They arrive unannounced, one large suitcase between them, the boy drowning in a puffer jacket and holding the straps of a rucksack with dinosaurs on it in one hand. She shivers in her worn, outsized leather jacket and tracksuit bottoms rolled up at the ankles to reveal woolen tights and cheap white running shoes.
She rings the doorbell, resting an arm on the boy’s shoulder, who then puts his thumb in his mouth, more as an act of defiance than one in search of comfort. She resists the urge to tell him off and instead shifts her weight from her left foot to her right. She contemplates wiggling her toes but imagines the cold sting that would involve feeling them again and thinks better of it. Above the door there’s a small stained glass window from which she discerns the yellow glow of a lightbulb, but not much else.
At the airport she had briefly considered giving them a ring to make sure they were home, but couldn’t find the will to dial their number. If they had known she was coming they’d probably have insisted on picking her up, a two-hour drive both ways along a winding and at times vertiginous coastline that would only have added to the stress of seeing them show up like this. After a few moments she sees a dark shape block out some of the dim yellow light, and hears the fumbling of keys on the other side of the door, which is eventually, gingerly pushed open.
She had played out what the first reencounter with her mother would have been like several times in her head. In each episode she’d fixate on herself as the version she most aspired to be at the time, someone so fully transformed as to be completely illegible to her old world.
In the first year of her absence, the imaginary conversations unfolding between them were confrontational. She pictured herself almost throwing that front door open. She heard her indignant voice, the swear words laced with all sorts of jargon of empowerment. She envisioned the tattoos on her neck that she never got, the ripped t-shirt she’d have picked up from a small gig in one of the strange little bars she sometimes frequented, maybe that motorbike she would have learnt to ride if she had found the time and resources.
“I shouldn’t have to explain myself,” she’d hear herself shouting, again and again, so many times it made her head spin.
Then circumstances changed for her, or maybe she had played something of a part in their change, and this altered her vision of how these conversations played out. Now she was composed, smart, accomplished, neat. What was the word she really liked: Poise. She had poise. She’d have intellectual arguments to throw, each meticulously crafted, capable of navigating whatever accusatory avenue she’d imagine her mother might take her down. Not that she had proof that she was being accused of anything. It was just that accusations were what most often echoed in her head.
By the time John was born and something of a real life had taken shape beyond the mould of resisting her old one, the conversations between the two of them in her head had lost much of their edge. She still had upsetting things to say, and still expected upsetting things to be said to her, but the perpetual circle the pair of them moved in this overwrought head of hers hadn’t so much changed shape as lost something crucial of its resonance. It increasingly seemed pointless to have these ongoing conversations with herself, but she didn’t know how to make them stop.
The face that appeared on the other side of the door was a soft one, her mother had aged but in a way that had only deepened her crow’s feet, with a trace of frown lines suggested between her eyebrows and a slight puffiness at her jawline and her cheeks. That childishly-wide face of theirs, a family heirloom that Ellida had always resented, found somehow bovine, had taken an almost Buddha-like quality in old age. She looked smaller than she had remembered her and she stooped slightly, like a curious little bird.
Of all the scenarios Ellida had played out in her head, none looked or felt at all like this moment, in which she turns up looking a picture of dishevelment and almost desperation, her arms outstretched, and stands in front of a woman who blinks nervously but without a trace of anger in her. A moment lingers there without anyone saying anything, and a gentle electricity passes through them both. It shocks her how easy it is to lean in for a hug, and what a soft embrace it is that she sinks into.
“And this would be John, then,” her mother says when they finally pull apart. She had watched him out of the corner of his eye, this quiet boy standing there motionless with his thumb in his mouth, index finger resting on his nose. John hears his name mentioned but doesn’t understand the rest of the words spoken. He pulls his thumb out of his mouth and lowers his arm to his hip. The neat, golden curtains grazing his eyebrows captured in photograph had grown out and were now matted and covering his eyes.
Hanna notices that the label on his red and blue bobble hat is still attached, and tries to look into his eyes but he looks down at his feet, and starts gently kicking the snow at the top of his footprint. It’s been dark since they arrived at the airport. Ellida had tried to generate some excitement in him about his new home by pointing out the scenery in a way that she hoped would make it seem like they were entering a fairy tale world of the kind her grandmother might have charmed her with.
Here was the mountain named after a family of trolls who had famously taken residence, she’d said. Here was a waterfall. You ought to take care, a nasty kind of water spirit can jump out from one of those and cause all sorts of mischief and lure you in. And look, here’s a little farm, you get tiny strange bearded men who live on them, they’ll be nice to you if you’re nice to them, but sometimes they get up to all sorts of nonsense. We might find some at home if we’re not careful.
She’d hoped that at least there might be a trickle of green light floating across the sky, that would have been a truly magical welcome. But all he saw as he first stepped out into the Norwegian night was a vast blackness that seemed to stretch into an everlasting nowhere. She’d hoped that he’d at least he’d gulp down the sweet winter air and savour that as she had, and she hopes he’ll come to appreciate the smell of freshly-chopped birchwood burning in the fireplace, and all the nice things about this eerie little rugged place she’d once called home.
“Well, come in then,” Hanna says using Norwegian words that sound enough like the English translation for John to understand. He follows Ellida over the threshold, dragging his backpack which leaves trickles of melted snow along with him.