The last lawnmower is switched off at half past four; the garden erupts in a burst of sunshine, only to return to shade almost immediately. Someone brings tables and chairs outside, one of the neighbors tightens the rope of a hammock so it won’t brush the ground should anyone decide to lie in it. The speaker cable just about reach all the way to the French doors, and all is well. Easy jazz wafts between swarms of midges and swathes of lilacs, between paddling pools and dartboards. Sella carries glasses, plates and cutlery outside on a tray, sets out an ashtray. She found a packet of cigarettes in a long forgotten jacket in the hallway earlier that day and decided to try smoking for the first time in years. A glass bird decorates the garden table; its breast is chipped. Over in the playground an adult kicks a ball so high up in the air that, for a brief moment, it seems as if it will never touch the ground again. The children vie to be the first to catch the ball before it lands, one of them will bump into the fence and hurt themselves. Later, one will accidentally cut their finger on their knife during dinner and have a Band-Aid put on it. When they have all gone to bed, another will get a visit from a mother or father who will sit on the edge of their bed and read them a story.
While all this is happening, a family turns off at the junction after several hours on the main roads; the driver chooses a lower gear now that they are going through a residential area with its numerous “Caution, children playing, please drive slowly!” signs attached to trees and streetlights. They have many miles under their belt, the air inside the car is stale and oxygen depleted; ice cream wrappers and takeaway boxes with congealed hamburger dressing have been discarded on the floor. There is plenty of room now that they are one passenger short. The water bottles are empty. A bottle of pop sits warm and flat in the cup holder on the passenger side. The car is light-colored; garden plants, trees and houses reflect in the windscreen, the driver and the passengers can just about be made out behind the glass. Otherwise everything is as it always is: the dog stickers are still visible on the rear window where their daughter put them many years ago, they feel the pothole in the road just as sharply as always when the right front tire hits it, but their irritation is not as great as it usually is; nor does the driver swear when the fizzy drinks bottle topples and falls to the floor. And the sun just keeps on shining. The ferry, which will take the islanders home, waits for a ship carrying concrete to turn around in the narrow strait. Cries of frustration can be heard coming from the bridge.
Arild is the first to turn around; he is standing on the lawn squirting barbecue
fluid on the charcoal, but is considerate enough to release his grip on the bottle and
thus show a kind of down-to-earth respect. The car drives slowly down the street,
almost ostentatiously quiet, as if it is trying to make itself seem more important than
it really is. The trailer jolts whenever the tires hit a pothole; slack from the straps
trails across the tarmac like a weary beast of burden that can no longer hold up its
head. A football is kicked across the fences, which surrounds the playground and
out into the street, so that the car has to brake in order not to hit the child who
chases after it. The scene freezes for a few seconds; the child stops, the car stops, a
garden sprinkler has time to rotate four times before anything happens. Bark
chippings are spread across a slope. Finally, the child breaks the spell and darts
across the road. It retrieves the ball from under a fruit bush and sprints back to join
the others. The people in the car continue their journey on downwards.
Sella comes outside. She pauses on the top step to assess the situation. In her hands she has an ovenproof dish with meat wrapped in tinfoil. In small glass bowls: lemon wedges, chopped almonds, and basil from their own garden. She can make out the parents in the front seats; the mother clutches the steering wheel with both hands. She sees the boys; the younger has a travel pillow around his neck. They have been gone for a week and return just as empty-handed as they left. The curtains in their house have been drawn and a neighbor collected their post and cut their grass while they were away. They didn’t even have to ask him. They have picked her up, Sella thinks, they have brought her home.
Sella goes back inside and turns down the music. Then she re-emerges and walks softly down to Arild, who has just dropped a match onto the charcoal and is arching backwards so the flames cannot touch him. The fire hisses and spits, Arild clicks the barbecue tongs impatiently, he narrows his eyes against the sun. His sunglasses lie hidden in the grass by the foot of the parasol; every time he turns around, he almost steps on them.
Sella tries to locate a spot from where she can observe the homecoming
unnoticed. She watches them park the trailer in the drive to minimize the distance to
the front door. Sella sees the grandmother sitting on the steps, she sees the girl’s
brothers disappear inside the house and return wearing work gloves, she sees
curtains twitch in the windows of the neighboring houses like spawn rising to the
surface of the water when it is disturbed. Dark bags, dark tents, wet trainers and dark
sleeping mats are laid out in the driveway for all to see, but the men work as swiftly
as stagehands in a theatre who have only seconds to change the set before the
curtain rises again. Bin liners stuffed to the brim, clothes that still smell faintly of soil
and salt and grass and the sea. They have probably propped open the basement
door to stop it from slamming shut, Sella thinks, because everything must be taken
down below, down below. Later, the boys will play badminton across a net stretched
out between the house wall and a tree in the back garden, they will mix some
squash and put out more chairs and cushions; after all, life must go on.
Sella and Arild sit down to eat. They eat organic chorizo and bratwurst which are slightly more expensive than ordinary barbecue sausages and bought from a farmer’s market, veal rib steak that has been marinated in garlic for twenty-four hours; there is feta cheese, olives stuffed with almonds and home-made aioli. And they have freshly baked focaccia with rosemary and a carafe of Spanish red wine. They have far too much food. Sella says:
‘We have far too much food.’
‘As usual,’ Arild replies.
‘Hush,’ Sella says.
‘What is it?’
‘Oh, it was nothing.’
The cat begs for food under the table.
Sella and Arild eat, and they eat well. They drink all the wine and don’t discuss the family; they say nothing about their homecoming and what it must be like, even though it is all Sella can think about. She imagines the hall overflowing with jackets and shoes, there is probably mayhem in the kitchen where sandwiches have been put out; she finds it odd that Arild doesn’t comment on it, he has followed the tragedy closely since it happened, read everything he could find in the newspapers, he always stops chewing when the newsreader announces the headlines on the radio.
When the first raindrops hit his forehead, he greets them suspiciously; he frowns as he looks up at the sky: was that a drop of rain or something else? Could it have been the furthest reach of the neighbor’s sprinkling system, blown across by the wind? But then they hear children being called in from the playground, how garden cushions and washing on the line are hastily gathered up and dumped in the hallways. And more drops fall, soon the heavens open and a mild August shower begins; it is the start of a downpour which some of the men in the neighborhood had seen tumble in across the mountains through their binoculars, and which has now finally reached them. The rain drums on the roofs of houses and cars, peacefully at first before it grows louder and louder, it pounds the tops of letter boxes and dapples the surface of a half empty paddling pool as if millions of tadpoles are being hatched inside it. Any dogs still outside press themselves against the windbreakers in the gardens, the rains drips through open dormer windows, and all is well.
The family has turned on the kitchen light, but they eat their dinner at the other end of the house, by the window that overlooks the back garden, which has a playhouse and a swing. Sella went over there a few nights ago. She stood among the bushes as she peered into the garden. This is how she knows that they have a dining table in front of the window which takes up almost all of the wall and which probably gives guests a feeling of eating outside, that is how she knows about the playhouse and the swing, and how all the flowers in the flowerbeds were out. She had been careful; she had run behind the neighbor’s garage and waited there until she was quite sure that no one had seen her. She found a path, a shortcut, which the local kids use when going to the playground, she straddled a small patch of herbs and took care not to leave any footprints in the soil before she finally stopped behind a rose hedge. She just wanted to see it all before it was too late, while the garden still lay there as if nothing had happened. She saw a childhood planned for and much wanted: it was something external that had swept away the girl. This lawn and these trees were entirely guiltless, she thought, the door handle in the French doors, the lace curtains in the playhouse or the thorns on the roses that had scratched the children’s skin so many times could not be blamed in any way. She imagined a boy run across the garden, saw him pass at great speed, waving one arm in the air like a rotor blade. A father coming out with his hands behind his back and his gaze fixed on the ground, looking for a missing tent peg. Perhaps the girl appearing around the corner of the house, pretty, pretty, she was the one they missed most of all: she carried the bag with the tent in one hand, she wore a light jacket, shorts with lots of pockets, she had pale calves, yellow trainers. On her head she wore a lamp attached with an elastic strap; it looked like a new potato that had sprouted from the mother plant. But she was relaxed and her face looked so fine. She glanced around, checking out the landscape, perhaps turning over some stones. She ran her hand across the trunk of the cherry tree, who knows, marveling at how quiet everything was. Perhaps she lay down on the ground, stayed there and gazed up at the sky for a little while, before jumping to her feet the moment she felt the dampness against her skin. She brushed off any grass that had stuck to her back pockets, wiped her nose on the back of her hand and wandered off in search of a better place to sit, this time with the light from her headlamp sweeping across the ground in front of her.
More than anything, it was this openness, which Sella was searching for; the
signs of life which she believed could be found everywhere if only she looked hard
enough. Snail shell. The garden lay right there in front of her, the house lay right
there in front of her, any minute now the sunlight might flood the neighborhood,
any minute now the awnings might get their cue and unfurl so that no one would
have to eat with the sun in their eyes. Viewed from this perspective, even a sentence
such as Pass the salad, please, could contain an inchoate meaning because in it
everyone is still alive.
Sella opens the fridge and scans the shelves.
‘Do you want pudding?’ she calls out.
‘No,’ Arild calls back. ‘I’m full.’
‘We have custard.’
‘No,’ Arild calls back again.
She thinks that if she were to have done something for the family, she would have baked for them. It would be one way to say that the neighborhood welcomed them back, that Sella was a kind of self-appointed ambassador for everyone who wanted to say we recognize your grief. She shuts the fridge and goes over to the drawer with flour, nuts and tacos shells, and where Arild also keeps his boxes of breakfast cereals. If Arild could read her mind, he would have said that her need to do something nice without being asked was just so like her. But it wouldn’t stop her; in this respect they are so very different.
Sella piles up bags of flour on the kitchen counter, without quite having made up her mind what to do with them. She is reminded of her grandmother who always baked for families in mourning, she would simply turn up on their doorstep although she didn’t know the bereaved very well and hand them cakes, bread rolls or fresh loaves; her thinking being that at least they wouldn’t have to worry about whether there was enough food in the house now that they were being inundated with grieving relatives.
As Sella takes down the cookbooks from the kitchen shelf, the dust, which has
gathered on the cover, whirls up; she finds the right section and leafs through it
pensively. Marzipan ring cake is too Christmassy, she thinks, cinnamon buns are
better, but best of all might be to bake simple, neutral bread rolls. They can be
eaten plain or with a slice of cheese or a little marmalade. She rereads the recipe,
still standing. Fetches eggs and butter from the fridge, cuts a generous nugget of
butter and drops it into a saucepan, watches it melt, a process she accelerates by
stirring it quickly with a fork. As she watches the butter, she suddenly has second
thoughts: How well do I really know these people? Will they see it as a polite
gesture or will they regard it as an intrusion into their privacy? An attempt to milk
their grief for compassion points? She turns off the stove, sits down on a chair. I
must tread carefully, she thinks. This is a tragedy, which can’t be compared with
anything, and I can’t just join in.
‘So, do you want a waffle or two?’ she calls out.
But there is no reply. She gets up and cracks four eggs into a plastic bowl, mixes them with flour and butter and whisks them until the batter is smooth and even, turns on the waffle iron and once it is hot enough, she greases it and adds some batter. The first waffle is too thick, it oozes out between the iron plates and spills down the sides. When she opens the waffle iron, the waffle heart tears in the center and it takes her a while to scrape the remains of the batter off the patterned surface. But her second attempt is better and the rest perfect. She decides that her grandmother belonged to a different era, where the houses were closer together and where giving something unasked was regarded as natural, something people almost expected of one another.
Sella cooks all of the batter because neither she nor Arild mind eating cold waffles. She can’t take waffles to the family, which would be too simple, bordering on offensive; they can quite easily make waffles themselves. So she wraps them in foil, puts them in the bread bin and closes the lid, quickly removes her apron and returns it to the peg behind the door. She puts the flour back in the drawer, runs a dish cloth over the worktop, bashes the light switch with her hand, leaves the kitchen and goes into the adjacent room.
If she turns and looks out of the window, she will see that the garden table where they ate their dinner not long ago has been returned to normal; the tablecloth has been smoothed, the bench pushed under the table, the ashtray which remains unused, is overflowing with rain water, while the big ceramic flowerpot with the orange marigolds has been moved down on to the ground. She sits down, rests her hands on her stomach and adjusts the back of the chair back slightly for greater comfort. However, it is not long before she is back on her feet. She folds the blankets in the living room and drapes them over the armrests of the sofa, then she goes down to the basement and replaces the cat litter using the shovel from the fireplace - she doesn’t know why she starts there - and ties a knot in the rubbish bag and leaves it on the steps. Then she kneels in front of the oven and starts scrubbing the surfaces with the coarse side of a scourer pad. She remembers baking a whole trout, how the fat from the fish had seeped out of all the cracks in the foil, dripped down and flavored the dauphinoise potatoes below. She rinses the scourer pad in the bucket until the water is as black as the pupil of an eye and dries the oven by turning it on to 200°. Arild enters and crouches down in the expectation that there is something tasty rising in a cake tin, but realizes that there is nothing there. He goes to lie down on his back in front of the television in Sella’s corner where she keeps her unread newspapers and magazines in a basket on the floor. Soon afterwards the cat jumps up onto his lap - Arild’s lap being its preferred place to lie inside the house. It starts purring immediately.
The garden table is in the shade. The barbecue is also in the shade. The rain conceals tiny hailstones, which pelt the roof tiles and rattle through the gutters like tiny splinters of glass in a Hoover pipe. The islanders have finally returned home, but the towels continue to slip off the pegs in the bathrooms in protest.
If you were to look down from above, you might think that nothing had happened.