The European Short Story Network

Bjarte Breiteig

You Better Run


WHEN BRIT BEGAN to get better, Jørn decided that they should throw a party. He rang around to Ragnvald and all the old gang, asking them to bring along people they knew; it was going to be a real blowout. Tobias would have to sleep at Brit’s parents’ place upstairs. He liked that alright, the little rascal.

Brit went into town and bought a new top. It was red and tight and had a system of laces that pushed her breasts together. While Jørn was putting out the drinks and lighting the candles, she stood looking at herself in the bathroom mirror for a long time.

‘It’s too tight,’ she said.

‘No, no,’ said Jørn.

‘But look at me.’

‘You look great,’ he said and he meant it.

That was how he got her out of the bathroom.

A few hours later the roomy basement flat was full of people. Jørn walked around among them, poked old pals on the shoulder and poured drinks. He gave Ragnvald a glass of the expensive whisky he had bought especially with him in mind.

Ragnvald tasted the whisky, ran it around his mouth and swallowed it with a delighted sigh. Yes, it certainly was an acceptable whisky, he agreed. Then he wanted to know what Jørn had been doing lately.

‘All sorts of things,’ said Jørn.

‘And Brit?’ said Ragnvald. ‘I’ve hardly seen her all night.’

Jørn nodded towards the corner beside the fireplace.

‘Oh right. So she’s better now?’

‘As you can see,’ said Jørn.

Ragnvald raised his whisky glass to Brit, but she didn’t see it. She stood leaning against the wall fingering an empty wineglass, while she looked at the girls who had begun to dance in a huddle on the living room floor. Her new top had ridden up and her belly hung out; her navel appeared as a deep groove. Jørn felt Ragnvald’s hand around his bicep.

‘Ok, I’m going to mingle a bit.’

Ragnvald clinked glasses and disappeared into the throng. Jørn worked his way over to Brit. He twisted the wineglass out of her hand and put it on the mantelpiece together with his beer bottle. Then he saw that the red stains had appeared. In the candlelight they looked like bruises on her neck and cheeks. He pulled her close to him.

‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Let’s dance.’

He tried to ignore the energetic music and swung her gently around amongst the others. While he pretended to stroke her back, he pulled her blouse well down over her hips. Soon she began to stroke him too, lay her forehead into his neck and made an affectionate sound which he only heard snatches of through the intense itsh itsh rhythm. Over her shoulder he saw that the door to the nursery had been opened. There was a gang in there, drinking beer around Tobias’ cot and flicking their fingers at the jumping jack that hung by a rubber band. Something or other about this little toy must have been incredibly funny, because they suddenly had to lean against the edge of the bed while they shook with laughter. When someone changed the track on the CD, Jørn took the opportunity to pull Brit with him back to the corner beside the fireplace. Her top had ridden up again, and this time he let her know:

‘You need to watch that!’ He had to shout above the music.

‘Wha?’ she said.

‘People can see your belly!’

She cast a rueful glance down at herself.

‘I look like a sausage,’ she said.

‘A jumbo bratwurst in that case,’ he said.

‘Wha?’

There was a landslide within him.

‘Are you deaf!’

She looked at him; her eyes were glistening. He could see that she knew what was coming, and therefore it came: he got a hand down into her neckline and pinched a hold of the skin around one of her nipples. He twisted the bud between his fingers until her glass fell to the floor and smashed. Then he pulled his hand back, grabbed his beer bottle and looked around. The mouth of the bottle shook as he put it to his lips. He noticed how thick the cigarette smoke hung beneath the ceiling. The room bustled with laugher and people busy with their own thing, and no one was bothered about Brit, who slipped along the wall with her head bowed. Out in the hall he saw her pull the top down tightly around her hips, before she closed the bathroom door behind her.

He stood in the cramped kitchen washing glasses, while he kept an eye on the hall, where the people who needed to go to the toilet were piling up. They shook the door handle and talked about how someone must have fallen asleep in there, that it was probably Cato, but hang on, there was Cato there! There were shouts of jubilation when a chubby guy Jørn had never seen before came staggering out of the living room with his hair hanging down over his glasses. A girl came into the kitchen and asked if there was another toilet.

‘Afraid not,’ said Jørn

‘But what’ll I do then?’ She stood in front of him on her tip-toes. He could see she was desperate.

‘I’ll think of something,’ he promised.

He hung the washing up gloves on the edge of the basin where they lay half afloat in the grey dishwater, and then he went out into the hall, closing the door behind him. The coat stand had toppled over and jackets and bags lay in a big pile on the floor tiles. He took his time to right it and distribute the jackets evenly around the pegs so as to keep it balanced. Then he let himself out of the flat. He stood in the darkness under Brit’s parents’ veranda feeling the autumn night. The cold, sharp air brought back a vague memory of stealing fruit from neighbours’ gardens a long time ago.

The thumping of the bass and the hum of the voices from inside sounded distant, as if from a party that didn’t concern him. The torches still burned along the garden path with an unsteady flame. He had put them out to show the guests the way, and now he followed them around the corner and up the steps to the front of the house. In behind the silver firs in the front garden, there was a little window into the bathroom. A rotten apple gave way under the sole of his shoe as he squeezed his way between the supple branches. The window was in a hollow below ground level, and he kneeled on the wet earth and ran his fingers along the window’s lower edge. It was closed. He thought he saw something moving behind the frosted pane and knocked hard.

‘Brit?’

His voice resounded out here.

‘Brit,’ he said, a little lower. ‘Can you hear me?’

A taxi came down the dark hill, lurching over the speed bumps. It stopped in front of the driveway and let off a lone girl. From where he was sitting with his back against the cold foundation wall, Jørn could see that it was Gitte, Brit’s old school friend. She was wearing a short skirt and her bare legs flickered in front of the headlights as the taxi turned around. She came across the flagstones on clacking heels but stopped at the corner of the house and stared in at him.

‘Jørn?’ she said.

He got up and squeezed his way out of the bushes.

‘Is the party over?’ she asked.

‘No, no,’ he said.

He noticed that her gaze was still fixed on the bushes, their moist foliage up-lit by the bluish glow from the bathroom window, and he thought: she thinks I’m spying on people while they’re on the toilet.

‘I just needed to get a little bit of fresh air,’ he explained. Then he said that Brit was much better now. ‘You didn’t need to come,’ he said.
‘But I wanted to,’ she said.

‘Just as long as she’s not a burden,’ said Jørn.

Gitte shook her head. In the light from the outside lamp he could see the frosted breath rise from her pointy, almost birdlike face. She wasn’t pretty and still, he thought, people probably think she’s prettier than Brit. He excused himself and said there was something he had to fix. He watched her as she clacked down the steps towards the back of the house.

He bent down under Brit’s parents’ doorsteps and felt with a shudder how wet he had become through the seat of his pants. The spare key was hanging where it was supposed to. He let himself quietly into the hall. Brit’s parents hadn’t gone to bed yet; he saw them through the open door to the living room. They were sitting in front of the TV as always, her father reclining in the armchair and her mother with her crochet in her lap. They hardly seemed to notice the music, which rumbled up through the floor and made something in the room rattle at regular intervals. Jørn had made it as far as the rug on the living room floor before Brit’s mother raised her hands to her face and let out a cry.

‘Oh, you gave me a shock!’ She tittered at herself, but was soon anxious again:
‘There’s nothing wrong with Brit is there? She’s not falling into one again?’

‘No, no,’ said Jørn. ‘I just wanted to check on Tobias.’

‘Oh,’ said Brit’s mother, ‘but I think you should go down to her again. I mean, with all those people…’

‘Relax,’ said Brit’s father. ‘He just wants to check on the boy.’

Jørn noticed Brits’ mother staring at his feet, and he realized that he had been walking soil into the carpet. He pretended not to see it and gave them a quick smile before he went out into the hall and opened the door to what had once been Brit’s room.

With the door closed behind him, he could just about make out Tobias, lying on his stomach on top of the duvet, with one arm outstretched. Jørn sat down on the edge of the bed and stroked his little head. His hair was so soft, and he thought about how there couldn’t be anything softer. But his forehead felt like he had a temperature, it was way too hot in this little room, and he thought: surely they could look after him a bit better. He opened the window above the desk. The curtains swelled slightly, and he caught sight of two figures down in the garden: there was someone standing under the plum tree pissing. It was Ragnvald and that Cato guy, both so drunk that they could hardly stand up straight. He wanted to shout at them to cut it out, that Tobias usually ate the plums he found in the grass there, but he shut the window instead. He felt a yearning to stand there together with them. When he sat down on the bed again, Tobias woke with a howl, and Jørn realized that he had sat down on one of his little feet. The little boy curled up in bed and shouted for mammy.

‘Now, now,’ whispered Jørn. ‘Daddy’s here, Daddy’s here.’

He took the boy in his arms. His little body hardly weighed a thing, but Jørn knew it was only the alcohol that made it seem that way. The howling grew in strength, and soon Brit’s mother was standing in the doorway. He explained to her that it was the heat; that Tobias couldn’t sleep when they kept it so warm. The boy writhed in his embrace and stretched his little arms towards her.

‘Ran-ma,’ he cried. ‘Ranma.’

Jørn took the inside stairs down. They led from the hall to the laundry room in the basement, which formed a sort of grey zone between the two dwellings. He opened the downstairs door and in the light that spread across the stone floor, he saw Brit. She was half-lying, half-sitting with her back against the freezer. Her face was red and swollen. She raised her hand up against the light.

‘Daddy?’ she said.

‘No,’ he said, closing the door behind him. ‘It’s me.’

He used the little, green light on the freezer to guide him in the darkness and sat down beside her. He listened to her breathing. It was heavy and slightly wheezy as it went in and out, interrupted now and again by a sniffle. From inside the basement flat there came the sound of a large thud and then laughter.

‘Don’t go in to them,’ she said.

‘No,’ he said. ‘I’m staying here.’

After a while he said: ‘I didn’t mean what I said.’

‘The thing about the sausage?’ she said.

He didn’t answer. He felt ashamed. Then he said that it was her that had said it first, that she said things like that all the time, she couldn’t expect him to lie to her any longer.

‘So you meant it after all,’ she said.

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘It’s not my fault that I’ve gotten so big,’ she said. ‘It’s the pills.’

‘You’re finished with the pills now. You’ve been finished with them for a long time.’

She emitted a violent sob. It sounded like it came from the pit of her stomach. Then it was quiet for a long time, before there was a new sob and then yet another. It made him sick. He knew the sound of her crying so well that he could predict exactly when each sob would come. He leaned his head back against the freezer. It felt like the vibration of the motor was coming from inside him.

Finally the music in the flat died down. The steady slamming of the door, a sign that people were leaving. He waited for Brit to stop crying but she didn’t, even when everything had gone quiet in there. Eventually she laid her head in his lap.
‘Why don’t you just beat me up?’ she asked.

‘Hush,’ he said.

‘But why don’t you just beat me up!’

He pushed her away. He rose stiffly and went into the flat. Someone had put the candles out. Empty bottles and glasses had been cleared away in the kitchen, but under his feet the floor felt sticky with beer. On the living room table he found a folded up note with Brit’s name on it. It was from Gitte. Didn’t see you anywhere. Hope everything’s alright. Call me if you need me, OK? He crumpled up the note, dropped it on the floor and turned towards Brit as she came in from the basement.

‘Is everyone gone?’ she asked. And when he didn’t answer, she said: ‘It’s my fault.’

She went into the bathroom. She pulled off the red top drowsily and tossed it aside. Then she unhooked her bra, and her breasts spilt out. When he caught sight, in the mirror, of the bruise covering a large part of one of her breasts, Jørn felt a firm and painful thump. It formed in his heart and spread out to the rest of his body, where it left a craving for more. And then it was underway, that heavy, pulsating thump that spread its scorching sap through him. He followed her quietly into the bedroom, and when she was standing in front of the bed, he gave her a powerful shove between the shoulder blades that jerked her head back and knocked her off her feet. She lay there with a listless smile. She showed no sign of pain and when he pulled her pants off her; he could feel her body was limp, that she had changed into that rag doll that he hated because it made it all too easy for him. It was only when she lay there naked that she began to struggle.

‘I need to pee,’ she whimpered.

He sneered.

‘I really need to pee. Let go.’

But there was no fucking way he was going to let go.

‘No fucking way,’ he said.

‘You can do what you want,’ she said, ‘just let me pee first.’

‘I am doing what I want,’ he said.

He saw her fear and he thought: that’s all it takes. She cried again, and the crying gradually built up into long drawn-out howls. She shouted the same thing over and over, that he was to let her go, let her go, as if they were the only words she knew, and he watched with delight how desperation took hold of her body. He straddled her, held her arms down, and eventually when he heard it trickle out on the bedclothes behind him, he grabbed her by the chin, forced her to meet his gaze, and he smiled when he saw her shame.

There was a knock on the door. He lay in bed, still dressed, and heard a knocking coming from the laundry in the basement. It sounded soft, as if made by a child’s knuckles, but when he opened the door Brit’s father was standing there, as tall as him, his hair tousled and wearing pyjamas.

‘Did she scream?’ he asked.

‘Yeah, afraid so,’ said Jørn. ‘But it’s OK now.’

‘She didn’t do anything to herself?’

Jørn thought for a moment.

‘She tried to use the iron,’ he said.

‘The iron.’ Her father took a deep breath and let it out between his molars with a faint whistle. ‘And we thought it was over with,’ he said.

‘Yeah,’ said Jørn.

‘By the way,’ said Brit’s father. ‘Your iron is up in our place.’

Jørn scratched the back of his neck.

‘Brit took it down again,’ he said. ‘She brought it down right before the party.’

Her father frowned and strained to see into the hall.

‘Maybe I should come in for a little while?’ he asked.

‘No,’ said Jørn. ‘She’s asleep now.’

Brit’s father looked at him for a long time. Eventually he nodded.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s a good thing she’s not on her own anyway.’

‘I’m glad I’m not on my own either,’ said Jørn.

After closing the door, he stood listening to the shuffle of feet on the stairs. His face was glowing as he walked back to the bedroom. In the light from the hall, he could see Brit lying bundled up under the duvet. He undressed, lay down quietly beside her and stroked her gently across the back. Everything was wet and cold.

‘Are you asleep?’ he whispered.

‘Yes,’ she said.

Translated from the Norwegian by Sean Kinsella
Story © Copyright Bjarte Breiteig.
This translation © Copyright Sean Kinsella, 2011.

European Cultural Foundation Chapter ∓ Verse Kikinda Short Nederlands Letterenfonds Manchester Literature Festival NORLA Goethe Institut Creative Scotland