A long time ago, during our many summers on Grundvik Island, I would wake up early every Thursday and run down to wait for Jonas Ström and the mail.
I’d listen for his hoot in the pale light of morning, with the cool promise of a warm summer day climbing a horizon that surrounded me.
He approached, just a blue and red dot from where I stood, barefooted, worrying that Helena or Toma would find me and tease.
Then with a mighty honk he would pull up to the pier. Loud like Thor, tall and bright with a wide grin, he’d cast me in his shadow as he leaned down to hand me the newspapers and letters. He would say “Flicka lilla“, little girl, “du vaknar med fåglarna“, you rise with the birds, then, just as I’d prepare to open my mouth and say something, Helena and Toma would come tumbling down from the house, through the forest, and flank me, giggling, while the beautiful Jonas would be off with a final ear-splitting roar.
“You love him.”
“Mila is going to marry Mr. Postman!”
And we would race up to the house, through the heavy oak front door that we joined forces to open, and into the kitchen where we collapsed in laughter at our mothers’ feet.
We’d listen to their gossip until we were thrown out of the kitchen and into the sitting room where our grandfather and my dad were locked in mortal combat over their backgammon board, brows furrowed, but conscious enough of the world outside their battle for my dad to mumble “Your daddy is winning this one honey…” Grandfather just smiled, and winked, and told me never to grow old. This is what he always told us kids and we’d nod solemnly, believing that we never would.
Outside, Toma’s dad would be fixing something, hammering or sawing, and we’d stay well away.
By the afternoon everyone left the house and scattered. Our mums went down to sunbathe, our daddies took the boat out, and we flashed around the island.
On our final visit to Grundvik we had arrived in threes and fours, as always, in my uncle’s motorboat. It was the midst of winter. We never came here at this time; Grundvik Island was the place of summer thrills, but our grandfather was turning eighty-five years old and we all gathered to celebrate.
Grundvik was a very different place.
In between the islands of the archipelago the Baltic Sea lay in great sheaths of broken ice. Closer to the mainland ice-skaters were still venturing out, but here the currents kept the ice shifting, the waves pulling in and out of deserted beaches with black fingers.
Our island was abandoned to the wintry blues, covered in a blanket of pure white snow.
Ancient pine and spruce swayed, green and lush, amid the black skeletons of oak, beech, and maple. Here and there something stirred in the trees, scattering snow from the loaded branches.
Then all was still again.
The mail boat still drifted by once a week, though it did not stop by the island; its hoot could still be heard somewhere far out, above the restless rumble, though it was soon drowned out by the sea and wind.
Summer dreams should not be crashed in on in winter boots. Had we not returned, and brought the dull season with us, Grundvik would have remained untouched by the chill that will now always remain.
There was nothing of the long days and warm nights we knew from our summers. I didn’t venture out on the cold Thursday mornings to wait for the mail boat. The nights were so bitter that the water would freeze in the pipes.
I asked my dad one morning, when I couldn’t turn on the tap:
“Where does all the water go?”
“It’s still there, just frozen…honey, ice is just frozen water, isn’t it?” Dad laughed and pulled me to him.
When I walked out that morning I looked around at the heavy snow that covered everything and thought: it is all just water. But light and dazzling, and nothing like the black waves that surrounded the island.
My dad told us, while sitting by the fire one evening, that the ocean would be so cold now you would die within minutes if you fell in, and it seemed as if the sea we had believed to be our tranquil friend, our comfort, had suddenly turned feral.
But we didn’t really mind the cold. We were happy to be together and miss a couple of days of school. Helena and Toma were my best friends, and I had no reason to think anything would ever change.
The house on Grundvik Island belonged to Helena’s parents. The island itself was public, and sometimes during the busy summer season boats would pull in, and our beach would host strangers, but mostly we got it for ourselves. Helena’s parents had opened a restaurant when they’d arrived in Sweden years before, and now Helena and her older brother went to expensive schools and on holidays to California. They didn’t live in a high-rise; they had their own house with a large garden.
In Romania, Adrian, Toma’s dad, had been a lawyer. When he came to Sweden he had been nothing for a long time before starting work as an office junior for an insurance firm.
He had big expectations of Toma, but Toma didn’t have big ambitions.
Toma wanted to watch movies and read comic books. He wanted to make friends and wander around town aimlessly with them.
Instead, he did three hours of homework on weekdays, five hours on the weekends, and took extra lessons in math and German three times a week. The rest of his time he spent in his room scared to disappoint, scared of the Chilean boys that lived on his block, and scared of the names the Swedish kids called him at school.
During our summers on the island we would spend all of our time outside, either on the beach or in the forest. We sometimes even dared to go north to the cliffs, where we were forbidden to venture, and we would lie on our tummies right on the edge and watch the waves break while imagining what would happen if we fell.
But on our last visit, it got dark too early and was too cold to stay out late. So we hurried inside where there was, as always, food waiting, and picked an empty room to sit in, by a bright fire. Toma was even quieter than usual, and when he spoke he said things that made Helena and I look at each other with furrowed brows.
On the day of grandfather’s party, Helena and I were outside after breakfast, eager to take advantage of the short day. Toma had been led by his father to the small office at the back of the house and instructed to translate a news article from Swedish to German and from German to Romanian. During the summers Toma would get away with only an hour’s work, but now in the middle of term, he had to follow his normal routine.
Helena and I snuck around the house and knocked on the window of his prison. Toma looked up at us with a little smile, then back down at his notes.
We pressed cold faces and mittened paws against the glass until he got up from the desk and opened the window.
“We’ve been on the cliff.”
“We’ve seen bits of a shipwreck. We’ll show it to you. It’s right under our place: a real shipwreck.”
“What’s ‘shipwreck’ in German, Toma?”
We sniggered as he leaned out of the window, snatched my fluffy hat and put it on his own head. Suddenly, the door was pulled opened with a bang and Helena and I ducked below the windowsill, covering our mouths in an attempt to stifle the giggles. Toma’s dad slammed the window shut, glass rattling above us, his voice a low murmur. We couldn’t make out his words, but they were followed by the sound of impact; something fell off the desk with a rustle, and then a second heavy thump.
Our hands still covered our mouths, but above the brightly coloured mittens our eyes weren’t laughing anymore. The door was opened and slammed shut again, and we lifted our heads just enough to glance into the room where Toma was at the desk again, his shoulders shaking and his face turned away from us.
I wanted to knock on the window again, but Helena took my hand and tugged gently and we ran off and hid amongst the skeletons of the oak and maple trees, where my mum found us a while later. She handed me back my hat and pulled me into a long embrace, and I could see, even then, that she knew it wasn’t fair.
A few hours later, we were collecting stones on the beach when, through the quickly rising darkness, we saw Toma making his way down from the house.
He didn’t look at us, just sat down, and we joined him in silence, on the wet granite.
The sea was nothing but sparks in the dark.
“I hate German.”
“I hate him.”
There was no need to ask whom he was as his mark had been left on Toma’s cheek and was visible even in the premature darkness of the winter afternoon. We said nothing, but Helena put her hand on Toma’s arm.
Toma stood up suddenly, and he looked down at us, his face in shadows.
“I have an idea, come on.”
We followed him down to the pier and up to the boat that lay rocking back and forth. He jumped in.
“Toma! We’re not allowed.”
“We have to get back for the party…”
Yes, we were, and we couldn’t understand why he wasn’t: his dad would be furious, but we jumped in next to him and looked at each other, trying to find encouragement.
Toma untied the knot that held boat and pier together, that held everything together, and pushed out with one of the oars.
We were alone in the inky night, drifting further and further from the lights of the house and the shrinking island. Helena was holding my hand and Toma was rowing with his back to us, his shoulders moving back and forth rhythmically and his breath rising above his head in puffs.
The cold filled my lungs as I drew breath after breath of salty air, and soon the comforting lights of our house were so distant they might have been just stars in the night.
When we stopped, we were in-between Grundvik and the three small islands to the north. They were uninhabited and, now, only slightly blacker bumps in the black before us. Toma stood up, the boat swinging wildly, and Helena squeezed my hand.
“Toma, sit down!”
My father had told us, when he had found us huddled on the beach the previous evening, that the sea was as deep as the distance from Grundvik to the main land. He had sat down next to us and I had squeezed myself into his warm side, feeling so safe with his arm around me, so warm, that nothing seemed further than the bottom of the sea.
Now, as drops of ice splashed up and burned my cheek, I found myself whispering “daddy, daddy”, desperately trying not to cry.
The oars dropped over the sides and with dull splashes sank to the bottom of the night.
When Toma turned around, the boat rocking unsteadily below us, we saw that he was crying. We couldn’t see the tears, but his face was twisted and he kept wiping at it in angry jerks that shook the boat and made us squeal.
“Toma! Toma! Please sit down please!”
Helena was also crying, and squeezing my hand so hard it made me wince.
“I’m not going back.”
“Don’t be an idiot, Toma, we have to go back! We’re going home tomorrow. Why did you drop the oars?”
Toma raised his chin and looked up at the sky above us, a black spread to match the black of the sea below, both vast and deep and hungry.
“I’m not going back,” he said again, looking down.
I tried to catch his eyes; there was something in his voice that scared me and I thought I could understand it better if I could just see his eyes. Helena knew more, she had dropped to her knees and was trying to pull him down, she was saying “don’t Toma, don’t” and I wasn’t sure what he shouldn’t.
And then the boat rocked and Toma leaned back, and for a moment he seemed to be leaning on the night.
We would never say anything else than that he had lost his balance.
The exact spot where it had happened remained unknown. There was no chasm in the sea where he had fallen and the body was never found.
There were no more visits to Grundvik Island. We left the house, just abandoned it; we left the beach and the cliffs. We left the pier to rot away.
We left the unbroken surface of the Baltic, and beneath it we left one of us.
This is a reprint of work originally published in The Mechanic’s Institute Review.
Mihaela Nicolescu is a writer with a love of theatre and performance. Romanian by birth, Swedish by upbringing, and Londoner by choice, rootlessness is at the heart of Mihaela’s writing. She also enjoys quite a bit of sex and violence (in her work). Her short stories have been published in a number of magazines, including Mslexia, MIR, and The New Writer, and she is currently working on a collection of short stories.