The table is close up against the window, the chess board lit by the last of the daylight. The white squares and the men’s white shirts are greyish in the dusk. Nils runs his fingers through his hair, pulls his dark jacket tight around his thin frame, moves his knight to capture one of his opponent’s pawns.
She doesn’t reply. He pictures her sitting on her upright chair in the kitchen next door, by the six-paned window that is the twin of this one, feet up on his chair, skirt slid up around her thighs, slowly turning the pages of the book resting on her knees, the way she has sat to read all the years that they have lived together. He wonders if she will be wearing her new reading glasses. She hates them, says they make her look old. Nothing will ever make you look old, sweetheart, he says.
She doesn’t come. ‘Where’s the damned woman gone?’ he says, and goes in the kitchen to find it empty, as if she has just walked out. It is warm still with the residual heat from the iron stove. Cinnamon buns she baked earlier are cooling on the rack, and scent the room; her knitting needles spear balls of crimson and of yellow wool. Her book lies on the windowledge open on its face, as she has always left her books, regardless of how many times he has told her that doing so damages their spines. He picks up a strand of wool from the floor, slips it in as a marker, closes the covers.
The schnapps bottle’s empty. There’s no more in the cupboard. Nils puts two buns on a plate and he and Harald sink their teeth into the moistness of them, sugar crystals scattering across the board among the wooden chessmen. They lick their fingers so the crystals stick to their damp skin.
‘Good cook, Katarina,’ Harald says.
Beyond the window the valley is brimful of shadow, the fields softened to faded greens stitched with hedges. Only the pines on the ridge of the far hill catch the sunlight still, the orange sky above them reflecting the sunset. A red barn and the Germans’ empty summer house are the two visible habitations. Today’s herd of nine cows has moved on to another pasture.
‘Well?’ says Harald.
Nils turns back to the board, moves a bishop to protect his king.
‘Check,’ says Harald again.
Damn. Nils pushes his worry about Katarina to the back of his mind and sets his finger on his queen, deliberating.
She has bare feet, a silver anklet, nails painted red, the varnish a little chipped. ‘You’re still at it, I see.’ She treads silently across the floorboards, stands on the rag rug. Her arms are rounded and bare, burnished with the early summer heat. Her long plaits have come half unpleated, escaped strands twining at her neck, half-concealing the gold earrings that she wears. She smells of a rose-scented soap that is more expensive than any he will buy. Her scarlet shift, cut from some shiny fabric, skims her full breasts, the hem of it fringed in an out-of-date fashion that teases the calves of her legs.
‘Katarina,’ Nils says, his face lit by her arrival.
Her face is marked with pleasure-lines; those curves around her mouth, the upward creases at the corners of her eyes. Her smile deepens; she crosses to stand beside him, caresses the back of his neck.
‘Where’ve you been?’ he says. ‘I missed your presence here.’
‘No-one to fetch the schnapps?’ she teases.
‘I should have bought more in town last Friday.’
‘I’ll make coffee.’
He listens to the familiar scuffles of her lighting the fire, the scrumple of newspaper, the hiss of a match struck on the iron stove, the bang as she thrusts in the wood; the clinks as she places the coffee cups, milk jug and buns on the tray. Then quiet till the kettle boils. Then she comes in and the men make space for the tray on the table and Nils pours and she undoes her plaits and lets her hair tumble crinkled down her back, and she runs her hand underneath it and laughs, and pulls up a chair. ‘Well, where have you been?’ says Nils.
She has spent the early evening with Linda, their neighbour Josef Olsson’s wife, she says.
‘I thought she was away visiting her sister,’ Harald says.
‘She got back this afternoon. You should see the shopping she did in Stockholm! She’s got these shoes - white leather lace-ups with high heels. So smart! They fit me perfectly. I felt like Marlene Dietrich when I put them on.’
‘More money than sense, the Olssons,’ says Nils. ‘Where’s she going to wear them, out here in the country?’ He sips his coffee but it is still too hot to drink. ‘I didn’t hear Linda pass by on her way home,’ he adds.
Katarina leans forward to put her hands over his ears, and tickles them gently. ‘You deaf old donkey.’
She plonks a full kiss on his lips.
‘For God’s sake, you’re knocking the pieces over.’
‘Be like that then. I’ll go back in the other room and read.’
‘No, stay with me, sweetheart. You are my lucky charm; I need you by my side today.’
So she fetches her crimson and yellow knitting, and her four needles click against each other.
Soon it’s Harald’s turn to look perplexed.
‘You shouldn’t frown,’ she says, reaching across the table to touch his forehead. ‘Not when you’re young as you are. You’ll get wrinkles.’
‘Time enough to smile when I’ve beaten Nils. That damned man - every time I’m sure I’ve won, he comes back to confound me.’
‘Checkmate,’ says Nils smugly.
‘Shit.’ Harald stares in disbelief at the board, then grunts and sweeps the chessmen that Nils’s grandfather carved years ago from birch and pine – the pieces are big and clumsy, worn smooth and chipped with use - into their leather bag. He tightens the string. ‘Return match next Sunday?’ he says.
‘If you want.’
‘Are you going to the Frederiksson auction in town on Saturday?’ Katarina asks.
‘God, yes. I don’t want to miss that. Old Freddie had some nice things. Not in the best of nick, some of them – damned shame, the old fellow popping his clogs like that. Just hope there are no dealers around and I can buy at a reasonable price.’
‘His stuff was all a load of old junk.’ That’s Katarina.
‘I can fix it.’
Mr Fixit is what Nils’s friend Anders calls him.
Upstairs is where Nils does most of his fixing, in the attic of their little house, a long room with a window at each end, the roof steeply sloping, insulated and lined with bark-covered planks.
The eastern half of the attic is Nils’s. To each side stands a long workbench, to the south the one on which he keeps the old clocks people bring him to fix, or that he buys at auctions, each hung with a brown label on which he’s written in his neat black writing the date on which it’s come into his hands and the name of its present or past owner, and a catalogue of its faults, and if appropriate the date by which he has promised it will be repaired. There are jars of springs and cogs and nuts, a box of pendulums kept from clocks that proved beyond repair. Assorted bits of brass. A brass lamp; a tray of screwdrivers and pliers. Three glass domes stand like tombstones on a shelf above.
To the north is the workbench on which he fixes shotguns and pistols, revolvers and rifles. It’s higher than the other, because he prefers to stand to work here, adjusting the firing pins and sights, checking the rifling inside the barrels. There’s a smell of oil, and cloths soaked in it, and brushes for cleaning out the muzzles. On nails in the great beam at the top of the wall rest spare barrels, round and octagonal, salvaged from weapons he couldn’t mend, which he will make use of in due course when he comes across the requisite parts.
Sometimes Nils will stroll up the lane to the smithy, and step out of the sun into the fiery heat of the furnace, into the unwindowed black where the colour of the worked iron reveals its temperature and malleability; and he’ll say, Olaf, may I? and Olaf will stand back from the forge, stretching his back, wiping the sweat from his brow with his hairy forearm, and allow him to make new parts for his weapons, which he does with an expertise he learnt in the army, before he came here, before his grandfather left him this house when he was only twenty-five, my farm he likes to call it though his plot of land is only forty metres square, and on a steep hillside at the juncture of the pine and birch of the forest and the pasture of the valley, too sandy and stony to grow much, which is why he supplements his income with electrical and repair work now he has left his job in the paper factory to live the good life.
The western end of the attic is Katarina’s. A vast basket overflows with bright-dyed wool, another holds raw fleeces, light and dark, still oily from the sheep from which they were shorn. Her spinning wheel and loom are dusty with disuse, but the gold and black of her treadle sewing machine are shiny. Pressed under the window to catch each day’s final gasp of light is a wooden sofa cushioned with wool rugs and a torn green satin quilt. This is where Katarina likes to lie on lazy afternoons and read, her head floating on a striped cushion from a hole in which little feathers drift and curl to the wide boards of the floor. She has learnt so much through reading. For instance she knows that chess is an almost universal game, played all around the world: in China and in the steepling hills of Afghanistan, in Italy with its vine-clad slopes, the grapes from them of such a sweetness that when a duke feeds you them one at a time, dropping them in your mouth, you melt with pleasure; in America in the gold-towns where prospectors – many impoverished emigrants from Sweden – have gambled their future on the outcome of a game with a stranger.
Another thing Nils fixes is old bicycles, which he stores in his big shed near the lane. He has always been creative, a bit of a thinker, and he has worked out how to put gears on bikes – he makes the parts – long before multiple gears have become common. It’s much easier than it used to be for him and Katarina to cycle up the long hill from the bus stop. People have said to him that he ought to patent his system, but he can’t be arsed; it’s the solving of problems that intrigues him.
Oh, I would like a car, Katarina’s said; but he doesn’t listen.
She has painted the frame of her bike scarlet, with a green palm tree, copied from a Hollywood poster, in meticulous detail on the riser. Nils insists she rides a man’s bike with a crossbar, because the frame is structurally stronger than that of a lady’s bike, and as she pedals along her skirt blows up around her pale thighs, her hair froths back in the breeze. Arne taking hay to his cattle, Olaf hoeing his potatoes, Christer sharpening his axe – she waves to them as she passes and they all stop what they are doing to stare and wave back.
© Maggie Freeman 2015