He was the first kid she’d shared her paddling pool with besides Sigrid. The kid who knew where the best stalks of rhubarb were hiding in her mother’s garden, and who knew what jam would be found in her mother’s fridge. Knew where the vodka was hidden and how much of it was topped up with water. He knew where the dog slept and how much command over the household it had. Knew how the qualities of the new dog resembled that of the old one. He knew where she hid her diaries, remembers each poster erected and discarded, knew which ones she still kept rolled up under her bed.
He watched her silver music stand grow as she did, watched how the sheets of paper resting on them grew more complex with each passing year. Knew the sound of uncertain scales versus that of a well-practiced piece. Knew when to wait outside her door for the final note to hang in the air between them.
Now, as he stands in front of her with his arms wrapped around himself, fingers clasping the insides of his sleeves, he feels like he knows nothing at all about the person he watches approaching.
She puts her arm around him, his arms fall by his waist as he leans awkwardly into the hug that feels abrupt even for them, notices her trying to catch his eye though he struggles to look at her. He takes in her small frame, the thinness of her coat and her black loafers, an unfamiliar perfume and more hair than he remembers, long and thick and now blonde. She sees someone she knows well, sees his grandfather’s fishing coat and the same black hoodie he’s worn year after year, sees sensible winter boots and a familiarly gaunt face, sees the white spots on his face, fewer now, sees a black hat pulled down over his ears.
“So, did you just get back or have you been hiding from me?” he says, breaking a silence that had lingered there briefly. She puts her hands in her pockets.
“I arrived in September,” she says. “There’s been a lot to deal with, we’re still sorting out Mormor’s things.”
He nods, lifts his gaze to the door handle in front of them and pulls it open, a bell jingles as he ushers her through and follows her to a small table by the window smothered in fake snow stencils. He now sees her sitting in the spot in which she always sat, her legs crossed at the same angle, the same intensity of gaze trying to meet him from across the table, holding a menu in her hands that hadn’t changed since they’d first started coming here fifteen years ago. She’ll have a black coffee, his will be white, they’ll sit still there for a few moments, he’ll stir his little pink porcelain cup and she'll sip from hers. She’ll wait and he'll speak.
“I went to the funeral,” he says, “it was good”. She puts her cup back down on its saucer and traces its gold outline with her fingers, pulls the menu towards her to scan dishes she’ll never order.
“Sigrid gave a funny speech, I think you would have liked it,” he goes on. “She talked about the time we nicked that fifty-year-old bottle of Scotch from her and then you vomited all over her rosebush.” He forces a laugh that comes out more in his shoulders than anywhere else, but she doesn’t look up.
“Well that was actually Morfar’s scotch and it wasn’t like he was using it,” she says. “Don’t know why she held onto all his stuff for so long.” She starts stroking the ends of her hair, a new habit he hasn’t observed in her before. It surprises him, all these little movements she’s making, like there’s something static inside her that wasn’t there before, some kind of twitching discomfort. This observation emboldens him.
“It’s called attachment, Jo, it’s a feeling people get when they want others around and miss them when they’re gone,” he says. Her eyebrows move closer together, deeper lines than he remembers forming across her forehead, her fingers leave the small knot she’s been teasing in her hair and fall into her lap. She wonders if it’s just her or if there’s a Sigrid-like intonation to his speech.
“How’s your mother?” she says. She hasn’t seen Margaret in three years, not since a passing visit to her childhood flute teacher who had fallen terminally ill. She and Margaret had shared words over a cup of coffee in her mother’s kitchen, and she was surprised to find her showing more interest in her faraway foreign life than Thorbjorn ever had, and even more perplexed to discover an endearing and interesting woman in adulthood very unlike the cloyingly sensitive one Thorbjorn was always running home to and the one in perpetual state of affront against Johanna’s mother despite the pair being almost inseparable.
“Oh, not much has changed really. She’s got a year left before retirement kicks in,” he says. “I’m hoping she’ll find a hobby that doesn’t involve micromanaging me.”
She laughs for the first time in what feels like months. “Yeah, maybe she should try boxing. Convert some of that passive aggressive energy into something more productive.” She expects him to laugh along but he doesn’t.
“Why did you change your hair,” he says, his eyes meeting hers before darting away again.
“Oh, I don’t know, I was told the lighter I coloured it, the less severe my face looked. I’ve been told I look more approachable now, so-”
“And that’s what you want?”
“-I guess. Why shouldn’t I?”
He shrugs and looks out of the window. It’ll be getting dark soon, and quickly, and then a dark afternoon will roll into an even darker night. The street lights in the town square will soon switch on and a yellow glow will shimmer on the shop fronts they’ll pass on the way home, feet scrunching on fresh sand thrown out on the icy roads.
“So now you look more Norwegian than the rest of us. Isn’t that funny.”
“Is it? I --” it’s now her turn to avoid his gaze, turning around to look for the waitress, who she spots and beckons to. Turning back to face him, she smiles quickly and says;
“Well yes I do expect a positive reception at the doors of Valhalla now. Knew I could find a way of tricking my way in.” she says. “Would you hang with a fraud like me in Valhalla, Thorbjorn?”
He nods and smiles, takes his final sips of this coffee and delicately places his cup back on its saucer. Piano music fades in and out as a CD reschuffles itself.
He see the waitress approaching and pulls his arm across the table, taking the corner of sleeve in his fingers and leaning in to whisper;
“So, has Sigrid told you, or should I?”