Last summer my wife and I, along with our young daughter, moved into a house recently vacated by a man called Albert Solberg. He vacated the house because he died. According to the inquest report, he died from asphyxiation. And so the Commission assigned the house to me. It is true that I was not at the top of their waiting list but I had a connection, through a distant cousin, with a prominent official in the Commission.
The house, when we moved into it, was filthy. My wife shovelled dirt from the floor and painted the walls with lime, but all the painting in the world could not get rid of the smell of fish. Solberg, it seemed, rarely ate anything else. All the neighbours said so, each in turn stopping to lean on the gate that stood a few yards from the front door, each telling the same story—about the fish and the smell and the dissolution—each putting a twist on the tale. Old Peters, who used to work in the mines, spoke of illicit material delivered to the door in packages tied up with ox tape. The widow testified to noises coming from the house in the cold hours of morning. Tanya, who had never married, spoke of cats in the garden and children who urinated in the yard.
I found the story a few weeks after we moved into the house. It was wrapped in newspaper and hidden behind the boiler. The boiler was housed in a cupboard in the kitchen and I had paid no attention to it until winter came suddenly and we found that it didn’t work. I wanted to hire a plumber but my wife said no—instead she read the manual while biting her fingers and shouting instructions at me. I followed my wife’s instructions as best as I could, but whatever way I approached the boiler, I found in a matter of minutes that I felt like a boy pretending to be a man. All the while the spanner grew heavier and the instructions more strange. It was when my wife left the room to attend to the child that I found the story. I stretched my hand in behind the boiler and touched a bundle of paper. Immediately I knew I had found something, and that is why I did not tell my wife. The deeper a man gets into marriage the more he learns to keep something for himself.
A few days later, while my wife was out with the child, I retrieved the story from the back of the boiler and took it out to the shed. There I read it, a couple of pages at a time, whenever my wife was out at the market or visiting her mother. I also re-read snatches of it in the evenings while I smoked my pipe. My wife did not like me smoking a pipe and so there was an unspoken agreement between us that I smoke only in the evenings and only in the shed.
The plot of the story involved a girl and took place in the time when Solberg was a young soldier in the Colonies. There was a sub-plot, but isn’t there always. The girl in question was a maid in the house of the Governor, a house to which Solberg—though of humble origins—was often invited on account of a connection between the Governor and Solberg’s mother. The story contained pages and pages of how Solberg took the maid: when, where, how; accounts full of great detail and description. There were also endless passages on Solberg’s hatred of army life and his penury due to gambling and drinking, but I skipped over most of these. It is amazing how many words people use; words that require a third or fourth lifetime. It is as though they believe that words are immune to time.
My wife had another child and then another. The last child was a poorly one and that was that; I soon forgot about the story. The child could not walk and spent all day in a cart made from railway sleepers. Life was hard, but it was hard for everybody. Old Peters died of drink; he was found lying face down on his own kitchen floor. The widow went to live with her daughter in a one-room flat in the city and Tanya married a man with eight children. Over time my wife’s face knotted like the branch of a tree and there was an unspoken agreement between us that there would be no more children. I gave up smoking my pipe. Each evening I carried the crippled child to bed and played my whistle for him—he took great pleasure in music—but, while still a boy, he died. I carried him to the doctor’s house but it was too late. His body, in my arms, felt like a large kitten, all knuckle and bone in a soft sack.
One night, a few months after that, I lifted the blankets to look at my wife as she lay in bed. Her soft susurrations had aroused my needs and I wanted desperately to see the shape of a woman. My wife awoke and, with her finger, drew an imaginary line down the middle of the sheet. I said nothing. When spring came I started smoking again. I developed the habit of going out to the shed in the evenings to play my whistle and to read the newspaper, and this was when I found the story once more. It was in a wooden crate along with an old picture frame and a brass candelabrum that had been given to my wife by her step-father. The story was still wrapped in newspaper but I had forgotten what it was until I saw the familiar typeface of the front cover:
A Soldier’s Story By Albert Solberg
I opened the story without curiosity. I did not remember much of the detail, but I remembered its flavour, and it was one I had lost appetite for. I leafed through it and was about to wrap it up again in the newspaper when a single page fell out, one I had not seen before. This is what it said:
Last Statement of Albert Solberg Only a rare individual can love another person in real time and so the next time I fell in love was twenty years after the events of this story. One afternoon last spring I sat on a park bench and fell in love with the maid that I knew when I was in my twenties and a soldier in the Colonies; the woman that I cast off, as one does a winter coat when spring appears. The feeling was intense. I have nothing more to say. I despise the man who sets the past in print and calls it truth.
Dusk fell over the garden, and over the roof of the house and over the yellow streets beyond it and out over the hills and fields, but somewhere in a tree a blackbird was still singing. Go away, I felt like calling to the blackbird. Go to sleep. This day is now gone, as all days must go. Sing again tomorrow, if there is still a note that insists on being sounded. But that is not likely; it is more likely that you will wake in dawn’s raw light and busy yourself seeking worms, and all too soon it will seem that there’s nothing left to do in this world but eat and sleep and seek worms.
I have never loved a woman, but in that instant I too felt the loss of a woman I had once loved. How can that be? How can a heart be made sore by that which it does not know?