Sketches in a Norwegian bar

I’m told it’s the best pub in Oslo. ‘Lorry’. Maybe. But it’s wonderful, old fashioned in design, cosy, a small bar in the middle. You struggle through the clientele to order drinks. The room is on different levels, and there are plenty of alcoves allowing escape from reality and ruminate on the affairs of the world, or simply just observe people. The ceiling has been lowered, but above the bar there is broad indentation in the lowered ceiling, presenting a shelf skirting the ceiling above the bar with bottles of beer, old bottles, old beer all around above the bar. Undrinkable vintage and veteran beer bottles, hundreds of them. Unreadable too.

All around, the walls are filled with paintings, sketches, prints, a complete mix of styles, modernist, abstract, romantic, paysage. Were these painted by the customers? No-one pays attention to the art on the walls. I sit in an open alcove, the third different position on consecutive days, but a great spot to watch the clientele, and I can see a brilliant icon up the stairway.

At the bar, Jan, the painter, is hunched over his beer, his slightly crumpled dark suit and grey curly hair belying his status. His face bears the hallmarks of the artist’s struggle and alcohol consumption. Occasionally he leans towards the party of people beside him, joins in their conversation, or maybe begins a new conversation cutting diametrically across their own. One of the men comes round the bar to him. Jan pulls up the big black dustbin bag that has been lying on the ground beside him, half propped against the bar. He withdraws a painting with exaggerated patience and care, and hands it to the customer, a friend perhaps. The painting is dark and unnerving, a shadowy face, recoiling in unknown fear, not screaming like Edvard Munch, but catching the moment before the scream, that fraction of time when the face realizes something has happened and hasn’t quite worked out what, nor how to react. It’s simple, but stunning, the darkness and the fear, caught in narrow lighter brushstrokes. The customer buys, but no money changes hands, just another beer for the slumped artist. Maybe the painting is a paid commission. I would buy it, I think; well maybe not; I couldn’t afford it, for sure.

Two young girls enjoy their drinks, 18-20’ish, leaning towards each other whispering loud comments that I can’t hear. One has a thin summery dress, small flowers, very low cut, her breasts almost urge their way out. She leans forward, straightens her back, heaving her breasts upwards. They stay in, just. Her hand touches the back of her neck, through her long light brown hair. She pushes the hair up stretching and lets her hair flicker back down slowly on to her shoulders. Preening. The other leans across again. The shoulder of her dress has slipped down, revealing a wide black bra strap. They laugh, and smile to each other, and then exchanging words, scan the people at the bar. Sizing up the talent. Checking and teasing them out.

The lady comes over to me, her eyes smile long before her lips. I don’t understand a word. ‘Intellectual,’ she says, looking at my book. Her eyes laugh, and she turns to her friends, and they all laugh, looking at me. I don’t understand. Her face is angular, sculpted like a Bernard Buffet face, accentuated against darker background. The face that attracts and holds the eye in the group. The group is growing. Three girls sit on the same chair for a photograph, the youngest-looking on top. Then she moves round to the other side of the chair. She is wearing a thin summer blouse, and black and white patterned skirt, that rises up slightly as she leans her face against the others. Three girls posing for the photograph. A memory for the future. The youngest’s face dances expressions as she speaks or listens, very pretty. Shortly I get up to leave, the lady takes my hand, and says she writes too, and writes sketches. She is a journalist. The young girl sees I have left my chair, and she plants a kiss of thanks on my cheek, innocently, momentary friendship. They are celebrating someone’s 25th birthday in happiness.

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