Canberra, can you hear me?

Issue 1/1987 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Johan Bargum. Photo: Irmeli Jung

Johan Bargum. Photo: Irmeli Jung

A short story from Husdjur (‘Pets’, 1986)

Lena called again Sunday morning. I had just gotten up and was annoyed that as usual Hannele hadn’t gone home but was still lying in my bed snoring like a pig. The connection was good, but there was a curious little echo, as if I could hear not only Lena’s voice but also my own in the receiver.

The first thing she said was, ‘How is Hamlet doing?’

She’d started speaking in that affected way even before they’d moved, as if to show us that she’d seen completely through us.

‘Fine,’ I said. ‘How are you?’

‘What is he doing?’

‘Nothing special.’

‘Oh.’

Then she was quiet. She didn’t say anything for a long while.

‘Lena? Hello? Are you there?’

No answer. Suddenly I couldn’t stand it any longer.

‘Okay, you can have him. I’ll bring him.’

There was a shriek, then a whole string of happy exclamations and lots of Oh, thank you, Daddy’s – while I sat there wondering exactly what I’d committed myself to.

How the hell do you transport a hamster to Paris?

During the following Saturday’s rehearsal, Stina and I had three long scenes together, so of course Sigge blew up when I told him that I had to be in Paris that day. He’s the stubbornest person I know, which more or less accounts for his success as a director; we also went to school together, and he knows me inside and out. He rushed back and forth between the rows of seats, working himself into a sweat with a series of impressive little outbursts while I tried to look guilty and Stina stood giggling in the wings; every director has a repressed desire to be on stage, so instead they do their acting during rehearsals.

When I got home after that evening’s performance, Hannele had washed the dishes, tidied up, made the bed, thrown out the pile of old newspapers and bought an azalea – but hadn’t gone home. It was a bit embarrassing because I’d brought Stina along with me, but the ladies pretended that nothing was wrong and sat down at the dinner table, which Hannele had set for two with candles and a dark red linen tablecloth. They had a high old time chatting and gossiping about colleagues while I had to get my own plate, light the candles and pour the wine in their glasses as well as take the two warm mussel sandwiches out of the oven. They were getting along famously until the sandwiches were on the table, but then everybody got so nauseatingly overpolite that I excused myself and slipped into the hall and out the front door without looking back and headed for the bar at Socis, where I sat staring at the wall without coming up with the vaguest plan of how to do it.

When I got home, the women had finished off the sandwiches and wine, and decamped; Hannele had left the key on the dresser in the hall. I went to bed, and right after midnight when the telephone rang, I was tossing and turning – and still had no idea of how one gets a hamster to Paris.

Susann didn’t either.

‘What the hell is this all about?’ she said. The line was as clear as the last time; I could hear her short, intense breathing – the way she always breathes when she’s excited.

‘I thought I’d come down to see my daughter.’

‘Oh you did, did you? Without asking me first if it was convenient?’

‘Not at all. Is it?’

‘And what’s this nonsense about Hamlet?’

‘What nonsense?’

‘Lena thinks you’re going to bring him with you.’

‘Mmmhmm.’

‘You shouldn’t tell her things like that. She and I have already discussed it. Don’t you see how disappointed she’ll be?’

‘Why?’

‘When you show up without him!’

‘Calm down. I’ll bring him.’

She paused, and then said something incomprehensible in French; I heard André’s voice in the background.

‘How the hell are you going to do that?’

‘I’ll manage.’

‘Listen,’ she said, sounding a bit tired, ‘you know you just can’t behave like this.’

‘Like what?’

‘I have nothing against your coming to see Lena. But I want us to plan it together. You and I.’

‘Isn’t that what we’re doing?’

She sighed.

‘And this business with Hamlet. It’s sheer blackmail. By the way, she doesn’t need him anymore. She forgot him a long time ago.’

‘It didn’t sound that way to me.’

Again she sighed and fell silent. There was just a faint breath of wind in the receiver, and far away someone was shouting in English: ‘Canberra, do you hear me? Canberra, do you hear me? Do you hear me?’

Then she said: ‘So when are you coming? And where are you planning to stay?’

The lady in the travel bureau where I got my ticket asked me the same question – as if it were any of her business; but I was pissed off at myself when I realized that I hadn’t given it a thought, I’d simply assumed that I’d stay with Susann and André, something which I actually had no desire to do. It turned out that in the center of Paris there was a cheap Hotel de Finlande.

At the SPCA they referred me to the veterinary division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, which in turn referred me to the French Embassy, where an official started speaking in broken English about forms and proof of profession (Hamlet’s?); in other words, it was just the way I’d expected it to be.

There was only one chance.

At the bottom of Susann’s closet – which was still an incredible tangle of everything imaginable – I found a piece of sturdy canvas that I sewed into a small pouch. Onto the upper corners I fastened a pair of shoelaces. Then I stuffed Hamlet into the pouch and closed it at the top with a couple of safety pins. I tied the shoelaces around my neck, put on an undershirt that held the pouch close against my body, and over that a shirt and a big, baggy sweater. It was perfect: Hamlet lay quietly in his pouch, but even if he moved around a little, it wouldn’t show under the sweater.

It seemed so simple. Just a few hours on a plane with the hamster on my stomach. What could possibly go wrong?

Just to be absolutely sure, I sat in the aisle seat with a newspaper in my lap. The seat next to me was empty. By the window a lady was sitting bolt upright, her body as rigid as if someone were holding a gun on her. Hamlet was peaceful; I’d gotten through the security check without any problems, done my dutyfree shopping, had a beer and flirted a bit with a ground hostess who insisted that we knew each other, and all the while Hamlet had been so quiet that I’d almost forgotten about him.

The lady in the window seat leaned forward, holding her nose.

‘Forgive me,’ she said. ‘It’s my ears…’

Endless streams of French gibberish poured out of the loudspeakers, as well as something garbled that was supposed to be English. The engines roared, the plane lurched forward heavily, almost reluctantly – and Hamlet launched his first attack.

It came so suddenly that I jumped. He scratched upward with his front paws, trying to work his way out of the pouch; he was going at it so hard that it felt as though he were trying to dig a pit in my mid-section.

‘Sure makes your stomach feel funny,’ said the woman by the window.

‘What?’

‘To fly in the air. You know, they don’t have time to get out of each other’s way…’

She looked anxiously out the window and began a long, involved harangue about planes on collision courses. The flight attendants were struggling with their food trays and drinks, I managed to slip a hand under my sweater to pat Hamlet. But it didn’t do any good – it merely made him more furious. The woman leaned across the empty seat as if to hold my hand. I tried to flash a nonchalant smile as Hamlet scratched away. The woman’s eyes bulged: she explained that even if the pilots sighted each other at a distance of two kilometers, there wouldn’t be more than four seconds before the crash. I couldn’t follow it all; all I knew was that Hamlet was poking around with his nose, trying to bite me through the fabric.

His sharp teeth jabbed into me.

Now the lady had lined up a whole battery of small bottles before her. She proceeded to gulp them down one by one.

‘I work at the Bureau of Statistics,’ she said, smiling apologetically.

‘Statistically speaking, I know that the risk is negligible, but what good does that do?’

A little while later, as we were coming in for a landing in Stockholm, she leaned forward and held her nose again. Hamlet’s forepaws scratched and dug. If he managed to make a hole in the pouch, I thought to myself, what would I do then?

In the Arlanda transit hall I locked myself in the bathroom and took Hamlet out of the pouch. He’d calmed down as soon as we touched ground. Now he sat quietly in my hand, looking at me with his peppercorn eyes. His whole body shivered, as if he was freezing.

He wasn’t interested in the lettuce leaf I’d brought along. ‘I don’t think you like flying either,’ I said.

The plane filled up with Swedish and French businessmen on their way to Paris; sitting between the woman at the window and me was a garlic­-smelling tub who spoke French to me for a long while without my understanding a word, and then fell asleep. While we taxied out to the runway, Hamlet was peaceful, as though he too was sleeping. The woman looked enviously at her neighbor and stopped up her nostrils, the plane accelerated, rose, and dived in along the clouds. And Hamlet went into action.

He seemed to have a definite objective: his claws kept digging and digging in the same spot.

Again, the flight attendants came running with their carts. The garlic-­smelling Frenchman didn’t stir, and the woman in the window seat lined up another supply of little bottles. Hamlet was indefatigable. Before long I realized that now it was about to happen: he had almost made a hole in the pouch.

I felt his sharp, eager claws against my skin.

It hurt.

The woman by the window knocked back half a glass of cognac, and locked at me with bleary eyes.

‘You’re not feeling well, are you?’ she said.

And suddenly, as if by magic, Hamlet calmed down.

I didn’t answer. Sweat was pouring out of my armpits. While Hamlet remained quiet, I didn’t dare speak. Then I understood why he was quiet: something else was running down my body, down my stomach toward my groin.

‘Relax,’ the woman said encouragingly. ‘Statistically speaking, flying’s much safer than driving.’

Hamlet started up again with renewed strength. The hole seemed to be growing larger and larger. He ripped and tore at it with his teeth, and his paws kept scraping away.

There was only one thing to do: I stuck my hand under my sweater and grabbed him.

He went crazy. Already halfway out of the pouch, he started digging and rooting and biting so hard that I had to squeeze him tight to keep him quiet.

It hurt like hell.

‘Look, there’s Paris!’ the lady said thickly. ‘Hello down there!’

I closed my eyes, clenched my teeth, and squeezed even tighter, pressing him against my stomach to prevent him from getting loose.

‘It’ll be over soon,’ she said, trying to comfort me.

As if he’d understood her, Hamlet began to calm down. While signs lit up and seatbelts clicked and the lady squeezed her nose, I could feel him relax, stop biting and rooting with his forepaws until finally he was lying still with his damp little nose against my stomach, as calm and quiet as if he’d fallen asleep.

While I went through passport control and customs (as usual, they opened my hand luggage) and took the bus to Port Maillot and managed to find a taxi, wondering in passing why there was so much damn traffic on Rue St. Denis right in front of my hotel, Hamlet didn’t move once. ‘He just doesn’t like to fly,’ I thought as I changed out of my bloody, smelly clothes and took him out of the pouch. It was only then that I realized why he’d suddenly gotten so quiet.

I flushed him down the toilet. Then I washed the scratches and bites on my stomach, and called them.

‘Hi, Daddy,’ said Lena. ‘Are you here now?’

‘Yes, I’m here.’

I was standing by the window. The street was still crowded; the sidewalks were black with people, and there were long lines of honking French cars.

‘Did you bring him?’

‘Sure.’

From time to time women disappeared into doorways with solitary pedestrians. Suddenly I understood what the crowds were all about.

‘Where are you?’

‘In a hotel.’

‘Mama says she’ll come and get you in the car.’

‘Not tonight.’

‘Yes, Daddy! You have to!’

‘No, Lena. It’s a little late and I don’t feel so great.’

‘Why?’

‘I just got a little airsick. I’ll come tomorrow morning.’

One of the women had noticed me in the window. She waved cheerfully.

‘Daddy,’ said Lena, ‘give Hamlet a goodnight kiss for me. Right on his nose!’

The next morning I found an English-speaking taxi driver who was kind enough not to laugh at me as he took me across the river to St Germain. It was a clear, cold day; Parisians were sitting in their cafe with fur coats over their shoulders. In one of the narrow streets behind Odeon, we found a petshop. The taxi driver went inside with me and started a spirited discussion with the shopkeeper. Oddly enough, he didn’t laugh at me either, but helped pick out the hamster that looked most like Hamlet, put him in a shoebox, and wrote ‘Hamlet’ on the lid: it cost practically nothing. As I sat in the taxi with the shoebox in my arms, the driver turned around and looked at me worriedly. ‘Good luck’, he said. Parisians were rushing by, hunched over, hands deep in their pockets, newspapers or baguettes as long as baseball bats under their arms. ‘I’ll need it,’ I said.

But of course it was completely hopeless; how could I possibly get away with it?

Lena tore the lid off with a shriek of joy and picked up the hamster, pressing it against her chest, while I, who should have been relieved, felt curiously disappointed instead.

‘Hey, be careful!’ I said.

‘What for?’

‘Don’t squeeze it like that. You’ll hurt it!’

They lived in a giant apartment behind Champs-Elysees, with high-ceilinged rooms, whitewashed walls with narrow friezes near the ceiling, mirrors everywhere, pale leather sofas and armchairs, glass tables and track lighting; it was like walking into a design show.

Susann had cut her hair and started to smoke Gauloises; she gave me a friendly hug and a little smile and said, ‘Nice to have you here. How the hell did you manage with the hamster?’

‘Nothing to it.’

Andre was filming – some scene that could only be shot on a weekend.

‘But that’s nothing new,’ she said with a small laugh.

She was dressed in something pastel-colored and a little wrinkled, which made her look girlish. She looked at me with a slightly amused expression, and suddenly I felt insecure: had I forgotten to button my fly?

‘So how did you do it?’

At that moment I noticed the cat, a Siamese, stretched out languidly in an armchair, staring with shining eyes at the hamster in Lena’s arms.

‘Isn’t he great?’ said Lena. ‘Guess what his name is!’

‘I’ll go put up the coffee,’ Susann said, and disappeared into the kitchen.

‘Hamlet,’ I said, feeling tired. I sat down. The cuts on my chest were stinging.

‘Isn’t that cool, Daddy?’ Lena chirped. ‘Now I have two Hamlets!’ The cat slowly raised its head, never losing sight of the hamster.

They hadn’t even gotten a cage for it. After a few hours I was the only one who gave it a thought – I and the cat who lingered around the hamster with feigned indifference. By the time André got home that afternoon I’d put the animal back in the shoebox and set it on one of the shelves in Lena’s closet. The cat had settled down on Lena’s bed, and alternated between looking at the closet door and at me with a slightly contemptuous expression on its narrow cat face. André was tired and preoccupied. Susann laughed and said that he was exactly like me: when he was filming, he was always somewhere else – only his body came home at night.

Maybe that’s not so bad either, I stopped myself from saying. But I didn’t need to: it showed all over her.

Lena had learned perfect French; she called him Papa. Susann insisted that they were best friends. During dinner Lena did most of the talking,

French and Swedish mixed. I drank a good deal of wine to dull the stinging pain in my chest. Later I put Lena to bed and sat next to her with my hand on her cheek just like in the old days. In the closet the hamster rooted in its box, while the Siamese, who’d stationed itself outside the door, sat with pricked-up ears.

I explained that I wanted to walk to the hotel to see Paris by night, but after a half hour I’d had enough. On Champs-Elysèes I found a Drugstore in which the only thing English was the name. I know something about mime, but mimicking ‘antiseptic scab softener’ was beyond my powers. So I grabbed a taxi and almost got bitten in the foot by a fox terrier lying on the floor in front – where clearly I wasn’t supposed to be. The driver got furious and muttered to himself all the way back to the hotel, where I changed the bandages. For lack of anything better, I poured whiskey into the wound, which hurt so much that I sat there panting for quite a while. Later that evening the same girl appeared in the street. She waved at me again with a smile of recognition. She knew a little English: when we’d come back to the room, she told me that if I wanted to, I could take my clothes off. But I kept my shirt on.

The next day I took Lena out on the town. We went to a cafe where with great expertise she ordered cocoa with whipped cream and two giant waffles with jam, which didn’t go down easily because my stomach was still feeling somewhat shaky in spite of the fact that most of the whiskey had been poured into the scratches. Lena was in her contemplative mood, quiet and sort of distant, and she ate my waffle and then dragged me to a playground where we played our old swinging game that she never seemed to tire of – until Susann came to get her.

Susann seemed contemplative, too. We sat down on a park bench while Lena continued swinging.

‘Has she talked to you about the hamster?’ Susann said.

‘No, what about it?’

She bit her lip.

‘The cat got it?’

She nodded.

‘It wasn’t my fault,’ she said angrily. ‘I can’t be everywhere at once!’

‘What did Lena say? Was she unhappy?’

‘Not because of the hamster. But she wondered what you would say.’ Lena wasn’t pumping; she let the swing take her up and down, up and down, and looked at us as though she’d heard every word.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘what do you think I should say?’

‘Nothing. It’s better simply not to talk about it.’ I didn’t reply.

‘You have to understand,’ she went on, ‘she’s so crazy about that cat. Actually, she’d completely forgotten about the hamster. That’s what I was trying to tell you.’

Susann offered to take me to the hotel, but I excused myself by saying that I wanted to go straight to the airport. Lena hopped into the back seat of Susann’s little Renault, and they drove off. After ten meters they stopped for a red light. It had started to rain, and Susann turned on the windshield wiper in the back window as if they wanted to wave to me. Lena pressed her face against the glass, and I smiled and waved as though to tell her that Susann had been right: how, after all, could you compare a hamster to a cat?

It seemed like an eternity before the light finally turned green, and they disappeared around the corner.

On Monday I had to stop in at a clinic because of my chest and consequently managed to be late for the rehearsal, which brought forth all the usual nasty little remarks: I hope you’ll forgive us for starting without you… Oh, we’re so honored that you graced us with your presence today… I hope you don’t mind if we work on Finnish time, not French. Sigge had scheduled Scene Three, which meant that Stina had to chase me around the stage five times, and I had to stumble over furniture and slip on rugs, and finally get slapped by her. She put everything she had into it, especially the slap, but when Sigge finally noticed that I was walking through it he bawled me out, and when that didn’t help he looked worried, told the others to take a break, came up to me and said, ‘so what’s up?’

‘Nothing,’ I said.

Translated by Lone Thygesen Blecher and George Blecher