Coffee and Pastries

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.


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