Our current issue, ‘Going Back’, has looked at returns of different kinds. Here, Sigrid Rausing goes back to the summer house of her childhood holidays on the coast of Sweden – and found a curious continuity between memories and the present.
When I was two my parents bought an old cottage on the west coast of Sweden where we would spend two months every summer – wild and happy times. It is now a nature reserve, but then it was only a common, a five-mile strip of juniper and stone fields between the sea and the fields above. Every summer, the farmers let the heifers out to graze, and they wandered back and forth, as they still do. Second World War bunkers, facing the sea and Denmark, punctuate the landscape. The children play on them now, as we did, though they can no longer enter into the mysterious and dank interiors. At the edge of the peninsula there are several stone mounds, Bronze Age graves. The sun sets in the sea beyond, and one can see why, 3,000 years ago, the people would have picked this particular place for their graves – the island is a mile or two away on the left, the high cliffs several miles away on the right. On the low slabs of rocks at the edge of the sea, you look straight into the setting sun. The air shimmers on hot days, and the scent of juniper and wild roses is strong. This is where I spent the summers of my childhood, walking on the rocks, dreaming of space ships. School began on August 20th or thereabouts. Before getting in the car to drive back to town, I threw myself into the sea to keep the taste of salt and seaweed on my skin for as long as possible.
We had a neighbour who was a modestly famous architect. He had designed and built the summer house next to ours. He had a wife, an ex-wife, and a gang of children over for summer visits. My father did all the cooking and shopping in our house, and fed those kids on a regular basis; they were a glamorous unruly lot, wilder than us, just as we were wilder than the well-groomed girls in the house on the other side, whom we refused to play with. We had no TV, so we watched movies with them , glorious no-adult summer seasons of Horror, werewolves and vampires – The Body Snatchers, Them, The Fly . . . We would run back to our house giggling with terror. Sten, the architect, and his then wife, an arch and weathered blonde, often came for drinks with my parents – champagne and dry Martinis, cheese doodles and peanuts.
Sten’s wife eventually divorced him, and my mother, somewhat to my father’s regret, refused to have anything more to do with him. He married again, a genuinely beautiful woman at least thirty years younger than he was, and had another baby. He would walk stiffly past our house, in a burgundy towelling robe, down to the jetty to swim.
When he died, my parents bought Sten’s house from his children; they offered it to us in honour of my father’s cooking. ‘What happened to the last wife?’ I ask my mother. ‘Oh, I know that,’ she said. ‘She became a lesbian and fled to Paris with her lover, an older woman.’
As I write this I am sitting in the office, now a playroom filled with our old toys and books. Sten scribbled hundreds of names and numbers on the bare pine walls. Looking at the wall now I can see the names of my son and nephews and nieces too; they have signed the wall each year we have been here.
On a shelf is the little house my sister made in woodwork, and the car. There is the old wooden marble run my parents’ friends Ingrid and Manchen gave us forty years ago or more. The sound of the marbles running down the six slanted runs, dropping from one level to the next, filled our summers, like the rattle of the car over the cattle-grid, and the patter of running bare feet on the planks of the jetty, the smell of the fish-shop and the green-grocer’s, and the heady smell of petrol for the boat.
This year, for the first time ever, the jetty remained bare in July. Each autumn the sections of planks are dismantled and stacked by the bunker. Each spring it’s re-built, after the winter storms have finished. The skeleton of rusty rails resting on the eroded concrete supports looked forlorn, unprecedented in the height of summer. On the first day, the children ran down to the beach. The boys climbed sideways, like bears, to the end, as I would have done, and was still slightly tempted to do, and threw themselves in the water. ‘It must have been a storm’, I said to Eric, my husband. ‘They’ll get it back up this week. This is Sweden.’
But they didn’t. It turned out that winter ice had cracked and eroded one of the concrete supports, so the jetty was no longer safe. The council’s engineer was on holiday, so Eric and our neighbour Peter laid the planks themselves. We wrote signs about walking carefully, at own risk, and taped them over the sign banning dogs from the beach. I tied the sections of planks to the rails with cautious, feminine knots; the heat was overwhelming. An old lady sat and watched, nodding approvingly. I brought lemonade. Peter turned himself in at the police station; the immigrant Balkan policewoman on duty found his assertion that he had committed a crime by re-building the jetty difficult to understand.
Several evenings later Eric and I walked out to sit and watch the sunset by the rusty steps at the end. The jetty was damp from wet feet, and the sunset was beautiful. I remembered the ash cloud prediction of spectacular sunsets. We sat there for a long time, listening to the sea birds and the cows, looking at the still clear water. There is a tiny patch of sand at the end of the jetty; otherwise it’s all stones and seaweed. Over to the right is the little harbour; to the left, a mile away, are the stone graves. Suddenly we noticed a movement in the still water. It was a Swedish grass snake; black, with two yellow dots like eyes on its head. It swam up to the steps, lifted its head out of the water and looked at us, feeling the steps, rising from the water as though it was about to slither up. Then it turned and swam away towards the shore. I held my breath; I had never seen anything like it before; a strange sign in the ominous heat.
The following night we were in our little rubber dinghy, Eric somewhat against his will. I had rowed it to the harbour with my niece two nights earlier, visiting my sister; now we were taking it back. Eric was rowing, I was watching the sky and setting sun, revelling in the summer feeling of frizzy salty hair and my old dress, when suddenly we saw, against the horizon, what looked like a little sailing boat. We rowed towards it, further out than perhaps we should have, with the particular anarchic freedom of rowing a small rubber dinghy to sea after at least two glasses of wine. There it was, a biggish structure of greying wood nailed together with three sails made from brown paper bags. It sailed, on its own, launched, I imagine, by a father and his children, with a story of the boats’ adventures to come. It now stands on an old chest in our house, and there, presumably, it will stay until it turns to dust. Not much of an adventure, but perhaps better than water-logging and sinking.
The heatwave continued. I took the children to the cliffs; they threw themselves into the sea as I had when I was a child. I dived from a lower ledge, unwisely, forgetting my age. My son kindly checked for stones; I wanted, and failed, to impress him. We cycled to the village on the same coastal dirt road. We looked out for hares and roe deer; the children climbed on the roof at dusk, as we did and jumped down, as we did. I opened all the windows on my parents’ veranda; they sat in the same chairs they always sit in, an old cane rocking chair for my father and a square upright cane seat for my mother. It was hotter than it had ever been.
One day we went down to the jetty, and there, taped to the planks by our feet, was a notice from the council. The water, it said, had been declared unsuitable for bathing; the e-coli levels exceeded the standards set. We kept swimming, but half-heartedly, keeping our heads above water.
Finally, the heatwave broke. The temperature dropped 18° overnight; the sea whipped up to a brown and purple froth, white edged waves hurling themselves to shore. Only the strongest sea gulls sailed on that wind. Where I sat writing, my hands were cold from the draught. It was a comfort, after all, at this point in history when every heatwave points to apocalyptic global warming scenarios.