The Skagerrak


For several months in 2008, every Tuesday and Friday, I took the ferry across the Skagerrak; the cold triangular sea that connects Sweden to Norway. It was a long commute. Too long to justify the worthless job in IT I worked for a Norwegian mining company just on the outskirts of Kvelde. But I had been forced to take it, being out of work for almost a year beforehand.

My friendship group in Sarpsborg had depleted and the night before my first day at the job I had found myself drinking alone, watching TV long into the night. I arrived into the ferry port the next morning hungover. A sheet of dirty grey cloud was drawn across the sky. Seagulls circled lazily overhead. The ferry sloshed into port, rocking this way and that on the small swells. Wrapped tightly in my coat I observed the other passengers waiting for it. Most were there for day trips, but several (I would come to learn) were regular commuters such as me.

One of these regulars was a tall, assured girl with long red hair and soft features. I could not help but notice her routine each commute. After boarding she would sit in the same booth and immediately take out a little notebook, and write in it throughout the journey.

It took me several weeks to work up the courage to talk to her. I sat down at her booth and looked out of the porthole alongside. I watched the water rush against the ship sides and the rain relentlessly batter the sea into submission. I tried to calm my nerves and think of what I would say.

"It has been raining like this in Sarpsborg for almost a week."

She looked up at me and smiled. It was a long time since I'd made a new friend. I felt unsure how to make appropriate conversation. In her silent I continued on.

"Oh, it really has been horrible in Sarpsborg."

She looked at me curiously.

"Sarpsborg is horrible whatever the weather", she replied.

Her reply gave me confidence, and we entered into small talk about the journey, the weather, and work.

Her name was Maja, and she worked at the airport in Sandefjord in some sort of financial position. She had graduated from the University of Oslo and landed the job at the airport almost immediately afterwards. She asked about my position at the mining company and smiled, laughing kindly as I told her about the incompetence of the staff and the daily chore of fixing printers and reconfiguring wifi.

She was also Swedish, and we had grown up in the same region of the countryside just outside of Umea. We talked about our childhoods. It was a cold, quiet part of the world to grow up in, filled with farms and woodland. A sense of nostalgia sprouted as we remembered local places together - the same walks in the same woods - down the same rivers.

Seemingly instantly we arrived in port. I reluctantly boarded the bus to take me the rest of the way to my job but my mind sung with thoughts of Maja and future ferry crossings.

Maja and I soon became close friends. I became an addition to Maja's routine. I arrived and she would pack away her notebook, cross her hands, and up look at me directly. In my enthusiasm usually I would have prepared a topic or two in the days proceeding and would start the conversation. Week after week we would talk, as the sun slanted through the porthole window, warming the patterned fabric, and the dark winter faded outside.

What impressed me most about Maja was her wit. After being presented with an anecdote about co-workers, politics, meetings, schedules she was quick to tear into it, turning and reflecting it upon itself, until what I'd said sounded not just plain wrong, but absurdly funny. I enjoyed preparing these little rants, and I loved to watch her mannerisms as she destroyed them. She would cock her head and looked at me directly with a sarcastic expression, or peer down at her hands before delivering a particularly brutal dismissal. I was besotted with her.

One Tuesday I arrived at the booth, having a prepared a rant about a particularly incompetent co-worker, but Maja would not put away her notebook. She continued to write in it as I sat down beside her, avoiding my gaze. I launched into my rant anyway, receiving only a simple "uh" of acknowledgement. She continued to look down and her long red hair hung over the top of her head like a veil.

I masked my panic by buying coffee from the shop. I looked out of the porthole. The sea was splashing anxiously against the ship. After almost fifteen minutes Maja folded her notebook away and looked up at me directly.

"I broke up with my boyfriend", she said.

I was deeply shocked. I had never imagined Maja to have had a boyfriend. In truth, our conversation had rarely ventured into personal matters, and I realised, although I had felt so close to her, I knew nothing of Maja's life outside of the ferry crossing. I was taken aback by my naivety. It seems I had imagined Maja as some kind of spiritual creature that materialised at one ferry port and de-materialised at another.

She quietly began to confide in me the details of the situation. I hid my shock and I tried to put aside my feelings of embarrassment. But I was unavoidably caught up in my own terrible little world. She finished her explanation and after various consolations I tried to move the conversation on as quickly as possible.

There was nothing to talk about. It was like my brain had been liquidated and dashed on the floor. The little world we inhabited had gone. In a panic I scanned the ferry for topics, passing over the interior furnishings, brown plastics, grey carpets, fake wood. Eventually I spotted Maja's notebook on the table.

"What do you write in that notebook?"

She looked up a little embarrassed.

"Various things... observations, some stories."

I didn't know what I had assumed. I had thought perhaps it would be related to her job at the airport.

"Could I read any?"

"Sorry. I've never shown anyone. It is too personal."

"It's autobiographical?"

Now we were back into territory I could handle - authors, writing, literary things. I knew several authors of autobiographical fiction from which I could launch the conversation, and went on from there. I plied the seat fabric with my fingers, and watched the slant of sunshine move slowly over the floor. When we arrived at the port she thanked me quietly for listening to her situation with her ex-boyfriend and we went our ways.

Our conversations continued, until the middle of the summer when I was offered a programming job at a media company in Gothenburg. I could not believe my luck. I'd been searching for a way to leave Sarpsborg for months. I waited until the last week of the IT job to tell Maya. She congratulated me on the new position and wished me the best of luck. I studied her response carefully, but if she had any stronger feelings about it she hid them well.

I arrived at the port on the last Friday but there was no ferry. I entered the harbour building and saw Maja seated in one of the waiting chairs. Apparently the ferry had been delayed due to strong winds. It might not sail till eleven or twelve at night. With nothing else to do but wait, we went and sat at the small harbour bar. It seemed Maja had forgotten I was leaving. We talked like old times, and as we drunk I found myself looked deeply at Maja, and I felt for once she looked back with large eyes, feeling warm and comfortable in the large, empty harbour building. Either tiredness, or the limitless departure deadline had brought down some kind of defence of hers.

The bar closed and we moved to the waiting chairs. The ferry had been delayed even further, and was now expected to depart at three or four in the morning. By this time I was feeling pretty tired, and we tried as best as possible to get comfortable on the cold steel waiting chairs. Maja fell asleep resting her head on my shoulder and I fidgeted trying to fall asleep as she had.

By three in the morning the sea had calmed, and a staff member woke us so that we could board the ferry. The air was now very still and a thick freezing fog had surrounded the harbour. We braced as we entered the outside. We walked slowly over the gangplank that passed spear-like through the thick air. Maja slept uneasily again on the ferry, rested against me.

Almost an hour into the crossing Maja awoke and we went onto the deck to stretch our legs and get some fresh air. I felt immensely tired, and gripped the outside rail tightly. Maja was alongside me, and we looked deeply into the fog as the ferry trundled slowly on, seemingly unaware of departure or destination.

The fog was so thick we were unable to see the sea. It felt as if we were floating in the air, as if we had risen above the clouds, or else below the oceans to a great depth. And it seemed, as the universe tried to calculate the infinite trajectory of our visions, that it must have broken, or stalled, because the passing of time in the outside world halted at that moment. And in that temporary eternity I grew old. In the time and space contained by the fog I lived out my life and died happy. Days and years passed. Jobs, weekends, holidays went by. I moved into a house. I got pets. I raised children and grandchildren. I explored the world, faced illness, remembered nostalgically the old times. And then I died and lived another life. And I died again happy in that one. And I lived many more lives, and in each one I died happy.

And then eventually I was reborn one more time, and this time I stool grasping the railing, with Maja alongside me, in the freezing icy mist. I felt full and content and I held Maja's hand as we went back inside, wondering if she felt the same.

We arrived in the ferry port for the last time. The sun had risen, and it drew thick yellow lines over the shadows of the Harbour. The trees stood still in the air, and the birds sang loudly, as the sound of traffic drifted in from the road nearby.

I said goodbye to Maja and watched as she boarded a taxi. I walked a little distance away from the road to watch as she left. Then, as she hauled herself into the car, she dropped her bag I saw a sheet of paper slip out of the notebook and flutter into the bushes. In that small moment the contentedness that had overflowed was flushed out, and I heard the sound of the cars louder than ever, and saw the grass on the roadside more precisely. I waited for some time for the taxi to pull out. Then I walked slowly over to the bushes where the paper was located and pulled it out from within the thick twigs. I read it greedily and stuffed it into my bag.

The move to Gothenburg went without fault. I was enjoying the programming job, and had a selection of new friends. There was a great sense of optimism. But I often thought about my time with Maja. I enshrined the note that had fallen out of Maja's bag in the draw alongside my bed. I read it often, receiving a little flood of warmth at the memory of her. But eventually things in Gothenburg slowed and stuttered, and I began to think less about Maja. Instead I missed the beautiful countryside around Kvelde, and the note, which I had once treasured, became a heavy force that weighed on me. It became a burden that drew my thoughts sporadically through the day. I was unable to concentrate.

I forced myself to again visit the port near Sarpsborg. It was a day like that of my first on the job. The sky was grey and overcast and the seagulls barked their expletives at the rusty chains that held the ships in place. Walking out along the pier I stood over the ocean like Neptune. I felt the crumpled note that filled my pocket and I pulled it out. I read it over once more, fearing what I had lost in that ocean, and what I would now come to lose over again in a small way.

I dropped the note into the wind, letting it be drawn to the sea. The water grasped at it as it hovered above the surface. It was pulled down and the cold water washed out the ink, flooding it into the fabric, rendering the words unreadable. I had given myself another chance to feel the cold contentedness of the mist of the Skagerrak.