The guest event

12 November 2010 | Fiction, Prose

A short story from Vattnen (‘Waters’, Söderströms, 2010)

It was a lagoon. The water was not like out at sea, not a turquoise dream with white vacation trimming on the crests of the waves. This water was completely still and strange, brown yet clear, sepia and umber, perhaps cinnamon, possibly cigar with the finest flakes of finest wrapper. Clean. This water of meetings was clear and clean in a non-platonic, remarkably earthbound way.

Sediment and humus, humus floating about in the morning sun.

It felt comforting, as if the water didn’t repel the foreign bodies as a matter of course, didn’t immediately suppress the other particles and sanctimoniously hasten to force anything that wasn’t water, anything that could be interpreted as pollution and encroachment, down to the bottom and let it dissolve and die all by itself. This water sang its earth-brown song of unity without thereby becoming any less water than water-water was.

Helena felt cold.

So far the morning sun was more light than heat, and Helena felt dawn-cold, but her eyes had already added her body to the waiting water, her pupils communicated to her tensed limbs and knotted stomach that this was a permissive water.

And believed it, as one believes a miracle – less out of faith than of hope.

Perhaps faith is activated hope, Helena thought as she undressed.

She hadn’t slept.

The Russians were getting restless. They had got into the minibus outside the most expensive hotel, and if they weren’t nouveau riche they were old riche. A silver-haired patriarch and his lively young appendages. Helena realised that she was pleased with her Italian bathing suit, a bit on the small side certainly, but bought in Verona.

Black and white.

Elegant.

More elegant than she.

The female tour guide was sullen and sleepy, would probably rather have stayed in bed. She stood warming herself in long sleeves on the jetty, wanted coffee and order in the ranks. The Russians had no sense of discipline at all, they joked and jostled as if they were on a high school outing, and when the tour guide asked the small, disparate group – the five Russians, Helena and a girl from a mountaintop somewhere in northern Norway – to put on their life jackets, they made an extra effort to be even sillier.

What do I know of them, Helena thought. Perhaps it’s nerves?

Of course, she did just as the nameless tour guide said.

Lifejackets had not been a part of Helena’s internal image of what lay ahead, but if they were the important thing, so be it. She obediently set a good example by struggling into a lifejacket, though she didn’t want one between herself and the water. All the jackets were garish orange.

She managed to grab one that was not too unwieldy and sat fairly tight, and now she was ready.

Ready?

If anyone knew, they would laugh at her, but she didn’t care.

And anyway, no one knew.

That Helena had prepared herself, carefully and almost trembling she had prepared herself and tried to make herself look as good as possible. She didn’t want to offend. She wanted to meld in with them as well as she could – and she couldn’t, but what the hell – she wanted to make it as easy as possible for her sleek hosts. Therefore she had shaved herself in the hotel room the night before. Like the woman who thinks of everything before a party, she now displayed a brand new bikini line.

Far up in her groin.

The area where the shaved-off silky hair had been was slightly red.

Previously such a thing had never bothered her, not among people, she hadn’t cared if so-called ‘embarrassing hair’ peeked out from a bikini bottom. But the night before she had suddenly been seized by a need to honour and cherish her future partners by leaving no effort unspared. She was a bit like the girl in the Song of Solomon, anxiously yet expectantly adorning herself for her lovers’ tryst.

Would she do?

Would they think she was beautiful?

No, that was going too far. They certainly didn’t need to think she was beautiful, all that was needed was that she wasn’t seen as so instinctively repulsive that she couldn’t join be part of the proceedings. And the razor probably made no difference one way or the other, but was simply a way to get close.

Of tuning into a wavelength, with a practical form of respect.

Helena was convinced that the deciding vote would be cast not by her outer appearance but by her inner nimbus, but while the former might have some minor effect, the latter was beyond the reach of her efforts and will.

Hence the evening’s fumbling razor prayer.

Now the Russians were also equipped with lifejackets, and the group received orders to sit on the edge of the jetty with their legs in the water. In English. Helena had a feeling that at least some of the Slavs understood no English – the patriarch seemed quite bewildered – but perhaps it didn’t really matter. Anyway, this sort of thing was best done in a completely foreign language.

And suddenly they were there.

They were suddenly there, saying hello as they somersaulted in the water, bobbing up and bobbing up again precisely next to the participants’ suddenly small and stick-thin shins. The dimensions of the central figures took them all by surprise – the patriarch rose with studied indifference, gave a massive yawn and departed with dignity almost intact – and many gasped involuntarily for breath, heaving their toes quickly back onto land again. These were no disarmed toy creatures, no cute, harmless symbols meekly and passively flouncing from a string on the ceiling of the minibus in time to the windings of the road and the driver’s gas pedal humour. These creatures were large and strikingly real and had no strings, they could do as they liked, and just when the shivering group on the edge of the jetty had realised this, the tour guide ordered them all brusquely into the water.

No one moved.

No one moved, and then someone did move, and to her own unbounded amazement it was Helena. She who was so timid and cautious. She who harboured so many strange and overwrought fears, morbid scenarios, healthy strategies for self-preservation, forgot everything and became a daring pioneer for the first time in her mollusc-like, closed and careful, divided life. First and complete, she flopped heavily in, and after that there was nothing but floating and happiness.

Helena laughed, laughed harder and more freely than she had since she was a child, and that was what she was, she was a wide-open child surrounded by unconditional kindness and exuberant primordial play. No secret motives lurked under slimy stones gathering strength for a disuniting leap. She hardly noticed that some of the others in the group didn’t dare let go of the edge of the jetty at all and that the tour guide – with strained patience, and soon increasingly irritated because of the photographing, the business – was still trying to force the reluctant swimmers to pose with the creatures and allow themselves to be kissed by them.

Click-click, went the camera, and the tour guide probably got a commission on the pictures.

It was business.

The whole event had a commercial basis, but Helena was beyond the sordid. For once she didn’t even mind that she came out badly in photos.

The nagging, alienating and exhausting self-examination was gone.

She was at home.

As a creature among creatures Helena was more at home than she had ever been as a person among people. She was equal. Her hosts accepted her. She was so much present that not even her gratitude spoiled the moment and the immediacy by weighing it down with a conscious humility. No thought. The gratitude welled up in her later, afterwards, but now everything was simply organic, a togetherness of living beings in freedom, equality and fraternity.

She could ride, ride and fall, she could surf, she could coast by holding onto the dorsal fins, be towed and yet not be a burden. The creatures smiled. They were neither diffuse nor definable, they were not blue and they were not grey, they were neither mauve nor shimmering green, they were much more, they were all the colours and firm and soft at the same wonderful time.

They just were, as she just was and was allowed to be.

A recall whistle sounded.

That was divine, Helena bubbled with uncharacteristic garullity to the Norwegian girl when their water assignment was over. She saw that the Russians, too, were bubbling weightlessly, the patriarch, with quizzical indulgence but firmness of hand, already in the process of applying circular rubbing motions to the members of his family as he towelled them dry.

I don’t want to profane this with religion, was the mountaintop girl’s curt reply.

Helena said nothing.

She got dressed, went to the photo shop and there without blinking she bought a fantastically expensive photograph of her laughing self. Never before had she seen herself like that, and wide-eyed she looked into this new image of Helena. With teeth stained by coffee and tobacco she was humus-laughing openly, straight into the camera.

Straight. In.

Now she knew why she had been given her hitherto concealed, amazingly deep dimples, they were for the dolphins to burrow their long, blunt snouts in. The creatures had laid bare her happiness.

And perhaps, just perhaps she would never be as heavy again. As lonely. As inexplicably wrong and out of place. Perhaps the dolphins had opened up a life, a fellowship where  human beings, too, had a part.

In the theology of hospitality.

Translated by David McDuff

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