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The Nineteen Thirties by Mogens Klitgaard

Translated By J. F. S. Pearce

It was a cold drizzling January morning, typical Copenhagen weather for the time of year, when a lorry drew up in front of a small draper's shop in the old part of the city. The grey light of morning had just dispersed the dense, watery gloom from the muddy street. On mornings like these, people don't bother much about what their neighbours are up to, and nobody took much notice when the contents of the little shop, together with some poor furniture were carried into the lorry. The strong, burly forms of the remover's men could be seen struggling in the semi-darkness with boxes and tied-up bundles of bedding, and then a woman came out of the narrow shop door, carrying in her arms a few flower-pots with some miserable flowers in them.

As it began to get lighter, the rain started. A man came along and stuck a notice on the shop window: To Let.

Of course, it was all the fault of the hard times. Month after month the turnover had decreased. Lundegaard had done his best to keep things going, God knows; he wasn't the man to give up at the first fence—he had taken goods on credit, he had borrowed from his family, he had tried a sale, he had had thousands of hand-bills printed, and his son had distributed them around the district—all to no avail. More and more bills came in, and more and more customers stayed outside.

The last few years had been Hell on Earth for the Lundegaards. Their work was wearisome and unprofitable, and their income was so small that it was as much as they could do to keep body and soul together. Poul, their son, had been out of work almost continuously since he finished being an apprentice. Their daughter, Anna, was doing a little better. She had a job in a large store, and her wages at least covered most of her modest needs.

During this time, their life had been nothing but toil and drudgery, dirt and poverty. And still their struggle had been in vain. Their last hope had been the Christmas shopping rush.

One grey January morning, their poor possessions were moved to a flat with a view over the back yards of a side street in the Vesterbro district.

January in Copenhagen is a wretched month, and in a Vesterbro back yard it is sheer Hell. The people freeze and starve, the air is heavy and damp around the filthy houses, and even the rats have a poor time of it—surprisingly, the priests are the only people who seem to get on well in this part of the town. There is no shortage of relief work, and the workers in the vineyard of the Lord do not renounce their temporal needs for spiritual ones. Is it not written that a man must look to his own? God is merciful towards the needs of his priests.

Religion is the opium of the masses. Mrs. Lundegaard stood in need of that opium. There was a meeting of the Friends of God every Friday in the Chapel of the Nazerenes, where they would bewail the sins of the world. She had always had a healthy and practical outlook, but this had changed completely with the closing of the shop.

Twenty-five years ago, when she had married Lundegaard, they had been solid, well-set-up members of the middle class. Business was good, and they had two charming, healthy children. Then they had had their dreams about extending the business, acquiring a better social standing, and perhaps having a pretty little house somewhere on the outskirts of the town, with a lawn and flagpole. They had been industrious and energetic, and no doubt happy, although they hadn't realized this until afterwards, and in the evenings, after the children were in bed, they would take out their bank-book and enjoy themselves seeing how their capital was increasing, and in these evening hours they used to dream their pipe-dreams.

They never got so far as owning a villa, but they did have a little summer-house that they cycled out to in the evenings after the shop was closed and the books made up.

The war, of course, was responsible for their financial success, which promised such a happy future, but as the impact of the World War faded, so the volume of their trade declined.

But it wouldn't get really bad, after all; they were of a good, solid family, and quite well off. In Lundegaard's opinion, their poor trade just now was only the result of a transitional phase, and, thank God, they had a little behind them to see them over it.

But trade never did pick up. It became worse and worse, and their troubles piled up as the months passed.—It's the crisis, Lundegaard said, and read aloud an article in the paper describing how many small shops had had to close down. By then the children were grown up, but owing to the difficult times, they got a poor start in life. They had to sell the summer-house, they had to sell the cycles, and the family had to be content with short excursions to the surrounding countryside.

In any case, they gradually lost their taste for amusement and outings. Lundegaard used to lay awake at nights, thinking things over. He became nervous and irritable, he got bags under his eyes, and he took to the bottle in an attempt to deaden his anxiety about the future.

It was almost a relief for the children when the blow fell. Anna's wages just covered the rent of the little back flat, Poul had his dole, and if Lundegaard could get a job rent-collecting or something, they would probably be able to prevent the situation from getting really desperate.

Then it became apparent that such work was not easy to find. It was necessary to put down fidelity money as a guarantee—but eventually things began to look a little more promising. Lundegaard's brother and brother-in-law put together the necessary money, although rather reluctantly, and it became clear through their attitude that they were not having too good a time of it either. Lundegaard's brother was a bank official, and his brother-in-law a civil servant. Their wages had been cut, and furthermore there was the inflation, which put up the price of groceries, so the money did not go very far.

II

The winter dragged by wearily for those people whose lives were lived in the dirty stone abysses of Vesterbro's slum district.

Every day Lundegaard set off on his tiresome round. Up stairs, then down. He had doors slammed in his face, and he collected more curses than rents. His wife struggled heroically to keep up the family's air of middle-class respectability. She scrubbed and washed the damp little rooms, and patched, mended and brushed their worn-out clothes. The children only came home to sleep. Anna used to go out with a boy- friend, and Poul spent his evenings with friends of his own age, hanging round the gate.

One day, whilst on his busy way through the town, Lundegaard passed their old shop. It had already found a tenant, and now it was a florist's. He had been unable to resist the temptation to try and find out about it from people in the street. They told him that the flower trade wasn't really a profitable one, and that the new tenant seemed to be feeling the pinch already. He was said to be a jobbing gardener, who had got tired of working himself to death for other people, and had decided to try his luck with the few coppers he had been able to set aside from his wages, but luck didn't seem to be coming into it much, at least, the former jobbing gardener would stand for hours in the window, staring gloomily out into the street, and the number of customers who were attracted by his modest window display was extremely small. But there was no doubt that, at bottom, he was an optimist, since he had got married on the strength of the future success of his business, and, as far as could be seen, his wife was expecting a child before long.—If success were born of toil and hard work, everything would have been all right, for the gardener went to the market every morning, and kept the shop clean and attractive, and made a really good show of the flowers in the window, but then, who can afford flowers in these hard times?

It was some slight comfort to Lundegaard that his successor had not had any better luck with the place than he himself had. That showed that it was the place and the times that were at fault, and not Lundegaard's lack of business sense.

So he could hardly keep a note of triumph out of his voice when he told his wife how their old shop was getting on. But his wife didn't like being reminded of their former life in the world of commerce. It recalled to her mind's eye the beautiful sights, the summer-house, their social position, the lawn, and the garden house surrounded by hollyhocks, and the memory of this lost Eden clouded her eyes, and brought a lump to her throat.

"There, there," Lundegaard comforted her. "We were never much to write home about, you know."

"But we did have a shop, and money in the bank," she said, weeping. "Now look where we are."

The poor rent collector didn't know what to do or say. He stroked her hair awkwardly, and said he thought things might turn out all right after all.

He himself didn't really believe that, though. Not when he was honest with himself. They had toiled and laboured to bring their dreams to life, and in the process, they had lost their vitality. They were now both approaching the half-century, and it wasn't easy to see how they were to get a fresh start.

Lundegaard became quite melancholy. Only now did he realize the full extent of their misfortune. Flitting, putting their wretched back rooms in order, and his efforts to find work had completely occupied his thoughts, and only now did the fact penetrate his mind that they were seeing the ruin of their lives' work.

Yes, they were indeed ruined. All that they could expect of life now was a struggle against poverty and dirt. He felt a dull feeling of protest growing within him. What had they done to deserve such a fate? They had been honest and industrious people, hadn't they? Surely a hard, working life entitled them to a peaceful old age? The world seemed to have have gone mad. Now he had to chase up and down stairs to earn his bread. The otherwise amiable and peaceful Lundegaard was beginning to be invaded by an unspoken feeling of rankling bitterness. The big stores stole trade from decent people, and employed their children at ten shillings a week. The big stores were able to carry on. They expanded and expanded, whilst one little shop after another had to close, and their owners might go their ways, wherever they liked—if they hadn't held on so long that the work-house was the only way open to them.

III

It was an ordinary sort of January day for Copenhagen, with slush on the ground, and the air damp and misty. The thermometer on the Tollbooth registered between 38 and 40 degrees, pork went up a penny a pound, the newspaper seller in his little wooden kiosk on the corner was quite blue with the cold, and the paths in the parks were covered in a layer of white, which turned to water wherever you put your feet. The Exchange reported debentures as being brisk, and stocks as being stable, and a little tobacconist in Osterbro gassed himself. He was tired of life, and business was poor.

It was late afternoon, and Mrs. Lundegaard had had to put the light on to see; even at mid-day the rooms were only poorly lit. They really ought to economize in lighting, but there was so much that had be done. Patching and darning. From time to time she had to go out into the kitchen to see to supper.

She had the table laid by six o'clock. Anna had come in, and was sitting by the window mending a silk stocking. Mrs. Lundegaard thought she was beginning to use a lot of make-up lately. It must cost a lot. Neither of them said anything. They each lived their own lives. But they always had to be thinking of money. It was difficult to make the household money stretch far enough. The food had, above all, to be filling, and it was a pity that the girl, who put nearly all her wages into the home, always had to take such a poor lunch to work with her— it was like parading their poverty before her companions at the shop. Mrs. Lundegaard thought she might try and do a little better with Anna's lunch. But then there was the money to think about. She might be able to earn a little by taking in sewing. The greengrocer's wife said that one of the big clothing stores in Vesterbrogade was looking for people to do sewing at home. Her eyes weren't so good as they had been, but she could get glasses. They wouldn't cost a lot, and the sick club would pay some of it. Poul had come in, and was doing something in the bedroom, but Lundegaard still wasn't in.

He still wasn't in at half past six.

Mrs. Lundegaard looked anxiously at her daughter. Anna didn't like having her supper late. She always had to go out as soon as they had finished their meal. Poul didn't care when they ate—he didn't seem to care about anything. They might as well begin, and Lundegaard would probably walk in whilst they were eating.

They had their meal in silence. They finished it, and cleared the table, and still he wasn't in.

—-Lundegaard didn't come in until late at night. He was drunk. She had never seen him like that before. His clothes were dirty, and he talked nothing but nonsense.

Lundegaard woke up in the night, and tried to force his attentions upon her. She wept, and her thoughts turned again to religion. A life of purity and beauty, in spite of poverty. God, and self-discipline, might help. They had lived a worldly life, and this was their punishment. A husband who drank and misbehaved himself, a man of his age; a daughter who was never at home, and a son who was almost a stranger to his mother.

IV

"For my part, I wouldn't give a damn if we did have a war, and the sooner the better," said Nielsen, pushing out his lower lip, as he did when he wanted to play the strong man. "It might clear the air, and everything's so upside down now that it couldn't be any worse anyway."

"You must be a mad to think of such a thing," said Poul. Nielsen was a clerk, out of work, and lodging in the front part of the house. They stood leaning up against the gate.

"Yes, perhaps," said Nielsen. "Mad, or desperate. I'm looking at the matter from my point of view, as it affects me. The others can take whatever view they like. I think you put things nicely and concisely, but your way of doing so annoys me just a little. You are always talking about 'we' and 'us'. There isn't anyone who will lift a finger to help you unless he can get something out of it.—And for my part, I don't care what happens, things can't get any worse. I've been out of work for eight months, I owe money left and right, I've had a summons from the police court, and I go and wait at the Labour Exchange four or five hours every other day. My landlady here, who was so considerate when I was working, is all the time trying to provoke me to do something that would give her a pretext to turn me out. And I don't blame her, either, she can't pay her rent with my excuses. If I meet one of my old acquaintances in the street, I hardly have a chance to get beyond 'Good Morning', when they say: 'Well, old fellow, I've got to get along now.' My girl-friend left me after I'd been out of work five months. I can quite see her point of view; it was no good a girl like her being engaged to an out-of-work clerk, who wasn't even in a trade union, because, when he had work, his friends didn't think it was quite nice. And if I had the luck of the Devil, and went and got a job, well, you know what a clerk gets yourself. It might have been all right if I'd had a steady job, and perhaps had a chance to worm my way on, or else elbow my way forward but when you're 29 to start with, and out of work for eight months, then it's useless, hopeless. No, let this damned war come as soon as it likes, it must clear the air one way or another. It'll make a change at any rate, and that'll be something."

Poul went up to Nielsen's room. Nielsen went into the kitchen to try and get two cups of coffee out of his landlady. Poul had a look around the room. Even if there was nothing in the world to be miserable about, that room would soon get you down. If you looked out of the window, there was a concrete yard, a garage for lorries, dustbins, and a lavatory. Across the yard was the back part of the house, where he lived, and an electro-plating works. Goodness knows how many different people had lived in that room in the course of years. The walls were decorated with three different pictures of the King of Rome, and a photograph of a hotel in Hjorring. In one corner was a green wash- stand, with an enamel bowl and ewer, and on the little shelf above it were Nielsen's razor, comb, tooth-brush and so on. It was hardly surprising that Nielsen preferred to stand around in the gateway.

When Nielsen came back with the coffee, they sat down and started to talk about girls. But they discussed them rather as if they were something belonging to the past, or the distant future, than anything else. Nielsen showed him photographs taken when he was in work, and used to go on outings with his girl. Poul had seen these pictures before, but he looked at them again, out of politeness. It was almost as if Nielsen possessed nothing else worth looking at but these snaps of a girl sitting squinting into the sun from a grassy bank in the woods, or lying in a bathing costume on the beach at Solrod. There was also a rather older picture of a football team for which Nielsen had once played. Nielsen was third from the left, marked with a little cross.

They could hear a wireless in the back part of the house playing a popular tune.

"We were brought up to be respectful and decent," Nielsen said. "That is just what is making a mess of our lives. We ought to be ruthless, cynical and merciless. There are plenty of opportunities in a town like Copenhagen, if only you aren't green enough to wait for them to turn up of their own accord. You don't want to stand in a tidy queue waiting for your turn, you want to throw regulations and morality to the winds and use your head instead. Morality was invented by the people who want to keep all the best opportunities for themselves."

Poul said nothing. He rarely did have much to say. He looked after himself, took care to be at home at mealtimes, sat for hours over a cup of coffee, and nothing with it, in the milk-bar on the corner, or else stood or lounged about in the gateway.

V

Lundegaard did not feel too well after the previous evening's events. He sat looking out of the window, and didn't seem to know how to deal with the situation. Whether to adopt a distant attitude, or whether to be repentant. The matter wasn't all that straightforward. The fact was, he had used some of the money he had collected. Apart from that, money was running out right and left; there was still the gas bill from the shop to be paid. He had been given time to pay it, as with so many other bills. What use was that, though, things were never going to get any better.

Mrs. Lundegaard didn't mention what had happened. She did say that she was thinking of trying to get some sewing work to do at home. They discussed it a little, but they decided they would have to buy a treadle machine on the hire purchase, because the old hand machine wouldn't be much use. Lundegaard thought they might be able to raise a loan of ten pounds or so, and by that means clear off all their financial worries at one blow. Once they were settled, perhaps things might be a little easier again.

Lundegaard knew that it was possible to raise such a loan. He might use the furniture, or the fidelity money his brother and brother-in- law had put up as security. It was no use going to a bank, of course; banks didn't go in for that sort of thing. But Lundegaard knew the address of a money-lender. Everybody knows where money-lenders and abortionists can be found. The poor of Copenhagen have their own "Advertizer". It lacks government approval, admittedly, but nevertheless it has no trouble reaching its subscribers.

VI

Mr. Salomonsen owned housing property, and also indulged in a little money-lending from time to time. Providing reasonable security was offered. He sat in his comfortable chair in his comfortable room, and listened quietly to Lundegaards story. He didn't actually have much to do with that sort of thing; he didn't care for it, misunderstandings arose so easily, besides, what security was there that he would get his money back? He had done people favours like that before, and had received nothing but thanklessness and hard words in exchange.

Lundegaard became more emphatic, and put his case more forcefully.

Mr. Salomonsen meant what he said. Where was the security for his money? How was it unreasonable to fix a rate of interest proportionate to the risk he was running? When people came to him for help, as they were always doing, then surely his help was needed. Mr. Salomonsen knew and approved of the parable of the unfaithful steward. Mr. Salomonsen was a good Christian. Mr. Salomonsen was a useful citizen. Some banks looked askance on his activities, and the banks had great influence with the press. Once Mr. Salomonsen had been a little boy playing in the Sondermark, and the other boys used to set on him, because he was weaker than them, and didn't know how to stand up for himself. And now one of those boys might pay a visit to his office. In those days young Salomonsen used to say the Lord's Prayer every night, and though he didn't do that now, he thought it couldn't do any harm, at least. Mr. Salomonsen and his wife, formerly his housekeeper, went to church at all the great church festivals.

He really had to have some security. Lundegaard had thought the fidelity money would do. Besides, he had a good job. He was only temporarily embarrassed. Besides, wouldn't the furniture do for security? It had cost enough.

Mr. Salomonsen looked at his watch. He always went to the billiards saloon in the afternoon, to play a game with one of his great friends. And perhaps a hand of poker in the back room afterwards. Mr. Salomonsen liked playing poker. It was an absorbing game. And he was a cautious player.

Lundegaard went to considerable trouble to try and think of something that would satisfy Mr. Salomonsen as security. The only steady financial factor in their poverty-stricken world was Anna's wages. A mortgage on her wages? Anna would never agree to that. He might be able to borrow from a bank after all, if his brother and brother-in- law would stand as security for him. That would be the second time. He could remember the expression of injured pride on their faces that he should call upon family ties to such a mean end. He wasn't going to ask them again. He had to have that loan from Mr. Salomonsen, and then clear it off again as quickly as he could. There in Mr. Salomonsen's cheque-book, tucked in his waistcoat pocket were the ten pounds that could put an end to all his troubles. They might find their way into his own pocket, and settle all his worries. And he had used some of the firm's money, too.

Mr. Salomonsen considered the matter of a mortgage on Anna's salary deeply, and then sat down at his desk and drew up several documents.

On his way home, Lundegaard went into the Central Station and put Anna's name to one of them—she would never find out, anyway.

VII

Whenever you spoke to anybody, they all said: There's going to be a war—sooner or later there's sure to be a war. But in their hearts many of them cherished a fond hope that it wouldn't really come to that after all. In any case, they took no action to prepare for it.

Some sections of the people wanted a war. The depressed classes, unemployed people who were up to the ears in troubles which they had no hope of getting out of, and who were only kept going by the thought that whatever happens the sun'll keep on rising in the morning and setting at night; people who were in constant fear that their embezzlement would be discovered before long; little people, whose difficulties mounted up from day to day, and to whom suicide sometimes seemed to be the only solution—and, of course, there were the speculators.

It was just about then that a well-known Copenhagen editor wrote that a good sharp war would have a refreshing effect, and that it would increase trade and production, provide work for idle hands and increase profits. There was a man in a tram, who said: If only we could be sure of remaining neutral, as we were in the Great War. the sooner it comes the better. Do you remember Copenhagen in 1915-16? Life was worth living then. Then he hummed a snatch of a war-time song: 'Let's drink and dance the whole night through'. And he was a well-dressed man, a respectable man, with a trustworthy face and kindly eyes.

Some people hated war, and feared it, and read war preparations into everything. Building a bridge, making a road, flying displays and military parades on Sundays to let the Tommies' families see how keen they were, and what a fine time they were having. There were pacifists who said that people ought to be conscientious objectors, and people from the workers' organisations, who said the arms ought to be used in a better direction.

Lundegaard overheard many conversations about the approaching war. At the office, in the pubs where he used to go with a few chance acquaintances to have a glass of beer to warm himself up. They never brought up such subjects at home. Anyway, the papers were always full of re-armament everywhere. The newspaper-seller on the corner, a Communist, said that you would know when the war was going to start, because the shipping companies' shares would go up. Those sharks in the exchange knew all about making money out of wars. But there were other things to do than to watch the price of shipping shares. Lundegaard felt almost as if it were something that didn't concern him. Now he could get some money and be rid of the worst of his tormenting debts.

It had become the fashion to talk about the coming war, just as people talked about the weather, accidents and the six-day cycle race. All the current phrases were bandied about. People kept to the time- honoured conventions, and came out with the usual wise but hackneyed observations on the day's news, and no one contradicted them. No one spoke honestly and independently, in fact, no one had any opinions. Why should they bother, when they could find them ready-made in the leaders in the papers? On the whole, conversations consisted of exchanges of standard clever remarks. If there was a railway accident, it was 'Terrible. Think of their poor families!' If there was a fraud trial, it was 'You'd never believe that a man like that, with a large steady income would do such a thing. Let's hope he gets a good stiff term of imprisonment. He'll get off with a fine, though, you see, or else they'll let him out of prison when the fuss's died down. If it'd been a poor man, it'd have been different.' If the subject of war came up, it was 'There'll be another war, all right. There'll always be wars as long as there are two people left alive on the earth.'

It seemed almost as if everybody was going round hiding their real thoughts and their own little private selves under a cover of current catch-phrases. After all, people don't know much about each other. They live side by side, day in and day out without ever really knowing each other. That was one of the advantages of these conventional remarks; nobody need ever reveal his true self. No one knew that Mrs. Lundegaard took money from the scanty housekeeping to give to the collection at the Nazarenes' chapel; no one knew that Lundegaard was a regular customer of the girl in the mauve dress, who, after dark, at least, always stood on the corner of Vesterbrogade; and no one knew that Poul had plans to leave home and to force his way into a fuller life, even by methods that the law regards as deserving of prison, if need be.

And as to Anna, no one knew that every morning on her way to the shop she used to give her lunch packet to the old woman who sits by the church, and that she used to buy daintily made sandwiches that could stand the inquisitive gaze of her fellow shop-girls. No one knew very much about Anna anyway. She was always civil towards her parents, but never told them anything about herself. She went off in the mornings, came home for her meal, and then disappeared again. She slept in the dining-room, and Poul slept in the kitchen, and no one noticed what time she came home.

 
 
 

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