The funeral took place on a Friday. It was ten days into December and the air was grey with sleet.
I met Jakob Aasen outside the chapel. At first I hardly recognised him. He had grown a beard and his dark, tightly curled hair was speckled with grey.
For an instant we stood looking at one another. Then he smiled tentatively, while I nodded a kind of acknowledgement.
I nodded. ‘Jakob…?’ We shook hands.
‘How long is it since we…?’ I shrugged.
‘Yes, but … surely we must’ve seen each other since then.’
‘Couple of times in the street maybe. By chance. Have you been in Bergen the whole time?’
‘More or less. And you?’
‘Yes, at any rate since 1970.’
‘Sixteen years—and we’ve barely seen each other.’ ‘How many of the others from the class have you seen?’ He looked around. ‘Well, now you’re asking.’
‘Life’s like that. We all go our various ways, following the beaten track to the water hole and back, year after year. You can live a whole life in Bergen without meeting a classmate who lives two blocks along. He goes one way, to his work. You go another. And never the twain shall meet.’
He smiled wryly. Again he looked around. ‘It’s sad about Jan Petter. Do you think any of the others will come?’
‘Paul Finckel’s down there, struggling up the hill.’ ‘Paul. Is that Paul?’
We watched Paul Finckel dragging his flabby body up the hill from Møllendalsveien to the chapel.
‘He’s a journalist, isn’t he?’
‘Yep. And he’s not getting any younger either.’
He angled a look across at me. ‘No?’ Then he nodded. ‘Yes, the years take their toll.’
I looked at him. He was bowed and his round, cherubic face was greyer and baggier than I remembered. But I recognised the lively, brown eyes. They were just the same, both cheerful and melancholic.
The years had left their mark on us all. The furrows in my own face were even more pronounced this year. After every season new cares and woes are reaped, and old Farmer Time has to plough even deeper with every year that passes.
‘And what do you do, Varg? I think I heard somewhere that you…’
‘You probably heard correctly. I’m a sort of private investigator.’
He smiled as he shook his head. ‘Well, that shows how little we actually know. About how people will end up, I mean.’
‘Right. And you?’
‘I work as an organist. And I do a fair bit of composing.’
‘As an organist? In a church?’
He nodded. ‘In a church.’
‘You said it yourself. How little we know. In other words, you’ve hung up your rock ‘n’ roll boots?’
A sad smile settled on his lips, but took flight again at once. ‘Yes, I suppose I have.’
Paul Finckel had made it up the hill. He wiped the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief large enough to cover several local corruption scandals. He was wearing a puffed up, dark-blue down jacket that made him look as if he might take to the air at any minute. We were all attired according to our personalities. Jakob was wearing a sober, light-blue, knitted Shetland cardigan. I was wearing my newest winter coat, one from 1972.
Finckel greeted me. ‘Hi, Varg. There’s one thing I’ve been wondering. Why do they always put burial chapels at the top of mountains in this country?’
I looked up at Mount Ulriken, which towered six hundred metres above us. ‘The top’s up there, Paul.’
‘That’s how it feels, anyhow.’ He looked at Jakob, and then it must have dawned on him who it was. ‘Jakob? Jakob Aasen! Well, I’m buggered. What are you doing with all that fuzz on your face?’
Jakob grinned and looked around. ‘Shh! I’m here on a secret mission.’
Finckel’s lower lip jutted out. ‘I see. An agent for The Harpers?’
‘Exactly,’ Jakob said, his smile slowly fading.
‘What about Johnny? Isn’t he coming?’
‘No idea. I haven’t seen him for … ages. Besides Johnny isn’t the type to go to funerals, if I can put it like that.’
‘No, I suppose he isn’t. He’s keener on draught beer than the funeral bier, if you ask me.’ Finckel turned to me. ‘And the master detective is fine? No new corpses on your horizon?’ He lowered his voice. ‘Jan Petter wasn’t…’
‘You should know,’ I said. ‘There was an article about him in your paper.’
‘I don’t read such rags,’ Paul Finckel said.
Jakob interrupted: ‘Do either of you know what he died of ?’ Finckel nodded. ‘He fell from some scaffolding. He was a builder. Eighteen metres, straight onto concrete. Didn’t even
have time to say the Lord’s Prayer.’ That silenced us—all three.
The doors opened and people began to drift into the building. The entrances to the two chapels faced each other. The smaller chapel was called Hope. It was for the select few. The bigger one was called Faith and was reserved for the great, white flock. This division wasn’t apparent during your ordinary Norwegian church service on an ordinary Sunday morning. But that is how death is. It upsets so many notions.
The service for Jan Petter was to be performed in Faith and the room was roughly half full. At the front on the right sat close family. He had a wife and two teenage children. I recognised his parents: white-haired and leaden-limbed in their sudden grief. The rest of the congregation appeared to be wider family, work colleagues and neighbours. A trade-union flag had been placed against one wall. The coffin was adorned with a large arrangement of pink roses and the floor in front strewn with wreaths and bouquets.
The chapel was fifteen years old. The interior featured light-coloured wood and grey concrete, with natural stone cemented into the walls. Above the pulpit hung a simple, black, wrought-iron cross.
Outside the tall windows, the wind took hold of the rhododendron bushes and the bare trees. Bergensians had their own special word for this kind of weather: valleslette—two or three degrees above zero, greyish-white sleet and a biting wind from the south-west.
The priest came in and took a seat. Up in the gallery behind us, a lone violinist played a sad melody I was unable to place.
I discreetly cast my eyes around. There were only us three from our old class. Perhaps some of them no longer lived in Bergen. Perhaps others hadn’t seen or hadn’t reacted to the death notice in the papers. The rest clearly couldn’t take the time to accompany him on these, his first steps into the school corridor, on his way to see the headmaster.
The melody came to an end. The priest rose to his feet. He was a relatively young man, with a childlike face, big glasses and a fringe. To me he looked more like a confirmand than a chaplain. But his voice was deep and commanding as he said: ‘Today we are gathered here together, beside Jan Petter Olsen’s coffin…’
And my thoughts drifted back in time, to the classroom. Once again I visualised the class of almost thirty boys who had been together for seven years at the folkeskole, from 1949 to 1956.
My seat had been by the window with a view of Pudde fjord. When the lesson was too boring my eyes strayed outside, to boats of all sizes as they pitched and rolled past: tugs, the ferries to the island of Askøy, freighters and passenger ships. They were setting off for exotic places, such as Kleppestø, on the southern coast of Askøy, and Rio de Janeiro, and they returned with an ineluctable image of dried fish and bananas. The smell of both. The ineluctable sight of tied bundles and white wooden crates with blue and yellow customs labels. One was loaded; the other unloaded. Boathouses with cranes and hoists, reminiscent of gallows. Sliding doors that opened onto nothing, only air. All of us, our eyes on stalks, on the edge of Nordnes park, safely behind a fence, miles from both Kleppestø and Rio.
The class around me. Jakob sat at the front. He lived on the outer edge of the school catchment area, at the bottom of Skottegaten, on a corner facing Claus Frimannsgate. He played the piano and always got the best grades. Then there was Benny, whose real name was Bernhardt and who was the class tough guy: he carried ten kilos more than most of us, smoked when he was ten, drank alcohol when he was thirteen, went to sea at the age of fifteen and later ended up as Bergen’s most reliable digger driver. And then there was Paul Finckel, who sat at the back, plump and short of breath, even then a wit, who played to a riotous gallery with his cheeky comments. And there was ‘hi-how’s-it-hanging?’ and ‘to-hell-with-it!’ Helge, the charmer, who was the first of us to go the same way as Jan Petter, when he fell into a cargo hold while unloading goods in Liverpool one day during Easter 1964. And there was gentle, dark-haired Arvid, so reflective that he died of cancer at thirty-six years of age. And Pelle, who lived in the same street as I did and was my best pal in those days. The two of us set up everything from secret gangs to detective agencies, from boys’ marching bands to cycling clubs, before our fathers’ careers brought that to a halt. Pelle and his family moved to Fredrikstad and we never saw each again. There were at least twenty others, big, small, auburn, blond, freckled and chubby. When we posed for the class photo, we looked like any other boys of that period: dressed in thick cardigans, sweaters and windcheaters, breeches made out of our fathers’ Sunday trousers from the thirties. To show respect for the photographer we held our woolly hats in our hands, those blue hats with a bluish-white stripe along the turned-up brim—the colour ran in the wash—or plain, grey hats minus the bobble, torn off in a fight. No one had inked a black cross above our heads. No one had told us when we would die.
The congregation sang: ‘Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead thou me on.’ It was a hymn I remembered from music lessons in the days of yore. ‘The night is dark, and I am far from home; Lead thou me on.’
Beside me, Jakob Aasen sang in a ringing tenor: ‘Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene: one step enough for me.’
On the first pew someone was sobbing quietly.
When one of us died it was as though we were still sitting in the same classroom, at some point midway through our schooling, in the fourth or fifth class. Most of us were still sitting at our desks. The chairs for Helge and Arvid had already been empty for several years. Now Jan Petter had risen to his feet and left us. One by one, we would be called forth, as if summoned by the school dentist for a check-up. One by one, we would leave the room until all the chairs had been vacated and the great headmaster came to send some of us up to the art room on the top floor and the rest down to the boiler room in the basement.
The young priest spoke. Then there was more singing: ‘Love from God, our Lord, has forever poured, like a fountain pure and clear…’ The hymn took me back to the times when Rebecca and I had sat together in the gallery of the parish hall where her father, the lay preacher, spoke, voice a-quiver, about redemption and perdition. Rebecca, who had weaved in and out of my life, who moved hither and thither, from when I was four until I was more than twenty, a girl I didn’t even need to close my eyes to see, from when she was five years old, in a cardigan with metal buttons, until, at eighteen years old, she just sat there waiting for me, until I leaned forward and circumspectly kissed her. ‘Who in love remains, peace from God obtains; God Himself is ever love.’ The coffin was lowered and the priest spoke: ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ Three handfuls of earth fell with a thud on Jan Petter’s coffin. Now silent tears flowed on the front pew. Shoulders shook and someone mumbled something or other, quietly to themselves. ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.’
We sang ‘Beauty around Us’. The solo violinist played ‘In Moments of Solitude’ by Ole Bull. Jan Petter’s widow and his two children were at the front and laid a rose each on the lowered coffin before walking out into the Vestland winter.
The rest of us followed at a respectful pace.
As I passed the coffin I stopped for a few seconds. The door to the corridor had closed behind Jan Petter. Soon the school bell would ring.
The question you involuntarily ask yourself is: Who will be next? Will it be my turn?
That is how it is. You never know when you will be called to see the school dentist. And you never know when you are going to die.