On the dot, the first of each month for thirty-six years
Erling sat with his coffee and the cake and looked at Gustav, who never seemed to manage an end to the story he had begun, about a hat that had been stolen from him. An exceedingly poor story about an old hat, but Erling listened dutifully to his big brother. He couldn't help recalling something he had seen in a zoo; there a sturdy male tiger had walked back and forth, back and forth, behind the solid bars. In the corner of the same cage a small terrier rested with her nose over the edge of her basket, her eyes following the tiger and the people watching outside. Erling wondered about this little bitch in the tiger cage. Just then the tiger was fed through an opening in the bars, and approached his meat. It seemed the dog had only been waiting for this impudence: it rushed to the middle of the floor and barked—woof, woof, woof! The tiger moved away, watching the angry little bitch, who had been given her own meal in a small dish. Each time the tiger tried to approach his food, the little bitch raised her back hair and started her woof, woof, woof! And the tiger withdrew in respect.
When the bitch had licked her dish clean, and taken her time at it, she barked a last woof, woof, at the tiger and lay down in her basket. The tiger cautiously approached his meat, and stopped dead when a drowsy woof! came from the basket. At last the terrier must have felt she had inspired sufficient respect; she went to sleep and let the tiger eat in peace.
Erling had asked the keeper what it was all about. It turned out the tiger had had an unhappy childhood; its mother didn't like it. Then they had given it to the terrier when her pups were weaned. The tiger had received a firm upbringing from its adopted mother, and since a tiger can't see itself, he wasn't aware he had grown so big. He remembered having received punishment and was careful. The bitch on her side had seen the tiger grow so slowly she hadn't noticed it, and remained sure in her belief it was easy to master a tiger.
Gustav started from the beginning with the hat. It had hung on a nail in the shed. "I know where I hang my hat. No, it wasn't a new hat, but it was my hat, and then—"
There was the choice of thirteen possible hat-thieves. Gustav had his own suspicions. "So one day I told him, cool as a cucumber, that is three weeks ago, yes, a Saturday, then I said, cool—"[p. 307]
The repulsive taste of his sister-in-law's cake and the wishy-washy coffee filled Erling with nausea. He caught himself longing for Uncle Oddvar and "Yo-ho-ho, seaman Jansson!"
"It's a nasty thing to have happen in one's place of work," said Gustav. "I told him coolly and decently about this business with my hat, but you should have seen that devil! He put his fist to my nose and told me to shut up about that 'lice-box.' That's exactly what he said, but I controlled myself. Well, I only told him to be a little more careful when speaking of lice, for when it comes to lice—"
"Was he the one who stole your hat?"
"Was he the one? Who else?"
No, Erling dared not say who else it might have been.
"Things have gone too far," said Gustav, and looked reproachfully at Erling, "if one no longer can hang one's own hat on a nail, but it is the same with so much nowadays."
Erling had no doubt what was meant by "so much." There was one who would suffer one day because he had failed to heed the advice of an older, wiser brother.
Elfride tripped nervously about, looking for something to put in order, or a speck of dust that might be moved, but she found nothing. "If I had known you were coming," she said, and pulled out a chair and pushed it back again, "then I would have had things in order."
"Erling must take it as it is," said Gustav.
Elfride stopped looking for disorder. "Now they've raised the rent," she said. "Everything gets so expensive one can't live."
"Yes," interrupted Gustav, "those who work are the ones to suffer."
Erling accepted the implication in silence.
"For thirty-six years now," said Gustav, and held his pipe in his outstretched hand, "for thirty-six years now I've paid the rent on the dot the first of each month. Thirty-six years. That makes four hundred and thirty-eight times precisely the first of each month, if it hasn't been a holiday, for then I've paid on the previous day. Thirty-six years the same apartment, the same landlord. He lives on the floor below us."
"That isn't bad," said Erling. "That's more than I've done."
It grew silent, and Gustav darkened; such a remark coming from an older brother would have been good for Erling. Instead, he made light of his own shame. Indeed, there was no doubt about the wantonness of his younger brother.
Elfride was straightening a curtain and said, nervously, surprised at her own daring, "Well, I guess you don't pay regular rent, Erling, or—"
Gustav wasn't looking at him either now and tried innocently to look [p. 308] at nothing. Oh well, thought Erling, that was what Elfride was aiming at when she spoke of the rent, but Gustav had not immediately grasped the diplomacy of Elfride: it was the house in Lier that bothered them again. Was Erling the owner, or wasn't he? It was a little pin-cushion to needle them.
"Well," he said, and looked out through the window. "It always costs something, wherever you live. Have you never thought of moving somewhere else?"
The question pierced Gustav like an awl. "Are you crazy? Why in hell should we move? There are enough of that sort, who can't stay in one place."
Now he was seriously angry, and Elfride's features turned somber; Gustav was so temperamental and now they wouldn't find out if Erling owned the house this time either. She herself had hoped he was a property owner, but when she expressed this thought to Gustav, he had said, in that case Erling must have stolen the money to buy it, and sooner or later things would go wrong for him. Elfride was disappointed; she wanted so to be able to say, "My brother-in-law owns his own villa!"
As so often before, Erling had a feeling he was reading two books open before him. He really liked Elfride. She puttered about, fairly satisfied, in her own microscopic world, and cared for and honored her capable husband. "My husband, bless him, doesn't drink. He always stays home evenings. Surely, I have nothing to complain about. It would have been so nice if our son hadn't gone to America. This I think about so often. Especially at Christmas. Oh Lord, how angry Gustav was that time. 'Don't imagine I will pay the ticket!' he said, but Fredrik said he wasn't asking him. Now he's married and all, and to an American woman, and he has a steady job, and children they have, four of them, and she works, too, and they have a house, and a garden with some pear trees. He drives a truck, but Gustav says perhaps he hasn't paid for it, and it's hard to keep up the payments, says Gustav, for it always turns out bad when people get too big for their britches, he says, and buy trucks when they don't have the money. But I feel the Lord gives His blessings too."
When Elfride had company and Gustav wasn't present, she always assumed a pious attitude, even to Erling whom she in many ways found dubious. He cared little about Gustav's and Elfride's suspicions. Neither of them could fly very far on the wings of fantasy. The worst they could imagine was that he undoubtedly went around speaking ill of honest folk. He had an illegitimate child, and that of course was bad, but it could be explained as a mishap; the worst was that he talked about this daughter of his as if she were as good as any child. Why did he have to [p. 309] mention her at all? In a way he was stealing secrets from his brothers and sisters, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law: one couldn't whisper about something he himself spread openly. The same with his divorce, only much worse. They pretended they hadn't heard about it and would ask him to bear their greetings to his wife. About the life he led they knew nothing, and would never have understood anything had he tried to tell them, at least, they would not have taken it seriously. That gullible they were not.
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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