A long dream

9 October 2009 | Fiction, Prose

A short story from Jälkikasvu (‘Offspring’, Otava, 2009)

‘I was eating a late breakfast, without a care in the world, when it happened.’

He snaps off the recorder. He has said the same thing three times now, but he always loses his train of thought right there. Why is it so difficult to continue? In his mind, the next part feels quite clear, but the words simply won’t come out of his mouth. He ought to say that his wife left him yesterday, on the twelfth of February, at 10:48 AM, following a three-minute fifteen-second briefing.

He remembers how the clock face kept flashing over his wife’s shoulder as he listened to the precise sentences that dropped from her lips. She spoke very clearly, so slowly in fact that after the first minute it felt like watching the sign-language newscast. His wife was the main newscaster, and there ought to have been a sign language interpreter behind her shoulder, who would have made the pauses and slow tempo understandable. But all that was there was the clock with its second hand ticking inexorably onwards. It looked like a sledgehammer pounding the life out of everything in its path. After three times around, time had been so thoroughly killed that there was no chance of resuscitation.

Or so he thought. In actuality, time had simply shifted from the clock into his head.

His wife left him 27 hours, two minutes, and fourteen seconds ago.

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Once when he was young, he watched a documentary on television about a world-famous author, an old man at the time, now dead. The author said that all of his stories – a considerable number – got their start in the same way: a character had come to life in his head and started to explain himself into reality, so that the author had to take hold of the explanation and write about it to make a record of the character. The author himself had always thought this method was a flimsy one, but it seemed it never failed him. He had been married three times, fathered seven children, and lived in four different countries, but the most real experience for him was the writing, that substanceless place where he might submerge himself, and create a story and characters who spoke inside his head.

From then on he, Julius, had waited for an imaginary character to start talking in his head, someone for him to listen to, who would take control and demand his attention, but nothing ever happened. For the last few years he had started to wonder if he would be able to stand such characters even if they did take up residence in his mind. He would get annoyed with them just like he got annoyed at beggars on street-corners or kids making noise under his window – he would pass them by, or tell them to go play in the park.

The same memory keeps troubling him: decades ago on a business trip in central Europe he had heard a story about a soccer player, a respected league player who was always given plenty of time on the field and lots of responsibility. For some reason, the man began nevertheless to fear that he was turning into a soccer ball, that he would end up bounced and kicked around the field just like a soccer ball. He wanted to stay close to his beloved sport, but he could no longer devote himself to the struggle on the field, so he became a lineman, then a referee, then the lead referee, but it didn’t ease his fears. He got drawn into administrative duties, first at the national level, then in the international field – although his field now consisted of meeting rooms, conferences and committees. His career went unusually smoothly, but the whole time he had a longing to touch a soccer ball. If only he didn’t have that unbearable fear!

That story had haunted him from the moment he heard it.

His thoughts jump around, scatter here and there. It’s from lack of sleep. After his wife’s monologue, he still couldn’t sleep. Of course he tried, but just when the jumble of images in his head would start to darken into a dream, he would be conscious that his life depended upon staying awake. His system would be on alert, his heart would pound, he would be in complete self-defence mode, as if he were trapped at the edge of a cliff, and would fall if he lost consciousness. And the human will to survive is so deep that Julius stays awake.

Just one small suitcase. ‘I can get the rest later,’ his wife said, walking calmly to the door, and slipping out, like she had thousands of times before. For a few minutes he didn’t really put together what was happening – whether his wife was going to the theatre with some friend, or on a business trip, or popping out for a walk as she took out the garbage. She was leaving him? Every piece of furniture was still in its place, the dishes were there where they had been put down, the pictures and mirrors were there on the wall, the arm of the sofa still had a little red wine stain faded to nothingness from the wash. But everything looked empty, emptied by his wife’s departure.

The telephone beeps a warning, he attaches the battery to the charger but leaves the receiver on, just in case, a little package that slips into your hand that you can use to get in touch with the rest of the world – but he doesn’t want to. Though a few hours later he did go to the store to buy a bit of bread, cheese, and coffee, and ran into Leo, and they even chatted for a moment. He didn’t mention his wife leaving – its not the kind of thing that you talk about with acquaintances like him. Leo said he watched a sporting event over the weekend – ski jumping, to be exact – and according to the commentator, one competitor ‘finished his round with a fall from his upper torso.’ Leo was still amused by this, and once it would have got at least a smile out of him, too, but now his answer stuck in his throat. He claimed he was coming down with something and went quickly home before Leo could ask him to play chess – it was already several weeks since the last time they played. Playing chess would have betrayed his sleep deprivation, and then he would have had to explain.

No one has called since his wife left. They aren’t expecting him at work because it’s his winter vacation. He doesn’t keep in touch with his relatives regularly, and they don’t keep in touch with him. They have no children. The dog died a year ago, and they didn’t get another one. There is nothing to disturb his life now that his wife is gone.

Sometimes the phone has a life of its own. He didn’t always remember to lock his mobile as he slipped it into his pocket. One time he turned the ring-tone off while he was playing chess and when he came home from Leo’s house and took it out of his pocket, there were 24 messages on it. There are many things that I would have understood, if only they hadn’t been explained to me, the display said. The phone had ordered 24 aphorisms from the bottom of his pocket, and more kept coming, although he kept pressing buttons trying to get it to stop. An aphorism service, 1.50 euros a piece. Who knew there was such a thing?

He had, however, also had a positive experience when a phone decided to make its own calls. Gunilla. She was a colleague who had gone with him to a seminar in Oslo. At the end of an intense week of work, they had the last evening free, and Gunilla wasn’t flying out until morning. They ended up in a night club where they lingered for a long time. Gunilla drank only one glass of wine, and he drank about as temperately as usual. Conversation, dancing. At the end of the evening, they exchanged their personal phone numbers. And that was all. Two months went by and they didn’t call each other. They didn’t even meet by accident, because Gunilla worked in a field office on the other side of town. He waited for the woman to make the next move, and maybe she was doing the same thing, waiting for him. Of course she was. But he was content.

Then finally one evening, the phone rang. He was at home alone, listening to Schubert. His wife was out shopping – Christmas was coming, and he himself was trying to escape all of the hubbub.

Caller: Gunilla. He turned down the music. Blood hummed through his head as he answered the phone. What was going to happen now? At first all he heard was a rustling, then a strange squeaking noise. Little by little he constructed an image from the noises. Gunilla was walking down a snowy street, quite secluded, because there was no traffic noise in the background – but then, she did live in the suburbs. The snow was squeaking under her feet, she coughed suddenly – maybe the cold took her breath away. He thought about the objects around him: a wallet, of course, full of money and credit cards, maybe children’s pictures, a make-up bag for sure, with lipstick and powder, nail clippers, maybe a paperback to read in transit, feminine hygiene products, keys, tissues, a silky lining…. Gunilla had kept his number on her phone for more than two months, and for a brief moment he found himself in her purse, witnessing her breathing, her footsteps, her cough.

It was pleasant. Gunilla must certainly have noticed later what had happened – noticed who her phone had accidently called – but she didn’t get in touch with him, didn’t explain. He didn’t bring it up, either, ever. At the seminar the following year, in Copenhagen this time, he heard that Gunilla was on maternity leave. It was only on his way home that he realised that Gunilla must have already been pregnant that evening they spent together. The pregnancy would have been so far along that she had to have known about it, even though it didn’t yet show enough that he would have noticed it when they were dancing.

To his own wonder, he was grateful, somehow, for that evening. There had already been a child growing in Gunilla’s womb, and he couldn’t get any closer to that trio of woman, man, and child – not then, and not now. And he never would get into that trio, because his wife was already beyond her childbearing years, and nothing had happened. And from the bottom of Gunilla’s purse, he, Julius, had followed the rhythm of her steps for a moment, rocked along with her like the unfinished child in her womb, sitting in his own living room, on his own sofa, with a cognac in his hand, safe from fatherhood.

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He washes the laundry but doesn’t feel like hanging it to dry. Maybe he’ll do it eventually. The bread is gone again, coffee scorches his stomach. His sister calls to invite them to their god-daughter’s birthday party Sunday after next. He says sure, although he can’t fathom an event so far in the future. Days and weeks don’t fit on a clock face, only seconds, minutes, and hours, and now that they’re in his head, he follows their progress like a formula-one driver follows his route. The cross-country journeys of days and weeks aren’t for the sleepless, their future doesn’t penetrate beyond the next curve in the road.

His wife hasn’t gone to stay in a hotel – he understands that much, at least – and she hasn’t gone to any of her friends’ houses, or her mother’s or her sister’s. When a woman starts to weave a web of secrets with another man, you can see it in everything she does – her posture, her way of walking, the way she turns her head in the middle of a sentence. If you know how to look for it. But he didn’t know how. He probably didn’t even want to know. Why would he want to, if knowing felt like this?

He remembers training the dog years ago. If they were in the park and the dog ran in an undesired direction, it didn’t do any good to just yell no, because the concept was too abstract, it wasn’t connected with anything. You had to call the dog, giving the command with a clear gesture: ‘Come!’ Then you might give it a treat for obeying and the other objects of the dog’s attention would lose their interest.

An easy thing to do, but Julius didn’t know how to adapt it to his wife.

He counts with pen and paper; he’s been awake for 46 and a half hours. About three and a half hours less time has passed since his wife left. The phone rang twice after his sister called, both times from an unfamiliar number – he didn’t answer. Snow is falling softly – large flakes. It’s been 51 days since Christmas Eve, more than seven weeks. There are 29 days in this month, because it’s a leap year.

The evening passes slowly, night falls, then come the wee hours, then morning. People take showers, eat breakfast, get dressed to go out. Ordinary sounds that he never noticed until they were missing from his own house. He sits and listens to other people’s lives. Time passes, full daylight comes. Suddenly he is very very small, maybe five years old, lying under a blanket with a fever, his temperature is still rising, he is shivering. He tries to remember his name, but he can’t get it into his mind, and a terror grows, and time passes, and he still can’t remember, and now he’s yelling at the top of his lungs, and his mother snatches him from under the blanket, she has to get the fever down, she’s in a panic, it’s delirium! The word delirium starts to make him laugh. He confuses it with Siberia, a word he knows, used when the frost cakes the edges of the windows and outside your breath makes thick clouds in the air. Cold as Siberia. His mother’s cool fingers press against his forehead and suddenly, whether he’s in a delirium or in Siberia, he remembers his name: He’s Julius. He’s Julius even when he can’t remember, even when he doesn’t remember to hold on tight to his name.

And now he has the same insight again, and laughs at it so he forgets to watch out for the cliff, falls over the edge, floats slowly like a snowflake, falls asleep, sleeps, the light darkens and comes to an end and is kindled again, and he doesn’t hear it, and he doesn’t hear when the telephone rings, and then a message beeps, and it rings again, doesn’t hear when the key turns in the lock, when his wife comes inside and puts her suitcase down, walks across the room, and covers him with a blanket, opens the windows, and goes into the shower, puts on comfortable clothes and unpacks her suitcase, brushes her hair and makes coffee. His wife looks around and spreads back out into her home, and the dishes are once again her dishes, the rugs are her rugs, the furniture her furniture. He doesn’t hear any of this, he just sleeps, sleeps for fifteen hours, and when he wakes up, he is the same man and his wife says calmly that she will give him one last chance.

Julius yawns. Maybe the other man didn’t really want her all to himself, or maybe his wife simply noticed that she does better when she’s yearning to be somewhere else than she does when she actually moves there. The main thing is that everything is just as it was before.

Julius feels refreshed enough that he calls Leo and suggests a game of chess.

Translated by Lola Rogers

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