Her mother calls. Sven is in hospital and he is not coming back. He will most likely be transferred to a hospice. He asks about you. He can’t get out of bed. He is shitting himself. He lies in bed swearing. I’m going to have to call you back, she says, his sister is here now.
Sven had always been around, coming by with his bulldog, cracking jokes about her mother, whom he had nicknamed and seemed to like. Her mother blushed and laughed. They lived in neighbouring terraced houses suitable for single parents or small families. He was not nice when he first moved here, but then her mother had told him off, and the two of them had been friends ever since. Her mother was one of the people who had been there the longest. She had arrived after her divorce, with two little children who were now adults, and now she lived alone with her cat.
She too had grown fond of Sven. She would fix their drinks, whenever she visited. Once, just after her mother’s knee surgery, she accidentally stirred cubes from the ice pack into their sparkling wine. Her mother had laughed so hard and said, let’s keep it to ourselves. Sven and her mother shared a passion for traditional Danish cooking. Potatoes and gravy, and something roasted. She thought that she had perhaps finally created enough distance, away from home, to see it for what it was.
Sven had lost his parents to cancer when he was quite young, and had been ill many times himself. This was why he had decided to become an undertaker, at forty. Whoever arranged his father’s funeral was sloppy; they had made mistakes, he said. Small slips, but those details meant the world to Sven, and came to bother him. He wanted to do it properly, perfectly. He started a small business and it ran pretty smoothly with just him and an assistant for the next fifteen years.
Anything for you, my dear, he said, when her mother had called him after Grandfather died. He took care of it, with a discount. Her mother’s used tissues from the funeral lay casually on the kitchen counter next to the sink, where she had emptied her purse. She placed her mother against the wall and made her answer questions in close-up: Who are you, how long have you lived here? What are your dreams? She made notes. She monitored her mother’s grief. Sven invited her to his office. She could not stop the questions. He showed her the urns, the coffins he kept in storage, pink and blue ones for children, his clothes and the open shirts wrapped in plastic for the dead. He took her for a drive in his rented hearse, and she watched and filmed. Already then, disease would not leave him alone. He was in and out of hospital. He had always got rid of it, but this time it had spread to his head. They could only offer a strong round of chemotherapy that might give him an extra year or so, but really they could not tell him how long it would be. He accepted it. Not for himself, he said. It was for his daughter.
Sven sat in his house, smoked cigarettes and drank coffee all day, usually with the curtains closed. They gave him antidepressants. He did not like to leave the premises. He felt unstable, started falling over, having seizures, and his stomach was a mess. He liked to stay close to his toilet. He anticipated her visit, with or without the camera. She could tell, every time, that he was unsure if they were going to see each other again. I’ll see you in a few months, she would say. We will see, he said. We will see. He was hanging on for his grandson’s confirmation, but he thought he would give up all the therapies after that. Is there anything you need to do before it’s too late? she asked. I don’t know, he said. I never wanted to travel. I enjoy the simple things, I like being alone, I always did. I want to try to enjoy the time I have left, that’s all. She had asked him if he could describe it to her, how he felt. She imagined that his thoughts would be racing over his death, his life. Feelings surfacing. I really don’t think I can, he said. He seemed more stressed about a telephone call he had to make or a form he had to fill out or what to eat for dinner or when to go to the toilet. The thing that is most important to me is that I deal with Karla before I go, he told her, gesturing at the overweight bulldog who shared his bed. I think I want them to put her to sleep. I don’t think she can handle another home after this.
It gave him a sort of distraction from himself to sit there in front of her camera. At least that is what she thought. She would ask questions. He would reply. That was the plan. It gave him a break from all the paperwork and the routines of his depression. She was not sure what it gave her. A way of getting closer to something? What is all this footage for, he would ask. They’d made an agreement; they even signed a contract, stating that she could film him every time she visited. Do you want my last gasp too, he said, and smiled. I would like to go all the way, she said. And yet really she had never planned to make a film about a dying man. That was not her interest. Even if the irony of a dying undertaker was hard to overlook. She had thought of it as something that had filmic potential. It was a feeling. She wanted to remain open to what she could not yet imagine.
But Sven’s daughter was not too keen on her camera, and she had the last say, even if she was rarely around and lived hours away. He scarcely mentioned her. Only when he spoke of his death, he referred to her as someone he would have to answer to. He did have two framed photographs of her two boys. It was sitting on a wooden bureau, one of the few pieces of furniture that he had inherited from his parents His sisters would visit and tended to clean everything when they came by. They like to talk about the past, he said. Only problem is, neither of them remembers it. You don’t strike me as a person who likes to dwell on the past, she said, and he nodded and said, No, because it has passed. Nothing was on the walls, and he spent most of his time seated by the dining table, or at his bureau in the corner, or on a leather sofa in front of the TV upstairs. There was nothing else up there. The floor was dirty, speckled with footprints. Sven had moved north after a painful divorce. His wife had found him in bed with a woman from next door. That was the story. Only on rare occasions did he visit his family. He spoke of celebrating Christmas with them as a kind of duty.
He was used to making an effort for people, she could tell. This effort seemed a strain. Can you wring anything more out of me? he would ask. She could not say whether he was annoyed, or if it was some sort of invitation to go deeper, to disrupt his ways. Sometimes she just popped by without her camera, and he would chain-smoke and talk for hours, telling her how dissatisfied he was with the way the system was treating him; the doctors, the council. He felt like they were just ticking boxes, making him attend endless appointments to ‘keep the doctors updated’. I can’t rely on them. No one can, any more, he said. He was absent, submerged in smoke and circling thoughts. I am done with serving people, he would say. I have nothing left to give.
She was disappearing through the haze. It drained her. And it bored her. She started avoiding him. She felt guilty about that, because surely he was dying, and she could bear with him, be there for him. I don’t want to sit there for hours and listen to him, her mother said. It’s excruciating. But when she avoided seeing him, her mother would say, Oh but he will be so sad. He is so fond of you, you don’t even know. Her mother used to drop by all the time, but now it was mainly when she was invited along. And as annoyed as her mother could be, she never questioned her daughter’s agenda. In fact her mother never questioned anything she did for a living. Sven would call her mother on his mobile phone, and tell her he was defrosting Danish pastries. It was as if there was some sort of invisible pact between them all, including the camera. She told him to remember that the footage would survive him. How do you feel about that, she asked. He thought about this, and then he said that the most important thing to him was that they would refrain from putting his name on any gravestone. They can put ‘dad’ on there, if it suits them. His daughter refused to spread his ashes over the sea, and she wanted him close to her. He had agreed to that, but that was all, he said.
She thought about why she was doing this and for whom. It was her mother’s friend, after all. Or perhaps not, perhaps he felt close to her, perhaps it was the presence of the camera, the questions, the interest. The attention. She started to question whether she really cared about him at all or whether she was just in it for herself, for her damned footage. Why not just admit it, she thought. She was selfish. She was. She was trying to make something that did not want to be made, but what did then? Why did she resist him giving her meaning? She looked for life in death but found little, and that scared her, for it was her looking, not him.
She is in a villa that dates back to the sixteenth century. She is in the café area. It is coming close to lunchtime and the tourists are flocking here, heading to the balcony to photograph each other and the view. A group of guests cluster around her table. They photograph the statues. A guy has taken an ancient chessboard from the shelf, and points a large camera at it. His girlfriend sits in a sweat, taking a break from the sightseeing, looking at her looking at him. He closes in on the chessboard and with his eye to the viewfinder presses the button. She looks to the other room of the café. Telephones and cameras are in the air, hands held high, and people looking.
They drive to their place in the mountains in the blue car. She is in the passenger seat with her shoes off and one foot pressed against the window, which is halfway down. The day is hot. Spring is here, summer is coming. The heat in the city is stuffy. Heat doesn’t bother him. She doesn’t like to sit in direct sunlight, especially not in a car. They make it to the highway. She feels free. He has his hands firmly on the wheel and a resolute look in his eyes. The road is jam-packed with large cargo-loaded trucks in a line blocking the road as they swerve to overtake. They stop for coca colas. There is a particular kind of loneliness in roadside auto-grills with their deep fat fryers, glass counters and bar tables, crumbs, an accepted loneliness that she appreciates. There is an annulment of taste. No one sees you; nothing counts. You are on the road. They are together. It is their car. They are adults. They have a house to go to, and their bags in the back. They have not seen each other for a while. He has been doing his research, and she has been teaching abroad. He pushes the brakes; they travel in the fast lane of the highway. She never liked the Italian highways. They are too narrow. The drivers so unpredictable. They keep up speed. On highways you have to.
The cicadas are noisy. He prepares a meal; they did some grocery shopping on the way. An open sandwich with eggs and parsley. They are at a wooden table by the window, where they are getting used to sitting, just the two of them. She often has her back to the window in order to see him against the light. They left all their plants on the terrace, hoping they would survive their absence. Most did, but they seem happy to return to the cool shade of the stone house. Some of the leaves on the fig tree are burnt and scorched. The soil is dry. The leaves are as crisp as old paper. The tree is tall, three metres at least. Before they got it, it had lived on the fifth floor of a palazzo in one of the busiest tourist areas of Florence, in a two-floor flat with very few windows and no terrace. It was placed under a small window to the roof, next to their bed. And there it had grown upwards, stretching towards the light — you could tell by the lack of leaves further down the stem. Now the light was everywhere. We need to get a bigger pot, he says. Don’t water it too much, she says. I wouldn’t, he says. You tend to do that, she says. You tend to drown things. He turns to her. I might just know something about plants too, she says. She knows that she has seen the worst in him and that sometimes that is all she can see.
The mosquito net feels claustrophobic in the heat. He is sleeping next to her. She is looking at the chair in the corner of the room, sensing its faint contours through the fabric of the net. She hears someone breathing, and it isn’t him. There is a weak light from the moon. She has insect bites on her body. She has covered herself in repellent, but she still cannot sleep. She gets out of bed to stand by the open window and look out into the night. Something large jumps from the cypress tree to the ground.
She has changed her life around, but her past is more present than ever before. It seems there is something you really want to let go of, he says. They are talking in bed in the light of the reading lamp, face to face. He is against the wall, as he always is, and she is closer to the door, the window. She tends to go to the bathroom during the night, and he, at certain times, is afflicted with night terrors and outbursts in his sleep. The night is hot, and they had been for a long walk in the mountains. She showered while he prepared dinner, and they have eaten pizza with fresh wild fennel that they picked on the roadside. Then she settled in a chair to read. This is an evening like any other. It’s as if you react emotionally to certain situations, he says, you conjure up past events that have lost their relevance. She is naked underneath her kimono, which is lightly open so her breasts are showing.
You need to find a way to let it go, he says.
The squirrels play on the wall outside and the blackbirds look for worms in the ground. She is adjusting to life here, spending her days writing and thinking, rarely talking to anyone other than him. She is convinced that it is unhealthy in the long run, but he seems fine with the situation, and does not seem to miss anybody else’s company. But she feels more and more weak. She is not sure that she appreciates this state, or even likes it. She has allowed this. She has understood that if she doesn’t permit this sentiment, then she will never surrender to anything. She has to know what it means to disappear, to give herself fully to something, to him and the idea of them together, or the lack of an idea. In surrender lies what feels like weakness. At times she enjoys being so insignificant. Can you not find joy in nature? he asks. Do you have to find it in people? He tells her she thinks too much about social situations. That her articulated reflections affect him in a bad way. That it takes everything apart for him. He says that he feels imageless in many situations, like when they make love, or are in nature. He says that he thinks she may have more images to deal with than he does. What does that mean? she asks. He says that she has problems just being in these landscapes, that she struggles with them and sees things that aren’t there. That may be true. He says that it is all in her. That her thoughts about other people and situations only reflect what goes on inside her.
Do you really think you can avoid people overstepping your boundaries, she asks, Do you think that is possible? Probably not, he says. It is just that you seem to defend anyone who does you harm. What if they don’t have the capacity to understand what they are doing, she says. What if you don’t give them the opportunity to understand, he says, you can try to avoid it at least. I am not sure you can, she says, if you want to be close to people. I think that I appreciate even the people who did me harm. I learned from them too. Things could have been different. That is true. Only they are not. Maybe I am over-empathetic in a bad way. I fail to hold people responsible. Perhaps I empathise too much with you, too. The ability to understand and feel for others is not necessarily a good thing, in itself.
The walk up the mountain is challenging. This time of year flowers are bursting up out of the ground: daffodils, crocuses, violets, red poppies, which look like they are on the verge of flying. And the smell. Every time, it is different. She has no urge to photograph here. She starts to see where this urge may come from. It had certainly served some basic need before, but how about now? How does anyone take in such landscapes?
There are few images between them, she thinks, which on a bad day may pose a problem. The two of them simply don’t know how to act, how to be. He doesn’t let that scare him, but she is aware of this disjunct in the smallest of actions. The way she stirs her coffee, the way she eats. She tries to eat, really eat. What does that even mean? The way she walks. She has no idea who she is or what he sees and it scares her. Down the gravel road behind the house, which they have named after the wild boars and where they often catch a glimpse of a flock of deer standing in a clearing, she remembers that she used to smoke, like she used to do many things. This too was an image, she thinks. It stirs in her, while her feet slide over large stones, before it passes again and moves into the trees. She wants to trace these images, locate their pathways. Once they have entered, they will know their way in. She used to think she could see like that. She could tell one thing from the other. She could see through people. She could sit and listen in on conversations and tell when something was said, really said, or when it was not. It was an instinct. But she had lost it. It had changed.
Some say we all need a mask, a role. That we can be more real behind a mask. That fiction allows us to fully explore the nature of who we are. And then there are those who believe that life is all about ridding ourselves of masks; that freedom is finding a way to do that. She’d recently met a clown, who said that when she did workshops she asked each and every one of her students to stand on their own in front of the others, in silence. The group would just sit there and look at that person standing there, until she, running the show, decided to stop it. She said she wanted them to truly feel vulnerable in front of others. What had turned the woman into a clown, she’d wondered. She told her that she had always been somewhat afraid of clowns. The clown said that her fear revealed her vulnerability.
She imagined Sven to be in touch with some inner knowing. An ability to see things for what they are, what they were. She thought that his state allowed this. What do you want, what do you need, she asked to get a reaction, anything, but Sven did not know what he wanted or needed. He said no one had ever asked him such questions before. Usually, he looked at her in confusion. His eyes would run towards his shelves where he kept his paperwork, his ring binders. He apologised. He felt like he was nothing; that he didn’t matter now that he did not work, help others as he had before, by arranging funerals of their beloved, taking care of all the things that needed to be done. He was always on call, and he loved it. What are you now? she asked. He paused for some time, before he said, I am retired. That is what I am. His pension had finally gone through, and this gave him some peace, now he knew at least, sort of, who he was. He was retired. He had stepped down from something. And when he walked his dog in the neighbourhood, people who knew of him would stop him. He would refer their inquiries to whoever had taken his place. All that matters to me now is the everyday, he said. I have no longing other than that.
He had a seizure, at home, where he began to see things. A tree floating through his living room, a troll hazel, a small one, similar to the tree he kept in his small garden enclosure, more of an enclosure than a garden. But it was not the same tree, Sven said. It was different. Everything had been alive. He saw animals, no, creatures, he said, which became more and more frequent through those last days. I am not ready, he said when he had another severe one, and was hospitalised. I am not ready, he said every time it came close, but she could tell that he did not quite know what it was that he needed to do in order to be ready.
They drive out to the sea after a day’s work, to read, to swim, to lie in the shade and look up at the sky. The heat has gone to their heads. He says she should stand under the cold shower more often to cool down. Her hair reaches abnormally high temperatures, and she was never one for wearing summer hats. I don’t like to wear too much on my skin, she says. The stones on the terrace burn their feet. The sand. It is a question of getting the parasol up quickly, evening out the surface, spreading the blanket and then quickly crawling into the shade. She dresses down to that same black bikini, she got at a street market in Naples years ago. It is Sunday, and the beach is packed.
An elderly thin man sits on a chair under an umbrella in front of them. He has a book in his lap. It is rare to see anyone reading here. People don’t come here to read. The children are ash-grey from the sun. Their behaviour doesn’t change just because they happen to be at the beach. They simply transfer their usual daily routines to this location.
I think he is a priest, she says, as if some revelation has come to her. He seems isolated from the others there, alone. Gazing out to sea, he is meagre and tall. She turns onto her stomach to look at him. The coarseness of his limbs, the scrawniness of his skin reminds her of meat wrapped in transparent paper, or the loose skin of a chicken that you are able to push from side to side across its breasts. His bathing trunks appear foreign on him as if they have not been worn often. His fine grey hair is swept back across his head, and he runs his hand across it to make sure it is in position. His spine is distended, slightly hunched. He gets up and walks closer to the water. He does not get in. He places his hands on his waist. He looks to his left, to his right, and then out into the horizon. He holds his right hand over his eyes to see. He is letting the sun bathe him. Burn his white skin. He walks back to his small beach chair. She pretends to read so that he does not see her looking. He rubs his legs. People tend to rub their legs on the beach here. He returns to his book and puts on his reading glasses. I think he is a priest, she repeats. Ha! Do you see? Look at the face. The nose. The eyes.
The light passes through clouds, throws beams of light onto the surface of the water. Look, there is a cross on his back, she says. The seat of the plastic chair has marked itself across his spine. She lies there as if she is seeing something important. This moment is critical. I don’t think he is a priest, he says, and yawns. He is reading a book on contemporary art. It is big and pink, and fully illustrated.
The phone vibrates in her bag. She reaches for it and slides off her sunglasses. It is from her mother. With a squint she reads: Sven is dead. He died this morning, peacefully.
She rolls over on her back and looks up into the sky.
How could he just go like that?
She calls her mother. What happened? They called me this morning and said he died. Did you manage to say goodbye, she asks. There is a moment of silence. She can tell her mother is crying. I just couldn’t, she says. She considers asking why, but doesn’t.
Sven had often asked her if her mother was okay. He did not see her much, anymore. Her mother had said she did not want to promise more than she could deliver, though she did not say it like that. It was what she had gathered in the end, from her way of communicating. It was her guess. It could have been that the smell of Sven’s ebbing flesh reminded her of grandfather’s, whom Sven had touched not so long ago. After all, her mother was now getting used to sitting in his old chair like he used to, with her legs on his leather stool. It was her guess. Mere speculation.
He died in a hospice, a place for the terminally ill at their final stage. She had managed to see him a final time there, before he went. She’d brought him Italian chocolate. He did not seem to care. It had been awkward in some ways. He was tired. He was sad, but too tired to express it, too beside himself to say or do anything. He said he had nothing left to say, and he kept going to the bathroom without closing the door, as if she was not there, as if he was not there. She wondered if he looked in the mirror and, if so, what he saw. How much of it had gone to his brain, his mind. Often, when they spoke, he would start with all the practical information; the stage his cancer was at, what the doctors had said, as if he needed to put it in order, to control it. He would never talk about his feelings, and even if she asked, it almost seemed like he did not know what she meant. She had previously given him her dictaphone, and had asked him to document his days, anything, when she was away. On her return, there was nothing on there. Only white noise. No Sven. They were outside, and he was smoking a cigarette, a habit he kept up to his final breath. He treasured the smoke, and the silence of smoking. She had been told that they had put Karla to sleep when he was sent to the hospice. He lit another cigarette, holding his other shaking hand on the zimmer frame that he never really wanted to use. I am contemplating, he said, now in tears, whether I should visit the house one last time to say goodbye to it, to it all.
I am really surprised they are giving him a church funeral, when he specifically said he didn’t want one, her mother said, although she did not attend. She had to work, she said. Instead she had gone to the smaller ceremony, where they had laid him to rest in the coffin and sung for him. It was Sven’s assistant who prepared and cremated him. One of the few people Sven trusted. They had shared the back room of the funeral office, a cramped shabby room with a coffee maker and small fridge. The clock on the pink wall was broken. It ticked but never passed two o’clock. They advised everyone against using their toilet.
Sven always joked about her documenting his final breath. He said he would fake it, and they would laugh about it. But he never allowed her to film him when he was feeling particularly down. When the curtains were drawn and the lights were off, he was in what he referred to as a state of darkness. He always felt he had to pull himself out of there for other people’s sake, which is why he always needed to put it down in his schedule when anyone was coming to see him, even if it was just for a quick coffee.
Death gives presence. Death brings out unexpected reactions in people. It shows you how close life and death are, and how far apart. How the mind creates meaning. It does not happen in a controlled manner, it happens in an irrational way, as if you are discovering what was always there. How little makes sense, other than to the senses themselves.
She was a stranger at the funeral. This was a man she had never really known. Who did? The priest spoke of how introverted he was, how few were allowed to come close to him, how he mainly enjoyed his own company, but how God knew him.
Her mother worked four to five hour shifts in a busy university canteen. It was important for her to work, to serve her community, to feel useful. Every morning she woke up early to let the cat in. It usually sat by the door, hungry, its ears sloping. Not because it was angry, but because it couldn’t lift them any longer. Its ears had crumpled into small hairy balls on its head. It was old. Around eighty in cat years. It looked a little sad. It was sad looking at it. But the cat didn’t care. Her mother had adopted it from a litter that had lived under her ex-husband’s terrace. It had started to drag in all sorts of animals. Some alive, others dead. She would often find a large blackbird or a small field mouse, decapitated, outside the door. Blood seeped into the carpet, legs were in rigor mortis. Now it had started to capture dragonflies. Great beautiful green dragonflies were served on the living room floor in the morning. They always said that when they saw a green dragonfly, it was Grandfather coming to say hello. They had seen a green one at his grave, after he died. You killed Grandfather! she said to the cat, seeing its corpse there on the floor. The cat did not care about Grandfather. I have decided this will be his last Christmas, her mother said.
What, why? she said.
He has attacked me three times recently, leaving my legs all bloody. He has become so wild.
He knows, her mother said.
He knows what’s coming.