The Norwegian Poetess
‘So tell me’ she said, astride him, unbuttoning her quilted lumberjack shirt, ‘what kind of pictures come into your mind when you think of my homeland ?’
It was late afternoon – a late afternoon in 1980 - and they were on her bed in the tiny student room that she rented. She had invited him back on the pretext of reading him her poetry. But, after drinking tea, the written poetry had been forgotten, as they both knew it would be, and they had made their way to the top floor of the rambling Victorian house and into her room. Throughout the day snow had fallen steadily – unusual in England, he told her - and she laughed as he tried to explain why the roads were left un-gritted and English people still walked around in t-shirts and thin shoes.
‘Have you thought of any ?’ she asked, slipping out of her shirt. ‘Perhaps you need to close your eyes.’
She wore no bra and her long blonde hair momentarily obscured her breasts. Knowingly, she ran her fingers across her scalp, pulling her hair back, allowing him the full pleasure of her, before slowly descending.
It was difficult, though, for him to close his eyes and picture her homeland, especially as her breasts were now resting on his bare stomach. Still, her mere touch was comfort enough and he did as she asked. The word Norway conjured images of ice and cold – images that were at odds with the warmth of her as she descended even further, tugging at the belt that was threaded into his jeans.
He told her – elaborating somewhat to make his imaginary pictures sound more interesting. ‘I see blue ice clinging to branches…the brittle mud of a frozen country road…lakes glistening…white bears playing in the sun…silvery flowers encrusted in a haw frost…’
He opened his eyes. She was smiling. ‘Yes, my homeland is all of those things. It is the land of Ulli, the winter god, who praises the cold…of Freya and Odin and Asgard…of a thousand winter nights…that is why I write about nature and myth…because there is so much beauty to be found in winter.’
It was hard for him to disagree. Because, at that moment, she and the frosted landscapes of her poems were the most exquisite things he had ever known. And, had she asked him, he would have surrendered himself completely and followed her to the frozen end-wastes of the earth.
Despite the passage of twenty-five years, he continued to remember her. He remembered her during the winter months, when the nights grew long and the air turned cold. Most of all, he remembered her when it snowed.
Already that morning – a February morning, thrown into chaos by a snow blizzard - she had invaded his consciousness. Walking across the university quadrangle (a different university from his undergraduate days, a university in which he was now employed as a lecturer) he imagined he saw her face inhabiting the icy branches of the trees and the thin puddle-sheets of glassy water that cracked when he stepped on them. He was carrying loose papers and, as he approached the English faculty, her spirit – riding on the crest of a cold north wind – flew up nearby, whipping the papers from his hand. They flew upwards, as if infused with life, forcing him to purse his eyes and look into the snow-speckled sky. And there she was again, moulded from cloud, her blonde hair and full, pale white breasts bearing down - his defining image of her during their short time together.
After he had re-gathered his notes (a protracted exercise, carried out with the help of a number of passing students) he made his way to his office and shook out his coat. The incident – the sheer force of the unruly wind – had disarmed him…so much so that he sat at his desk for a while and took a couple of deep breaths. A pragmatist - a rationalist - he believed in a world that was undiluted by hidden forces. Snow was snow and wind was wind. He laughed. To think anything else was bordering on madness.
There was a knock on his door and a student entered, waving an essay which she threw down onto his desk. It was badly marked, she exclaimed, and she was angry. He calmed her and agreed to look at it again. Silently he was thankful to her for her anger: it shook him out of his sombre thoughts. He put on his spectacles and relaxed.
But it was not for long. His former lover appeared again – not in spirit or on the crest of a sudden gust of wind. This time she revealed herself in the cold, formal newsprint of the morning newspaper. Bemused – befuddled, even - he spied her name in the obituary column, nestling among other names of the recently deceased.
‘A Norwegian poetess’; ’a respected academic’; individual’; ’passionate’; ‘something of a maverick.
Could it really be her ?
Still he refused to believe, re-reading the two short paragraphs many times, until a simple phone call to a colleague confirmed her demise. Older than he by four years, she had died after a short illness. Later his colleague sent him a recent photograph: head, shoulders, a wide brimmed hat, the blonde hair shorter and seemingly thinner – it was the photograph of a woman he did not know.
The news left him feeling empty. For the remainder of the morning he sat in the university library staring out of the window, watching the snow fall and settle. He had loved her, her now realised, and had carried his love unused and without purpose throughout the intervening years.
At midday he cancelled his afternoon tutorials (the weather was preventing many students from attending their studies). He then put on his coat, gathered together his papers, and went out into the cold.
In 1980 he had been studying Beowulf and Chaucer. She had already completed her first degree and was in England for a single term on exchange. That she was so culturally out of step was something of an embarrassment to others but for him became a form of endearment. Her poetry, recited by her at student readings and in the university bar, gathered little applause. Who wanted to hear about Ulli the Norwegian winter god when Thatcher was tearing the country to shreds ? ‘Perhaps they lose something in translation’ he offered when she unexpectedly sat next to him at one such gathering. But she seemed impervious to the laughter that followed her recitals and the political anger swirling around her. ‘I write what I write’ she shrugged. ‘And if they think my poems are a bit strange, well, they can either take them or they can leave them.’
Hers was indeed a strange kind of poetry. Whereas the poetry of his English contemporaries was rank, brittle, and fashioned out of anger, hers was the product of an imagination locked in the distant past. Whereas other readers concerned themselves with the emptying of factories, the laying off of workers, and spat out work embellished with the caustic language of desolate youth, her poetry was filled with colours and nature and represented a single homage – a paean - to heaven and earth. And when she described winter, it was an unusual winter, a winter of contrast…a warm all-embracing winter in which fur-coated lovers strolled arm in arm and snow ravens sang from the frosted trees.
One afternoon, lying beside her, in the afterglow of lovemaking, he looked through her notebooks. There, among notes written in her mother tongue, he found drawings that accompanied her poems – drawings of the goddess Freya, a woman of great beauty who lured innocent huntsmen to her winter lair; of the stonemason, Loki and the eight legged colt; and of Asgard, the dominion of the Norse gods, which, in her version, was transformed from the dark, gothic male landscape he had once seen portrayed in a Marvel comic into a feminine wintry forest where hot geysers bubbled and bright red lavas trickled among giant stalagmites and vast plains of ice.
That he had never again heard from her since that time in 1980 both pleased and pained him. He was pleased with his abiding memory of her, of her bearing down on him, naked and youthful, yet pained that he had meant so little to her, that in her eyes, he supposed, he was nothing other than a winter plaything – one perhaps of many. She had even left without saying goodbye. Her room in the rambling Victorian house was emptied of its furniture, its shelves cleared of the notebooks he had perused while she slept beside him. In the months that followed her departure no letter appeared through his letterbox bearing an unfamiliar Norwegian stamp and no message was relayed inviting him to join her in her winter lair.
Now, twenty-five years later, he booked a plane ticket to Oslo. It was an irrational act, but he felt that somehow the limits of his rationality were being tested. Clambering into a waiting taxi he told the driver to take him to the city airport. ‘You’ll be lucky to get a flight in this weather’ the driver quipped, and he agreed but said that he was willing to take a chance.
He arrived too late to attend her burial. The tiny village of her birth, where she had been interred, lay to the north of the country, far from the capital. It took him a further two days to get there.
The village lay in a valley. Its main street consisted of a row of shops and a supermarket. An information brochure told him that tourists came to this place to hunt and fish during the summer months. Locals stared at him as he alighted from his taxi in his thin shoes, wondering why someone should care to visit the place out of season. ‘Are you here on holiday or on business?’ enquired the hotel receptionist as he signed the guest-book. He smiled and told her he was visiting an old friend.
That night he sat by a log fire in the hotel bar and drank schnapps with a group of locals. He asked them whether they knew of his former lover and they said yes, they did. She had been respected for her work and, on the day of her funeral, the shops in the high street closed early as a mark of respect (the supermarket, though, had stayed open).
He remembered her drawings and recounted to them the story of Loki, the stonemason and the eight legged colt. Did they have any ideas about what the story meant?
An elderly man with a grizzly beard suggested that the story was a warning. ‘If you try and cheat people, even your enemies, your only reward will be a good-for-nothing colt with eight legs!’
Another man went further. ‘The message is simple: do not cheat others or else you end up cheating yourself!’
The following day, after breakfast, the man with the grizzly beard escorted him to the cemetery. The village church, which stood alone against a vast mountain backdrop, was small and simply built out of white painted timber. ‘The village fathers chose this place for a reason’ the old man said. ‘It reminds us of our place in the universe…that we are less important than we think.’ As if in expectation of his arrival, the church’s tiny bell rang out as he approached.
She was standing at the graveside – a ghost, aged 24, her hair blonde and long, her face serene and filled with a compassion that, in 1980, would have been dismissed by his peers as naive.
She smiled at him and, seeing his distress, took hold of his hand. ‘Thank you for coming here’ she said. ‘Even though I do not know who you are or what you were to my mother.’
They embraced and stood together for a while in the snow. He followed the outline of her face with his eyes and laid a modest wreath. Then she accompanied him back to his hotel, the unlikely issue of tender afternoons in an old Victorian house, the remarkable product of his winter desire.