Dad died five months ago, which was either great timing or terrible, depending on your point of view. Personally, I don’t think he would have minded going unexpectedly; I was even tempted when I first heard to think that he might have fallen on purpose, before I knew the full story. It was too much like a plot twist in a novel for it to be just an accident.
In the weeks leading up to his death, my siblings had become embroiled in a heated argument about how to share the family estate, the holiday cabins on Hvaler. And just two days before Dad’s fall, I had joined in, siding with my older brother against my two younger sisters.
I learned about the row in a roundabout way. One Saturday morning, which I had been looking forward to, when all I had to do was prepare a contribution to a contemporary drama seminar in Fredrikstad that same day, my sister Astrid called. It was a bright and beautiful late November morning, the sun was shining, I might have mistaken it for spring if it wasn’t for the leafless trees reaching for the sky and the leaves covering the ground. I was in a good mood, I had made coffee and I was excited about going to Fredrikstad, pottering around the old city centre when the seminar was over, walking on the ramparts with my dog and gazing at the river. After my shower, I saw that Astrid had called several times. I assumed it was about a collection of articles that I had been helping her edit.
She answered her mobile in a hushed voice. Hang on, she said, I could hear beeping in the background as if she were in a room with electrical equipment. Hang on, she said again, still whispering. I waited. I’m at Diakonhjemmet Hospital, she said, her voice louder now, the beeping had gone. It’s Mum, she said. But it’s all right. She’ll be fine.
An overdose, she then said, Mum took an overdose last night, but she’ll be fine, she’s just very tired.
It wasn’t Mum’s first attempt, but in the past there had been such a buildup each time that I hadn’t been surprised. Astrid reiterated that everything was fine, that Mum would recover, but that it had been dramatic. Mum had called her at four-thirty in the morning to tell her that she had taken an overdose: I’ve taken an overdose. Astrid and her husband had been to a party that night, they had only just got home and weren’t in a fit state to drive; Astrid rang Dad who found Mum on the kitchen floor and called their neighbor, a doctor, and he had come over; he wasn’t sure that an ambulance was necessary, but had called one anyway, just to be on the safe side, and the ambulance had come and taken Mum to the hospital where she was now on the mend, but very, very tired. Why, I asked, and Astrid became vague and incoherent, but at length I gathered that ownership of our parents’ much-loved cabins on Hvaler had been transferred to my two sisters, Astrid and Åsa, without our brother, Bård, being told, and when he did find out he thought the notional value was way too low. As Astrid put it, he had kicked off and raised hell. She had been in touch with Bård recently because Mum would be turning 80 soon and Dad 85, which was cause for celebration; she had written to invite him and his family to the party and he had replied that he didn’t want to see her, that she had wheedled a cabin on Hvaler, that this was the final straw in a long line of financial favoritism going back years, and that she was only ever looking out for herself—as usual.
Astrid had been shocked at his words and accusations, and would appear to have told everything to Mum who in turn became so distraught that she took an overdose and had now been admitted to hospital, so ultimately it was really all Bård’s fault.
However, when Astrid had called Bård to tell him about the overdose, he had replied that she only had herself to blame. He’s so heartless, she said to me. He uses the most devastating of all weapons, his children. Bård’s children had unfriended Astrid and Åsa on Facebook and written to Mum and Dad how upset they were at the loss of the cabins. Mum had always been terrified of losing contact with Bård’s children.
I asked her to wish Mum a speedy recovery, what else could I do? She’ll be pleased to hear that, Astrid said.
Funny how random it seems, our meeting people who later prove pivotal to our lives, who will affect or directly influence decisions that will cause our lives to change direction. Or perhaps it’s not random at all. Can we sense that certain people might nudge us onto a path we consciously or subconsciously would have taken anyway? And so we stay in touch with them. Or do we have a hunch that some people might challenge us or force us off a path we want to take, and so we decide not to see them again? It’s remarkable how important just one person can become in determining how we act in critical situations, just because we happened to consult that individual in the past.
I didn’t drink my coffee, I was troubled so I got dressed and went outside to feel the wind on my face, to clear my head. I wasn’t handling this well, I thought, and called Søren, who of all my children knew our family best. He was surprised about the overdose, of course, but he knew about past overdoses, and it was always fine in the end, his grandmother invariably called for help in time. When I got to the transfer of the cabins and the low valuation, he grew pensive and said that he could understand why Bård was upset. Bård hadn’t cut contact like I had done; he had always kept in touch, true, he wasn’t as close to my parents as Astrid and Åsa were, but that shouldn’t cause him to be financially penalized, surely?
I rang Klara who was outraged. Playing at suicide was just not on. Giving family cabins to two of your four children on the sly and too cheaply was not on either.
My parents had every right to do what they had done, but in recent years they had frequently declared that they would treat their children equally when it came to inheritance. However, it had now become clear that the amount of money Bård and I would get by way of compensation for the cabins was remarkably low. That was what had upset him, I realized, and the fact that no one had bothered to tell him that the transfer of ownership had already taken place. I hadn’t been told either, but then again I hadn’t spoken to my family for decades. In the last 20 or so years I’d only had contact with my second youngest sister, Astrid, and only with a few phone calls a year. So I had been surprised when, on my birthday some months ago, I’d had a text message from my youngest sister, Åsa, whom I hadn’t heard from in years. She wrote that she had texted me happy birthday before, but must have used the wrong number. And then the penny dropped. Up until now they had been two against one, Astrid and Åsa against Bård, but now that I was involved, everything was up for grabs. I’d always said I didn’t want to inherit anything and I guess my sisters were hoping that was still my position, but they couldn’t be sure. It was what I had said to Astrid every time she wanted me to reconcile with my parents. It felt like Astrid was emotionally blackmailing me; she would tell me how much they suffered as a result of my estrangement, how old they were, how they would die soon, and why couldn’t I just turn up at Christmas or for a big birthday? It was probably Mum putting pressure on her, but I wasn’t moved by Astrid’s talk of old age and death, instead I felt provoked and angry. Didn’t she take me seriously? I had already given her my reasons. Explained that being around Mum and Dad made me ill, that seeing them and pretending that everything was fine would be a betrayal of everything I stood for, it was out of the question, I had already tried! I didn’t relent, but was provoked into growing increasingly angry, not at the time, but later, at night, on email. I wrote to her that I never wanted to see Mum and Dad again, I would never set foot in their house in Bråteveien, and that they should go ahead and disinherit me.
After I had cut off contact, Mum rang me several times; this was before caller ID so I couldn’t tell it was her. She would alternately sob and yell at me, and I felt physically sick, but I had to stick to my guns if I was to survive; in order not to sink or drown I had to keep my distance. She wanted to know why I refused to see her—as if she didn’t know—she asked me impossible questions: Why do you hate me so much when you’re everything to me? I told her countless times that I didn’t hate her, until I did start to hate her, I told her over and over, would I have to explain myself—yet again— only for the next conversation to be as if I had never even tried and I felt rejected, would I be rejected yet again?
The first few years after I cut off contact, these phone calls were deeply distressing. Mum would ring with her accusations and pleas, and I would get angry and lose my temper. Eventually they tailed off, then she gave up all together; I guess that she, too, must have decided that certainty and peace were preferable to the misery caused by these pointless conversations. Better have Astrid give it a try every now and then.It was a blessing, I thought, not to be involved in the cabin feud.
In the last few years, however, Mum had started sending me the occasional text message. Sometimes when she was ill, as most old people are from time to time, she would text me. I’m ill, please can we talk? It would be late at night, she had been drinking for sure, I certainly had, and I would reply that she could call me in the morning. Then I texted Astrid to say that I was willing to talk to Mum about her illness and her care, but if she launched into her usual accusations and histrionics, then I would hang up. I don’t know if Astrid passed this on, but when Mum rang the next morning, she spoke only about her poor health and her care, and perhaps she felt like I did after I had rung off, that it had been a good conversation. At any rate, she stopped dumping her disappointments and unhappiness on me and, I gathered, dumped them on Astrid instead, and it must have been tough on Astrid to handle Mum’s disappointments and unhappiness, so perhaps it was no wonder that she tried to steer me towards a reconciliation.
Because of the disappointment and unhappiness I had inflicted on my parents by cutting off contact with them, I was expecting to be disinherited. And, if against all my expectations they didn’t, it would be purely because it wouldn’t look good in the eyes of the world, and they wanted things to look good.
But all this lay far in the future as they were both in rude health.
So I was surprised when, one Christmas three years ago, I received a letter from my parents. My adult children had visited them just before Christmas as they usually did, as they had done since I cut off contact—at my suggestion because Mum and Dad seeing their grandchildren eased the pressure on me. And my children enjoyed seeing their cousins and returning home with presents and money and three years ago, a letter. I opened it while they stood next to me and I read it out loud. My parents wrote that they had made a joint will and that their four children would inherit equal shares. Except for the cabins on Hvaler, which would go to Astrid and Åsa at the current market value. They wrote that they were happy to bequeath their assets to their children. My own children smiled cautiously, they too had expected to be disinherited.
It was a strange letter to get. Very generous, really, given how awful I had supposedly made them feel. I wondered what they expected in return.
Mum rang me a few months after that Christmas. I was in a market in San Sebastian with my children and grandchild; we were celebrating Easter in a flat I had rented there. I didn’t know it was Mum, I hadn’t saved her number. Her voice was trembling, as it always did when she was upset: Bård is raising hell, she said. I had no idea what she was talking about.
Bård is raising hell, she said again, the same expression Astrid would later use, because of the will, she said, because the cabins are going to Astrid and Åsa. But Astrid and Åsa have been so nice, she said, so caring. They’ve been going to the cabins with us all these years, we’ve had such lovely times together that it seems only natural for them to get the cabins. Bård has never used the cabins, nor have you; would you like a cabin on Hvaler?
I would have loved a cabin on Hvaler at the very edge of the rocks with a sea view, except for the constant risk of bumping into Mum and Dad.
No, I said.
That was the answer she wanted to hear, I realized, because she instantly calmed down. And since I hadn’t been in touch with Bård, I didn’t twig what she was really asking me. I reiterated that I didn’t want a cabin on Hvaler, that I thought their will was generous, and that I hadn’t been expecting to get anything.
Astrid would later tell me that there had been a major row about the cabins. When during a visit to Bråteveien, Bård found out that Astrid and Åsa had got them, he had stood up and said that Mum and Dad had already lost one child—he was referring to me—and now they would lose another one, then he had walked out. I could tell that Astrid thought he was being unreasonable. He hadn’t been to the cabins for years, he had a cabin of his own, and his wife had never got on with Mum and Dad back when they still went to the cabins on Hvaler.
I was taken aback by her strength of feeling, but I didn’t say anything. It was a blessing, I thought, not to be involved in the cabin feud.
However, now it had escalated. Ownership of the cabins had already been transferred to Astrid and Åsa, Bård was furious and Mum was in hospital after taking an overdose.
Will and Testament is written by Vigdis Hjorth and translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund. It is on sale now from Verso Books. Used with permission of the publisher, Verso Books. Copyright © 2019 by Vigdis Hjorth. English translation copyright © by Charlotte Barslund.