Silent Walls ~ Philippa Holloway

Sweden, 2007

While she peels potatoes and heats water in a pan he comes into the kitchen to talk to her. As she turns from the sink to the stove they almost collide and he laughs and leans down to kiss her nose. She reddens and busies herself with the boiling water, heating butter in a skillet, slicing sausages with the sharpest knife. He has been here only once before and she is nervous, anxious to please and aware of a whole new body in her space. The apartment seems smaller.

As she cooks Kurt talks about his day, work, without telling her anything. He can talk of his colleagues and paperwork, but not of the cases in newspapers, or the lines of inquiry he is following. She begins to relax a little and her mind wanders back to the catalogue she was reading when he arrived. It had been waiting in her mailbox on her return from the library, covered in tight, clear plastic, the pages so new they were stuck together with their own sheen. There is a bookcase she wants to buy to make her lounge tidier, to improve her life here. The stove will need replacing soon.

“I’ve bought this,” Kurt says, producing a small bottle of vodka from a branded paper bag, “I thought we could toast the weekend.”

Anna smiles and takes the bottle, although she dislikes vodka. She indicates the sofa and retreats back to the kitchen for glasses, rinsing them under the tap before filling one with vodka and the other water. When she brings the drinks through from the kitchen he is flicking through the catalogue. She pauses for a moment and then passes him the vodka, taking the magazine from his hand once her own hand is free. She puts it on the pile with the others and tries to think of things to say, her voice quiet in the safety of her home.

When the meal is ready they eat in the lounge instead of sitting at the breakfast bar. Kurt sits on the sofa leaning forward over his plate on the coffee table while Anna kneels opposite him on the floor. She is thirsty and drinks the water too fast.

“Steady,” he says, “you’ll get very drunk,” and she stops, ashamed of the deceit. Last time he was here they’d had takeaway and drunk wine, next to each other on the sofa.

“I’m sorry the food is nothing special,” she says, spooning lingonberry jam onto her plate.

“It’s lovely. Really. Home cooked food is always the best.”

“I had nothing in I’m afraid, it will be better next time,”

“Next time I’d like you to come to mine. I can cook too you know,” he smiles. She glances into the corner of the room where her books are stacked on a small bookcase, each one crushed into the others, every space filled and still more balanced on top. Beside them on the floor the catalogues and brochures lean into the wall.

The phone rings. Anna gets up from the floor and her knees crack with the motion. Kurt winces for her and watches her walk the three steps across the room to the tiny table by the apartment door where the phone sits.

It is her mother, thousands of miles away, crackling through tears and bad connections the news that her father has died. Anna listens and nods, then reaches down to write barely remembered words on the notepad by the phone.

“I’ll try,” she says, her tongue forced back to childhood by the conversation. “I will, I promise. But I might not be able to.” Putting the phone down she stares at it for a while wondering if she should paint the woodwork by the kitchen. It is scratched from the shopping bags she brings home and the shoulder bags she takes out, a little dirty where she brushes past each day. There is chip from the paint where her watch caught it last week as she carried a large box of crockery into the small space.

“Who was that?” Kurt says, intrigued.

“My mother.”

“You were talking another language.”

“My mother’s language.”

“So your language, from childhood?”

“My language is Swedish. That is my old language.”

“You’re not Swedish?” He asks, interrogating.

“Yes, I am now. But not then. I have been for long enough,” she answers. She is tired suddenly, thirsty.

“Is everything okay?”

“My father has died.” She regrets the disclosure as soon as she has spoken.

Kurt gets up from the sofa, dropping his napkin on the floor from his lap and ignoring it as he steps towards her. He opens his arms to hold her saying “I’m so sorry,” but she steps past him and picks up the napkin instead, folding it and placing it by his abandoned plate. He stands for a minute watching her calmly retake her place on the floor then goes into the kitchen for the bottle of vodka.

“You’ll really be needing some of this now,” he says, topping up her glass to the brim and then emptying the rest into his own. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, fine.”

“Your father…”

“I haven’t seen him for nearly twenty years. It’s okay. I’ve been expecting it for a long time.”

“Was he sick?” Kurt is drinking his vodka in regular sips but is alert, his head tilted softly to one side to listen, probing for information.

“In a way, yes. It was his job.” She automatically takes a forkful of food and puts it in her mouth but it tastes strange, it is not a remembered flavour and her mother’s tongue, now awakened, rejects it. She swallows the food down a dry throat and reaches for water, getting only the vodka stained breath of her father from the glass.

“Tell me, please.” She thinks he must be drunk now, wouldn’t have asked that question had the call come earlier in the night. He thinks he is helping.

“I’d rather not. Please finish your meal, I don’t want tonight to be spoiled.”

“You should talk. Grief shouldn’t be kept inside,” Kurt leans forwards with concern and loose shoulders.

“I don’t want to talk about my father. Let’s talk about work instead.”

“Okay then.” He is patient, kind. She needs time. He leans back into her seat on the sofa and asks her about the library. “How long have you worked there for now?”

“Oh, I’m not sure, about nine years I think. I was in a shop before, but I like the library better.”

“What shop, perhaps I know it?”

“The little supermarket on Rydsvägen, back then it was tiny,” she says, leaning her arms on the table, grateful for the change of subject.

“I remember it. Was that your first job here?” he asks, casually sipping at his drink, his food ignored.

“No, but it was my first real job.” Anna is remembering, the queues of people speaking quickly to her and her trying to understand, wishing her mother had stayed, her sister had stayed. Wanting a home.

“So you like the library better? Why?” Kurt asks. He is watching her face.

“It’s quieter, and people seem to have more time. I like to keep the books tidy,” she says. But as she speaks of the quiet, the shelves where she places the books in perfect sequence so they may be found, the heavy oak of a forest inside the cool white walls and the smell, the softest smell of paper and leather, she thinks only of her parents’ flat in Pripyat. Their lounge, clean and neat, with a few family treasures adorning the walls. Tapestries, photos and her painted pictures where on her own walls there is paint and space. The walls had sung to her as a child of who she was. Here was silence.

“And did you come over here alone?” Kurt interrogates, leaning forward so that his vodka breath across the table is that of her father’s, the weekend drink and the kiss before bedtime for her and her sister. She sits back on her heels.

“No, I came with my mother and sister, but they went back. I stayed.” She is defensive and sulky, swirling the watery vodka around in her own glass and refusing to drink.

“And your father? He stayed the whole time?”

“He couldn’t leave.” She remembers his white coat, his proud straight back as he wore it to work, and his relaxed shoulders as they fished on the lake when she was a small girl in hand-me-down dungarees and sandals. She reaches up to twirl her hair, winding her fingers through the long blonde curls which over twenty years ago her mother had braided and pinned until her skull throbbed. She only visits the hairdressers once a year, flinches at each bite of scissors.

“So what else have you done today, apart from work?” Kurt asks, leaning back again and letting her have a break, giving her time.

“Nothing really. Usual day. You? Anything exciting? I haven’t seen the news today but I assume it has been quiet because you are here,” she says, wanting to change the subject, to focus on him for a while.

“Paperwork mainly. When it is quiet we process. We have a few loose ends to tie up here and there,” he tells her, and as he speaks she strokes the loose curls falling over her shoulders and remembers the last time she saw her father. He had sat her down and cut off all her hair with the kitchen scissors, cropped it so short her scalp showed pink through the stubble. Her younger sister had screamed, sobbed, but she had sat there, still, watching the perspiration bead on his top lip and his hands shake. He had bagged the hair in plastic and then shorn her weeping sister and their mother before taking it all away. Then they had packed and left. She had not seen her father to say goodbye and had not spoken to him since, although she had often wanted to tell him she understood why he cut her hair, but not why he stayed.

She is responding to Kurt’s words with nods and murmurs, but eventually she is quiet. In the new silence of her apartment he watches her, waiting for her to need him. She is looking at her own bookcase, too small and made of veneered wood not oak.

“Let me go out and buy some cakes,” he says, breaking the hush with his soft voice, “it will finish off the meal for us, a treat for the weekend.”

“Okay, yes. That would be lovely.” She fetches his coat and closes the door behind him then picks up the catalogue again and sits down in her own seat, flicking through jewellery and personalised gifts, kitchenware and vases until she reaches the furniture. Here are options to improve her home. There are three bookcases she likes and can afford with her savings. The pages shine promises into her eyes, reassuring her of perfection, a home to be safe in. She must choose the right one. She glances from the page to the corner of her room and back over and over until she thinks she has made a decision. Her body fits her side of the sofa perfectly, comforting her. When the door buzzer sounds she is slow to answer, sleepy from the unfamiliar drink, the effort of remembering.

“Here,” Kurt passes her a paper bag heavy with dough and sugar, transparent in places with grease, and takes off his coat. He leaves it on the breakfast bar and goes into her kitchen for plates. She watches him passively, this man in her home, searching the cupboards and telling her how he only just got to the supermarket in time. It was lucky he knew the assistant and she let him go in so late. He takes the bag from her open hands and tips the cakes onto the plate, part of a set she had bought from a catalogue last week, pale blue with a silver edging.

“Sit,” he says, “I’ll make us a hot drink,” and she sits, on the floor again so he can have the sofa, watching him fill the kettle and select the cups which match the plate. When he is seated and crumbed with sugar he speaks again.

“Are you okay?”

“What?” she asks.

“Are you okay? About your father?”

“I’m….it’s a shock, of course.”

“Will you go to the funeral?”

“It’s too far away. I don’t know,” she reaches for the cakes and breaks a piece off. Sugar falls onto the table between the plate and her mouth.

“Where is it?” he asks.

“Ukraine. Too far. I haven’t the money to travel”

“But it’s your father’s funeral.” Kurt is leaning forward and watching her face below him. She had been going to show him the bookcases, to ask his opinion, but now she doesn’t want him to see. She places the uneaten fragment of cake back on the plate and stands up.

“I have my mortgage to pay first. There are things I need. Important things.”

“I could help. I have some money saved up.”

“No. Thank you, but no. It’s too much. I need to sleep, do you mind? It’s late.”

Kurt stands too, dropping sugar and crumbs on her carpet. “I’m sorry. Of course.” He sways as he walks to the door, his coffee untouched on the table. She hands him his coat and watches him fumble the sleeves.

“Can I call in tomorrow? At the library?” he asks, his eyes soft and drunk like her father’s at the weekend.

“It’s Saturday tomorrow. No. I’m not there. Maybe Monday though.”

He nods and leans towards her but she opens the door and says goodnight to him. As soon as he is through she closes and bolts the door, stroking the scratched paint with her hand for a moment before turning to the room. The books are crushed together and the catalogues lean against the silent wall.

Taking the kitchen scissors she leans over the sink and cuts her hair, not to the skin but cropped close. The hair curls like a nest in the basin, and she gathers it in trembling fingers and places it in a plastic bag. Tomorrow she will order an oak bookcase, buy paint from the hardware store and brushes and white spirit. But now she will tidy up. Clear away the plates and crumbs and put everything back the way it should be.