A sixtieth birthday calls for a luxury telegram
Erling kept watching Elfride, who liked to talk about going to meetings. He sensed that it gave her a warm feeling to think of good meetings. There were so many nice notices in the paper about meetings, she had said. His thoughts went to youth and loneliness when he looked at the sixty-year-old woman. The notice as a substitute for a substitute. But Gustav wasn't interested, Elfride might say in a vague, faded protest that didn't even touch her consciousness, and so she had to be satisfied with the temperance lodge. And those meetings were not so bad. She hinted, however, that Gustav undoubtedly believed in God deepest down.
Erling felt this must be very deep down. Gustav had once and for all stated that the ministers had invented Our Lord to have an income. Ministers and teachers and office help and people like Erling had only in mind to be lazy.
Gustav had a fearsome memory of every word he himself had uttered, and stuck to it. Ministers and "their ilk" should be driven to work with the rod, to learn something of life. In this social arrangement Our Lord had become homeless, and finally had entirely disappeared, but Gustav had never had any use for him anyway. People should work and meet their obligations. All else was nonsense, invented for ease, reading, writing, and laziness. This did not exclude an occasional fight with Our Lord, in the same way Gustav let engineers and contractors know what he thought of them; it was not compliments he wasted on such gentlemen.
A conversation with Gustav and Elfride was like participating in a child's game. All utterances were planned with a definite goal in mind. Many moves might be made without apparent result, as in a game. The pay-off was information obtained in a devious manner. Direct questions were against the rules. If they caught something they looked at each other with what they thought were innocent faces.
It was the bitter experience of centuries, refreshed with painful memories from early childhood: You mustn't expose yourself, you mustn't ask—if you don't want your nose twisted. Don't give any information, don't let anyone trick you into letting the cat out of the bag, for then they'll only wait for the right moment to crush you. And never ask questions about anything!
Again Erling looked about in the room. The air was saturated with [p. 314] years of pipe smoke. The furniture gave one the creeps, but it belonged to people who liked it. A highly polished dinosaur of a cupboard reached all the way to the ceiling. This was Elfride's dear companion when Gustav was out blasting mountains. If Gustav should ever put some dynamite under the cupboard, Erling felt he might regain his faith in humanity. He quickly pulled out his handkerchief and simulated a sneeze, as he recalled the degradation that had befallen the cupboard some thirty years ago. Uncle Oddvar had happened to need lodging for the night, and Gustav had given him permission to sleep on the sofa, since he was sober. But after Elfride and Gustav had gone to sleep, Oddvar pulled out his bottle and got going. The following morning Elfride discovered some fluid had been sprayed against the cupboard, for which Oddvar could give no decent explanation. Elfride felt insulted, Gustav was furious, but Oddvar never became angry; he suggested that perhaps someone had spilled something there the previous day. Elfride was beside herself at the insinuation that she would have squirted water against the elegant cupboard so that it ran down over the mirror. And poor Uncle Oddvar was driven from the house. He was demure as he later told Erling the story: "I did not squirt water about," he said. "But I had such a peculiar dream: I was walking from Christiania to Kalsas, to participate in a pissing-contest to see who could send a squirt across that little hamlet, and I received the first prize."
For the third or fourth time now Elfride brought up Gustav's sixtieth birthday, and Gustav listened in silence to her description of honors shown him. Erling recognized Gustav's pride in having reached sixty before Erling. It was as if he too had taken a first prize, but it was fairly certain that no one at the festivities had mistaken the cupboard for the toilet. Three extremely fine speeches had been delivered in Gustav's behalf, and a deputation had presented flowers and a silver chalice from the temperance lodge. Erling admired the chalice but did not voice his opinion that it was not sterling; he refrained from taking the risk of making his brother the blasting-boss a drunkard in his old age.
"Well, at least you sent a letter," said Elfride, half turned away.
Erling became sincerely sad; only in that moment did he realize his mistake. That he hadn't shown up in person was as it should have been, he believed; he hadn't been invited—even though he well knew they had counted on his coming to the last moment. Because this was a sixtieth birthday. And in a way they had left it to him whether he wanted to insult them by not coming, although Gustav would have taken it ill had he turned up. Indeed, Erling had thought of coming but had hesitated at encountering a whole temperance lodge and all the speech- [p. 315] making and all the listening. Everybody was sure he would only have ruined things through his presence, this famous brother who poked fun at people and drank like a fish. They would all have looked him over, casually as it were, and then agreed that thank heaven, he wasn't drunk, although he must have had something the way he looked.
No, the mistake had been the letter which ought to have been a luxury telegram. All the luxury telegrams were stacked, accusingly, on the top shelf of the cupboard. Well, well, so he had strayed that far. He had struggled with a friendly letter, a whole page long to make it especially good—and had long ago forgotten that a sixtieth birthday calls for a luxury telegram. Perhaps his failure to send one had some connection with a feeling of being ridiculous putting his name on such a multicolored stupidity. It was lucky at any rate that he had sent a letter, rather than an ordinary telegram, which would have been interpreted as an intentional insult. A full page letter wasn't the worst that could have happened.
Gustav sucked his pipe and ignored Erling completely, as he said to Elfride, comfortingly, "Well, we have talked that over, and I don't think any of our guests expected my brother to show any common decency."
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.
TEI markup and other features Copyright © 2000 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.
To buy the paperback book, see: http://www.wisc.edu/wisconsinpress/books/1693.htm