Drawing inspiration from a country…
For nine months of the year Berwald Magnusson was a model employee. In the ten years that he’d worked for Statistiska Centralbyrån he had never been late, joined the precise number of social activities required to endear himself to his colleagues and had no less than 4512 conversation at the coffee machine. Despite all of this there was a lingering mystery, one that perplexed the new employees but was just passed off as ‘one of those things’ by old hands.
For three months every winter Berwald disappeared.
The summer months saw the offices cleared, only a skeleton staff remained as warm weather beckoned them outside in to nature. Like petals scattered in the wind they departed from Stockholm, seeking the dappled light of ancient forests and the sweet taste of summer fruits. Berwald politely wished them well and remained behind.
Some thought him merely conscientious, as he had no wife or children of his own. Others thought he might have elderly relatives in the north that he cared for over winter. A few wondered if he was effective by seasonal affective disorder and left so his usually impeccable work would not be affected. Only Berwald’s manager knew the truth.
Like clockwork, on the second week of December, Berwald packed his bags and headed north. When most were heading south he sought the wild open spaces, the flicker of the aurora overhead and complete solitude. For months before he had prepared, having food and water delivered to his remote cabin. The last few miles he skied, pulling behind him a sled filled with his winter wardrobe and his materials. Only when he had closed the door behind him, could he relax.
Unlike in years prior, this winter he was struggling. Every time he put pen to paper he ground to a jarring halt. It was as though the characters eluded him, dancing just beyond his grasp. With several best sellers to his pen name, Ingrid Magnusdottir, the sudden inability to write made him feel uneasy, restless, in ways he had not encountered before.
It was a simple enough story line. An English nurse tending to the wounded of Dunkirk and the French captain who had become her patient and lover. Whatever he wrote though, either came out as twee, contrived or overwrought. For the last hour he’d been alternating between staring at the snow falling softly through the darkness and the line where the Captain first tried to capture his protagonist’s attention.
When the headlights pierced his living room it took him a second to perceive them. Writing the line for the twentieth time, his fingers hovered over the keys with indecision. Only when the lights crossed his vision and dazzled him, did his hand rise, pressing his thumb and index finger across his eyelids. Though he was off the beaten path from time to time a snow buggy, carrying a tourist to dog sledding or chasing the aurora would pass by. Though it was late Berwald thought nothing more of it, deciding that the only way he was going to write more, was to get some caffeine into his system.
The coffee machine hadn’t even started to percolate when there was a sharp rap on his front door. Perplexed he meandered through the living room, wondering if perhaps the wind had blown something into his cabin by chance, or some wild animal had become trapped. The cold air rushed in as he cautiously opened the door, looking out into the wilderness.
Lower. A little lower.
A woman beamed up at him, only coming up to his chest, though most women were shorter than his 6′ frame. Before he had time to understand what was going on she’d gently nudged him aside and was walking into his most intimate spaces.
All language had abandoned him as she whirled around his living room, clad in the most ridiculous ski suit he had ever seen. Electric blue, paired with a bright pink bobble hat that barely contained the soft chocolate curls that framed her delicate features. She was petite in every way, except for her movements, which seemed to completely fill the space.
“Well aren’t you going to help me with my bags?”
The American accent struck him immediately, and though he was almost fluent in English he had to take a moment to process the words. Mindlessly he went to the front door and picked up the suitcases, dutifully bringing them in. It didn’t occur to him to ask what she was doing there; she seemed completely in command and at home.
“It’s a long way out here isn’t it? So good of you to wait for me. It’s sure cold. Not what I’m used to back home. Thanks, you can totally put my suitcases over there. Do you have anything to drink? I’m dying for a Margarita.” As she spoke his eyes dropped to her feet, to the boots leaving little puddles of snow melt on his pristine floor.
“You know tequila, triple sec and lemon?”
“Your shoes, please take them off.”
Everything ground to a halt as her brown eyes met his icy blue, checking to see if he was being sincere, finally noticing the fine lines of irritation between his brows.
“Oh sure buddy, is that a thing over here then?”
“Ja. When you come inside you take off your shoes, okej?”
Feeling as though he had descending into some alternative universe or perhaps hell he took a moment to look at the woman pulling off her boots, to her suitcases, to the snowfall outside. Wherever she had come from she wasn’t going back now, he had no means of transport unless she skied and the snowmobile was long gone. Just what was he going to do with her? As she said it was a cold night, he couldn’t just turn her out into it. Mentally shrugging he supposed that he had a spare bedroom, spare blankets. So long as she wasn’t some kind of serial killer, or fan of his, he could let her stay. Berwald had seen Misery. He knew how that ended.
“We have coffee and aquavit… and water, we have water here.”
Except he was speaking to an empty room, she’d already disappeared into the kitchen and was taking stock of the contents of his fridge. Resisting the urge to close it in front of her he quietly approached, almost springing back when she whipped around to face him.
“So… say… what’s your name again buddy?”
“I’m Madison, Berwald. Don’t talk much do you?”
“So when’re you heading out?”
“… This is my home.”
Apparently it was her turn to be surprised, bustling through to the living room to start digging enthusiastically in her backpack, which seemed almost as big as she was. Berwald followed cautiously, a little embarrassed as lingerie spilled from the canvas confines. Before long she’d presented him with a small piece of paper.
“Here you go buddy, this is my booking reservation.”
“… That’s not here.”
“Sure it is, I took the right train, told the guy the right address, look it’s right here.” A finger jabbed the address, as though by pointing at it would make it transform into the right location.
“This is Porjus not Purnu.”
“Oh… OH! Oh my God!”
Suddenly wary, the clothing she’d yanked out only moments before was stuffed back into the bag, suspiciously yanking the drawstring as she eyeballed him. It seemed it had taken her this long to realise just how large he was, both tall and broad-shouldered, though he was only moderately muscular from the summer sports season. Backing up she started for the door.
“Well it was sure nice meeting you Bearwald… but I should really be getting off now.”
As though to prove his point the snow gushed in the opening door, causing the stern brows to furrow further. Why did she keep bringing such chaos to his home? It was undeniably obvious that she couldn’t just walk off into the wilderness with no idea where she was going, or even the correct provisions. Still, it looked as though she was about to attempt that.
“It’s late. I have a room. You can stay, just shut the door. It’s cold.”
There was also slush piling up on his wooden floorboards and Berward was mentally calculating whether he was going to have to varnish them again. It was an odd kind of relief when she shut the door again, though she was still looking at him as though he might pull a chainsaw out of nowhere. Raising his hands he made what he thought was a placating motion before he disappeared into the kitchen, needing coffee now more than ever.
“It’s kind of you to let me stay buddy. I was sure this was the right place, said it to the guy perfectly before he brought me up here. Is it far to get to Purnu? I don’t want to outstay my welcome. I’ll go first thing in the morning, won’t even make a peep.”
Depositing a large mug of coffee as dark as night into her hands he set the coffee machine off for a second time. Leaning against the kitchen worktop, he tried to make himself look as nonthreatening as possible. As he calculated the distances involved he didn’t notice her looking into the mug as though it were the abyss.
“Probably an hour by car but the roads are hard to pass.”
Silence was comfortable. Or at least it seemed that way to the Swede, who was certain he had given his guest a sufficient answer. Every second that passed seemed to cause more movement. Tapping, moving weight between her legs and finally doing a movement which was part jiggle, part dance.
“Do you have any milk? Any sugar? Any food? I’m famished. I can pay you for anything I have but I didn’t see the golden arches on the way up here, if you catch my drift? Where do you want me to sleep? Where’s the John?”
The endless barrage of questions halted, interrupted by the soothing click of the machine finishing its cycle. Taking his time to pour himself a coffee he flipped the fridge open with his free hand, balancing the two tasks with a beautiful kind of efficiency that looked effortless.
“Food is in the fridge, no milk or sugar; sorry I do not have those. Take what you need, it’s free. Toilet is through there, next to sauna. Room is upstairs, I will get some blankets.”
Having spoken the most he had in weeks he took a sip of the coffee, the familiarity calming. Mug in one hand he passed by her, the stairs squeaking as he made his way into the spare room. It was already clean, except for a few of his books scattered about. Berwald swiftly ordered them on a shelf before he unpacked a few spare blankets from a cupboard, shaking them out to make the bed. From downstairs the smell frying bacon wafted up, his guest having found the remains of his breakfast it seemed.
Neither slept well that night, as is the way of two strangers sharing a roof for the first time. It wouldn’t be the last time though, only the first.