Troubled waters

Issue 1/2005 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Den amerikanska flickan (‘The American girl’, Söderströms, 2004). Introduction by Pia Ingström

Doris Night&Sandra Day, Sandra Night&Doris Day: those were their alter ego identities for the game, which also involved the smiles they’d practised in front of the mirror at the bottom of the empty swimming pool, in the house in the muddier part of the woods.

‘We’re two clairvoyant sisters,’ said Doris Flinkenberg. ‘We got that way because of tragic circumstances. The poltergeist phenomenon. Do you know what that is?’

Sandra Wärn shook her head, but looked expectantly at Doris, the perennial crossword – solver, with dictionary to hand, who continued. ‘It’s when the innocent child has been badly abused and has developed supernatural powers in order to survive. Powers to see behind what’s there,’ Doris Flinkenberg explained. ‘To see what no one else can see.’

‘You and I, Sandra,’ Doris confirmed. ‘We were badly abused. I with my scars and you with your tragic family background, your mother and her lover, all of that. You and I, Sandra, we know what it is to suffer.’

‘And it’s suffering that’s developed a hidden power in us that makes us able to see what no one else can see. See what others ought to see, perhaps, but don’t dare to. Things that have been forgotten, or been pushed out of the way, quite often’ – Doris Flinkenberg paused solemnly before going on – ‘terrible things. Horrible crimes. Violence and suffering. That’s where we start from, anyway.’

‘And,’ she added. ‘What we study is for real. It happened in reality.’

‘Anyway, it was here that she died,’ said Doris Flinkenberg at Bule Fen. ‘Fell into the water, got sucked into a dreadful whirlpool, never came up again. Lying on the bottom, perhaps she’ll float to the surface some day. It’s very deep here, they dragged the bottom but with no result. But we know that she’s down there, that this stretch of water became her grave. There were witnesses.’

It was here, at Bule Fen, that Doris Flinkenberg finally began her story. Midsummer’s Eve, still quite an early one. Suddenly in the middle of the party that was getting underway in the garden at First Point, Doris had done what Sandra had now spent several weeks waiting for. Gave clear signals that the game was starting now.

‘Come on.’ She’d whispered that in Sandra’s ear and set off with her far away into the woods and gradually they had turned off on the winding path that led up to Bule Fen….

 

And here they were now, beside the fen: leafy branches hanging in a garland round a dark, silent patch of water. Opposite the highest rock, Lore Rock, like a clearing in the foliage of the woods, there was a small sandy beach which had once been a public bathing beach, as Doris Flinkenberg related. It had been a brief spell of time, just after the new houses at Second Point housing exhibition were bought up and the strip of beach at the seaside where people had formerly bathed became inaccessible. Though subsequently, after what happened at the fen only a few years later, no one had wanted to bathe there, and the public bathing beach had been moved again, now to a real freshwater lake in the west of the commune.

It was a strange place, indeed it was, even in the middle of hot summer. Twilit and mosquito-infested at almost every time of the day and night, and windless, even when a fresh breeze was blowing everywhere else. It almost took a gale even to ruffle the water of Bule Fen’s surface. And it was deep. Doris Flinkenberg looked down into the water. ‘Probably a hundred metres deep….’

‘And she was called Eddie,’ Doris Flinkenberg continued, as the sun went in behind a cloud and the mosquitoes gathered around them: two pale girls who both, as luck would have it, happened to be endowed with unusually mosquito-hostile pigmentation, so they could sit more or less undisturbed practically right in the middle of the swarm in that little crevice just below Lore Rock’s highest point which Doris had selected for them; two very serious girls they were too, in fact, with their homemade Loneliness&Fear sweaters. ‘She came from nowhere. Nobody knew much about her. She wasn’t from the District at any rate, for she had a peculiar accent that no one had come across before. It was said of her that she was the American girl.

‘One spring she was just there, in the boathouse below the Glass House on Second Point, at the Baroness’s. That was where she lived. Not as a daughter of the house, or a servant, but a guest of some kind, no one really knew exactly. A distant relative, something of that sort. The Baroness sometimes referred to her as ‘the tenant’, especially towards the end. They didn’t really get along together, Eddie and the Baroness. There were rumours about Eddie and one or two things about her, while she was still alive, actually. Eddie was the kind of person who caused problems, you couldn’t rely on her. I heard that with my own ears. The Baroness said it to my aunt in my cousin’s house where I used to go quite often even back then. ‘That girl is such a disappointment to me,’ she said, many times. And she actually got quite worked up about it in the end. She came to my cousin’s house to warn my aunt about Eddie de Wire. That’s how I interpreted it, anyway.’

‘She lived in the beach house, actually. She was only allowed in the Glass House when the Baroness was at home. The Baroness told it all to my aunt, so it was no secret. Not really. But there was one more thing that not everyone knew. ‘It’s a fact,’ Doris Flinkenberg declared, with omniscience and wisdom about life, at Bule Fen, ‘that for some people it’s important to keep up appearances. In a way it was awfully important to her that no one should know anything about the problems she had with the American girl. After all, as she always said, they were family.’

Bang! Doris shot herself on Lore Rock at Bule Fen on the eleventh of November 1975. It was a Saturday, early evening, the shot echoed in the woods. Windless and cold, the kind of frozen day that occurs in the last days before the snow falls and remains on the ground. A day for the lifeless, a day for death.

A day for death. It was the only shot, but when Rita and Solveig heard it in the cottage on the other side of Uncle’s held, Rita immediately went to the closet where the pistol was kept, to check the pistol was an heirloom, the only thing of value that Rita and Solveig had ever inherited from anyone, a Colt pistol, bought at the department store in the city by the sea in 1907. It was as she thought. It wasn’t there.

Then Rita flew into action. Flinging on her overcoat, she rushed outside, Solveig following her sister, but Solveig couldn’t keep up, as she had sprained her ankle the night before in Helsingfors at Hästhagen (a dance hall), and could hardly move.

And honestly. At first Solveig couldn’t understand why Rita was in such a hurry. The hunting season was still on, and so it wasn’t exactly unusual to hear shots in the woods. Though on the other hand Solveig was well aware that a pistol sounded different from a rifle. And that had been a slightly different sort of bang: like an enormous paper bag full of air bursting as a giant took it between his hands. Like something bursting, something ‘full of empty’, as Doris had occasionally said about her head. Bang. After that, it wasn’t there any more.

But Rita had known exactly how and where she should go and that she had to hurry, was possibly too late. She was too late. When she reached Bule Fen, Doris’s body lay face down on Lore Rock, the shattered head and clumps of hair hung over the silent, dark water that would freeze over only a few days later.

Rita rushed over and began to pull at Doris. At least, that was what it looked like at a distance.

Solveig screamed and screamed. When Solveig reached them, Rita was kneeling beside Doris’s dead body, shaking it and tearing at it, wailing and sobbing and whimpering. For one brief, absurd moment Solveig thought that Rita had attacked the already dead Doris Flinkenberg with her own hands. ‘Sto-o-p!’ Solveig bawled, but Rita, who was already badly smeared with all the blood, turned her face towards her, and on that face there was an expression that Solveig would never forget, she roared:

‘Help me! Don’t just stand there gaping like a fool!’

Then Solveig realised that Rita was trying to lift the dead Doris where she lay on the rock, and carry her somehow.

‘Rita! Stop it! I mean, she’s dead!’

But Rita couldn’t hear anything just then.

‘Help me, I said! We can do it if there are two of us!’

‘Rita, come on! Doris isn’t alive! We must get help! She’s de-e-e-a-‘

And Solveig had tried to pull Rita away from Doris, but Rita didn’t want to let go and in the end they’d both got stained and the smell of strong coffee had been everywhere. That’s what blood smells like, and although they didn’t really know what it was at the time, they would have it in their nostrils long afterwards.

Carry Doris over troubled waters.

 

But it was no good. They were helpless. They couldn’t manage. They couldn’t do anything.

 

Suddenly – some time must have passed but they weren’t aware of it they weren’t alone at the fen any more. Suddenly Doris’s aunt, some ambulance-men and policemen were at the fen….

Rita still sat a short way from Lore Rock, sobbing and weeping. Solveig tried to put her arm round her, there were two of them, after all. But Rita tore herself from her sister’s grasp.

And all this, all, all of it, and more, while Doris Flinkenberg was carried away on a stretcher and the snow began to fall in earnest. Large, heavy flakes that would submerge everything; even though it was the kind of snow that would melt by morning and turn to rain.

 

And yet. Nothing could alter the fact that Doris Flinkenberg had shot herself on Lore Rock at Bule Fen and that when she died by her own hand she was only sixteen years old.

It began like this. At the start: they were sufficient unto themselves. They made Sandra’s house their own and resumed their old games. For fun, just a bit. Doris Flinkenberg was playing Sandra’s mother Lorelei Lindberg who met Heintz-Gurt at the Runaway Kangaroo nightclub, and Sandra played the American girl. ‘No one knew my rose in the world like me.’ ‘I’m a bird from alien shores.’ ‘The heart is an endless hunter.’ That was how she declaimed, until the words were almost drained of meaning. And Sandra crowed: ‘Look, Mamma, they’ve ruined…’, at the top of her voice and made ‘ahem’ movements, exaggerated and obscene, with her body, and Doris couldn’t help trying to wriggle the same way… though only for a while. Then they stopped. Were silent. Felt uneasy about the sacrilege.

For in any case, it was too real.

Eddie, she hadn’t lost her magic power over them. And in her memory Doris could still play around with a certain summer’s day when she found the body – or what was left of it – wrapped in the red plastic raincoat that was quite unmarked, absolutely intact. And there were still so many things that were horribly unclear about that memory.

So they let the games drop for a while and were just two ordinary teenage girls: got drunk on what there was in the cocktail cabinet, smoked Sandra’s Papa’s cigar-cigarettes, inhaling deeply until they both threw up. That evening they both fell asleep in the empty swimming pool among the soft cushions from the rumpus room sofa which had ended up in the pool again, as they always did when Papa was absent and only Doris and Sandra were in the house. And wrapped themselves in fabrics in the Maharajah’s Palace. ‘Little Bombay’, Doris Flinkenberg ventured again, but Sandra shrugged, she wasn’t au fait with the music. ‘No, not that.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Stop nagging.’ And Doris stopped nagging. Willingly. For there was also something else in the air, something that had been there all the time. A brittle mood, like a rubber band being stretched, stretched between them. That was the funny thing, but also the most enjoyable one, in a way.

And suddenly Doris thought she understood that this was really why they were there. This was why their plans for going away hadn’t got anywhere. She thought that sometimes Sandra looked at her, covertly, cautiously. With a new gaze, or an old one, or whatever. But a gaze that wanted something of her. That wanted something so much that it was embarrassed, looked down or away or just veered off into space.

And Doris. She was enjoying it. With increasing frequency in Doris’ head, but also in Sandra’s, it floated up, a memory from a Midsummer Eve long ago, the evening they began to solve the mystery of the American girl. Something in the moss, something that at the time remained half finished. And it was just as well. But now.

That was what lay in between.

And suddenly, in the middle of a game, Sandra kissed Doris. Or was it Doris who kissed Sandra first? It didn’t matter. It was beautiful. It was as it should be. And they both had the moss in them, the memory of the moss… and when they began to kiss each other, nothing – thunder and lightning – could stop them.

‘No one can kiss like us,’ whispered Doris Flinkenberg. Though that was after the First Time, with cigar-cigarettes and gins and tonics….

 

… at nights, they slept together, in the marriage bed. They slept among papers, a book about shopping centres, The Future of Consumption is Consumption, among all the fabrics. Silk satin, rough chiffon, thin habotai, a few well-thumbed copies of Real Life Crime, Teach Yourself Ancient Greek… and so on.

Breadcrumbs, biscuits and jam.

And when there was nothing else to talk about, they returned to the American girl, again.

‘Perhaps she loved him and couldn’t stand the thought that he was in love with someone else,’ Sandra whispered to Doris Flinkenberg in the darkness.

‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ Doris objected, though quite tensely, scarcely daring to breathe, for now she could feel, quite distinctly, Sandra’s hands on her body. On her naked skin.

‘And there’s another thing,’ Sandra went on, creeping closer. Doris could feel her breathing in her ear, and it tickled, and those fingers were playing across her belly and navel, play me like you play your guitar… ‘Perhaps Eddie didn’t really need to do any harm at all. To her, I mean. It was enough that she existed. As a motive. Just by existing in comparison to…. You could see how strange, how past her prime, how abnormal her aunt was with her desire, with what she felt. The lust. She felt exposed. Undressed. Naked. What happened next?’

Oh, for God’s sake, who was Sandra talking about, really?

‘She was an old woman, after all,’ Sandra went on. ‘She had two sons. Half grown up….’ The palm of Sandra’s hand, soft and determined and so familiar over Doris’s breasts and legs and there could be no doubt of what she was going to do. Lifted up her top. Doris helped, imperceptibly. Suddenly she was ashamed of her desire. How strong it was, how determined.

And, moreover, had always been. To escape thinking about it, to escape thinking altogether, she pressed herself to Sandra, and took in the odour, the peculiar fragrance that was slightly stale and far too spicy, yet volatile all the same. The smell that was called Little Bombay.

What was it? A fabric shop?

It occurred to Doris right there in the bed that there were so many things she didn’t know about Sandra, so many things she hadn’t asked.

‘…not even her own children…’

Who were they talking about, really?

But then Doris Flinkenberg was overcome by lust again. And love.

N a one can make love like us.

No, indeed.

 

Afterwards:

‘Have you thought about it?’ Sandra had asked, almost enchanted by herself, her daring, plus the thought that she was going to utter out loud. ‘What about all the things you don’t know about her? Do you really know her? Really?’

They talked about Doris’s aunt again, kept coming back to it. Then Doris said she had to admit:

‘Nyep.’

So that was that. Both yes and no.

And suddenly it made her despair.

Everything, all of it. Both what Sandra was saying, and the fact that it was true, what did she know about the aunt, really? What did she know about anything or anyone?

What did she know about Sandra, her best friend, her own true love?

And she had so much wanted to ask, but it stuck in her throat. About the red plastic raincoat in the photographs, the phone number that was out of use… all of it… but she couldn’t bring herself to. She was afraid.

Afraid of finding out, but also just afraid.

Afraid of Sandra. Was it possible?

But that in itself was a thought so impossible, so outrageous, so unheard of, that she didn’t have the strength to be the person who thought it. She didn’t have the strength any more! She wished it would all go to hell! All of it!

‘But can’t we forget about the American girl now? Can’t we just leave her to her fate?’

Silence.

‘Yes,’ Sandra said then. ‘We can. But we have to bury her first….’

 

The burial of the American girl. Sandra lay in the swimming pool, on the bottom, on the green tiles, she lay on a fabric, on dull green dupion silk, and she was wearing the glitter garments; the ones she had made for Doris as a Fen-Queen outfit, but they would also do now. The scarf, it was Eddie’s own, and the top, the one that had once belonged to Sister Night: the Loneliness&Fear sweater.

And Sandra lay with her eyes closed, for she was dead, and Doris scattered flower petals – they were supposed to represent roses, but they were just ordinary field flowers, but the theme was: ‘No one knew my rose in the world but me’ – over Sandra’s body on the bottom.

‘No one knew my rose in the world but me,’ mumbled Doris. ‘The heart is a heartless hunter,’ she mumbled. And said: ‘It was a bird from alien shores, and now it’s dead.’

And Doris wrapped Sandra in fabric, more fabric, so she was covered. Pure, white and wine-red crêpe that fell as soft as snow. ‘As snow,’ Doris Flinkenberg repeated, too. ‘She was buried in snow.’

And Doris turned on the music till it flooded into all the rooms in the house where there were loudspeakers, at full volume. And the music, it was lovely, it was Nat King Cole.

The dream has ended. For true love died.

That was how its lyrics went, and when you listened it was suddenly true.

Sandra lay in the swimming pool and closed her eyes and travelled away….

 

But now the dream was over, for somewhere Doris’s muffled voice was saying: ‘I transform you now for death AND the resurrection. And so we shall dance, our very last dance.’

For the dream is over now. True love died. And suddenly there was reality.

Doris Day&Sandra Night. There was the other girl, she too had had many names which had originated in their games – games that had been played with her best friend, her only friend, her only only only, Doris Flinkenberg, on the bottom of a swimming pool that had no water in it, for a long, long time. There was Sandra, she lay in bed for weeks after Doris’s death, in a four-poster bed in the house in the muddier part of the woods that was her home. She lay with her face turned to the wall, her knees crooked and drawn up against her stomach, she had a fever.

A stained, shabby sweater. Loneliness&Fear: the other copy of the only two in the whole of world history, under the big pillow. Hugged the garment until her finger-joints turned white.

If she closed her eyes there was blood everywhere. She was in the blood-woods, wandering there confused in the darkness, like a blind woman. Sandra and Doris: there had been the two of them, they been best friends.

And, only Sandra Wärn knew this: Sister Night&Sister Day. It was a game they’d played. And in that game that she’d been the girl who drowned in Bule Fen many years ago. Her name was Eddie de Wire. Her, the American girl.

The game had had a name, too. It was called The Mystery of the American Girl.

Translated by David McDuff

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