My dear Sugata
All the different times I’ve sat, expectant, in a plan to Norway. My mind, then, diving into the writing of the story or, more recently, warmly reflective of our lasting friendship. Now this: wanting to close and not to return, unsentimentally, coming to do what practically has to be done, and then leave. How can these two polar feelings exist in one life so close together?
Was it all engineered by Ove I wonder, catching the unanswered questions vexingly still circling like birds of prey over a dead body, a sky burial. I stamp my foot to scar them away, but I know these persistent vultures are not as nervous as wood pigeons.
‘You’ll never know the answers’ says Barry. ‘But it’s worth a last poke. You never know, may be according to him he did the right thing.’
It is an uncomfortable line of thought: Rachel’s materially all right with three-car-Barry and her village shop. I want to help poor Hungarian Zsusa and reconcile with my forsaken daughter, Gunilla. Shangri-la a Buddhist retreat? I never really believed in that, I just wanted to tempt someone to look after me. Somehow it does not fit you, whichever way. ‘You never know’ are the operative words of Barry, said as a buffering cliché, but one worth resting in.
Rain arrives fittingly as we drive down the dirt track. With my key, Barry opens the door. It’s not as bad as I’d imagined. Still your spirit lingers, your outer clothing form is here and Gunilla, I see, has left the hut immaculately.
A previously unseen portrait of you, your life size head, is nailed on the wall, and underneath a short note in Gunilla’s hand:
‘Rachel – Do you know who you are?’ paperclipped to your laborious and detailed horoscope of me, done perhaps a couple of years ago. Barry and I both laugh, wondering what she means – something or nothing? Your eyes in the portrait follow us around the room. I realise in the exposure of Gunilla’s words, that once could have sent me tumbling down the dark dead end of uncertainties, the troubling doubt has diminshed: I know did all that I could for you. I know you were not honest to me and did not play straight. Your last gift to me was painful and I hope, just as deep in enduring nourishment.
Laying in what is now our bed the first morning, looking up at the rose painted ceiling, I said to Barry beside me:
‘I’m going to change that ugly light Ove has put up. And I want to paint over the clashing green of the central beam. I don’t think Sugata saw clearly (in more ways than one!) at the end. And even if he did, I don’t like it!
Barry looks at me as if to say, what is the point.
‘I know. It’s useless practically, but I want to do it!’
‘Forty thousand’ replied Barry wistfully. ‘That’s about right for that ceiling. It’s London prices. It’s about what Capital Interiors would have charged!’ I laugh out loud – I’d paid Zsusa £40,000 for that ceiling.
Gunilla has taken most of your material stuff. Anyhow the artefacts and useful things. On one side I am pleased she has interest in your material remains, they provide her and your family with a connection to your life, totems for your family in new generations. Practically there’s less for me to go through. But she has also left little to give to your Norwegian friends: she has taken your Buddha. She knows Iva has specifically requested it. Iva, your longest serving friend, who you’d talk to every week, who organised your snow tyres and all manner of practical things. It makes me hopping mad’
Barry looks at me as if to say what is the point of these small things.
‘Yes, I know it’s a mean street to dally down. But I still feel angry!’
‘And it’s not even for you’, he says incredulously.
What is left in all the Ikea draws and cupboards are hundreds of prepared panels. Panels grounded in gold leaf, red, white, sienna ground all prepared and waiting for a painting. Did you spend your artistic life preparing? Preparing for painting in an old age that never came, or a time that never arrived? Remember Bordo when we entered Paula’s unusual studio – a derelict Italian chapel – filled with her huge bright abstract paintings, and you said: ‘What beautiful frames you have used.’
The lonliness of Norway. Rain persists.
Amid all the debris that will soon become Norwegian landfill, the prize of the day is a jam jar of keys. What is more useless than keys without locks? Yet you have meticulously kept them all, over a hundred. Small keys for small locks perhaps on travelling trunks, to keep safe in rooms or on trains in your itinerant life. Swedish, Norwegian, Indian, Nepali keys. The thing they protected is all gone. Keys for your different cars, your front and back doors in your life. To lock and protect the transitory inhabitations.
When you want something doing, find a busy person. So when you want to get rid of stuff, find a person with stuff. Torille took it all. All that we had salvaged she took. And with her generosity of spirit she will not only love and squirrel herself, but spread them out to your friends.
The sun goes down over Hallingskarvet as I prepare the last salad supper here. Barry wrestles successfully with the heavy cartwheel light. We have managed all.
Ole Bjorn came today to take away the rubbish. It did not surprise me that he knew you. From the alter of keys that I made he picked up the VW car key.
‘I know this key. I remember his VW. It was white. I drove it once! He was driving on this dirt road when there was ice, probably a little too fast. We skidded. He said a few words in a language I did not know, and we came to a stop just before the lake. ‘I think you had better drive the rest’ he said to me, and I did. I was 16 at the time!’ he laughed.
On the last day we deconstructed the kitchen. Irma’s table cloth, her last gift of protection, practical as always, was easily unpinned. Ole Bjorn, using his substantial weight, lent on the Ikea table legs and they broken like match sticks.
‘It’s not worth saving’, he said reading my mind. ‘People want only new things now’.
Time without structure became woosy.
The Annex is now fitting. I’ve painted out your neon green with a dark blue/green match to the celing sides. I’ve also painted the cartwheel, matching. For years it rested on the porch awaiting your attention, until finally you decorated it, but your hands were shaky then and your eye dim, the result gory, clashing, and amature. It all matches now, the individuality is gone. Barry has replaced Ova’s ‘hospital light’ (as Ole fittingly called it) with the Ikea lights you and I bought on our last trip.
After one week of owning and cherishing this Hytte, I am about to leave it.
Despite all our past accords, our conversations, our future dreams, for whatever reason (that I shall never know), at the end of your life, you decided that I should not own or keep your hytte. That is the clear message in your last testament.
‘We could afford to keep it, Rachel. We’ve got enough’, said Barry, unsentimentally, thereby reminding me that it was a choice – as much as we have any choice. But I know, without the freely given gift from you, I do not want to keep it. Without the Buddhist refuge, it was an expensive luxury I had no desire to nurture for myself.
And Norway is expensive. In our week here we’d gone though £1,000, and that without accommodation.
‘Perhaps I did not pay Sugata enough!’, I said reflectively to Barry. Of course, Barry was not a non-drinking vegetarian, content to live simply on a mountain, grinding grain if running of food. Our last night was a case in point. We did something I think you would have abhorred – a night out at Geilo’s famous Dr Holms hotel, eating sea food and reindeer meat, drinking £7 a pint beer and expensive red wine, and dancing, yes dancing, amongst all amongst the bourgeoisie Norwegians! How you disliked dancing and turned your nose up at those bourgeoise happy people! They danced so well, they knew their lilting jive, so contagiously that Barry and I vowed to learn this happy courting dance on our return to England.