Only three people came to his funeral.
One was the nurse who had looked after him during the last weeks of his life. She knew his name, or thought she did, but always referred to him as “the grumpy old dear in room 21A”. He had died alone while she was tending to Mrs Dahl in 13B, and she thought the least she could do was come to his funeral.
The second person was one of his old neighbours, a tiny woman with grey hair pulled into a tight bun. Mr Halvorsen, as she knew him, had always kept himself to himself. She hadn’t known him, not really, but he had been very kind that dreadful winter, when she had broken her ankle and couldn’t go out. He had never talked about himself. As far as she knew, he didn’t have any relatives. Perhaps they had all died in a horrific accident. Perhaps he’d lost his wife in the war and never remarried. Whatever the case, it wasn’t right that there was no one to see him off. So she had put on a black dress and her best coat and gone to his funeral. Poor Mr Halvorsen, she thought, as she stood by the graveside.
The third person stood a little distance away in the churchyard, in the shadow of a birch tree. He looked solemn enough, but his coat was a jaunty blue and there was a notebook sticking out of his pocket. Towards the end of the service, he wandered over to the graveside, close enough to intercept the neighbour and the nurse as they were leaving.
“Good afternoon,” he said. “I wonder if I might have a word. About Mr Halvorsen.”
“Oh! Did you know him?” the neighbour asked. “Are you family? I’m very sorry for your loss, dear”
The man in the blue coat shook his head. “Never met him. But I came across this old report, and -”
“Goodbye,” said the nurse, taking the old neighbour firmly by the elbow and leading her out of the churchyard. She snorted. “I know his type! A journalist, probably. We get them sometimes in the nursing home. They think everyone who’s old and alone used to be a spy. Or worse.”
Mr Halvorsen, as he was known to the world, suffered a stroke at the age of seventy-three. He made a partial recovery. Not enough to live independently, but enough to complain about the food in the nursing home. He never had visitors. He didn’t chat to the nurses. He never talked during afternoon coffee. He never showed the slightest bit of interest in anyone’s grandchildren. He didn’t play games in the lounge, and the staff knew not to encourage him, not since the incident on bingo night. In short, he was a loner, and that naturally made him a topic of discussion in the staff room.
“He’s an odd one, no doubt about that,” said nurse number one, who would one day attend his funeral.
“He’s not the only one!” said number two.
Nurse number three poured herself another coffee. “At least he’s no trouble. Though it’s odd that he never talks about his life.”
“Maybe he had a bad war.”
“Don’t forget the poor man had a stroke recently.”
“True. Maybe he’ll open up a little once he’s more settled.”
“Perhaps he’s just shy. We’ll probably get to know him gradually.”
They never did, even though he was there for nearly two years.
Before the stroke, Mr Halvorsen lived a quiet life in a little house in a part of town where nothing ever changed. His neighbours were all quiet, law-abiding citizens who greeted each other in the streets and took pride in keeping their lawns neat. Mr Halvorsen’s lawn was tidy and his house was clean and well-kept, but there was a severity to the straight lines of the garden path and the simple wooden front door that made it look cold. There were no potted plants on the windowsill and the curtains were a simple dark grey. It was not the sort of house where you went to borrow a cup of sugar.
Mr Halvorsen ignored his neighbours with a polite efficiency that ensured he was never bothered when there was a neighbourhood barbecue or a fundraising event. But he was kind enough, in his peculiar way. When the old lady next door broke her ankle, he kept her driveway clear of snow and helped her with her shopping. And when the neighbourhood kids broke his kitchen window playing football, he didn’t even shout out them, and he wouldn’t take the grubby handful of coins they had left of their pocket money “to pay for a new window” either. He simply handed them a dustpan and told them to clear away the broken glass on his kitchen floor, while he went off to the corner shop to buy ice cream. He became something of a legend among the neighbourhood children. They made up all sorts of stories about him.
“He’s prob’ly a secret agent,” said one boy.
“Or an astronaut,” said a girl.
“I bet he’s got a codename,” said another boy.
“I think he’s a mad scientist, making rockets,” said a third one.
“Yeah! His garden shed probably has tunnels under it, leading to a secret base!”
“With a laboratory!”
“Where he keeps his spaceship!”
“Maybe he writes coded messages to aliens!”
Mr Halvorsen would have been horrified to learn of his reputation.
Mr Halvorsen bought the house with the wooden front door at the age of thirty-nine. He chose the town because it was far away from the capital, and average in every single way. The town was too big for everyone to know everyone, but small enough to be overlooked by amateur historians and journalists looking for a scandal. There was a decent selection of shops, but no quirky little cafes that attracted outsiders. There were several factories on the outskirts and he found work in one of the warehouses. Simple, easy, repetitive work. He was a steady worker and most of his colleagues described him as “reliable”, because they didn’t know enough about him to call him anything else. He had no family photos taped to the inside of his locker door, no hobbies that they knew of. He didn’t even talk about football. In fact, he hardly spoke at all. Conversations between Mr Halvorsen and his colleagues were short.
A Friday afternoon…
“Hey, we’re going down to the pub for after work drinks. Want to join us?”
“No, thank you.”
A beautiful day in spring…
“Are you going skiing this Easter?”
And so on, and so on.
Still, he was a decent enough fellow, Mr Halvorsen, thought the other workers in the warehouse. He usually worked extra shifts at Christmas so those with families could have the time off. It was odd that he’d never married. He wasn’t bad looking, for his age, and there was nothing actually wrong with him, except his strange aversion to socialising. A few of the women made tentative passes. Mr Halvorsen responded by taking up fishing, which was the one hobby that nobody wanted to hear about. The smell helped, too.
Before moving away to the town where he’d live the rest of his life, Mr Halvorsen worked for eight years as a photographer’s assistant in the capital. It was a small business, just him, the owner, and one other assistant, but they did a steady trade. The war was over, the capital had been rebuilt, and people wanted photographs to remember their wedding days and the birthdays of their children.
Mr Halvorsen’s solemn demeanour didn’t exactly encourage customers, and he was not artistic at all, so the owner shunted him away to work in the darkroom. Mr Halvorsen loved the quiet magic of photographic development. There was something about seeing images appear out of nowhere that soothed him. He loved the baths of different chemicals, the precise timings, the red glow of the safelight.
The other assistant sometimes came into the darkroom, ostensibly to help him. In reality, Mr Halvorsen had to keep reminding him to set timers and to occasionally refill the developer bath with fresh chemicals. They went through this process every few weeks. Mr Halvorsen would spend an afternoon describing how all the equipment worked, the assistant would nod, and then go off again and spent weeks in the shop, smiling a salesman smile and forgetting everything he knew about stop baths and fixers.
On one such afternoon, Mr Halvorsen was clearing away a stack of overexposed prints when there was a tinkle of broken glass behind him, followed by a hiss of indrawn breath.
“I’m fine,” the assistant said, sticking his hand under the tap. “Broke a bottle, startled myself, washing off the chemicals now…”
A familiar, stinging scent began to fill the air.
“Out, now!” Mr Halvorsen grabbed the assistant by the shoulders and all but threw him out of the darkroom. Then he opened the windows and the back door.
“Phew, what’s that smell?” said the assistant. The skin on his hand was a little red, but it was nothing compared to what the inside of his lungs would be like if he’d stayed in the darkroom. The smell began to dissipate, helped along by a stiff breeze blowing in from the sea.
Mr Halvorsen explained, as succinctly as he could, about the different toxic gases which were formed when certain darkroom chemicals were mixed.
“How do you know so much about this?”
“I worked here a long time, that’s all,” said Mr Halvorsen. “I read the labels on the bottles.”
With difficulty, he kept the tremor out of his voice. But his skin was suddenly uncomfortably tight and his lunch was writhing in his stomach. He had known, deep down, that he couldn’t stay here forever. It was time to go. Time to run.
He chose a new name when the war ended. It was easy enough. So many people had died and the government records were a mess. Who would notice if a Mr Halvorsen appeared out of thin air? The laboratory where he’d worked had been bombed towards the end of the war. He found his old name on a list of those who were presumed dead, and breathed a sigh of relief. He was young and strong, he could start over. He grew a beard, moved to a ramshackle apartment on the other side of the city and set about reinventing himself.
He had been working at the research laboratory for almost half a year when war broke out. It was sudden, bloody and brutal. The capital woke up one morning to find enemy tanks in the public parks and the corpses of their own soldiers in the river. The government fled north. Resistance groups sprung up like mushrooms, but although he sympathised, the young man who would become Mr Halvorsen kept his head down. Here in the lab he could forget about the harshness of reality. He told himself that science was above the petty squabbles of nations. There was beauty and elegance that no invading army could destroy.
Then the head of the laboratory was arrested for sabotaging a railway line. There was talk of closing it all down. The occupation forces sent a general and a number of scientists with clipboards and sharpened pencils, who poked and prodded at every experiment. After a lot of debate the laboratory was allowed to remain open. Soldiers were posted at the entrance to the building, and background checks were carried out. Three more employees were arrested, but not the later Mr Halvorsen. He redoubled his efforts, spending long nights in the lab to coax secrets from the motions of his molecules.
At regular intervals, the foreign scientists came back with their clipboards and asked him about his work. He talked until he was hoarse, and they nodded encouragingly while they scribbled down everything he said. Sometimes he was asked to repeat certain experiments or make minor adjustments here and there. It was nice, he thought, that someone was taking an interest in his work.
One summer, a few years after the start of the war, the official newspapers declared that the occupation forces had won stunning victories on all fronts. He wanted to dismiss it as propaganda - after all, if they won every battle, how come there were still fronts? But there was talk of a fantastic new weapon. According to rumours, which were usually more reliable than the newspapers, there was a new type of bomb that released clouds of toxic gas.
“Quick and deadly!” screamed the newspapers. “Thousands of our enemies are dying before they have a chance to fire a single shot! The newest weapon is sure to bring us victory!”
That night, the man who would one day die alone as Mr Halvorsen, sat in his laboratory with his head in his hands and cried.
He was born on a Saturday towards the end of summer, the youngest of three children. As soon as he could talk, he began asking questions. Why was the sky blue? Why did dogs have four legs, but birds only two? Why couldn’t water go uphill? Who made clouds, and what were they made of? He could read before he started school, and at the age of nine, he could solve any geometry puzzle his teacher threw at him.
“Such a clever, inquisitive child!” everyone said. “He’ll change the world one day!”