Scenes from a Childhood

Jon Fosse

Artwork by Lee Wan Xiang

IT’S MAYBE FOUR O’CLOCK

It’s maybe four o’clock when Trygve and I go out to the old barn. My grandfather built this barn but now it’s falling apart, the unpainted planks in the walls are rotting away, there are holes in the wall you can see through in some places and a couple of roof tiles lying in the nettles, three more sticking out of a puddle of mud. A rusty hook is hanging from the door-frame. The door is hanging from the door-frame too, attached with hay-baling cord, swinging crookedly. A warm summer day, afternoon. Trygve and I sit on a large round stone a few yards from the barn. There are plastic bags under our legs with our lunches inside, slices of bread with brown cheese, we each have a soft drink. It’s hot. We’re both sweating. Mosquitoes are buzzing round our heads.

 

I JUST CAN’T GET THE GUITAR TUNED

I just can’t get the guitar tuned and the dance is about to start. There’s already a big crowd in the room, most of them people involved with the event and their friends and girlfriends, but still a lot of people, when I look up from the shelter of the long hair hanging down over my eyes I see them moving around the room. I’m bent over my guitar, turning and turning a tuning knob, I turn it all the way down and the string almost dangles off the fretboard, all forlorn, and then I strum on it while I turn the knob up, up, I hear the tone slide higher, I strum on two strings, now is this right? no, it always sounds a little off, doesn’t it, and I turn it more, I turn and turn, up and down, I turn it and turn it and the drummer is pounding for all he’s worth and hitting the cymbals and the bassist is thumping too and the other guy on guitar is standing there strumming chord after chord and I just can’t get this damn guitar in tune. I turn the knob more, and the string breaks. I push my hair back and shout that the string broke. The others just keep the noise going. I unplug the guitar and go backstage, I have spare strings in my guitar case. I find a new third string. I change the string, turn the knob until the string is on. I walk back onstage. I plug the guitar in again and start tuning it. I can’t hear anything. I shout for the others to stop playing. They stop. I try to tune the guitar. I can’t do it. I ask the other guitarist to give me the note, he plays a G on his third string. I turn the knob.

Little more, he says.

I turn it a little more. I look at the other guitarist and he shakes his head a little. I turn it a little more, strum the string. He looks up, stops, listens.

Little higher, he says.

I turn it a little higher and strum.

Little more, he says.

And now it starts to sound right.

Almost there, he says. Maybe a little more. I turn it a little higher and strum.

Little lower, he says.

I turn it down slightly and strum.

Damn it, he says. Take it all the way down, we’ll try it again, he says.

I turn the knob all the way down. He plays the open third string on his guitar. I start to turn the knob up. I hear it getting closer. It’s getting closer. I see the other guitarist nod. I turn it a little more. And now it sounds right, almost perfect.

Almost, the other guitarist says.

I turn it a little more and now it’s off, I turn it more and I hear it getting closer again. A little more.

Careful now, the other guitarist says.

I turn it a little bit more. And I hear the string break. Fuck, I say.

Go get another one, the other guitarist says.

I go backstage again and go to the guitar case to get another string. But I don’t have any more third strings. I shout and say I don’t have any more third strings, I say I need to borrow one, and the other guitarist goes to his guitar case and looks for a string. I see him put one knee on the floor and dig around in his guitar case and look for a string. He looks at me.

I don’t think I have one, he says.

He digs around in his guitar case some more. He gets up and shakes his head.

Nope, he says. No G string.

Then I guess I’ll have to play with five strings, I say.

That’ll probably work, he says.

People are already here, I say.

That’ll work, he says.

 

THE AXE

One day Father yells at him and he goes out to the woodshed, he gets the biggest axe, he carries it into the living room and puts it down next to his father’s chair and asks his father to kill him. As one might expect, this only makes his father angrier.

 

POTATOES AND ONIONS

I am sitting in the living room with my grandmother. Since she’s recently got a new radio, I sit and turn the dial from station to station, and on one of the stations there’s usually music you can’t hear anywhere else, slow music with long dark guitar solos, no singing, no big fuss, music that just is, and between these slow dark guitar solos someone speaks a language I don’t know, in any case it’s not English, I can understand a little English and it’s a language I don’t like.

I find the station where they play those long dark guitar solos, and I sit in front of the radio and listen. My grandmother, who I love, is sitting in the armchair where she usually sits, she’s looking out the window, I don’t know at what, but she’s sitting there looking out at the fjord, I think, anyway I always look at the fjord when I sit in that chair. I’m listening to the slow dark guitars. My grandmother sits looking out at the fjord.

Are you hungry? my grandmother asks.

I nod and my grandmother says that since it’s Saturday she can make what they used to make on Saturday evenings when she was little, then she goes to the kitchen. I listen to the slow black guitar music. I hear the fat start to sizzle in the frying pan. I lean against the kitchen door and see my grandmother standing in front of the kitchen sink chopping onions.

Bacon and eggs, potatoes and onions, my grandmother says.

I go back into the living room. I sit down in the chair in front of the window and look out at the fjord. I hear the sizzling from the frying pan and the slow guitars.
 


MY GRANDMOTHER IS LYING IN BED

I.

My grandmother is lying in bed, she can’t talk any more. There’s another bed along the other long wall and someone’s lying there talking nonsense all the time. I’m sitting in a chair next to my grandmother’s bed. My hair is so long, down over my shoulders, that it reaches her bed when I bend forward. My grandmother smiles at me. I smile back at her. I ask her how it’s going and she shakes her head from side to side.

Do you want to come back home? I say.

I see her mouth trying to move.

Yes? I say.

My grandmother looks at me. I say yes again, slowly, clearly moving my lips. My grandmother looks at my lips. She shapes her own lips copying mine.

Yes, she says.



II.

My grandmother smiles when I walk into her room. I see that the woman who was lying in the other bed isn’t there any more. I see that someone has combed my grandmother’s thin grey hair straight back from her forehead. I’ve brought my grandmother some bananas. I hand her the bananas and she puts them down on her duvet. My grandmother takes me by the hand, I sit next to her and she sits holding my hand. I came to this town to go to school, my grandmother came because she got sick. We are both living far from home now.

Everything all right? I say.

My grandmother doesn’t answer.

No, I say.

My grandmother looks at my lips. I say no again, slowly, moving my mouth clearly. My grandmother tries to say no, but all that comes out are some strange sounds, and I see her shaking her head. I tell her that things are going well at school. My grandmother nods. I tell her about where I’m living. I tell her about someone I don’t like and my grandmother shakes her head and her eyes smile and we agree completely.



III.

My grandmother’s hands are turning blue. She’s also a little blue in the face. Her eyes are closed. She’s twisting from side to side. I sit down in the chair. I say I’m here. I can see that my grandmother is scared. I think she’s scared because she’s about to die and because she’s Christian. I see my grandmother writhe from side to side in her white nightgown. I’m not Christian. I put the bag of oranges I’ve brought down on the bedside table.

 

WATER GUN

I.

We’ve had the best food for dinner, potato dumplings. We’re thirsty. My mother asks me to go down to the basement and get a bottle of grape juice. With a bone from the meat in my mouth I jump up and hurry down the stairs in a couple of leaps, rush out into the snow and the cold, down around the corner of the house and into the basement. I go into the pantry and find a bottle that says grape juice on the label. I take the bottle and run back out. And then, on the front steps, my legs slip out from under me—the ice! I can’t let the bottle break! and I tumble down and see blood! blood spurting out! What now? My mother will be scared, really scared, because I’m bleeding and the blood is spurting several feet from my arm and it’s coming from my arm and I’m bleeding and bleeding and my arm must have been sliced off and the blood is pumping out several feet from my arm, it hurts, what should I do? hide? my mother is going to be so scared when she sees how I’m bleeding, what should I do? I’m bleeding so much and I have to run upstairs up to my mother and do I really still have a bone in my mouth and I run upstairs and the blood is spurting and I need to keep calm.



II.

A man I don’t know is holding my arm in his lap. We are sitting in a car. My mother is there. My father is there. I can see, but not very clearly. I see home, the house. I don’t know anyone who’s died but now I’m going to die, even though I’m just seven years old. I’m not scared. I turn around, I look back at the houses. I think that this is the last time I’m going to see the house where I live.



III.

I am sitting propped up on pillows at home on the sofa. My parents have asked me if there’s anything I want, and I said a water gun, and so my father has gone to his shop to get a water gun to bring home to me. My arm is completely wrapped in gauze, hanging in a sling. My mother has let me shoot the water gun at the living room door, but there is only so far I can raise my unhurt arm.

 

THERE ARE NO TOY SHOPS IN GERMANY

He was going on holiday to Germany with his parents. He told us that there were all kinds of toys you could buy in Germany, the best toy boats, toy cars, anything you can imagine. I went to the rocky beaches all summer, I waited for him to come back home with what he’d said he would buy for himself. He’d also promised to buy something for me. If only he’d get back from Germany soon.

 

SCARS VISIBLE ON HIS FIST

I shouldn’t have done it. And I’m so angry I pull one drawer after another out of the dresser in the hall and dump everything onto the floor. Gloves and scarves, photographs, all kinds of papers. My parents don’t have any idea what to do. They ask me to pick it all up. I refuse. I lie on the floor kicking. I have to pick it up, my parents say. And then they leave, they lock the door, they’re not coming back in until I’ve picked everything up, they say. I roar. They lock the door. No, fuck. I get up, I go to the front door, I make a fist, I punch the windowpane and my fist goes right through the window. I wince. I open my fist, pull it back in between the sharp edges of the broken window. Blood pours from my hand. I get scared. I run into my parents’ bedroom, crawl under their bed, over to the wall. The blood pours from my fist.
 


HAMBURGER

I am so hungry. I don’t have any money, just enough for the bus ride home. I am sitting in a café. Atle, who I barely know, is sitting at the same table, he is a few years older than me and they say he’s a terrible drinker. He buys himself a hamburger. I am so hungry. I don’t say anything. But then Atle asks if I’m in the mood for a hamburger and he goes and buys a hamburger for me too. I’m sure that Atle has barely any more money than I do, and still he buys me a hamburger. It tastes incredible.


 
CONCRETE EDGES

There’s a dance at the community centre. I go out to the community centre. I see Atle sitting on the edge of the cement steps leading down to the old outhouse at the youth centre, he has a plastic bag full of beer bottles in front of him. His eyes are red and he’s waving a beer bottle back and forth. A few people are standing outside the community centre. I stop outside the community centre. Some people are standing there, drinking and shoving. Atle raises his bottle to me. I walk towards him. Atle gets up and then he turns somehow and drops the bottle and then falls head first down the stairs. I run over to the stairs. I see Atle smiling up at me from the middle of a mess of blood and I see that he’s broken all his front teeth.
 


BICYCLE AND GUITAR CASE

Asle was riding around on the roads on his mother’s old bicycle, he’d repainted it blue. He almost always had a guitar case in his hand. As he rode the bike his long hair fluttered behind him.



THAT WEIRD GUY

After several years of going to dances at various community centres and mostly dancing alone, I realized one night—it must have been late, and I’d probably been given a lot to drink—that I was supposed to ask a girl to get up and dance with me. I’d seen her so many times. She rarely danced. She looked shy. She looked different from the other girls. I probably thought that there had to be a girl for me. And maybe I also thought that she liked me. Anyway, I liked her. I asked her if she wanted to dance. She bluntly answered no. And then I heard her say something to a friend about that weird guy.

 

LONG FINE HAIR AND A NICE HAT

Asle has long fine hair and a nice hat on his head. It’s 17 May, Independence Day. Asle is standing in the school playground. His mother is standing not far from him. Asle sees someone he doesn’t know go over to his mother. He watches his mother talking to the woman he doesn’t know. He just stands there. The woman his mother is talking to walks away and Asle watches his mother come over to him and then his mother says that someone she didn’t know just came over to her and asked her who that boy with the long hair and ugly hat was.

What did you say? Asle says.

My son, his mother says.



AWFULLY GOOD

My mother is telling a story about two boys who made stew in a tin can. They’d used water and potatoes and one of them added bits of sausage. They held the tin can between two sticks over a little bonfire they’d made themselves. Afterwards they ate, enjoying themselves. My mother had asked them if the stew was good, and they’d answered that it was awfully good.

Was it awful or was it good? I ask.

It definitely wasn’t a good stew but it tasted good to them, my mother says.

But why did they say it was awfully good? I say. That’s just something people say, my mother says. But awful means not good, I say.

That’s true, you’re right, she says.

So was it awful or good? I say.

It was good, it was awfully good, my mother says.

I don’t understand. It doesn’t fit together. And there’s no point asking any more questions.

That’s just how people talk, my mother says.

 

RED KISS MARK ON THE LETTER

I.

We sat in the grass, she was bigger than me, she had big brown hair going in all directions, and wide lips. We were fourteen. It was at a meeting for confirmation students from different schools. She had big breasts. She played guitar sitting in the grass. We swapped addresses. When I got home I got a letter from her with a big red kiss mark on it. I wrote her letters.



II.
We met up again a year later, in a café. There was going to be a concert at a community centre somewhere between where we lived. I didn’t dare say anything, didn’t dare look at her, but we sat together at the concert. Afterwards we wrote lots of letters. I got letters with lipstick kisses.



III.
She and a friend took the bus the two miles to where I lived. It was Easter and we went up into the mountains. We didn’t have skis, we went on foot, it was warm and unpleasant, the snow was slushy, we sank into it. We held hands a little.



IV.

I think that I really should write to her. A year later I hear that she’s died in a car crash, the accident happened late one Saturday night.

 

FRIENDSHIP

When the workers were finished building the road they went away but left behind a rough old shed at the side of the road. It stood there for a few years. Then some kids broke into the shed and when they found blasting caps an older boy took them away and said that they were very dangerous, deadly, he knew some kids who’d blinded themselves playing with blasting caps, then everyone relaxed and the boys sat in the shed in the autumn evening wind and darkness and played cards in the light from the candles they’d brought with them.

On one such evening Asle and the others are sitting around the low table covered in candle wax, on benches, playing cards. And then there’s a pounding on the door. That’s happened before, it was just someone coming to say one of them had to go home. There’s another loud knock and then the door opens and a strong stench of alcohol and vomit comes into the shed. It’s so dark that Asle and the others can barely see a small figure, unsteady on his feet, leaning against the door-frame. They see that he has a white plastic bag in one fist. And then Asle and the others hear him say something garbled and Asle and the others quickly look at each other and they know who he is, he’s someone older than them who’s been gone for a long time, they don’t know if he was in rehab or jail but it was probably jail. He comes in and throws his plastic bag onto the table, squeezes onto the bench, and then they see him get up again and they hear him say You have to go see your parents again sometime. He kicks the door shut. He gets an almost empty bottle of booze from the plastic bag, puts it out on the table, takes a portable chess set from the plastic bag, puts that on the table too, then says that he traded an electric shaver for the chess set and he twists the cap off the bottle of booze and drinks and repeats that you have to go see your parents again sometime. He holds out his arm, the one with the bottle, but everyone around the table shakes their head. He walks into the middle of the room on his sea legs. He takes something out of his jacket pocket. There’s a sound and then he’s standing there with a shiny knife in his hand. He leaps at the table and slams his knife into the tabletop, right in the middle of all the hands on the table. The knife stands upright in the tabletop, vibrating. It has a black handle with a red swastika on it. He pulls the knife out of the tabletop and stabs it in again, several times. He leaves the knife in the table, picks up the bottle, and takes a drink. He sees that the bottle is empty. He throws the bottle onto the ground. He stands there. Asle asks if he should take him home, and he nods.

You have to go see your parents again sometime, he says.

Asle puts the chess set back in the plastic bag, pulls the knife out of the table and folds it shut. Asle puts the knife in his jacket pocket and then the man and Asle go out into the dark autumn night, the rain and the wind. They go down the road. Asle hears him start to cry.

You have to go see your parents again sometime, he says when he gets his voice back.

 

ASLE HAS NEVER READ A BOOK

Asle has never read a book. And then they read a novel for school. Asle discovers he really likes it, because everything that in life only moves back and forth is like music somehow in the novel, so he really likes it, but it’s not exactly the same as music, because he knows what music is but this is a kind of music where everything that goes back and forth stays quiet and nice to think about.

 

ALWAYS BE FRIENDS

I.

Geir Henning had to go to the hospital in the city, he’d started getting so short of breath that he had to get a new kind of medicine. But he wasn’t just going to the hospital, he was going to buy himself some new records too, he said, and Svein and I said we’d come by that afternoon so we could listen to his new records. Svein and I bike out to Geir Henning’s house. As we pull into the yard we hear music. We follow the sound and then we see Geir Henning sitting in the garden with the record player on the garden table. He smiles a big smile when he sees us.



II.

When the teacher comes into the classroom we can see from his face that something’s wrong. I look around. I see that Geir Henning hasn’t come to school today and I know that he’s dead. The teacher says he has something he has to tell us. Geir Henning is dead. He died in the night.



III.

Svein and I stand looking at Geir Henning’s coffin being lowered down into the ground. I think about his heavy breathing, his hoarse voice, his peeling skin. And I think that Geir Henning and I will always be friends.



I’M HAPPY

I’ve been to town to buy myself some new clothes. I bought a book of writings by Karl Marx. I lie on the bed and read words and sentences I don’t understand at all. The next day, I bring a dictionary home from the school I go to. I look up a lot of words. I understand a little, and I’m happy.



I’VE JUST HEARD THAT A FRIEND DIED SUDDENLY

It’s a dark autumn evening, wind, rain, I’ve come home for the weekend and am about to go back to my rented room. I’m living in the attic of an old outbuilding. When I get back to my room I’ll light the stove, then maybe write a little. I have an old typewriter my father gave me and it sometimes happens that I sit and write. I’m standing by the side of the road with a few other young people waiting for the bus. The road is black. The wind, the rain. Maybe a car drives past on the road. I hear the waves beating against the pier. I am going to secondary school. I live in a rented room. I’m scared. I’ll write. I look for the light from the bus.



I ALWAYS AGREE WITH THOSE WHO DISAGREE

I understand that some of what matters most is missing from our lives. So there needs to be a revolution.

 

PAYING A VISIT

Asle hears someone knocking on the door downstairs. And Asle gets up from the bed where he’s been lying and reading, he thinks so now someone’s dropped by to pay him a visit, he wasn’t expecting anyone, and he hurries downstairs, across the stone and dirt oor to the front door, he opens the door and sees Tollak standing there.

Nice of you to pay me a visit, Asle says.

Paying a visit, well I don’t know about that, Tollak says.

Yeah I know, Asle says.

Got to find something to do, Tollak says.

Come in, Asle says.

So this is where you live, huh, Tollak says.

And Asle sees Tollak lean over and look into what should have been a hall but that his hosts use as a storage space for old garden tools, measuring chains, and other mysterious equipment.

So, you live in a shed, Tollak says.

Yeah, says Asle.

Stone floor, Tollak says. Must get cold.

Oh it’s all right with the stove, Asle says, and he and Tollak walk over to the stairs. Tollak stops and looks at the rat trap under the stairs.

You have rats! he says.

Asle nods. Tollak starts guffawing.

Caught many? he says.

Five or six in the past few days, Asle says.

What do you do with them?

Throw them out.

Where?

It’s not easy to know what to do with them, Asle says.

Do you hear them in the walls? Tollak says.

You’ll probably hear them too, but it’s mostly at night.

Asle and Tollak go upstairs and into the room where Asle lives.

That’s a beautiful old typewriter, Tollak says, and he walks over and strokes it gently.

I got it from my dad, Asle says.

So this is where you live, huh, Tollak says, and he sits down on the chair. A heathen, a communist, that’s what you are.

Or an anarchist, Asle says.

Yes, whatever, Tollak says, and he starts laughing. Anyway you’re something. I used to believe something like that too, he says. Not any more.

I have some beer, Asle says.

Yeah, let’s have some before we get on with it, Tollak says and he laughs. Anyway, I think I’m a communist too, Tollak says. I’m something, fuck, he says.

Get rid of all the idiots, Asle says.

Up against the wall and shoot ’em, Tollak says.

That’s the best thing to do, Asle says, and he pours himself and Tollak some beer.

 

GIRLS

Asle has a sister almost as old as he is. He always holds his sister’s hand. And a big boy tells Asle that he always holds girls’ hands, always.
 


SWEDISH

I’m hitchhiking a long way. I get a lift. I don’t dare say I’m Norwegian but I really want the people I’m sitting with to think I’ve hitchhiked a long way, so I tell the Germans I got a lift with that I’m Swedish. I buy myself an ice cream and buy one for their son too. I notice that they’re looking at me. They ask me if Norwegians understand Swedish and I nod, I say yes, they understand it perfectly.



THAT GUY LASTED A LONG TIME, HE SAYS AFTER A LONG WHILE

A girl and I are camping in a tent. She has a sleeping bag and we lie in the same sleeping bag with our clothes on. We lie there and hold each other, press against each other. Another couple is lying next to us and they’re doing the same thing. We bump against each other. She pushes her trousers down. But I don’t dare do it with her, I don’t take my trousers off. We lie there pressing and bumping into each other. The ones lying next to us finish their bumping quickly, but we lie there for several hours. Pressing, bumping.

 

EVERYONE PROBABLY KNOWS THAT

I.

Asle and some friends and some girls are out in a boat. It’s the middle of summer. They’ve put tents up on a little island and now they’ve rowed out into the middle of the fjord. They have lots of bottles of cider with them. Asle has drunk a lot of cider. Asle decides he wants to go for a little swim, even though it’s the middle of the night and the boat’s in the middle of the fjord, so he gets undressed, down to his underpants, and jumps into the water. It’s very cold. Asle swims a little way off from the boat but realizes he can’t move his feet and then he tries to swim back to the boat but his legs don’t want to and he asks the people in the boat to reach out an oar to him and Åsmund reaches out an oar to him and pulls Asle into the boat. Åsmund takes Asle by the arms and pulls him back up into the boat. Asle is freezing and he gets dressed again. And then Asle has some more cider to drink.



II.

When Asle gets up to get out of the boat, he realizes his legs won’t hold him. He tries again, but his knees buckle. Everybody laughs. So they hold Asle up and get him back onto land and then Åsmund picks Asle up and carries him through the bushes and shrubs up across the steep quarry to the tent and puts him down on his sleeping bag. Asle says that his head is completely clear. Åsmund says that that may be true, but his legs aren’t.



III.

Åsmund and Asle sit in the tent and talk about this and that. And Asle thinks that his legs don’t feel so bad now, but that everyone probably knows that.

translated from the Norwegian by Damion Searls


Scenes from a Childhood, Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls, Fitzcarraldo Editions, London 2018. Copyright © Jon Fosse. Translation copyright © Damion Searls. Reproduced by permission of Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Jon Fosse: Prosa frå ein oppvekst. Copyright © Det Norske Samlaget, 1994. Reproduced by permission of the Winje Agency.