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They didn’t care, not really, they hadn’t cared for years

An excerpt from Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth.

Verso Books 7 October 2019

They didn’t care, not really, they hadn’t cared for years

It happened in the Narvesen kiosk in Bogstadveien on 13 March 1999.                

In the years leading up to that date I had tried to have some contact with my family for the sake of my children because they were young and depended on me for seeing their grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins; so that Mum wouldn’t nag, push or tug at my conscience, but it was exhausting to act politely towards people who presented themselves as loving me. If I wrote Mum a simple postcard from Rome, I would immediately get a letter saying how much she was looking forward to seeing me at Christmas and to celebrate Christmas like a normal family. I would then be unable to control my emotions, I would get affronted, hysterical and feel taken for granted because things could never be normal again, they weren’t normal, I had explained this to them over and over, but they refused to listen, they didn’t want to listen, and how could they celebrate Christmas like a normal family? The mere thought made me want to throw up, I rang them and when they didn’t pick up the phone, I left a vicious message saying I did not look forward to Christmas, that I did not look forward to seeing them, that the thought of seeing them filled me with horror and revulsion, that it was physically impossible for me to be in the same room as them. And yet the next morning I was ashamed of my anger, my aggression, my excessive, uncontrollable, juvenile emotions, so I called Astrid and begged her go to Bråteveien and delete the angry message, but they had already heard it, she said, her voice trembling, so I realised that Mum and Dad were upset and distraught and that Astrid thought I was a terrible person for upsetting and distressing my aged parents. And I did feel bad, but I was upset too because I wanted Astrid to care about my feelings as well, but she didn’t.                

When I met Klara by the Narvesen kiosk later the same day and poured out my heart to her, she said I had to cut contact for good. You must stop seeing them.                

Are you allowed to do that, I sobbed. Yes, she said, many people do so. And the thought of never having to see them again gave me instant relief. Not having to deal with them, to be free from tears and recriminations and threats, not having to make up excuses, not having to constantly defend and explain myself and yet never be understood, to sever all contact, was that even an option? Yes, she said. I didn’t have to say or write anything, just make up my mind and I already had, I’ll stop seeing them, I decided outside the Narvesen kiosk in Bogstadveien, and it was done.            

Mum tried. Astrid tried, but I stayed silent. Eventually they gave up, the years passed, then Astrid started trying on special occasions. When Mum had surgery. Mum is having surgery, I just thought you ought to know. As if that changed everything. As if it meant that now I had to call them. As if I would change my stance in the light of illness, in the light of death. Would I? It would appear not because I soon forgot about her text message. When I happened to see it again the next day, I was pleased that I had forgotten it, but my reaction also caused me to wonder: Had a part of me always feared that such a message would make me doubt myself? If so that hadn’t happened and I was pleased about that, I had succeeded in my efforts to cut the cord, I had silenced their reproachful, threatening, disappointed voices which had existed so powerfully inside me for over forty years. I texted her back saying I was sorry to hear that, that I hoped the operation would go well and that I wished Mum a speedy recovery. I soon gathered from Astrid that she didn’t think that was enough, but what more could I do? Call and say what? Go to the hospital and throw my arms around Mum? I imagined myself driving to the hospital, entering the side ward where she lay, and everything in me rebelled. I imagined it again in order to relive the emotion, how everything inside me protested. It was impossible. I had no face with which I could meet her undoubtedly pitiful demeanour. I couldn’t sit by her bedside, take her hand in mine and say that I loved her because I didn’t. I had loved her once, I’d been incredi- bly close to her and dependent on her once, she was my mum, but that emotion belonged to the past and couldn’t be resurrected because of the impact of what happened later. I felt no love and no longing for Mum and this lack of love and longing for Mum was, I knew, regarded by my family as a character defect in me, some- thing I had to justify and defend. And I justified it and defended myself every time Astrid sent me messages along the lines of ‘I just thought you ought to know.’ Sometimes I had sent furious replies to such messages because Astrid treated me as though it were a matter of will, as though I could simply decide to turn up, to be nice, to make conversation. But Astrid deleted my furious emails unread, she wrote to me when I apologised for them the next morning, when filled with shame I wrote to her to apologise for my furious emails. Astrid had deleted my furious emails without reading them, she wrote, and that was her right, it was understand- able, but it didn’t stop me from feeling rejected and disappointed that Astrid didn’t deal with their contents, never commented at all on the reasons I gave, didn’t seem to reflect on where that enormous rage of mine came from. I just thought you ought to know. So that it would be on my mind or I would call or turn up at the hospital. And so I didn’t call, I didn’t turn up and thus confirmed yet again that I was who they had decided I was, the heartless daughter, selfish and destructive. I just thought you ought to know and realise how bad you are. Forcing me into the role of the black sheep yet again and I was distraught because I just couldn’t do it! My legs refuse to carry me! I jumped whenever the phone rang with an unknown number in case it was Mum. I looked her number up and stored it so that I would be able to see if it was her and not pick up. She might well decide to call me when she was ill because surely I wasn’t so cruel that I would ignore a sick, possibly dying person?

And, besides, even if I’d managed to get myself to the hospital, even if my legs would have carried me there, then everything I said at her hospital bed—unless it was something furious which it would be inappropriate to say at a sickbed—would be interpreted as remorse and an admission on my part that their demands had been reasonable and my conduct unreasonable, evil, so it was impossible, why go there simply to betray myself?

But if I had truly succeeded in silencing their voices inside me, if their voices genuinely had no power over me now, surely I could go to the hospital and tell white lies? Make hospital small talk with Mum and get it over with. Why did it matter if Mum no longer mattered, why the need for honesty towards someone so irrelevant to me? Why couldn’t I just give Mum what she wanted, give the family what it wanted, let Mum think that I repented, let the family think that I repented, perjure myself on this one occasion and be done with it, why was I so stubborn towards someone who no longer mattered. There were so many other lies in my life, what difference would one more make? Why couldn’t I just go to the hospital and reel off stock phrases, then leave and be done with my quandary. So I was in a quandary, was I? No! There was no alternative, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it. How weak I was, how trapped.                    

Could I instead go to the hospital and speak my mind, was that an option? Go there and say that I stood my ground, that I repented nothing, that I had come to say goodbye. No! Impossible! Why? I couldn’t work it out! Philosophers, where are you in my hour of need? In my mind I tried to cut contact again by making a deci- sion like the one I’d taken at the Narvesen kiosk in Bogstadveien about not seeing them again, not allowing myself to be emotion- ally blackmailed, but I didn’t experience the relief and comfort I had felt when I made my decisive break at the Narvesen kiosk in Bogstadveien in 1999.        

Had it been merely a postponement, a brief respite from an insoluble problem? Because even if Mum didn’t express a wish to see me before she died, Astrid would still call me when she died, and I would have to see them at the funeral or before. Surely I couldn’t not go—or could I? And their behaviour towards me would be dismissive and disapproving because of my long absence. And Dad, whom I hadn’t seen for years, a man I might no longer recognise, who had been poorly for reasons I was unaware of, he would be there, grieving, and I couldn’t comfort him, I couldn’t take part, but would remain only an outsider. That had been my choice, although I hadn’t had a real choice, and now I would suffer the consequences of that choice. But it would also be uncomfortable for them, wouldn’t it? So why did they continue to nag me, why was my presence so important to them? Because although it would be uncomfortable also for them, it would be worse for me, was that what they were hoping for? The chance to watch me isolated and squirming, the chance to express their pent-up aggression towards me because I had upset my parents and they had had to pick up the pieces?

Or were my siblings angry with me and did they hate me because, consciously or subconsciously, they had wanted to do what I had done, break free, get away, did they resent me as one who had escaped the parental regime and thus made it more diffi- cult for them to do likewise?

I should have emigrated to America, I thought, I should have sailed around the world and been somewhere on the ocean when it happened, then I would get an email in some port when it was all over, and the ocean would put our little lives, our little deaths into perspective.                

But what opportunities for growth and resolution would I then have fled from? What if I was close to an epiphany, I asked myself, perhaps this was the moment, perhaps this was the challenge. And if I failed to meet it, I would never learn the most important lesson of all, but have made only half-hearted attempts and settled for easy answers.        

But it hasn’t been easy, I protested, it has been a struggle, an ordeal! But what if it’s not over yet, I wondered to myself, perhaps this is the last leg of the race and I mustn’t give up now.            

I didn’t sleep the night I had reread the I-just-thought-you-ought- to-know message from Astrid. To be reconciled, to forgive? But surely you can’t forgive what people refuse to admit? Did I think they were capable of owning up to it? To finally admit the truth about the very thing they had devoted so much energy to repress and deny? Did I really think they would risk public censure in order to be reconciled with me? No, I wasn’t worth that much, they had made that crystal clear to me on several occasions. But what if they admitted it just to me? If I wrote to Mum and Dad that they could admit it just to me, and that I would promise never to tell anyone. No, that wouldn’t happen either, I was sure of it, because it didn’t even exist between the two of them, they never talked about it, they had entered into a conspiracy to save their reputation, to maintain a level of self-respect; they had entered into an unspoken, unbreakable pact a long time ago in which they were the victims of their oldest daughter’s mendacity and callous- ness, and as long as that version was believed, they remained on the receiving end of compassion, pity and care, and they couldn’t manage without that, they fed on it, and it would be harder for them to get it if they ever admitted the truth to me, even if it stayed just between the three of us, harder to keep up their public image of them as the victims. They must be pitied. And there were times when I did pity them because of the mess they had created for themselves, because they were ill and old and would probably die soon, while I was in good health, touch wood, touch more wood, and only halfway through my life. You, too, are going to die, I told myself, by way of consolation. You might die tomorrow, I said, in order to strengthen my resolve. Why do they care, I called out to the sky, what do they want from me, I called out into the darkness. But they didn’t care, not really, they hadn’t cared for years.                

Two days later I got a text message from Astrid saying all Mum’s tests were fine. She would make a full recovery and was already feeling much better. As was Dad. I wrote that that was nice and asked her to say hi. I resumed my own life.

- Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth, translated by Charlotte Barslund is out now.

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Four siblings. Two summer houses. One terrible secret. When a dispute over her parents’ will grows bitter, Bergljot is drawn back into the orbit of the family she fled twenty years before. Her mother and father have decided to leave two island summer houses to her sisters, disinheriting the two eldest siblings from the most meaningful part of the estate. To outsiders, it is a quarrel about property and favouritism. But Bergljot, who has borne a horrible secret since childhood, understands the gesture as something very different—a final attempt to suppress the truth and a cruel insult to the grievously injured.

Will and Testament is a lyrical meditation on trauma and memory, as well as a furious account of a woman’s struggle to survive and be believed. Vigdis Hjorth’s novel became a controversial literary sensation in Norway and has been translated into twenty languages.

Will and Testament
Longlisted for The Millions Best Translated Book Awards for FictionLonglisted for the National Book Award for Translated LiteratureFour siblings. Two summer houses. One terrible secret. When a disp...