Crisp white snow, a dark starry sky, – listen to the church bells toll at 5pm on Christmas Eve!
It is the start of the Christmas celebrations in the frozen Norwegian capital of Oslo.
Excerpt from Otti’s Escape:
Up on the hill in the suburbs Otti’s father threw the door wide open and let Otti and her family in. They brought with them gusts of cold wind and snow on their boots. The hallway smelt of roasted pork and sauerkraut. It was good to get inside, out of the frosty dark.
Liv opened the door from the kitchen. She had on a red and green apron printed with Christmas-motifs, and her hair was newly set. It shone bluish-black as usual, but was nowadays sprinkled with strands paleing into ivory, mirroring her pearl necklace nesting so amicably in the hollow of her neck. There were hugs and handshakes for everyone as they were led into the warm lounge. Otti looked at her mother in surprise. She looked immaculate as usual, but she had not noticed before how old she had become. She took her mother’s hand and put her cold windblown cheek to hers in a hug. It seemed Liv had somehow shrunk since she had last seen her.
The table was set for dinner, and as dark had fallen soon after 3 o’clock, at 5:45 it already felt late in the evening. Her mother smiled: “It will be ready in 15 minutes.”
“Come on in,” her father urged. He waved them through to the lounge. There were Ellen and Bjorn with Tommas and Helene. “A glass of Sherry?” Father offered.
At the dinner table, August stood up and read the Gospel according to Luke: “Now, it happened in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” They all listened politely while the story of Jesus’ birth was told. Then it was Liv’s turn to have her snaps: The glass went bottoms up, and around the table they all cheered, as Liv shuddered at the impact of the pure, strong Aquavita. She sat down again and started passing around the dishes.
Otti handed the roast to Ester, while August enlisted Bjorn’s help in filling up glasses with beer and Aquavita all round. Then soft drinks for the children. He finally switched off the ceiling lights and sat down. They were all gathered around the table in the half-lit room, candles burning in nooks and crannies, the star-sprinkled Christmas tree brightly lighting the alcove to the garden. In the background, August’s favourite Christmas carols were playing softly on the gramophone. They could all finally relax and tuck into their heartening warm meal, absorb the comfort of their ritual eating.
Otti tried to shake off the upheavals of the last few days. You knew exactly where you were with family. It freed the mind. At home they were all in their rightful places; they knew who they were, and what to say, what you could and couldn’t do, right and wrong. It was how it had always been. Still, it seemed to Otti that everything had changed and they were all different people to whom they had been just yesterday. She had not fully known herself. She had not seen her own actions clearly. How could she be sure of what other’s had seen? It seemed now as if she would have to get to know them all again.
For a while they all fell quiet, the only sound around the table was the ringing of cutlery against china. Liv offered the pork and crackling around a second time, and then sausages, sauerkraut, gravy, potatoes. They all filled their plates up. There was an empty chair opposite Otti; Liv had quickly taken away Bernard’s place setting on her request, but Otti had not felt like giving an explanation.
Just as Liv and Ellen brought in the rice pudding and crème caramel they all started as the phone rang. Liv put the raspberry sauce down on the table and picket the receiver up. “Oh, Monika!” All heads turned staring at Liv’s face. They were trying to read her expression of jumbled relief and dismay. Relief surely meant Monika was OK, and dismay: Nobody expected Liv to approve of the behaviour of her runaway granddaughter.