Blessed are those Who Thirst
I’m the new boy!”
With resolute strides he stomped to the middle of the floor, where he remained standing while the snow from his enormous tennis shoes formed little puddles around his feet. His legs wide apart, as though to conceal the knock-kneed cross formed by his legs, he threw out his arms and repeated:
“I’m the new boy!”
His head was clean-shaven on one side. From just above his right ear, raven black spiky hair was combed in a curve across the crown, slicked over his round cranium, and ending with a straight trim, several millimeters above his left shoulder. A single thick lock draped his eye, matted like a leather strap. His mouth formed a peevish U as he tried to blow the strands into place, over and over. His oversized quilted parka fit loosely around the waist, half a meter too long and with the thirty centimeters of superfluous length on the sleeves rolled up into a pair of gigantic cuffs. His pants hung in folds on his legs. When he managed with considerable difficulty to open his jacket, it was obvious that his pants were nevertheless stretched like sausage skins as soon as they reached his thighs.
The room was spacious. The boy thought it could not be a living room; it wasn’t furnished as you would expect a living room to be, and there was no TV. Along one wall stood a long kitchen counter, with a sink and stove. But there was no smell of food. He stuck his nose in the air and sniffed a couple of times, concluding that there must be another kitchen somewhere in the house. A proper kitchen. This room was a recreation area. The walls were
covered with drawings, and small woolen characters the children must have crafted suspended from the unusually high ceiling. A gull made of cardboard and woolen yarn flapped directly above his head, gray and white with a fiery red beak that had partly fallen off and was hanging like a slack tooth from a flimsy thread. He stretched out toward it but could not reach up far enough. Instead he ripped down an Easter chick fashioned from an egg carton and yellow feathers. Picking it up, he pulled off all the feathers and threw the egg carton back on the floor.
Beneath two vast windows with crossbars was a massive worktable. Four children had stopped what they were doing. They stared at the new arrival. The eldest, a girl of about eleven, skeptically looked him up and down, from head to toe. Two boys who could be twins, wearing identical sweaters and with chalk white hair, sniggered, whispered, and poked each other. A four-or five-year-old redhead sat terror-stricken for a few seconds before sliding off her chair and racing toward the only adult in the room, a plump woman who immediately lifted the little one up, caressing her curls in reassurance.
“This is the new boy,” she said. “His name is Olav.”
“That’s just what I said,” Olav said, annoyed. “I’m the new boy. Are you married?”
“Yes,” the woman replied.
“Is it only these children who live here?”
His disappointment was apparent.
“No, you know that perfectly well,” the woman said, smiling. “There are seven children living here. The three over there . . .”
She nodded in the direction of the table, sending them a stern look at the same time. If they noticed, the boys did not let on.
“What about her there? Doesn’t she stay here?”
“No, this is my daughter. She’s only here for the day.”
She smiled, as the child buried her face in the hollow of her neck and clung more tenaciously to her mother.
“Oh I see. Do you have many children?”
“Three. This is the youngest. She’s called Amanda.”
“What a show-off name. Anyway, I thought she must be the youngest. You’re too old to have children, you are.”
The woman laughed.
“You’re quite right about that. I’m too old now. My two other children are almost grown up. But won’t you say hello to Jeanette? She’s almost as old as you. And to Roy-Morgan? He’s eight.”
Roy-Morgan was not at all interested in saying hello to the new boy. He squirmed in his seat and thrust his head demonstratively and dismissively toward his buddy’s.
Frowning, Jeanette drew back in her chair as Olav approached with outstretched hand, dripping with dirty, melted snow. Before he had come right up to her and long before she had made any sign of taking hold of the outstretched fingers being offered, he started to take a deep bow and declared solemnly:
“Olav Håkonsen. Pleased to meet you!”
Jeanette pressed herself against the chair back, and grabbed on to the seat with both hands, drawing her knees up to her chin. The new boy attempted to pass his hands down through the side, but his body shape and clothing caused his arms to remain fixed diagonally, like a Michelin man. The offensive posture was gone, and he forgot to spread his legs. Now his kneecaps kissed beneath his stout thighs, and his big toes pointed toward each other inside his mammoth shoes.
The little boys fell silent.
“I know why you don’t want to say hello to me,” Olav said.
The woman had managed to steer the smallest child into another room. When she returned, she spotted Olav’s mother in the doorway. Mother and son were strikingly alike; the same black hair, the same wide mouth and conspicuous bottom lip, seemingly unusually soft and a moist, dark red, not dry and cracked as one would expect this time of year. On the boy it appeared
childish. On the adult woman the lip seemed repellent, especially since she kept shooting out a similarly bright red tongue to wet her lips. Apart from her mouth it was her shoulders that aroused most interest. She did not possess shoulders. From her head a smooth curve ran downward, as on a bowling pin, or a pear, a curved line that culminated in incredibly broad hips, with hefty thighs and skinny legs to hold all this up. The body shape was more pronounced than on the boy, probably because her coat fitted. The other woman tried to make eye contact with her, without success.
“I know well enough why you don’t want to say hello to me,” Olav repeated. “I’m gross and fat.”
He stated this without a trace of bitterness, with a slight, satisfied smile, almost as though it were a fact he had just stumbled upon; the solution to a complicated problem he had spent the last twelve years working out. He wheeled around, and without glancing at the director of his new foster home, asked her where he would be living.
“Could you show me to my room, please?”
The woman extended her hand to shake his, but instead of grasping it, he made a gallant and sweeping motion with his arm and made a little bow.
Then he waddled after her up to the next floor.
* * *
He was so big. And I knew that something was wrong. They laid him in my arms, and I felt no joy, no sorrow. Powerless. A tremendous, heavy powerlessness as though I had something imposed on me that everyone knew I would never manage. They comforted me. Everything was completely normal. He was just so big.
Normal? Had any of them tried to squeeze out a lump weighing
twelve pounds? I had gone three weeks beyond my date, I knew that, but the doctor insisted that it was wrong. As though she could know that. I knew exactly when he had come into being. One Tuesday night. One of those nights I gave in to avoid trouble, when I feared his outbursts so much that I didn’t have the strength to resist. Not just then. Not with so much alcohol in the house. He was killed in a road accident the next day. A Wednesday. Since then I hadn’t had any man near me before that baby tub of lard came smiling into the world. It’s true! He smiled! The doctor said it was only a grimace. I know it was a smile. He still has the same smile, has always had it. His best weapon. He hasn’t cried a single time since he was eighteen months old.
They placed him on my stomach. An unbelievable mass of new human flesh that already there and then opened its eyes and groped with its wide mouth over my skin to find my breast. The folk in white coats laughed and slapped its bottom one more time. What a guy!
I knew there was something wrong. They said that everything was normal.
* * *
Eight children and two adults sat around an oval dining table. Seven of the children said grace together with the grown-ups. The new boy had been right. It was not the kitchen he had entered earlier in the day.
That was located farther inside the capacious, converted villa from the turn of the century, and had probably been a pantry at the time the house was built. It was homey and cozy, with blue kitchen appliances and rag rugs on the floors. The only aspect that distinguished it from a private home apart from the unusually large bunch of kids were the rosters hanging on an enormous notice board beside the door leading to one of the living rooms—the day room, as the new boy had found out. In addition to the
names there were little photographs of the staff on display. This was because not all the children could read, the boy had learned.
“Ha, they can’t read,” he muttered scornfully. “There’s nobody here under seven years old!”
He had not received any reply other than a friendly smile from the plump lady, whom he now knew was the director. “But you can call me Agnes. That’s my name.”
Agnes was not present now. The adults at the supper table were far younger. The man even had bad acne. The lady was quite pretty, with long blonde hair she had braided in a strange and lovely way, beginning right at the front of her head and ending with a red silk bow. The man was called Christian and the lady’s name was Maren. They all sang a short little song while holding hands. He did not want to join in.
“You don’t need to if you don’t want to,” Maren said, and was actually really kind. Then they started to eat.
Jeanette, who had refused to say hello to him that morning, was sitting by Olav’s side. She was slightly overweight, too, with brown, unruly hair in an elastic band that kept sliding out. She had protested about sitting beside him, but Maren had firmly squashed all discussion. Now she was sitting as far over on the opposite side of her chair as it was possible to go, causing Roy-Morgan to poke his elbow into her side continually and yell that he would catch girl lice. On the other side of Olav sat Kenneth, who at seven years old was the youngest in the house. Struggling with the butter, he ruined a sandwich.
“You’re even more clumsy than me, you know,” Olav said contentedly, grabbing a fresh slice and neatly spreading a generous portion of butter before placing it on Kenneth’s plate.
“What do you want on top?”
“Jam,” Kenneth whispered, sticking his hands underneath his thighs.
“Jam, you dope! Then you don’t need butter!”
Olav grabbed yet another slice, slapping an extravagant tablespoonful of blueberry jam in the center and using the spoon to spread it out with awkward movements.
“Here you are!”
Clattering the spoon onto the plate, he helped himself to the buttered slice and looked around the room.
“Where’s the sugar?”
“We don’t need any sugar,” Maren said.
“I want sugar on my bread!”
“It’s not healthy. We don’t do that here.”
“Do you actually know how much sugar there is in the jam that nitwit there is sitting gobbling up?”
The other children ceased their chatter and listened attentively. Kenneth, scarlet in the face, stopped munching with his mouth full of jam and bread. Maren stood up. Christian was about to say something, but Maren walked around the table and bent over toward Olav.
“You can have some jam as well, of course,” she said in a friendly voice. “Besides, it’s low-sugar jam, look!”
She reached for the jar, but the boy got there first with a lightning flash movement one would not have thought possible of him. Moving so quickly that the chair toppled over, he flung the jar across the room, banging it on the refrigerator door. The impact inflicted a large dent on the door, but amazingly the jar was still intact. Before anyone had the chance to prevent him, he was over at the tall kitchen cabinet at the opposite end of the room, snatching out a large sugar canister.
“Here’s the sugar,” he screamed. “Here’s the fucking shitty sugar!”
Tearing off the canister lid and throwing it onto the floor, the boy raced around in a cloud of granulated sugar. Jeanette started to laugh. Kenneth burst into tears. Glenn, who was fourteen and had already begun to grow dark hairs above his top lip, muttered
that Olav was an idiot. Raymond was seventeen and a sly old fox. Accepting it all with stoic calm, he lifted his plate and disappeared. Anita, sixteen, followed him. Roy-Morgan’s twin, Kim-André, clutched his brother’s hand, excited and elated. He looked across at Jeanette and began to laugh somewhat uncertainly as well.
The canister of sugar was empty. Olav made a move to throw it on the floor, but was stopped at the last moment by Christian, who took hold of his arm and held it firmly, as in a vise. Olav howled and tried to tear himself free, but in the meantime Maren had advanced and placed her arms around his body. He had incredible strength for a twelve-year-old, but after a couple of minutes she could feel that he was beginning to calm down. She spoke to him the entire time, gently in his ear.
“There, there. Take it easy now. Everything’s all right.”
When he realized that Maren had control of the boy, Christian took the other children with him out to the day room. Kenneth had been sick. A small and unappetizing heap of chewed bread, milk, and blueberries was sitting on the plate he had held hesitantly in his hands as they walked to the other room, the same as all the others.
“Just leave it,” Christian told him. “You can have one of my slices!”
As soon as the other children had gone, Olav calmed down completely. Maren let go of him, and he sank down onto the floor like a beanbag.
“I only eat sugar on my bread,” he mumbled. “Mum says it’s okay.”
“Then I suggest one thing to you,” Maren said, sitting down beside him, with her back against the damaged refrigerator. “When you’re with your mom, you eat sugar the way you’re used to, but when you’re here, then you eat what we do. Isn’t that a good deal?”
“Maybe that’s what you think, but unfortunately that’s the way it has to be, really. Here we have a number of rules, and we all have to follow them. Otherwise it would become quite unfair. Don’t you agree?”
The boy did not respond. He seemed totally lost. Gingerly she placed a hand on his bulky thigh. His reaction was instantaneous. He punched her arm.
“Don’t touch me, for fuck’s sake!”
She stood up quietly, and stood there looking down at him.
“Do you want something to eat before I clear it away?”
“Yes. Six slices of bread and butter with sugar.”
Smiling weakly, Maren shrugged her shoulders and started to wrap the food with plastic film.
“Do I have to go to bed hungry in this fucking dump, or what?”
Now he looked her directly in the eye, for the first time. His eyes were completely black, two deep holes in his pudgy face. It crossed her mind that he could have been handsome, were it not for his size.
“No, Olav, you don’t have to go to bed hungry. You’re choosing that yourself. You’re not having sugar on your bread, not now, not tomorrow. Never. You’re going to starve to death if you’re going to wait for us to give in before you eat. Got it?”
He could not understand how she could remain so calm. It bewildered him that she did not give in. What’s more, he could not understand that he had to go to bed hungry. For a moment it struck him that salami was actually tasty. Just as quickly, he cast the thought aside. He struggled to his feet, snorting with exertion.
“I’m so fucking fat I can’t even stand up,” he said to himself in a low voice as he approached the living room.
Maren was standing with her back turned, examining the dent on the refrigerator. He stopped without turning to face her.
“It was really good of you to help Kenneth with his bread. He’s so small and vulnerable.”
For a second the twelve-year-old new boy stood, hesitating, before turning around slowly.
“How old are you?”
Olav went to bed hungry.
* * *
Raymond was snoring. Really snoring, like a grown man. The room was large, and in the faint light that entered through the darkened window Olav could discern a huge Rednex poster above his roommate’s bed. In one corner there was a dismantled off-road bike, and Raymond’s desktop was a chaotic jumble of textbooks, food wrappers, comics, and tools. His own desktop was completely bare.
The bedclothes were clean and starchy. They smelled strange, but pleasant. Flowery, in some way. They were far nicer than the ones he had at home; they were adorned with Formula 1 racing cars and lots of bright colors. The pillowcase and quilt cover matched, and the bottom sheet was entirely blue, the same color as some of the cars. At home he never had any matching bedclothes.
The curtains stirred in the draft from the slightly open window. Raymond had decided that. He himself was used to a warm bedroom, and although he had new pajamas and a cozy quilt, he was shivering from the cold. He was hungry.
It was the director. Or Agnes, as she liked to be called. She was whispering to him from the doorway.
“Are you sleeping?”
He turned over to face the wall, and did not reply.
Go away, go away, said a voice inside his head, but it was no use. Now she was sitting on the edge of his bed.
“Don’t touch me.”
“I won’t touch you, Olav. I just want to have a little chat. I heard you were angry at supper tonight.”
Not a word.
“You have to understand that we can’t have any of the children behaving like that. Imagine if all eight were to bounce sugar and jam off the walls all the time!”
She chuckled softly.
“That would never do!”
He still remained silent.
“I’ve brought you some food. Three slices. Cheese and sausage. And a glass of milk. I’m putting it down here beside the bed. If you want to eat it, then that’s fine, if not we can agree that you’ll throw it in the trash early tomorrow morning without any of us seeing it. Then no one will know whether you wanted it. Okay?”
Moving slightly, the boy turned around abruptly.
“Are you the one who decided I have to stay here?” he asked loudly and indignantly.
“Shhh,” she hushed him. “You’ll waken Raymond! No, you know perfectly well that I don’t decide these things. My task is to take good care of you. With the other grown-ups. It’s going to be fine. Although you’re most definitely going to miss your mother. But you’ll be able to visit her often, you mustn’t forget that.”
Now he was sitting halfway up in the bed. He resembled a fat demon in the faint light; the outlandish raven black hair, the wide mouth that even in the night darkness glowed bloodred. Involuntarily she dropped her gaze. The hands on the quilt belonged to a young child. They were sizable, but the skin was like a baby’s, and they were helplessly clutching two cars on the quilt cover.
“My God,” she thought. “This monster is only twelve years old. Twelve years!”
“Actually,” he said, staring directly at her. “Actually, you’re my prison guard. This is a fucking prison!”
At that moment the director of the Spring Sunshine Children’s Home, the only institution in Oslo for children and young people, saw something she had never, in the course of her twenty-three years of employment in child welfare services, seen before. Beneath the boy’s black, slender eyebrows she recognized an expression that so many despairing adults had; people whose children had been taken from them and who tarred her with the same brush as the rest of the official bureaucracy pursuing them. But Agnes Vestavik had never seen it in a child.
Blessed are those Who Thirst
MONDAY, MAY 10
What on earth were you working on over the weekend? Don’t you think we have enough of a slog every day of the week?”
Police Attorney Håkon Sand was standing in the doorway. His jeans were new, and for once he was wearing a jacket and tie. His jacket was slightly too large and his tie was a touch too broad, but nevertheless he looked reasonably put together. Apart from the hemline on his jeans. Hanne Wilhelmsen couldn’t resist leaning in front of him, speedily tucking the superfluous centimeters inside so they couldn’t be seen.
“You shouldn’t walk about with the turn-up on the outside.” She gave a friendly smile and stood up. She smoothed her hand down his arm with a light, almost tender, movement.
“There. Now you’re fantastic. Are you going to court?”
“No,” replied the prosecution attorney, who, despite the well-meaning gesture, felt embarrassed. Why did the detective inspector have to draw attention to his lack of fashion sense? She could have saved herself the trouble of doing that, he thought, though he said something different.
“I’ve a dinner date right after work. But what about you, why were you here?”
A pale green folder hung poised in the air before landing precisely on Hanne Wilhelmsen’s blotter.
“I just received this,” he went on. “Strange case. There have been no reports of either dismembered people or animals in our area.”
“I did an extra shift in the crime section,” she explained, leaving
the folder untouched. “They’re struggling with illness down there right now.”
The police prosecution attorney, a dark-haired and reasonably good-looking man whose temples were grayer than his thirty-five years would suggest, flopped onto the visitor’s chair. He removed his glasses and sat polishing them with the end of his tie. The spectacles did not become particularly clean, but the tie became decidedly more crumpled.
“The case has been assigned to the two of us. If there is a case, that is. There’s no victim, no one has heard anything, no one has seen anything. Odd. There are some pictures in there.”
He pointed toward the folder.
“I don’t need those, thanks.” She waved dismissively. “I was there. It really didn’t look very pretty.
“But you know,” she continued, leaning toward him, “if all of that turns out to be human blood, then there must have been two or three people killed in there. I’m inclined to think there are some young hooligans having some fun with us.”
The theory didn’t seem improbable. The Oslo police were in the middle of their worst spring ever. In the course of six weeks, three murders had been visited upon the city, and at least one of these seemed unsolvable. There had been no fewer than sixteen cases of rape reported in the same period, with seven of these becoming the object of enormous media attention. The fact that one of the victims was a member of Parliament for the Christian Democrats, on her way home from an evening committee meeting when she was brutally assaulted in the Palace Park, inflamed public disappointment in the lack of progress made by the police. Well aided by the tabloid press, the frustrated citizens of Oslo had started to protest against the Oslo police’s apparent inability to act. The elongated, curved building sat there at Grønlandsleiret 44, gray and unshakable, seemingly unmoved by all the merciless criticism. Its inhabitants arrived at work in the mornings with shoulders drawn
up and eyes downcast. They went home again far too late each day, their backs bent and nothing more to show for their daily toil than still more confirmed dead ends. The weather gods played around tauntingly with intense summer temperatures. The awnings were pulled right down, in vain, over all the windows on the south façade of the enormous building, making it appear both blind and deaf. The interior remained just as stifling. Nothing helped, and nothing seemed to show the way out of a professional blind alley that simply increased with every new case entered into the huge data systems. They should be of assistance but instead appeared hostile, almost mocking, each morning when they spewed out their lists of unsolved cases.
“What a springtime,” Hanne Wilhelmsen said, sighing theatrically. With a look of resignation, she raised her eyebrows and contemplated her superior officer. Her eyes were not especially large, but they were amazingly blue, with a distinctive black edge around the iris making them appear darker than they were. Her hair was dark brown and quite short. From time to time she tugged at it absentmindedly, as though she actually wished it were long and thought it would hasten its growth if she helped it along a little. Her mouth was generous, with a cupid’s bow that didn’t simply dip down from the top but also met its twin from below, like a hesitant cleft lip that had changed its mind, thus forming a sensuous curve instead of a defect. Above her left eye she bore a scar parallel to her eyebrow. It was pale pink and not particularly old.
“I’ve never seen it like this. Though I’ve only been here for eleven years. Kaldbakken has been here for thirty. He hasn’t experienced anything like it, either.”
She pulled at her T-shirt and gave it a shake.
“And this heat doesn’t make it any better. The whole city is on the move every single night. A spell of rain right now would be just the thing. That would at least keep people indoors.”
They sat there for too long, talking about everything and nothing.
They were friendly colleagues who always had something to talk about but who didn’t know very much about each other all the same. Other than that they both enjoyed their work, that they took it seriously, and that one of them was more competent than the other. That didn’t do much for the relationship between them. She was a highly skilled officer with a reputation that had always been good but following a dramatic case the previous autumn had now reached legendary heights. He had loafed around in the police station as a second-rate lawyer for more than six years, never outstanding, never brilliant. Still, he had built up a reputation for himself as both conscientious and hardworking. He too had played a decisive role in the same sensational case. His reputation was edging more in the direction of solid and dependable than what it had been before: rather uninteresting.
Perhaps they complemented each other. Perhaps it was more the fact they were never in competition that enabled them to work so well together. However, it was a curious friendship, restricted by the walls of the police station. Police Attorney Håkon Sand was genuinely sorry about that and several times had endeavored to alter the situation. Some time ago he had suggested in passing that they meet up for dinner. The rejection had been so blunt it would be a long time before he made the effort again.
“Oh, well, we’ll let the blood-soaked woodshed lie. I’ve got other things to do.”
The police officer slapped a heap of files sitting in a tray beside the window.
“So have we all,” the attorney retorted, before walking the twenty meters along the corridor to return to his own office.
* * *
“Why have you never brought me here before?”
The woman sitting on the opposite side of the narrow table smiled reproachfully as she squeezed her companion’s hand.
“I didn’t really know whether you liked this type of food,” the man responded, clearly pleased at how successful the meal had been.
The Pakistani waiters, immaculately dressed and with diction indicating they had been born at Aker Hospital rather than a delivery room in Karachi, had amiably steered them through the menu.
“Slightly inconvenient location,” he added. “But otherwise it’s one of my favorite restaurants. Good food, top-notch service, and prices to suit a public servant.”
“So you’ve been here often.” She paused. “Who with, then?”
He didn’t answer but instead raised his glass to hide how mortified he was by the question. All his women had been here. The very short-lived, far fewer than he liked to consider, and the two or three he had endured for a few months. Every time he had been thinking of her. What it would be like to sit here with Karen Borg. And now they were sitting here.
“Don’t think about the ones who were first. Concentrate on being last,” he said with a grin after a moment’s thought.
“Elegantly put,” she replied, but her voice had adopted a trace of . . . not coldness, but a kind of coolness that always terrified him out of his wits. That he could never learn.
Karen Borg didn’t want to talk about the future. For almost four months she had been meeting him regularly, up to several times a week. They ate together and went to the theater. They went for walks in the forest, and they made love as soon as they had the opportunity. Which was not too often. She was married, so her apartment was out of the question. Her husband knew they were having an affair, she said, but they had decided not to burn their bridges until they were certain that was what they wanted. Of course they could go to his place, something he suggested every time they were together. But she turned him down flat.
“If I come home with you, then I’ve made a choice,” she declared illogically.
Håkon Sand believed the choice of making love with him was a far more dramatic decision than the choice of venue, but it was no use. The waiter appeared with the check twenty seconds after Håkon had dropped a hint. It was presented according to old-fashioned etiquette, neatly folded on a plate placed in front of him. Karen Borg grabbed it, and he couldn’t muster the energy to protest. It was one thing that she earned five times as much as he did and quite another to be continually reminded of that. When the AmEx gold card was returned, he got up and held her chair for her. The strikingly handsome waiter had ordered a taxicab, and she snuggled up to her lover in the backseat.
“I suppose you’re going straight home,” he said, a precaution against his own disappointment.
“Yes, it’s a working day tomorrow,” she confirmed. “We’ll meet up again soon. I’ll phone you.”
Once she was out the taxi door, she leaned back in again to give him a gentle kiss.
“Thanks for a lovely evening,” she said softly, smiling briefly as she withdrew from the cab once again.
Sighing, he gave the taxi driver a new address. It was situated in a completely different part of the city, allowing plenty of time to feel the sharp little stab of pain he always experienced after his evenings with Karen Borg.