Swimming Underwater | Merethe Lindstrøm | Trans. Marta Eidsvåg

Swimming Underwater

Merethe Lindstrøm

‘When I picture my childhood, it’s like I’m swimming underwater.’ Merethe Lindstrøm’s story is translated from the Norwegian by Marta Eidsvåg, and is the winner of Harvill Secker’s Young Translators’ Prize 2016.

Translated from the Norwegian by Marta Eidsvåg


The night before I was leaving he told us he was going to end it. Those were his words. The only one I’m unsure of is the last one, he could have said ‘all’, that he was going to end it all, but otherwise those were his words. We were gathered round the sitting room table, having dinner and talking about my upcoming journey. I was going to study in another city. I’d be the third to leave – my brother lived in the capital, he was also studying, only the youngest of my sisters was still at home. We’d spent this final week of our summer holidays together. I remember we’d been discussing money; my brother had been drinking. And that was when he told us. I don’t know if any of us thought he really meant it. Mother eventually left the table, and what I remember most clearly is her saying: You owe me more than this.

Father said nothing. We looked at him, but he said nothing. The year before, he’d kicked Tom out of the house. They’d been up late, arguing, I don’t know why, I was younger, it was none of my business, and then Tom disappeared for a few days and when he came back they didn’t really talk much. He wanted to give up studying. You have another son anyway, he’d said once, drunk, and pointed at me. I think Father laughed.

One morning a long time ago: I was six or seven, standing on a swing in the garden, a car tyre hung from a chunky tree branch, it was the summer holidays or just after, the sun was high, my shadow swung almost directly below me. It was hot; I swung towards a rusty barrel at the bottom of the garden, back and forth, until I suddenly thought to turn my head, as if I knew there was someone behind me somewhere, and I looked towards the house and saw Mother in one of the first floor windows. She was crying. I don’t know if she was looking straight at me; I kept swinging, but slower and slower, until I stopped completely, and my shadow was a hole in the ground below me.

It’s hard to say what she may have been crying about. I may even have been mistaken. Looking back on those days, I see her as balanced and happy, but that last word is a difficult one to measure. I’ve never asked her – if I did, she’d make light of the whole thing. She is rarely caught off guard.

There are quite a few home movies from our childhood. When I’m at home, I sometimes get them out. They make me sweat, feel like I’m flailing, like I’m in a dream, my clothes sticking to the surface of my skin. Seeing my youngest sister look like a young man – there’s a canine leanness about her. Perhaps she always looked like that, I just didn’t notice. The videos show two little women and two little men. We were all little grown-ups, and then suddenly we were grown-ups for real. There are nights when I’ll wake with a start, knowing exactly what I’ve dreamed about, though there is no fixed image in my mind. When I picture my childhood, it’s like I’m swimming underwater. I’m moving through the unknown, and yet I feel I should recognise it. Such helplessness: my eyes are open, but all is a blur, and whenever something comes into focus it is rarely what I thought it would be.

I call home every so often. My parents live alone now, but Mother is ever the optimist. She’ll tell me what’s been happening, Father will ask me how I’m doing, I’ll say I’m fine. I’ll know it’s my time to talk, and at times I won’t. I’ll go completely silent. I know I should say something. There’s a buzz on the line, remote voices interrupting my father and me. I hope you’ll come home soon, he always says before I hang up. We never speak of my brother.




Just after I’d gone to the city where I was to study, I received the letter. It was the kind of letter you don’t often get. I could tell from the envelope, the ink had run slightly, as if it had been dipped in water for just a moment. I carried it around for a few days; once I propped it up on the bookshelf in my room. I stared at it all night: the envelope, the lettering. I never opened it.

One of the videos was shot in the summer, in the yard outside the house. We’re all there: Father’s lips are moving, Mother enters the frame, waving, wearing blue shoes, she is small – my brother and I are already taller than her, we’re standing at the starting line of some impromptu race – and she holds out a plate of lunch, laughing. My eldest sister is holding the camera, Father shakes his head, in the background now, and Mother backs out of the frame. Father again, motioning the camera closer, making the videographer move too quickly, and then everything is a blur before we’re back in focus as we set off, running at the starting signal. The camera is on Father, his hands are on his hips, he watches us, shakes his head again, takes out the handkerchief he’s used to start the race, holds it up in front of the camera, gets too close. Out of focus. I think he is saying something, but I can only see his profile. He disappears out of the frame.

The next video is of a girl I brought home a couple of times. This is a year later; I was still living at home. She is on the outhouse steps. Her hair was brownish, but on film it looks red. My brother is filming, she likes him, watching it now I can tell from her face, but I didn’t get it then. Father is in the background, surprised by this young woman, she exudes a kind of experience I cannot quite explain or name. It is the first time my brother has been home without Father insisting on some form of contest between the two of us. The rest of the video was shot by me: she dances a little, Father speaks to Tom on the balcony, they sit, leaning slightly towards each other, I see their two heads become one, then two again. They looked a lot alike, the resemblance is striking in pictures from Father’s youth, but also clear in this film: Father is explaining something to Tom, whose gaze is elsewhere, he is looking out into the bright summer evening. Father waves the camera away, points to the barn, like he did when we were children: go play in the barn. That’s where they found my brother, a few years later.




The first girl I slept with was in the marching band with me at primary school, and then we finished secondary school together. She is the girl in the film. I was eighteen. A hot room, at a friend’s or an acquaintance’s house – this incident has left me with the feeling of breathing under a blanket, though there was no blanket there. It was summer, we were naked, she cried afterwards. I don’t know why she cried. I held her, her shaking body, and thought of Mother in the window, of what I had witnessed. I considered myself an onlooker, like I wasn’t even there, had never been there, I had no influence on anything, as if I were watching it all from a distance: Mother in the window, this girl. I did nothing, I wanted to be inside her again, to do something, but I was too scared to try, and I knew it would always be this way, as in a dream where you can’t move.




The summer I graduated we celebrated my eldest sister’s wedding, a big wedding – dinner at the hotel and then a reception in our garden. Early in the evening, I played football on the lawn with some kids, and when I grew tired of that I swung by the terrace, where Father had gathered some friends, men as influential locally as himself. They were busy debating, as always, all of them listening to Father. He was speaking too loudly to be interrupted. I needed the loo, had had too much to drink, and my sisters were occupying the bathroom with a herd of their friends. The door was open, and I remember smelling the scents – hairspray, perfume – young girls surround themselves with. They were busy in there, I even heard my own name mentioned. Rather than going upstairs I went outside, towards the tool shed at the bottom of the garden, next to the greenhouse, as I used to do – and would be punished for, although only mildly for this kind of offence – when I was younger. I leaned against the wall and relieved myself. I stayed there for a bit, hearing voices from inside. Through the cracks in the woodwork I could see my brother in the dim shed, he wasn’t alone, he was there with someone I didn’t know. They must have had quite a lot to drink. The other boy was down on his knees, had made a cut along his palm, I could see the blood, I remember thinking they were too old for this sort of thing. My brother did the same, cut, perhaps too deeply, there was a lot of blood, and they pressed their palms together. Blood brothers. I saw them lean towards each other, concentrating on the blood, Tom’s eyes were closed, in pain or something else, just for a second, but I’ll never forget his expression. I didn’t recognise it, couldn’t remember that we had ever shown each other such emotion, such lack of reservation, or whatever it was. I was on the outside, and I turned and went back up to the house, I remember, filled with a fierce, overwhelming hatred.




When I have the time and a few days at home I take walks with Father. Despite our distance from the sea he wears a sailor’s cap, and he’ll tell me stuff from when he was young, and about when he saw me for the first time, when I’d just been born. You looked like a mushroom with toes. But the last time we did this, we went to the old tool shed. He got out the materials for a shelf he was working on, that he was smoothing, shavings falling at his feet, and I had a beer, sitting on a chair beneath the window; we spoke softly together, and I stared at the cracks in the door. I looked at Father. His voice was heavy – he looked heavy, his arms as he planed. Heavy. Like he was suddenly feeling the weight of his own body. I got up, took a step towards him and stood there with my head bowed. I wept. He backed away from me, eyes on the plank. Don’t do that, he said, stop, don’t do that, pull yourself together.

But I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop. I stayed until he turned the light off and picked up the key. He went to get Mother. She came into the darkness of the shed, placed her hand on my shoulder, said my name. But it was no use. Father came back down and they stood, staring at me. I couldn’t stop. I told them: I can’t stop. I can’t stop.


Marta Eidsvåg’s translation of Merethe Lindstrøm’s ‘Swimming Underwater’ is the winner of Harvill Secker’s Young Translators’ Prize 2016

Photograph © Unsplash

Merethe Lindstrøm

Merethe Lindstrøm was born in Bergen and made her literary debut in 1983 with the publication of the short story collection titled Sexorcisten og andre fortellinger. Since then she has published several novels and collections of short stories, and a children’s book. She was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize and for the Norwegian Critics’ Award in 2008 for her short-story collection The Guests. The same year, she received the Doubloug Prize for her entire literary work. Her novel Days in the History of Silence won the Nordic Council Literature Prize and the Norwegian Critics’ Prize. Her most recent novel is From the Winter Archives, published in 2015. She lives in Oslo, Norway.

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