The Frieze of Life
by M.S. Pallister
There was nothing unusual about the Tibbetts, except they were holidaying in Oslo in February and the boy had purple eyes.
Seven in the morning, I came down to the reception with a duvet wrapped over my pyjamas. The heating in my room had stopped working, again.
'What's the nature of your complaint?' asked the receptionist.
'You're joking, right? I was down here three times yesterday.'
She stared at me, unflinching.
'The nature of my complaint is that my fingers are too bloody numb to type a text to my ex-girlfriend.'
She shot me a look.
'I mean girlfriend,' I mumbled.
As she typed with her probe-like index fingers, I became aware of a whirring sound and realised that we both had been speaking at least half-an-octave higher.
'D'you hear that?'
'What?' she said, bending down under the table. Click! The whirring stopped.
'What've you got there? Is that a heater?'
'Look, it's really cold. I can do with a heater in my room.'
'Not a heater.'
I leaned over the desk to check, duvet and all, when the Tibbetts walked in. They stood by the entrance, keeping the automatic doors open, letting in the pupils-freezing, teeth-chattering, snot-inducing North wind. With a belt of fat around the belly the parents were all right, but I was surprised the kids hadn't turned into icicles they were so thin.
'Jesus Christ,' I said. 'Step away from the door.'
With a glance over his shoulder, as though he was being chased by a beast, Mr Tibbetts rushed forward with his wife hurrying after him. He looked me up and down, then shuffled in between the duvet and the reception desk.
'Tibbetts,' he said, producing the familiar maroon-coloured British passport.
I stepped back to see the daughter wrinkling her nose, as she scanned the damp ceiling and mouldy corners of Comfort Hotel. The only thing comforting about the hotel was that it was cheap without being a complete shithole. With an impatient click of her tongue the girl moved aside to reveal her brother under a woolly hat, his face wrapped in a scarf. Hands and knees on the floor, he was pushing something small along the tattered carpet; a deep rumbling noise came from behind his scarf. He couldn't have been more than eight or nine. When he neared me I tapped my foot. He looked up and fixed me with his purple gaze. I had never seen brighter or more expressive eyes and found myself staring. To hide my embarrassment I stuck out my tongue. He did the same. I smiled and looked away, only to find that I hadn't. I tried again to turn my head but my eyes stayed focused on his. And so we remained until the boy broke his gaze when the receptionist said, 'You're in room 207.'
The Tibbetts were my neighbours in the Land of the Disappearing Sun.
With freezing fingers I sent her a text, took a shower and went down to the breakfast room: a small square hall with a buffet table on one end and the rest of it tightly packed with plastic furniture, like greasy-spoon cafés. It was all white — walls, floor, tables, chairs, salt and pepper shakers, plates, paper napkins, everything except the buffet table which was a very dark shade of blue, like an accidental brush stroke on a blank canvas. A set of four burners ran along the middle of the table, keeping warm stainless-steel dishes filled with scrambled egg, gravadlax, herring and sausages. Ignoring this gourmet, and very salty, selection, I served myself a bowl of Rice Krispies and walked to my usual spot under the dull painting of a gaunt, middle-aged man in an empty restaurant with a bottle of wine. And who do I find there? The Tibbetts minus their woollens. Mrs Tibbetts in a long, red velvet skirt sat in stark contrast with her husband's yellow shirt. Slouched next to them was their teenage daughter in leggings and a long shirt, topped with a snowflake-patterned hat. She swung its woolly braids while tapping on an iPod. Where was the boy?
I took the table next to them and smiled at Mrs Tibbetts. Her already bent, C-like posture deepened further. Her small eyes darted to her husband before settling back on her plate.
'Good morning,' I said loudly.
Mr Tibbetts looked up; cutlery still in hand, he rubbed his parrot nose, which he had generously bestowed on the girl, who, if not for this feature, would have been stunning.
'Good morning,' I repeated.
He gave me a curt nod and continued to attack his pickled fish with vigour. With an enthusiasm to match, the girl carried on jabbing at her iPod. I shrugged and went back to the pop and crackle of my Rice Krispies. Just then, something red and black appeared at the end of the table. I pushed back my chair. As I sat there figuring out whether it was a beetle or a cockroach, whether to flick it off or storm to the reception and ask for a price reduction, it turned into a red Hotwheels Ferrari held by very pale, almost ghostly, fingers. The fingers brought up the hand and the hand finally the boy. His head, covered with tiny, white hairs, floated above his black t-shirt which was two sizes too big; a whole boiled egg stuck in his mouth. His face the shape and colour of the egg. An albino.
He raised his golden eyebrows. I winked. Not taking his eyes off me, he bit the egg in half, catching the other half as it fell before disappearing back under the table.
Mr Tibbetts made three more visits to the buffet table. He was doing what everyone who had read the guidebooks did; including me, except I ate bowl after bowl of Rice Krispies until I was certain I could hear them popping in my stomach. That's the top tip: have a big breakfast and live on snacks for the rest of the day. Because food, along with everything else in Oslo, is super expensive. It costs an arm for a pizza and a leg for a pint of beer, as I found out the night before.
Enter the trolls: tall, burly men and women in blue overalls and heavy boots. They trickled in, in twos and threes, squeezing us — the girls from Hong Kong, the old Danish couple, the father-and-son duo from Fiji, the backpacker whose nationality I had yet to determine, the Tibbetts, and myself — to one end of the hall, while they took over the rest. They worked on the toll bridge behind the hotel and came in for breakfast; each carrying a patch on the sleeve which said “toll”. I called them trolls. It was funny in my head.
Noisy and loud, they liked to put on a show: sparring for tables, blowing kisses, slapping their thighs as they guffawed, pulling chairs from under each other, drinking kefir straight from the carton, balancing piles of food on a single plate. Between each exaggerated action they glanced at us, slightly menacingly. But I felt it was also an invitation to watch them, that they did it all for our benefit. So, although I found them a bit intimidating, I enjoyed their theatrics as did most of the other guests. Mr Tibbetts was the only one who did not pay the trolls any attention, finely cutting his sausages and balancing scrambled egg on them.
One of the trolls, nicknamed Handsome-broad-jaw by me for obvious reasons, walked to the buffet table with his usual swagger, a lock of blonde hair bouncing on his forehead. On the way, he smiled at the Tibbetts girl and produced magic, transforming her from a slouching teenager to a young woman in a few seconds. Sitting up straight, she pushed her shoulders back and crossed her legs, while blushing and smiling back. Flicking back his cowlick, Handsome-broad-jaw took a plastic bag from a pile in the corner of the buffet table, as I had seen him do for the last couple of days, and packed about a dozen boiled eggs. His mates followed suit; some of them stacking up sandwiches, one slice on top of another layered with Brunost.
Now Mr Tibbetts took his attention off his plate. One by one the trolls left with their lunch bags, and his eyes followed each departing parcel.
Finally, I received an e-mail from my ex to say she'd meet me for lunch near her work. I suppose that way she had a ready excuse to not stay for long, but I couldn't complain. I had a few hours to kill and to prepare what to say to her. I'm too scared to live without you wouldn't have cut it.
I decided to take the Lonely Planet-suggested route. At the Royal Palace, which could pass for a mediocre stately home, I thought of going all out with Will you marry me? But she would have just laughed it off. At the Parliament building, which could easily fit inside the canteen of Westminster Palace, I tried Come back home. But the thought of home with its creaking floor boards and damp Rorschach patches on the ceiling quickly drove that idea away. By the time I reached the Opera House, which looked like it was supported by stilts and could fall down any minute, my fingers inside my ski-gloves were numb and my face felt as though it had been glazed with starch. Why the hell do you want to live in this godforsaken place? was the only thought left in my head. But that was exactly the attitude she resented. Having no choice, I settled on Let's give it another try.
I saw her before she saw me. In a red beret and a long mauve coat she looked as glamorous as ever; her stride relaxed and confident, unlike in London where she practically tiptoed.
'I miss Oslo,' she had said six months ago, as we lay on my bed, naked, after a particularly lukewarm performance.
'Pining for the fjords?' I said in my best John Cleese voice.
'Stop it. You know I hate that.' She turned onto her side, her back to me with that lovely dip at her waist. 'I don't like London. It's too gloomy.'
'London isn't gloomy. The weather in London is.'
'It's the same thing.'
It wasn't, but I didn't want to argue; not in my flaccid state.
'I'm going back,' she announced.
That was a shock. 'Surely, you love me more than you hate London?' Not the best argument considering we had only been together for eighteen months.
She turned around to face me. 'I love Oslo more than I love you.' After that she was gone.
I wasn't exactly sure where she appeared on the list of my top hundred cities, but I had gotten used to her. So I came to Oslo to convince her that she did really love me more.
But now, with every self-assured step she took towards me, I feared I may have lost her to the fjords.
'What would you like?' She kissed me lightly on the cheek. Her perfume brought back memories of lie-ins, spoonings and re-reruns of The Sopranos.
'Anything.' I would have offered, but I was on a tight budget, and she worked for a trading firm.
We sat down at a table by the window. Two hot chocolates with whipped cream, my tuna sandwich and her salad separated us.
'It's fuckin' freezing.'
She smiled. 'How're you?'
'Ok, I suppose. I miss you.' Needy, I checked myself.
'How's your deal going?'
'Fine. It's going well.' I had lied to her about being in Oslo for work. I didn't want to look pathetic: coming all this way just to beg her to come back.
I asked about her work and family, tried to find out subtly (I hoped) if she had a boyfriend. We — mainly I — talked about the good times we had in London, but pretty soon we ran out of conversation. I looked out of the window for inspiration and spotted the Tibbetts huddled in front of a hot-dog stand. Each held a hot dog, except the girl who stood leaning on one leg, arms crossed across her chest, turned away from her family. I smiled.
'You enjoying Oslo?' she asked.
'Uh-huh. It’s clean, cold and expensive.'
'Missing cheap and cheerful London, are we?' she smirked.
Actually, I was; especially my cozy bed. Then I remembered her warm body next to mine in that tiny bed. 'I miss you.'
Her look had enough pity to make a dog feel ashamed. The ruse, a bad one, was broken.
She downed her hot chocolate and stood up. 'I better get back to work. It was nice seeing you.' She put on her beret and gloves.
'I'm here for a couple more days. Maybe we could meet up for dinner tomorrow?' Let's give it another try. You idiot!
'I don't know,' she said, buttoning up her coat. 'I might be busy.'
'Lunch, maybe? I'll buy.'
'I'll text you,' she said, and with another soft kiss on the cheek she was gone.
I ate the cherry tomatoes she had left and watched her take long, confident strides away from me. She glided past the Tibbetts who were busy with their hot dogs. I was still hungry, so I decided to join them. Stepping outside the café, I waved. Only the boy waved back. But by the time I crossed the road they had left.
That night, she flitted in and out of my dreams, waking me up with passionate kisses or angry punches. I woke up late, feeling groggy. Stretching over to the side table, I checked my phone and resisted the urge to call her. Only a quarter of an hour remained before the end of breakfast; putting on a coat over my pyjamas, I rushed downstairs.
At the door to the dining hall I ran into the Tibbetts. Mr Tibbetts, crouched low, jerked his head from side to side, like a squirrel. His wife was close behind. She kept looking back towards the hall where the trolls were packing their lunch into plastic bags. The daughter ran ahead of them, brushing past me.
'Good morning,' I said.
Mr Tibbetts looked up but, without a response, hurried away to the lift, wife in tow. The son followed more leisurely with a whole boiled egg in his mouth and gave me a smiling look with his purple eyes. I noticed then, apart from the girl, they all had an egg in each hand. His face scrunched up, Mr Tibbetts said something to his wife, right in her ear. Spittle flew from his mouth, as she moved her face away. Then the lift opened and swallowed the family.
Arctic Monkeys singing in my ears, I spent the morning waiting for her text and checking the phone to see if there was enough network coverage. There was. Eventually, I put my already tattered dignity aside and texted her to meet up one last time. Again I awaited her answer, while playing various zombie games on my phone.
Anxiety didn't suit me. The tiny room began to slowly close on me; the heavy green curtains, the yellow walls, the small TV were suffocating. When the minibar seemed like the only refuge I put on the layers and walked out.
A light snow had fallen that morning, and in the dazzling sunlight the city looked beautiful. The Opera House with its sloping terrace had turned into a ski-slope for kids, who slid down, grabbing on to the railing or each other, laughing and screaming. Puddles on pavements had frozen over. I dug my heel into one, enjoying the crackle as the ice broke. Shoving my gloved hands deeper into my pockets, I walked faster to keep warm, but soon realised I was headed towards her work. What did I plan to do? Lurk around the building and pounce on her when she stepped out? Get on my knees and beg her? I turned on my heels and walked in the opposite direction till I reached the harbour.
I took refuge in a café, drinking cappuccinos and checking my phone. Boats arrived and departed; I watched the people they brought and carried away: a man with a shaggy dog, a young Indian couple in duffel coats, a group of school girls, a woman with a heater tucked under her arm. Maybe that was the trick to beating the cold. I half-expected to see the Tibbetts on one of the boats, eating their eggs. When I went up to get my fifth cup of coffee a leaflet for the Munchmuseet caught my eye. I shrugged, 'What the hell.'
The angular, glass building didn't look much like a museum and had very tight security, with x-ray machines and tough-looking guards. My ticket disappeared into the meaty hands of one, like in a magic trick.
'There,' he pointed at a door. 'Watch the film.'
Although I saw people ahead of me walking straight to the exhibition room, I found I couldn't ignore the guard's order and went straight in the direction he pointed.
The film had already started when I walked in; a documentary about Munch in Norwegian without subtitles. Still, I sat down at the back and looked up at the black-and-white screen when I noticed four heads in the second row. The light from the screen illuminated the tiny, white hairs on the smallest. There was no doubting it, it was the Tibbetts. I watched them watching the film intently. Every so often the boy moved his hand along the top of the seat in front, otherwise they were as still as bowling pins. Did they know Norwegian? Unlikely. Maybe they were really into Munch and didn't care if they didn't understand what was going on. After the film ended, the family filed out and I followed them. I wanted to know what the Tibbetts were like when they weren't eating. Did they joke? Did they argue? Did the kids fight? Did the parents hold hands?
The exhibition area had three large rooms, one solely dedicated to The Frieze of Life: a series of paintings by Munch on the themes of love, angst and death. Father and mother Tibbetts walked ahead, nodding at each one. From the girl the art only elicited a sneer. Swinging her woollen braids, she dismissed them a flick of the tassels. The boy trailed behind, driving his mini Ferrari under every picture, emitting a gentle vroom vroom. I followed at a distance of two paintings.
The room was almost empty; each click of the heel and clearing of the throat boomed in the silence. A young man with yellow dreadlocks sat in the middle of the hall, copying Kiss in his sketch book. The scritch-scratch of his pencil complemented the swish-swash of Mrs Tibbetts's velvet skirt, as she and her family walked past Madonna, Vampire and Angst with a nod, a flick and a vroom.
Suddenly, the Tibbetts came to a halt. Mr and Mrs Tibbetts didn't nod their heads, the girl didn't flick her tassels, even the boy had forgotten to play with his car. Curiosity drew me closer, to one-picture distance. Closer again, until I was stood right beside them. I looked up and saw The Scream.
I had seen many versions of it: prints, posters and parodies. But the original sucked me in. Right in. Into the bloody clouds and the inky fjord. I felt the bridge creak under my feet and smelt the toy-like men. Before I knew it, I was the shapeless figure with round eyes and wide-open mouth, dominating the picture, the wall, the room. I suffered its anguish and heard its silent scream echo inside me. If undisturbed I could have stood there forever, staring at the painting, mouth half-open. Thankfully, for me and the Tibbetts, a small crowd had gathered around us, nudging us to get a better look. I shook my head and saw Mr Tibbetts do the same, as though to rid ourselves of the aftershock of the painting. He hurried away, followed by his wife and children. But the boy returned, drove his car under the painting and ran back to his family.
No other picture had the same effect. After an hour of obediently looking at every exhibit, the Tibbetts retired to the museum café. Having followed the family for so long, I had, in effect, attached myself to them and trailed them into the café.
'Hello,' I said, sitting down on the adjacent table with a salmon-and-cream-cheese sandwich.
Mrs Tibbetts said hello and smiled. From her handbag she took out a bottle of water, two packets of crisps and half-a-dozen boiled eggs. Mr Tibbetts glowered at me, his nostrils flaring, as though he expected me to challenge him. He relaxed when I smiled. Picking up an egg, he said, 'It's from our hotel.'
'I'm staying at the Comfort Hotel as well,' I said, annoyed that he hadn't recognised me. His eyes narrowed as he looked at me again. 'I'm your neighbour,' I added.
'Hmm …' He crunched on a crisp. 'Don't think their heating's working.'
'Tell me about it,' I sighed.
In silence we ate our meagre meals. I checked my phone. Nothing.
'What did you think of the exhibition?' I asked.
Mrs Tibbetts stopped eating and looked at me, something close to fear flickered in her eyes.
'It was quite interesting,' said the girl, licking the crisp crumbs off her fingers. 'My best friend's auntie makes paintings with beans and lentils. That's art.'
‘The Scream,' whispered Mrs Tibbetts who had not stopped looking at me. 'It was … harrowing. I had such a strong sense of … of … displacement. Like my body was here but my soul was wrenched away to some really lonely place.’
Her family turned to her in amazement. Probably even they hadn’t heard her speak this much before.
‘You are displaced,' her husband said. 'You’re a thousand miles from home. It doesn’t need a painting to tell you that.’
'I didn't mean …' Mrs Tibbetts went back to her egg yolk, which she had separated from the white.
'Where’s home?' I asked.
'Hackney,' the boy said, pushing his car towards me. 'Above a goddamn garage.'
'Language!' Mrs Tibbetts cautioned.
'But that's what you said to grandma.'
Mrs Tibbetts glanced at her husband, who said, 'You're not your mother's echo.'
The glass doors slid open and a couple walked in, letting in a gust of icy wind. The boy wrapped himself in the folds of his mother's skirt; his face looked even paler against the dark fabric.
'Cold, eh?' I said and pushed his car back.
He tucked his chin in and fixed me with those purple eyes. 'Cold is good,' he said. 'Because then the season is off and we can go on holiday.'
'It's off season, stupid.'
'Don't call your brother stupid,' Mrs Tibbetts feebly told her daughter off, while gently pushing the boy away.
'We only go on holiday in off season,' the girl said. Looking at her father, she added, 'Even to Cornwall.'
'Eat your eggs,' Mr Tibbetts ordered.
Silently, the family followed his order then stood up to leave.
My phone hadn't beeped once. 'You heading back to the hotel?' I asked.
'Mind if I join you?'
Mr Tibbetts grunted.
'I'll quickly pop to the loo,' I said.
When I returned they had gone.
In my room, I shed my woollen skin and flopped down on the bed, staring up at the cracks in the ceiling. Behind me the Tibbetts opened and closed the cupboard, drew the curtains, and took showers. Then it all went quiet. The next day I was leaving for London. Or rather I had to as I was close to maxing my credit card. I imagined her rushing to the airport, Hollywood style: barge through the gates, run past security, jump over suitcases, throw herself in my arms, and say, 'Let's give it another try.'
I texted her my flight details.
I awoke to the beeping of my phone. A text: Go back 2 London. We dont have a future 2gether. Keep in touch.
Keep in touch? That's what I was fucking trying to do. I threw the phone at the wall. It bounced back and fell into the bin. We could've had a future together if she hadn't come back to this godforsaken place. After five minutes of staring at the wall where the phone had chipped the paint, I picked it out of the bin and read the text again. The damn '2's, I hated them. I stepped into the shower and let the warm water wash over me.
Yet again I was late for breakfast, but I didn't care. I'd be in London soon enough to stuff my face with breakfast cereals. The hall was packed with trolls. I spotted the Tibbetts in their usual corner under the painting. Mrs Tibbetts was talking to her husband. Her face looked like she was sucking on a wasp. Mr Tibbetts shook his head and his jowls quivered. This drama seemed to go unnoticed by the kids; the girl was glued to her iPod and the boy to his car. I headed to the buffet table and served myself a bowl of Rice Krispies. When I turned around Mr Tibbetts was standing up while his wife tried to pull him down, grabbing on to his shirtsleeves. He shook her off and walked towards the trolls with a book in his hand.
As I shuffled past, I heard him speak to Handsome-broad-jaw.
'Goo mo-on. Wood-an grr day?' Mr Tibbetts looked up from the book, chuffed with himself.
'I speak English,' the troll said. His mates sniggered.
Mrs Tibbetts's lip curled in disgust. But, unfazed, her husband pulled up a chair and placed it next to Handsome-English-speaking. They began a conversation in whispers. From a couple of tables away I caught only a few words: breakfast, eggs, charges. A little while later, Mr Tibbetts stood up and nodded to his wife. Reluctantly, she got up and, with the children, followed her husband to the buffet table. There Mr Tibbetts began to pack eggs and sandwiches into plastic bags, handing them over to his family.
The trolls giggled behind their hands as they stared at the Tibbetts. Something wasn't right. I thought to warn Mr Tibbetts, but of what? After all he had spoken to the troll, so he probably knew what he was doing. And frankly, at that moment, I didn't care much. I had my second rejection to wallow in.
After they had packed four bags, the Tibbetts turned to leave. But blocking the door stood a waitress.
'No take out,' she said. 'Only them.' She pointed at the trolls who were smiling. All eyes locked on the Tibbetts.
The waitress snatched the bags from their hands but, for whatever perverse reason, didn't step away from the door. Mr Tibbetts looked at her, then around the room. I expected him to be embarrassed, ashamed even, but he just looked confused. I felt sorry for him and wanted to punch the trolls. But I knew how that fight would end. So I carried on eating my soggy Rice Krispies.
In my determination to not look at the Tibbetts I didn't notice when the low wheeze to my right had turned into full-blown laughter. It was Handsome-fucking-wanker with his head thrown back and his blonde hair forming a messy halo. His mates were next and soon the whole room — even the old Danish couple — was jeering at the Tibbetts.
Mrs Tibbetts tried to walk out but couldn't get past the waitress. She turned around and held her husband's trembling hand. Her other hand crushed a fistful of her skirt. The girl hid behind her parents, pulling her hat low. I felt myself getting very angry. What right did these people have to laugh at this man and his family? All he wanted was to take his family on a holiday and not break the bank. Was that so bad? I stood up to tell them all to shut up. But then the boy, who up until now was pushing his Ferrari along the buffet table, stepped forward. He put his hands on his ears with his mouth shaped in an O around a hard-boiled egg. The laugh subsided and soon there was complete silence, as though he had sucked in everyone's voice. The black t-shirt hung loosely from his shoulders, his chalk-pale face was framed by the dark blue of the buffet table, and above him rose the red haze of the burners. His family stood behind him, looking insignificant. He was still, but his purple eyes moved from side to side, scanning the room.
They met mine. Only for a fraction of a second, but it was enough. I felt his silent scream enter me, widening the pupils, travelling back into the brain, into the nerves, penetrating the heart and being pumped into the rest of my body. As it reached the tip of my toes, my mouth opened with a sigh. Unexpected and uninvited the image of her walking away, in the red beret and mauve coat, flashed before my eyes. My body shivered and screamed through all my pores. Deflated, I fell back into the chair. I understood. I couldn't breathe life into something that was long dead.
Looking around the room, I saw all eyes were on the boy. The colour had left their faces. They were letting out their own screams.
Eventually, the purple eyes stopped scanning. The hands came down from the ears, and the egg disappeared into the mouth. The waitress was the first to move, stepping away from the door. And the Tibbetts left the room.
I sat there for I don't know how long before rushing upstairs and knocking at the Tibbetts's door. There was no answer. I wanted to see the boy one more time without the accusation on his face. I knocked again, louder. I heard them moving inside. I could feel them looking at me through the peephole, but the door remained shut.
Disappointed, I returned to my room and frantically began to pack. The thought of spending another moment there filled me with dread. I wanted to be back in London. I missed the familiar musty smell of the underground, the noise of the police sirens, the cheap kebab shop across the road. I thought of my house at the end of the grimy cul-de-sac and its unkempt garden, next to the boarded-up corner shop. My ten-year-old Volkswagen sat outside. That 70-metres square was not the same without her, but it was my fjord, and I pined for it.
Downstairs, the receptionist informed me that the Tibbetts had left just two minutes ago. I ran outside and saw four figures in the distance, dragging their suitcases. I stood in their footprints in the snow and watched the boy hugging the wall, pushing his Ferrari gently along it.
M S Pallister studied Computer Science at Cambridge University but later turned to writing. Her short stories have been published in The Wrong Quarterly, Bird's Thumb and Literary Yard, and shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. Her first novel is currently languishing in the slush pile of many agents across London.