The anchor

Issue 1/1990 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Leo (Söderströms, 1989). Introduction by Marianne Bargum

A summer quickly goes by and the beginning of autumn rolls merrily away. The middle of October is the time when things start slackening off, the harvest over, the flax brought in and the time for slaughter approaching. It is growing darker and the storm rumbles over the village, howling even more wildly out there in the darkness where the ships are gradually beginning to struggle home.

In stormy weather, we become touchy and angry. We think about those out there, and are irritated by minor matters people safe on the mainland make such a furore about. We conscientiously go to church the nearer autumn looms, and there we pray ardently for all those in peril on the sea. But then we have the pastor in the pulpit, irritable and angry like the rest of us, and he takes the opportunity to give us a reminder.

‘Out there in the storm the skipper calls on God, but when the storm dies down, he gives thanks for his own skill’, he begins. So you can work out what is to follow. Not very edified, we make our way home in the mud, in the cold wind, a shoulder like a wedge ahead of us.

‘If it’s like this up here’, we cry encouragingly, ‘then there’ll be no storm further south.’ But what do we know about the storms they have to contend with down there?

We still have to wait a long time. The ships keep sailing as long as they have a chance to get back home before the ice sets in. Some years, not all of them have been able to get back even for Christmas. The latest thing is that some ships have to overwinter abroad, and then have a refit in the foreign harbour. But Erik Petter thinks that’s insane. Even if you gain a great deal on the last cargo, you have to pay for a watchman during the winter months, and in spring, it’s much more expensive to have to pay wages to get the ship ready than when each fellow-shipowner contributes with his labour and his supplies.

Erik Petter has promised Kristina that Leo will be at home in good time for Christmas. She doesn’t look worried, but is cheerful and happy when you meet her. She has taken to asking after Erik Jan whenever she runs into me or Eva Stina, in the hope that the conversation in some way will be steered towards his skipper.

‘I’m not worried about Erik Jan’, I say obediently. ‘Carl Gustaf will make sure he comes back in one piece. No lad could have a better skipper. ‘

Kristina beams at me as if my judgement were admirable. Maria Josefina keeps me informed on her progress with his betrothal shirt. It’s a big job for her, and as she sits there struggling with its long seams, she has confided in the servant girl that she wishes he wasn’t quite so large and tall.

‘Would you like him to be a little tiddler like Erik Magnus?’ says the girl, overcome with laughter. Erik Magnus is Kristina’s brother, almost fourteen and looking like an eleven­ year-old. When the boy stands by his father, it’s a deplorable sight, and Kristina also laughs.

‘Oh, no. He’s all right as he is, I suppose. ‘ She falls silent, deep in thought, in some kind of dread of the large tall man she is to marry. She thinks about him and enjoys longing for him so much that she isn’t miserable that he is away. When she lies alone in her bed, her whole body shudders at the thought of what it will be like to sleep with him. Something will happen that she’s not quite sure about, something she both yearns for and trembles over.

Carl Gustaf sails on his routes from Sundsvall to Bordeaux, with ballast up to Gävle and timber down to Hull, from Grimsby with a cargo of coal to Antwerp. From there, he goes up through the sound and into Gavle for yet another load of timber for London. There the agent has arranged a return load for him, and now he’s pitching homewards to Stockholm with a miscellaneous cargo in the hold.

At sea, Carl Gustaf says, you’re cut off from everything. When he was a boy, he thought that was the best of all. Sometimes several days would go by without him having to think about home and be depressed. I know myself what it is like – on board, the whole world is the ship and its progress. If you have to explain anything ashore, you find it singularly difficult to find the words, as if you couldn’t see what you’re describing really clearly in your mind, and you soon notice how little interested your friends are. What you’re talking about is everything about ships and the harbours you call in at. Your dreams are best kept to yourself.

So I tell a lie if I maintain Carl Gustaf stands on the bridge longing for Kristina every minute. Anyone to do with seamen knows we’re the ones who have to think and long and worry. They return like a favour, step back into their places, and that’s quite enough. We don’t demand that they assure us they have been thinking about us. What they have been involved in has been nothing to do with us, and we accept that it is like that. Anyhow, it would be bad for the ship if Carl Gustaf went about sighing for Kristina instead of paying attention and being decisive.

‘It’s like being taken out of life itself’, Carl Gustaf says, when he was once asked to explain why he sleeps so well on board, he who usually worries to death and looks like a ghost in the mornings. He usually comes home silent and depressed. He’s tired, we say, although it seems strange among all the others who come home talkative and full of stories. So if the man has changed when he comes home this time, it means this season has been different. This time he has something to come home to.

This year, we hear nothing about shipwrecks. Not until Christmas, when Trefanten comes home winged and wrecked, do we learn that her rigging was lost off Öland. But she gets back home and has to tie up for the last time in Västeränga Bay; it’s not worth spending money on Erik Petter’s old workhorse for new rigging. She’s done her time and more than that. Everything Erik Petter now owns and his whole reputation rests ultimately on Trefanten.

When Trefanten comes home, nearly all the other boats are already back They don’t come in in a bunch as they had left, but creep in, one by one, with days or weeks in between. The days grow shorter and shorter, and although the ships try to come into the archipelago in daylight and drop anchor for the night so that they can sail in with the light, it does happen that they can work their way in first at dusk. In a few individual cases, it has happened that no one has known anything until the crew has stepped inside the doors in the dark of evening.

Otherwise it is a matter of honour for us to keep track of when the ships come in, to harness the horse and go and meet them. The village boys drift around and keep a look­out. They climb like crows into the tops of the pines to reconnoitre. If white sails appear over the treetops, they all yell together, and then there’s a terrific outcry while they try to work out which ship it is coming. Then people are already on their way out of their houses and shouts and cries leap between treetops and the ground, groups of boys already tumbling down from the trees and running off, for the boys meet all the ships. We who are grown up meet only certain boats, and we don’t set off until there is some agreement about who it is coming.

Usually we are down at Lumparsund before they drop anchor. But even if the ship blows in on a following wind at such a speed that it almost runs aground and all the people are up taking down the sails, there is still so much to do on board before the seamen have time even to look ashore that it doesn’t matter if we get down there a little later.

For my own sake alone, I want to be down there before they drop anchor. There is no greater peace in the world than when the anchor falls into Lumparsund after the whole long season. It’s so quiet, as if the whole world had hove to on its great voyage. Of course the bo’sun shouts orders to the boys up in the rigging, and of course you hear movement and running feet on deck, but in the eye of reality, everything is stopped and silent when the world turns and the seamen go ashore.

Then we go down to Klubben just as Leo turns against the wind in the shallow passage and her remaining sails go slack. Then the anchor drops. I see Erik Jan standing in the lee by the wall of the cabin and waving to us all ashore. I see Carl Gustaf standing on the bridge with his hand up. I both see and hear the Änglund boy yelling at the boys up in the rigging. I see them all, in the rigging and on deck, everyone of them visible and safe and sound. Last time, Leo came home one man short, but now they are all there and we shout and wave from our various vantage points without being able to hear each other properly in the roaring wind and the autumn day lying damply heavy over Lumparsund.

Now that the boys are home, they start taking an interest in us. ‘You’re all alive?’ is one of the first questions they usually ask once we’re within earshot. ‘Who would have put an end to us?’ we cry back. Usually it’s only some old person who has died, something expected and distant. If it’s anyone closer, a mother or a father or a sister or even a wife, then we’re more cautious. Then we don’t shout it out immediately, but wait until we are on our own.

This year there hasn’t been great mortality, and we have nothing but good news to call out as we row out to the ship. Erik Jan looks pleased. He has grown and has a new cap, the old one perhaps lost at sea. I already know what fun we’ll have this evening when he opens his sea-chest and shows what he’s brought back from foreign ports. He’s my little boy who has grown up, and I can’t help the two big tears appearing on my cheeks as I call out: ‘Mother sends her love!’

Then Carl Gustaf also comes to the railing. ‘Hullo there, Leander!’ he shouts, his seavoice still strong and carrying. ‘There’ll be quite a share-out this year, I’ll have you know!’

We have already heard from the others who have returned earlier that it’s been a good year, with cargoes beyond all expectations. ‘So things went well for you then?’ I call back.

‘Yes, indeed’, replies Carl Gustaf. ‘Did you bring your shovel with you?’

He pretends he has the hold full of money. But times have changed since Erik Petter came home with the proceeds in the wool-sack. Nowadays, the skipper rarely sees the money that he sails on. Now he is usually given a piece of paper, and the agents and ship-owners have to settle with the bank. Leo‘s cash-box doesn’t seem any heavier than usual, but when Carl Gustaf is ready and goes ashore, he carries it carefully and keeps it on his lap all the way to Granboda. ‘There’ll be no peace in my soul until I’ve handed it in to Simons’, he says.

‘Are you going to Simons before you go home’, I say.

‘I suppose so, yes’, he says. ‘I know Simons is sitting there waiting.’

‘Not to mention Kristina’, I say. I’m pleased to be there with Erik Jan, who is gazing at everything we’re passing and is pleased to be home. I laugh and so does Carl Gustaf.

‘The girl’s alive and well?’ he says.

‘Oh, yes’, I say. ‘And your shirt’s finished, Maria Josefina tells me.’

I think his face clouds over a little, making him look almost as he usually does when he comes home, the more depressed the nearer we get. ‘She’s so terribly young’, he sighs.

If Carl Gustaf starts wavering now, he’ll make us all miserable. ‘Things are quickly done in that family’, I say, with the right of age. ‘Erik Petter was fourteen when he saved Simons and eighteen when he built Trefanten. Kristina is eighteen now. Like father, like daughter. ‘

Then he says: ‘You’re right, Leander’, and I’m pleased my own son sits and listens to what his captain says. We leave Carl Gustaf at the fork in the road to Simons’ place and watch him walking on with the cash-box in his hand. We go on to Eskils, unharness the horse and unload. We haven’t all that much with us, because we’ll probably be returning to the ship a few times before she’s laid up for the winter.

Eva Stina is already outside Eskil’s to welcome Erik Jan, but Maria Josefina wouldn’t be Maria Josefina if she hadn’t found an excuse to go to Simons. She has reckoned on Carl Gustaf making his way to the Simons before going home, and she doesn’t want to miss that moment, even if it means not being at home to welcome her own brother.

When Carl Gustaf comes in, Kristina is sitting there perfectly in control. Erik Petter is full of goodwill and only with difficulty manages to restrain himself from rushing off down to Klubben with the small boys. He crosses the floor to Carl Gustaf and shakes him warmly by the hand. ‘Welcome back, Captain’, he says. ‘Safe and sound with good news for us?’

Carl Gustaf gives the box a slight shake and bends his head, listening intently. ‘It rattles a little if you listen terribly hard’, he admits.

Erik Petter lets out a huge laugh. ‘I can hear it rustling, I can!’ he says. ‘That’s big money rustling, I know. ‘

He would prefer to drag Carl Gustaf into the parlour immediately, and Carl Gustaf looks as if he would very much like to say yes to a pipe. But he turns politely to Brita Stina and greets her. Then Kristina rises from the table and manages two steps towards him as he moves towards her. They meet in the middle of the floor. He takes her by the hand and says: ‘Hullo, Kristina. Greetings from the sea. ‘

‘Welcome home, Carl Gustaf’, she says. They stand there for only a minute, but long enough for Erik Petter to be struck with despair. What are profit and bonuses against Kristina looking like that at a strange man!

Brita Stina intervenes with an invitation to Carl Gustaf to join them for their evening meal, but he thanks her and declines. It would look bad if he didn’t go home the first evening he was back. He won’t even take off his coat and smoke a pipe with Erik Petter, but just wishes to leave the box in safe hands with the head shipowner before going home, though he would like to look in tomorrow for a chat about the contents of the box.

As he is about to leave, he turns to Kristina and says with a smile that maybe he’ll find something in his sea-chest she might perhaps like.

‘Yes’, she says, and can find nothing else to say. She has nothing else to say except yes.

Translated by Joan Tate


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