From Pål H. Christiansen novel “Harry var ikke ved sine fulle fem“, Gyldendal Norsk Forlag 1989
Translation by Ingerid White
I am not very good at crossing streets in the full light of day, when the traffic is heavy and there are a lot of things going on in the city. It’s then that I can stand transfixed on the first white stripe of a street crossing, or squeezed between the bumpers of two parked cars as I look over toward the other sidewalk with what I expect someone would call a spellbound expression on my face. In the big city I normally conducted my life in sync with the cars. I let the sidewalks guide me to the traffic lights, where small green men are employed to lead me safely across the street.
Today I walk straight across, without looking in either direction. A large delivery truck approaches from the left. I see it out of the corner of my eye when I’m in the middle of the street. The driver shouts at the top of his lungs, his wheels screech, and his horn blasts some hoarse sounds that remind me of another time on a foreign continent, and as these memories flash through my mind, I walk on. I must admit that I was a bit startled when I saw that the car had stopped where I’d been just an instant before, but now I’m on the other side of the street, on the sidewalk actually, and see no reason to turn around. I am on an errand and cannot stop to see what might have happened if I now lay plastered to the window of a delivery truck.
I continue straight ahead and through a door. Then up a couple of steps and through some hallways. I keep going until an office worker stops me.
“Wait a moment. Mr. . . . ?”
“The name is Highbrow,” I say. “I have an appointment with the publisher.”
“He’s busy at the moment. Would you like to have a seat and wait?”
I sink into a chair with the suitcase safely clamped between my legs.
“I’m here to deliver a manuscript,” I say.
“There are plenty who try,” she says, and looks more closely at me. “Have you been here before?”
“Highbrow. Hobo Highbrow,” I reply.
“Now I remember you,” she says. “It was you who wrote the book on the herring fisheries in the Barents Sea.”
I stand up. I’ve had enough.
“Where are you going?” she asks.
“To the john,” I reply.
I walk straight ahead toward a large, closed door that opens just as I am a few yards short of it, and a man walks through. I have never seen the man before. He’s about 30 years old, dark blond hair, average height, horn-rimmed glasses, and looks as if he’s just been told his book has been accepted and that it will be translated in 14 languages immediately. He looks as if he has a large advance in his breast pocket and Theatre Cafe is lighting up his eyes. He smiles confidently at me. I nod briefly and whiz into the publisher’s office.
He has just opened a window and headed for his desk. He looks at me with those sharp eyes of his.
“You?” he says, with as much enthusiasm as if I were a casual lover who has now suddenly and inconveniently shown up in his life again.
I don’t have a chance to answer, because I stumble on a wrinkle in the carpet and fall. The suitcase flies out of my hand and sails up into the air. It opens up, and white pages sift down like snow, just as a breeze blows in and takes a good number of them out the window.
But what is it that is blending into all that white? Something gray and glistening has crept far out of a plastic bag and is gliding in a long arc toward the publisher’s desk!
“Close the window, for God’s sake,” I yelled. But the publisher has taken refuge under his desk, and there’s little hope of help from there. It seems as if he’s sitting there, passively and deliberately, while my papers are being sucked out the window.
I crawl on the floor to the window and manage to close it. The papers fall, as one, like snow and arrange themselves in a thin layer over the entire room.
“What is this, may I ask?”
The publisher has appeared again. He is pointing to that which is lying littering the desk.
For the first time in my life, I don’t manage to say the word that otherwise runs like Cod Liver Oil out of my mouth. “It is a . . .,” I say.
“A . . .”
“It is a haddock,” I say.
The light bounces off his eyeglasses. “This is actually a cod fish.”
‘My God,’ I think. ‘Does the man think I’m stupid?’
But it seems as if the publisher had already made up his mind about something, before I’d even come through the door. I see it in his eyes. It’s as if someone has decided to count me out. Him and the guy I’d met on the way in, perhaps.
“What in the hell is this?” I ask. “A plot?”
I get down on all fours and gather up the papers that haven’t been blown out of the window. The relationship between a publisher and a writer must rest on trust, but already at this early and vulnerable stage the publisher has decided I’m dumb. I cannot let a man take charge of my book who thinks I don’t know the difference between a haddock and a cod fish – a book, incidentally, that with a little puff of wind has been reduced by two-thirds.
I stuff all the papers into the satchel. The cod fish finds its way back into its plastic bag. It looks a little the worse for wear, but now we will be going straight to a café and have ourselves a drink.
I turn in the doorway and look at the publisher. “I know a word that begins with the letter ‘k’ and rhymes with haddock,” I say. That word describes you.
The office worker looks at me coldly as I leave.
“Who was that arrogant shithead who came in before me?” I ask.
“They say he is promising,” she answers.
“No,” I say, and put my hands over my ears. “I don’t want to hear it; don’t want to hear it!”
“Kristiansen,” she says.
“What?” I ask. “Never heard of him. With a ‘C’ or a ‘K’?”
“With a ‘Ch’,” she answers.
In front of the café I stop and peer in through a window. I’m looking for Higgins. The windows are filthy. I write my name on the window pane, but rub it out with the back of my hand, making a little clear space to look through. I wipe the muck on my pants and take a look. Higgins is standing in there behind the counter.
He doesn’t see me come in. He’s standing with his back to me, doing something. Music is streaming out of speakers on the walls. When I get nearer, I see what he’s doing. He’s making open-faced sandwiches. He’s swaying his hips gently in time with the music.
He doesn’t seem surprised to see me. I find the reason why in the mirror over the sink.
“Ready?” asks Higgins.
“Absolutely,” I say. “It’s finished.”
“How many pages was it?”
“I don’t know. They’re scattered by the wind, most of them now,” I answer, and explain.
Higgins pours port into two glasses.
“Skaal,” he says.
“Skaal,” I say.
“You should have better luck at a different publisher.”
“Ha!” I say.
“Do you have a copy of your manuscript?”
“No,” I say.
“My condolences,” says Higgins.
“Thank you,” I say.
And so we drink. I take the cod fish out of the satchel.
“Do you have something for this one? Does he need something strong?”
“I recommend a bath.”
“Anything will do. Water, I know, is something he’s familiar with.”
Higgins laid the fish under running water in the wash basin.
“What now?” he asked.
“Yes, what now?” I said.
“You’re not giving up, are you?”
“Maybe my time as a writer is past. Maybe I must find something else to do. I could be a bus driver instead of Henry.’
“Or work in a café in the capitol,” said Higgins.
“But you do that yourself.”
“Or a factory worker.”
“But where, then?”
“In a factory,” suggested Higgins.
I hesitate for a moment outside the café. I have the satchel in my hand, and there lies the cod fish, once again in its bag. I had asked Higgins if he wanted it, but he had nowhere to keep it, he said. The guy clearly didn’t like cod fish, either.
“What now? Shall I go up the street, or down?”
A sheet of paper blows past me down the street towards the park. I grip the satchel and pad after it. It’s a nice day, after all. In spite of the wind. In spite of the cod fish. In the park, I sit down and gaze at the blue sky.
The paper had gotten hung up in some bushes, but the wind has torn it lose, and it’s now actually making its way toward me, ending up my feet.
“Hey!” it says.
“Shut up,” I say. “I want to be alone.”
“Won’t you pick me up?” it says. “It is you, after all, who has written on me.”
“No.” I say, kicking it away.
The ducks down by the pond have gathered together in a corner. It looks as if they are in some way or other in deliberation over something. Now they are walking altogether in a flock over to me.
I tell them like it is, that I don’t have any bread for them. “Not a dried-out little scrap of crust,” I say. Maybe they don’t believe me?
It doesn’t look as if they do. They press close to me and look at me with those empty eyes of theirs. Do they intend to kill me?
“If you don’t believe me,” I say, “I can open my satchel and take out my underwear, and the papers you can’t read, that aren’t especially useful to ducks.”
Their bills are rooting around in my hands when I flip open the lock and uncover the plastic bag with the long object inside.
‘Aha!’ I think. ‘Cod fish and ducks, hand in hand.’
I let the cod fish slide out of the bag behind the bench, close the satchel, and leave without a glance back. I don’t stop before I’m standing outside the entrance door to a brick house, staring at a large panel of buzzers. One of them is mine.