapped in a blanket, just as he had been on that last morning. The thought of the strong man fortified her and Else stirred and continued her journey across the floorboards. A new contraction folded her over the table. She clutched its edge and held on.
The night mists have burned away by the time Else arrives at the harbour. In spite of the sun, the morning is fresh and she tugs her shawl tighter around her shoulders against the chill. She crosses the square where migrant workers have set up their stalls for the weekend market and stops by a trawler docked at the foot of the Longpier.
The fisherman greets her with a nod and she calls to him above the shrieking seagulls perched on his net.
‘Any shrimp today?’
‘Still no luck,’ he says. ‘They’re predicting a bad summer for shrimp. I’ve got crayfish or crab.’
‘Three crabs, then,’ Else says. He selects the shellfish from a crate and, while he packs them in paper, she studies the fjord washing away from the pier, catching the sunlight as it goes, glinting silver, green and black like the scales on a mackerel’s back and belly.
Else pays for the crabs and drops her bundle into the canvas bag she has brought with her before turning again to the square.
She lets her eyes skim the faces of the market’s few customers, hoping for a glimpse of Marianne, though she doubts her daughter would surface here at this hour. Havneveien is deserted but for a pair of joggers, who advance at a brisk pace from the town hall. With a sigh, Else retraces her steps to Torggata and climbs the hill towards home.
She has come as far as the kiosk where Liv chooses her Saturday pick-and-mix when a voice startles her.
‘Else Dybdahl,’ it says. ‘Is it you?’
A man stands in her path. He grins and a sour taste spreads over her tongue.
‘Lars,’ she says. ‘Are you back? I hadn’t heard.’
‘Then things must have changed here more than I’d realised,’ he says.
‘Have you come for the summer?’
‘You really haven’t heard?’ asks Lars. ‘I took over my parents’ place in March. Our plan was to wait for the kids to finish school before we moved down, but we got ahead of ourselves and came last week. A few extra days of sea air can only do them good. And I have some things to take care of at the shipyard.’
Else raises her eyebrows to show surprise, though he has not told her anything she didn’t know. While he speaks, she is tempted to peek past him at her reflection in the kiosk window. She stares the impulse down, knocks it flat and sets her mouth in a line that she hopes will convey impatience.
‘And how are you?’ he asks. ‘How is Marianne?’
‘We’re fine,’ Else says.
‘I hear she has a little girl now herself.’
‘Now and for the past eleven years.’
‘Eleven years!’ Lars whistles. ‘She’ll be in school with my eldest. Her name is Liv, isn’t that right? How does it feel to be a grandma?’
‘Just fine,’ Else says.
‘And what of the old gang? Rune lives in Oslo, I know. Do you have any news of Petter?’
‘I bump into him now and then,’ Else says and inspects her watch.
‘Well,’ says Lars. ‘We’ll be seeing each other, no doubt.’
‘No doubt,’ she says.
‘You look good, Else. Not how I remember my grandmother looking at all.’
Else’s shoulders are tense when she resumes her climb, chewing her cheeks and keeping her eyes on the tarmac at her feet. She takes the corner at Krogveien and tightens her hand around the key in her pocket, pressing its grooves with her thumb. With each swing of her legs, the shawl that hangs loose over her arms flaps at her sides, tacking wings to her shadow. Her canvas bag knocks her thigh as she hurries to Vestheiveien, where the spruce trees between the houses smell of Christmas.