Tuesday Fiction: “Brita’s Holiday Village” by Karin Tidbeck (Author Week #5)
Brita’s Holiday Village
by Karin Tidbeck
The cab ride from Åre station to Aunt Brita’s holiday village took about half an hour. I’m renting the cottage on the edge of the village that’s reserved for relatives. The rest are closed for summer. Mum helped me make the reservation—Brita’s her aunt, really, not mine, and they’re pretty close. Yes, I’m thirty-two years old. Yes, I’m terrible at calling people I don’t know.
I didn’t bring a lot of stuff. Clothes and writing things, mostly. The cottage is a comforting old-fashioned red thing with white window frames, the interior more or less unchanged since the 1970s: lacquered pine, green felt wallpaper, woven tapestries decorated with little blobs of green glass. It smells stale in a cosy way. There’s a desk by one of the windows in the living room, overlooking Kall Lake. No phone reception, no Internet. Brita wondered if I wanted a landline, but I said no. I said yes to the bicycle. The first thing I did was bike down to the ica store I saw on the way here. I stocked up on pasta and tomatoes and beans. I found old-fashioned soft whey-cheese, the kind that tastes like toffee. I’m eating it out of the box with a spoon.
“Holiday village” is a misleading expression; the village is really just twelve bungalows arranged in two concentric circles with a larger house—the assembly hall—in the middle. The dark panelling, angled roofs and panoramic windows must have looked fresh and modern in the sixties, or whenever they were built. The wood is blackened now, and the windows somehow swallow the incoming light, creating caverns under the eaves. I’m a little relieved to be staying in the cottage.
Brita said that before she bought the holiday village, back when they were building it, the old man who owned the cottage refused to leave. When he finally died, the cottage was left standing for private use. It’s much more cosy, anyway. I’d feel naked behind those panoramic windows.
I got up late and unpacked and sorted music. I’ve got a playlist with old punk and goth for the teenage project, an ambient playlist for the space project, and a list of cosy music, everything in order to feel at home and get into the mood and avoid writing. Did some cooking. Rode the bike around until I was tired. Found an old quarry. Tried to go for a swim in Kall Lake and cut my feet on the rocks. Bought goat whey curd. Finally, I couldn’t avoid it anymore: writing.
So I have two stories I want to do something about. First there’s the science fiction story about child workers in the engine room of a spaceship. It’s a short story really, but I’d like to expand it into a novel. I know you’re not supposed to worry about form or length—it’s a guaranteed way to jinx the whole thing—but I’d really like to. I like the characters and their intense relationships, like Lord of the Flies in space.
The other story is a pseudo-biographical thing about a teenager growing up in the Stockholm suburbia of the 1980s, during the heyday of Ultra, the tiny house turned punk headquarters. I suppose it’s a cooler and bolder version of myself. Also, older. I was too young to ever hang out at Ultra. It had already burned down by the time I discovered punk. I used to go to Ultra’s next iteration—Hunddagis, the club housed in an old day care centre for dogs. I still remember the punk aroma: beer, cigarettes, cheap hair spray, and day-old sweat.
So, that’s what I’ve been doing: writing down a bunch of teenage memories and transposing them onto a little older and bolder version of myself and it’s just slow and boring work. I had a go at the science fiction story instead, but it wouldn’t happen. I ended up shutting everything down, realized it’s now one o’clock in the morning (actually it’s 1:30 now), and I’m going to bed.
I took a walk through the village this morning. Things that look like white, plum-sized pupas hang clustered under the eaves. They’re warm to the touch. I should tell Brita—it’s some kind of pest. Wasp nests?
Biked to the quarry after coffee, gathered some nice rocks—very pretty black granite. Went home, made pasta with chickpeas, tried to write. Writing about punks at Hunddagis doesn’t feel the least bit fun or interesting. Mostly because I’ve realized what a lame teenager I was. I was always home at the stroke of midnight; I didn’t like drinking mash; I didn’t have sex. I read books and had an inferiority complex because I was afraid to do all that other stuff. I don’t know anything about being a badass punk rocker.
It’s the same thing with the story about the engine room kids— what do I know about child labour? What do I know about how kids relate to each other under circumstances like that? Not to mention, what do I know about spaceships? I’m talking out of my ass.
So there I am. I can’t write about what I know, and I can’t write about what I don’t know. Better yet, I’ve told everyone that I’m staying in Åre until I’ve finished the novel. I somehow thought that saying it would make it happen.
Hang in there for another couple of weeks. And do what? Try some more. Go on biking trips and eat whey-cheese.
I’m taking a break. I’ve scrapped everything I was working on. I rented a car and drove west over the border into Norway, where I bought ice cream in a lonely little kiosk. When I was a kid, I thought the sign in Norwegian that said åpen, open, meant apan, the monkey. It was the most hilarious thing ever.
I had my ice cream, and looked at the Sylarna Mountains and the cotton-grass swaying on the bog. There was a thick herbal smell of mountain summer. Little pools and puddles were everywhere, absolutely clear, miniature John Bauer landscapes. I considered going on to Levanger, but it felt too far. I went for a swim in Gev Lake on the way home. It was just like when I was little: warm and shallow enough that if you walk out into the middle, the water only reaches your waist. Tiny minnows nibbled at my feet.
I’m having coffee in the little cabin on Åreskutan’s Summit. It’s a clear day, and I can see the mountain range undulating in the west, worn blunt by the ice ages. Mum once said that when she was a kid, there was a leathery old man who every morning hiked all the way up the mountain with a satchel full of coffee thermoses and cinnamon rolls that he would sell in the cabin. This was before the cableway, somewhere in the 1950s. The old man had done that since time immemorial, even when my grandmother and her sister were kids and dragged baking troughs up the mountain to ride them down like sleds.
I went for a walk in the holiday village. I became a little obsessed with the thought of stuff you can do when nobody’s looking. Build a pillow fort outside cottage number six. Streak howling through the street. I was thinking specifically of howling when I spotted the pupas. They’re the size of my fist now. That was fast. I forgot to tell Brita. Of course, I had to touch one of them again. It felt warmer than my hand.
Went shopping in Kall, had a cup of coffee, bought the newspaper, went past Brita’s house. I told her about the pupas. Her reaction was pretty strange. She said something about the pupas sitting there in summer, and that I should leave them alone. That’s why she’d put me in the cottage outside the village, so that the pupas would be left in peace. Yes, yes, I said. I won’t do anything. Do promise you won’t do anything, said Brita, and suddenly she was pleading. They have nowhere else to go, she said; you’re family, I can trust you can’t I? Yes, yes, I said, I promise. I have no idea what she’s on about.
I dreamed that there was a scraping noise by the door. Someone was looking in through the little side window. It was human-shaped, but it sort of had no detail. It was waving at me with a fingerless paw. The door handle was jerking up and down. The creature on the other side said nothing. It just smiled and waved. The door handle bobbed up and down, up and down.
It’s five past ten. I’ve slept for almost ten hours.
I went into the village to check if the pupas had grown, but all that remains are some empty skins hanging under the eaves. So that’s that.
There’s a knock on the door and someone’s waving at me through the side window. It’s a middle-aged man. When I open the door, he presents himself as Sigvard and shakes my hand. He’s one of the groups of tourists who live here during the summer. They’ve rented all the cabins, and now they’re throwing a party, and they’ve seen me sitting alone in my cottage. Would I like to join them? There’s plenty of food for everyone. I’m very welcome.
The party takes place in the little assembly hall. People are strolling over there from the other cabins. They’re dressed up for a summer night’s party: the women in party dresses and lusekofte sweaters tied over their shoulders, the men in slacks and bright windbreakers. Inside, the assembly hall is decked with yellow lanterns, and a long buffet table lines one of the walls. The guests are of all ages and resemble each other. I ask Sigvard if they’re family, and Sigvard says yes, they are! It’s a big family meet-up, the Nilssons, and they stay here a few weeks every summer. And now it’s time to eat.
The buffet table is covered in dishes from every holiday of the year: steak, roast ham, tjälknul, hot cloudberries, new potatoes, patés, pickled herring, gravlax, lutfisk, seven kinds of cookies, cake. I’m starving. I go for second and third helpings. The food has no taste, but the texture is wonderful, especially the ice cream mingled with hot cloudberries. Everyone seems very interested in me. They want to know about my family. When I tell them that Brita is my great-aunt, they cheer and say that we’re related then; I belong to the Anders branch of the family. Dear Brita! They love her! I’ll always be welcome here. Everyone else here belongs to the Anna branch: Anna, Anders’ sister and the eldest daughter of the patriarch Mats Nilsson.
When we’re done eating, it’s time to dance. The raspy stereo plays dansband music: singers croon about smiling golden-brown eyes, accompanied by an innocent and sickly-sweet tune. Everyone takes to the dance floor. Sigvard asks me to dance. This is like a cliché of Swedish culture, I say without thinking. Yes, isn’t it, says Sigvard and smiles. He holds me close. Then I wake up.
I started writing again. Throwing the old stuff out worked. Something else has surfaced—it’s fairly incoherent, but it’s a story, and I’m not about to ruin it by looking too closely at it. It has nothing to do with teenage trouble at Hunddagis, or Lord of the Flies with kids in spaceships. It’s about my own family in Åre, a sort of pseudo-documentary. Some mixed memories of my grandmother’s and mother’s stories of life up here, woven together with my own fantasies to form a third story. Above all else, I’m having fun. I refuse to think about editing. I write and stare out over Kall Lake.
The dreams are a sign that things are happening—I keep dreaming about the same things, and it’s very clear, very detailed. It’s the same scenario as before, that is, Sigvard knocking on the door and taking me to the assembly hall. We eat enormous amounts of food and dance to dansband classics. I talk to all my relatives. They tell stories about Mats Nilsson’s eldest daughter and how she started the new branch of the family when she married and moved north from Åre. I don’t remember those stories when I wake up.
I started with Mother’s stories, continued with Gran’s generation, and am working my way back in time to form a sort of backwards history. I wrote about the war and how Great-gran smuggled shoes and lard to occupied Norway. Then I wrote about how Gran met Grandpa and moved down to Stockholm. Right now Gran is a teenager, it’s the twenties, and she’s making her first bra out of two stocking heels because she can’t afford to buy a real one. She and her sister are getting ready to go to a dance in Järpen. It’s an hour’s bike ride. I’m looking forward to writing the story about my great-great-grandfather who built a church organ out of a kitchen sofa. Some things you can’t make up.
The dreams change a little each night. I’ve discovered that I have a fair amount of control of my actions. I wander around in the cabins and talk to the inhabitants. In true dream fashion, they all come from little villages with names that don’t exist like Höstvåla, Bräggne, Ovart; all located somewhere north of Åre, by the lakes that pool between the mountains.
Sigvard’s wife is called Ingrid. They have three teenage children.
I’m a little disgusted by the direction this is all taking. I don’t know how to interpret what’s going on. The front doors are always unlocked, I go where I wish. Last night and the night before last, it happened several times that I walked into a house and people were having sex. On all surfaces, like kitchen tables or sofas. They greet me politely when I open the door and then go back to, not making love, but fucking. Nobody seems particularly into it. They might as well be chopping onions or cleaning the floors. In and out and the flat smack of flesh on flesh. And it’s everyone on everyone: man and wife, father and daughter, mother and son, sister and brother. But always in heterosexual configurations. I asked Sigvard what they were doing. We’re multiplying, he said. That’s what people do.
It’s Midsummer. I’ve managed just over eighty pages. I’ve gotten as far back as great-great-great-grandfather Anders, son of Mats Nilsson, and if I want to get even further back I’ll have to do some research on Anders’ five siblings or just ramble out into fairy tale country. Not that making stuff up seems to be a problem. There’s no end to it. I’ve gone back to the start to fill in holes, like Mother and Gran’s siblings. No editing just yet, just more material. Brita asked me if I wanted to come with her to celebrate Midsummer. I declined. All I want to do is write. Besides, it’s freezing outside, and the gnats are out in full force. It’d be a good idea, research-wise, to see Brita, but I don’t feel like being around people.
Sigvard came knocking on my door. He was wearing a wreath of flowers and held a schnapps glass in one hand. We danced to dansband music, the legendary Sven-Ingvars; we competed in sack racing and three-legged racing. Most of the women and girls had large, rounded bellies and moved awkwardly. When the dancing and playing was over, we ate new potatoes and pickled herring, little meatballs and sausages, fresh strawberries with cream, toasting each other with schnapps spiced with cumin and wormwood. It’ll get darker now, said Sigvard. He burst into tears. Yes, I replied. But why is that so terrible? It makes me think of death, he said.
150 pages! That’s an average of five pages a day. Very well done. The last ten days have been about putting more meat on the bones I finished building around Midsummer. In other words, embroidering what facts I had with more ideas of my own. Editing is going to take a lot longer, but I have a solid structure from beginning to end—no bothersome gaps or holes.
I decided to stop at Anders. I need to check the other siblings now, especially Anna. I’ve tried to talk to Brita, but she’s always busy whenever I come over. I’m done with this place, though. I’m homesick. I’ve booked a ticket to Stockholm for the sixth. I can go back home with a good conscience.
They’re weeping and wailing. They’re all dressed in black. They won’t say why. I’ve told them I’ll be leaving soon, but I don’t think that’s why they’re sad.
I finally caught Brita for a cup of coffee. She apologized for being so busy. I asked her about Mats Nilsson’s children, but she doesn’t know much outside our own branch. Still, I asked her if she knew anything about Anna, the eldest daughter. Not much, she said. But then there wasn’t much to know about her. She disappeared without a trace when she was twenty years old. The consensus was that she probably drowned herself in Kall Lake, or in one of the sinkholes in the quarry. In any case, she was never seen again.
I’m leaving on the night train. I cleaned out the cottage; all that’s left is to hand over the keys to Brita.
Sigvard knocked on the door in my dream. The whole village was crowding behind him. They looked aged and crumpled somehow, and they were weeping loudly. Some of them didn’t seem to be able to walk on their own—they were crawling around. Sigvard came in first; he dropped to his knees and flung his arms around my legs. I sat down on the floor. He put his head in my lap. My dear, he said. It was the best summer ever. We’re so grateful. Then he sighed, and lay still. The others came, one by one. They lay down around me and curled up. They sighed and lay still. I patted their heads. There, there, I said. Go to sleep now, go to sleep. Their bodies were like light shells. They collapsed in on themselves.
I was woken up just after seven by an ice-cold draft. The front door was open. I went for a last walk in the village. Clusters of tiny spheres hang under the eaves.
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