The Phantom Picture
2013, H. Aschehoug & Co. (W. Nygaard)
Tick tock, tick tock.
You’re lying there in the darkness, feeling wide awake. You might as well get up and do the
dishes, clean the house, or take out the garbage. You could watch repeats on Discovery Channel
or read a book. Yet, you know you have to sleep. 7 hours a day, 365 days a year.
You know you have to sleep, but your heart is beating faster than ever, and everything below
your ribs feels swollen and tender.
You turn over on your back and stare at the ceiling. Your eyes follow the light coming through the
window which is cast by passing cars. You see the pictures on the wall becoming visible. One at
a time, you see the picture of your father, and the picture of your mother, who you no longer visit.
You see your old class photograph, where everyone is wearing flannel shirts and sporting half-
long hair. You see the pot plants on the book shelves; Dracena, ivy, and a creeper you have had
for several years, but can’t remember the name of. Your eyes follow the light when it passes over
the framed poster of Bob Dylan, and dying away somewhere in the open wardrobe.
You lie there silent, sweat gathering in the small of your back. Feeling nauseous, you start
thinking about what you have eaten, and everything you have done in the past week. You think of
the beer, the junk, the cigarettes. Then you remember the father of that distant friend of yours,
who died of stomach cancer three years ago, or that boy from your old neighborhood, the one
you never spoke to, but who died of a brain tumor when he was serving in the army. Or was it in
It’s now you start getting irritated with the duvet. It’s too short to cover your feet, so you turn onto
your side, pull your feet up under you, and stare straight into the alarm clock.
Tick tock, tick tock.
An hour has passed since you last checked the time. You follow the second hand for a couple of
rounds before turning to face the wall. You think about the coming day, and everything you are
going to do at work. As if you are having an allergic reaction, you start to itch. You itch
everywhere. You itch, but it’s not due to scabies, lice or fleas. It doesn’t look like you have
shingles, and it’s not atopical dermatitis, contact dermatitis, seborrheic eczema or lichen planus.
You know this, as you have been to the doctor to check. Stil , it’s clear that it could be a sign of
diabetes, high metabolism, low metabolism, liver disease, kidney disease, lymphoma, leukemia
or other types of cancers.
Tick tock, tick tock.
You consider masturbating to relax your muscles. You consider doing push-ups and taking a long
shower. You think of hot milk, liquor and headache pills.
How long did that father have cancer before it was discovered?
With these thoughts occupying your head, you decide to stop smoking, and maybe to drink a little
less. You don’t need to light a cigarette before breakfast, you think, but that is exactly what you
are going to do when you wake up, if you wake up, if you can go to sleep first.
Tick tock, tick tock.
You remember how it was when you were a kid – you could fall asleep anywhere. Dad would
carry you to bed, up the stairs and into your room. Bits of Lego would be spread out everywhere,
together with small cars. You slept well in that bed. You slept well everywhere. You could fall
asleep in the kindergarten, in the mezzanine, in the playroom, in the sandbox. You fell asleep in
the sandbox! That was the spring when you were ill. You had thirty-nine and a half in fever, but no
one was allowed to feel your forehead. An hour later they found you sleeping, with a green plastic
spade in your hand.
When you came home that afternoon, you coughed up blood. At the hospital they said you had
contracted tuberculosis, and you stayed there for two weeks. You slept well there too.
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.
Every tick and every tock is getting louder. You jump a little every time. You have never heard
that humming sound before. Your arm is getting numb, so you turn onto your back again, stretch
out your feet, and feel the cool air from the window tickle your toes.
What have you forgotten? There must be something you have forgotten. At one point, quite
imperceptibly, you start sinking. Your eyes close, and you float away. You are half dreaming,
getting lost in a fantasy, until what seems like an electric shock jolts through your whole body.
You wake up violently. Your heart is beating hard and rapidly now, more rapidly than a heart can
bear. So you grow afraid again, and are wide awake.
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.
Soon the alarm will buzz. Presumably, you have slept, but never enough.
Friends are important. Studies suggest that people with friends live longer than those who don’t
have them. Studies show that friends are more important than family. That is to say, more
important if what you want is to live for a long time. I know this, because I have read it
somewhere, and some scientists claim that this longevity is due to the fact that one chooses
one’s friends, while family is something one is born into, and which follows you all the way to the
I have three friends. Maria is perhaps my best friend. The two of us have the best conversations
and spend the most time together. That is, not the time when I have to be at work, for that is the
time when I have to deal with Kenneth. I would say that he is my worst friend. Kenneth tries to
endow me with a wisdom which he himself has failed to gain, and that can be quite exhausting.
My third friend is Jacob. He is a kind of drinking buddy. I don’t really know Jacob that well, but he
insists that he knows me. He is quite a dubious character, but entertaining in his own way.
Besides, he always pays.
But this isn’t a story about friendship. Nor is it a story about family. Not really. This is a story
about standing in the bathroom with your feet firmly planted in a cement-like mix of old laundry
soap and draining water on a Friday morning. This is a story about having a radio on the window
sill playing something you have heard a thousand times before, but never really paid attention to.
This is the story about the contours of a twenty-seven year old man behind the fog on the
I do not resemble the passport photo that was taken five years ago. I had a dark blond fringe
which ran parallel to my eyebrows, and a smooth, carefree forehead. The focus used to be on my
face, and on my hair, which is getting thinner and thinner. It was on the crooked teeth, and on the
tiny scar on the left side of my nose which, after the age of twenty-five, adds character. Now the
focus is more on my body. It’s on my expanding waistline, which I for years have forced into a
size 32, and on my moles. The average person has over thirty moles. I have way more moles
than this, and today I discover a new one. It’s a round, brown, speckled one, maybe two
millimeters in diameter, just underneath my right nipple. I study it, squeeze it a bit, and pick it with
my nail. I hope it might disappear.
The mole – I think about it all the way to work. I think about it on my way past Falis Hair Salon,
past the food shop, past Cavalier’s office, and past Cacadou. I pass 24-hour gyms, coffee bars,
men in suits and people jogging. Cogs in the wheel with too much to do and too little time. The
time is seven thirty on a Friday morning in May. It is the sixteenth, to be precise. It’s my twenty-
seventh birthday today, and tomorrow is the national day. For that reason my father called me
“Little Wergeland” when I was a child. He told me I was a national treasure, and that the world
was my oyster, but for some reason I still find myself in a small town where, according to national
statistics, the number of moles will be 18 443 940 from the first of January.
“What are you doing this summer”? he asks.
Kenneth stands in the doorway. There’s no hel o, no good morning. His coffee cup is resting on
his chest and he is wearing silver earrings. He bought them in Paris for 600 crowns a piece. He is
wearing a new pair of trousers folded neatly over his shoes. He is cleanly shaven. He looks ready
for an important meeting he is not going to. Kenneth is a year older than me, and much better-
looking. He is a head shorter than me, but much better-looking. He is always so clean and well-
groomed. He has dark brown hair, combed backwards into a rockabilly hairstyle. It looks stiff and
lifeless. Immaculately combed, like striped wallpaper, it looks expensive and artificial. His
sideburns are trimmed to perfection. They look like neatly cut bits of tape stuck on from his ears,
reaching halfway to his nose.
I shrug my shoulders and shake my head.
Kenneth says, “I’m going to Tuscany, leaving a week from Friday. I’m taking an early holiday this
year”. He draws a breath.
Kenneth says, “I’m going to be away for three weeks, am going with some buddies. Should be
really good. Have you been there? No? You should go. One of my mates has been there before,
so we’l have a week in Florence to start, then we’ve rented a house in a village. Fuck, it’s going
to be really good, drinking and eating. It’l be good”.
He punches the wall, smiling. “Yeah, it’s going to be great!”
“What did you say you were doing again”? he asks, not really expecting an answer. The only time
Kenneth does not look like an image from an advertisement, is when he is laughing in the way
which he is now, showing off his rat-like smile, all flashing teeth and squinting eyes.
“Have a good holiday”, he says, striding purposefully down the corridor. Kenneth has been
working in the reception for two years, and his ambition is to have his collection of poetry
published. It’s Kenneth who answers the phone and, if you call the number listed on our website,
says “Laubstadt, good afternoon”. Kenneth is the self-proclaimed backbone of our publishing
house, and does not need to be prompted to constantly remind me that, without him, the whole
system would unravel, and that no one – authors, the press or agents, would get through to us
without him behind that white wooden desk.
Kenneth says it’s important to protect the working class. He is the only person I know with a
qualification in word processing.
My desk, a cheap piece of furniture from IKEA, has not been cleaned for several months. Half-
empty coffee cups are stacked against the wall, right under the calendar depicting the jackets of
all our different publications. There are papers everywhere. There are small, yellow post-its with
phone numbers so old that I have forgotten why I ever wrote them down. Pens and pencils stand
in an old mug, and there is a grey dusty telephone with bits of tobacco stuck in the key pad. The words “Johnny Cash is King” run across my screen. The shelf behind me is full of our publications. There are some respectable Norwegian works and numerous publications of Danish, Swedish, English, American, French, German and Spanish works. Most of them are unread copies. They are most likely there just for show. “Have you set up the meeting in Copenhagen”? Oda, in high heels, is studying the coffee machine in the kitchenette. She is beautiful, tall, stylish and evil. She’s wearing a red dress, as if she has just come from a party. A whiff of red wine emanates from her pores, and her eyes look heavy. Oda has dark brown, almost black hair. If one is close enough, under a bright light, one can see some lighter strands. It’s thick and messy, styled to make it appear casual. It makes her seem eccentric. “Get this damn coffee machine fixed”, she says. Her feet click clock over the floor as she walks – the Boss, the Queen, the one who founded this publishing house eight years ago. She discovered an unknown Chilean writer whose books after a short while came to be found under every Christmas tree in a quarter of all Norwegian homes. He got bigger than Harry Potter, Dan Brown and Stephen King, bigger than Anne B. Ragde and Unni Lindell. Who would have thought it? And Oda, she became Oda with a nose for gold, with the Royal Flush, the one with the millions in the bank. It was a success story, a fairytale, an example used in business school lectures. Who would have thought it? Before this, she was nothing. She was me, but in a different publishing house. She was a thirty-four year old secretary on a month’s holiday in South America. While in Peru she had to choose between going north to Ecuador or south to Chile. If she had chosen north, she would still have been a secretary. Instead she became the Queen of publishing. She steers her ship with an iron hand, in full control. She is the industry’s Margaret Thatcher, and she always gets her way. Most of us working here don’t even have an employment contract. If you’re fired, it’s a short process. The most important part of my job, more important than setting up meetings, liaising with authors and translators, and communicating with book shops, is making Oda feel good. That’s the only way she can look good. My most important task is to tell her that she is doing a good job, and make sure the job gets done. I’m her anonymous right-hand man. That sort of thing is quite common in companies and publishing houses that are run by people like Oda. Many of those people have someone like me – an assistant. If you have an assistant, you have success. If you have an assistant, you are so utterly remarkable, so talented and sought-after, that you don’t have time for anything but shine in the reflected glow of your own genius. This glow is kept alive by your assistant. What is more important than even my most important task, is simply to exist. In many ways I am more a butler than anything else. I know Oda, I know her type, and therefore I am good at my job. Kenneth doesn’t understand. Behind Oda’s back he calls me the slave boy. That rat face pats himself on the back every time he manages to refer to this in a conversation, but when Oda is standing restlessly in the doorway, I know I have to drop everything and help her solve a problem which has just come up. Kenneth doesn’t know this. He doesn’t know that, when Oda is mumbling to herself by the kitchenette, she is nervous about going to a meeting. He doesn’t know that, when she is sitting in the Library – the room next to her office where all the publications are on display, and where the ashtray and the two Winchester chairs stand prepared to help solve all life’s dilemmas – when she is sitting there skimming through a book, she is waiting for an important email or phone call. When she asks me to go out and buy something – anything – she
is in a foul mood. When she is sitting by the kitchen table, tapping her feet to the beat of a song
no one else can hear, she is in a good mood. When Oda knocks on my office door, asking if I’m
busy, it has to do with private matters. I usually know what to say, and what needs to be done.
Like that time Oda’s boyfriend wanted us to publish one of his novels. It was a novel written in just
three weeks, inspired by Jack Kerouac. Oda tried to tell him several times: you are not Jack
. But she couldn’t find the right words to say it. Over a cigarette, sitting in the Winchester
chairs, we decided that the easiest solution was for her to dump him. She was over him in a
week. As Oda would say, if you don’t have any talent, you should at least learn to be good in bed.
Jacob, my dubious friend, says he agrees with her. He says you don’t real y need any talent at all.
You just need a wide, open, toothless mouth that is good at swallowing. He tells me that in Latin,
there are two words for oral sex. The first is irrumare,
which means to penetrate orally. Then
there is fellare,
which means to be penetrated orally. He says that everything in this world has its
foundation in a single question: are you an irrumator or are you a fellator? Jacob is not very
proficient in Latin grammar.
There are yellow post-it notes with words scrawled on them on Kenneth’s desk, by his keyboard
and by his phone. These are Kenneth’s short, half-finished poems that he writes and sticks to
places every day, and which he gathers in a folder every Friday before going home. It’s a random
order of things – a technique he has developed himself. He says it’s important to keep creativity
alive, and claims I have to open myself up to poetry.
Sometimes, after lunch, he delivers lectures in the Library while I smoke cigarettes. I say that I
like Leonard Cohen’s lyrics. He says Leonard Cohen is overrated and old-fashioned. I say I like
Bob Dylan. Kenneth says he doesn’t like the metric in Dylan’s writing. He uses words such as
Iambic, Trochaic and Dactylic about how the rhythm of a poem ought to be, and where the
emphasis of each verse should be. He says that Dylan’s texts are too anapestic for his taste. He
prefers paeans where the emphasis is on heavy, light, light, light.
I don’t always understand what Kenneth is talking about. I don’t think Kenneth does either. He
has completed a course in poetry at the Open University, and says that there is an artistic streak
which runs in his family. His mother paints pictures, especially and Wednesdays, and his father is
a businessman. Kenneth says that he has got the best from both worlds.
“Are you going to the party tonight”? he asks, his fork in his ham salad, holding an avant-garde
book issued by some obscure publisher. It’s lunchtime.
“We’ve got a day off tomorrow, you know”, he says.
“I have no plans”, I reply, folding away my newspaper.
Kenneth waits. I look at him. Kenneth waits. I take a sip of my coffee. Kenneth waits.
“What are your plans”? I ask.
“Well…” Kenneth draws out his words.
“Nothing special”, he says. “I’m just going to a small dinner party with some friends of mine,
nothing fancy, some writers, no one you know, just the guy who wrote The Dream Demon
going to have some tapas, drink some wine, take it easy. You like tapas? I love tapas – had loads
of it the last time I was in Barcelona. You have to try the tapas at Rust, it’s the best in town. I was
there last with the singer from The Fakers a few months ago – he’s a friend of mine, a really cool
At this point I try to explain to Kenneth that you can’t like
tapas as it does not refer to a single
dish, and that his question is like asking someone if they like clothes.
“Are you a complete idiot”? he asks. “Of course I know that. What planet are you living on? Everybody knows that tapas is not a single dish. I mean, welcome to the millennium”. He gets up, slamming shut the book from the obscure publisher. “You should read this”, he exclaims, waving it in front of my face. “But I guess you don’t understand cultural things?” I spend the rest of the day with my office door closed. Over the phone, I tell an author who is getting his debut novel published that we have no money to give him an advance. I tell Jacob, my dubious friend, that I don’t have any siblings, and that he can’t have an invitation. I tell a journalist that Oda is not free at the moment, but that I can give her the message that he has called to hear her views on e-books and other digital distribution solutions. The journalist said that a bitter author had started a Facebook-campaign against them. I told him that neither Oda nor I were on Facebook, but that I would tell her he had tried to contact her. I read from time to time, mostly biographies of persons of importance. Just in the last week I have read the biographies of Arnulf Ǿverland, Nina Simone, and HG Wells. What I really should have been reading is a pompous South American novel. That’s what’s selling these days, mostly thanks to us. If you look back far enough, you’l find that our success is due to a quite ordinary and anonymous man called Rune. He’s a guy Oda met about eight years ago, and who made her enrol in a Spanish course after their third date. The garden party all publishing houses of a certain size are obliged to arrange in the course of the summer is still six weeks away, and my inbox is getting filled up with positive responses to our invitations. We at Laubstadt are proud to be rumoured to throw the wildest parties. As the anonymous butler, and always in the background, I ensure that the hostess can relax, let her hair down, and dance on the tabletops. The hostess sets the standard for the guests’ behaviour, and Oda never disappoints. That is why our parties are notorious. That is why writers, musicians, intellectuals, actors, celebrities, know-it-alls and wannabes with their noses full of cocaine and their pockets full of condoms, show up. That is the reason that journalists are kept out. Those who want their picture taken can go to another summer party. We have seen writers who are published in 18 countries with millions in double digits in their bank accounts run around the garden naked with erect penises, looking for anything that is standing still for long enough for them to grab hold of. We have seen politicians making waitresses high on coke pregnant in the toilets, and crying international musicians waving kitchen knives, threatening with a suicide they will never commit. It’s nauseating. Of course it is nauseating, but we can’t change the nature of the beast. We can simply exert damage control. We can block the pedophiles, the psychopaths and the traitors. Everything else is simply a part of the ingredients of a party only we, Laubstedt, are capable of throwing. 2. She asks me about my day. Maria, my best friend, in a white and red summer dress and with ice cream on her chin. She has dark green eyes and bright red lipstick. She has light brown hair which falls in loose spirals by her ears, and which falls down to her chest. Maria has a challenging look about her, like an unassailable daddy’s girl who knows what she wants. She also has this side parting over her left eye which allows her hair to conceal the right side of her forehead, and one of her eyes, should she wish to. It has been newly washed, and smells of lavender and honey. Between us, on a bench outside Deichmanske Library, stands a cup of the most straightforward of the twenty types of coffee they sell at the local coffee shop. I tell her about Kenneth, and about the garden party I have spent parts of my day organizing. I tell her that no one said happy birthday to me, and that we ought to get drunk. “Why the long face?” she asks.
I say, “I am not bitter. I am not in a bad mood. I’m just numb”.
“Who are you really?” she asks, with the emphasis on “you”.
She always asks me this when she thinks I am getting separated from the real me. And when she
asks me this, I think to myself that I am probably an alcoholic, and envisage myself sitting on
benches such as this one drinking industrial alcohol when I get older. I see myself having
acquired a thick beard and a broken-veined red nose and a nickname such as Boozer or the
Maria pulls a carton of white wine and a flat present wrapped in tartan paper from her black
“Let’s get drunk”, she says.
The present is a framed photograph of the two of us, grainy, in different shades of yellow, orange
and black. It was taken with a mobile phone camera under a streetlamp by the Sofienberg Park
that night we first met. Maria has red lipstick, and I have a black eye. That was exactly two years
Let’s rewind a little. On a white screen in a dark room a sharp, overexposed, green-coloured
picture is projected; raw footage with no sound. There is constant movement on the screen, and
naked people run around through woods and sand. There is a lot of sand, and a lot of forest and
a lot of nakedness. There is a lot of pain, emotions, and passion. There is a lot of what we, who
are too normal, can never understand. Then the credits start rolling.
The light comes on and the room breaks into applause. There is a vernissage in some sort of
improvised gallery, in an abandoned cellar by the river. The audience consists of around 200 self-
proclaimed art critics in their mid-20s, and they have just watched a video-installation. Unknown
people, both beautiful and ugly, drink red wine straight from the carton and play kiss and tell
behind impenetrable concrete walls and iron doors. There are candles and a blinking plastic
Christmas tree in one corner, broken bottles and cigarette butts on the floor, and the smell of
damp, rot and fungus everywhere. There is a certain sense of a common understanding within
the crowd underlying a sense of chaos, and drunk on beer and liquor, I have no idea what I am
doing here, in a cellar as far from civilization that you can possibly get in the middle of town.
“You’re a big man”, I shout, in disgust and confusion.
The sarcasm seems to hang heavily over these people. A dramatic silence falls. I’m certain that
people have been killed and buried in this grey, sad concrete room, this cold, dark, claustrophobic
hole. “Right-wing bastard”, one of them shouts, pointing his finger at me.
Now the rest of the crowd starts chanting, and takes one step away from me and two steps
forward. I get pushed into a corner, the bottle of beer I’m holding my only weapon.
“You are a big man”, I repeat, the emphasis on big
. I try to seem sincere.
“It’s fine!” a voice from across the room bellows. “The work is intended to provoke different types
of reactions from different kinds of human species”. He says “human species”. It’s too late. The
fist hits me like a canon ball right below the eye, and it becomes clear that I had been
exaggerating – a hundred peace-loving, individualist left-wing radicals can hardly be mistaken.
What we have just witnessed is great Art. I was just too stupid to realise it. Too stupid, too
uninformed, too square.
Then Maria appears, takes me by the hand, and we leave.
“Who are you?” Maria, with a worried look in her eyes and wearing a black leather coat, dried the
blood from the broken skin under my eye with a tissue she found in her purse. The drizzle had
softened the pavement and freshened the air. It was completely silent, and there were just the
two of us.
“I’m definitely not an art critic”, I said.
“Who here is”, she replied, laughing.
“And I’m not a right-wing bastard”, I said.
We spent the rest of the evening in one of the cheap pubs in Grønland. Maria told me about how
she never moved to Australia because her ex-boyfriend had cheated on her before they were due
to go. She told me that she likes going fishing, and that her favourite novel is The Dwarf
I told her about Townes van Zandt – that he was a depressed character who once received
electro-shock therapy. Steve Earl said Townes van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world and
I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.
I seem to remember Maria laughing at that. She said we should see Little Miss Sunshine
some time, and I said that the best thing about these brown pubs in Grønland are the grumpy old
men and the absence of any kind of interior design. Then we went back to her place, over the
bridge and past the Sofienberg Park, where she took a picture. She pouted, and I seem to
remember flashing my black eye with some sort of childish pride. That night we had sex and
became friends. That was precisely two years ago. Since then we haven’t touched each other in
Still, we have conversations. Long, meaningless, nice talks. Conversations that derive from big
and small questions. Questions such as, if you could choose one thing to be remembered for,
what would it be? Would you want to be remembered as a Gandhi, a Rosa Parks, a Martin Luther
King Jr., a Che Guevara, a Nelson Mandela, a Desmond Tutu, a Malcolm X? Would you want to
be remembered as a Napoleon, a Lincoln, a Kennedy, a Gerhardsen, a Lenin? Would you want
to be remembered as a warm human being, a difficult artist, a profound writer? How would you
choose to be remembered, if you could choose, if you had to choose?
“I don’t know”, answers Maria.
Sitting on the bench by the School of Architecture, we have nearly finished the entire wine carton
which she brought to celebrate my twenty-seventh birthday.
She says, “I don’t think I have that need”.
I nod. I nod and cough.
However, Jacob, my dubious friend, says that we all have that need. He asked me about this
some time ago. He said that we all crave some sort of state of being. He claimed that every
person has a desire to master something no one else can, and to be the best at something.
You have to be driven by something, Jacob said, and when he said that I imagined that what he
wants is probably to be a bit taller, and to have a lecturing position at the University, or something
along those lines. I pictured him striding up and down the auditorium, in a mild but firm voice
lecturing those attending on how the world works – according to Jacob. He has a lot of
knowledge. He accrues knowledge and spews it out as it suits him. Jacob knows everything
about the most peculiar personalities. He told me about Genghis Khan, whose hunger for power
drove him to build the greatest kingdom the world has ever seen. He spoke about Alexander von Humboldt, whose thirst for knowledge was so great that he could hardly sustain a mosquito bite without observing what was occurring under the most iron discipline. Jacob knows everything about the designer, artist, poet, writer, architect and socialist William Morris, whose urge for work was so strong that he made it into an art form, and whose doctor declared his cause of death in 1896 as “simply being Wil iam Morris, having achieved more work than ten men put together”. “So, what would you be, if you could choose?” Jacob asked. “If you had to choose?” “I don’t know”, I said. “Of course you know”, he retorted. “Everyone with a minimum level of fantasy has a desire like that”. I think I said something about how I should have continued playing the piano. I was quite good at that when I was a child. My father said I had enormous potential, but now I haven’t played in nearly ten years. And as I said that, I envisioned, in the space of a brief moment, sitting by a grand piano and playing for a well-dressed audience. “I’m happy with the way things are”, I said. Shaking his head, Jacob said: “Don’t bul shit a bul shitter”. The summer rain drips from the gutter and splashes up onto my trouser leg. The small shower freshens the air, just like on the night we first met. “You shouldn’t smoke so much, you know”, says Maria – like a mother, moralist and wife. The soon-empty wine carton stands abandoned on the lawn. :I have an extremely addictive personality”, I say. Habits can lead to addiction. In medical terms, addiction is a syndrome. It is a state where cognitive, physiological and behavioural phenomena are determined by substances or behaviour. I read that somewhere. “You should get a girlfriend who can take care of you”, says Maria. I nod, staring out across the grass, thinking that I am fundamentally happy about Maria sometimes worrying about me. I hold my breath when she tells me she met a guy at a party a couple of weeks ago. She says that he seems like a good guy, and that they have spent the last three nights together. I hold my breath and smile because it wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be Maria and I, the two of us, alone together. We decided that on New Year’s Eve. We were at a party at Bislett – I was there as Maria’s friend – and when the others had gone outside to hug each other and light sparklers, we stayed behind alone on the balcony. When the fireworks were lit, we decided that no one wanted us, and that we didn’t want anyone. Then, in a moment of weakness, I could imagine Maria and I being quite a good couple. “So you’ve got a boyfriend”, I say. “No, he isn’t my boyfriend”, Maria answers. “But will he be soon?” I ask. Maria doesn’t answer.
When the rain stops we start walking. Maria tells me that the pressure on the students at the medical college in Budapest is so high that the school is producing doctors who are drug addicts. The students take Ritalin and caffeine tablets while studying. They take cocaine when they are partying. They take sleeping pills and cannabis when they want to relax. They take beta blockers when they have exams. She tells me she is going to assist one of them – one of these drug addict doctors – tomorrow morning at eight. She says she has to go home early. 3. “Slave boy!” Kenneth shouts from the depths of Café 33 – the old, brown institution that went from being a sort of early morning pub for Grünerløkka’s closet alcoholics, to a place emanating hipness, having enough integrity to be a see-and-be-seen place for those who do not wish to be associated with the see-and-be-seen crowd. Cramped, brown, smelling of yeast and sweat, bad disco music is thumping through the loud crowd of people. Kenneth, wearing a black silk shirt embroidered with gold cowboy stripes and boots, sits behind four beer glasses, with three girls, two blond and one dark. He waves and gets up. He bumps the table as he presses his way forward. He introduces me as a friend; a colleague who works with him at the publishing house. Kenneth grabs my neck, rubs my head and claps me on the stomach, saying, sit down, I’ll buy you a beer. The three girls around the table study me like you would a bad photograph. “Are you also a writer?” asks one of the blondes. She is maybe around twenty-two. I shake my head. “No”, I say. “I’m a kind of assistant”. “How exciting”, she says. Everyone is silent. Kenneth, with five beers on a tray, pushes his way through the crowd. Sitting down on the chair, he throws his arm around my shoulders. He says, “This is quite a guy”. I ask him how his dinner went. He says it was fantastic. He asks if the girls have had tapas. The girls say they don’t really know Kenneth. They just sat down there because there were three free seats, but one of the blondes says she loves tapas. Then Kenneth explains that it is impossible to say that you love tapas, because tapas is not a single dish. The girls nod. They nod and smile, and talk and laugh. In about half an hour Kenneth will have completed a monologue about how unhealthy it is to use as much cocaine as he does. He describes himself as a concept artist, more so than a poet. In about forty-five minutes he will ask me if he can borrow money for a taxi, and twenty minutes after that he’l be sitting in the taxi with the three girls. He’ll say, “Join the after party. You know where I live”. On Monday he’l say, “you should have come to the party. I didn’t wake up alone, to put it that way”. Then, unprompted, he’ll give me al the details. I don’t know where Kenneth lives. Kenneth knows I don’t know where he lives. So I set off home. When I get there I’m going to play Cat Power’s You are Free
album and make myself a cheese sandwich. The cheese sandwich is going to be made with mustard, spices and salami. At the same time I am going to clear out the fridge, and throw away everything which has expired. While I wait for the food to be ready, I’m going to sit on the sofa and stare at the bookshelf. I wil consider whether I should rearrange my books. The shelf is messy and unsystematic, with both
read and unread books arranged randomly. This could create an unfortunate and incorrect impression. The way I see it, our existence – yours and mine – is already messy enough as it is. It’s messy and unsystematic with a whirlwind of emotions, instincts and impulses, which propel us towards the task we are here to complete. When that is done, when our task has been completed, then we die. On the other hand, I’ve only turned twenty-seven, so what the hell do I know? In any case, it’s good to have a system where there is the possibility of setting one in place. Like in our book shelves, in our jobs, amongst our friends. I have a few of them, and that’s enough for me. I’m satisfied. Some of Maria’s friends think I’m her boyfriend. Maria has told me that. But we aren’t. Still, I think some part of my heart – the irrational part – will always beat harder for Maria. It will just not beat hard enough. Yet, this is not a story about love, friendship, life or death. Or maybe it is, a little. After I have eaten I’m going to open a beer, sit on the window sill and watch the sunrise which is soon going to light up Oslo. Then I’ll send Maria a text. I’ll say I had a nice evening and that I will probably be dead within a year. @CasIsak: Some stars burn brighter than others. It was a nice fucking fire.
4. It was unreal, like a dream, a fantasy, like that something that should never have taken place. It was beautiful and liberating, poetic and sincere. Chopin’s Nocturne in E-minor was playing on the 11.000 dollar Bang & Olufsen stereo system, and the time was six-thirty in the morning. Casper Isaksen laid his custom-made suit jacket down on the pure white designer sofa he couldn’t remember who had designed, and didn’t real y care about. It was way too big, almost vulgar, and nauseatingly comfortable. Through the windows, he could see the mist lifting, and the city awakening. The sun was about to draw a shadow cast by the hills, and soon he would be able to, if he wished, go for his daily 1000-metre swim in the pool. From the back of the fridge,
behind half a dozen bottles of white wine and three bottles of champagne, he dug out a beer,
which he opened with a lighter and drank straight from the bottle.
Casper opened the window, and sat on the ledge with his legs dangling outside. He pulled off his
shoes and socks, and dropped them into the pool two floors down. He fished out a cigarette from
his shirt pocket, and clinked the beer bottle against the window pane.
“Happy birthday”, he said.
Casper sat there throughout the entire Nocturne, and when piano concerto no. 1 came on, he
emptied the bottle and hurled it away as far as he could. Casper heard it breaking on a roof
somewhere beyond the tall hedge. Then he turned up the volume on the stereo, went into the
bedroom and fetched the signed baseball bat he had been given by the Dodgers for his birthday
last year, when he turned twenty-six. It felt like ages ago.
Casper started on the kitchen first. He took down all the crystal glasses in one swipe .He
smashed his collection of porcelain vases one by one. He threw the red wine bottles, which
everyone brought when they came over for dinner and which he never seemed to be able to get
rid of, at the wall, one by one. In the living room, he assaulted the glass table by the white sofa. It
smashed into a thousand pieces in just one stroke. He then started on a wall, smashing pictures
with short, single jolts – like a pool player. There was a picture of himself with Jack Nicholson,
and of himself with Howard Stern. He smashed the autographed photo of Marilyn Monroe, and
the framed newspaper cutting with the review of his first concert. The book shelf, the shelf which
was present mostly to convey an impression of depth and character, he assaulted one shelf at
The coffee table books crashed to the floor, and the DVDs, the record collection, the glass
ornaments and other objects were spread around the normally impeccable living room. When
Chopin’s Waltz in D-major began, Casper gathered all his plants and set them down in the
garden. He brought out a can of gas from the garage, and dancing in time with the music he
doused the half a million dollar grand piano with it, as well as the furniture, the carpet, the
curtains, the teak cupboards and the enormous bed. Then he got out a fresh beer from the fridge,
lit a zippo lighter, and threw it on the sofa.
He didn’t have time to finish his beer before the fire trucks came. He sat in the garden among
fourteen pot plants smoking a cigarette. He nodded affirmatively to the fireman who asked him if
he was Mr. Casper Isaksen, and shook his head when they asked about insurance. When they
inquired about what the cause of the fire could be, he answered drily that some stars shine
brighter than others.
The sun had now risen above the hills. It was a new day in Hollywood.
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