- Published: 15 October 2018
- ISBN: 9781784703394
- Imprint: Vintage
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 416
- RRP: $26.00
After the Fire
The Ocean of Emptiness
My house burned down on an autumn night almost a year ago. It was a Sunday. The wind had got up during the afternoon and by the evening the anemometer indicated that the gusts measured over twenty metres per second.
The wind was coming from the north and was very chilly in spite of the fact that it was still early autumn. When I went to bed at around half past ten I thought that this would be the first storm of the season, moving in across the island I had inherited from my maternal grandparents.
Soon it would be winter. One night the sea would slowly begin to ice over.
That was the first night I wore socks to bed. The cold was tightening its grip.
The previous month, with some difficulty, I had managed to fix the roof. It was a big job for a small workman. Many of the slates were old and cracked. My hands, which had once held a scalpel during complex surgical procedures, were not made for manipulating broken tiles.
Ture Jansson, who had spent his entire working life as the postman out here in the islands before he retired, agreed to fetch the new slates from the harbour although he refused to accept any payment. As I have set up an improvised surgery in my boathouse in order to deal with all his imaginary medical complaints, perhaps he thought he ought to return the favour.
For years now I have stood there on the jetty by the boathouse examining his allegedly painful arms and back. I have brought out the stethoscope which hangs beside a decoy duck and established that his heart and lungs sound absolutely fine. In every single examination I have found Jansson to be in the best of health. His fear of these imaginary ailments has been so extreme that I have never seen anything like it in all my years as a doctor. He was simultaneously the postman and a full-time hypochondriac.
On one occasion he insisted he had toothache, at which point I refused to have anything to do with his problem. I don’t know whether he went to see a dentist on the mainland or not. I wonder if he’s ever had a single cavity. Perhaps he was in the habit of grinding his teeth while he was asleep, and that’s what caused the pain?
On the night of the fire I had taken a sleeping tablet as usual and dropped off almost immediately.
I was woken by a light being switched on. When I opened my eyes, I was surrounded by a dazzling brightness. Beneath the ceiling of my bedroom I could see a band of grey smoke. I must have pushed off my socks in my sleep when the room got hot. I leaped out of bed, ran down the stairs and into the kitchen through that harsh, searing light. The clock on the wall was showing nineteen minutes past midnight. I grabbed my black raincoat from the hook by the back door, pulled on my wellington boots, one of which was almost impossible to get my foot into, and rushed outside.
The house was already in flames, the fire roaring. I had to go down to the jetty and the boathouse before the heat became unbearable. During those first few minutes I didn’t even think about what had caused this disastrous conflagration; I just watched as the impossible unfolded before my eyes. My heart was pounding so hard I thought it would be smashed to pieces inside my chest. The fire was ravaging me in equal measure.
Time melted away in the heat. Boats began to arrive from the other islands and skerries, the residents rudely woken from their sleep, but afterwards I was unable to say how long it took or who was there. My gaze was fixed on the flames, the sparks whirling up into the night sky. For one terrifying moment I thought I saw the elderly figures of my grandmother and my grandfather standing on the far side of the fire.
There are not many of us out here on the islands in the autumn, when the summer visitors disappear and the last of the yachts return to their home harbours, wherever those might be. But someone had seen the glow of the fire in the darkness, the message had been passed along, and everyone wanted to help. The coastguard’s firefighting equipment was used to pump up seawater and spray it on the burning building, but it was too late. All it changed was the smell. Charred oak timbers and wall panels, burned wallpaper and linoleum flooring combined with salt water to give off an unforgettable stench. When dawn broke all that remained was a smoking, stinking ruin. The wind had dropped – the storm had already moved on, heading towards the Gulf of Finland – but it had fulfilled its spiteful task, working together with the blaze, and now there was nothing left of my grandparents’ pretty house.
That was when I first thought to ask myself: how had the fire broken out? I hadn’t lit any candles or left any of the old paraffin lamps burning. I hadn’t had a cigarette or used the wood-burning stove. The electrical wiring throughout the house had been renewed just a few years ago.
It was as if the house had set fire to itself.
As if a house could commit suicide as a result of weariness, old age and sorrow.
I realised I had been mistaken about a key aspect of my life. After performing an operation that went disastrously wrong and led to a young woman losing her arm, I moved out here many years ago. Back then I often thought that the house in which I was living had been here on the day when I was born, and that it would still be here on the day when I no longer existed.
But I was mistaken. The oak trees, the birches, the alders and the single ash tree would remain here after I was gone, but of my beautiful home in the archipelago only the foundations, hauled to the island across the ice from the long-defunct quarry at Håkansborg, would remain.
My train of thought was interrupted as Jansson appeared beside me. He was bare-headed, wearing very old dark blue overalls and a pair of motorcycle gloves that I recognised from the winters when the ice had not been thick enough to drive across, and he had used his hydrocopter to deliver the post.
He was staring at my old green wellingtons. When I looked down I realised I had pulled on two left boots in my haste. Now I understood why it had been so difficult to put one of them on.
‘I’ll bring you a boot,’ Jansson said. ‘I’ve got a few pairs back at home.’
‘There might be a spare pair down in the boathouse,’ I suggested.
‘No. I’ve been to look. There are some leather shoes and some old crampons people used to fix onto their boots when they went out on the ice clubbing seals.’
The fact that Jansson had already been rooting around in my boathouse shouldn’t have surprised me, even if on this occasion he had done it out of consideration. I already knew that he was in the habit of going in there. Jansson was a snooper. From an early stage I had been convinced that he read every postcard that passed through his hands when the summer visitors bought their stamps down by the jetties.
He looked at me with tired eyes. It had been a long night.
‘Where will you live? What are you going to do now?’
I didn’t reply because I didn’t have an answer.
I shuffled closer to the smoking ruin. The boot on my right foot was chafing. This is what I own now, I thought. Two wellingtons that aren’t even a pair. Everything else is gone. I don’t even have any clothes.
At that moment, as I grasped the full extent of the disaster that had befallen me, it was as if a howl swept through my body. But I heard nothing. Everything that happened within me was soundless.
Jansson appeared beside me once more. He has a curious way of moving, as if he has paws instead of feet. He comes from nowhere and suddenly materialises. He seems to know how to stay out of another person’s field of vision all the time.
Why hadn’t his wretched house on Stångskär burned down instead?
Jansson gave a start as if he had picked up on my embittered thought, but then I realised I had pulled a face, and he thought it was because he had come too close.
‘You can come and stay with me, of course,’ he offered when he had recovered his equilibrium.
Then I noticed my daughter Louise’s caravan, which was behind Jansson in a grove of alders alongside a tall oak tree that had not yet lost all its leaves. The caravan was still partly concealed by its low branches.
‘I’ve got the caravan,’ I said. ‘I can live there for the time being.’
Jansson looked surprised but didn’t say anything.
All the people who had turned up during the night were starting to head back to their boats, but before they left they came over to say they were happy to help with whatever I needed.
During the course of a few hours my life had changed so completely that I actually needed everything.
I didn’t even have a matching pair of wellingtons.
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