The home where Arlette Johnsen lived did not look like a stereotypical institution. It was a red and white wooden house surrounded by a lush green garden with benches and tables and tidy flower beds. I was excited as I walked up the path to the house
As I entered, I was reminded of an English country house. There was no proper reception area, so I entered into something I assumed was a common room of sorts. There were two sofas and a few chairs along the walls, and a flat TV screen on one of the other. The sound was mute, but judging from the pictures, it was showing a news report. Two old men sat in two of the armchairs. One was watching the TV intently, and one was reading a newspaper. I wasn’t sure how to get a nurse’s attention, so I stood there for a while hesitating before the man reading the newspaper looked up and saw me.
“Who are you here to see?”
He asked, funnily enough in American accented English.
“I’m here to meet my grandma,” I replied. “But it’s my first time, so I don’t know my way around here.”
“See that door over there mam? You go knock on that and someone should be able to help you.”
He pointed towards the wall to my left and for the first time I saw that it was in fact a door. The paneling had blended so perfectly with the wall that I hadn’t seen it, but now it was obvious as I spotted a door handle.
“Thank you sir,” I said.
“No bother. My name’s Captain Henry, but they all call me Hank.”
“Nice to make your acquaintance”, I replied and felt as if I was having one of these types of conversations you read in English literature from the colonial era, where page upon page is filled with platitudes.
I knocked on the door. And it was almost immediately opened by a plump woman in her fifties with a round friendly face and laughter lines around the eyes.
“You must be Sandra,” she said when she saw me. “I am Astrid, whom you spoke to yesterday.”
She held out a hand and I shook it.
“Arlette has been dying to see you since yesterday afternoon.”
“Mam, One more brandy and soda over here please”
It was Hank.
“Nina will be along with your medicines shortly Henry,” Astrid replied in Norwegian.
“A brandy calms the nerves of a captain,” He half said, half sang to himself.
“Don’t mind him,” Astrid said. “He served as a captain in the marine during most of his life and he’s got dementia. But a mild form of it. Still though, he thinks he’s bossing his crew around.” She laughed. “Although he’s very sweet our old captain.”
She led the way out another door and down a corridor. There were pictures on the walls. Some were of people, I assumed of people who lived there. Some were taken recently and showed them old, and smiling. Others were older. One was even a poster taken out of an old version of Vogue. Other pictures were scenery pictures. It looked cozy, like a home home. Not an institution home.
“This place is lovely,” I remarked.
“It’s privately owned. We don’t have many residents here, we like to call them that instead of patients, but the ones we have, we have a very good relationship with and we want them to feel that this is an actual home.”
She stopped outside a door with a wooden sign saying “Here lives Arlette,” and knocked before she opened.
Arlette Johnsen could only be described as a magnificent woman. She was wearing a cream coloured dress that was matching the arm chair she was sitting in. Her hair was long and white and looked like it had been freshly curled into neat ringlets. She was even wearing mascara and red lipstick and nail polish. She got up and I noticed she gripped the armrests very tightly as she straightened up into a standing position.
“Is that you Sandra?” she asked, walking slowly towards me. Her smile reached her sea green eyes which were looking directly at me.” ”Hi,” I said walking towards her to meet her half way. “I am Sandra.”
We stopped right in front of each other and she held out her hands. “I’m afraid I’m blind. So you need to come closer so I can have a proper look at you.”
I walked a couple of steps and took her hand. She released it and traced up my arm and shoulder to the side of my face. She cupped it gently as she touched my forehead, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. I closed my eyes, enjoying her cool hands on my face. She touched my throat and traced backwards towards my neck. She paused at the birth mark. I usually hated being touched there. But for some reason, I didn’t mind now. She touched my hair before putting her arms around me in a hug.
“How pretty you are,” she said. “You resemble me when I was around your age. The high cheekbones and forehad. And your nose.”
Astrid, who was still by the door, cleared her throat. “I suppose you two would like some privacy, but shall I get some tea and cakes?”
“Oh yes please,” Arlette said. “Green tea for me please.”
“For me too,” I said.
“Come and sit down,” Arlette said and walked stiffly back towards her armchair. I noticed the room properly for the first time and it was lovely. There was another armchair opposite hers and a walnut coloured coffee table between them. Along one wall was a bed, a wardrobe and a chest of drawers on which stood a digital radio. Along the other walls was a small book case with books that looked like they were in Braille. There was even an en suite bathroom
“I like your room,” I said admiringly and seated myself in the empty chair.
“Me too.” I have lived here for five years now and I don’t regret it for a day.”
“Where did you live before?”
“I lived in a nice top floor apartment in the city centre of Kristiansand. But I had an accident five years ago and my knees have never been quite the same since. I need a wheelchair if I’m going out of this room. And being blind and using a wheelchair, well it was just not practical to live alone any longer. So I found this pearl of a place owned by a woman whose diseased wealthy mum requested in her will this was made a private home for the elderly.”
“And did you become blind in the accident too?” I asked.
Arlette threw her head back and laughed.
“No!” I was born blind. Nothing they could do. But I’ve done alright. I used to be a model in my young days. You saw that Vogue poster outside?”
I nodded. “That was you?”
“Yes, it was. But let me start from the beginning.”
“I was born in Homborsund in 1932. I had a happy childhood. My mother expected me to chip in at home just like my two sisters and I was a daddy’s girl. Always went out fishing with him. He was the local fisherman when I was seven, I was sent away to a school for the blind and I only saw my family during the holidays. The teachers at that school didn’t know what to do about me. I wasn’t good with my hands and I am completely tone deaf. So for me to become a basket weaver or a piano tuner was out of the question. Thank God.
Then, one day when I went on holiday to Oslo with my sister Karen to visit a friend of ours who had married there, I was spotted by a photographer at a cocktail party. He was the friend of our friend’s husband and he wasn’t put off by my blindness at all. I was seventeen then and had been out of school for a while. I had taken a typist course, but there weren’t any jobs going at the time, so I was bored at home. I ceased the opportunity and very soon I was living a glamorous life in the capital. The work was hard, but the money was good and everything else that came with it. I traveled a great deal too. I saw London, Paris, Rome and Berlin. But I imagine all those cities are very different nowadays.
I met Sven in 1951 when I was back in Homborsund for my eldest sister Amalie’s wedding. Sven was so attentive, witty and charming. Nothing like the boyfriend I’d just broken up with back in Oslo who was dull and wanted me to leave modelling so I could marry him and be a stay at home wife. . Sven was a Taylor and I met him because he was the one who made the bridesmaid dress I wore at the wedding. We fell in love and started an affair. We didn’t see each other as often as we wanted to, but it was all the more passionate when we did manage to steal some time. I knew Gerda, his wife, but not well, because she was quite a bit older than me. She didn’t suspect anything for the first two years. And she’d never suspect her husband to have an affair with me. I was after all, the blind girl who probably could do no wrong. But then I fell pregnant and it put a stop to everything. I tried to hide it for as long as I could. But when I started showing, I realized I had no choice, but to move back home to Homborsund until the birth.
My parents were not happy about the pregnancy at all and refused to take me in so I moved in with my sister Amalie who lived in Grimstad. I told her everything including who was the father. She was horrified but promised not to say anything. She was meant to adopt my child when it was born so that I could continue my career. And when I’d given birth, I left for Oslo. But, the people I’d worked for before didn’t want me back.
Not able to find new work, I moved back to Grimstad where I raised my son. There was a lot of talk. Even if Amalie didn’t say anything, it somehow came out anyway. And then, mid-summer of the year after Frank was born; Sven disappeared only a few days before he was packing up to leave Gerda for good and come stay with us. I came forward during the police investigations and admitted that we’d had an affair. Karen, who was left in Homborsund, told me that Gerda had been mad when she found out about frank. She even made Karen forward a letter to me which begged me to let her adopt him. She had had miscarriage after miscarriage and so believed she couldn’t have children. she later had a son who died as an infant. I refused to give up my son of course. Why should I? She had no rights to him whatsoever. Gerda kept sending me threatening letters. That she’d come and get him. That he should be rightfully hers since her husband was the father.”
“I finally had enough when Gerda one day showed up at my door and tried to take Frank with her. Frank was only two then and didn’t understand what was happening. He cried and clung to me for dear life. In the end, a neighbour got tired of the noise and rang the police. I had to move, or I was scared of what would happen to Frank. So I started applying for jobs in Kristiansand and got a typist job for a small solicitor’s firm. I changed my surname to my mother’s maiden name. Frank had his father’s name. I couldn’t bear to change it. But Gerda no longer bothered us. I guess she’d remarried by then and I know she adopted a boy after her own child died.” ”
“Frank grew up, did well in school and got a job at Grimstad daily news when he finished his journalism exam. I begged him not to go. To look for jobs in Kristiansand which is a larger town, but he wanted the job and so he went. And he did well. He stayed on for years, met your mother and they married. I was horrified to find out that your mother was from Homborsund, but what could I do? Only hope that Gerda wouldn’t bother me again.
One day, Frank was looking for something in the archives when he came across the obituary of his father. He knew who his father was. But apart from a few questions, he’d never really been that interested. But the article sparked curiosity in him since it mentioned that this was the third mid-summer disappearance in Homborsund. So he started playing detective. On the day he disappeared, he called me to let me know he thought he’d know who’d committed two of the three murders. He also mentioned something about baby Sven not having died of a heart failure, but that he’d tell me more when he saw me as the phone was not a safe medium to share such information. He was on his way to mine when he disappeared. And I haven’t seen him since.
A single tear ran down Arlette’s cheek as she uttered those last words.
“Do you miss him?” I asked.
“Terribly. You get used to living without someone. And I’m able to have good and bad days now. But I’ve never managed to be truly happy after Frank disappeared. It’s been lonely you know. Sure I had friends, even lovers, but I didn’t want to tell any of them about the past.And I cut ties with most people in Homborsund except my sister Karen who never married, nor had children. You have know idea how happy I am to have you in my life. And I can’t wait to get to know you better.”
On the way home later that day I was so deep in thought that I nearly missed my bus stop. Astrid had come in with tea and cupcakes after Arlette had told her story and we had enjoyed it in comfortable silence. There was so much more I wanted to ask my newly found grandma. –But she looked tired and I decided to let her rest.
“Promise to come back soon,” she’d said when I got up to leave.
“I’ll come back this Sunday and I’ll bring Emma too.” I promised. I was already looking forward to it. In the meantime, I had to arrange another meeting with Merete. She’d love to hear what I’d just found out today about my father and brother.