Another Time, Another Place (1964)
Short story from Lars Muhl’s Danish book ‘Skyggerejser’.
He was almost 14 when they sent him to Varde for the autumn holidays. He found a window seat at the back of the bus and sat looking out through the streaming window at the windblown and miserable mid-Jutland landscape, while the bus bumped along westwards through one little provincial village after the other. His case lay in the luggage rack with his fishing rod and chosen books. Even then, he couldn’t travel anywhere without taking his favourite books with him. It had taken him the best part of an hour to decide on Dickens, Lagerkvist and Hesse.
He sat and hummed to himself while the flat countryside outside slipped by like black and brown stripes:
– She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah, she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah, with a love like that, you know you should be fine, yeah, yeah, yeah, with a love like that!
He was to spend the holiday with his maternal grandfather’s childhood friend uncle Hans and his wife Bertha. He knew them only from photos and grandfather’s stories. It was a mystical land he was on his way to. There, where grandfather, as a boy, had shot blackbirds with a bow and arrow to put food on the table after his father died and he had lived alone with his mother who suffered from tuberculosis and so couldn’t look after herself and her son. He had heard so many stories from that time, of Varde and its surrounding area that he had created his own mental images of how it all should be. Bertha collected him from the station in Varde.
– God, how you look like your mother, she said and hugged him warmly as if they’d known each other for ever. He felt very embarrassed standing there, case in one hand and fishing rod in the other, in full view of some girls sitting and sniggering on a bench. Hans and Bertha lived in a pre-war detached house on the outskirts of Varde. That was before the time of the new suburbs, so the outskirts were not very far out.
– Uncle Hans has a bit of trouble with his blood pressure, she said while they stepped out along the high street.
There was soda pop and home-baked cake waiting when they came into the lounge. Hans had just woken up after his afternoon nap and his hair stuck out in all directions.
– Yes, one can definitely see that you look like your dad, he said and gave his hand a manly, vice-like handshake. And whilst Hans and Bertha argued as to whether he resembled the one or the other, he sat and ate cake and drank soda pop and looked at his parents’ wedding photo, which stood in a sea of family portraits on the dresser under the clock that measured time out loud on the half hour, as clocks do in West Jutland.
On the wall were three plaster ducks caught in mid flight. He became lost in his own thoughts as he ate cake and peered out of the window that faced the road where there didn’t seem to be the slightest movement. Not a car, not a soul. He was on the verge of regretting that he had ever come all the way out here. A whole week. How would he get through it?
– It’s perfect fishing weather! said Hans and took a brass horn out of the cupboard. Hans was a musician in his free time and member of the Danish Music Association.
– There’s not much money in it, said Bertha. – But it gives one a certain status, she chuckled and ruffled uncle’s unruly hair while he set the horn to his lips and played them a piece.
Over their late lunch Hans told him all the tall tales he had heard grandfather tell hundreds of times and that he knew by heart:
– In those days we fished with home made tackle, said Hans, perch and pike.
– And such like, said Bertha turning to him with a smile while uncle continued to prattle on in the background. Until Bertha got him to stop:
– Blood pressure Hans, blood pressure! He was quiet and gave her a squeeze from behind as she carried the plates out to the kitchen.
In the afternoon the neighbourhood wives came round. Bertha must have expected them as she had laid the right number of plates and cups out. Coffee and cake appeared at once. There were two types of homemade cake. His parents’ wedding picture was shown round and the discussion of whom he most resembled started all over again.
– Come on, said Hans, this isn’t for men. They pulled on their jackets.
– Don’t bore the lad to death with all your talk, shouted Bertha after them as they left. They walked towards the town. Hans seemed shy and they didn’t say a word. It was drizzling, but that was the kind of weather he liked best. In town they went to the market place and towards a shed behind the grocer’s. There, stood a small group of men about Hans’ age drinking beer. They greeted them while Hans pushed him in front of him:
– Here he is then!
The men looked at him intently. One of them said: – So, you’re from Århus, fancy that, fancy that!
Another said: – Does he fish?
– Yes, of course he does. It runs in the family.
He looked at Hans with surprise. Uncle had completely forgotten that they weren’t family at all.
– Can’t he say anything for himself? asked a third.
– They probably don’t say so much over there, the first man butted in. Then they brought out the beer, but he contented himself with a soda pop. The men started to talk about the weather and fishing and soon forgot all about him. That suited him fine.
When they got back to the house, Bertha was just about to put the meal on the table.
– So, did you get some real men’s talk? asked Bertha while she piled meat balls and stewed kale onto his plate. Afterwards they watched the news on the television. At nine o’clock they went to bed. Bertha had made up a camp bed in the sitting room for him. He waited until it was quiet and then got up and investigated uncle’s bookcase. It was full of all the Jutland classics: Etlar, Åkjær, Blicher and such like. In the end he found “The Scourge of the Swastika” by Lord Russel. He flipped through it. Pictures of mass graves, emaciated bodies that lay piled up in barracks, wheelbarrows and on lorries, pictures of cremation ovens, descriptions of unbelievable horrors and humiliations, pictures of well fed, uniformed officers with jack boots, peaked cap and riding whip. Pictures and descriptions from hell, which burnt themselves into his consciousness and made him cringe. How could such a thing happen, how was it possible? Who could think of such torments?
It felt as if he had just lain down when Bertha came bustling through the living room and drew the curtains. He got a glimpse of the best parlour while Bertha dusted. Fifties-rococo from “The Furniture Store” in Esbjerg together with a bricklayer’s apprentice in Royal porcelain. They drank morning coffee in the kitchen. He had to wait to go to the toilet because Hans had trouble with his stomach.
– That’s how it is every day, said Bertha, that’s how it’s been for 48 years!
– It’s perfect fishing weather, groaned Hans from the privy.
Later on he got his fishing tackle out. It was still drizzling outside. He borrowed Hans’ wellingtons, which were a few sizes too large.
– Just go down the road and then to the left and you’ll come to the stream. But be careful, the marsh is soft at this time of year!
Bertha stuffed a lunch packet into his pocket before he left. She waved to him from the kitchen window and he waved back.
Did they know about the burden he carried? Had they been told anything from home? The gravel crunched under his boots. It wasn’t very far. He went across a meadow where some horses were grazing. The ground became softer and when he came closer to the reeds he had to jump from tussock to tussock in order not to tread in a waterhole. It had stopped raining. He looked up at the sky and saw that it was beginning to clear up to the east. If they did know anything they weren’t giving any sign of it. A flock of birds flew towards the south. He parted the reeds and trod in a waterhole. Alarmed he pulled his boot towards him. It gave a sucking noise. The water closed immediately over the imprint and he was surprised by the insistent suck from the underground. He became more wary and tried the tussocks out before trusting his weight to them. When he got through, the sun was streaming down between the clouds and was sparkling in the flowing water. He walked along the bank where the ground was firmer and found the place where the stream was narrowest. The air was beginning to get warmer. He sat down and looked out over the water. The rippling sound calmed him. On the other side of the stream he could see a little dot moving over the fields. He began slowly to get his tackle ready. It wasn’t that he was actually very interested in fishing it was as much the mere act of fishing. The best hours he had spent with his dad were when they went on a fishing trip out at the Fish House near Moesgaard. They had rented a boat and rowed out to the open sea with sand worms and sandwiches. They had sat there each with his line and had jiggled for hours. It was in that stillness that everything else ceased to exist. When dad had his large rod with him he could sit in the stern for hours and stare far out over the horizon whilst his thoughts just hovered and flew out into the unknown. When there was a bite they helped each other to wrestle the catch onboard. There were times they had brought a whole bucket of fish home with them.
He laid the corks and flies on a stone and searched for a hook that wasn’t too rusty. Not that it mattered, it was just what one did. The line was all knotted up and it took him half an hour to unravel it. The sun was high in the sky and he had to take off his jacket because it was too warm. Even though they didn’t know anything, could they see it in him anyway? Maybe he should try to say more. It was just that the words wouldn’t come and before he finally said something it was usually too late.
He swung the rod out with outstretched arm, let go of the reel lock and let the float drop in. He gave it a meter, then slackened and pulled very gently to feel the current. He gave it a little more, then a little more until the line tightened and lay diagonally in the water. He pulled the reel lock in and sat back on the stone. The dot on the other side came nearer. In a way it was an advantage when people knew about his burden. Then he could relax and didn’t need to pretend. Needn’t wonder if it was apparent. He could go about his business without having to explain himself.
He gave the rod a flick. It felt good in his hand. Further along a trout jumped. He looked up and saw that the dot had turned into a person. He rolled his jacket up, leaned back and placed it under his head. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen, just blue sky and birds flying across it. Autumn was taking its time in coming. He shut his eyes and the pictures became softer around the edges. They shimmered just like the water that trickled by his feet, and he saw his little sister running over the grass in the direction of the lakes in the Botanical Gardens at home. He himself was standing on a hill shouting after her, but the words disappeared in the summer air and she ran on unhindered with her reins trailing after her. In the end she was just a little white dot. Then the picture changed. Now he was standing holding his paternal grandfather’s hand and looking up at the heavens. He was just seven years old and grandfather had insisted that he be allowed to stay up until midnight to see the devil’s cupboard pass by. The devil’s cupboard was the Russian “Sputnik”, the world’s first satellite. It felt like an eternity as they stood there looking into the starry depths. Then a little white dot came into sight and grandfather pointed and pointed:
– There it is, he said, there it is! He began to run down the hill. He shouted to her, but she was too far away to hear. He ran as if his life depended on it.
– There it is! shouted grandfather and lifted him up. And now he could see it, “Sputnik”, the world’s first satellite. Then the dot disappeared. He ran and ran, but his little sister was no more to be seen. When he arrived, gasping for breath, the lake lay smooth and mirror-like without a ripple.
– Have you caught anything? The voice reached him from far away. He sat up with a start and screwed up his eyes. He shaded them from the bright sunlight with his hand and made out the contours of a figure on the other side. The voice was a girl’s and he could see a shadow squatting down close to the water’s edge.
– Have you caught anything? she repeated. She spoke a dialect. He was now standing up and reached out clumsily to grab the fishing rod that was clamped between two stones.
– I’ve just come, he replied thickly, and began to reel in his line. When he had regained his sight he noticed a girl who must have been about his age. The sun flashed in her smile. She had braces on her teeth. Her hair was gathered into a ponytail. She began to undress. He looked away and concentrated on his fishing rod.
– I usually swim here, she said, do you want to join me?
He shook his head and stole a glance over to the other side of the stream. She had had a blue swimsuit on under her clothes and he could see that she had been out in the sun all summer.
He began to remove the fly tippet. The hook was stuck fast in his shirtsleeve. He heard a bump close by, which gave him a start. She had thrown her clothes, bound up in a towel, over to him. When he looked up she was already on her way across the stream. He took his time taking down his rod. He really wanted to leave, but knew that he had to stay. It made him uncomfortable to look at her. She couldn’t know what state he was in. She pulled herself up onto the bank just as he finished dismantling the rod and stuffed it into the canvas bag. She ran spluttering over to the bundle to get the towel. Cold water splashed over him as she passed.
– Are you new here? she asked as she rubbed her legs with the towel.
– I’m on holiday. He felt as if his voice was about to crack. He squatted down and fumbled with the fly tippet. The hook continually got caught on one thing or another. Surely she’ll go now, he thought and tried to steady his hands, surely she’ll go now?
– Let me! Her sunburnt hands came into view. She had her trousers on again. With confident movements she freed the nylon line and pulled the hook off. She fixed it into the cork and opened the catch on the plastic fly as if she had done nothing else her whole life. She sat so close now that he could smell the scent of summer skin and stream water.
– So! she said and got up. He got up as well. They stood opposite each other, but he daren’t look her in the eyes.
– Thanks, he muttered. He thought he should say something, but didn’t know what. It felt like an eternity. Now he wasn’t so sure that he wanted her to disappear. She stepped up onto a stone and he was afraid that she was about to go. Then he remembered his packed lunch.
– Are you hungry? He blurted out. He looked directly at her. She smiled and nodded:
– If you like!
He gathered up his jacket and found the lunch pack. It was completely flat. They sat on a stone. The paper crackled as he opened it up and he thought it sounded as if someone was banging on a thin metal sheet. The smell of liver paté and cucumber, and egg and tomato became blended with the smell of skin and water. He felt her bare shoulder brush his. Below them the water trickled. It was a new feeling for him. It was as if she knew of his burden. It was like sitting in a rowing boat out in the middle of the sea, far away from it. And he was ready to throw the oars over the side and let the boat float with the current, out to the horizon, away from the other thing, with her in the stern, without saying a word because she knew of his burden. He sat without saying a word, but still, in spite of his awkwardness, he felt as if all was as it should be.
She hummed quietly, gently rocking, with her chin on her knees, while she looked out over the water. He crumpled the paper up and put the elastic band around it. He wanted to ask her where she lived, but held back because he was afraid that words would spoil the moment. He didn’t understand that he was already in danger of spoiling it by his worrying. He was just about to ask, but couldn’t get the words out. His thoughts were focused on that one sentence that he couldn’t articulate. He was so taken up with that one sentence that he didn’t notice the wall he was building up. She broke the silence:
– This is the best place in the whole of Varde! Out of the corner of his eye he could see that she stared pointedly in his direction. But the words wouldn’t come.
– The Sibyl lives here! Her voice was warm. With her dialect she sounded brazenly self-confident.
– Sometimes she puts her messages under the stone over there! She pointed to a large stone lying between the reeds. He nodded and looked in the direction she was pointing. They sat for a while. He couldn’t take his eyes off the stone. Wanted to say something, not necessarily to seem overly interested, but because he wished to say something meaningful. But he remained silent. He felt his heart stop when she stood up.
– I have to go home now, see you again maybe?
She picked up the towel and shook it carefully, as if she was waiting for him. Then she left.
– I…! He didn’t get any further. She didn’t react, was already out of hearing. He watched her from behind as she jumped from stone to stone. He remained sitting until she was just a dot between the reeds and stones far out where the fields and the sky merged into one.
– Did you catch anything? asked Bertha when he returned.
– There wasn’t anything, he answered briefly and took his tackle out to the scullery.
– No, fish aren’t what they used to be, groaned Hans from the privy.
– Yes, he’s out there again, sighed Bertha putting cauliflower into water.
He didn’t say much during supper and maybe they sensed that he just wanted to be left in peace. Maybe they knew about it anyway? He said the cauliflower was nice and Bertha replied that was because it was home grown and that such things weren’t known in town.
– Cauliflower’s good for the stomach! said Hans and took another piece. Outside the road was empty.
That night he couldn’t get to sleep, but tossed and turned on the creaking camp bed. He could see her in his mind’s eye, the eyes, the smile, the brown legs in the blue bathing suit, her ingenuous, easy manner. It was very different from the girlish giggling back home, where he never felt at ease. There, he behaved so eccentrically that they ended up avoiding him completely. They said he was strange. Yes, maybe deep down they were actually afraid of him. They didn’t know that he couldn’t be bothered with their budding role play, which he soon realized was just an unsophisticated copy of the adult form. It was so predictable that it hurt. He tried to recall her voice, the dialect that without any difficulty found its way through all his barriers and challenged him so delightfully and naturally. He had to see her again. Invite her to the cinema. Make a connection. He curled up in the foetal position, tense and grinding his teeth with anger. He was embarrassed at the way he had behaved, which she must have seen as a rejection.
He took that tension with him into his dream. He ran and ran across never-ending lawns. The white dot disappeared and came back into sight in the closely-clipped landscape, depending on whether he was running down into a dip or up to a hill top. But all the while so far away that he had no chance of catching up with it before it disappeared into the fateful lake. When he eventually reached the lake his sister was gone and the run could begin again. It felt as if he was running inside a complex of Chinese boxes. Every time he thought he had reached the end of a path, he ran into a new box with a new beginning, and even though he, in the dream, recognized the dream’s manic monotony, he didn’t have the means to free himself from it. Until he, at last, ran into the heart of the complex. On the last run he reached the top of a hill. The white dot had disappeared. The lake’s surface lay completely still, like a bewitched mirror with tattered clouds and the outstretched troll-like arms of the willow trees. And out on the lake the girl in the blue swimsuit came into view. She beckoned to him. Suddenly all was dark, and he felt himself being sucked down towards the lake bottom. As he fought, panic stricken, for his life he clutched, blindly for something to grab hold of. Then he woke.
– You look awful, said Bertha, when he came out into the kitchen. She poured the coffee. Uncle Hans was in the privy. Outside the sun was shining.
Later that morning he gathered up his fishing tackle and set off for the stream. He found the place he was the day before and felt his heart race when he sat down on the stone where he and the girl had shared the lunch pack. He scanned the fields. The horses were still grazing. A swarm of gnats swirled in the air. Between the reeds the Sibyl’s stone glinted. He stood up and went over to it. There was a small indentation between the stone and the ground. Carefully, he squeezed his hand in. Nothing. Of course not. How could he be so stupid? Had anyone seen him? He looked all around, but there was no-one to see. He sat down to wait without thinking at all about his rod. Hadn’t she said that this was the best swimming place in the whole of Varde, and that she often came here to swim? Why didn’t she come now when the sun was hotter than it had been for a long time?
Had he scared her?
His awareness of her made him totally blind and deaf to the timeless stillness of the place. Suddenly, without her, there was nothing. He lay down and slid into the dream’s Chinese box-complex. The chase. The white dot, which now split into lots of white dots, each running their own way, leaving him alone in a prison of choices he couldn’t make. All went black.
He awoke because of the cold. The sky was overshadowed and the sun had disappeared. He stretched his stiff limbs and gathered his tackle together. There was no-one to be seen for miles around. He went over to the reeds. By the Sibyl’s stone he had a sudden impulse. It was totally irrational, but he did it anyway.
With the tips of his fingers he coaxed a little scrap of paper out from under the stone. It had been torn out of a lined notebook of the kind used in school. His hands trembled as he opened it up. “You were sleeping!” it said in dancing cursive letters. He ran to a little rise and looked out in all directions, but there was no-one to be seen. She had been there. There was no doubt. She had been there. The heavy tiredness vanished. He could hardly contain his excitement, relief, that inner exultation, which made him want to dance. He began to walk back.
– No, the fish are definitely not what they used to be, said Bertha, when he put his tackle and wellingtons in the scullery. They ate an early supper. Bubble and squeak with a fried egg.
– She’s bought brown sauce for you, said Hans and pointed at the well-known bottle, as if it was something highly exotic.
– We don’t use it, said Bertha, that sort of thing is only found in the better establishments! The price was still on the bottle. He didn’t actually like brown sauce, but poured a generous amount over the fried potatoes just to please her. She smiled proudly:
– There, you see, she said triumphantly to Hans, you see!
Afterwards he went down into the town. The note with the two words on it burnt in his pocket. The sun was on its way down behind the dark clouds. The dusty main street stretched into the distance. Outside the Central Café stood a knot of older boys round a Wohlert moped. He crossed over to the opposite pavement. The cinema was showing “The Sheriff from Dodge City” with Kirk Douglas in the main role. He waited until seven o’clock and went in to see it.
The film flickered by like a dream. A long, boring tale about a sheriff who had caught a criminal and now had to get him safely back to Dodge City. And, while he sat there in the dark, he wondered how long he was to remain lost on this B road he had turned onto. Would he ever be able to find his way back to the main road, where everything seemed to move without worries or problems? And what if it wasn’t possible, what if he had to continue into the unknown, where would the road take him?
As far back as he could remember he had had the feeling that he was a stranger who existed in a parallel reality to the one where normal people talked about Wohlert mopeds and the weather, ate bubble and squeak and meatballs, watched Kirk Douglas films and Perry Como shows and seemed to be happy to do so. Wherever he turned he saw people killing time, as if it was merely something to be got through. As if life was a waiting room, a kind of transition to something else. Because what might there be at the end of it all? Was there also a woman waiting for him with open arms, like in the film, where Kirk lifted her up and kissed her long and hard whilst the credits rolled over the screen? Was there also a weeping woman, waving goodbye to him, like in the film, where, in the end, Kirk rode out alone into the sunset, out into a new adventure just as the two words “The End” filled the screen? As if nothing could ever reach a conclusion. As if everything was in a constant state of instability. As if there could never be a uniting, and to say goodbye and ride off was the only decent thing one could do.
It was dark when he came out of the cinema. The boys outside the Central Café were still gathered round the Wohlert moped. They called after him as he passed them, but he couldn’t hear what they said. Then he heard running feet behind him. When he turned he saw two of them on their way over towards him. They looked silly with their brilliantined waves and provincial duck’s arse hairstyles. One of them had a cigarette hanging from his mouth. By the strangely awkward way they were moving, which was the result of seeing too many John Wayne films, it was clear they were trying to appear intimidating. For a moment he considered turning and running. He didn’t know what it was that stopped him, but instead of running or standing still, he walked towards them. They stopped, obviously surprised. Suddenly they didn’t look so confident. They stood, motionless, facing each other. It was like a dream. He didn’t know why he was standing there. Didn’t know what would happen. Knew only that they had suddenly been reduced to dogs that needed to mark their territory. The streetlamps cast an unnatural light on their faces and he realized that they also wished that this situation had never arisen. From far away he heard his own voice. It sounded dry and matter-of-fact:
– I’m sick…..I kill!
His eyes looked piercingly at them. There was nothing more to do. No other words needed saying. They stood a while as the sentence formed a bridge between them. The tallest of the boys blinked nervously. They didn’t do a thing. Then he turned round and walked away.
Bertha and Hans had waited up for him when he returned. He could see immediately that they were worried, but tried not to let on. They knew. Bertha began to rattle the cups, searching for something bright to say. Hans sat and looked down at the cake plate. Bertha reached out for the jug:
– There’s cocoa!
He wanted, more than anything, to scream. Not at them, but at himself. He was sorry. On their behalf. There was no longer a protective layer between him and them. Their uncomfortable situation was hammered home to him with six inch nails. The anxiety had vanished and he felt that he was like an open book, available to those who wished to read it. He had nothing to hide. When Bertha, in a last confused attempt to break through the tense atmosphere, poured cocoa into his cup, he saw in an instant her suppressed sorrow hanging in the air and reached, falteringly for her hand. He felt how her hand trembled in his. Their eyes met. Then he spoke the only possible word that could be said to relieve the situation:
But, even though he knew that the toppled wall in Bertha’s eyes was just a mirror of the toppled wall inside himself, and that they stood each on their own pile of rubble and reached out to each other, there was still an invisible veil of something, (he didn’t know what) that prevented them from making contact. Instead, their connection fell slowly apart. He saw that she knew it and released her hand, which then moved through the air towards the other that held the jug handle. He sat and looked into his cup at the creamy brown liquid and felt the words became long, etiolated stalks with large, thick flowers on, noticed them grow bigger and bigger inside until they came up into his throat as if to suffocate him. And he saw that they were like the painted roses on the saucer that whirled round faster and faster and formed an unbroken circle around the yearning pain in his chest so that the only thing he could say to keep that uncontrollable power in check was the one word “thanks” again and again – like a scratched gramophone record.
He woke early the next morning. His pillow was wet through. Under it lay the message from the Sibyl’s stone. The sun was on its way up above the house across the road. Bertha was already busy in the kitchen.
– You’re certainly up early today, she said. Everything was back to normal. The previous evening had been swept into a corner together with the crumbs, which Bertha painstakingly swept up into a dustpan with a piece of cardboard.
– That’s that, she said and wiped her hands on her apron. Coffee and bread was laid out ready. She was going into town shopping with her neighbour. Uncle Hans came up from the cellar. He was still in his vest and pyjama bottoms. His hair stuck out in all directions. He set a box up on the table.
– I found this, he said and began to struggle with the lock.
– I have to go to a meeting at the association today so I thought …! He removed the lid. There lay an accordion, white mother of pearl with silver trimming.
It’s an original Castello. I was once given it by a circus clown!
He brushed the dust off it. They drank their coffee in silence. That was what he really liked about uncle Hans. That was what made him different from most others. In his company silence became something natural, a language without hidden catches. One simply had to let go and allow oneself to fall into a synchronised reality that was conveyed by a smile, a kindly nod or a knowing twinkle of the eye which resulted in an invisible understanding, like when Hans pushed the sugar bowl towards him without him having asked and when he conjured up an accordion even though he hadn’t given such a thing a thought, but, which now represented everything he had ever wished for.
Everything was to be read in uncle’s eyes, including the message that he needn’t even think of uttering even one “thank you”, because they’d had more than enough of them. He took the accordion out into the garden, while Hans was in the privy. It squeaked between his hands and sounded at first like an asthmatic parlour organ with an out-of-tune wheeze. Some of the keys remained down when he pressed them and one of them only had half of it’s ivory left. He pulled the bellows full out and then pressed them together again while he held a double ground bass down so that the sound vibrated up through his arms and conjured up an old circus.
– That’s me accompanying you, commented Hans mildly through a ventilator slit from the privy as he broke wind. And he had to pull at the bellows while the ground bass tones rumbled and vibrated and droned in order not to die laughing, while Hans broke wind and called out:
Did you hear that one?
The shadows and the midges might dance themselves dizzy in the afternoon’s clear autumn sunshine, but, behind the lightness, in the shadow of the light, it lay in wait, heavy and sluggish and made itself known through the squeaking bag’s out-of-tune wind like an animal fighting to come up to the surface where it could breathe. And he pressed the keys and pulled at the bellows and conjured up long drawn out atonal waltzes, discordant, surreal hymns, bewitching tunes of deep longing, melancholic loneliness that lulled him into an hypnotic trance so that he didn’t notice uncle bring his trumpet and begin to blow small, delicate embellishments over the clinging, desolate, uninhabited landscapes. He had no idea how much time had elapsed before Bertha suddenly stood there with her full shopping bags.
– What a caterwauling, she said and opened the pantry’s wire mesh. It was time for Hans to go. He winked approvingly with one eye as he went out of the door.
He laid the accordion back in its case and placed it in the sitting room. The clock on the dresser said a quarter past one. He took “The Scourge of the Swastika” from the bookcase. Out in the scullery his wellingtons waited.
– I’m going for a walk, he said quietly.
– Remember, we eat at six! Bertha was already in full swing preparing the meal.
He sprang from tussock to tussock. It was by now well-known ground. When he parted the reeds and saw her sitting on the bank it came as no surprise. Even though he hadn’t dared hope, it seemed that it couldn’t have been otherwise. In spite of this, his heart skipped a beat as he went slowly down towards her. She sat with her back to him, engrossed in something or other, and didn’t hear him coming. He stood for a while and watched her. Then he kicked a stone to catch her attention. She was obviously startled, turned with a jump and stared at him. Then her mouth was transformed by a smile.
– So, have you had enough sleep? she said in her singsong dialect. He returned her smile. She moved a little so there was room on the stone. In her lap lay a notebook. He sat down.
– What are you writing? he asked quietly.
– What are you reading? she asked in return and pointed to the book which poked out of his pocket. He handed it to her. She flipped through it. Stopped when she came across a picture and studied it intensely. She sat for a while, put the book down and let her gaze wander over the surface of the stream as it flowed by.
– That’s what I’m writing about, she said looking directly at him. He wanted to avert his eyes, but made himself hold her gaze. It was like looking into a dream. A long-forgotten fairytale, like two brown islands in something unendingly white with two black lakes that lead to another time and to another place. And he saw a boy, his own age, lying in wait behind a bush with his flexed bow trained on a bird. He saw sputniks in unknown skies and white dots running across lawns, circuses and gypsies, mangled bodies and stiff uniforms, barracks and crematoria, long, etiolated stalks with large flowers which disappeared in a haze, and he knew that all was as it should be, that he was no longer alone on the path he was treading, there were others like him and he was one of them, a lonely shadow which had come to terms with destiny and which wouldn’t allow itself to be crushed by the pull of the darkness. And suddenly he felt the pull of quite another kind of force, a wild, uncontrollable desire to hold her close and kiss her. But he came to his senses when he felt her soft breath on his face and saw the sun glinting on her braces as she smiled and he thought he’d never ever seen a lovelier person.
– Lie down, she whispered, and drew his head down towards her:
– Now you can hear what I’m writing! He lay down, long, lean streak that he was, and laid his head tentatively in her lap. She picked up the notebook. Then she began to read in a low voice, like water rippling against a stone:
The little soldier walked out onto the bridge. The wind cut through his dirty uniform. The water was red, as red as the sun that was setting between the Bavarian mountains.
– Why not? He muttered.
– Germany is dying. Why not die with my country?
A car rumbled over the planks of the bridge. He drew back against the rails until it had passed. There were French soldiers in it. He began walking again, then stopped. Where was he going? To Munich? What awaited him in Munich? More grey faces. More defeated people. The lieutenant colonel had said: “Go home!” No papers. No train ticket. Nothing else, just: “Go home!” There were thousands on the roads. With their feet wrapped in rags. They were starving. They slept where they could. They stole. The little soldier looked back. He was alone on the bridge. On the opposite bank a metal post reflected the sunlight. Someone was fishing. A man in a long overcoat. The little soldier closed his eyes and pressed his knuckles into them. He stuck his tongue out between his lips. They tasted sour. He laid his hands on the rails. They were cold. Then he jumped.
She paused for effect. He was totally relaxed now. Her voice continued as if in a dream:
As the soldier hit the water he heard a roar in his head. A roar as if a vast number of people shouted his name. He noticed how his boots dragged him down. Down, down. He felt warmer. Then he saw a light. Like a torchlight procession. And masses of people. And amongst the masses, his mother. She came running towards him. She threw her arms around him. He shut his eyes and held on tight.
When he opened his eyes, a strange face was looking down at him. A cup of something warm was being held to his lips.
– Easy, said a voice. He was in a kitchen. The strange face smiled.
– Drink this, said the voice, it’ll warm you up! The soldier took hold of the cup with both hands. He noticed a stove and his uniform hanging over a chair to dry in front it.
– What a stroke of luck I was down by the river when you sank to the bottom, chattered the stranger with satisfaction.
– You’re all I’ve caught today!
He felt her hand stroking his hair. She went on with her story.
The soldier pulled the blanket up closer.
– Events have been too much for you haven’t they, sir? continued the fisherman.
– That’s how many of our people feel today. But it won’t do. There’s lots we need to sort out. You look exhausted to me sir. Stay here for the night. Her voice had become one with the stream’s gurgling:
The soldier stood up and began to put his clothes on.
– If you’re going to Munich sir, maybe I can help you, said the man in the kitchen.
– I have a good friend living there. I’ll give you a letter you can take to him. What’s your name sir?
The soldier handed him a soaking ID card and carried on dressing. When he was finished the fisherman gave him the letter. They said farewell and the soldier left.
“And the soldier left.” The sentence hung in the air; “And the soldier left.”
And he could see that little soldier walking on the highway. Below him rippled the stream. He opened his eyes. The sun blinded him. Then he said:
– What did the letter say?
Apart from the water there was complete silence. Her soft thigh was gone. He got up with difficulty. How long had he lain there?
– What did the letter say? he asked out loud. But there was no answer. He stood up straight and saw that she was on her way over the stream. She waved to him. Pointed past him. The stone. The Sibyl’s stone. He ran up to it. His hands shook so that he could hardly get hold of the letter. When at last he had it, she had become just a dot on the horizon. He opened the letter and read:
“21. December 1918.
Will you do me a favour and give this young man board and lodging until he can find some work?
His name is corporal Adolf Hitler.
Your friend Israel Cohen”
He stared at the spidery letters dancing over the paper. Fog danced over the fields, and behind him the sun sank beneath the horizon.
Roast pork and parsley sauce was already on the table when he got back.
– Right on time, said Bertha as she tipped the steaming potatoes into a bowl.
– Did you have a good walk? she asked cheerfully. He nodded and took his place at the table. Uncle Hans was in the hall removing his jacket and his stiff-collared shirt. He had been elected to the board, and in celebration, Bertha had set a beer by uncle’s plate and a soda pop by his.
– It’s not every day one has such an important person to dinner, she said archly. Hans went red with embarrassment.
– Oh, it’s nothing.
They could hear Bertha chuckling out in the kitchen. Uncle shook his head in despair.
– Yes, you know her well enough by now.
Yes, he knew her well enough by now, just as he knew Hans. And if only he could express his gratitude for being given this chance to get to know them, in spite of all the subterfuges, in spite of all the unspoken words, if he could, just once, speak out clearly what he really felt, he was sure they would understand. He just wished to see them happy, not tense and silly, but relaxed, like Hans when he broke wind in the privy, like the waltzes they had played together, like the tunes that went up or down, a semi or full tone at a time. Then nothing would ever again be complicated. Could they hear what he heard? Could they see what he saw? Did they also think such thoughts? How could they have lived together in this way for 48 years? He looked over at the cupboard with the brass horns and thought that, just maybe, the answer lay hidden there, in the same way that the answer to his own question lay hidden in the accordion case under the table.
Bertha had made a blancmange with cherry sauce for dessert. It stood and shivered when she placed it in the middle of the table. This was what it was like to be adult. In that blancmange he could see everything that adult life contained. With its yielding and stiff forms, a wobbling mass of starch and sickly stuff, with half a desiccated berry for decoration on the top. The good manners, that adapted and smoothed the way, which made every deviation into a terrible, unbearable secret and directed the deviants towards a shadowy, hidden life. And every time they tried to come out into the daylight, someone smacked them over the knuckles with a ruler.
He helped to clear the table. Hans read the “Vestkysten” newspaper. Afterwards they watched “Landbrugsmagasinet” farming programme on the television. At 10 o’clock they went to bed.
He couldn’t get to sleep, but lay for a long time trying to come to terms with the girl’s story and the episode by the stream, while he flicked through that gruesome book. He read one eye witness account after the other in an attempt to understand how it could have happened, how such an evil thing could have developed and how one thought in a sick man’s mind could become such an all-embracing, bestial reality. Did Hitler also have to live a shadow life? Had that fateful thought just been a reaction to the smack of the ruler? Did the terrible consist of the fact that everyone has, in the final analysis, to make his own choice?
That night he dreamt. He stood beside three gates. Over the first was written, “Try your luck”. It was covered in twinkling fairground lights, and in front of it people were queuing to come in. Over the next was written, “Arbeit macht frei”. In front of it just as many were waiting. Over the last gate nothing was written. In front of that one waited almost no one. He saw the little sister disappear through it. Then the girl in the blue swimsuit followed her in. Someone tried to push him into the queue in front of the first gate, but he struggled free and ran in the direction of the gate that the little sister and the girl had chosen. It was only after he had gone through that he, to his horror, realised that he was walking hand-in-hand with the little Adolf. He wanted to pull himself free from him, but little Adolf clung on and began to cry. He was totally alone in the world. Didn’t have anywhere to go. Didn’t know anyone that would look after him. He hit out at him. Wanted to chase him back, but little Adolf just cried and cried, begged and pleaded so in the end he felt sorry for him. Everyone had to make his own choice. But he felt shame and guilt, like two pieces of redhot iron, which branded him for eternity, and he knew the choice he was about to make was irreversible and dangerous, and that it would be considered sick. But he continued, pushing the shame down inside himself, and walked forward, holding Adolf’s hand, towards a distant flickering light.
He woke up with the rain lashing against the window. The smell of freshly brewed coffee wafted up from the kitchen. He lay there and listened to the water dancing on the roof and gurgling in the drainpipes outside. This was the last day. He was going home today. What he wanted most was to stay where he was. He wished that he could become at one with the calming sound of the rain. He wished he could be carried by the singing stream of water, out of time, frolicking through the pipes, out towards the sea and the oceans of freedom and peace. And out at sea the girl waited in a boat without oars.
– Autumn’s here, said Bertha, when he came out into the kitchen. Hans had been to the baker to buy morning rolls and Danish pastries. Out in the garden the brown leaves dripped from the trees and whirled round in the wind and the rain. And now, when the time had come, he gave up trying to find the words, but accepted, but they also whirled round in the wind and the rain somewhere in the depths of forgetfulness.
– I’m going for a walk, he said, when they had finished breakfast.
– Remember the bus leaves in a couple of hours! Bertha look worriedly after him, but uncle smiled and winked at him. The wellingtons stood out in the scullery waiting for him.
He ran over the gravel. The rain lashed his face. The horses were gone. Out on the marsh the mud sucked at him and he trod in the waterholes, but pulled himself out and just ran and ran. He didn’t notice the sucking of the ground under the surface that tried to get hold of him and pull him down. Even the darkest power in the world couldn’t get hold of him now. He had cashed in his chips. He stumbled through the reeds while the mud found its way over the tops of his wellingtons. Out on the river the rain fell in stair rods. It had overflowed its banks, and the water flowed over the stone he and the girl had sat on. The wind swept over the deserted fields. It moaned in the bushes while the reeds danced in step. He slipped on a stone, but got up again. At last; he got on his knees beside the Sybil’s stone and let his hand slide into the narrow crack. He stretched his fingers as far as he could, pressing his hand further in. There had to be a message. He searched out to the sides, but no matter how much he tried he had to admit that the crack was empty. When he came back, he was soaked through with mud and water. Bertha told him to be quick – there was just time to take a bath. Uncle had packed his case and Bertha stood ready with a cup of hot cocoa.
They went with him to the station. Hans had the case with the accordion under his arm. There wasn’t a soul on the Main Street. The bus stood ready at the bus stop. He gave them each a hug. Hans handed him the accordion and a book. And he felt the words burning like fire on his lips, as if they had found their own way, and nothing could now hold them back. So he said:
– Do you know the girl who lives on the other side of the river?
They stood for a while. Bertha’s eyes caught uncle’s. He described her for them, the brown eyes, the ponytail, the blue bathing costume and the brace on the teeth.
– About your age? Asked Bertha. He nodded.
She flashed a worried look at Hans. But, before she could say anything, Hans said:
– Yes, well, isn’t that Sillesen’s lass. Her that fell in the river and drowned last summer? He looked questioningly at Bertha. The rain pulled a curtain down between them. Bertha clutched confusedly at her umbrella.
– Did you know her? Bertha asked weakly, now looking totally at a loss. He didn’t answer, but turned his face away and stepped up into the bus.
– Greet them at home, Benjamin, they called out in chorus.
– And come again soon!
As the bus started he saw their upturned faces through the drops on the window-pane. They waved and he waved back. On the way out of the town he pulled out the book. It was “The Songs of the Rye” by Jeppe Aakjær. He flicked aimlessly through it and his eyes caught the marked passage:
“And there, where the stream forms an elegant curve,
as sweetly as newly found love,
while merry mosquitoes and dragonflies blue,
dance over the surface’s shimmering hue.”
The bus entered the miserable wastes, while he sat and watched the landscape drag its brown and black stripes after it. In the luggage rack above lay an old Castello accordion, white mother of pearl with silver trimming.