February 10, 2018

I came back to Canary on a lark. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re bored and feeling morose. The Lachlan Valley School was opened in 1932, that’s what the sign says. I grew up in this school for better or worse, better at the beginning, worse at the end. Devo, the old groundskeeper, let me in. There were no students anywhere, no meetings to interrupt. A former student, graduated years ago, taking a look wouldn’t come to harm in these circumstances.

It’s strange how the most familiar places become strange over time. Each new class, each new group of students leaves its indelible mark. “Amy and Daz, 2017” written in a heart that’s been crossed out with a black marker. “For a good time, call Amy” carved into the side of a toilet stall, a telephone number carved below. I’d happily put $10 on Daz having written it in a pique of adolescent rage.

Looking at the walls and at the worn wood floors, polished but never replaced, puts things into perspective. I left 15 years ago, the floor has been polished at least that many times, the walls have been painted at least 4-5 times. But the past doesn’t go away entirely. The desks remain the same, graffiti from 20 years ago carved in. Declarations of eternal love, defaced by time and the anguished ex-lovers, can’t be easily removed from the bark of trees. The old tables outside won’t easily be replaced. There’s not enough money in the budget for a rural school.

Mrs Jenning’s classroom, room number 5. But it isn’t hers anymore. I met my first love here. The view out the window is the same, but… It’s now Mr McLachlan’s room. Who is he? His picture by the school office door didn’t reveal much. A bland, smiling man in his early 30s, a graduate of the University of Queensland. “How did he end up here”? I thought to myself. But then, sometimes it’s best not to go down those ambulatories of thought. The answer might be simple, a desire for a quieter, predictable life. Or, perhaps, it’s something else… The desperate decision of a man growing embittered by his failure to live up to his expectations, a retreat into a world where he wouldn’t be judged by too high a standard.

Those are the lessons that aren’t learnt from textbooks, editions of which that were published well after my time line the shelves waiting for the new school year to begin. When we’re young, we’re arrogant. We know nothing of pain, only inconvenience. Our cruelty and caprice, our flippant disregard for ourselves and for others comes because we, in a perverse way, know that we’re safe. Our parents support us, they protect us. Well, most of the time they do. We rarely have to fall, only stumble with the implicit assurance that someone will be there to soften the blow. We are cruel to others because we are yet to feel pain, to know what it’s like to hurt. We’re confident in our knowledge and ability because our failures result in inconvenience at worst. It’s when we’re away from these walls, away from this shelter that we start to become human – and when we start to find a way to protect ourselves from the knowledge that the world doesn’t exist for our benefit.

I’ve seen enough of this school. “2:21”. One night in Canary, tomorrow I will go back to Sydney. The streets of Canary haven’t changed. A few people have moved, a few have died. Some have moved in. But has Canary changed? No, I don’t think it ever will. A Gullah calls, a budgie flies past. The scent of eucalyptus hangs in the air. Those are the things you remember, the things you didn’t really find memorable. It’s like the scent of incense at a Catholic mass. It’s a part of the ritual that barges into your consciousness years later. But I must keep looking forward, I must keep going on with my life. No matter how frustrating the present, there was always a reason why one leaves a place behind.



Kagibari-ami Taishi.

December 17, 2017

Think of it if you will… A lad of 24 is walking on the pavement of a West Country county town. “Bother”, he thinks to himself as he realises that the zebra crossing he intended to use is closed – still. It’s been closed for weeks. He had hoped that it would eventually be reopened, but that’s contingent on necessary road work being completed. He keeps walking. In 50 yards there will be another one – this one will be usable. It makes little sense to him, the one zebra crossing that is out of order is the one that connects to the high street shopping area.

He picks up the pace again after the light turns green. It’s a brisk day. The wind is blowing in from the English Channel and a horrible winged mutant rat – a seagull to put it succinctly – is flying overhead. It’s only a few miles to the coast, this isn’t a surprising sight for him. He sticks his hands in his heavy wool jacket’s pockets. It’s 4 degrees, but at least the sun is out. He slows his pace by an antiques shop. It’s open. He goes in. He had looked through its windows many times, but it had always been closed – or almost always been closed. The shopkeeper greets him, but she’s busy with another customer – a woman in her early 60s. He quietly looks around the shop. He sees a plate. It’s 18th century English Delft.

He raises his hand with a “sorry”. “How much is this”? He asks her. The shopkeeper apologies to the female customer who apologises to both for hogging her time. The shopkeeper takes the plate from the young man. Turning it over, she says “It says £60, but I’ll take £53”. He things for a minute before handing her his Barclay’s Card.

He walks away, his purchase lovingly wrapped in last week’s local newspaper. Something about sheep blocking traffic on the highway is printed on the front page. He turns into a narrow side street. He ducks into a yarn shop. The shopkeeper is sitting with a group of women. They turn to him and greet him. He’s the prince of crochet, they often tease him. The shopkeeper offers him a tea or a coffee. There’s a plate of biscuits on the table. He asks for a Shirley Bassey.

“How’s your scarf coming along”, Karen, a 72-year-old retired NHS accountant asks him. “Brilliantly, I think”… He responds. He places his plate on the table. He removes a bundle of crocheted cloth by it, unravelling it. “I think I missed some stiches”. Karen takes it and inspects it. “Yes, there are a couple missing in this row and there’s one missing here”. The shopkeeper returns and verifies Karen’s account of the crime. “Just block it and stich a few rows on the edge when you’re done” the shopkeeper says. “I can lend you the blocking kit if you need it”. “Thanks. I’ll bring it back next week” he says. They sit together. The older women begin chatting again. He nods his head now and again, but his attention is focused on his scarf. Through a stitch, grab the yarn, turn over, pull the yard through, grab the yarn, pull it through the two loops, repeat.

At Tjörnin

August 16, 2017

Relatives and old friends observing the three Østergaard siblings, Inge, Oscar and Linus have long silently passed their judgements. Inge, the oldest, was the most ambitious. Oscar, the middle child, was the best looking. The precocious baby of the family, Linus, was by far the most intelligent. Less charitably, they concluded that Oscar had neither much ambition nor much intelligence.  His siblings thought much the same to themselves with the smug satisfaction that Oscar would be oblivious to their less-than-kind thoughts. As is so very often the case, consensus can be wrong.

Oscar completed folkeskole, compulsory basic education, with respectable, but not awe-inspiring, marks. Surprisingly, he plumbed not for a tekniske skoke, technical school, but gymnasium – the higher of Denmark’s late secondary schools. When asked by his gobsmacked parents and teachers why he chose to pursue something so unexpected, he simply said “It should be up to me what I decide to do with my life”. Thinking better than to pursue the matter, they grudgingly accepted his decision.

Oscar muddled through those years in a most unremarkable fashion. His marks didn’t impress and they didn’t depress. His teachers viewed him as a generally pleasant, but unremarkable student. Half the female  and some of the male students, including the captain of the school’s football team who’d never admit to finding any man attractive despite spending far too much time staring at his team-mates in the showers, dreamt of dating him. Oscar just smiled good-naturedly, quietly relishing the attention. Each weekend he went to Vesterbro for his part-time job at Joe and the Juice where he did just well enough to prevent the manager from being annoyed.

A winter holiday at Majorca shocked him out of his good-natured adolescent stupor. A pint or two too much beer and a black eye isn’t much to be proud of, whatever the reputation of the Dane in Sweden might otherwise suggest. For, however remarkably unremarkable as he was, Oscar hated it when people thought the worst of him. The only thing he hated more was seeing the expression of those who, as he knew only all too well, were convinced that their worst suspicions of him were confirmed. Most of all, he dreaded following his parents’ footsteps – the bland domesticity of the truly mediocre whose tubercular dreams grew more wan with each passing year before they finally died.

“Linus”! He called when he heard his little brother coming home. “Hey Oscar”! He said, punching him softly in the arm. “I want to show you something” the older brother told him. “Oh”? Linus asked. Oscar handed him a letter postmarked Reykjavik. The younger brother took it and opened it, reading through it carefully before taking a pause. “You’re moving to Iceland”? He asked at last. “Yes”, Oscar replied.

Oscar chose to forego many of the festivities that surrounded graduation from gymnasium. He was, surprisingly, focused for once. His manager, having no reason not to, agreed to give him a full time position for the summer. “Better a known quantity than a new trainee”, the manager thought. Oscar quietly set his earnings aside. Well, at least the crumbs that Denmark’s tax agency deemed he could keep.

The now thirteen-year-old Linus asked his brother one day in the early days of summer, or what masqueraded as summer in Denmark, “What have you decided to study”? Oscar responded “Environment and Natural Resources”. The mousey Linus was somewhat surprised by this. For the third time people close to Oscar were surprised at the course he chose to pursue. “Surprised that I didn’t choose sport, you little shit”? Oscar laughed, with an almost imperceptible note of sadness as he punched his brother’s side. “No, it’s just, it doesn’t seem like you”. Linus stopped, cut-off mid-sentence by the look on his brother’s face.

Oscar and Linus sat side-by-side, brothers, rivals, blood allies in absolute silence. After what felt like an eternity, Oscar spoke. “I know you call me the ‘daft Balder’. Did you really think I wouldn’t eventually find out? Did any of you think that I was unable to make out what you thought of me? My entire life I’ve been underestimated. My entire life no one seemed to think that I was capable of anything but looking good”. The two fell silent again; Oscar was at the point of tears. Outside, a breeze rustled through the leafy streets of Østerbro. The green leaves swayed like the tassels of a dancer’s dress. “I’m sorry”, Linus said, embracing his brother. Oscar and Linus started crying. For all their misunderstandings, they were always close. They were brothers and they were best mates. Oscar hugged his brother.

A year later, they found themselves sitting side-by-side on a bench at Tjörnin, the Icelandic capital’s picturesque lake. “It’s beautiful”, Linus told his brother. “It is. I’m glad I came to Iceland”. Oscar smiled as he said this; he looked healthier and happier than Linus had ever seen. “Why did you choose to go to Iceland, though”?  Linus asked, not sure if an answer was even needed with the overwhelming natural beauty and Oscar’s new radiance. “I wanted to go off on my own, to see what I could make of myself when no one has any set expectations of me”. The two brothers smiled as they punched each other on the shoulder.


Tokyo Sadness

July 13, 2017

I hate Tokyo. Each time I come here I hate it a little more. It’s so… sterile. There is no peace here. Sometimes I wonder if there is any humanity here at all. Tokyo is the sort of place that can’t be explained, it has to be experienced. No matter how many people are around me here, I feel alone. I feel so, so alone. When I was growing up in the Australian countryside the infamous tyranny of distance sometimes weighed heavily on me. But even then, even when I was alone miles from the next person, I never felt this lonely. At least then I had my own company. In Tokyo my irrelevance is made oppressively clear.

Were it not for work I don’t think I’d come here at all. Sometimes I look around me on the metro. School children who, in Australia, would laugh and show all sorts of cheerful cheek are silent – morose, even. The adults look mass-produced: black hair, brown eyes and the same black business suits. Whenever I can, I leave this place. Even the air here is heavy, a leaden stew of sweat, smog and silent desperation.

In the evenings, after meetings, I slip away to Ueno Park. There’s something about it that gives me space to breathe. At least it isn’t as crowded as Chuo, Shibuya or Shinjuku. In the alleys past the station there are many shops that show a side of this glittering sea of pulsating life that many will tend to overlook. There are the shoe shops with faux patent leather shoes for 1500 yen. There are the shops with cheap, late-model watches of European and Japanese provenance. Then there are the shops that sell cheap, sleazy suits to the legions of university students from the provinces seeking employment.

A memory that will always be branded into the flesh of my consciousness is that of a pair of shoes I once saw. I beg the reader’s charity for setting, kangaroo-like, off on a tangent. In my university days at Sydney I took in a Japanese flatmate. It was rather unexpected. We had several classes together and we hit it off. Hiroshi was his name. He, like many Japanese international students, had little experience of life outside his island nation. Like many Japanese, students or otherwise, the distinctness of Japanese life makes it difficult to adjust to any other setting. I had to laugh when he referred to me –an Australian citizen and resident of that country for all part six months of my life – as a “foreigner”. He was assigned student housing with a flatmate from Korea. Two months into his first term, the combined effects of excess drink, imperfect English and a poor choice of discussion topics – namely history – resulted in my receiving a midnight telephone call. Hiroshi was no longer welcome and needed somewhere to go. I gave him use of my sofa.

That marked the start of an affair of which I will always be slightly ashamed. He was in equal measures loyal and reliant. I was lonely and felt betrayed. In my adolescence I gave myself to a blue-eyed bloke who longed for his beloved Sweden. I despised him and his absence. What I didn’t do was go with him, however much he asked me to. These thoughts flash through my mind sometimes. Moments are like blossoms. They bud and bloom only to be carried away in the wind. No matter how beautiful, they are transient. Then again, isn’t that what makes them so beautiful? The fact that they will never last? Memories, dreams, ambitions, hopes — even entire lives — they come only to go again. There is no promise save that the cycles of life will continue, that all will be replaced.

This is going too far off topic. Forgive me. After seven months together, Hiroshi extended an invitation to stay with him in Japan. On my second visit to Tokyo with my company, I accepted. Like so many other Japanese young employees, he was indifferently paid and overworked. He lived in a rickety, post-war dosshouse at Ikebukuro. I can still smell the mildewed age of that edifice. It frankly should have been condemned. Rather, it would have been condemned had it not been for the seventy-odd boarders who would otherwise have to be housed in places they could ill-afford. In that queer Japanese tradition, shoes were left by the front door. On day I saw a pair of obviously cheap shoes that had been resurrected more than once. I never learnt who owned them and I never saw them again. But I will never forget that. It symbolises something of the struggle that so many young Japanese face.

I was fortunate this time. I was able to book a hotel room overlooking Ueno Park. In the early spring nights the plum blossoms take on a phantasmal quality under lantern-light. This is the time of the year that the elderly undertake that great Japanese tradition, ume-mi, plum viewing. This is the quieter, less known counterpart to the viewing of cherry blossoms – hana-mi – that takes place a month later. Hana-mi is for the young. It’s also become almost forced. Groups of semi-inebriated university students sit about under cherry trees because they feel compelled to do so. No, I have left that part of youth behind. It’s one of the great pleasures of passing thirty and being established in a career. I am growing more naff with the passing of each season and I can find no reason why this is a bad thing. Really, it’s liberating. I’ve paid my dues and can now enjoy an ever more agreeable ennui.

Thirty storeys below me office ladies and salarymen stumble home, past the burn-outs and failures of society. Underneath the road bridges tents stand providing their flimsy protection from Japan’s cold spring nights. It’s 10:20 in the evening. Tomorrow, I will return to Sydney. Tomorrow evening the buskers will stand by the entrances soliciting a few coins in exchange for their songs. Those made redundant will bide their time before returning home, pretending that nothing has changed. A cheap beer or two will provide cover. After work he had to go to a nomi-kai, drinking party. Many know that they will have to, sooner rather than later, take any employment they can find. But for now, saving face is imperative. They simply cannot bring themselves to admit that their employers could no longer keep quite so many people on staff. The vagrants will loiter where they can, people fallen too far for redemption, like Brahmins who ate beef.

I will return in autumn. Arne will be with me. I can’t deny him his wish to be with me after I tore him apart for having left me. Yet he was there. He was always there, even when I refused to accept him. Like the plum tree, he kept his promise to replace that which the wind carried away.  I can’t well play the wrongly-done when he kept his word and I took advantage of someone even more vulnerable. I will have to admit that I was wrong.

Their Mother’s Necklace

June 13, 2017

Pernilla sits in her favourite armchair watching the sunset while drinking a cup of coffee – Löfberg’s Lila, her standard brew. Summer in Sweden is the best day of the year. Were she not so tired, she would probably have gone out. Considering the circumstances, this would have to do. Her window was open and a mild breeze blew in, rustling a few casually places papers on her table.

Her mobile telephone sounded. “Oh, who is it now” she mumbles looking over to see who had the nerve to disturb her peace. It was her brother, Lasse. “Hello Lars” she says, using the formal version of his name. “Hello Pernilla. You won’t believe what I’ve found”. He answers. “Don’t tell me you’ve found the formula for converting lead to gold” she says facetiously.  Pernilla and Lasse had always had an understanding, an understanding stemming from their slightly skewed sense of humour. “I wish! That way I could finally retire. Oh, never mind, skatteverket would take their share of that”! Pernilla chuckled at the mention of the Swedish tax office, skatteverket, strangely one of Sweden’s most trusted agencies. “Remember mum’s old desk”?

Pernilla paused for a second before asking “Which one”? “The one she moved into her cabin a few years before she died”, Lasse responded. “Oh yes, that one. We never were able to open up all the compartments, were we”? She responded. “I found the key. Pernilla, can you make it tomorrow? There was something in there that I think you should have”. “Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow for lunch. Is that okay”? “Of course, I’ll tell Lotten that you will come”. “Please give your wife my regards and we’ll see each other tomorrow, then”.

After hanging up, Pernilla stood up and walked to her window looking out at over the Esplanade and the boats crossing the narrow strait. She picked up her mobile and telephoned Jiro. “Hey Jiro, it’s me. I need to go to Västra Torup tomorrow, but I should be back before too late”. “Okay, telephone me again when you leave so I can have supper ready for you”. “So kind” Pernilla thought as she hung up. Recently, Jiro had started cooking Japanese meals for her each weekend.

Pernilla was in a cheerful mood the next morning. The summer had been extended to two days this year. After showering and combing her shoulder-length blonde hair, she climbed into her white Volvo V40, turned on the radio and left for the farm where she grew up with brothers Lars and Olle.

As she drove out of Helsingborg, she rolled down her window and got caught up in the moment – one of those glorious, unforgettable moments that life gives us sometimes. The type of moment when we’re caught up in unbridled joy for no reason. She turned up the radio again and sand along with the song.

Kommer du tillbaka, kommer du tillbaka, kommer du tillbaka? För då minns jag vår tid i vinden Kommer du tillbaka, kommer du tillbaka, kommer du tillbaka?

Will you come back, will you be back, will you come back? Because then I can remember our time in the wind. Are you coming back, will you come back, will you come back?

When she arrived her brother’s two dogs – a golden retriever-based mongrel and something that might have, at one point, had an Alsatian sire ran around and barked at her car enthusiastically. “Get away from her” Lasse called out to the two canine miscreants. Pernilla called out over the din “Hello Lasse”. She shook her brother’s hand at the farmhouse’s door. “Hello Pernilla” Lotten said, getting up from the kitchen table. Lotten went to the old cupboard to get a cup for her sister-in-law.

Pernilla, Lotten and Lasse sat around the old kitchen table where Pernilla and Lasse ate together growing up. It was an early-20th century piece inherited from her grandfather who made it in his small shop. As the two women were drinking coffee, Lasse turned to Pernilla and asked “Do you remember that ugly IKEA vase mum kept as a joke”? “Oh god, that thing”? Pernilla laughed. “It’s gone now, in any case. I forgot to put the book-ends back in their proper places and managed to knock over a few books – and the vase with them”. “It’s no great loss”, Lotten said. “I found two keys in it, they looked like they could fit mum’s desk. After cleaning up the pieces, I went out to see if they worked. They did”.

Lasse stood up and walked to the sitting room where he picked up a small box. Returning to the kitchen, he handed it to Pernilla saying “This should be yours”. Pernilla thanked him as she took it and opened it. “This… This is mum’s pearl necklace”. The image of her mother as a young woman flashed in her mind. “She always looked so elegant when she wore this” Pernilla said when the shock had passed. “Yes. She always loved that necklace. Remember how she told us that she had to save up for a year to buy it”? It was their frugal mother’s one great frivolous purchase.

Coffee and Pastries

June 8, 2017

Linus Østergaard might be a boy of twelve, but he’s no one’s fool. The lanky, sandy-haired lad sat alone in his room at Østerbro staring at his suitcase. His parents, Pia and Mads, left on their mid-winter holiday to Thailand. The next morning his older brother, Oscar, was to see him off at Copenhagen Central Station before flying off to Majorca on a package holiday. What no one had considered was that Linus could not well look after himself for ten days.

After the aeroplane tickets were booked and hotels reserved, it fell upon that eternal source of mercy – the grandparents – to save the day. “It will be fun”, his parents told him. “Fun for them, anyway” he thought – biting his tongue. He was the third child and the only one of the three who was unplanned. His older sister, Inge was the apple of her parents’ eye. She, along with her Swedish fiancé Åke Sjöström, lived in Hyllie and commuted to Copenhagen for their increasingly high-powered careers.

Oscar was destined for great things. Everyone knew that, except Linus who quietly had his reservations. That blonde beast might have been blessed with the looks of Baldr and the fashion sense of an Italian model, but as Linus knew and everyone else seemed to ignore, he lacked the common sense that the Good Lord promised a beetroot. Linus was simply conceived, brought into the world and left to his own devices.

Linus would have to manage the long train ride from Copenhagen to Skagen alone. His grandmother, Trine, knew to expect him at 2:13 in the afternoon. That is, on the off-chance that the Danish State Railway actually managed to operate punctually.  Much to the chagrin of the long-suffering Danish taxpayer, Danish trains can be compared to functional relics that would not be out of place in a living history museum.

The chances that he would arrive safely, albeit unpunctually, were in his favour and that was no small consolation. Actually, Linus secretly relished the chance to spend time with his grandparents. Trine was an artist who supported herself as a seamstress, painter and craftswoman over the decades.

His grandfather, Sigurd, was a fisherman in his youth who worked in the Danish merchant marine for decades travelling to ports around the world. After an akvavit or two he’d regale anyone who listened with stories of his youthful exploits, after his third or fourth, his transgressions. Linus enjoyed hearing stories about his grandfather’s transgressions most of all.

Linus was woken up by his tablet. Never one to rely on den dristige Baldr, the daft Baldr, as he secretly called Oscar in his head, he set his alarm clock app for six AM – more than enough time to take a shower, eat breakfast and bludgeon his unconscious older brother into wakefulness – or at least what would pass for wakefulness by his standards. The two lads set off together after some hectic last-minute packing on Oscar’s part. Though he’d never admit it, Oscar was secretly appreciative of his younger brother’s precocious self-awareness. And ability to leave the house in time to avoid missing trains, or, more fortunately for Oscar, flights.

“Twenty minutes” Linus said, looking up at the train departures board. “Okay, hold on” the older brother said as he walked to Mad Cooperativet taking his younger brother’s empty water bottle with him. “Here’s something to eat”, he said, slapping Linus affectionately across the back of his head and handing him his filled water bottle. They walked down to Linus’s train together. “We’ll see each other soon, lille klaphat, little idiot, Oscar said as he playfully slapped the back of Linus’s head again.

The two brothers waved to each other as Linus went on his way, Linus retracting all but one of his fingers at the last moment, a mischievous grin on his face – something the handsome blonde figure reciprocated. Whatever their differences, Oscar and Linus felt a great deal of affection for each other.

The weather outside was suitably grim for a Danish winter morning, even the sun struggled to muster enough enthusiasm to make a half-hearted appearance. From Odense on, the train was lashed by a cold rain. Actually, Linus could understand why his parents and older brother were eager to go on holiday somewhere where the sun might actually make a proper appearance. He simply wished that someone would take him along for once, even if he was just a slender, mousey boy who was small for his age.

Somewhere between Randers and Aalborg the ticket inspector, a portly, middle-aged man with a pink, friendly expression plopped down on the seat across from him. “You have a long journey today, don’t you”? Linus replied diffidently “Yes, I’m going to Skagen”. “In this weather”? The older of the two asked, slightly bemused. “My parents went to Thailand on holiday and my brother went to Spain. I will spend ten days with my grandparents”. “Pity that they couldn’t send you somewhere with decent weather”.

The man smiled and said “I’ll be back in a minute” before getting up and asking a few passengers who boarded for their tickets. Linus stared out the window at the windswept trees and heaths. The ticket collector returned with a cup, a bottle of water and a small sponge. “I brought some things from first class for you” he said, laying the loot out in front of the boy. “Thank you”, Linus said, his voice betraying a note of surprise. “Are you from Jutland”, Linus asked him. The ticket inspector laughed and said “Yes. It’s that obvious, is it? I’m from Ringkøbing. You, I take it, are københavner”. ”Is it that obvious”? Linus replied with a wry smile.

”We will arrive in Frederikshavn soon” the ticket inspector told Linus. ”I’ll walk with you to the train for Skagen”. Linus thanked him as the man walked away. After walking into the next carriage, the inspector pulled out his mobile phone. ”Hello, Mette? This is Arnbjørn. We have a young passenger travelling alone. Could you please buy him a hot chocolate? I’ll give you the money after I get him to his connecting train”. After ensuring that all passengers alighted, the ticket inspector returned for Linus and said ”Let’s go”.

As they walked toward the blue train, Mette, a thirty-something brunette with brown eyes, approached them saying ”Hey Arnbjørn. So this is your young passenger” before she handed Linus the hot chocolate. ”This is for you, to keep warm”. As they watched Linus’s train depart, Mette turned to him and asked ”So he came all the way from Copenhagen on his own. How old is he, anyway”? ”He’s twelve, despite his appearance. I felt bad for him. It seems his family went on holiday without him so it’s up to his grandparents to mind him. He’s a nice kid, far smarter than he lets on. How much do I owe you”? ”Oh, don’t worry about it” she said, ”when does your shift end”?

Linus observed the emptiness around him. North Jutland is sparsely populated, save for summers when the half of Denmark that goes on a beach holiday is joined by hordes of caravan-driving Germans pouring across the border like a socks-and-sandals-wearing army. There was something light in the atmosphere here – something clean and bright, despite the rain and wind.

It was something so different, something that couldn’t be seen in Copenhagen with its pulsating buzz, its mass of humanity packed in on a tiny corner of a small island in a small kingdom. Linus felt light, cheerful. Perhaps it was the hot chocolate, but he felt a sense of relief that he was away from his parents and siblings. Looking up, he saw that his train was about to arrive. Outside, there were more and more yellow buildings – the colour of Skagen.

Linus looked up as he alighted. The sky was a veritable battlefield of light and clouds. Unlike Copenhagen with its heavy, grey winter pallor, Skagen was an explosion of pristine light. His trance was broken by a hand on his shoulder. “There you are, Linus”. His grandmother hugged him. “Let’s go, I’m sure you’ve had enough of sitting”. “Hello, mormor” he said, returning her embrace.

He dragged his small suitcase behind him as they set off together along Sankt Laurentii Vej. “How was the train”? His grandmother asked him. “It was fine”, the boy responded. “The ticket inspector gave me tea, a bottle of water, hot chocolate and a snack”. “That’s unusual”, she chortled. “I didn’t expect it, either” he replied. The streets were almost empty; many shops were closed for the season.

Grandmother and grandson turned right and walked along Sveavej to the house she was born in, was raised in and inherited. Her father before her was born and raised in this house, the house his grandfather built as the 19th century came to a close. It shared its pale yellow colour with so many other houses around it.

Linus knew this house from summers past, when all three siblings and both parents came for summer holidays. In those half-forgotten halcyon days Oscar and Linus had to share a small attic room, something neither of the brothers particularly enjoyed. For these ten days Linus would have this room with its small window overlooking the port to himself. “Welcome, Linus, Welcome” his grandfather said as he rose to greet him. Linus shook his grandfather’s hand as the smells of the house embraced him. Fresh coffee mixed with the scent of kanel snegle , cinnamon buns, baking in the oven, traces of pipe tobacco smoke mingling with birch wood burning in the fireplace.

It was the scent of an old Danish winter – something that you instinctively remember even if it is an experience you’ve never had before. The old man picked up Linus’s suitcase and carried it up the stairs for him, setting it in front of his bed. Linus looked through his window – the sun was vanquishing the clouds, a cold, clear light.

Back in their sitting room, Trine had set the table in front of the fireplace: three cups for coffee, sugar and milk and a small basket of kanel snegle.  “Did you bake these, mormor”? Linus asked. “Heavens no” she laughed, “this is all your grandfather’s doing. I can’t bake, only cremate”. “I didn’t know you could bake, morfar” Linus told his grandfather. “I learnt to bake on the seas” the old man said. “We were homesick and if we wanted anything, we had to learn to do it ourselves. Your grandmother never complained about it”. They say together chattering away, laughing as wood crackled.

“Do you paint”? Trine asked Linus the next day. “I like to paint” Linus said. “Then we can paint together this afternoon, by the lighthouse, if the weather holds” she told him. And that is what they did. Trine packed two easels and sets of water colours with enough paper to make as many errors as the most shameless heart desired.

They drove together in Trine’s ancient Volvo saloon. “I’m not a good painter”, Linus said as they passed the dunes and war bunkers. “You haven’t found your style” his grandmother told him with a knowing smile. She pulled to the side half a mile north of a lighthouse. “This is as good a place as any”, she said as they took out their equipment and set up their chairs on the sand.

A cold breeze blew in from the Baltic Sea as they adjusted their positions. Trine mixed her paints, the delicate colours feebly mimicking what they had before them. Linus stared ahead of him, silently, a dour expression fixed on his face. “What should I paint”? he asked Trine at last. “Paint what you want to see” she told him. And so he did, as the sun started to set.

He painted the colours of the sky, the honeyed light reflecting off the sea. He painted the grass and the driftwood. “It looks clumsy” he said, inspecting his work in the early evening’s dying light. “No, it’s what you thought” Trine said. “The lighthouse is too small, the grass is too tall and the sky hits the ground sometimes”. “The sky always hits the ground, Linus” Trine answered as they packed up their equipment. They drove home together.

The next evening Linus sat with his grandfather watching as he carved a piece of driftwood. “I didn’t know that you had a tattoo, morfar” he told the old man. “Only the one” he said, chuckling. “Did you get it because you were a fisherman”? The boy asked. “No, no” Sigurd said as he put down the knife and turned the piece of wood over and over again in his hands.

The old man traded the wood for a glass of akvavit sitting on the table and took a few sips. “I was in Hong Kong in 1959. We had a few days in the city and the lads and I went exploring. It was my first year in the merchant marine. We saw a tattoo parlour that offered free beers to woo customers. Well, we sat there for at least two hours taking advantage of their hospitality.

They were on to us after a while. The owner came back and slammed a few San Miguel beers in front of us and said ‘These are your last beers, either get a tattoo or get out’. Judging by the menace in his eyes, we knew he wasn’t joking. We looked at each other. If we had had any sense, we would have left quietly before he had a chance to come back. But after at least six beers each, we didn’t have much sense left. We drew lots and I came out with the short straw. When the owner came back, I volunteered my left shoulder for a small, blue anchor”. The old man picked up his knife and the piece of driftwood and started carving again.

Those days blended into each other seamlessly. One after another, under golden sunsets, sleet or pouring rain the endless succession of time continued its relentless pace. Two days before he was to return to Copenhagen, Linus was once again sitting with his grandmother in front of an easel by Grenen, where the Baltic and North Seas meet. Linus looked at the waters, green to the left, blue to the right.

Linus mixed his paints pensively. “I still can’t paint well” he said, with a dispirited tone. “Everyone is always learning to paint” his grandmother told him. “But you paint well” he said. “I paint my subjectivity” she told him. “Your what?” he asked, a little confused. “When you go to school, when you read maths, sciences and history you learn to live in objectivity. When you paint, you learn to show your subjectivity. You paint what you want to see and how you want to see it. Don’t paint a picture as if you were a camera, paint your impression of what you see”.  “But Michael Ancher” Linus said, before Trine cut him off mid-sentence. “You’re Linus Østergaard, not Michael Ancher. Paint like Linus Østergaard. That is who you are and who you are becoming, let Ancher have his style”. Linus accepted this. Or, rather, he couldn’t yet find a superior argument to his grandmother’s.

Linus looked at the old clock sadly. It was his last night in Skagen. He wasn’t excited about the seven-hour trip back to Copenhagen, and he wasn’t keen to return to the life he had almost forgotten. He knew his best mate, Felix, would be happy to see him again and he knew that the Daft Baldr would, despite himself, hug him perhaps a little too hard in an effort to obscure fraternal affection.

His parents, in their way, would be eager to exchange stories and tell of their holiday on the Andaman Sea and give him a few pieces of tat they bought in some dodgy tourist trap. “Your mother just telephoned”, Sigurd told him with a mischievous gleam in his eye.  “Oscar has a black eye that he won in a pub fight. It seems as if he decided to argue the virtues of LFC after a few too many beers with some hooligans from Manchester. Your parents both have food poisoning and barely left their hotel”. The sting of departure was thus dulled in sadistic mirth.

Trine and Sigurd watched as Linus’s train pulled away to Frederikshavn after lunch the next day. They gave him chocolate, kanel snegle, a wedge of cheese, a chunk of ham and some slices of rye bread. They waved, Linus waved, as the train disappeared into the distance.

Nine Years Later

May 22, 2017

It’s just past eight in the evening on 21 June 2013 and Benno May grumpily unpacks his suitcase. He returned that morning from one of his employer’s interminable business trips to Tokyo. It’s not that Benno dislikes Tokyo, although he does find it sterile and lacking in the graceful charm that practically oozes in much of Japan. Sixteen-hour-shifts in the company of co-workers who are in an increasing state of inebriation as the day wears on merely test Benno’s patience. Nor does Benno dislike his job, despite “compliance officer at the Australian division of a Japanese bank” not exactly topping the list of dream careers he composed as a ten-year-old schoolboy at his rural New South Wales school. What it lacks in excitement is compensated by a comfortable income and stable employment. Benno has always been the practical sort and being able to pay rent for his 735-square-foot flat on the upper storey of a federation house in the northern Sydney suburbs holds more charm for him than any youthful sense of adventure. He is especially fond of his balcony with its original wrought-iron balustrades

Benno’s somewhat tetchy mood isn’t the result of a ten-hour flight from Haneda or anything related to his job. His job is far too sensible to inspire more than lukewarm acceptance of the adult’s fate. Two weeks prior, just before leaving for Tokyo, he received an early morning telephone call from the joy of his youth and the bane of his existence, Arne Fält. Imagine it, if you will – the 28-year-old Benno is shirtless and wearing a pair of old linen shorts – undyed. He sleeps on his side, his mouth slightly agape. This scene of somnial bliss is shattered by the daemonic chiming of the other bane of his existence, his Samsung smartphone. “Benno, mate! So glad to talk to you”. “Arne, you bloody bastard”! Benno groggily interjects before checking his clock, “It’s 3:42 in the morning”. “Right, anyway, I’m moving back to Australia on the 22nd of this month”. “Bloody hell, when did this come about” he exclaims, sitting up with an unexpected burst of energy. “Oh, last month, I put in for an IT position in Sydney and they hired me” Arne responds chirpily. Benno gets up and briefly looks for an axe with which to beat sense into Arne’s thick head, or at very least split his skull open before realising that, Arne still being in Stockholm, this would not exactly be effective.  At this point Benno doesn’t know what irks him most, Arne’s timing or his nauseatingly chirpy tone.  “Where are you going to live”? Benno asks, suspicious that he will probably not be able to return to sleep. “Well, you have a bed, don’t you” Arne chimes.

Benno and Arne have known each other since they were both ten. Arne’s parents, veterinarians both, from Dalarna, decided to leave the bucolic tedium of provincial Sweden behind in exchange for the bucolic tedium, spiders and snakes of provincial New South Wales. Of all the places in the world they could choose; they chose the town of Canary – population 257 – in Cowrashire.  In a way, this strange turn of events endeared the disgustingly cheerful Arne to the slightly dour, taciturn Benno. After all, when he was six months old his mother, a haematologist, left Germany and her family behind. She argued that brown snakes and funnel web spiders were not nearly as deadly as her relatives. The limited experience Benno had with them convinced him that his mother was probably correct. He never knew his father, a Canadian student who read medicine with his mother. Apparently taking care of a child was too great a burden on him for a relationship of several months.

Their teacher, a stout middle-aged brunette named Ms Patterson who was destined to resemble Dame Edna sans the naturally violet hair in her retirement, noted the change in Benno’s demeanour since he was asked to sit with Arne. His became lighter, less sullen. “Joyful” might not be the correct word to describe him, post-Arne, but he was certainly happier. Arne, for his part, was naturally predisposed to good humour and meeting a friend on the first day did little to make his cheer more palatable. It was, as Ms Patterson was to recall some six years later, as if they were a couple before they knew it.

Benno looks at his watch: 8:27. He puts his empty suitcase in the box room alongside the brooms, mops, buckets, various cleaning supplies and vacuum cleaner. “Tomorrow, then” he says to himself quietly. He’s no longer quite as curmudgeonly. Benno closes the door and walks into his sitting room, half-collapsing on his small couch. Benno has always hated uncertainty – and he was without doubt trapped in that most vile of states. Nine years have passed since Arne left Australia, ten years since they were caught together in a compromising position among some gum trees a couple miles outside Canary. Benno couldn’t entirely fault Arne’s decision to return to Sweden, although he did find his remark “Australia, 20,000,000 people, 450,000,000 kangaroos” a tad flippant. After all, wasn’t Benno one of those 20,000,000 people? And didn’t kangaroos mean something? Still, underneath is optimistic mask, Benno knew better than anyone that Arne felt insecure and doubted his parents’ decision to leave. Arne’s was a fortunate childhood, a golden time from birth. He didn’t quite dislike Australia – far from it, he had become Australian in most ways, but something in him needed to be placated – questions had to be answered. The glowing embers of contempt that some of their ostensible mates showed them after their relationship had been turned into the topic of small-town intrigue merely gave this new impetus. Benno didn’t suffer from this. He had no half-remembered life elsewhere, merely a birth certificate in a foreign language and the legal right to claim a second passport – not that he had the desire to, his Australian sufficed.

And it had been more than four years since Benno and Arne had seen each other. After finishing their mandatory education, Benno and Arne followed different paths. Benno spent five years at the University of Sydney’s School of Business; Arne flew to Stockholm to read Information Technology at KTH.  Benno spent his holidays working internships, paid and otherwise. Frivolity was not in his nature. The quiet, diligent young man made a good impression on the management of Mizuho Bank. He was reliable, made few mistakes and learnt quickly. Most importantly, he asked only the most relevant questions and never more than once. The employers similarly took to him quickly. He never created more work for them and did what they asked him to do with no argument. At the same time, he seemingly lacked ambition and could be relied upon not to step on any toes or make anyone lose face by seeking to rise too quickly. When Saul Stonebridge, the former head of compliance at that particular branch chose to spend more time with his grandchildren, the automatic promotion of all others based on seniority meant that a new position would open up a few months after Benno was set to complete his studies. The management were chuffed. They could be spared the arduous task of sifting through the semi-literate rabble in order to find a candidate who might, potentially, not prove overly embarrassing. Benno was simply happy to not have to endure the tribulations of a job search. Arne did just as well. The charming young lad built a good name for himself in Stockholm and proved his mettle at London and Tel Aviv internships. They both made it in their way.

Benno telephoned Arne from Tokyo one night. The Japanese summer heat was murderous. In that sea of 38 million souls, in that jungle of concrete, glass and steel there was no respite in places not blessed with air conditioning.  Benno hadn’t been sensible and rejected Arne’s brash incursion. Time didn’t seem to matter – nor could Benno see much reason to try dating. The rhythms of his life fell into a comforting regularity. Each morning he woke up, showered, shaved, dressed correctly and walked to Roseville Station and took a Sydney Train across the Harbour Bridge to Wynyard Station. He invariably had a sensible lunch. If he didn’t bring it with him, he’d simply rush to the Vietnamese deli and order a banh mi. “Arne, you bloody bastard, why are you coming back to Australia”? Benno himself couldn’t entirely understand why. Arne was keen on leaving, even if that meant leaving Benno behind. “Because I have no life here” was his reply. Unable to resist, Benno twisted the knife a little. “So 23,000,000 people and 450,000,000 kangaroos are suddenly not so bad”? His snarky tone was intended to be the salt that the knife dragged into the wound. Arne hurt him. Even if he didn’t say it, Benno felt betrayed by Arne’s flippancy. Understanding the motivations of a departure and avoiding feelings of abandonment are two separate matters. There was a pause on the Swedish end of the conversation, a deafening silence only punctured after what seemed to be the intermission at the end of the first half of the second eternity by a sigh of resignation. “I was wrong, Benno. I was selfish. I am selfish. I don’t know what more to say. I only thought about myself then. No, you don’t need to say it. You don’t need to turn your words into weapons. I only thought about myself when I decided to return to NSW. It’s just…” Arne paused, the silence returned. Benno couldn’t take this. “You were right. I have room”.

After Benno completed his studies he had a few months, and his landlords were happy to continue collecting rent despite his absence. He decided to spend those months in Europe; forgoing the purgatorial family visits that comprised the so-called “European holidays” he had been on before. Arne sub-leased a tiny flat in Gamla Stan – Stockholm’s old town then. Benno was concerned. How would their reunion go? What could he expect of it? Over four years at passed since they saw each other. They still spoke regularly and exchanged hampers each Christmas, even sending each other small gifts on each other’s birthdays. Benno still had two Dalarna horses, hand-blown vases, Oscarian lithographs of Swedish cities and various small trinkets from various provinces. Benno could see the stuffed marsupials and pieces of Aboriginal art – authentic of course, he had sent Arne whenever they talked on Skype. When Benno saw Arne waiting for him at the arrivals hall at Arlanda, it was as if they had never been apart at all. Arne made time for him. They spent New Year’s in Stockholm, bundled up on Djurgårdsbron, to watch the fireworks. It was the coldest New Year’s Benno could remember. A Scandinavian winter night is notably cooler than that of an Australian summer. Arne called in a favour and took Benno to Norrland, to stay at a co-worker’s cabin in the woods – to see the Northern Lights in splendid isolation. Benno could never forget that – the unearthly sounds, the slightly sulphuric smell.  There was not a soul to see, but he had never felt less lonely – and had never felt so insignificant. Those months in Scandinavia became a blur. Returning to Australia felt almost a burden on him, a sense that Benno never imagined he was capable of having. And yet, it was there.

Benno was overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness when his flight landed at Kingsford Smith. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months and months turned into years. Twice each year he went to Tokyo for two weeks. Sometimes, he went on holiday elsewhere in Japan. A few months after returning from Scandinavia, his mother left Canary for Perth with her new boyfriend, Bruce. Not that it really mattered all that much. Benno and Bruce could never stand each other’s presence and Bruce, as much as possible, made Benno’s visits as unpleasant as possible in order to discourage needless contact. After several increasingly tense visits, Benno’s mother decided that long weekends in Sydney would be preferable to seeing the two men in her life glowering in murderous silence; steadfastly refusing eye contact lest looks result in extended incarceration. Benno still went to Canary on occasion to visit Anna, the owner of the post office and only coffee shop in town. Anna was the type of person who had seen more than her share of disappointment and treachery. Anna was in equal measures mercy and moxie. When Benno and Arne were met with hard glances and the occasional jeer, she took them under her wings and nurtured them.

The infernal Samsung sings and vibrates. Benno grudgingly separates himself from his bed. This was a hardship. The clock reads 7:30 – there was time enough for breakfast, a shave and a shower. With luck, he could pop in at the corner coffee shop for a flat white to drink on the way to Mascot – across the Harbour Bridge. At the arrivals hall, Benno glances up – Arne’s Cathay Pacific connecting flight arrived on time. Benno haphazardly bins his now-empty coffee cup at the exact moment that Arne walks up to him, as if they had seen each other the day before.


Återförening i Småland

April 30, 2017

“That’s it, then” Esbjörn said as he signed their divorce agreement. He extended his now ex-wife, Pernilla, his hand. “Good luck, Esbjörn and please take care of yourself” she responded as they shook hands. With the sweep of a pen, their marriage of thirty years was over. Esbjörn Sjöstrom, 57 years of age with much-thinned hair, more salt than pepper, wrapped himself in his jacket and walked away. Pernilla could just about hear the “tingle, tingle” of the door closing as it closed behind him. Pernilla looked down at the signed divorce agreement. Two names, two signatures, side-by-side. Pernilla Karlsson, Esbjörn Sjöstrom.

“Birgit”, she called out, “could you please bring me another coffee with milk”? before staring down at the stack of magazines to her left. She reached for a Bildjournalen from 1955. Pernilla enjoyed that most about this Smör restaurant. Nothing was new – post-war film magazines, Depression-era film posters, the chaotic distribution of bric-à-brac from an unknowable number of Scandinavian schools and homes. There were tin pencil cases, widgets in various, often dubious, states of repair, old paper moons hanging from the ceiling and, her favourite, an old scale marked in Skålpond. “Here’s your coffee” Birgit said, placing the chipped 1960s-white-and-brown cup-and-saucer in front of her. The thrown-together aesthetic of the place was comforting. Everything was so imperfect, everything was used. It felt as if the pieces quietly said “Please forgive the chips, scratched and clutter. We´re trying to find a new purpose”.

Pernilla drank slowly. Her life was, once again, entirely her own. Well, it was mostly her own.  There was, of course, her 25-year-old son, Åke and his fiancée, Inge Østergaard and, of course, Pernilla’s new paramour, Jiro. Still, it was a start. After paying, she walked onto Brukgatan – the brisk sea air caressing her. She checked her watch: 6:15. There’d be time to watch the sun set over the Öresund, to see Denmark consumed in fiery light. “Consume” is such an ugly word – Pernilla thought as she walked towards Kärnan, Helsingborg’s mediaeval tower with its unbroken view across the narrow strait to Helsingør and Krongborg, Hamlet’s castle.

Pernilla and Esbjörn met at the University of Uppsala. She read marketing and market analysis, he was a bookkeeper. It seemed to be an ideal match. Both worked in business and Esbjörn, while lacking flair, was unusually responsible. He was the type of fiancé that not even the sternest grandmother would object to. He was so very normal. What would she remember of him? He collected stamps. Every summer, he wanted to holiday at the cabin he inherited from his grandparents on the Bohuslän coast. They lived together in the flat he was given by his parents in Östermalm, only two blocks from Karlapan. It was a respectable life. They went to Skansen as a family at least once each season. Esbjörn was a Stockholmer, as were his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Somewhere in the long distant past there was a family memory of Dalarna, but aside from those few half-remembered nebulae of peasant lore, there was nothing that tied them to anything but Stockholm. Pernilla was a skåningar. “Scratch a Skåningar and you’ll find a Dane” they’d say to her. In many ways, that held true. Pernilla hated having to constantly repeat herself for the first few years – her Skånska dialect so thick that people would ask if she had come on holiday from Copenhagen. Actually, that’s what she liked about Inge. Her pure Copenhagen accent made it easier to understand her Danish than Swedes from Norrland or rural Svealand. Stockholm for her first twenty years was a remote, almost foreign, city. Denmark was so close at hand – were it not for a foolish king’s failed ambitions, she’s have been a Karlsen. But that isn’t so interesting.

Perhaps that alienation is what she’d remember most. Esbjörn was considerate, but she had to learn to imitate his Stockholmska to be understood. She had to adjust to an upper-middle-class life that was always so strange, so insincere. She dreaded his family’s social functions. They were naturally gracious – but she was, after all, judged. She grew up on a farm in Osbyholm, a place famous more for its number of meadows than for its cultural attractions. Pernilla always had to check herself, to avoid telling coarse jokes or being too direct. Worst of all was Esbjörn. He had no interests. He had no opinions. His reliability wasn’t, Pernilla realised halfway through their marriage, a virtue – but a result of his simply lacking the curiosity to do anything that he hadn’t done before. The suggestion that they do something that broke the patterns of their lives, patterns that moved as predictably as the seasons, would send him into a state of near-panic. She knew, of course, that he’d yield if she insisted. But she didn’t want to insist, she didn’t want to have to feel as if she needed to order him to do something, anything that didn’t drive her into sob-ridden boredom. She had enough after asking him if they could go to Bohuslän in the autumn. She wanted to go to Småland, to Kalmar on the Baltic coast, to visit the famous castle – to see something that wasn’t that rudding yellow cabin 100 yards from the Skagerrak in the summer. Like his Östermalm flat, his Bohuslän cottage was inherited. Esbjörn could never have afforded to live in Östermalm. He would never have imagined travelling beyond the Stockholm Archipelago, much less to Götaland.

For all his kindness, Esbjörn had also been selfish. He had to have known that, or perhaps, Pernilla thought as the yellow sky turned to orange, he lacked the imagination to see even that. When she told him that she wanted to leave, that she wanted to return to Skåne, he barely reacted. “Are you certain” he asked? “Am I certain” she had screamed at him. “Can you for the first time in your tedious existence show some sort of emotion”? Their divorce proceedings were painless. He didn’t object, she refused financial support – that was all. Thirty years of marriage and he treated her no differently than he would treat a pen.  Actually, as Pernilla thought as her train to Skåne sped out of Stockholm-län, his indifference was liberating. Losing her marriage meant losing nothing at all. Her only error was not having walked away sooner.

Pernilla walked to her flat alone as Denmark drowned in the sun’s dying embers. Jiro would be there. Jiro Tanabe. She was not yet entirely certain what to make of him yet, save that she rather liked him and that he seemed, at least after several months, to be an improvement on Esbjörn. Not that that was exactly an impossible task. Jiro was thirty. Perhaps somewhat young, but both were adults and he was the one who approached her. Pernilla met him at a business meeting.  Jiro works for a start-up dedicated to exporting the work of young designers to East Asian markets. Pernilla’s company were hired to prepare marketing materials in cooperation with Jiro and his Taiwanese co-worker, Chase Li. After several weeks of working together, Jiro asked her to supper at La Petite. In his charmingly clumsy way, Jiro resorted to the trope of asking Pernilla to dine at that most established French restaurant on Bruksgatan.

Jiro was as quirky and clumsy as he was earnest. He mangled his Swedish at moments, confusing “väntar”, to wait, for “vet”, to know. Growing flustered, he asked “May we speak in English? I’m sorry, my Swedish is not so good” – his face redder than a cardinal. Pernilla laughed to herself before replying “Yes, of course. But your Swedish is very good”. She found it all very endearing. He was imperfect, but he tried. He was younger, but like Pernilla, was trying to find new bearings. He was relieved when she agreed to meet again. Jiro was overjoyed when she agreed to each request to meet again, before asking him if he’d like to set up a regular date. As the weeks turned into months, she looked forward more and more to seeing him. At each date, he’d bring her something new – a handmade portrait of dried flowers, a hand-blown vase from Småland and her favourite, a 19th century lithograph of a Skånska farm. His gifts were small, but they were thoughtful. He listened to her. He laughed with her.

Jiro was waiting for her, punctual as ever, flowers in hand when she returned. He stood up and handed her the bouquet. “Thank you for coming” she said, kissing his right cheek, “would you like anything to drink”? “A tea, if you will” he replied. She took the caddy containing the gyokuro, the fine, shade-grown Japanese green tea he had given her, and prepared a pot to share. It was obvious that Åke would, at some point, have to meet Jiro. This was the most delicate moment of their relationship. Contrary to what many believe, divorce – and the introduction of new love interests – is harder on grown children than on the young. The loss of one of life’s great fixtures – the family and home that one always knew – can be devastating. After all, where is one to return for solace or to reflect on innocence long lost. Åke had taken the news in stride and good humour. He accepted the news of his parents’ divorce with better grace than Pernilla could have hoped. He was much like his mother, in any event, and he had always seemed to understand – perhaps better than Pernilla herself – that their home in Stockholm was no more than a house, and that their family was no more than a mother and son with the increasingly wan ghost of a man flitting in the shadows.

“Let’s go to Småland”. Jiro said as Pernilla handed him a cuppa. “My grandfather was a fisherman in Ishikawa Prefecture”. The two statements were in linear chronology, but failed to follow any logical order. Pernilla chuckled softly, Jiro’s face turned slightly pink before he said “I mean, if you’d like, we can go to the sea”. “Yes, I’d like that” Pernilla said. “I found a few cottages to hire for a week in June” he said, handing her several advertisements. She looked through them carefully before stopping on one. It was for a red cottage on Ölandsgatan in Kalmar. It would take no more than ten minutes to walk to the castle she’d wanted to see for years – the castle where Scandinavia’s brief unity had been agreed. It seemed so apposite – the mother, whose antecedents were Danes in those halcyon days, the son, a child of Stockholm, the fiancée – a Dane. And then there was Jiro, who was Japanese, but somehow fit so well into the narrative that Pernilla’s life had become that it would seem discordant without him there. “Let’s go here”, she said with a sudden start.

Golden Light

March 30, 2017

“This isn’t bloody London” I thought with a tinge of bitterness. My dear reader, you fail to understand the bitter frustrations of living in a German provincial town. For all its rich history and great beauty, Trier remains painfully inadequate in many ways. I’ve had to trudge countless miles in search of the basic necessities of life: English cheddar, a proper tea and the ingredients for Japanese noodle soups.

Through some fluke in the fabric of the universe a Dorset tea company have started to market a limited selection of their products throughout the Federal Republic. It makes for a relatively solid brew, although one resents the limited choice. To find a reliable purveyor of cheddar one must resort to the tender mercies of the vile Kaufland – Germany’s Tesco, filled with Germany’s chavs. But it isn’t a very good cheddar and this simply cannot be forgiven. Vile, vile, vile. I’m yet to find the necessary ingredients for all my favourite Japanese noodle soups. Oh, to be in Goulder’s Green…But in London I’m not and one must suffer for it.

One tries, dear reader, to survive. These deprivations are only sharpened by the unpredictability of customer care. When popping in for bread at bakery I wince when my favourite clerk isn’t behind the counter. She is at times curt, but she possesses a refreshingly artless frankness. Without fail, she ensures that all products are satisfactory – that her coffee is properly made and presented. One of her co-workers, a younger woman, is casually polite but ever so slightly careless. She does the minimum required, no more, no less. Their colleague, I shall call her “Helga-Ursula von Grumpydorf” has the demeanour of a Prussian dominatrix. Should I dare to ask for a “König Ludwig Brot” instead of a ”Könish Ludwish Brot” I risk her eternal opprobrium. What is that she is reaching for, dear reader, preserve me! Is it a whip? No, it’s a cat o’nine! Oh for heaven’s sake, to literally translate the German phrase to describe her countenance, “What ran over her liver”? A lorry? A train? John Bercow’s ego?

Never-the-less, her crude customer care is at least partially offset by her pedantry. Her coffee is properly made, even if served with less care than my usual clerk’s. Her Müslischnitt – a glorious confection of sunflower seeds, sultanas, chocolate bits and honey over a crisp biscuit is perfectly prepared. One must run from her after paying. Mistress von Grumpydorf’s House of Pain cannot be sullied with the presence of her lesser.

One cannot dwell on the misfortunes of this world on a glorious day like this. The warm spring sun shines, filtered gold. Amongst the strewn ruins of empires long fallen, monuments to the tremendous egos of kings and emperors long forgotten to the masses, life continues its eternal course. A grandmother sits with her infant grandson. This, so many years ago, was where her grandmother sat with her. The great men who ordered these grand monuments built are gone, their inglorious descendants cast into eternal obscurity. We, the heirs of the peasants who built their monuments, can soak in the satisfaction of enjoying that which our forefathers could scarcely ask to cast their eyes upon.

Living with the Han 2: Other than that it wasn’t too bad…

July 31, 2015

I walked through Huzhou last Saturday in a desperate attempt to change money. I did not expect a good rate of exchange or stellar service, but I did expect it to be possible. After all, even with the rise of touch-pay mobile phones and nearly-universal use for bank cards it is still advisable to carry some cash. My efforts were futile. Most banks only exchange money on weekdays and only for their customers. The one bank that will exchange currency on weekends for non-account holders is the Bank of China but they require extensive documentation and special residence papers. At that point, I had neither. In frustration I quietly returned to my flat with a small pile of cash in hand that might as well have not existed. I went to sleep nervous. The internet installer was supposed to have come the following day and I could not pay him. At around 1 AM I woke up and decided to give it a last go. A bank was 2 blocks away and they had a secured cash machine. My losing streak broke – my account was open and I could withdraw cash.

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