“Anna! Are you around on Saturday?”
Anna looked up from her desk and smiled at her colleague. She hadn’t worked here long, and she was so happy to have already made a friend. “I think so, Jess.”
“Sven and I are having some people over and I wondered if you wanted to join us? Just drinks and nibbles and company - oh, and you have to do a party trick.”
“Everyone has to do something. Play an instrument or sing a song or do a magic trick or something - don’t worry, it’s just for a laugh! But it’s fun. Oh, and if you don’t prepare something, you have to do a forfeit. Just so you know.”
Anna must have looked dubious, because Jessica said “Don’t worry, we won’t make you go first.”
“Do you do this at all your parties?”
“Oh no, I’ve just been taking piano lessons for a while now and wanted an excuse to show off. And it seemed like a fun idea. So there’s a piano, if you can play?”
“Well, you’ll think of something. Eight on Saturday, okay? I’ll text you our address.”
After some thought, Anna remembered an old skill - well, not really a skill, but it would do - and practiced a few times after work. Good enough. If everyone else turned out to be experts in the performing arts then she would have to up her game, clearly, but for a first time it would pass and hopefully not be too embarrassing.
She wondered who else would be there. Jessica had mentioned before, in passing, that they had had people over for other evenings, and Anna had sighed to herself internally - this job had been worth the move but it had left her a little lonely in a new city. This was a wonderful opportunity to make new friends and she couldn’t wait to see who she would meet.
Anna arrived a little after eight and there were already plenty of people at Jessica and Sven’s. Jess took Anna’s coat and sent her through to the kitchen to get a drink, where she found a tall man with blond hair opening himself a beer. When he saw Anna, he said “Hi, what can I get you?”
“Just a coke for me, for now.”
“Driving?” He filled a glass and handed it to her.
“Thanks. No, I probably shouldn’t have a drink before I do my - party trick. Might take someone’s eye out.”
He looked amused. “Most people seem more interested in Dutch courage. Though you’re right, too much of it won’t help. I don’t think I’ve seen you around before? Are you Jess’s new friend from work?”
“Yes! I’m Anna. Does everyone else here know each other?”
“Mostly, I guess - I’m Kris, by the way.”
“It’s nice to meet you. What are you going to do?”
He pulled a face. “I am, I regret to tell you, the man who brought a guitar to the party.”
“But Sven told me to. So. And I promise not to play Wonderwall.”
Jessica came into the room. “Kristoff, stop monopolising my new friend,” she said. “I didn’t bring her here for you. Come on, Anna, I want to introduce you to everyone.”
“Why did you say that?” Anna asked when they were back in the living room. “Is he a bit of a ladies’ man?”
Jess laughed. “Who, Kris? Good lord, no. I was joking. No. I don’t think he’s been out with anyone since that horrible woman broke his heart last year - he didn’t want to come tonight but Sven persuaded him - he’s Sven’s best friend from uni. Now, come here - guys, this is Anna, she’s new in my office.”
After about an hour Jessica seated herself at the piano and played a loud chord. When everyone turned she said “We now enter the entertainment section of our evening. Everyone in the room must take a turn, and anyone who refuses must pull a forfeit from the tin.” She gestured at a biscuit tin on the piano, full of slips of paper. “And once you have finished, you call on someone who hasn’t taken a turn yet. I will go first.”
She arranged her music, positioned herself, and played. The piece was simple, but she played it well, and everyone applauded at the end. Anna enjoyed it but her heart sank a little to realise that the standard was higher than she had thought; and that everyone genuinely was sitting round paying attention. Just as well she hadn’t had a drink; she would need all her concentration to not make a fool of herself.
Jessica nominated Sven to go next, and he stood and took a pack of cards out of his pocket. “Now,” he said, “Who would like to choose a card?”
After Sven’s card tricks, he chose “My best friend, Mister Kristoff Bjorgman, who is going to play us some beautiful music.” Anna twirled her empty glass in her fingers as the man from the kitchen muttered something, retrieved a guitar case from behind the sofa, and found himself a suitable seat.
He strummed the strings to check he was in tune, then said to the company, “This is a traditional Norwegian folk tune, that was taught to me by my father, and to him by his father.” Then he looked down at the guitar and started to play.
He was Norwegian. The fact gave Anna a start, because she was Norwegian, on her mother’s side - and the tune he was playing was even a little familiar, and reminded her of trips to visit her grandmother in Oslo as a child. When, on the second repeat of the tune, Kristoff started to sing in a pleasant tenor, she realised that she could even remember some of the words. How funny to have found another Norwegian speaker here in Arundel. She wondered if he was actually from Norway or had just grown up speaking Norwegian at home with a parent, like her.
Kristoff had a nice singing voice. He didn’t sound shy, but neither was he projecting or performing, as such; Anna got the impression he would have sang and played exactly the same if he had no audience. She found herself watching his hands. They moved so smoothly, practiced; the movement of his fingers was so precise, with the perfect rhythm and just the right amount of pressure on the strings. She bit her lip.
Then suddenly the song was over. Anna put her glass down quickly to join in the applause as Kristoff put his guitar carefully back in its case. Then he looked up, and straight into Anna’s eyes. His gaze was warm and level, and Anna felt the heat rise to her cheeks, but she couldn’t look away.
“Anna,” he said, and it felt as if they were the only two people in the room.
“Yes?” she managed.
“You can go next,” he said, and with a jolt she was brought back down the earth. He had chosen her to take her turn, probably because she was the first person he saw when he looked up. That was all.
Anna sighed, reached into her handbag, and pulled out her set of juggling balls.
It took over an hour for everyone in the room to finish their performance (or the one forced out of them by Jessica’s tin). Anna had to agree that it was a good idea for a party - or maybe you just needed the right group of people, all cheering everyone on and having fun. Everyone was friendly and chatty and she was having a good time.
After everyone had taken their turn, Anna was one of several people who headed for the kitchen to get another drink. Kristoff was just inside the door, talking to Sven, and he smiled at her when she entered. Anna was trying to think of a good way to bring up their shared cultural heritage when he turned away and said something offhand to his friend.
“Du fortalte ikke at Jessicas kollega var så vakker.” You didn’t tell me Jessica’s colleague was so beautiful.
Before Anna could say something, Sven had replied. “Anna? Hun er halvparten av deg, Kris, du vil knuse henne.”
Anna snorted so hard she launched herself into a coughing fit. She’s half the size of you, you’ll break her.
“Are you alright?”
Kristoff was closer than she’d realised. Anna cleared her throat and looked up at him. “I’m fine. Thanks. And I’m not as fragile as I look.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply -”
“No, I mean - you won’t break me.”
His face was the funniest thing Anna had seen all evening, much funnier than any of the jokes anyone had told earlier. Eventually he managed, “You speak Norwegian?”
“Doesn’t everyone? Excuse me,” and she walked over to get herself a drink.
“Anna, wait,” he said, following her. “I’m really sorry. Neither of us meant to offend you.”
“Do you really think I’m beautiful?”
“Da blir jeg ikke fornærmet,” she answered. Then I’m not offended.
They spent the rest of the evening talking, in one language or the other. Kristoff had moved to the UK from Lillehammer with his parents and sisters when he was six. He’d met Sven - who had come to the UK to study - through the university Scandinavian Society. Anna found that talking to him was the easiest thing in the world and it was only natural that, when the party was over, he would offer to walk her home.
“Can I ask you something,” he said, when they stopped at her door.
“Would it make things awkward for you at work if I asked for your number?”
“Why would it - oh, because you’re a friend of Jessica’s. I don’t see why it would.”
She waited. He didn’t ask. She raised her eyebrows.
“In that case,” he said, “May I kiss you goodnight?”