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A Catastrophe by Jorgen Nielsen

Translated by W. Glyn Jones

It happened in the good old times before the First World War. At ten years of age, little Anders Sorensen, by profession a servant boy in the country, knew nothing of good or bad times; he had not been in existence for very long, you know. On the contrary, he believed life was fair—if one always did what was right, the reward would follow as a matter of course. These scraps of information about life he had received from the very best sources, school and home, and he took everything literally. And the right things were to work hard and conscientiously, as you were expected to do, and then to save all you could. You should start on that as a child, and in this way you should continue. Then you could not help becoming a big and rich and happy man.

It was, however, difficult to live up to these demands—but the fact that you thought it was difficult revealed that your character was not strong enough, and it was up to you to make it stronger.

The boy's wages were two pounds twelve shillings a year—a shilling a week—plus board and lodging, and he was allowed to do as he liked with them—this he had achieved after many difficult negotiations with his father. Although society demanded of him that he should go to school three days a week he could keep himself and still lay some money by. That was extremely well managed, he thought; that was to live like a grown man. But it was made so difficult for him, that he was often almost in despair. There were so many rocks to go aground on.

To begin with the work he had to do was far too heavy for a lad of his age; it was not far from being a labourer's work. Life made demands on him. It would have demanded less had he not been so terribly alert, so amazingly full of energy. Unreasonable things were expected of him; and he himself did even more than he was asked—but he was only a child. It would have been a good thing for him to have felt a little drowsy sometimes, to have given up occasionally or to have shirked the more difficult work; but where was he to know that from? He had always been told that such an attitude is wrong under any circumstances. It was his habit to take the bull by the horns, he did not dodge but went on ahead with his eyes wide open. And that is a good thing, but it is not ALWAYS a good thing. He had too much will-power, but not for a moment did he suspect it, he thought he had too little.

He set about things every day as though it were a matter of carrying out a superhuman task or enduring some torture. Each evening he marvelled that he had survived the day. Was his strength wasted? Not a bit of it. Not in any conceivable way. A man who worked would not lose his reward; the world was just. Every day unfailingly yielded its income, two pence, a little less than that in fact, for he knew so accurately what the fraction was. Out of his wages of course he had to pay for any clothes and clogs and other things he could not do without, but he had worked it out that he could probably have fifteen shillings or a pound by the end of the year. He was hoping for a pound. That was a lot of money.

 No, he did not think of his exacting job as a burden that was laid on him, but as a path to distinction, to victory, as a beginning to advancement in the world.

But there were all those rocks.

He had only to keep himself, of course, but that state of affairs could not last long. His parents were in difficult circumstances, and at that time his mother was seriously ill; biscuits were about the only things she could eat, but they were expensive things in comparison with the sorts of food they normally lived on at home. His mother rarely had her biscuits.

Anders, however, who was not entirely without means, could not bear the idea of his mother's having to do without them. So every Wednesday he bought her a packet of biscuits. A packet at twopence-halfpenny. Oh, he was painfully well aware of the price. It was just about a halfpenny more than he earned that day. It was a great sacrifice, for every day was a struggle and had its significance in the endless chain of exertions which was to advance him in the world. But he dare not do otherwise; he had to do what HE could to help his mother to get well again. His mother thought it was sweet of him to come with the biscuits, but she never imagined what it cost him.

It never occurred to him to buy himself a few pence worth of sweets; those day were past, he thought. Not that he was an ascetic by nature, quite the contrary, he wanted all the fullness of life. One day he would have all the good things possible, but the path he had to follow to reach them was long and tiring. In his home he had never seen anything but the most utter, dire poverty—he wanted so much to get away from all that. "To get on in the world." That was the formula. In actual fact his most ardent dreams of wealth were dictated to him by the fear of having to lead the same distressing and joyless existence as his mother and father. He dreamt of achieving more than other people because he was afraid of having to be content with less than they. It was what scholars call over-compensation. Anders never thought about the cause of it. He was only a little overworked peasant lad with a burning thirst for life.

It was a biscuit-day. Anders had just come from school after running home with the biscuits which he had fetched from the grocer's during his mid-day break. And now, after a hurried meal, he was sent out to plough.

It was a sunless, chilly day in early spring, and the wind was so strong that it almost amounted to a gale. The horses were young, unruly animals which Anders had difficulty in keeping in check. The fact that the soil in the field was sandy with a lot of gravel in it did not make matters easier. The plough showed a tendency to jump out of the ground at every moment. The strong wind also helped to make him confused.

To look at he was an ordinary lad of ten, with blue eyes and freckles, and wearing clothes with a lot of patches on them; he patched them himself now that his mother was ill, but the result was not so good as when she had done it.

He was not big enough for his plough-team; it was easy to see that he was far too small. He did not behave like the grown-up plough-man he thought he was, but like a miserable little creature being dragged around and ill-treated by the two large animals. A feeling of deep despondency was smouldering in Anders' heart; he was overstrained in the extreme and had harassed nerves, but did not know it. (A peasant lad cannot possibly have nerves!) That day, as on all other days, he had been up at five o'clock, had worked on the farm for a couple of hours with the milking and clearing away the dung and so on, and after that he had been to school for a few hours. Whilst he was eating his belated lunch he had become irresistably drowsy. But he had to go out with the horses as soon as possible. His master was always rather impatient on the days when Anders had to go to school. He regarded it as a sort of negligence on the part of Anders that he went to school. He thought it was a bit too much that he had to do without his lad until far into the afternoon even in the busiest season of the year— and all for the sake of school...

Anders was not at all happy that afternoon as he walked behind the plough.—No, he was running behind the plough, he was jumping about in a daze, ploughing, that is what he was doing.

He was perfectly well aware that he was in a bad mood and very disheartened. He was extremely well aware of it today. The magic formula which had kept him going on other days—almost twopence in wages—failed him on days such as this. The day's wages were used up before they were earned. Because of that the day was spoiled, it was revealed in all its nakedness as being purely joyless thraldom, at a complete loss. Had anyone been able to read the poor child's thoughts they would have said he was mean. The spirit of a miser developed to its fullest extent in a child. How dreadful! Yes, he was mean. Nature helps itself as best it can. Being parsimonious in the extreme was the only means whereby Anders could transform days of adversity into days of triumph. Yes, he might be having a rough time of it, but he was striving for the future, making the future secure; his reward would come later.

Today he was just having a rough time of it.

And then it happened. How, he did not know afterwards, but the accident happened. During his breathless struggle with the horses the whip sprang out of his hands and chanced to fall in such unfortunate position that he plough ran right over the handle and broke it.

It was a really first class handle, costing one and threepence.—He knew the exact price of it.

And that money would be deducted from his wages. Whatever was broken at work had to be replaced; the master had said that once and for all, and the ruling had been adhered to. Up to now it had been bearable, although distressing: once it had been a case of a wooden tethering- stake and once a whip-lash.

But one shilling and three pence!

His master would not grumble; oh, no, he was cleverer than that. Anders wished so fervently to be treated as a grown-up person, as a man. Some people humoured him willingly—in those instances where they saw their own advantage in it.

He stopped the plough. The horses were no longer rebellious now that evening was approaching. The wind had subsided, and the first suggestion of dusk had crept over the flat, colourless landscape. The lad stood and broke down completely; everything was in vain. The conditions under which he had been living had made him stoical, although he never realised it; he never wept, not even now, but he had suffered a complete spiritual breakdown here beside the broken whip- handle. It was a fine, gold-painted, slender handle, a feast for the eyes, but dear accordingly. Normally it was only used when the family went to town, but the ordinary whip had been mislaid. So fatefully mislaid!

Ten days work together with strict economy all wasted in a moment! He could not FACE it; his nerves would not stand it. The days were so long and heavy, so overpowering, and he could not stand them when he no longer had the illusion that they gave a lasting reward. One day wasted he could bear—but a whole lot of days! He gave up; he gave up all his future. It was simply a short-circuit. He was no good; he realised perfectly well that he was a good-for-nothing. It never once occurred to him that he might one day regain his courage.

Of course he would have to go on attending to his work, but...

Now the plough was in motion again. Broken-hearted he staggered after the horses. The furrows became a little crooked, but it made no difference whether he was praised or scolded; he was no good in any case; he was a wretch, entirely different from great men in books, the ideal characters who had never done anything wrong and had never felt their spirits fail them, but who always, unwavering and with set faces, had marched forward along the straight path to fame and fortune. Oh no, he was in no way like these people.

And when he had felt thoroughly downcast for a time, a soothing, sweet thought crept over him. He had exactly seven shillings, a fortune amassed in the course of many laborious months. Now when he was free that evening he would go down to the grocer's and buy a few cigarettes and sweets. Was it a wilful act? He could not do otherwise; he sank to it as though in a quicksand. He had to have some pleasure, he was so worn out. But it was not in this way he thought about it; it was no reasoned action.

He told them about the whip when he went home with the horses. I see. His master made a note of it in his diary; he showed no sign of bad feeling.

As they were sitting at supper—porridge—his master said:

"You don't seem to have got on very quickly with the ploughing this last couple of hours."

"H'm," Anders managed to say. He looked down. That was not like a man. He usually answered like a grown person to anything that was said to him. People had often been amused by that. They thought it was comical that he attached so much importance to asserting himself. But now his self-respect was lost. In its stead he felt a new, salutary apathy. It seemed to him that it was easier to be wretched than to strive after perfection.

Then the thought occurred to him that it had been foolish of him to tell them about the whip. Would other lads in his place have rushed to admit it? He thought not. It might have been forgotten, or he could have got out of it in some way or other—that he certainly could have managed. When he was worth nothing in any case, he might just as well behave like that. It is often people who conceal things who come off best in the long run.

As soon as he could slip away from the farm he hurried off after sweets and cigarettes. He knew the people at the grocer's, so it was all right for him to come and buy something a little after closing- time. At the same time he bought an extra packet of biscuits for his mother and thought that that was a naughty thing to do as well, for it too was a desire to which he was giving in. On the way home he met two school friends. They were given cigarettes and sweets. He was being generous. And it turned out that what he was doing in despair and because he was sick with scorn for himself, impressed them and awoke their admiration—it was a strange discovery.

And he enjoyed the sensation; he was only human and a child. But at the same time he was tormented by the thought that what he was doing was unforgivable. He did not know that people must have something good now and then, for the sake of balance; no one had told him that. His actions were determined by a passionate longing to do what was right, indisputably right. And what was the right thing, then?—Well, the world had greeted him with a smiling face. He was given unreasonable conditions; nearly everything was taken from him. And then he was confronted with a moral, a lesson in life, which ran: he could act according to the highest ideals of life only by denying himself even the last little bit.

But that he could not do. There was a limit. Nature demanded what was due to it and forced him to relax when that limit was reached.

His understanding had not developed sufficiently to grasp this. He only knew he was unable to accomplish the task he had set himself. And in his room that night, when he had crept into bed and lay eating his last sweets in the moonlight, he was still tormented by what seemed to him his irremediable defeat. Just imagine what he had ruined! First that whip-handle which cost so much money! And then in desperation he had wasted more money—on sweets and cigarettes! He thought it was a fantastic excess. He thought he had spoiled so much that it could never be repaired. Yes, he was a wretch, a debauched person, a nasty piece of work. There existed no doubt in his mind about that, and it hurt him more than he could bear. And as though to lessen the pain he plunged himself, so to speak, deeper into the pleasure that was at hand—the sweets—and despair. He discovered the dangerous delight to be found in giving up; he felt it all the more powerfully because he had taken too much upon himself. Just let everything go on as best it can, he was no good in any case...

It was only a mood, but it went deep, and it left traces.

Moods are the only things which really exist.

 
 
 

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