The Strawberry Girl By Lisa Stromme: Book Review
There are probably few people on the planet who don’t know Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream, but I’ll hold my hand up to knowing nothing about the story behind it.
Enter Lisa Stromme and her bewitching debut novel about the love affair that inspired what is now one of the most famous images of all time.
It’s summer 1893 in the Norwegian fishing village of Asgardstrand and local girl Johanne Lien becomes a maid for the Ihlen family.
As the youngest Ihlen daughter, Tullik, embarks on a secret affair with Munch, aspiring painter Johanne becomes swept up in the power of his art – and, in turn, so does the reader. (Or this reader certainly did.)
It’s a vivid, intoxicating blend of fact and fiction, desire and creativity.
If you’re passionate about art, you’ll love it – and if you didn’t think you were remotely interested in it, you will be by the end of it.
The Strawberry Girl By Lisa Stromme: Book Extract
The greatest brightness, short of dazzling, acts near the greatest darkness
Theory of Colours, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I hid inside the Painting hoping she wouldn’t see what I had become. Sometimes it still worked. If I closed my eyes and thought of strawberries I could feel the threads of the ripped dress tickling my bare shoulder while Herr Heyerdahl’s brush swept the palette and daubed the canvas. When I concentrated hard I could make my face sullen, yet obedient, as it was when he captured it. I could even feel the fine stems of the jasmine laced through my fingers like cobwebs. My other hand, trembling with fatigue, gripping the bowl. That itch on my shoulder that I couldn’t scratch; must not move, must not talk, must keep still.
During the winter when there were no guests she saw me as I had been then: ten years old, simple and useful. But at sixteen it was getting harder to be the Strawberry Girl. The label had replaced me, hidden me firmly behind it. From the moment the Painting was finished and displayed at the Grand Hotel for all the Kristiania guests to admire, my title was set like lacquer. As a child, I wore the label with enforced pride. Now it wore me, but the veneer was cracking and peeling like old paint.
Mother was on her knees at the stove; she swished her rag in the pail as if bathing a small child. When she saw me coming she wrung it out with a forceful twist as though the thing had tried to talk back to her.
‘Move, Johanne,’ she spat. ‘Why are you dragging your feet when there’s so much work to be done? It’s the start of the season, for heaven’s sake! The Heyerdahls are arriving this afternoon. You know how he likes the cottage to be light and airy, free from . . . ?’ Her voice rose and she paused, awaiting my answer. ‘Free from?’
‘Clutter,’ I said, through clenched teeth.
‘You can lose that attitude, my girl.’ Her sleeves were already rolled to the elbow but she pushed them higher as if to make a point. ‘He’s bringing canvases and paints, all his supplies. He can’t be working if it’s not free from clutter in here.’
Hans Heyerdahl couldn’t care less about that sort of thing. He was a painter. He made more clutter than the four of us ever did.
I drew a shape on the wall with my finger.
‘Well, don’t just stand there,’ she said. ‘I read you the letter, didn’t I? Out loud?’
‘Yes, Mother. First the boat, then the wagon. We’ve to send Father and Andreas to fetch them.’
‘So we need to get a move on.’
She brushed past me and stretched to the high shelf, then slammed a wooden bowl down onto the stove.
‘Find some fruit, will you?’ she said. ‘Fill the bowl. Quickly. I need you back here to sweep the floors and air the sheets.’
‘It’s still early,’ I said. ‘I won’t be able to pick that many strawberries for a few weeks yet.’
‘I said lose that attitude. Go on, lose it, out there in the woods.’ She clapped her hands in front of my face. ‘And if that Thomas comes running after you, you tell him you’re not interested in that kind of attention. Do you hear me?’
‘And don’t dawdle near the other painter’s house. The Sinful Man. Fru Jørgensen said he arrived last night. He’s brought his evil back again. That man’s not right,’ she prodded at her own temple. ‘Not like our Herr Heyerdahl. Not right in the head. You keep walking past the hut. Don’t even look in the garden. You know he leaves those dreadful pictures outside to dry. Sinful. That’s what they are. He hangs his depravity in full view, like he’s proud of it. You keep your head down, Johanne Lien. Think of this family’s name, think of your reputation. Now go and find some fruit for the Heyerdahls.’
She planted the bowl in my hand and shooed me from the house, muttering about my bare feet and straggly hair as I dashed out into the bright morning sun. I left her grumbling amid the mess of her own words.
The strawberries would still be buds, hard and reluctant like small white fists. Nature had mixed her colours but not yet brought them to her canvas. Fruits and flowers needed light and warmth before they could blossom, but Mother seemed to think I could force them to ripen, as if by magic, because I was the Strawberry Girl. For her, the title had little to do with my occupation and more to do with the Painting. It was currency, the bridge that linked us to the upper classes, the rich holidaymakers from Kristiania, Herr Heyerdahl’s patrons who flocked to Åsgårdstrand every summer.
It was an accurate portrait of me as I was then. The blues and yellows merged to form a tatty little girl in a scruffy dress whose folds and crevices were darkened by shadow. The ash of skin at the torn sleeve made my shoulder look clean, although I was always covered in grazes from my wild ramblings in the forest. I didn’t see how the Painting could possibly have united us with the ladies who paraded around town in their fine white dresses and hats and ribbons. But Herr Heyerdahl stayed in our cottage. That meant something, didn’t it? The Painting set us apart. This collection of shapes, contours, tone and light seemed to transform me into a princess in the eyes of the Kristiania guests. To my mother, it was all the proof she needed that we were practically one of them.
There was only one strawberry bush that could be ready. Perfectly located on a hill by a wall, it was easily accessible and bathed in sunlight even this early in the season. The only complication was that it happened to be in his garden.
If Hans Heyerdahl was Mother’s god, the Sinful Man was her devil. It was forbidden for Andreas and me to say his name. Even thinking about him was considered a betrayal.
Mother didn’t know about what he had given me, or the conversations I’d had with him. The times I’d met him in the forest.
Neither distinguished nor successful, he was something of an oddity in the town. He was the summer neighbour the locals liked but could not hope to understand. He was as poor as the rest of us, barely able to pay the rent for his hut, so poor that we didn’t even bother to set the word ‘Herr’ before his name, as though he wasn’t a gentleman at all.
His strange paintings did nothing to strengthen his reputation, and rumour liked to make him a madman and a drunk. Our upper-class guests from Kristiania, with whom Mother was so keen to make her allegiance, shunned him completely. The ladies were advised to avert their eyes from the paintings and use their parasols to shield themselves from the vulgarity on open display.
Out in the fresh air I dared myself to say his name, treading heavily to dampen the sound of my voice. Quietly at first, I whispered the two words that dripped with wickedness. I said his name, out loud.
Something snapped behind me as the name escaped my lips. Had I been cursed as I’d said it? So instantly condemned? I spun round to find Thomas sauntering out from behind a cluster of silver birches by the road. His open face beamed and his dark-brown eyes twinkled so brightly that, even against the glare of the sun, I could see exactly what was on his mind.
‘Johanne! Wait!’ he said. ‘Where are you going?’
‘I’ve to pick fruit for the Heyerdahls.’
‘Can I help?’
I gestured for Thomas to join me, without seeming too eager. My hand leapt to my shoulder, touched the fabric, smoothed out the seams of my blouse.
‘How long have you got?’ he said, snatching the bowl from my hand.
‘Give me that!’ I reached out, but he lifted it high above his head, stepping back towards the trees and inviting me closer. ‘Thomas! I don’t have time for this, not today. Give it back.’
‘All right then,’ he said, lowering the bowl. ‘But at least come with me to the beach. A quick paddle won’t do any harm, will it?’
He darted off, leaving me staring out to sea with a familiar longing swelling in my body. The vast expanse of water dominated my life. It always entranced me. The sheer scale of it was so infinite that I barely believed the shermen’s stories of what was out there where the fjord met the open sea. Punctuated only by the island of Bastøy and the ships and sailboats that passed our bay, the endless blue could be seen from every part of Åsgårdstrand, a town that seemed to have been carved into the steep hill as an act of defiance by the people who belonged to the fjord.
Thomas was already running ahead of me. I was drawn to the water and needed no further invitation. Our hill was steep and the gradient unforgiving, so it was difficult to walk down it slowly. I reeled after him, down Nygårdsgaten until it levelled out at the bottom. We passed the shermen’s huts that would house us for the summer while the Heyerdahls stayed at our cottage. I averted my eyes through force of habit when we came to the little mustard-coloured hut at the end, the one Munch was renting from Fru Jørgensen. Breaking into a sprint, we tore down Havnagata where the cobbles spread out beneath us, leading to the pier and the bathing house on the rocky side of the coast where the water coursed in from the fjord. My chest opened with relief and I inhaled the freedom of the fresh sea air.
Rolling his trousers to his knees, Thomas waded out into the water. I hitched up my skirt and petticoat. Soon the silt was filling the spaces between my toes. Out on the sea the sailboats drifted by, moving quietly with the tides as if in a daydream. The beach was still. A few young girls were playing with stones at the water’s edge under the watchful eye of their mother, perched on a rock beneath a parasol. Further along, an old sherman was scrubbing at the base of his upturned boat while a bearded man with a rope stood behind him tying knots. They paid us no attention and I was glad of it.
‘Come on! Up to your knees,’ Thomas said, striding out ahead of me. ‘I dare you!’
I set my bowl down on a stone and followed him, splashing in the cool water as it rose above my ankles. He was heading for a group of rocks that jutted out from the surface, the place where I used to sit as a girl and pretend I was a mermaid.
‘I can’t get that far out today,’ I shouted, thinking about the book in my front pocket, ‘not without my bathing clothes.’
‘Spoilsport,’ he said.
He cupped his hands and scooped up water, then blew it through his fingers, spraying fountains all around me.
‘Thomas!’ I shrieked.
If it hadn’t been for the book I would have drenched him. Instead, I sploshed away, searching for treasures. But soon he was behind me, slipping his arms around my waist and pressing his chest against my back.
‘Look,’ he said, pointing to a spot on the horizon, ‘one day I’ll take you out there, Johanne.’ I felt his breath against my ear and my stomach uttered, then tightened as his lips dusted my skin and he began telling the story he liked to recite. ‘I’ll take you away from here, on an adventure,’ he said, lowering his mouth to my neck. ‘I’ll be the skipper on a big ship.’
‘And where will you take me?’ I said, as if I didn’t know.
‘We’ll head out to sea, to Denmark, then down to France and to Egypt. We’ll find riches and return decked in jewels and they’ll call us the King and Queen of Åsgårdstrand.’
‘You sound like Peer Gynt,’ I said, ‘and look where his seafaring got him.’
‘At least he was rich,’ Thomas said, ‘in the end.’
I wriggled out of his arms and turned to face him.
‘No, he was selfish and lost his riches.’
‘You will come with me, though, one day, won’t you, Johanne?’ he said, his confidence leaking like water from a broken bucket.
‘Don’t you want to see what’s out there?’ he said, taking my hands in his. ‘To explore?’
A low horn sounded out on the fjord and I turned round to see the Jarlsberg sailing in towards the pier, its flags flapping in the wind to announce its arrival.
I picked up my skirt and shook out the soaked hem as I ran back to the beach in search of my bowl.
‘Wait!’ Thomas shouted. ‘Johanne, come back!’
‘I don’t have time,’ I said.
‘But wait! Johanne, stop!’
I was already hurrying away.
‘There’s a dance tonight, at the Grand Hotel,’ he shouted, ‘you will come, won’t you?’
‘Maybe,’ I called. Maybe, if my mother hasn’t killed me by then. Next chapter
I ran across the beach, over rocks and clumps of seaweed. My feet knew the way and easily found the smooth tracks that years of bathers had padded away. I grabbed my bowl and hurried along the shoreline past the Grand Hotel and onto the path that led to Fjugstad forest. Munch’s house was adjacent to the path and spanned a steep hill with the house at the top and the path at the bottom. The fruit trees and bushes on the other side of the fence beckoned me with outstretched arms.
The fence had never stopped me before. I balanced my bowl on the post and lifted my skirt to my knees, scanning the neighbouring windows for witnesses to my crime. I saw and heard nothing but the screeching gulls circling above me. My feet sank into the wire and I wobbled as it bent to carry my weight. My skirt tore, snagging on a stray splinter as I jumped over.
Avoiding the nettles, I landed in the long grass and set to work searching the bushes for fruit. I kicked away twigs and brushed aside the dainty white flowers and serrated leaves of the strawberry bush, but found nothing. Dropping to my knees, I crawled along the ground, checking the undergrowth. I plunged my arms into the tangle of the hedge, scratching my fingers and forearms until welts appeared on my skin.
‘Oh, curse it!’ I said. ‘Damned Heyerdahls!’
My face was buried in the bushes.
‘You’re wasting your time.’
The voice flung open a door in my memory.
I released the leaves in my hand and froze as a shiver travelled the length of my spine.
My arms stung as I turned to find Munch looking down at me. He was wearing a dark jacket that hung from him as though he might have inherited it from an older brother. A grey waistcoat held him in place. He had a shapely, sensuous mouth, which I felt guilty for noticing. The top lip, curving and full, was framed by a light moustache, the bottom lip was plump, almost petted like a child’s. He had a strong jawline and pale-blue, doleful eyes that sang with sadness. It struck me that the sadness was not a fleeting emotion but something that inhabited him permanently, like an anchor.
‘Johanne?’ he said, half smiling.
‘Yes, it’s me.’ I straightened my torn skirt. ‘Mother wanted me to find fruit for the Heyerdahls.’
‘My sister and I collected the ripe ones this morning,’ he said. ‘Come up to the house.’
I wanted to refuse him. Mother would skin me alive if she knew I had been caught trying to steal strawberries, let alone from him. But I could not return empty-handed and although Munch’s face was serious, his eyes were kind.
‘We can’t let Hans go without now, can we?’ he said, fetching my bowl from the fence.
He was carrying a beige sketchbook. The edges of it were frayed and the cover was marked with scribbles and coffee stains. He tucked it under his arm and turned to go up the hill. I walked in his footsteps, my dirty feet stepping where his boots flattened the grass. When I raised my head at the brow of the hill I immediately noticed the paintings.
Two large canvases, almost as tall as me, loomed in the near-distance. Like bathers reclining in the sun, they were leaning against the wall of the burgundy outbuilding, his temporary studio. The pictures were so compelling I couldn’t help but look. One was of a lady, a dark figure, staring mournfully at what looked like her own shadow. She was so utterly desolate that my chest tightened and a wave of sadness invaded my throat.
The other painting was of a lush scene where a man and woman were resting by a tree. The woman was wearing a light-blue apron and holding a bowl of red berries that ignited my curiosity and somehow intensified my sadness. I wanted to reach out and touch the couple. They seemed wounded.
When we reached the hut, Munch called out to his sister.
‘Inger! Johanne’s looking for strawberries.’
I hovered outside while he climbed the steps to the back door.
Returning to the couple in the painting, I saw that the woman holding the berries was with child, her swelling belly visible above the bowl. They were cherries and the tree was ripe, like her, abundant and in its prime. But the man was tired and his bones were heavy. He was slumped on a tree stump with a walking cane resting by his side. At the centre of the painting, the circle from a freshly cut bough blemished the tree trunk and robbed them both of their happiness.
‘Hello,’ Inger said, appearing in the open doorway.
I tugged my gaze from the pictures and looked at her with a fixed smile. She was dressed in black from head to toe, with the exception of a white collar that frilled around her neck. Her dark-brown hair was scraped into a severe bun at the back of her head.
‘We collected them this morning,’ she said, presenting me with the bowl as though she owed me the fruit. ‘There’s plenty.’
I looked at the small collection of strawberries, knowing they were everything they had.
Inger’s features were similar to Munch’s although her expression was more open than his and her eyes were darker and wider. In a way she resembled the woman on the canvas, tormented by her own shadow.
‘It’s for the Heyerdahls,’ I said, guiltily.
‘Yes, I saw the boat come in from up here – we have a splendid view,’ said Inger, smiling as she handed me the bowl. ‘You’re the Strawberry Girl, aren’t you? You’ve grown since last summer.’
Munch emerged again from the house.
‘Subjects in paintings grow and change, Inger, like life. They are life. They change with our moods and the time of day. Different each time we look at them.’
I watched him as he talked, waving his hands, carving pictures into the air.
‘How are your own paintings coming along, Johanne?’ he said.
‘Oh, they’re just sketches,’ I said. ‘I don’t have paints, Mother would consider them dirty. Although I do read the book you gave me, every day.’
‘Why don’t you come back again tomorrow?’ he said. ‘You can have some of my paints. I’m going to start mixing them from . . .’ His soft voice drifted away and his hands moved in circles, as if completing his sentence.
‘Mother won’t allow it,’ I said.
‘She doesn’t have to know, does she?’ he said, looking pointedly at the strawberries in my hands.
‘I suppose not.’
‘Then tomorrow it is,’ he said. ‘I’ll set aside a canvas for you.’
The sun branded my back as I ran up Nygårdsgaten and reminded me how late I was. With my ripped skirt and grimy arms, I was like a sketch that had been crumpled and cast away, an idea that had been scribbled out. But all I could think about was tomorrow. Tomorrow, I would see him again. Tomorrow, I would paint.
Mother’s friend, Fru Berg, was at our gate when I rounded the top of the hill. Plump and puffy-cheeked, she looked as tired from coming a few paces down the hill as I was from having run up the whole of it. Her substantial bosom was hanging over the fence, which strained to prop her up for her daily gossip with my mother. I slowed to a walk.
‘Goodness, Johanne, look at you,’ Fru Berg said, staring at my dress and my mucky feet, ‘have you been in a war?’ She was a washerwoman and, like my mother, was obsessed with starched collars and pristine skirts. Smears and stains on clothes were the marks that tainted a person’s character. To Fru Berg, I must have been a lost cause.
Mother came flying from the kitchen. She had changed into her best pinstriped skirt and the white blouse she saved for church. Her slight body, already tense, tightened further when she saw me.
‘Where’ve you been, Johanne? It’s past twelve. They’ll be here any minute. I’ve had to do the floors and sheets myself.’ She glanced at the tear in my skirt. ‘How did you . . .? Look at the state of you,’ she said, her voice high-pitched and resentful.
‘You wanted a full bowl,’ I said.
Her lips pressed together and her cheeks ballooned as though filling with steam. If we had been alone she would have slapped me, hard, but Fru Berg’s beady eyes deflated her rage.
‘You see, Benedikte,’ she said, ‘this is why she needs a job. She runs around looking like an urchin all summer. She sells fruit, yes, but we’ll get more out of her as a housemaid.’
‘What do you mean?’ I said.
‘Fru Berg and I have found you a job. You are to be a housemaid for Admiral Ihlen and his family in Borre.’
‘But I pick strawberries,’ I said, incredulously.
‘And you’ll continue to pick your fruit. You can do that in your spare time, but from Monday to Saturday you will be a housemaid. You start tomorrow.’ Next chapter
In the process of colouring, the preparation merely washed as it were underneath, was always effective
Theory of Colours, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I was washing my feet at the water pump when they arrived. A clop of hooves echoed meekly on the dusty road and I looked up to see a dappled pony straining against the weight of a heavily loaded cart. The horse nodded its head, as though trying to draw strength from its neck muscles, where perspiration beaded and coated its skin.
My father looked out of place on the wagon. He was a sailmaker and never used a cart or a horse; he didn’t like the way they jiggled his bones and preferred the gentle rock of the sea. The wagon was borrowed from Father’s friend, Svein Karlsen, but it was my brother, Andreas, who was adept with the reins. He was sitting in the middle, bolstered by Father and Herr Heyerdahl. Easing in the fatigued pony, he brought them to a standstill. Mother had forced Andreas into his Sunday best and he looked stiff in his black waistcoat and white shirt. Even his cap had been cleaned.
‘Well done, boy,’ Herr Heyerdahl’s voice boomed as he patted Andreas on the knee.
Thirteen, and shy to the point of silence, Andreas barely spoke at all. He hopped down from the wagon with his chin pressed into his neck and tied the horse’s reins to our fence.
Herr Heyerdahl had become rounder in the last year. The buttons on his waistcoat were challenged by his protruding belly, which he clasped as he huffed to the ground. His beard and moustache were also longer and tapered to a neat point below his chin. Father was already at the back of the wagon assisting Fru Heyerdahl, a prim lady in a flowery bonnet. She was squashed between trunks and large canvases that looked as though they could topple and crush her at any moment. Their two children, Sigrid and Hans, jumped from the wagon and flew around the garden like birds freed from a cage.
Mother trotted across to greet her guests.
‘Welcome back to Åsgårdstrand,’ she said, in a sugary voice.
I pushed the handle of the water pump with renewed force to drown out her platitudes.
‘Sara, what a pleasure,’ Herr Heyerdahl was saying. ‘Halvor tells me you’ve been working hard for us again. You shouldn’t go to such trouble.’
‘Oh, it’s no trouble at all,’ Mother gushed. ‘I hope you’ll find everything to your liking.’
While she continued to fuss, I noticed Herr Heyerdahl’s attention begin to slip and it was only his manners that glued the smile to his face. He glanced over Mother’s shoulder and looked at me like a man overboard, reaching for a hand.
‘Johanne!’ he said.
‘She’s been out picking fruit, hasn’t had time to get cleaned up,’ Mother babbled, ‘don’t pay any attention to—’
‘Goodness, you’ve grown,’ he said. ‘You still have the cornfield hair and those lovely blue eyes, though.’
I shook the water from my feet and dipped my head.
‘Hello, Herr Heyerdahl,’ I said. I may have been the opposite of my mother, but I wasn’t impolite.
‘You’ve been collecting fruit? So early in the season? What did you find?’ he said, studying me with his painter’s eyes.
My cheeks reddened. ‘Strawberries,’ I said, desperately aware of my mother’s stare.
‘It’s still early,’ she interrupted, ‘but you can be sure she’ll bring you plenty more when they ripen.’ She was trying hard to find words that would turn him, anything to divert his attention from me. She seemed afraid that by simply looking at me, Herr Heyerdahl would change his mind about the summer rental and immediately order everyone back onto the wagon. But he was unflinching.
‘They don’t call you the Strawberry Girl for nothing! Where did you find them?’ he said.
‘Oh, down by the forest,’ I said, casually.
‘Really, Johanne, you must get your boots on now,’ Mother continued, ‘we need to leave the Heyerdahls to settle in. Halvor!’ she yelled. ‘What about our trunk? Is it on yet?’
‘We’re ready, Sara,’ Father whispered, his voice reduced by the silence that governed him.
I climbed into the back of the wagon and sat on a trunk containing the clothes and the bed linen. Mother settled down beside me and threw my boots and a pair of stockings at me.
‘Get these on,’ she said, gripping the edge of the wagon as she sat down. ‘Honestly, Johanne, the sooner we get you into a proper uniform, the better.’
Andreas snapped the reins and pulled at the pony’s bit to steer her around. We rattled away from our home and down the hill towards the pier. The road faded away in front of me and at this oblique angle everything appeared to be in reverse. Not just the familiar white timber cottages and the lilac draping over the fences, but me. My life was in reverse. For many months I had tried to disassociate myself from the Painting, for the innocence and expectation of it were heavy burdens to bear, but now I sorely needed it. I needed its freedom. As the Strawberry Girl, I was free to dance with nature, to ramble and run, untethered by the bindings that fixed others to their post. I could roam the forests and hedgerows, explore the beach and the rocks. I was a wanderer, like him. That was how we kept finding each other. And tomorrow I would have painted. I would have finally been able to put what I’d read in the book into practice, to mix colours and experiment with them on a real canvas. But instead I would be a maid in a uniform with no freedom at all.
I saw my summer in the distance at the top of the hill, shrinking and dimming, as though I was leaving it at home for the Heyerdahls alone to enjoy. This season was mine. Could she be so cruel as to take it from me?
Mother flinched as we passed Munch’s hut.
‘Look away, Johanne,’ she said, as the wagon rolled past the paintings, still leaning against the outbuilding in the sun.
‘They’re only paintings,’ I said. ‘What harm can they do?’
I might as well have taken the Lord’s name in vain.
‘I don’t want you seeing it,’ she said, twisting in her seat. ‘The medical doctors in Kristiania say those paintings can cause illnesses. I don’t want you looking at that kind of filth. At least you won’t have to be exposed to all of that this summer,’ she said, dropping her hand from her face. ‘The Ihlens are a very respectable family and you’ll be surrounded by ladies. They have three daughters and they wear the nest clothes in all of Kristiania. Fru Berg does their laundry.’
‘So what do they need me for?’ I said.
‘Oh, Johanne, you have a lot to learn,’ she said.
I pulled at the tear in my skirt and made curling shapes from the frayed threads.
The air was downy and warm when we reached the back of the shermen’s huts. Usually the water offered a breeze, something to grasp onto, but our lungs were tight as we inhaled. There was complete pandemonium as half the local townsfolk were relocating to the huts, and the tranquillity of the morning was shattered by the invasion.
The place was packed with families, carts and trunks. Men were carrying boxes high above their heads. Sweat trickled from their brows as they navigated the carts and stepped over the piles of fresh horse-dung that steamed in the road. Children ran amuck, scattering out along the pier, running with hoops to the bathing house; some of the little ones were crying from the heat and confusion. Dogs chased after seagulls, barking excitedly, tongues hanging. Horses whinnied, swatting flies with their tails. Women beat the air with their hats whilst trying to keep track of their children, their husbands, their belongings. Tempers were beginning to fray in the heat and a wave of arguments had erupted: disagreements concerning keys and rooms.
The wagon drew to a halt under the full force of the sun. My legs and feet were suffocating in my stockings and boots and I had the urge to rip them off and run down to the water. I was perspiring from every pore. My blouse was tight and the bones of my corset threatened to puncture my ribcage.
‘Can’t you get into the shade?’ Mother moaned.
‘The road is blocked,’ Father said, his gaze drifting to the sailboats in the bay. ‘We’ll just have to wait our turn.’
‘But that could take hours,’ she said. Attracted to chaos as if it were dust on a ledge, she became agitated. ‘Look! There’s Fru Hansen. Let me get down and ask her what’s going on. Halvor! Help me.’
Father hopped down obediently. Mother stepped over the chests and mats and candlesticks that were piled around us, inching her way to the back, where my father lifted her down in an ungainly fashion, revealing her lower legs. She checked all around her to see if anyone had noticed and muttered a criticism to my father, waving a hand at him as she merged into the crowd, determined to tidy it all away.
‘What’s she doing?’ I said.
‘Oh, something about Fru Hansen having our keys,’ Father said, shaking his head and returning to his spot on the driver’s seat.
‘How’s that going to clear the road?’ said Andreas, lifting his cap and wiping his brow.
As I watched my mother disappear into the throng behind us, my eyes were drawn to a mop of curly hair. Thomas. He was carrying a pallet of cod. The freshly caught silver skins shimmered in the sunlight. He had not noticed me and for a moment I watched him as he paced purposefully down the street. Everything about Thomas had a sense of purpose and I envied him for it. His muscular arms flexed with confidence, caring nothing for the burden of the pallet. The sea of people eddied around him and he lifted his chin. Something warm brushed my chest and flushed my neck and cheeks. With no time to examine this quiver of nerves, I consigned it to the room in my head that I kept clear for thinking.
With my mother gone and Thomas advancing, I seized the moment. Twisting round in the wagon, I patted my father’s arm.
‘You’ve heard that Mother’s sending me off to Borre for the summer?’
‘She’s not sending you away, dear,’ he said. The light drained from his face and his senses clouded at the thought of my absence. ‘You’ll be back on Sundays, and maybe some evenings too, if you’re not needed.’ From his reply, I knew he had already had the Johanne will be a housemaid discussion and, like thousands of others, it was an argument he had pitifully lost.
‘It’s just . . . there’s a dance tonight at the Grand Hotel,’ I said, ‘and I thought, since I’ll be leaving tomorrow, that you might allow me to go?’
The question hung in the heat. Thomas thundered towards us.
‘It’s the last chance I’ll get,’ I pressed.
My father stretched his hand back and stroked my sticky hair.
‘All right, dear,’ he said, ‘if you tell me when you’re leaving and promise you won’t be too late.’
With his arms full of fish, Thomas could not wave, but he grinned at me anyway.
‘Hello!’ he called. ‘I have your dinner here.’ He tipped the pallet my way as though every single cod was just for me. The salty smell filled my nostrils and I found it oddly fresh and alluring.
‘Where are you going?’ I said.
‘I’m delivering these to the ladies. We caught them this morning. They’ll be delicious with boiled potatoes and a glass of beer. You will be at the beach, won’t you?’
‘If we ever get out of the road.’
‘And the dance? Later? Will you come?’
I nodded and he grinned again; the twinkle had returned to his eyes. As he walked away I could see the edge of his broad smile.Next chapter
Movement was painstakingly slow, but when the sun finally released us from her molten grip the wagons began to roll and the ties that bound everyone’s good humour loosened and gave way to a lighter mood. We offloaded our belongings and heaved everything into the hut. Our own cottage on the hill was not roomy but it always seemed larger due to Mother’s obsessive tidiness, although there would be nothing even she could do to make this seem bigger. Cramped and dark, the huts were built for men who needed no more than a primitive shelter to sleep in. They were divided horizontally. Some families would live upstairs, with doors that faced Nygårdsgaten, and others, like our family, would be downstairs, facing the beach.
There were three rooms inside. The front door opened onto a kitchen at the centre. It contained nothing more than an iron stove and a side table. To the right was a small bedroom where Andreas and I shared bunks, and to the left was a parlour. Mother and Father stored mattresses under the sofa and pulled them out at night to make beds on the floor. In the corner of the parlour was an old table with flecks of paint on the surface and four odd chairs that sat at different heights around it.
We dodged around each other as we brought in our things, banging our elbows on the edge of the furniture and stepping over the homeless chests. I wondered how the Andersens living upstairs would manage. They had the same amount of space as us and were a family of seven, with five children ranging in age from six months to six years.
With the Heyerdahls gone, there was no longer any reason for show, so my mother changed back into her ordinary clothes and set about the hut with a rag. Andreas and I unpacked. My first thought was to find a hiding place for the book and I slipped it under my mattress as a temporary measure. Mother would be washing the bed linen often and turning the mattresses to beat them. It would not be safe there for long.
I rummaged in my trunk to find a dress for the dance, but all I had was a blouse with a sailor collar and sleeves that puffed to my elbow, a cotton skirt and a belt to cinch my waist.
‘Oh!’ Mother said, when she saw me. ‘Well, that wasn’t such a chore, was it, Johanne? If you run a brush through your hair you might look half decent.’
I hadn’t told her about the dance. I would wait until we were on the beach in front of the whole town, where she wouldn’t want a scene. For now, I would let her believe I wanted to look like the Ihlens, the darlings of Kristiania whose housemaid I was about to become.
‘Would you do my hair for me?’ I said.
Her eyes lit up and she rushed to her trunk.
‘The tortoiseshell combs are in here somewhere. We can fix it into place with those,’ she said, hauling me through to the highest of the odd chairs at the dining table. ‘Andreas, fetch water for the pitcher,’ she said. ‘We all have to get cleaned up for dinner.’
I allowed my mother to groom and primp, fastening combs here and there like a child with a doll. My thumbnail found a clump of dried paint on the table and I began to sketch out a curving shape in it, scratching backwards and forwards like I did with my pencil.
‘Oh, stop fidgeting, Johanne,’ Mother said, pulling my head aside with my hair. ‘Look at the mess you’re making. Keep still, I’m trying to make you look nice. You can be such a pretty girl when you want to be. Didn’t you hear Herr Heyerdahl say so himself?’
I had heard no such remark, only that my eyes were blue and my hair was like a cornfield.
‘He might paint you again this summer,’ she said, gripping a comb between her teeth as she braided my hair into painful ropes that clamped my head. ‘Be sure to visit them, won’t you? Take them strawberries, and cherries too, when they ripen.’ She took the comb from her mouth and scraped my scalp with it as she fixed my hair tightly into place. ‘Nobody said you only have to pick strawberries. Cherries can look just as good in a painting, can’t they?’
The bowl in the other painting sprang back to mind: the ripe fruit, the pregnant woman and the cut bough that had stolen her happiness.
We gathered at the sandy beach on the other side of the pier. The temperature had fallen and a warm breeze whispered around the small packs of townsfolk. Women were washing plates and cutlery in a pot over the fire. The older ladies sang folk songs as they worked, while the younger ones hummed sweet harmonies with subdued respect. Tired after the chaotic frenzy of the day and mellowed by beer, men were slumped into deckchairs and sitting on the edge of fishing boats, talking about netting and timber prices and telling lewd jokes. Their voices rumbled and boomed on the air amidst the cracks of the fire and the women’s song. With the tireless energy that only summer evenings can bring, the children paddled in the water and played running games, squealing with delight as they chased each other along the shore. Andreas and his friends were skimming stones, bouncing them skilfully across the rippling sea.
The liquid sun melted in orange streaks on the water’s surface and pulled me to it, mesmerised. Resisting the temptation to remove my boots and wade in, I paced along the beach, running sideways like a crab when the waves rushed in. I had almost reached the curve of the bay when Thomas found me.
‘Johanne!’ he called. ‘Wait.’
I turned to see him running towards me, his wild curls bouncing as his pace quickened. He was going so fast I thought he would knock me over, but when he reached me he stopped dead in his tracks as though he had mistaken me for someone else.
‘What is it?’ I said.
‘No, nothing – you just look . . .’ He swept his hand through his hair, panting. ‘Are you ready? For the dance?’
‘Yes,’ I said, lifting my chin.
‘You look different,’ he said, retrieving his lost sentence.
‘Mother braided my hair.’
‘She’s allowing you to go?’
‘She doesn’t know yet. Father gave me permission,’ I said, ‘with it being my last night and everything.’
‘Last night? What do you mean?’
‘Mother’s found a job for me in Borre for the summer, as a housemaid.’
‘Oh.’ His face paled the way my father’s had.
‘I’ll be back on Sundays, though, and on evenings when I’m not needed.’
‘A housemaid,’ he said, baffled by the word. ‘But you pick strawberries.’
I couldn’t tell whether he was confused about my qualification for such a job, or if he was already mourning the secret kisses he stole from me while I foraged for fruit in the woods.
‘I’ll still pick them,’ I said, ‘when I have time.’
He snatched my hand and jerked me towards him.
‘Come on then, Johanne,’ he said, ‘let’s go.’
We hurried back along the beach, my eyes scanning the crowds for my father. It was almost impossible to find him. Halvor Lien was a thin, quiet figure who blended with his surroundings and could be difficult to locate, even in an empty room. As we stood there at the water’s edge trawling the beach for him, I heard my mother screech my name like a crazed gull.
‘Johanne! I’ve been looking for you everywhere,’ she said, flicking a glance at Thomas. ‘What are you doing? We’re going home now.’
‘I’m going to the Grand Hotel – there’s a dance,’ I said.
‘You’re doing no such thing,’ she said, her face firing. ‘You start your new job in the morning and you’ll need to be up early.’
‘I asked Father for permission and he granted it,’ I said, beginning to walk away.
She dug her hands into her hips as she pieced together my treachery, seeing the part she had played in my preparation for the dance, fixing my hair and fussing around me, making me pretty. I thought she would start screaming, but my father appeared at her side and hovered over the eruption he must have predicted.
‘Halvor!’ she blurted. ‘Tell her she’s not going anywhere. Especially not with that—’
Before she had time to say ‘that Thomas’, my father had slipped his arm round her waist and begun to twirl her around.
It was clear that he had drunk his fair share of beer, perhaps to quell my mother’s inevitable fury.
‘Oh, come on, Sara,’ he said. ‘You were young once, don’t you remember?’
‘But she’s starting that job. I never went dancing at her age, not when there was work to be done – why should she? Halvor!’ she squirmed. ‘What if she’s late? What will they think of her? What will they say?’
‘I don’t believe you will let her be late, dear,’ he said. ‘Come now, let your hair down, woman, I rather fancy a dance myself.’ He whirled her under his arm and pulled her towards him, tottering into a jig. For a second my mother held him and allowed herself to be spun on his arm, but then a cheer burst out from a group of men sitting on a fishing boat and one of them raised a bottle.
‘Halvor!’ Mother wailed. ‘Halvor! Really!’
The Grand Hotel sat between the two beaches at the foot of the steam pier. A handsome white building, it cornered Havnegata and the shore, opposite the Kiøsterud house that Herr Heyerdahl and Munch liked to paint. The hotel was glowing when we arrived. Light poured from its windows and the plink of fiddles drew us in with a sense of rhythmic urgency. Thomas took my hand again and we ran up the steps.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘My cousin Christian’s playing.’
The doors were open and the sound of chatter and laughter swelled as we entered.
People were drifting from the dining room where a dinner had been held for the summer guests. Waitresses were clearing away plates and I could hear the clinking of china and cutlery. Cigar smoke snaked and hung in wisps in the air and at once I felt grown-up and recklessly free.
Thomas steered me into the lounge where the dance was beginning. The fiddlers sat on stools at the back of the room, dipping their elbows and tapping their feet, immersed in their own music. Armchairs had been pushed to the side to make way for the dancing. Guests were grouped in small cliques. Some had pulled chairs from the wall to form circles.
Several couples were already whirling round the floor in the centre of the room. Thomas and I skirted around them as he waved to his cousin at the back. We lingered by the wall for a moment to watch the city guests as they poured in. The women wore evening dresses with frills and bows and bustles at the back. Intricate detail had been worked into them as though they were entries in a competition. One of the dancers had a dress embroidered with pearls and appliquéd swallows and butterflies. Another wore a gown adorned with golden leaves and trimmed with lace. Some women had piled their hair up in a stack of braids hung with pearls; others had worked flowers into their hair and teased out tendrils to curl about their faces.
A willowy woman in her early twenties stood alone, detached from the others. She was wearing a delicate white dress with short sleeves that sat just off the shoulder. A single red rose was tted into her low neckline. Her corset was drawn in so impossibly tightly that her waist was barely even visible. She was holding her skirt and sweeping it back and forth slowly, not in time to the music, but gently and purposefully as though she was listening to a different tune entirely. She had blue eyes that would have been piercing had they not looked so glazed, and wavy red hair that simply hung loose around her bare shoulders.
When the band struck up a new tune, Thomas clutched my arm and leapt forward.
He pulled me into his arms and wheeled me around so quickly my stomach lurched. My feet barely touched the ground as we spun to the quickening tempo of the jig. I laughed with exhilaration as the rest of the room whizzed past me in a blur of gold and white and a unified shriek of laughter and drunken cries. I clung to Thomas’s upper arm and felt wonderfully secure, despite the rhythm and pace of the dance. I gazed into his gleaming eyes, happy to be at his mercy and, when the fiddles finally stopped and I lifted my head, he planted a kiss on my gasping mouth.
The evening progressed quickly. We drank beer and apple cider to quench our thirst, we danced and laughed and we kissed. Liberated, I didn’t care who saw me or what they might say and I forbade my mother from entering my thoughts. Eventually we found an empty sofa and I crumpled into the curve of its arm. Sweat was running down my temples and I had to loosen my belt.
‘I can barely breathe,’ I said. ‘How did you learn to dance like that?’
Thomas was smiling again.
‘Sailors just know how,’ he said.
He settled in beside me and I allowed him to drape his arm across my knee as we watched the other dancers.
It was then that I saw Munch. He was sitting at a round table in the corner of the room, alone. An empty glass of wine sat next to a full one that seemed forgotten and ignored. I wanted to go to him, to tell him about my job, to tell him that things had changed and that tomorrow would be different, but his expression was stern and his arm was busily sketching shapes in a large book. I could not disturb him. Following the line of his eyes, I realised he was drawing the girl in the white dress. She was still standing apart from the others, rustling her skirt.
‘Who is that girl over there?’ I said, as much to myself as to anyone else.
‘Over where?’ Thomas straightened up.
‘The one in the white dress, standing on her own.’
‘Oh, that’s Miss Ihlen, one of the admiral’s daughters.’
‘Regine, the youngest,’ he said, ‘although they call her something else – Tullik, I think it is. They stay in Borre during the summer.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’ve heard.’
‘Looks like the madman has spotted her,’ he laughed, pointing at Munch who was still sketching furiously, drawing the waves of her hair and the curve of her waist.
‘Do you think he’s mad?’ I said.
‘He must be. Haven’t you seen his paintings?’
‘I will be her housemaid tomorrow,’ I said, changing the subject. ‘I’ll have to wait on her and serve her and clean that pretty dress.’
Thomas wasn’t listening. He had already taken my arm and pulled me to my feet again. I surrendered completely and returned to the dance floor. I reeled and spun and followed wherever he led; but this time it wasn’t Thomas I was looking at. I couldn’t take my eyes off Tullik Ihlen, the girl Edvard Munch was so eager to draw. Next chapter
In looking steadfastly at a perfectly yellow-red surface, the colour seems actually to penetrate the eye. It produces an extreme excitement, and still acts thus when somewhat darkened.
Theory of Colours, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I arrived at the house just before seven. Mother, who had been awake all night fearing I would oversleep, was up at dawn laying out my clothes on the paint-speckled table and fetching water for the pitcher and soap to scrub me with.
‘I think you should be on your way soon,’ she said, tossing a flannel at me. ‘Do your face, and behind your ears and I’ll fix your hair.’
My head was pounding. I could still taste the remnants of the evening’s beer that had drained me and left me thirsty. I still felt the kisses Thomas had pressed onto my face, still tasted him on my lips as I dragged the flannel over my mouth.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ Mother said, jabbing my back. ‘Straighten up. Ladies don’t slouch like that – you’ll have to learn.’
I endured her onslaught and, before the clock had even reached six, she pushed me from the hut, chanting orders and instructions in a loud whisper. Barefoot, and with a looser skirt, the walk through the forest to Borre would have taken me less than twenty minutes, but trussed up as I was and treading carefully in my effort to stay clean, by the time the church came into view the sun was so bright on the horizon I thought I might be late.
Unlike Åsgårdstrand, Borre was mainly at and gently sloped to meet the sea. At its centre was the church, a few hundred yards from a dramatic Viking burial site by the beach. The enormous mounds where ancient kings had been laid to rest amongst their treasures always impressed me more than the stone-walled church and its ancient wooden beams.
The Ihlens’ house was directly opposite the church on the other side of Kirkebakken. Chestnut-brown, with a woodbound picket fence and a tiled roof, the building attracted the sun and shone like the houses in Åsgårdstrand. Mother called it the ‘big house’, but that was only in comparison to the rest of the huts and cottages that dotted that side of the road. The rectory by the church dwarfed the Ihlens’ house and could have housed every person in the village. But none sat prouder or prettier than the Ihlens’.
I opened the gate and approached the front door, which was framed by four wooden pillars. Stepping up onto the porch, I ran my hand along the carved railings, not knowing whether to reach for the door knocker or wait until I was discovered. Two grand windows on either side of the door followed my movements like a pair of transparent eyes, chiding me for having the gall to enter by the front door. In a panic I scooted round to the back. I was met by the sound of hens clucking in a coop in the yard. I bent down to look at them and was just about to squeeze my finger through the wire when a voice called out from the house.
‘You’d better get your apron on, if you’re going to be touching Miss Tullik’s hens.’
Startled, I leapt away from the coop and turned to see Fru Berg standing at the back door. Her bulky frame filled the rear entrance. A large tin tub dangled from her fist and a steel washboard was clamped under her arm. She came striding out into the garden, calling to the hens, each of which had a perfectly normal human name.
‘Coo-coo! Ingrid!’ she called. ‘Coo-coo! Margrete! Cecilia, you be sure to lay some eggs for me today, young lady; you gave us nothing yesterday, did you? And you, Dorothea, I’ve a good mind to pluck you and roast you for supper if you don’t have any eggs for the admiral’s breakfast.’
She continued to prattle to the hens as she laid her tub down by the well, where a pail was waiting to be filled.
‘You ever cared for hens, Johanne?’ she said, scooping up a fistful of corn from her apron pocket. ‘You have to talk to them, you know – they understand every word, I’m sure of it. Don’t you, Dorothea? There you are, good girl, give me some nice eggs now.’ She tossed the corn through the feeding hatch and the hens raced for the grain, hammering at the ground with their beaks where it had landed. ‘You’d better come in and get started then,’ Fru Berg said. ‘There’s an apron hanging in the scullery there.’
I followed her into the house. The scent of lilac laced the air as I brushed past a bush that was ripening by the door.
‘They’ll be coming down for breakfast soon,’ she said, pulling an apron from a peg. ‘Here, put this on and I’ll take you through.’
I hung up my shawl and looped the apron around my neck while Fru Berg went into the kitchen and began reciting a long list of chores and an inventory of cleaning utensils: linens, rags and polishes, which ones were best for which surfaces, and how long fabrics should be soaked and bleached, what time of day each meal was served and how that all changed if there were guests in the house. She showed me the basin, the stove, the stack of wood that red it and an array of pots and pans. I tried to follow what she was saying but was too overwhelmed to focus. As she led me through the house I was distracted by the fine ladies and important naval officers watching me from their oval frames on the walls. The smell of coffee and pipe tobacco oozed from the walls, and the floorboards creaked as we crossed them. The whole house seemed to be breathing with renewed life, like an old lady who seldom has guests.
The rooms were simple but had sumptuous furnishings. The spying windows were dressed with swags and the floors were covered with richly patterned rugs. Decked in ferns and potted plants, the parlour was deep green like a jungle and had high-backed chairs and a round card table in the window. Along the wall a piano was ornamented with more family photographs in silver frames. In the dining room a white linen cloth had already been draped over the table, and Fru Berg hastened to smooth it out.
‘Silverware’s in the drawer over there,’ she said, nodding at a dresser by the replace. ‘You can set four places. Admiral Ihlen sits at the head, Fru Ihlen here, with her back to the window, and Miss Tullik and Miss Nusse on either side.’
‘Nusse?’ I said. ‘She is a Miss?’
‘Miss Caroline,’ she said, ‘they call her Nusse.’
I took the cutlery from the drawer and laid it neatly on the table. I couldn’t help but think how much my mother would have admired it, with its curving handles and elaborate bevelled engraving. She would have loved the soft thud it made against the cloth.
‘When you’ve finished that, you can come and help me with the breakfast. Ragna’s off today, so I’ve got her jobs as well as all the laundry.’ She hissed the words at me as though Ragna’s absence was my fault. ‘You’ll have to work late and stay here tonight,’ she said, before returning to the kitchen and leaving me alone.
As if prompted by the prospect of night, a yawn rose in my chest and I set it free under the watchful eye of a man with thick black whiskers sitting in a frame on the mantelpiece. Photographs made it hard to see into a person’s eyes. They weren’t the same as paintings. This man had a broad forehead, dark eyebrows and a deep cleft in his chin. He was wearing a double-breasted uniform with heavy brocades and holding a sword by his side. But his eyes were far away and he seemed to be concentrating on sitting perfectly still. There was no story to be told in the image. He was simply a man in uniform.
I quietly laid the plates out and straightened the cutlery around them, then found the salt and pepper pots and put them at the centre of the table. I crouched to hunt in the dresser cupboard for eggcups. While I was bent down I heard footsteps on the stairs and straightened myself up, jumping away from the silver like a thief. When the door swung open, I stiffened.
The woman who entered was small and portly but impeccably dressed in an olive crinoline skirt with a delicate striped bodice. Her hair was greying at the temples and piled on top of her head in a neat ball. She found me with clear blue eyes, almost translucent, that seemed to have caught the ripples of the summer fjord.
‘Oh, hello,’ she said. ‘You must be Johanne?’
I bowed and curtseyed to her all at once, mumbling something about eggcups.
‘I’m Julie Ihlen,’ she said, ‘the admiral’s wife. Let me help you.’ She came to join me by the dresser and gently rested her hand on the middle of my back. ‘There’s so much to remember in a new job, isn’t there, dear?’ she said. ‘But don’t worry, you’ll soon find your way.’
Her voice was soothing and her tone was a treat, like whipped cream. Not even Thomas spoke to me in that way.
‘I’m told you usually pick strawberries in the summer?’ she said, opening a drawer and handing me some napkins.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I sell them in town.’
‘Maybe you can help us in the garden as well? We have rhubarb and gooseberries, and three good apple trees at the side. No strawberries, though.’
‘I can bring you some seedlings from the forest,’ I said. ‘They catch on well in the right earth. Like the ones in—’
I cut the words Munch’s garden from my throat and busied myself with the napkins, folding them into triangles and laying them on the plates.
A clock on the wall chimed and Fru Ihlen glanced at her wristwatch.
‘I’ll get the girls,’ she said. ‘We’ll be ready shortly. The eggcups are in the cupboard, on the right.’
I finished the table and hurried back to the kitchen to find Fru Berg boiling eggs and brewing coffee on the stove.
‘The hens have been generous,’ she said. ‘Here, come and spoon these out. I’ll get the bread.’
She disappeared into the larder and clattered around, gathering condiments and preserves. I could hear her heaving and cursing as she stretched to the high shelves, asking questions that had no answers. Where’s she put the . . .? What the devil did she do with the . . .? Now where does she keep those . . .?
She reappeared carrying a tray laden with jars and silver dishes.
‘Put the eggs in that bowl and cover them with a cloth,’ she said, ‘and bring the coffee.’
With my hands full, I followed her back to the dining room. At the door she cleared her throat, then elbowed her way in. When I saw the family gathered at the table I hid behind Fru Berg, grateful for her size.
Admiral Ihlen was sitting at the head of the table. He was a lot older than his wife and had receding grey hair that was slicked back over his strong brow, and wild whiskers that grew straight out from his jaw like an untamed hedge. He was a mature version of the man in the photograph who had watched me yawn. I noticed that in life his eyes were deep and kindly, like the warm milky coffee my father would make and secretly heap with sugar.
One of the daughters had her back to us as we entered the room. She was dainty and poised, but I could not see her face. When I looked up to see where I should place the coffee I caught the eye of the other daughter on the opposite side of the table. She had red hair and clear blue eyes like Fru Ihlen’s, but she had her father’s strong eyebrows. She was unmistakably the girl from the dance, Tullik Ihlen. The flame of her wild hair lit the room and gave her pale complexion a yellowish tinge that made her eyes all the more striking. She smiled when she saw me and at once I tried to hide my face. Did she recognise me from the night before? Had she seen me dancing with Thomas, kissing him in full view of all the Kristiania guests? A thread of my mother’s anxiety began to creep up my throat.
‘Oh yes, everyone, this is Johanne,’ Fru Ihlen said. ‘She’s come to help us for the summer.’
Fru Berg stood aside and I was exposed to the Ihlens’ collective scrutiny. Caroline swivelled round in her chair. Her face was also a mixture of her parents’, but her features were sharper, more pointed than Tullik’s. It was clearly Fru Ihlen, rather than the admiral, who dominated their daughters’ looks: the slightly slanted blue eyes, the straight nose and the pouty lips. All four of them looked at me and my skin flushed.
‘You live in Åsgårdstrand?’ said the admiral, his rigid face unchanging.
‘Yes, sir,’ I said, putting the coffee down beside him.
‘Sandy-beach or pebbled-beach side?’ he said.
‘Pebbled-beach side,’ I said, ‘up on the hill opposite the Jørgensen farm.’
‘I’d like to live there,’ Tullik said, her eyes dancing with mischief, ‘amongst all those painters.’
Caroline turned back to face her sister.
‘What would you want with the painters in Åsgårdstrand?’ she said, straightening the cutlery on either side of her plate.
Tullik didn’t answer, but rolled her eyes as she helped herself to a slice of bread.
‘I’m sure the views of the fjord are very inspiring from up there,’ Admiral Ihlen said. ‘Some of Herr Heyerdahl’s landscapes are captivating.’
‘I prefer his portraits,’ Caroline said.
Fru Berg turned and looked at me. I stepped back towards the door, hoping the conversation would move swiftly away from Herr Heyerdahl and his portraits.
‘Like the children he paints,’ Caroline continued. ‘The girls in the lane are very sweet.’
Tullik was pressing a slab of butter into her bread, stabbing at it with her knife to make it more malleable.
‘They don’t have the same depth as his paintings, though,’ she said.
I gripped the sides of my dress. It was the way she said his.
‘Whose paintings?’ Fru Ihlen said.
Tullik continued to engrave the butter.
‘Tullik? Whose paintings?’
Caroline shifted in her seat and apped her napkin out by her side.
‘Tullik,’ Fru Ihlen pressed, ‘whose paintings?’
Tullik’s eyes were fixed on the butter. Now that it was more pliable, she began to spread it haphazardly around her bread. Then I remembered his hands from the night before, swirling around the page like the dancers on the floor, capturing the curves of Tullik’s body and the wispy strands of her loose hair.
‘Munch’s,’ I whispered.
Before I even realised the name had escaped my lips, Fru Berg was waving her arms and jostling me out of the room.
‘Nils dear, do pass the coffee,’ Fru Ihlen said, shooting Caroline warning signals with her sloping eyes. Seemingly unaware of the unfolding drama, Tullik continued to paint her bread with butter.
Fru Berg was trembling when we reached the kitchen.
‘You can’t mention that painter’s name in this house,’ she whispered. ‘What were you thinking? You don’t speak of him at home, do you? What makes you think you can speak of him here?’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I didn’t mean for it to come out. It’s just that Miss Tullik—’
‘Miss Tullik nothing,’ she snapped. ‘You’ll do well to say nothing, speak only when you’re spoken to and get on with your work in silence.’
She banished me from the house and sent me out to tend to the hens. I was to clean out the coop, change their water, freshen up their hay and feed them. The job was hot and smelly. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the stench of stale droppings grew ever more potent as I raked and scrubbed, hunched over in the coop with the hens clucking and pecking at my feet. I made trips to the well, ducking in and out of the cage, careful not to let any of the birds escape. The mixture of water and vinegar I was using stung my nostrils and made my eyes smart. Within minutes, the matter was settled. I hated cleaning. Stuck inside the coop with Dorothea and Ingrid pecking at my fingers, I noticed the scratches on my arms from Munch’s garden. I didn’t mind those scrapes. I would have suffered any amount of stings and thorns and scratches to pick my fruit. I yearned for those bushes and cursed my mother for sending me to the Ihlens, for trying to turn me into something I was not and would never be.
As my thoughts escalated I became more aggressive with the rake and found myself slamming the pail until the water sloshed over the edges. Lost in my anger, I almost hit a hen with the edge of a prong when a voice came chiming through the cage.
‘He painted you, didn’t he?’
I dropped the rake and smacked my hand to my chest. My heart was pounding in my neck.
‘I didn’t mean to scare you.’
When I looked up, I saw Tullik leaning against the coop.
‘Miss Ihlen!’ I said. ‘I don’t think I’m supposed to . . . I mean, I should really be getting on with this, I’m nearly done.’
‘I’ll help you,’ she said. ‘They’re fine girls, aren’t they? Aren’t you, Ingrid,’ she muttered to the hen, ‘aren’t you a fine girl?’ She lifted the latch and climbed inside with me, gathering up the clucking hens in her arms, kissing them and lowering them back down again like children. ‘Here, pass me that scrubbing brush,’ she said, reaching for the bucket.
‘Are you meant to do this?’ I said, confused. ‘I still don’t know the rules. I’m sorry.’
Tullik Ihlen laughed a voluptuous, throaty giggle.
‘Rules! Who cares about the rules? Who even makes the stupid things?’ she said.
She unbuttoned her lower sleeves and rolled them up, delighting in the job that was the cause of my misery. She was wearing no apron or overalls, but she got down onto her hands and knees in her fine clothes and scrubbed the ground with the brush.
‘I used to do all of this myself, when I was a little girl,’ she said. ‘I always kept hens. It was my job to look after them. I fed them and cleaned them and collected the eggs in the morning. It gave me such a sense of pride, such satisfaction. I don’t see why I shouldn’t do it now, but I don’t know what happened. I turned twenty and all of a sudden everything I enjoyed was taken from me. Now I’m expected to sit quietly, say nothing and have no interests whatsoever. You’re so lucky, Johanne, you still have your freedom.’
I raked a pile of fresh straw to the side and turned to face her. I wanted to weep.
‘I love fruit the way you love these hens,’ I said, drawing a strawberry shape in the dirt with a prong of the rake and filling in one side of it to make a shadow.
Tullik gazed up at me with her exotic eyes.
‘You’re the Strawberry Girl, aren’t you?’ she said. ‘Herr Heyerdahl painted you – I heard Fru Berg say.’
‘I was just a little girl then.’
‘I hope I didn’t offend you. I mean, what I said about Herr Heyerdahl’s paintings.’
‘No,’ I laughed. ‘I agree with you. He paints wonderful pictures, but they don’t make me feel the same way as . . .’
‘As Munch’s?’ Tullik’s expression changed the moment she mentioned his name. She wiped her brow with her forearm and squinted up at the sun that was beating on my back. ‘Do you know him?’ she said.
‘Has he painted you too?’
‘Goodness. No!’ I said. ‘I’m sorry about earlier, Miss Ihlen. I don’t know why I said his name. Out loud. I didn’t mean to cause any trouble.’
‘Don’t apologise to me,’ she said. ‘I don’t care. It’s the rest of them. His name is like poison, salt in a wound in this family, after what happened.’
I didn’t understand what she meant but, sensing our conversation had already gone too far, I didn’t dare to ask. I laid the rest of the fresh hay and shifted to the other side of the coop. Tullik finished her scrubbing and threw the brush into the pail. We both bowed out of the cage and crossed the garden to the well to wash our hands. Tullik grabbed the pump and invited me to wash first. I rubbed my hands together under the cool water and splashed my dirty face and neck. When we swapped, I was about to start cranking the pump when Tullik laid her hand on mine to stop me. She glanced over her shoulder and looked back at the house, checking the door and the spying windows.
‘It’s my sister,’ she whispered, ‘she had an affair with him. They think I don’t know.’