Rose street

Extracts from the novel Rose Street by Eva Tind

Foreign rights, contact IMMATERIEL AGENCY

There is a pocket onRose Street, a bulge, there where the incision is made and the flesh opens: fluids, blood, membrane.  I am pulled out by thin rubber gloves, a shadow trickles out with the fluid.  I am freed from my mother through the opening above the pubic bone, bony fingers passing in and out of the gap, like the needle and the black thread that draw membrane, flesh together and close up my mother again.  Fluorescent tubes hang like white strips on the ceiling, flickering green over the surgical gowns, the summer heat seeps through the cracks and fissures in the wall.  Sweat stains the bed and breaks out under the arms like beads on back and lips, in splits and seams around furniture, eyes, windows.  I lie on a cotton sheet, the yellow blobs of grease stick to my skin.  Lying there with my shadow beneath me, I look like nothing so much as a living map.

Days and nights cause time to coil around itself in spirals.  My mother stands behind the glass door with a bundle in her arms.  She walks out of the hospital, out into the fog and walks like herself, beside herself along Rose Street, as if she were someone else.  She holds me gently but firmly, the fog is a damp cloud, the fog is a whale through which she walks.  The white rib of its belly, something to clutch at and cling to.  She has trouble finding her way home, the house has been freshly painted, the house looks different from before.  It’s bigger than she remembers, there are more windows, roof slates, rooms.  She steps out of the whale and into the house, lays me in a jar and lays the jar in a bed.  I peep over the rim of the jar.  I wriggle and squirm and fill the room with wailing and time that walks the floor in far too slippy shoes, and my mother’s crying that fills me only to drain me again, and my crying that fills my mother only to drain her again.  The whale glides past the windows, it doesn’t see how desperate she is.  The spiral coils itself around her like a rope, tying her to the jar that swells and thrives like a child.

Rose Street changes, it grows narrower, a path that runs across flat fields wreathed by rolling hills, a landscape round as a circle dotted with white flowers, white, soft, like the sun so bright it blinds me.  Birds dart like wild commas across a sky washed blue at a stroke, little black lightning bolts like fish, flies, feathers, flitting, fluttering.  I stay quite still, breathing deeply.  I hang, strapped to my mother’s shoulders, a bundle, a baby, a jar full of water that sloshes rhythmically like a piston on her back, in time with her steady stride, her brisk movements and the restlessness that runs under the fine skin, out through open pores as through a soaked cloth.  She is an animal, curling up like a mother in a corner of the room, a black hole, the mind, with a growling dread that lodges between the teeth and rattles.  I don’t yet have teeth, as an animal does, as a person does, a mother does.  I don’t yet have a territory to pee on and mark, no membrane to step in and out of, like a house my jar is my skin, and hers.

The bands of the landscape, the dark of the tarmac lies like a warm smooth skin over the rough earth.  The old narrow village roads follow the twists and turns of the earth, round trees, rocks, lakes, rivers, streams, up and down knolls and hills, ringing the town square where a circular shadow spreads under the ancient, broad-crowned oak.  Winding roads linked by a network of new roads, drawn ruler-straight on plastic film by a newly qualified engineer.  Sewers, cables and pipes sprout from the sides of a roadworker and a kitchen assistant with an eagerness that rubs off on all the other families that buy a plot along the road.  The houses are constructed out of hand-cut bricks set one on top of the other and held together by pale-grey mortar.  My dad’s brother, Uncle Anders and my dad build our house themselves out of yellow brick.  His other brother, Uncle John, who is a locksmith, lays all the pipes.  My mum says that if she hadn’t married my dad, she’d have picked Uncle John, because of all the people she knows he’s the most like my dad.

Hedges are planted around the gardens: hornbeam, privet, goldfinger with its yellow flowers.  Gravel is tipped out onto drives and grey slabs laid along garden paths.  Gardens are raked and dug, manure wheeled in to vegetable plots and flower beds, fruit trees planted and flowering vines trained up walls, seeds sprinkled in the flower beds, bulbs laid, shrubs and soft fruit bushes planted, and rose bushes to give flowers for vases and posies.  Greenhouses, birdboxes and bird-baths set up in the gardens; garages, sheds, overhangs, windows, windbreaks and garden seats painted.  Now the town is finished, the residents move in: men, women, children, pets in the shape of dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, stick insects, two tortoises and a solitary rat.  Insects and creepy-crawlies pour out of the forest and fields, take up residence in the nooks and crannies of the house, the bushes and trees in the garden, bringing birds, foxes, stoats, hares, hedgehogs and frogs with them.

On the window-sill in our new, yellow-brick bungalow is a prefabricated white church, an ornament with space for a tea light.  The sun goes down behind the forest like a big, red-painted mouth after a long, passionate kiss.  The light from outside makes the church blush rouge-red, the light inside grows second by second.

I press my nose against the window-pane, I gaze through it, across the road.  A brown brick house backing onto the forest, where the forest trolls live, Annie and Benny and their four children.  Benny is a plumber, Annie is a council childminder, she looks after me during the day when my mum is working at the Home for the Elderly.  The house borders on the forest, a stream purls and burbles through the back garden, sounds are muffled by the forest, the soil smells heavy, but fresh.  We spend the mornings in the garden.  The sun can’t reach into it, the forest gets in the way, the forest is a shadow that lies like a tarpaulin over a large, square sandbox, the swings and three old, brown prams standing under an overhang.  I don’t remember the faces of the other children.  I only remember Annie’s own children, and Annie, standing at the door of the house.  The door that closes behind her.  The house that never opens up completely.  Annie isn’t out in the garden, she talks to us through the crack left in the wall by the half-open kitchen window.  Her voice is sharp, pointed as a pencil.  I don’t remember how the time passes.  The ground is hard, unplanted, there are no visible people in the garden.  Annie walks about behind the kitchen window.  In one of the prams a baby howls and Annie pulls the window shut.

There are days when it is too wet for me to be outside.  Days when I’m shooed down to the basement with the big humming freezer in the corner, a couple of book-shelves with a few toys, jigsaw puzzles and the promise that I’ll get out when my mum comes for me.  I remember Annie coming down to the basement carrying a tray with liver paste sandwiches, the brown and orange plastic plates and mugs of milk.  I remember the utility room and the stairs down to the basement and the ktichen, the way you see a kitchen from a doorstep, but I can’t recall the smell of the place, the room lighting, rugs, curtains, furniture.  I never set foot in the kitchen, the living-room, bedrooms, and the days stretch out like a rope, an arm, Annie’s plump, soft arm grabbing hold of mine without warning and pulling it out of its socket.  My mother’s pent-up fury, the purple dress with the little red flowers on it spreads and blooms around her brown clogs that click-clack over the flagstones.  We walk out of the house and down the drive.  The flowers fall off her dress like red snow.

Mathilde says she’ll look after me until we find another childminder.  Mathilde writes on a machine: poems, instructions, letters to the newspapers, letters to politicians and people she has met or heard on the radio.  Mathilde says she’s checking the sentence about the infinite monkey theorem, she spends most of her time making models of trolls and tapping out long, random strings of characters on her red Valentine typewriter.  When I come up the garden path in my clogs, brown trousers and green anorak I know she’ll open the kitchen cupboard and take out the fruit squash.  She says, you have an inner sweetness and an untold number of possibilities and sentences that are essentially different and not at all like you would imagine.  You just have to keep tapping away and eventually it will just come, and the monkeys will be writing letters.  She looks at me with her black eyes and the squash stills me.  I don’t understand what she’s saying when she says that every atom is a monkey, producing a billion taps a second from the Big Bang until today and that she has no other friends but me.  She reads her communist poems aloud at the kitchen table and draws ants that look like balloons with beard stubble, a mutation, a cigar droops from the corner of her mouth.  She has a small, clear voice behind the other voices she uses for speaking.

“You have to listen,” she says, “listen, all the rest is smoke and mirrors, flattery or misplaced kindness, getting in the way of what really matters.

Mathilde thinks of her thoughts as lights, as living creatures.  The crystal ball in Mathilde’s living-room glints.  The living-room is full of baskets stuffed with old newspapers and magazines.  The walls are covered with hessian.  There are empty wine bottles under the table.  The big house of cards balances on the bookshelf facing the open window.  In the bedroom man-high, hunch-backed pottery trolls are ranged like pillars along the walls.  There are brown flowers on the wallpaper.  The bed linen is white, embroidered, a single bed stands in the centre of the room like an oblong island.  Out in the workshop in the garden Mathilde makes models.  She cuts, shapes, pats, smooths, she draws trolls out of clay.  Her purple scarf is bound tightly around her long, grey hair.

“I’m lonely,” I say.  “I’m a child.  Children shouldn’t be lonely.”

And she says she’s going to read me a letter.

“It’s an important letter to the council, it’ll put us in a good mood,” she says.  “This letter is about grain prices in the Third World, about trade sanctions and inferiority.”

“It’s high time somebody did something to reduce inequality in the world,” Mathilde says.  She begins to read the letter aloud, but I don’t understand it and I can’t hold back the tears and she says “Oh, no, oh, dear,” and I sob.  Mathilde gets a crocheted napkin out of the drawer, she frowns, I blow my nose and swing my legs.

“Do you know what we need?” Mathilde says.  “We need a flag.  Tomorrow morning we’ll paint a Ho Chi Minh flag in the middle of the road.

The night rolls its weight over the town.  The night is a damp cap pulled over the house.  The light returns when the weight lifts.  I yawn and stretch in my bed.  There are green leaves on my nightdress.  It’s the weekend, but I have to get up early.  My mum is going to work at the Home for the Elderly.  She bakes morning rolls for the old folks, cooks porridge, rye bread in beer, scrambles eggs.  There are bustlings in the corners of the garden.  Bird sounds, animals rustling in the bushes, the pine trees, birch trees, the big copper beech, leaves and coins jingling in a glass.  I set up a stall on the pavement.  I sell knick-knacks and things from the window-sills in the living-room, chewing-gum, Smurfs and fruit squash.  My stall stands on the pavement like a shop with fluttering curtains and a bell to ring customers in and out.  I sit for hours on a plastic bag behind the upturned beer crate I’m using as a counter.  Annie, the forest troll, buys my parents’ church ornament for three kroner.  Some people buy chewing-gum.  But nobody wants the Smurfs, they’re too expensive, they say.  So the Smurfs stay on my stall.  They look great, standing there in their little white caps and close-fitting blue tights.  The Smurfs stand in one long line, like an army.

At night I dream that I’m a tiny shrivelled creature no bigger than a mouse, that’s being hunted by a wolf with big yellow eyes.  Eyes that glow like the little windows in the church ornament in the black night.  I hide behind the curtain in my shop with a heart that pounds and pumps between my hands.

                                           Note to myself:

                                           The heart is the engine room from which blood

                                           flows like thick, warm syrup.

 I’m playing that I’m a digger, scooping out holes in the garden with a yellow shovel when I catch sight of a little brown hedgehog lying at the edge of the garden, a motionless prickly lump.  My eye meets the hedgehog’s.  I hunker down next to it.  It gazes at me with its amber-dark eye.  Close up.  I can see the faint tremors running through its body, that eye, that brown bead peering out, shining.  Very carefully I pick up the hedgehog.  Try not to get pricked by its spines, not to hold it too tightly.

“You look like a Laila,” I say.  The hedgehog doesn’t answer.  It stares, trembles.  “But you’re shivering.  Don’t worry, I’ll warm you up,” I say.  With half-closed eyes I run towards the back door.  Welly boots slapping across the flagstones, kicked off in the utility room.  I walk down the long corridor that leads to the kitchen.  I lay Laila on a white flan dish and switch on the oven.  The oven is a box and the heat is a blanket wrapped round Laila.  My mum is in the living-room, the television is on, the sound of Children’s Hour flows in and out of my ears.  I won’t be long, I whisper to the oven.  Moroccan pouffe in front of the TV.  The big puppets, Anna and Lotte, bath a little stripey doll, Georg, in a plastic bathtub.  Anna dries Georg after his bath, tugs at him.  One of his legs falls off.  Kirsten sews the leg back on.  The bandage is white.  Children’s Hour is over.  I run into the kitchen and open the oven door.  The soft lump.  Dead, black beads roll out of the oven.

I walk down the road to Ålemosen with two dark shadows under my eyes.  Mathilde’s house occupies a double plot.  She comes from nowhere, has no family that visits her.   She had a son once, she says, but he died trying to cross the Atlantic in a rubber dinghy.  He didn’t die, she says, but his father, her ex-husband, took him on a long journey.  He lives in the jungle now and every year her ex-husband sends her a letter, enclosing a photo of her son on his birthday.  The boy in the pictures in the kitchen changes year by year.  He becomes a young man, then older, then middle-aged, 56 photos, all taped up on the kitchen wall like wallpaper.

“He’s never the same as before.  The body is constantly renewing itself.  Ten days from now he’ll have a new tongue, in ten years a completely new skeleton, new feet, hands, kidneys.  The kidneys are a paired organ.  They’re almost identical and are located at the back of the upper abdominal area, a two-headed purifying plant that filters the blood and flushes out impurities,” she says, then goes on:

“The kidneys are bean-shaped, each one weighs about 150 kilograms.”

The tiny clay kidneys look like glazed beans.  Now they sit on Mathilde’s window-sill.  They sun themselves on a piece of sky-blue felt.

Mathilde says that organs are like relatives.  “It’s the way they’re organised that makes them an organism.”  And speaking of organisms, they all talk about her over at the rubber factory that lies, black and rectangular beside the lake opposite her house.  During the lunch break the factory workers gather outside the building and chat and point at her property.  Mathilde wanders around the garden in an old faded wedding dress with matching veil that the man who gave her a son sent her from South America.

“Maybe that’s why they’re pointing,” I say.  But Mathilde doesn’t think so.  She says she has figured out how to stop the members of the factory family from staring.

The next day she stands stark naked outside her front door.  With a lampshade of down, of discarded sky lanterns, over her head.  She has cut two little slits for her eyes.

“She’s been standing there all day,” one of the neighbours whispers, craning his neck like a swan so as not to miss a thing.  I look at the pavement.  I walk my bike in a wide arc around the crowd that has gathered outside her house.  The eyes in the lampshade follow me as the Reporter from the Local Paper arrives in a withered-green car.

I go down to the river in red clogs.  In my hand I have a bucket full of hooks, lines and worms.  The grass tickles and sticks like the cowpats I’m careful not to step in.  Damp pats and dried-up pats, brown islands buzzing with flies.   Black and white cows spatter the green fields, spatter and tramp, the cattle’s stiff legs, their reluctance to leave a place, leave their mark on the slippery stretch along the riverside in stamped out hollows.

I go down to the river in red clogs, bend double to slip under the wire fence, in beside the cows.  If they don’t stare at me as I slip under the fence I am invisible.  Don’t stare at me great, big creatures, big stomachs, long teats, big patches, big nostrils, big cow bones under the big skin, cow.  I am inside a cow.  I eat cow.  I’m a cow in clogs, going down to the river to huddle up close to the other cows, to smell them, store them in my memory and stroke their knobbly backs.  I double up.  I swell there in the field, with a feeling that someone is stroking my hair.

There is a tiny black figure on the other side of the river, it raises its arm, gesturing.

The son in the pictures from the wall in Mathilde’s kitchen comes down Rosenvej, one hand pulling a wheeled suitcase, to open the gate and carry on up the garden path.  He knocks on Mathilde’s door.  Mathilde who, due to progressive dementia, has moved into Søndervang Care Home.  Now a family lives in her house, where the young mother places her hand on the cool, gleaming handle and pulls the door open.  She sees the sixty-five-year-old man on the doorstep with his hand on a suitcase.  He stands before her in a long, dark trench coat.  His shoes are freshly polished, gleaming.

The dusk gives way to the artificial light fanning out in white triangles from the car headlights.  Mathilde comes through the big glass doors at the front of Søndervang Care Home.  Her skinny body is slightly bowed under the weight of an old, green rucksack.  She opens the car door and climbs in without removing the rucksack.  She sits there next to me with her belt fastened.  Her head sticks out of the rucksack as if it were a tortoise shell.  She smiles and says: “I’m ready.”

Later, when we’re standing by the river, she slips off the shell, sets it down like a bag and uncurls.  Her skin is white and dry, crackles like paper.  Her body is naked, slightly elongated, like a figure on tip-toe.  The sun wakes, around us the dark falls back.  We gaze at the water that flows dark and shining down the river course.  Here we stand, Mathilde and I, an old woman and a grown girl, naked we teeter on the bank of the river.  We spread out our arms, we wave them up and down, like birds flapping their wings.  Mathilde plunges into the river first and I follow.  The cold, wordless water envelops my body like a great, slithering eel, Anguilla anguilla, in which we float downstream.  The eel is our submarine, it writhes fierily along a muddy bottom covered with weird holes, creatures formed and brought forth by the stream amid all the abandoned, yet still glittering silver.  As a spark from the sun strikes the water, an artificial light is ignited inside the eel.  It opens its mouth.  I open my eyes to the source of the light: the eel’s heart, liver, gall bladder, stomach, intestine, anus.  The water blurs and splashes my sight and makes Mathilde look like a little girl.  Something is dragged out of the eel’s body through its mouth.  The eel expels us and we dart through the water like fish, with no hands, but with glistening scales and eyes.  Suddenly the water filling ears, nose, mouth, eyes, feels like something we could drown in.  Mathilde’s slight form is swathed in clothes  that trail after her like stray sheets in the greenish-yellow water. And then all of a sudden she’s gone, it feels real, when I drown, and when at that same moment I grab hold of a tree root jutting out from the bank, like a handle, a hand to grab hold of and pull oneself up by, as new.

Translated from the Danish by Barbara J. Haveland