Återförening i Småland

“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.

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