Summer child

Issue 3/1988 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Resa med lätt bagage (‘Travelling light’, 1987). Introduction by Marianne Bargum

From the very beginning it was quite clear no one at Backen liked him, a thin gloomy child of eleven; he looked hungry somehow. The boy ought to have inspired a natural protective tenderness, but he didn’t at all. To some extent, it was his way of looking at them, or rather of observing them, a suspicious, penetrating look, anything but childish. And when he had finished looking, he commented in his own precocious way, and my goodness, what that child could wring out of himself.

It would have been easier to ignore if Elis had come from a poor home, but he hadn’t. His clothes and suitcase were sheer luxury, and his father’s car had dropped him off at the ferry. It had all been arranged over the phone. The Fredriksons had taken on a summer child out of the goodness of their hearts, and naturally for some compensation. Axel and Hanna had talked about it for a long time, about how town children needed fresh air and trees and water and healthy food. They had said all the usual things, until they had all been convinced that only one thing was left in order to do the right thing and feel at ease. Despite the fact that all the June work was upon them, many of the summer visitors’ boats were still on the slips, and the overhaul of some not even completed.

Well, the boy arrived, bringing with him a bunch of red roses for his hostess.

‘Oh, but you shouldn’t have done that, Elis,’ said Hanna. ‘I suppose your mother sent them?’

‘No, Mrs Fredrikson,’ replied Elis. ‘She’s married again. My father bought them.’

‘How kind of him… but didn’t he have time to wait?’

‘Unfortunately not. It was an important conference. He asked me to give you his regards.’

‘Ah, well, yes,’ said Axel Fredrikson. ‘Well, let’s go on board and get on home. The children are looking forward to meeting you. That’s a fine suitcase you have there.’

Elis told them it had cost eight hundred and fifty marks.

Axel’s boat was quite large, a sturdy fishing boat with a cabin. He had built it himself. The boy was awkward, making his way on board, and when the first spray came over, he grabbed the thwart and closed his eyes tightly.

‘Go a bit slower, Axel,’ said Hanna.

‘He can go into the cabin, can’t he?’

But Elis refused to let go the thwart and didn’t once look out to sea all the way.

The children were all waiting on the jetty, eagerly expectant, Tom and Oswald, and little Camilla, whom they called Mia.

‘Well,’ said Axel. ‘This is Elis. He’s said to be the same age as you, Tom, so you two should get on well together.’

Elis climbed on to the jetty, went across to Tom and shook hands. ‘Elis Gräsbäck,’ he said, bowing briefly. Then he did the same to Oswald, but he only looked at Mia. She giggled wildly and clapped her hands to her mouth. They went up to the house, Axel carrying the suitcase and Hanna the basket of shopping. She put on the coffee. The sandwiches were made and ready. The children sat round the table gaping at Elis.

‘Help yourself,’ urged Hanna. ‘You’re new here, Elis, so you’re the one to start.’

Elis half-rose and with a kind of slight bow took a sandwich and declared that it was unusually warm for the time of the year. The children went on gaping as if bewitched, and Mia said: ‘Mother? Why is he like that?’

‘Shush,’ said Hanna. ‘Have a little salmon, Elis. We caught four on Thursday.’

He rose again and remarked that it was strange there were still any salmon although the water was so polluted, and then he went on to tell them what salmon cost in town – that is, for people who allowed themselves salmon as everyday food. He somehow made them feel uneasy.

Towards evening, when Tom went to empty the garbage pail into the sea, Elis went with him and watched what he was doing. He kept on and on about the poisoned sea, and that such things were asocial and helping to destroy the whole world.

‘He’s peculiar,’ said Tom. ‘You just can’t talk to him. He just goes on and on about everything that’s poisoned and what things cost.’

‘Go steady, now,’ retorted Hanna. ‘He’s our guest.’

‘What a guest! He follows me about all the time!’

It was quite true. Wherever Tom went, Elis was always just behind him, every day, in the boat-shed, fishing on the shore, chopping wood, absolutely everywhere.

Like this, for instance: ‘What are you making now?’

‘A bailer, you can see that.’

‘Why haven’t you got a plastic bailer?’

‘What an idea,’ said Tom contemptuously. ‘This bailer has to have its own shape and it takes a long time.’

‘Naturally,’ says Elis approvingly. ‘Ornamented. But what a waste of all that fine work.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean that when there’s no world left, you might just as well have used plastic.’

Then it would all come again, all of it, all that about nuclear war and God knows what, talk, talk, talk without end.

They had their room in the attic above the kitchen, a tiny little room with a slanting ceiling, the window facing out over the meadow. In the evenings, Elis spent ages folding and hanging up his clothes, the right shoe placed beside the left shoe in the correct order and his watch wound up.

‘What’s the point of doing all that?’ said Tom. ‘You’ve said nuclear war’s coming any minute, though tomorrow. Then everything’ll be swept away with Friberg’s cucumbers.’

‘What cucumbers?’

‘Oh,’ said Tom. ‘That’s just something people say.’

‘Why? Who’s Friberg?’

‘Get into bed and go to sleep and don’t be silly. I don’t want to talk.’ Elis turned to face the wall, his silence compact, but it was perfectly clear what he was thinking about, and you knew it would gradually come, there was no help for it, and it came, a long low litany on the devastated sea and the devastated air and then all the wars and those who had nothing to eat and who kept dying everywhere and what can you do, what can you do…

Tom sat bolt upright and said: ‘But all that’s far away. What’s the matter with you?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Elis. After a while, he added: ‘You mustn’t be angry with me.’

Then at last it was quiet.

Tom was used to what it meant being the eldest and having to decide and arrange things for Oswald and Mia, trying to cope with their stupidities; it was just something you had to put up with. But it was somehow different with Elis, simply impossible to put him right, although he was the same age as Tom. You just got angry. Not even being admired felt pleasant. And it was all so terribly unfair. Like with that grebe. It wasn’t Tom’s fault it had got caught in the net. Things like that happen. He flung it into the shallows and Elis made a great fuss about it. ‘Tom. That grebe took a long time to die. They can go down dozens and dozens of feet, did you know that? Just think what it was like for her, how long she tried to hold her breath…’

‘You’re crazy,’ said Tom, ill at ease.

Or else it was like this: ‘I know just what you do with kittens. You drown them. Have you any idea what…’ and so on and so forth, the whole wretched business. It was unbearable.

Elis buried the grebe up by the road to the village, where they had burnt off the ground and nothing but willow-herb grew between the stumps. It was like him to go and find a place like that. He set up a cross with a number on it. Number one. More graves appeared, victims of rat-traps, birds that had flown against the window-pane, poisoned voles, all of them quietly buried and numbered. Sometimes Elis might make a comment in passing on graves no one bothered about. And where’s your own graveyard? That would interest me. Have you a lot of relatives buried there?

The boy was clever at inducing a guilty conscience. Often nothing more was needed than him looking on with those troubled, uncannily adult eyes and you were at once reminded of all your sins.

One day Elis was prophesying even worse things than usual and Hanna cut him off: ‘You seem to feel terribly at home with things that die and have a bad time, don’t you, Elis?’

‘But I have to,’ he replied gravely. ‘No one else does.’

For a moment, Hanna was seized with heaven-knows-what and felt like clasping the child to her, but his stern look stopped her. Afterwards, she thought, I really mustn’t be hard-hearted. I must improve. But there was no improvement, for a little later the most horrible, unforgivable thing happened. Elis promised little Mia three marks if she would show him her bottom. ‘He wanted to watch while I was weeing,’ said Mia. And it was almost as bad when he asked Axel: ‘How much do you get for me?’

‘What did you say?’

‘How much a month do you get for me? Do you declare it? I mean, don’t you pay tax on it?’

Axel exchanged a look with his wife and went out of the kitchen.

Added to everything else, Elis had an amazing capacity for finding things that were damaged. He kept bringing back something that had been broken and taking it to show Tom. ‘Can you mend this? You can mend anything. It’s probably been left out in the rain. Look, it’s quite mouldy. It must have been fine thing once.’

‘Chuck it away,’ said Tom. ‘I only make new things. I can’t be bothered with things that have been ruined.’

Elis collected all this rubbish in a heap alongside his graveyard. The pile grew bigger and bigger, and he seemed almost proud of his deplorable collection. None of them had noticed how many things were lying around on the ground, the worse for wear and useless. They simply hadn’t noticed them. But Elis did, clearly and critically. Now and again when he looked at the members of the household with his direct inescapable gaze, they were immediately aware of their grubby working clothes and hands.

‘Elis, just keep your eyes on your food and don’t think about anything else,’ Hanna once said with some authority. ‘You need a bit of flesh on your bones if we’re not to be ashamed when you go back to your father in the autumn.’

‘Can you put up with me right up until the autumn?’ said Elis. When no one answered, he said: ‘You’re wasteful with food. Have you ever thought of all those people who have no food at all? I’m sorry to have to say it, but I know what you throw away in the garbage pail and then into the sea.’

‘That’s enough now,’ exclaimed Axel, getting up from the table. ‘I’ll just go and take a look at the boats for a while.’

The Fredriksons were actually spoilt in one small way. They didn’t like food unless it was absolutely fresh, whether it was fish, or meat, or simply Hanna’s home-made bread, and so it could happen that quite a lot went the way of Friberg’s cucumbers, as they say. Elis found this out immediately. He went to the refrigerator and took out the leftovers which usually stayed there until they were rather stale and so could be thrown out with good conscience. He would save these leftovers and scrupulously eat them up. ‘No, no meat balls, thank you,’ he would say. ‘I’ll have the leftover fish-soup.’

‘Ha ha,’ said Oswald, who had noticed most things and had given it all a great deal of thought. He no longer ever had his brother to himself because of this summer child. ‘Ha ha, you’re our old garbage pail, aren’t you?’

‘Eat what you want,’ said Axel. ‘But it’s bad manners to comment on what guests eat. You don’t talk about food. It’s just something that exists.’

‘Oh, no, it’s not,’ Elis answered back. ‘Think of all those who haven’t…’ But he got no further, because Axel banged on the table with his hand and said: ‘Now you be quiet, and the rest of you. There’s no longer any peace in this house.’

But out of doors, complete peace reigned in the countryside, a period of calm weather and light summer rain, and apple trees in bloom down in the meadow and everything at its most beautiful. In past summers, Tom had roamed round the forest and shore when the light nights came, but now he had lost the desire to. He could never dare rely on being left alone.

‘Mother,’ he said. ‘How long is he going to stay?’

‘People come and people go,’ said Hanna. ‘Easy now. Everything has its time, then another time will come.’

The difficult thing was that Elis could always support his facts with incontestable statistics. Every time the news came on, he remained glued to the radio, obtaining new miseries or else having the old ones confirmed.

The news was the only programme he bothered about. But he could confuse actual disasters with his own fantasies which drilled their way deep down into the most awful imaginable things in the future, so much so that Tom didn’t know what to think.

Anyhow, as soon as Elis was anywhere near you, you were at once prepared for the worst – like that business of Grandmother, who was in a long-stay ward in hospital in town. Elis came rushing in saying: ‘She’s just died!’ But it wasn’t Grandmother at all, but a crow with one leg, which had been living with Elis for a week.

One day when Hanna was to take the bus in to go and see Grandmother, Elis asked if he could go with her, and she thought why not, he was a child of sorrow, of course, with great compassion for all those having a bad time.

It did not happen again. Grandmother didn’t like having him there, sighing and groaning beside her, constantly sorrowfully shaking his head, pressing her hand as if in a last farewell, and when he went outside for a while in between, she said with great annoyance: ‘Who is that insufferable child you’ve dragged here?’

It couldn’t be helped that at home they were all influenced by the summer child, almost slightly afraid of him. Axel no longer lit his pipe after meals, but at once stumped off to the boat-shed. He had become abrupt, and one day when Elis was questioning him about his annual income and political views, he walked out in the middle of his fish-soup. Little Mia, in her childish innocence, could make neither head nor tail of anything, but she sensed the change and became whiny and difficult. On his part, Oswald was quite simply jealous. Tom had no more time for him, and when they occasionally went out fishing, it wasn’t in the pleasant old way that was so friendly and calm. Oswald developed a murderous irony. ‘Are you really going to kill that poor little cod!’ And: ‘Look what a lot of corpses we’ve got in the net today!’ And so on. The whole thing was utter misery.

Axel and Hanna knew full well they had burdened Tom too much with the summer child, but what could they do? They had their hands full with the necessities of the day, and the children more or less had to look after themselves.

‘Tom,’ said Axel one day. ‘You can leave off chopping firewood and go and see to Elis instead.’

‘I’d rather chop,’ said Tom. ‘Though he comes then as well, so it doesn’t make any difference.’

‘Do as you please,’ said Axel Fredrikson helplessly, walking away; then turning round, he added: ‘Sorry about all this.’

You think you’ve taken on a strange child you pity, but no – you’ve acquired a disapproving observer on your neck, someone who is always reminding you of the sorrows and evils of the world. Do townspeople bring up their children distrustfully, giving them a conscience they’re too young to bear and understand? Axel talked about it to his wife, and she thought he was right. The boy needed a change. What about taking the children out to sea for a while, now that the weather was so calm and beautiful – Hanna could meanwhile take the opportunity to visit relatives in Lovisa, and anyhow Axel had got to go out to the beacons with the gas-cylinders. Axel thought that a good idea. They had telephoned that morning from the coastguard station to say that Västerbåda beacon was not working. He went off to fill up with petrol and stow the gas-cylinders, and Hanna set about packing food.

Elis was very excited and kept tapping the barometer, for he was afraid of storms and he asked several times about the beacon islands, were they really proper islands, in other words, very small?

‘As small as fly-spots,’ said Tom. ‘What of it?’

Elis answered gravely that he had once read a story called Isle of Bliss, and that island had been very small indeed.

‘Yes, yes,’ Tom retorted. ‘Come on, Dad’s waiting.’

‘Jump in!’ cried Axel. ‘Now we’re off on holiday and we’re leaving all miseries behind us.’

The children tumbled down into the boat. Hanna stood waving on the jetty as the boat set off straight out to sea. It was a brilliant mild day, high banks of cloud reflected in the sea and the horizon non-existent. Elis hung over the railing looking out for islands, sometimes turning his head and grinning at Tom. He really did seem to be enjoying himself for once. Taking time off, you are, you bastard, thought Tom, now you’ve forgotten the world is going to be destroyed and you’re just thinking about yourself. A bitter wave of being wronged welled up within him and he decided to stay totally uninterested all the way out and back home again.

The first beacon was on a very low skerry with a wind-swept tuft of brushwood and scrub in the middle. As they went ashore, the gulls flew up and circled shrieking above the skerry. Axel unloaded the reserve cylinders and hauled them up towards the beacon on the smooth rocky hillock.

At first, Elis just stood staring, rigid as a pole, then he set off and raced up to the brushwood and down again, the eiders flying up out of their nests with a great furore, but he hardly noticed that as he rushed back and forth shouting out aloud and finally throwing himself down flat into the crowberry scrub.

‘I told you he was crazy,’ said Oswald contemptuously. ‘And you let a creature like that run after you from morning to night. Fine friend you’ve got yourself.’

Tom walked slowly up to where Elis was lying looking up at the sky, apparently unashamedly contented.

‘I’ve never been on a proper island before,’ said Elis. ‘Not an island that looked like an island. It’s so small it could be my own.’

‘Oh, fiddle,’ said Tom. ‘Anyhow, it’s the eiders’ island, too.’ Then he went off. When Axel came back to go on to the next beacon, Elis did not want to go with him. ‘I’ll stay here,’ he said. ‘I like this island.’

‘But we may be away for a couple of hours,’ objected Axel. ‘We’re going to beacons a long way out. It’s much more beautiful out there, high cliffs and all sorts of things you might like.’

‘That doesn’t matter,’ said Elis. ‘I’m staying here.’

They couldn’t make the boy change his mind. In the end, Axel took Tom to one side. ‘It’d be good if you’d stay with him until I get back to pick you up,’ he said. ‘He might go and fall in the sea or do something else silly, and we’re responsible for the boy.’

‘I want to go to the next beacon,’ cried little Mia. ‘I want to go on to the next beacon.’

‘Oh, Dad,’ said Tom. ‘I can’t stay here for hours with him on this wretched patch!’

‘Yes, of course you can,’ said his father, pushing off. ‘Sometimes you have to do things that aren’t particularly pleasant.’

‘Try finding some rotting birds for him!’ shouted Oswald across the water. ‘Nursemaid!’

It wasn’t until he came to the next beacon that Axel remembered he hadn’t left any food for the boys. Hanna would never have forgotten that – but what the heck, worse things could have happened.

An hour later, something really did happen. The fuel-pipe broke and it isn’t easy to mend such things in a hurry.

‘You know what,’ said Elis, sounding almost reverential. ‘This island is wonderful. It’s so far away, nothing dangerous can get here. And the water’s perfectly clean.’

‘That’s what you think,’ retorted Tom. He walked further out on the point and started throwing small stones into the sea. There was absolutely nothing to do except wait and let time pass, to no one’s delight or advantage. Ha ha, what a wonderful island of bliss. Oh, heck! Dark thoughts came and went, then returned again. A whole summer in the shadow of constant grief and surveillance, never being allowed to be on your own in the right way, and all those idiotic burials and rubbish heaps of his… and as if it weren’t enough with the sorrows of the day, you also had to hear all about those of tomorrow, when everything would be worse than ever. It just wasn’t fair!

Elis came racing up wide-eyed and shouting: ‘A forgotten island in the ocean of the world! Fantastic! It’s so clean here. So deserted and empty.’

‘You can be fantastic yourself,’ said Tom. ‘And I don’t think it’s particularly empty, with the eider year we’ve had this year.’, Then he added with a shrug of his shoulders: ‘Though I suppose there won’t be many young the way you’ve been carrying on.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I only meant that if you frighten the mother eider like that, she won’t come back to the nest. They’re terribly sensitive birds.’

Elis said nothing. It was quite fun watching him making his way through the crowberry scrub one slow step at a time, his elbows clamped close to his body and his thin neck thrust forward. Now he’d know what it was like to be given a guilty conscience. Tom went after him. Elis was now standing staring down in to a nest of five young eider. They were very small, fluffy and dark, keeping dead still.

‘What’ll happen to them?’

‘Don’t think about it,’ said Tom. ‘Just think about being on “a forgotten island in the ocean of the world.” Isn’t that what you said? It may interest you that a skerry like this can be really and truly forgotten. It’s very hard to find again.’

Elis just went on looking.

‘Don’t you believe me? But things like that have happened.’ Tom sat down and propped his head in his hand. ‘I don’t want to frighten you,’ he said, ‘but they have actually found skeletons here and there on the shore. It can’t be helped, and it’s best simply to forget it. Anyhow, just imagine, they sat there waiting and waiting and no one came.’

‘But he’s got a map with him,’ said Elis.

‘Has he? Now I come to think of it, I reckon the chart got left at home. Ah, me, that’s not so good.’ Tom sighed and glanced quickly at Elis through his fingers, suppressing a violent desire to laugh. Here are your disasters. I can do worse, just you wait.

Elis went and sat down behind a stone. The sun wandered on towards afternoon, the gnats sang and the sea-birds slowly returned to their nests.

When Tom grew hungry, he had a good idea. He sought out Elis and told him the outlook was bad, they had nothing to eat – just like all those poor people out in the world. ‘You can eat crowberries,’ he said, ‘but of course they can give you an awful stomach-ache. If you’re thirsty there’s a puddle just behind you, but that’s probably salty and so stagnant even the water fleas have died. You’ll have to sieve their corpses through your teeth’ – he at once realised this was an incautious exaggeration, that he’d moved on to personalities and lost touch. Elis looked at him sharply for a long time, then turned away.

The sea had now turned a warmer colour. The hours went by. Axel ought to have come long ago. There was nothing to do except frighten Elis. Why hadn’t Axel come, what did he mean by worrying him and letting a whole day go to waste like this? His flesh began to creep all over, and it was unbearable.

‘Elis!’ he shouted. ‘Where are you? Come over here for a moment.’ Elis came and stood peering out under his fringe. .

‘Now listen,’ said Tom. ‘There’s something I must tell you. This weather isn’t natural. There’s a storm coming.’

‘It’s perfectly calm,’ said Elis, clearly suspicious.

‘The centre of the storm. Typical,’ explained Tom. ‘But you know nothing about the sea. It can come all at once, crash, the waves coming right over the skerry.’

‘What about the beacon?’

‘It’s locked. We can’t get inside,’ he rushed on. ‘And the snakes that come out at night…’

‘You’re making it up.’

‘Maybe I am, maybe not. What do you do yourself, anyhow?’

‘You don’t like me,’ said Elis slowly.

The worst of it all was not having anything to do. Tom got out his sheath-knife and went in among the scrub to cut spruce branches, spruce branches for a cabin of the kind he used to build for Oswald when they went on outings. He slashed and tugged and the sweat ran down the back of his neck. It was all really quite unnecessary, but he couldn’t stand Elis’ eyes on him all the time, and it was almost evening and the boat still hadn’t come… Then Elis asked if he was preparing distress signals.

‘No! We haven’t any matches, have we?’ Tom erected the roof frame and jammed it into the spruce undergrowth. This is idiotic, it’s all idiotic and the boat not coming… if the beacon has gone wrong – no, then he would have turned back immediately. It’s something else, something serious… Then the whole roof fell in and he swung round on Elis and shouted loudly: ‘You don’t know what happens when a storm starts. You’ve never been in on one. Everything turns dark… and you hear a peculiar noise that just gets nearer and nearer – and the birds turn absolutely quiet…’ That sank in, he could see that. He went on: ‘Sometimes before a storm, the water rises, but sometimes it sinks. Catastrophically! You saw how low it is. Just green slime everywhere. And when the sea comes in like a wall, nothing remains, nothing.’

‘Why are you doing this?’ whispered Elis.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Why don’t you like me?’

‘Why do you keep bothering me? I’m sick and tired of it all. It’s no fun any longer. Lie down and go to sleep somewhere.’

‘But your snakes? I’m scared.’

‘Oh, all right, there aren’t any snakes,’ exclaimed Tom impatiently.

‘There never are on little islands like this. I’m tired. I’ve tried. I’ve tried in every way, but you don’t get any better. You just say peculiar things and make me as peculiar as you! And Dad hasn’t come and he should’ve been here ages ago!’

‘I’m scared,’ repeated Elis. ‘Do something… you can do anything, can’t you?’ Suddenly he grabbed Tom’s jersey, repeating over and over again that he was scared – ‘You’ve frightened me,’ he cried. ‘Do something. You can do anything.’

Tom jerked himself free so violently that Elis fell backwards and sat in the moss gazing at him, his great eyes as narrow as slits, and he said, slowly and very quietly: ‘Yes, your father should have come ages ago. Why hasn’t he come? It’s not at all that he can’t find us. Something’s happened to him.’

Elis waited for a while, then went on in triumph: ‘He may have broken his leg and is just lying there! And we just wait and wait and he doesn’t come…’

‘Rubbish,’ said Tom furiously. ‘Things like that only happen in the winter when there’s ice on the rocks.’ And at once he remembered what it had been like when they had sat and waited last autumn, when Dad had been out at the beacons with Oswald and the gas had caught fire and the lens had exploded straight in his face, and half-blinded, he had made his way home as best he could, getting directions from Oswald, who had just cried and cried…

Elis went on talking in the same way, all the time closely observing Tom’s face. ‘They don’t know anything back at home. It’s late in the evening. In the end they’ll realise something’s happened. What do you say about that?’

‘I say you’re a miserable creep!’ shouted Tom. ‘You’re scared. You’re so cowardly you smell of it…’

At once, incredibly quickly, Elis was on his feet and had hurled himself at him. Tom saw his teeth glinting, two rows of small close teeth between the desperate grin of his lips, and he fell in a grip that was iron-hard and blind with rage. They rolled in under the stunted spruces. It was already dark in there and they had to fight beneath a low ceiling of entangled branches – come on, you summer child, summer bastard, don’t let go, because then I don’t know what I’ll do to you, I’ll just keep on and on hitting; the thin bony body below him was tensed to breaking point. It was perfectly clear that defeat was impossible, inconceivable to either of them. They had to go on. They fought in total silence, soundlessly, no panting. Then he hurled his opponent off and they shot away from each other, but couldn’t get up because there was no room, and they crawled back and went on fighting; what else could they do?

The eider lay immobile on her nest, the same colour as the ground. She was lying equally still when they caught sight of her as they cautiously crept out of the tangle of spruce again, got up and walked away from each other.

Night had fallen. Although the sky in the west was glowing rosily low on the horizon, it was nevertheless night. Tom walked down towards the shore where Axel usually landed. He was trembling violently, his whole body shaking, and he tried not to think about anything at all. Please, let it be calm, let it be calm, just sit on the rock with your knuckles pressed to your eyes and let it be calm. That worked well for a long spell and then a memory exploded, and he let it come and it came, that time when the gas exploded in the beacon. Mother had said, ‘Axel, what did you do when it had happened?’ Dad had answered: ‘I crawled for a while until my eyes could see a little again and got Oswald into the boat and tried to calm him down. At least there was no wind and that was good. You have to take things as they come.’ That’s what he said – you have to take things as they come. And then I said, ‘Dad can manage anything and is never frightened,’ and Dad said, ‘You’re wrong. I’ve never been so frightened in my life,’ that’s exactly what he said: I’ve never been so frightened in my life.

It was that hour when the sky in the west is extinguished and replaced by sunrise in the other direction. It was horribly cold. When Tom went back in the half-light, he could only just make out Elis as a silhouette against the sea. He said: ‘He’ll be coming soon. He’s got something important to do, something that can’t be postponed.’

‘Is that so,’ said Elis.

‘Yes, but there’s no wind, and that’s good. You have to take things as they come.’

They stood for a moment looking out to sea. A few gulls flew up on the point and shrieked for a while, then it was quiet again.

‘Go and get some sleep,’ said Tom. ‘I’ll wake you when he comes.’

Axel returned at dawn. The engine could be heard at first only as faint beats of the pulse, then they grew louder and the boat could be seen as a small black dot on the grey morning sea, the white moustaches now visible round the bows. Axel swung the boat round the reef, slowed down and hove to. They were standing there waiting all right. He understood immediately. One of them had an improbably swollen and quite changed nose, the other could hardly see through one eye, and they were both rather scratched and battered.

‘Yes, well, yes,’ said Axel, ‘so everything seems to be under control. The engine broke down, you see. The fuel pipe broke. Sorry about this, but you have to take things as they come. How’ve things been for you?’

‘Good,’ said Elis.

‘Well, jump in and we’ll get back home. But don’t wake the kids. They’re tired.’

They sat down close to the engine cover where it was warmer, and they were given a tarpaulin over them.

‘Here’s the food Hanna packed for us,’ said Axel. ‘Eat it up now, or she’ll be cross. There’s coffee in the thermos.’

As the boat crossed the bay, the sky in the east grew lighter and turned pink, the first glowing small splinter of a new sun appearing over the horizon. It was cold.

‘Wait a moment before you fall asleep,’ said Axel. ‘I’ve got something Elis will like. Look. Have you ever seen such a beautiful skeleton of a bird? You can bury that with pomp and ceremony.’

‘It’s unusually beautiful,’ said Elis, ‘and it was very kind of you to give it to me, but I’m afraid I don’t think I’ll bother with it.’

And he curled up on the floor of the boat close beside Tom and they both fell asleep immediately.

Translated by Joan Tate

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