Time has given the building an air of gravitas, and it bears its age well. I’ve survived this long, it seems to say. They’ve sacked and burned me, but I’m still here. Gamle Aker kirke, the Old Aker Church. The information board by the gate tells us that it was built in the twelfth century and that it is the oldest extant building in Oslo.
It is also a starting point for pilgrimage. Who knows how many have stood here in contemplation before finally setting off, heading north along the Old Kings’ Road, bound for Nidalos Cathedral and the shrine of St Olav, in a city now known as Trondheim. We have no such dreams today, we are simply passing through on a day’s walk around the city.
In the graveyard an anonymous bronze woman has become a focus for hope and tribute. A cheap necklace hangs from her right hand, while at her feet lie a clay bird, two Chinese pencils and a golf ball. Cutting across the grass to the right of the statue a young couple approach the church walls. He seems keener than she does, as if he has brought her here for a lesson of some kind. Resting his hand against the stone he lingers – surprised, perhaps, by how smooth the surface is. She hangs back, waiting for him, as if unsure what she should do next. He turns, walks over and takes her hand, leading her off towards something more familiar.
We continue our walk around the outside of the church. A car drives into the grounds and edges its way along the narrow tarmac path, obliging us to step aside and onto the tended resting place of a long-lived couple. At the wheel a young man, at his side a much older woman, her expression as worn and permanent as churchstone. Mother and son going to visit father’s grave, says Paloma. I nod.
Back again at the front of the church we reach a bench, empty except for a small black-and-white remnant at one end. I walk over and peer into the mug. A dried trace of coffee is all that remains of a moment of rest. Most likely the mug has been left by whoever takes care of the churchyard, by someone who knows that he or she will soon be back. But I am already imagining a pilgrim, a day or so to the north, out there now upon the road. I hear her in my mind’s ear, a Canadian singing a song by a man from across the border.