It was a grey day minus the rain. Copenhagen Central station was brimming with tourists. After a while, Amit found the platform number 12. He got into the train heading towards Nykøbing Falster. Strangely, the train was full of people, he could not find even one free seat. There were many people like him standing in the aisles and vestibules – a rare scene in Danish trains. People were rushing back after the Christmas holidays from wherever they had been. Once a year family takes center stage. Some young Danes looked so relaxed as if they were enjoying an unusual sport.
Amit felt quite uncomfortable standing with his heavy backpack and two small bags. The bags were not the only source of his discomfort. He was going to stay the next six months with a family he had never met. He only knew one member of the family, with whom he had corresponded via emails. All these thoughts and the physical discomfort of carrying three bags and standing queerly had made the time slip by quickly – the train arrived at the station sooner than expected. Amit felt relieved, but he was also a bit apprehensive and wondered what he would do if nobody turned up at the station. He would really be screwed. After all, he had undertaken an expensive trip. Usually, he did not indulge such doubts. It was his pocket and the icy Danish air that inundated him with these unpleasant thoughts.
From the station waiting room, he could see the town. The 7-Eleven giving it an air of bustle. Except for a few shops with swanky glass doors, the streets looked empty. Occasionally, an odd car would pass by, splitting the silent air. Though the town looked pleasing to his Indian eyes, a strange kind of heaviness was sitting on his chest. He felt its burden for a few moments before shrugging it off. He inhaled deeply, stood up, and looked around with renewed interest and freshness, exuding a confidence that came from deep within. Suddenly, it dawned on him that doubts, fears, and anxieties wreck the soul as long as one feeds them.
He saw a tall, strange-looking woman dressed in a shabby white overcoat walking toward him. As she neared him, he saw a handwoven rainbow hat on her head, and her two thick long plaits tossing from side to side making her look odd. There was a big smile on her face, and her tiny eyes were looking through her glasses in Amit’s direction. In a few big steps, she was in front of Amit and offered him her hand. Amit reciprocated the gesture rather hesitatingly. It was easier for Hanne to recognize him than he her. As Hanne looked so bizarre, Amit was not sure he should get into the car. She almost looked like a witch. But then he shook off his doubts. Awkwardly, he threw his bags in the back of the car. Soon he found himself on the highway with Hanne. She asked a few carefree but studied questions. Amit answered in his calm, natural way. The talk eased Amit, the initial physical strangeness of his host suddenly thawed. Within moments, she looked less like a witch, more like a friend.
“Oh, you don’t speak with the typical Indian accent.”
Before Amit could say something, she said, “You know, Simon is so excited to meet you, he likes India. We were actually worried that there might be some difficulty in understanding you.” Amit saw her face as if for the first time. She spoke like a schoolgirl – excited and upfront. Amit felt good and safe with her. He did not think any of the things such as accents, languages, (mis)understanding – that had worried Simon, and possibly, her too – would matter. She drove like a seasoned driver and soon she parked her car outside an isolated house.
“Velkommen til, Amit. Vi er hjemme nu.”
It was a huge house, with several partitioned blocks, surrounded by acres of farmland on three sides. The front of the house was facing a small street. Led by Hanne, Amit entered one of the doors and walked into a big glass house. Hanne guided him further. She opened another door and then they were in the living-cum-dining room where there seemed life – hygge – as Danes would say. A tall, handsome man, with a smile on his face, stood up from his chair to greet Amit. It was Simon. Unlike Hanne, he was soft-spoken and thoughtful.
It was a strange house. There was an open kitchen shelf on one side, on the other was a long dining table, and in front were the glass doors, through which one could see the vast green fields. On the opposite side of the glass doors was a big mud furnace; old but still functioning. There was something shabby about the place. It was not an ordinary Danish household. Amit liked being in the country, but he found the house rather curious.
Hanne and Simon asked him all kinds of questions, and told him a lot about their farm with unabashed pride. The more they talked, the more Amit felt at home. “Eat these berries, they are from the farm.” While Hanne was blatantly loud, Simon was quiet like the Danish countryside. His manners were mild, but he never gave Amit the impression of being distant or aloof. Amit liked the tea, but he found the combination of tea and berries bizarre.
Afterwards, Hanne wanted to show Amit the house and the room where he would stay, and the farm. As Hanne walked out through the glass door in her brisk, confident manner, Amit, just before stepping out, saw Simon going upstairs like a gentle cloud. Outside, the air was fresh. Hanne talked with great relish about her fields. Since it was cold, Hanne did not stay too long outside. After twenty minutes, she showed Amit his room. Amit was really touched as he could see that they had spent a lot of time decorating the room. There was a small wooden statue of Buddha on the windowsill, Indian incense, clean sheets, towels, a few books, a clean and empty cupboard, and a table with two chairs and a reading lamp. Amit thanked Hanne.
“Oh, we want our guests to be happy. By the way, we eat dinner at six but feel free to help yourself if you feel hungry before. Our kitchen is yours.”
“Thanks, see you in a few hours, Hanne!”
Amit was relieved to be alone. The last few hours had been hectic for him. Amit emptied all his bags and stacked his stuff in the cupboards. A few moments later, he lay down on the soft double bed; the clouds outside drifting in large skeins of soft cotton, and the tall, leafless trees standing in tranquility soothed his exhausted eyes.
In these relaxed moments, his thoughts shifted towards Simon. Although he was Hanne’s husband, Amit thought him to be her son. He hated himself for seeing them that way, seeing in ways we were taught to see. He would most probably have ignored the age difference were Simon a woman. As his mind was rambling around Hanne and Simon, two hours vanished like a bird flashing past outside his window.
Amit left his room, which was in the adjoining section of the main house. Except for his room, the rest of the place was cluttered with old furniture, dusty almirahs, and cardboard boxes full of clothes. It took him a while to find the way to the living-cum-dining room. One had to go through the glass house door that had several doors opening into different sections of the main house. Amit somehow found his way to the living-cum-dining room. Hanne and Simon welcomed him again. The table was already set, the food ready. Amit was shown his chair and they ate with the chatter of Hanne’s voice ill-matching the silence of Simon (even when he talked he exuded silence). While they were having dinner, Amit noticed that Hanne looked older than her 52 years – old and wrinkled – but she had the energy and excitement of a teenage girl.
The next day after breakfast Hanne showed Amit what she wanted him to do. She wanted him to make a serpentine pathway with stones of varied sizes in the garden. It seemed to Amit that Hanne had thought of this task on the spur of the moment. It was not something that was really on her list; it was his presence that occasioned it. Amit knew that they would first start working outdoors from April onwards. In winter months they would work indoors with different projects, only going out to feed animals and clean the animal sheds and enclosures. Although Amit knew this, he did not want to make a fuss on the very first day with his hosts. Besides, he loved being outdoors. It was like being in a cold sauna.
As he began to work, he noticed that most of the stones had dried soil on them. He cleaned them before loading and bringing them to the garden on the wheelbarrow. The air was chilled and it felt more so as it began to drizzle. Hanne would come every fifteen minutes to tell Amit how he could do it better. Amit thought her to be a frivolous little girl who had this new toy in her hand. Two hours later, after completing his task, he stopped, but the stubborn rain kept falling.
Hanne genuinely thanked him for his work. Later when he retired to his room, he felt a bit disoriented. In such a short time, so much had happened. He could still feel in his body the discomforts of the last two days: his confusion and doubts on his first meeting with Hanne at the station, and later, too much information about the farm, his first day of work, Hanne’s exuberance, and Simon’s silences and smiles. As his mind was flooded with these random thoughts, he felt cold. The two electric heaters were not good enough to tame the Danish winter. Unlike the night before, he put on his socks and a heavy handwoven sweater before slipping under the blankets.
The next day after breakfast, they all worked together. Simon showed Amit the whole farm, two pigs, several chickens, a goat, rabbits and the area where they grew vegetables. Simon warned him that they worked a lot harder from April onwards. He narrated with a great passion all the things farmers did.
“Amit, do you like our farm?”
“Yes, I think it is really nice.”
“We love it. We work here every day except on weekends. Hanne and I want to be self-sufficient. During winters, it is slightly more relaxed, but summers are hectic. It is hard work but it is important that some of us live this way.”
“How long have you been living on the farm?”
“It has been ten years now. It is very fulfilling, working with your hands, and really knowing where the food is coming from.”
“This is indeed very impressive. Is there any specific reason why you decided to live this way?”
“It was a very conscious decision. We really like what we do. We want to be in touch with ourselves in a very elemental way. The only problem is that we are tied to the farm and cannot travel. Therefore, we invite people from all over the world, so we feel as if we were traveling ourselves.”
“Is that true, Simon? Unlike Hanne, you seem to be a private person.”
“Yes, that is true. But I feel good that we invite people here. In the beginning, I was a bit unsure, but now I have got used to it. We have met some nice people from different parts of the world. In fact, I now look forward to meeting new people. We actually have a dream of developing the farm into a commune where like-minded people can live and work together.”
As Amit listened more, the better he understood their vision. Simon continued talking to Amit, while Hanne was running around the farm multitasking – full of energy and a smile in her eyes. Simon also told Amit how they fed the animals, and all the rituals they usually performed. This all sounded interesting.
Having seen and understood the farm routine, Amit started with feeding the animals. It was easier with chickens and rabbits, and a bit more complicated with the pigs. For the pigs, first he had to take out beetroots from the sacks stored underground. The soil was frosted over the opening and Amit had to use a mattock to break it before slipping his entire arm inside to drag the beetroots out. There was nothing much on the sides, but the center was full of beetroots. He had to actually lie down flat on the ground and push his hand as far as he could to bring them out. Such an exercise was fun. The pigs went mad with excitement when they saw Amit approaching to their enclosure with food. He performed all the rituals that Simon and Hanne observed while feeding the pigs. Amit liked this job and thought he would much prefer to do the routine jobs. He was not interested in learning about farming.
As the days passed, Amit got used to the routine. They would work together, the three of them, from Monday to Friday for at least six hours and gather again for dinner at 6 pm. They would cook, talk, eat and drink. It was fun. At the dinner table, Amit noticed many things at the dinner table. For instance, Hanne ruled the table. At times she was remarkably generous, and sometimes she acted rudely. Once when Simon tried to take slices of oranges from the bowl, Hanne sharply forbade him, those were exclusively for her. Simon just smiled as if her rudeness indicated some raw form of love and innocence. However, this had made Amit very mindful of her. He never knew what she could do at any given moment.
Hanne, like an overexcited teenager, craved attention in every way possible. The dining table was her stage where she performed, Simon and Amit were her audience. Some days she would not eat meat, other days she would give up dairy. Her allergies were whimsical, like the Danish weather. Simon never doubted or questioned her behavior, which really baffled Amit. Hanne would always look for situations where she could assert herself. For instance, Simon was a meticulous worker, and Amit had seen how often Hanne would point out defects in his work and ask him to redo it. No matter how irritating she was in such moments, she was always right in her objections. She had an incredible sense of precision, and her knowledge was truly versatile, ranging from plumbing, fishing and car engines, to furniture making. Amit had the feeling that she used her talent first to discomfit others and then to help them with her superior skills. This display gave Hanne a perverse kick. She always hunted for these small, nasty pleasures.
On weekends, Amit would only join Hanne and Simon for dinner. The rest of the time they did their own stuff. Amit would make his own breakfast and eat it in his room with a book. He would drink a lot of tea and coffee. Hanne would laugh each time she saw him making tea. Simon would just smile if he happened to see Amit. Sometimes Amit, instead of sitting in his room, sat next to the furnace in the living-cum-dining room, on a terracotta bench cushioned with tiny pillows and a soft quilt. It was a cozy corner that nobody used in the house except for the house cat, which seemed to resent Amit for taking up her space.
The area upstairs was like a big open hall with one guest room. In front of a big TV screen was a huge double bed on which six people could somersault. On the right side of the screen was a table with a computer where Simon sat and worked in the evening. The table was so strategically placed one could not tell if he was looking at the TV or at the computer screen. Hanne, on the other hand, would spread on the double bed and offer to share the space if there were guests in the house.
Every evening they watched films. Hanne would often invite Amit to join them. He would often decline, but there were also days when it was almost impossible to say ‘no’ to her, as she was so insistent and persuasive. In those moments, Amit truly adored her for her childlike, joyous pleadings. Amit had seen some excellent Danish movies with them. Very often, if Amit did not understand something, they would stop the movies and explain it. Each time after watching the movie, they would discuss the film. Hanne and Simon both seemed so proud of these films as if they were the ones who had made them.
On weekends, Hanne was mostly away. She would come back at midnight or later. Simon was mostly at home. They hardly went out together. Once a week they would go to a supermarket together and even then, they, particularly Hanne, would ask Amit to join them. Unlike most Danish couples who guarded their privacy, Simon and Hanne never cared. They were an unusual couple. Amit liked their carefree nature and unusualness, but seldom understood it.
Once a month, they would invite their friends over. Hanne would prepare well for those gatherings. There was always enough to eat and drink. The party would go on till dawn: drinking, chatting, and playing cards were permanent fixtures. Hanne would take over everyone and everything. Whatever she did always seem rehearsed and, at times, even pathetic. Even though Amit witnessed her weird habits on a daily basis, on these occasions with so many people around she would go extra wild. Simon, on the other hand, was always calm, always smiling, and making small talk with others. None of the guests, out of politeness, perhaps, would say anything about her behavior. Amit often wondered if he were seeing a goodness that he could not recognize, or was it just an attempt to be cool and to fit in with a much younger crowd. The more unruly she became, the darker Amit’s thoughts turned. Was it some kind of trauma, abuse, some deep-seated fear that haunted her, and her expansive excitement was an armor used to subdue the inner demons? The more he thought about Hanne’s behavior, Simon’s demeanor began to seem ridiculous to him.
There were after-dinner evenings when Amit would sit in his favorite spot and read, the poor cat restlessly watching him. At times when Simon came to fetch beer or make tea, he would smile and leave without uttering a word. Hanne was the exact opposite, always interested in initiating small talk.
“What are you reading, Amit?”
“Oh, it is a memoir of an Indian writer?”
“Do you like that sort of stuff?”
Amit just smiled but did not answer.
“I stopped reading a long time ago. Can I ask you something?”
“Do you like me?”
Amit was stunned into silence by the pointedness of her question.
“You should ask this question to yourself. What do you think?”
The moment Amit uttered these words, he felt stupid. She had not asked him a question. It was more an accusation. She had caught his naked thoughts.
“Sometimes you scare me, Hanne? I never know what is coming next.”
Hanne laughed out loud when she heard this.
“You should not worry about that. I have always been like this. I do not want to harm anyone. You know on my first date with Simon, I peed in his garden. He fell in love with my openness.”
Amit could imagine her peeing in the garden or even in the middle of a street. He could also vaguely imagine Simon fawning over her. As his mind wandered toward Simon, he felt lost. It dawned on him that Simon was somehow more baffling and inscrutable in his ways than Hanne. Amit often put Simon on a very high pedestal, especially the way Simon lived his life: silently, neatly, and without conflicts. He was not jittery like Hanne, nor was he given to brooding like Amit. There was nothing hurried about him, he could always take refuge upstairs, at his work table, in front of his computer, completely at home in the world.
Amit was lost in his thoughts when Hanne suddenly asked him if he wanted to watch a film with them.
“Don’t always stay in your room with your silly books. It is such a shame. You should enjoy life.”
Without fighting her, Amit agreed to watch a movie. On one hand, Amit wanted friendship, home-like warmth, but when it was offered, he felt uneasy. Some past experiences had made him unusually cautious. He knew that he attached himself too easily to people and often misunderstood politeness for love. When he truly began to care for others, he paid attention to everything, every word, every gesture, to make sure that people were who they said they were. A slightly false note could make him brood for days. Therefore, he avoided getting too involved.
As he went upstairs with Hanne, he noticed that Simon had already left for Copenhagen. At least twice a month, Simon would go to meet his friends in Copenhagen, whom he had known for years. Amit had already met most of them. Amit felt a bit uncomfortable being alone with Hanne. The moment Hanne sensed his unease, she began acting like a sly schoolgirl who would start torturing a much younger child as soon as the adults were away.
“Why don`t you come and sit next to me? It is really comfortable on the bed.”
This was her trademark move. She was teasing him, and if there had been more people around, she would have acted even worse.
“I guess I am fine here.” Amit sat on a cane chair next to the bed.
“Put your feet on the bed. You will feel good.”
Now having accepted the invitation he had to suffer her. Leaving now would be rude. So he tried his best to deflect her funny ways. Of course, this drained him. The film, however, was good, and so was the coffee, which saved him from Hanne’s abrupt jabs. After watching the film, he wished her goodnight and rose to leave.
“Simon is coming back on Sunday evening. We will eat at an Italian restaurant and afterward we will go bowling. Would you like to join us?”
“Yes. That is very kind of you but do you really want me to come? Maybe you would like to be alone?”
“Don’t be stupid?”
“Now I am going, Hanne. I am really tired. We can talk about this tomorrow.”
Sunday evening, when they entered the Italian restaurant, was colder and grayer. Amit, for some strange reason, felt as though he and Simon were entering with their mother. He also saw a similar image floating in the eyes of the waitress who directed them to a vacant table. Hanne looked weird in her makeup, Simon looked calm and handsome.
“What would you like to eat, Amit?”
Maybe K with C?
“Why don’t you try K with A? That is really good and I am sure you will enjoy it.”
Since Hanne and Simon, even before entering the restaurant, knew what they wanted to eat, the waitress was awaiting Amit’s order. He muttered a hurried ‘yes’ to whatever Hanne was proposing.
People looked happier and so did the candlelit tables, as if those candles with their tiny, cozy flames, too, were announcing their happiness. Hanne looked bright, her small eyes peeping out of her big glasses made her look funny. The evening seemed like a Nordic girl lighting candles in a Catholic church. Amit was eating slowly and listening carefully to Simon’s measured talk. Of course, Hanne could not digest harmony for too long. Suddenly, halfway through her meal, she realized that her food had something in it that should not be there according to the menu. This changed the whole tenor of the evening. Simon mildly tried to distract her, but she wanted to make a formal complaint. Amit, knowing her well, still felt puzzled by her behavior. He really thought that she had just made this whole thing up, but he soon found out that she was right. The waitress apologized for the faux pas she had made. First, Amit felt ashamed and a few moments later he thought, should such a minor thing warrant a big fuss. He instinctively resented Hanne’s righteousness.
While they were still halfway through their meal, she reminded Simon about the closing hours of the club where they wanted to go bowling. She was always ahead of everyone else, always the first to remind everyone what needed to be done next. Soon they were on the highway. Hanne preferred to drive. Simon sat by her side.
“Do not worry, Amit, it will be fine. Just relax. Bowling is fun.”
Was she doing this on purpose? What made her think I am upset? Could she read me so easily? These questions raged through Amit.
“Oh, I don’t know the game. I will just watch.”
“You must join us.”
Within moments, she again created a festive air with her warm, genuine pleadings. Soon they were in front of the bowling tracks. Simon found a spot in the corner. There were a few friendly Danes who were playing, others were sitting and drinking and waiting their turn to hit the pins. Hanne was more keen that Amit should join them than she was about playing herself. Finally, Amit gave in to her friendly, irritating pressure. He threw the ball but it did not even go all the way down. He felt so awkward. He came back to his glass of wine and looked sideways to see if others were watching him throw the ball. Nobody cared. He continued sipping his wine as though wine drinking was a better sport. Simon and Hanne were playing the game with the zeal of schoolkids. Simon flushed each time he made a strike.
On Saturday morning Amit woke up quite early. He knew that Simon’s friend Uli and his girlfriend would be spending the weekend at the farm, so they must already be in the house. But he did not really want to meet them. He wanted to be alone. Small talk exhausted him. There was absolute silence in the main house. He made his breakfast and went back to his room with a large mug of coffee. For him days were not sliced into minutes and hours, they were just days; weekends for him were a big chunk of time starting Friday evening and ending Sunday evening.
Amit had no clue how long he worked on his computer. The sky outside his window was clear but there was no sun. The house was still enveloped in continued, unbroken silence. Tired of sitting at the table, Amit slipped under his blankets with a book. Instead of reading, he began worrying about his stay at the farm. Although Simon and Hanne were great hosts, he was not really at ease here. He could not understand Hanne’s excitement, nor Simon’s educated silences. As he was thinking these thoughts, he also knew that he could not stay that long with his own siblings. Soon he drowsed off because his body could not cope with the exhausting, conflicting thoughts.
Later when Amit woke, the day felt already worn out. He also heard a commotion in the garden. It sounded as if some children were playing out there. He looked out and saw two girls, whom he had never seen before, running around. There was Hanne with Uli’s girlfriend, while Simon and Uli were standing together at a distance from everyone else.
Amit did not want to watch them from the Balcony – Hanne might see him and ask him to join them. Amit watched them furtively. He saw Hanne was alone even though Uli’s girlfriend was standing next to her. They were obviously talking, but Hanne looked lonely. Simon and Uli were standing next to the pigs’ enclosure but Amit could not see if they were talking or standing in silence. It seemed to him that they were standing together, really together – no woman could ever come in between them. Suddenly he saw something about Simon and his friend that he had not seen before. Having seen it, he could not unsee it.
Soon the clouds burst into heavy rainfall. Everyone ran inside, but it was Hanne’s voice that rang the loudest. Amit felt like hugging Hanne, and slapping the sane Simon.
Lucky Issar has worked in the field of education in India and Denmark. He has contributed academic essays to Grey Publishing House, New York, USA. Currently, he is working as a freelance researcher and teacher in Berlin, Germany. He loves reading literature, traveling and living in Denmark.