Irene Beckman appears to have a perfect life: two grown children, a house in a prosperous suburb of Copenhagen, and a successful career as a family lawyer. She is cool, sophisticated, and still exotically good-looking, the dyed hair her only concession to time.
Then her husband announces that he's leaving her, and her mother reveals some unexpected information about Irene's father. Suddenly, Irene Beckman is neither wife nor daughter. Nor, she realizes, is it at all clear who she has been all these years. It is time to find out.
From the internationally acclaimed author of Silence in October, An Altered Light is another fascinating exploration of the nature of chance and relationships-between parents and children, husbands and wives, friends and strangers.
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JENS CHRISTIAN GRØNDAHL has written plays, essays, and twelve novels, and his work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. He lives in Copenhagen.
From Tomorrow to Yesterday
The tree trunks move in time with the rhythm of her rubber soles on the wet path, where the air is still cool after the night rain. The woodland floor is white with anemones; in one place, growing close to the roots of an ancient tree, they make her think of an old, wrinkled hand. She could go on and on without getting tired, without meeting anyone or thinking of anything in particular, and without coming to the edge of the woods. As if the town did not begin just behind the trees, the leafy suburb with its peaceful roads and its houses hidden behind close-trimmed hedges. She doesn't want to think about anything, and almost succeeds; her body is no more than a porous, pulsating machine. The sun breaks through the clouds as she runs back, its light diffused on the gravel drive and the magnolia in front of the kitchen window. His car is no longer parked beside hers, he must have left while she was in the woods.
He hadn't stirred when she rose, and she'd already been in bed when he came home late last night. She lay with her back turned, eyes closed, as he undressed, taking care not to wake her. She leans against one of the pillars of the garage and stretches, before emptying the mailbox and letting herself into the house. She puts the mail on the kitchen table. The little light on the coffeemaker is on; she switches it off. Not so long ago, she would have felt a stab of irritation or a touch of tenderness, depending on her mood. He always forgets to turn off that machine. She puts the kettle on, sprinkles tea leaves into the pot, and goes over to the kitchen window. She observes the magnolia blossoms, already starting to open. They'll have to talk about it, of course, but neither of them seems able to find the right words, the right moment.
She pauses on her way through the sitting room. She stands amid her furniture looking out over the lawn and the pond at the end of the garden. The canopies of the trees are dimly reflected in the shining water. She goes into the bathroom. The shower door is still spotted with little drops. As time went on they have come to make contact during the day only briefly, like passing strangers. But that's the way it has been since the children left home, nothing unusual in that. She takes off her clothes and stands in front of the mirror where a little while ago he stood shaving. She greets her reflection with a wry smile. She has never been able to view herself in a mirror without this moue, as if demonstrating a certain guardedness about what she sees. The dark green eyes and wavy black hair, the angularity of her features. She dyes her hair exactly the color it would have been if she hadn't begun to go gray in her thirties, but that's her only protest against age.
Irene Beckman is fifty-six. She is taller than most women of her generation, slim, almost thin. Her dark hair is usually gathered in a ponytail; it bounces after her when she runs, so that at a distance she looks like a young woman. People found her exotic when she was young and beautiful. For decades, Martin had gazed almost devoutly at her unusual features. A gaze that created distance, even when it burned to the touch. Male admiration has always seemed like a subtle form of isolation. The closer they came, the stranger she felt. His stubble is stuck to the inside of the sink; she rinses it away and considers her body. She is satisfied on the whole: women's bodies don't come much better at her age. She turns on the shower, sets it to hot, and steps under the jet. The sharp lines of the cabinet dissolve behind the water running down the glass door.
The thought that everything should remain the same gradually feels as unreal as the thought of a change. What was unimaginable has become real, but she's unable to visualize it. Perhaps it is banality that impedes her mind's eye. The all too common situation is almost more humiliating than the physical or emotional or, for that matter, moral circumstances. All she knows is that there is something in Martin's life called Susanne. She's barely thirty, you can hear that from her voice-and Irene has heard her voice. They didn't sound like two people who'd just met. They sounded as if they already had their shared habits and their own intimate language. She's thought a lot about his carelessness. He has always taken great care except in this one instance.
It was a month or two ago. He must have arrived home just as the telephone rang, and in his haste neglected to switch off the answering machine. They arranged to meet. Presumably, he was with her when Irene came home and played back the day's messages. She erased the tape after she'd listened to their voices a few times, and she did it as if cleaning up after him. She said nothing when he came back late in the evening-newly washed, she thought-as he lay down beside her and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
She has lived through half her life with him, and she has lost touch with the half he was absent from. She's not normally one to look back. She can't imagine life without him. He is her friend, her life's companion. They are as intimate as you would expect to be with someone you have been so close to, but she doesn't know what she will say when the time comes. Sometimes she asks herself why he has said nothing. Their routine is more or less the same, they go out to dinner on Friday or Saturday, and once or twice he's made the effort to seduce her when they came home. It never seemed like a diversionary maneuver, but it left her with a feeling of surprise and wonder. He'd gotten quite carried away and had taken her with him, and that confused and disturbed her.
She puts on her bathrobe, dries her hair, and bends toward the mirror to make up her face-not much, just a little on the eyelashes and lips, but she does it defiantly. It has nothing to do with her age, but it does have something to do with her generation. She had thrown off her bra only hesitantly and had never gone in for flowing Indian dresses, but she can still remember the nightgown she wore for years, sensible cotton in black-and-white stripes. It must have looked like a prison uniform, as if she'd just escaped; unless it had been marriage that was the prison. Was it? To be deprived of freedom was the worst thing you could suffer, but had Martin deprived her of her freedom? Had she restricted his?
It never occurred to her to question it, but she felt a latent reproach from her women friends-because she found it hard to find anything to rebel against. She had never been able to believe in a new society, though she never believed in the existing one. Was it even a question of belief? Maybe it was because she chose to study law that she came to have such a cool view of the world, unless she'd taken up the law because she was inclined to be skeptical anyway: to see the truth without being ruled by her desires. Early on, that was one of the demands she made of herself, and it still is, more than ever. She didn't mind being overpowered by imagination; it was the tyranny of that power that made her skeptical. She shrank away from the gentle coercion of the new sensibility. Letting yourself go had become a matter of form, and she almost choked with coughing when a bong was passed around-until she plucked up the courage to admit that she felt absolutely no urge to throw off inhibitions.
She opens the closet and looks at Martin's jackets and shirts and her own dresses and blouses. His clothes make her think of Susanne. She pictures Martin in a strange apartment as he takes off his jacket and tie, pale blue shirt, and well-pressed trousers. Will he place them together tidily over the back of a chair? She's sure he'll remember to take off his socks, she taught him that many years ago, but she can't know whether the young woman finds him a touch comical in his sober business suit. Irene cannot visualize her, only the scene of his infidelity-a two-bedroom apartment with IKEA furniture and Matisse posters-and at a pinch her firm young body. It surprises Irene that this conjured-up picture has so little power over her, that it goes no deeper. She feels like a spectator, but the place from which she sees them is the place where her jealousy and pain and rejected female pride should have eaten into her and stung.
The phone rings. She hesitates a moment before sitting down on the edge of the bed and reaching for it. She is sure she'll recognize the voice. Susanne's girlish voice and slightly affected diction. She is annoyed because she picks up the receiver before she has cleared her throat in order to say hello. It's Josephine. Their daughter sounds as if she's standing by a waterfall. As usual, she is incoherent and talks too fast. She is calling from the airport in Frankfurt. Josephine is a stewardess, and Irene is used to being called from every corner of the world. Josephine asks if she can bring a friend home this evening. Of course she can. Irene can't help smiling. She asks if it's anyone she knows. She can hear Josephine is smiling, too, in Frankfurt. Not yet.
They chat for a while before hanging up. Irene stays on the bed drawing patterns with her big toe on the carpet. She's stopped counting the young men Josephine has presented her with. Josephine's way with men reminds her of her way with big cities, and her mother is worried but tries to suppress her motherliness. She gets up and decides on a coffee-brown suit with a tailored jacket and wide trousers.
Copyright © Jens Christian Grøndahl 2003
English translation copyright © Anne Born 2004
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