Yo-ho-ho, Seaman Jansson
At the time, during the Occupation, when Erling had been warned to go underground immediately, and felt he could not seek out Gustav, he had remembered his kind Uncle Oddvar, Oddvar with the moon-face, his father's youngest brother. According to Gustav, it was this uncle's as well as his grandfather's example Erling had followed when he took to drinking and grew too lazy to work. Yet, Gustav had been fairly gracious toward his Uncle Oddvar, who expressed few opinions, except for this one: You're right, sure as hell! He admitted all were right, since they so eagerly wished to be. Sure as hell, you're right! When Gustav scolded [p. 301] him for being a drunkard, Uncle Oddvar at once admitted the truth. Oddvar was rather listless by now, but in his younger days he had worn an elegantly turned-up mustache and patent leather shoes. Now his mustache hung gray and tired and drooped over his mouth, but he was lucky in that Ingfrid kept him company when drinking. Then they sat warm and red-faced and smiled at each other, and Oddvar said things were well with him, and he said often that sure as hell they were. In the morning he rose alone, brewed coffee, and fried pork, of which he was especially fond, went to his job in a factory, where he moved a lever with a handle back and forth. Erling had a few times tried to get Uncle Oddvar to tell him what was behind the lever, but without success. It is even possible that Uncle Oddvar did not know what he was doing, or what its purpose was. It is also possible that his mind was a clouded mirror that would catch only the simplest nouns, like table, chair, wife, liquor, cat, and these would make him smile or look sullen. There was a great silence in Uncle Oddvar's brain, definitely no banging of doors. Regardless of what was said he would always agree: sure as hell it was so. His face had by now lost some of its roundness, the color of his eyes had faded, he was bloated and bald. He and Ingfrid had grown to look very much alike. They never mentioned their children, but it was scarcely because they thought about them enough to wish to hide anything. Actually, they had forgotten them. There had been three, a boy named Nils, and two girls. Erling could not remember the names of the girls and felt uncomfortable when he thought of his cousins. They had been only half-grown when they left their parents, like animals breaking away from their origin, and became street-walkers in the neighborhood—entering an underworld lower than the one occupied by Ingfrid and Oddvar.
He had felt it would be all right to look up Oddvar. Erling was in the habit of calling on him two or three times a year, with a bottle. But how to get hold of a bottle now? He had some money, but not the current coupon of his liquor card. He thought of getting some on the black market, but knew of no outlet in Uncle Oddvar's direction. Well, he must come empty-handed, and hope at least Ingfrid was at home.
Oddvar and Ingfrid lived in a district that had superseded a torn-down slum. There had been much criticism about this experiment in moving people into small neat apartments with bathrooms, after they had lived all their lives in slums. It was said they cared not at all to live in such a manner. The same criticism had been heard in cities abroad, and Erling had an uneasy feeling that there was some truth in the statement. The comparatively new buildings already had the stamp of slums about them, [p. 302] and inside, the apartments were already damaged to an extent which it was hard to believe; bathtubs were not used for their intended purpose, but as containers for coal, wood, bicycles, refuse. After a few years it appeared the criticism had been misplaced, for the tenants were happy with their new accommodations, and had at last learned to live in them.
As Erling stood outside the damaged door (what in the world had they done to it?) he could hear gramophone music from inside. He rang several times, but short and cautious ringings, or Ingfrid or whoever was inside might take it as Gestapo-signals. The record played down and then it started all over again—"Yo-ho-ho, Seaman Jansson . . ." Erling rang again and now he could hear someone move in the entrance hall. The door opened and "Seaman Jansson" roared out onto the landing.
Erling was startled. His uncle looked terrible, standing there in his shirt and pants, the suspenders hanging down behind. He was unshaved and bloated, his eyes swollen. He must have wept much and long. He sobbed, "So kind of you to come," with a mouth that had turned into an irregular hole.
Good and drunk but also sick, thought Erling, as he stepped inside. "Is something wrong, Uncle Oddvar?"
He had to shout to make himself heard above the gramophone in the room.
Oddvar started to cry again. Erling walked ahead, but stopped short as he discovered a human form under a sheet on a board that had been placed on saw-horses. The beds stood empty, even the mattresses were gone. Beside the corpse stood a table with the gramophone, as well as a bottle and a cup. On the other side of the table was a lost-looking easy chair.
Erling stopped the gramophone: "Is Aunt Ingfrid dead?"
The old man nodded and cried. He held his hands before his eyes like a small child and sobbed, "She sure as hell is." Then he shuffled over to the gramophone and started it again. "And they want me at the old people's home."
Erling attempted to stop the gramophone once more, but Uncle Oddvar pushed his arm aside and sat down in the easy chair, crying. Good Lord, thought Erling, why can't they let him stay here to die. To take the liquor away from the old man will only hasten the process, and this is his home after all.
While the worn record screamed "Yo-ho-ho and Yokohama!" Erling learned that Ingfrid had died during the night—"and both of us will be fetched at five o'clock." Erling went to the kitchen and rinsed out a cup. He filled it and drank the wretched wartime liquor. On the floor stood an [p. 303] unopened bottle; he didn't feel he was robbing Uncle Oddvar, for he could not manage more before five o'clock, and these would be his last drinks—on this earth.
It was impossible to stop the gramophone but Erling insisted on opening a window. This was not easy. They were not in the habit of letting out the warmth. When he managed to open it to the raw autumn air he breathed easier. He suddenly felt hungry and fetched butter and bread from the kitchen. "Please eat, Erling, if you are hungry—it was so kind of you to come, but please, shut the window!"
Erling closed the one nearest to Uncle Oddvar and walked over to the one at the other end of the room, where he devoured the bread; he had not eaten since the morning of the day before. In recent weeks he had been constantly on the move. Now he had plenty of time to stand here at an open window and eat. He would have time on his hands from now on, not the least if he were picked up, for then there would be a great chance that he might meet eternity. How could wars be so boring!
He drank liquor as he ate his bread and managed to get some food into Uncle Oddvar also. "Otherwise you'll be too drunk when they come with the hearse," he said, and that was an argument Uncle Oddvar understood.
The gramophone bellowed about "your Stina and a dram and yo-ho-ho!" Erling closed the window as he could hear in the distance the revolting, hated tramping of boots. The steps were approaching. The group started to sing as they passed, those strained, stupid words in march time, like a chorus to accompany their own hanging. "Ohei! Ohiv!"
When they had passed he opened the window again. He had closed it lest they become suspicious and get it into their heads that "Seaman Jansson" was an insult to the Wehrmacht, that it was a national song or a Jewish hymn, or—worst of all—that people might be enjoying themselves. He listened to the dying sound of boot-tramping and the hoarse parody of singing, helped along by the screeching "Yo-ho-ho, Seaman Jansson!"
Fog in a dead street. A dead aunt on a board. A drunken uncle in a chair. Odor of wartime liquor, perspiration, dust, garbage, food, and corpses. There were two corpses, he now noticed. In the bottom of a cage lay a dead parakeet; it must have lain there some time, for it was caved-in and flat in death. The mixture of smells recalled something to him. What? Yes, now it floated up like a dirty sack through various associations and became a winter night spent in an empty freight car which apparently had been used for shipping rags or bones or something [p. 304] equally nauseating. He had got a cramp in his stomach from the cold for he wore neither overcoat nor underwear. There was a draft from the sliding door, but the howling blizzard outside was worse. They had been two in the car; they never laid eyes on each other; the other one had climbed on later, and they had growled to each other as animals in the dark, but each one had kept to his corner and no words had been exchanged. No match had been struck, so the other one mustn't have had any either.
Toward morning Erling had left, afraid to go to sleep as he didn't relish the idea of a trumpet of doom for an alarm clock. The comrade had growled angrily after him, perhaps something about closing the door. Erling pushed the heavy, ironshod door shut with such a bang he could hear the echo from across the pier. Then he stumbled on a pile of coal and hurt himself. This made him so furious he started to bombard the door with the heaviest pieces he could find. The man in the car yelled bloody murder, but Erling kept on hurling coal until some men came running in the dark and demanded what in hell was the matter. And war was something like that; life turned into a dull idiocy in the course of a single night, some incomprehensible trouble in the pitch dark round an empty freight car. He fumbled his way from the place and observed from a safe distance some lanterns and the door being pushed open; that troublemaker in there did not manage to make them accept his dubious explanation.
Erling remembered the box of checkers he had put into his pocket when he left his apartment. Had his last thought on leaving really been that he might play checkers in Sweden? "Uncle Oddvar," he said, presently, "would you like to play a game of checkers? You be Germany and I'll be Norway—no, I had better be Luxembourg, then I'm not entirely responsible for Norway in case I lose."
He pulled the box from his pocket and poured the pieces in a pile on the table. He knew that Ingfrid and Oddvar in their harmonious marriage had played checkers every evening until they got too drunk.
Oddvar looked dully at the pieces. His mouth resembled still more the hole of a cadaver someone had poked a stick into. Tears and snot clung to his mustache. But he was willing to play, and became almost cheerful. "Sure as hell!" he said, and filled his cup with liquor. "Seaman Jansson" had once more played to an end, and Oddvar rushed up to move the needle to the beginning of the record before he wound the gramophone with a trembling hand. "Yo-ho-ho!"
Erling had been so sure of winning from the completely drunk old man that he made a few careless moves before he realized that Uncle [p. 305] Oddvar played like a thinking automaton. An old combination of checkers and drinking gave him the upper hand against one who had practiced these sports separately. It was necessary for Erling to win, he grew as tense as the hunter scenting game. Oddvar poured liquor down his throat and attended to "Seaman Jansson" as well. He laughed, pleased with himself: "No, my boy, sure as hell I'll show Ingfrid I can beat you before they carry her out!"
Erling felt that sure as hell that was a thought—yo-ho-ho—and groggily he weighed for or against, but decided he must stick with Luxembourg. Before they resumed they tossed their heads back and shouted lustily in chorus, "A drink in Yokohama, and a drink in—"
They cleared their brains and played a while. Then Erling discovered he would be beaten if his uncle made a certain move. And the bastard did it. In the same moment Oddvar lost interest.
Erling gathered up the pieces and put the box back in his pocket. Not entirely beaten, he thought; I only played for Luxembourg. He looked at the old drunkard who had forgotten the whole thing. "I staked something on this game," he said, aloud and dejected. "No, I don't like it at all; I shouldn't have played against Uncle Oddvar."
"Skol!" yelled his uncle. He had again filled his cup and raised it awkwardly in the direction of Ingfrid, who lay quite still on her board. For a moment Erling was convinced she had stirred a little, breathed out and adjusted her position.
Uncle Oddvar was now sleeping noisily in his chair, but gradually his head sank down in complete insensibility. Erling went to the kitchen and washed his head and face. Then he looked in the mirror and admonished himself to be cautious.
He would leave before five, he knew where he could go at that hour in the dark city, but mustn't arrive too late. He looked from his uncle to the shape under the sheet, and from it to the bottle. He left enough for a generous last drink for his uncle—if he hadn't already had his last. After the war Gustav had told him that Uncle Oddvar had lived almost a year in the old people's home, but had "wailed like a baby" because he was denied liquor. There had been triumph in Gustav's voice when he said, "Too bad about the old pig, but they did get him straightened out at last!"
Copyright © 1958 by H. Aschehoug & Co., Oslo, Norway. Used by permission. English translation copyright © 1966 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Use of this material falling outside the purview of "fair use" requires the permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.
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