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The Silhouette Pine

By the time they got back from the funeral buffet, it had started drizzling. Mum parked behind grandma’s pale yellow VW. Jennifer looked out at the back window and saw only the reflection of their bonnet. She and Joakim had been in the back seat when grandma drove them into the city. If she focused she would feel the smell of tobacco smoke and leather, so old that it had become something concrete and grainy.

She got out, hurrying her steps to be close to mum in case she needed someone to support her. It wasn’t necessary, and dad was next to her. Mum walked with her head a bit bowed, but there was nothing weak in the outline of her face.

Joakim had run ahead up the garden steps, two sets of steps with a flagged landing in the middle where Jennifer had slipped and busted her lip one winter. She couldn’t remember the pain, just that uncle Gunnar had joked with dad that she’d been in a fight and that they should have seen the other guy.

Grandma had come to the door and hugged her every time they’d gone here: shorter than herself the last few years, with woollen scarves in warm colours around her shoulders when it was the least bit cold, perfumed with a stronger version of the scent that was diffused through the house. (Mum was still going to have to feel it, though the body that had walked around in its centre was gone.) It was too easy to deal with when it was a relative you’d only met on the holidays. She’d been old and it had been quick. The last time Jennifer had met her, last Easter, she’d been happy. She’d asked how the dissertation was coming along. Jennifer hadn’t brought her notes, but she’d talked about viruses and horizontal gene transfer like an enthusiastic little kid showing off a shell collection, and grandma had said that she was doing well.

*

There was nothing special about the size or architecture of the house, though the basement had been exciting when she was little: it was a largish terraced house, single storey, with a flat black tin roof and a little atrium covered with a wooden deck. The price was probably mainly due to the location, close to Djursholm with its fenced harbours on Framnäs Bay.

She got her chance when she went to make some tea. Mum was sitting at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper in a circle of light. Outside the windows was nothing but blackness.

“You want a cup of tea?” Jennifer said.

“That’s nice of you, honey. Lapsang, please.”

Grandma hadn’t had an electric kettle. She poured water in the smallest pan and waited for it to boil. It was soothing, standing in the light and watching the bubbles starting to form on the reflecting bottom.

“You sure I can’t have the house?” she said while they waited. “That way, it’ll stay in the family. It’s about the right size for Bayram and me, and I wouldn’t have to stay with his family any more.”

Mum sighed.

“It’s not that simple,” she said without looking at her. “We can’t just give the house away. It would have to be taken up with mother’s attorney. Besides, you wouldn’t be able to pay the tax on a house like this. The two of you don’t even have jobs.”

When Jennifer didn’t say anything she went on:

“You can always go and check if there are any books you’d like. All that stuff we can take, movable assets.”

It was enough. Perhaps she should have asked more, to find out whether there was a loophole. Bayram would have liked to live here, he’d barely been to Stockholm. They could have continued studying up here.

The water had started bubbling. She put the teacup by mum’s elbow and took her own into the living-room.

When she was little, it had used to confuse her that grandma’s house had two living-rooms: the small one with the TV – dad and Joakim were in there now watching something with mum’s siblings – and the long room that took up the better part of the house. Now she could think of it as a library. One wall was covered in books, soft leather spines with deep gold print. Across the room was a French window on the atrium, lit beneath the clear black sky.

Of course she shouldn’t have brought it up with mum today. She hadn’t had much of a choice; in two days they were going home. They were selling the house. If one of mum’s relatives had wanted to keep it she would have understood.

It wasn’t the wealthy suburb. It wasn’t the ornaments that grandma had moved out of reach for her and Joakim when they were too small to trust their strong flabby hands: vases in ribbed grey-green celadon, porcelain shepherdesses trimmed with lace so fine you might think it was fabric until you touched it. Over there, on the little sewing table by the atrium door, there had been a box with a surface that looked like a mosaic of sliced pearls, but grandma had said that it was made of shagreen, sharkskin. The box wasn’t there now. Gunnar or Ulla must already have packed it.

She wouldn’t have asked to keep any of the ornaments. Not even the books, though they would have been harder to say no to: a collection of La Fontaine’s fables with Classicist copperplates, a Mucha catalogue, a book with colour reproductions of William Blake’s art that had given her nightmares when she was a kid. She put the cup on the coffee table, took out the Blake book and sat down on the puffy plush couch where she’d used to sit and read when they came here, maybe with a bag of travel candy next to her. Was that the one she should pick? After the conversation she hardly wanted to take anything, but should she lose the things she had a right to because she felt ashamed?

When mum walked past towards the TV room, Jennifer looked up.

“You know, you’re coping well,” she said. “I wish I were as tough as you.”

Mum lit up, faintly.

“I wouldn’t say it’s strength, Jennifer honey,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of time to prepare.”

She went in there herself later, because the room was lit and warm with people, Joakim leaning on his elbows on the carpet.

She sat at the left end of the couch, closest to the window, and her gaze slipped outside and across the road. On the other side of the lampposts lay the forest. It was a block of darkness against the paler sky, but one higher pine leant sideways from some storm, before she was born. It was the sigil of grandma’s house. Nowhere else did the forest have the same outline.

*

The next afternoon she went for a walk. It was November, raw and wet rather than cold. They’d used to go here for the Christmas and February breaks when the cold scorched, and dad had made a fire when she and Joakim came back from sledging. She’d sat in front of it, her back to the darkness in the window.

She tried walking as far as she could in the direction of Stockholm proper, but of course she hadn’t got far before darkness fell and she had to turn back to be on time for supper.

On the way home she looked for the pine on the forest edge and found it after a while. She put her hand on the deeply ridged bark that had grown chilly like metal. When she looked across the road, all the windows were lit in yellow.

She had a quick immature impulse to stay here by the foot of the pine until she froze to death or they let her stay. It was too melodramatic, for the sake of a house.

*

Dad had impressed them with chicken Kiev and panna cotta for dessert, and it was her turn to wash up. Mum stayed next to her to dry the crystal glasses. It wasn’t much past six o’clock, but it was winter, already night. Tomorrow she would wake in the room with the sofa-bed for the last time.

“I guess there’s still no chance.”

She tried to make her voice jocular, but it just sounded high-pitched. Mum’s profile was hidden by a band of dark hair while she dried the last glass.

“No, I don’t see why you think you have a right to it, after what you did to your brother.”

It was too absurd. Jennifer couldn’t get angry.

“What do you mean? What did I do to Joakim?”

She’d already started searching for memories: when she’d told on him for calling a classmate something foul, when she ran off while he was babysitting her and dad had given him a telling-off. None of that merited mum’s tone.

“It wasn’t Joakim,” mum said.

Her voice was so choked, Jennifer could barely make out the words.

“What do you mean, then?”

Perhaps she shouldn’t have insisted, not when someone’s voice sounded like that.

“No, Jennifer,” mum said, “don’t you worry about that. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Seriously, I didn’t mean to… Forget the house, of course I don’t need a house, but what do you mean about my brother?”

“I said I shouldn’t have said anything!”

Mum’s voice tore on the last words. She hurried out of the kitchen, a bit crouched.

She needed to finish washing up. There were a lot of dishes, they’d been seven. After a few minutes, the work and the repetitive motions had returned her to some state of calm.

While she was rinsing out the sink she heard footsteps in the door. She turned her head and managed a smile, in case it was mum, but it was dad coming to top up his beer. He grinned.

“Thanks, Jennifer. You do a good job.”

When she asked, it sounded abrupt.

Dad’s shoulders sagged.

“For starters, I want you to know that it wasn’t your fault,” he began. “You were just a little kid.”

*

She’d known that she’d had a brother who’d died in childhood. He’d never been more than a name and brown hair on some pictures in the photo album. For a while in primary school she’d been afraid of telling people about him, because then they would find out that she didn’t feel anything.

If it had happened a year later, she might have remembered. She could remember things from when she was five.

It had happened in another set of garden stairs, in the old terraced house they had moved out of afterwards. It hadn’t even been in the winter, slippery with ice. She’d been four years old, Alvar two. Joakim had been in his room or out playing, he wasn’t in the story. Alvar hadn’t dared to walk down the stairs, so she’d held his hands and walked behind and over him like a sensible older sister.

Perhaps she’d told him he wasn’t allowed to walk down the stairs by himself.

They’d come running out when they heard her screaming. She’d sat crying on the stairs and at first they’d thought she was the one who had fallen.

Quick blinks of sunlight. When he tripped, his little hand slipped in hers and she didn’t dare to grab it in case she tore his shoulder joint. Or was that the twenty-one-year-old Jennifer trying to reconstruct it? She thought she could remember the sun and the tarmac below the steps, but nothing else.

“We called the hospital,” Dad said, shrugging. “He hung on for a few days, but there wasn’t a lot they could do.”

Her breath had become loud in her ears. She looked down at her hands. They were a grown woman’s hands, probably with some scars she hadn’t had then, but it was the same flesh, the same skeleton.

“I didn’t know,” she said at last.

Dad nodded his heavy head.

“It wasn’t right of Yvonne to tell you,” he said. “Especially like that. You can’t be held responsible.”

He supported himself on the tabletop, standing up. Jennifer looked up.

“Is it OK if I have a glass of wine?”

It was one of the few times she’d had a drink – the first time she’d drunk for intoxication. The wine had an acrid fruity flavour that clung to her teeth. She took several quick gulps, because otherwise she might smell blood in her nasal cavity.

She hadn’t known Alvar. She didn’t remember, and yet it had been she. The moment she thought she would make it, she would be fine, she remembered a birthday card that Joakim had sent while he was studying in Lund. It had said To my best sister.

She took another gulp. It was intended as an anaesthetic, but they only had that one bottle of dark wine. She hadn’t felt anything yet, except that emotions became harder to resist. If this went on, she would be too weak to cope.

By the time she put the glass on the sink she couldn’t feel any effect on her senses. She went into the bedroom and took her coat and hat. Everything around her was warm and cocooned. Her skin sucked up the warmth, and yet she didn’t stay. The debit card lay stiff in her coat pocket. When she zipped up the coat, she smelled the soap from grandma’s bathroom on her hands.

She walked down the steps in the orange light of the lamp on the garage wall. It wasn’t raining, but the asphalt was glittering wet.

There was a bus-stop further up Svalnäs Allé. She glanced up at the timetable: a little under fifteen minutes to go. That was almost too much, but the coat was warm and she could pull her hands into the sleeves. She’d read once that alcohol thinned the blood and made it easier to freeze to death. She wouldn’t die as long as she was standing up.

The wine had made all perceptions slower. Perhaps you died because you didn’t care as much about the cold. It was going to get colder. Sweden was spinning towards the heart of February, with dry paving-stones and a cold that made you pant and forced you to the ground like some religious visitation.

Perhaps they’d heard when she opened the front door, but nobody came for her. Across the road the windows shone yellow, the light that meant home.

The bus braked and lowered itself with a sighing noise. The heat was wondrous on her skin when she got in, like sitting in front of a fire. The bus set itself rolling, towards the city, and she left them.

THE END

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Contemporary Fiction, Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

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