The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am
I have always liked to finish things. Ear-muffs, winter, spring, summer, autumn. Epsilon’s working life. Get it over with. And this impatience had consequences when Epsilon gave me an orchid for my birthday once. An orchid was not what I had most wanted, I have never understood the point about flowers, they are all going to wither at some point regardless. What I wanted most of all was for Epsilon to retire. “But I need a refuge from …” and it looked as if he was about to say “twosomeness,” but then he said “nakedness.” “Is it me you’re referring to?” I said. “I won’t mention names,” he said.
So I began to undress for the orchid instead, and soon the buds began to blossom, it became covered with pink flowers. “Wish you had the same effect on me,” Epsilon said.
The instructions for the orchid said that when flowering was over it should be cut back, and then the flowers would return after six months. Every day I sat watching the orchid, wondering if it wouldn’t deflower soon. Finally, I couldn’t stand waiting any longer, may as well get it over with, I said to myself, and cut off all the flowers, leaving just two thin stalks.
“What’s happened here?” Epsilon said when he came home from work. “It had to be done,” I said. “It wouldn’t deflower. But there’s no need to worry, there’ll be new flowers in six months’ time, in the autumn. If I’d waited any longer, we could have risked it not flowering before winter.”
But autumn came and winter and spring, the flowers did not come back, the orchid was dead, and for my next birthday I got a throw pillow.
Now that I’m lying here in bed I’m the opposite of impatient, and I wish I could save what little I have left of life until I know what to do with it. But it’s no good, I would’ve had to lie down in the freezer, and we only have one of those small freezing compartments at the top of the fridge. Outside my window I hear people coming home from work, wondering what to have for dinner, and here am I lying in bed, it all reminds me of a book I once read.
Perhaps I ought to turn off the light. But there’s no point, really, the man with the scythe can see in the dark, he will find me no matter what. What will it be? my legs? my arms? I wonder what will do away with me. I flex my toes and fingers. The left side of my body is definitely numb. The right one, too. But it will most likely be the heart. It was like a grape before Epsilon, now it is a raisin. Or maybe it’ll be my tonsils, there’s no trusting them.
It may take a long time before anyone realises I have passed away. I read in the paper about a Chinese man who lay dead in his apartment for twenty years, they could work out the date from the newspaper on the kitchen table, and when they found him, he was a skeleton in pyjamas. I shall end up as a skeleton in pyjamas as well. Or perhaps I’ll start to smell, and at first the neighbours will think it’s those Pakistanis on the ground floor, but when they too start to complain, someone will think of the old lady on the second floor. “But wasn’t she shot during the war?” they’ll say. “No,” my closest neighbour, June, will reply. “I saw her last Christmas. We’d better phone 911.”
When I was little, I was always dreaming about being carried away in an ambulance, and if there was one in the vicinity, I would cross my fingers and whisper: “Let it be me, let it be me,” but it never was, the ambulances were always moving away from me, I could hear it from the sirens. Now I can hear ambulance sirens in the distance again, and they should be coming towards me, for I have clean underwear and I am going to die soon. But there’s someone else in the ambulance instead, no longer responsible for himself.
It’s getting dark outside, I’m trying to concentrate on something useful, and the only thing that matters now is what my last words will be. “The probability that we shall die must be less than ε, where ε is a microscopically small quantity,” I said to Epsilon. It was unlike me to say anything like that, and I wish I had said something else.
I want to say something meaningful, and I lie awake all night trying to find something that rhymes. My gut tells me this is where I will stay. But then morning comes, and I feel how hungry I am.
Epsilon says that statistically we are most likely to die in bed.
Perhaps I ought to get up.
LIVE. SEIZE THE DAY. I stand in the bedroom, in front of the bed, I don’t know how to seize the day. I finally decide to start with the obituaries as usual.
But first I go to the bathroom. I’m still wearing the clothes from yesterday, and all the other days, my black dress. Yesterday it was especially black. Epsilon is a short man, so I don’t know why the mirror above the hand basin has been hung so high, but he says he’s happy as long as he can see his side-parting. I cannot see a thing, I’m so bent. I stretch my back and roll up onto the tips of my toes. Then I can see the upper half of my face in the mirror, just like the Neck, Nøkken, lurking with half his head stuck above water. It’s odd that this is me. I look into my own eyes. There’s no point in looking nice when nobody notices. I go out in the hall to fetch the paper.
It is possible that my next door neighbours, June and his mother, know that I exist. But they won’t miss me. They’re the only ones in the building apart from Epsilon and myself, who have lived here since it was built, I remember June well from when he was little. His mother can’t pronounce R, and it was presumably his father who thought of the name, Rune, I know he was more interested than most people in old written languages. And in accountants. His mother is one of the few I was on a nodding acquaintance with, that was when we had just moved in and I didn’t know any better. “Hello,” I said, several times a day. That soon got a bit tricky. In the mornings it was fine, but then we would meet when she came up from the potato cellar and I from the bicycle shed. “Hello,” I’d say again. Then we might bump into each other outside the laundry room a bit later, and usually once more a few hours after that. “Good evening” and “hello again” I’d say with a strained smile. Then, when I was coming out with the rubbish while she was out and about on some unspecified errand, I had to pretend that I had poor night vision and couldn’t see her. I would feel my way to the rubbish chute with my hands, before saying “hello” the next morning again, and a new, embarrassing round dance would start up. It was a relief when her husband left her for the accountant on the floor below, and she stopped leaving her apartment. June was still under age, but he had to do all her errands—perhaps it’s not so strange that he didn’t turn out a likable adult. He never greets Epsilon and me when he meets us, and I don’t greet him either, come to that. After that deaf woman in the building moved, I leave all social gestures to Epsilon. “Hi there,” Epsilon says but June says nothing, though once he gave us the finger. “Very nice, that,” Epsilon said, and he wasn’t trying to be ironic, Epsilon is never ironic. “I haven’t seen that type of salutation before,” he said. “It must be something he learnt in the Boy Scouts.”
It happens that June or his mother peeps out through a chink in the door at precisely the same time as me, to pick up the newspaper from the door mat in the morning, and it’s just as awkward every time.
I sit down at the kitchen table with my slices of bread. At my second attempt I open the paper at the right page. When I am at the shopping centre and buy custard buns with shredded coconut, I always eat the yellow bit in the middle first, and while the list of all those who have gone bankrupt is the coconut sprinkles of the newspaper, the obituaries are the yellow vanilla yolk. Today I’m relieved not to find my name there. Although it would be nice with an obituary as a proof that I have existed, and I wonder if you’re allowed to submit your own in advance and ask the newspaper to print it when the time comes. I used to read the obituaries only to gloat over those I have outlived, but now I feel it doesn’t really matter, we only live for a moment anyhow.
So we embrace you deep inside, you in our hearts we shall cherish, there you shall peacefully reside, your memory ne’er perish.
Imagine if someone were to remember how attractive and smart and witty I was, and if had had children they could have inherited my talents, whatever those are, and what’s more my motto would be passed on: “Always remember to puff up your lips with a slight outward breath when someone takes your photo, daughter dear.” For nature is only interested in the preservation and the continuation of the species; it could care less about the individuals, and nature really wants the individuals to live as short a life as possible, so the generations can change fast and evolution move on more quickly, which is an advantage in the struggle for existence.
“So nature behaves in a way that is in direct conflict with our interests as individuals,” Epsilon said. “Isn’t that what I’ve always said?” I said. Ever since Stein died Epsilon had had his nose buried in a book. “What are you reading?” I asked. “I’m reading what Schopenhauer has to say about death,” Epsilon said. “I’m trying to make peace with the fact that Stein’s no longer with us.” “But aren’t you religious?” I asked. “No,” Epsilon said. “So now you’re hoping to find another solution for Stein?” I said. Epsilon nodded: “Yes, perhaps I am.” “Does Schopenhauer have anything sensible to say?” I asked. “The idea that Stein should have survived as some kind of universal will does feel a bit far out,” Epsilon said, “but that he survives as the species of dog could have something to it.” “So if I imagine a dog in a garden a thousand years ago, standing there eating grass as a solution to all its problems, it would in a way be the same dog standing there eating grass today?” I said. “That doesn’t exactly cheer me up, after all Stein was Stein.” “Schopenhauer says that you have to get beyond the conception of Stein as an individual,” Epsilon said. “You have to identify him with the whole, as a part of the whole he’s actually guaranteed a life as a dog over a long period of time.”
Now I’m thinking that I too have to get beyond a conception of myself as an individual and identify myself with the whole, but I can’t do it—I’m so far outside the whole as a person can possibly get. But perhaps it’s not too late, and I think about the possibility of someone noticing me on my way to the store. What, though, should I do if it happens, probably nothing, and perhaps I will disappoint them. I’ve never heard of anyone being impressed by nothing, and I don’t like to disappoint people.
I have to stand at the front door and look through the peephole for a long time. But I’m not complaining. It’s worse for those who have to wear a monocle because of impaired vision. I wait until the neighbours on my floor and those above have left, and until the entrance door of the ground floor has been shut several times, and then I set out. I don’t shop at weekends, there are far too many people about, and Epsilon is at home. I walk slowly down the stairs between the floors and quickly past the neighbours’ doors and letterboxes. Once, my name was on a postal order catalogue, and I almost bought “the amusing and very special singing moose’s head in plastic, which reacts to movements by singing and which spreads laughter and good humour, and this moose is something not many can boast about”. But Epsilon managed to prevent this.
When I’m outside, I force myself to look up. Nice sun, I think, before looking down again, at things peeping up from the roadside. It’s been a month since the obituary for the caretaker was in the paper.
“He died an unnatural death,” I said. “Sorry to hear that,” Epsilon said, but he seemed more put out by the fact that he couldn’t unzip his jacket. “Even so, the caretaker should have been pleased that he managed to reach the expected age for a man,” I said.
But now I’m not so sure. I’m not sure about anything any longer. At present the communal area looks like what a conservative man from Makrellbekken would expect of a housing cooperative in the eastern end of town, and although I have been around the block a few times, I’m surprised at the sight of a coconut bun in the hedge.
Two mothers with small children in prams are sitting on the grass in front of the building, they don’t take any notice of me even though I am staring down at the asphalt less than I normally do, and it’s just as well, I saw on a television program that you don’t say “hello” any more, you say “whazzup,” and I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying that.
I follow the path past the large lawn between the buildings, and then there is a gravelled road through a spinney, that’s the end of Østmarka and only fifty metres to go before I come out on the other side. After that I follow the long slope down past the church that looks like a swimming hall, to the grocery store. I walk at a brisk pace, but I’m not sweating any more.
Across the bridge behind the grocery store lies the Senior Centre, I pretend it’s a mc-club or a dance school or something else I have no interest in visiting. I went to dance school, only just, when I was twelve. Everyone wanted to dance with beautiful Ellisiv, the other children organised a queuing system between them. Sometimes, when they least expected it, she tipped slightly backwards with her wheelchair and deliberately scared them. As for me, I danced on my own, half an hour I’d be the girl, and for the other half I’d be the boy.
The air is cooler inside the grocery store than outside, they have only just opened. Actually, I prefer it when there are more customers than just me there, so I don’t attract attention. I usually buy what other people buy; having boiled cod for dinner is fine by me when the woman in front of me in the queue is also having boiled cod. “We’re not the only ones eating boiled cod today,” I say to Epsilon, I know he appreciates it.
I take some apples from the fruit counter. After Chernobyl I’ve always peeled apples for Epsilon, so his brain won’t be influenced by the radio activity in the peel. Mine I just polish a bit against my dress. I find the brown cheese—Epsilon likes brown cheese. I prefer strawberry jam myself, but the glass jars are impossible to open. Epsilon is of no help there. I like pickles too, by the way. It occurs to me that I could ask one of those working in the store to open the jar for me, then I could just screw the lid back fairly loosely till I get home, and I make my way to where the strawberry jam is. There’s jar upon jar, from the floor on up, and although I lean back and rest my hands on my hips, I can’t see where it ends. It looks as if all the brands have a screw lid, so I just pick one at random.
To my frustration both employees are at the checkouts, even though I’m their only customer. I don’t want either of them to feel neglected. But they don’t seem to take any notice of me at all, so I choose the young boy. I think the girl has been hired on a quota basis, that’s what she looks like. I place my groceries on the conveyor belt, the boy goes on talking to the girl at the checkout in front. He beeps the jar across before I can bring myself to ask him to open it. He doesn’t say how much it costs, but I can see it on the screen. When I place the money in his outstretched hand, I’m close to his nails, but he doesn’t know. I have my string bag with me, I don’t want to ask for one of the plastic carrier bags they keep under the counter, I wonder what else they have under there. I arrange the groceries in my bag and leave. If I had been kidnapped five minutes later, the young boy would have said to the policeman who showed him my photo that he had never seen me before.
The slope up past the church is heavy going, and in the spinney I feel little joy over the grass which has turned green on the sides of the path. But then, behind some bushes, I catch sight of a pair of legs. I stop. There, at the roadside ahead of me stands a man wearing trousers a little too short for him. I get the feeling that he is waiting for me. Perhaps he is one of those who live in the sheltered housing next to the church. He looks like the man I saw on our lawn during that tropical heat-wave we had last summer. He moved like windscreen wipers on a car, bending over the spray nozzles while he tried to quench his thirst. I want to turn back, but that would be too conspicuous, what if he gets offended. I must just keep walking straight ahead and act normally. To show how unconcerned I am, I try to whistle, but only air comes out and no tune, it’s as if I’m trying to blow out a candle. Then I’m only a couple of metres away from him, he looks straight at me and I stop blowing, but keep on walking. “Excuse me,” he says, “do you have the time?” He says this as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and maybe it is, what do I know about time. My watch is up in the attic along with the almanac from my last year at school. “It’s half past nine,” I say as I pass him by, my legs moving all by themselves. “Thank you,” he says. “You’re welcome,” I say, the whole thing is over in a few seconds.
My heart is pounding away, it is ten metres ahead of me on the path, I have indulged in conversation and contributed to social enlightenment, strangers trust me to be able to give them the correct time, and time is not to be sneezed at. “Time is everything,” I say out loud and without batting an eyelid.
I run after my heart the rest of the way home, the mothers with their small children are still sitting on the lawn not thinking of me, but it doesn’t really matter now because I’m hardly thinking about them either.
Up in the apartment I put the groceries in the fridge. Then I sit down in my chair and knit away at an ear-muff with a complicated zigzag pattern while I see the head of the man at the roadside in my mind’s eye. Plato’s doctrine of ideas must be wrong, I don’t manage to imagine the shape of his head anywhere near as perfectly as it was in reality. After knitting three rows I go out into the kitchen and take out the jam jar, I use all my strength, but I can’t open it. I try with hot water and cold water and rubber gloves, I insert a knife under the lid, and finally I try smashing the jar with a tin opener.
I eat bread with brown cheese for lunch and dinner, and as usual I sit in front of the television for the whole afternoon and evening. Einar Lunde is the news anchorman today, he’s wearing his burgundy suit, not a good colour with that pink skin of his. He seems completely unaffected as usual, and I wonder if he doesn’t know that he is going to die. Heavy the grief, great the loss, but greater still the gratitude.