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On The Square by Jacob Paludan

Translated by F. A. Rush

He still remembered the dingy, little square where a kind of suburban street widened out in the town where he had first earned his own living. Not that it ran to good money from the very beginning, but it amounted to food and lodging. One must learn before one can serve customers properly and get that easy flourish that comes in time, bringing a wad of notes to the pocket. On the other side of the big bay window he had the square under his eye throughout the day's constant to and fro, so he certainly remembered it.

There was also a view in the other direction, through the back room, to a spacious yard where country folk put up their traps and carts on Saturdays, and horses snorted and life buzzed merrily. A backdoor is useful in life now and then—on Saturdays, for example, when the shop did not close until 11 o'clock. Released at last, one could get a few minutes to steal over to the back of general merchant From's shop for an ice-cold lager straight from the cellar. Martin would not immediately have risked that if Frederik, his slightly older apprentice colleague, had not shown him the way. Frederik was a tough, stocky little man with sparkling eyes and a taste for adult pleasures. He smoked cigarettes in a completely sophisticated manner so that the smoke disappeared inside him and then, when one had forgotten all about it, there it was again, streaming out of his nose. He smoked so much that one was positively dizzy on following him into the lavatory to read the afternoon paper and to pull oneself together a bit. He was so much addicted to nicotine he actually maintained that the smoke was good for a sore throat. "Can't you see?" he would say, "it's a first- class disinfectant?"...According to St. Augustine, man is made for God, but Frederik and his friends, who sometimes crept in like Red Indians after locking-up time and lights-out, were at that time made for tobacco smoke—best of all accompanied by a lager.

When Frederik and Martin had dived in at From's and rapidly emptied their bottles, they reappeared after a swift wipe of their mouths on their sleeves, taking care to arrive back from different directions and not both at the same time. So longs as they did not breathe too earnestly on customers or superiors, all went well.

But now for the little world of the square. Traffic streamed through it thickly in the morning and in the late afternoon. Most of the people were on their way to somewhere, into the town in the morning and back again in the evening like a tide. The square had a quiet life of its own. The outstanding feature was the young people from the country, girls as well as young farm hands, who hesitatingly climbed the doctor's stone steps and later came down again with a blood- stained handkerchief to their mouths. They had had all their teeth out at once so that they would never again have toothache. Very conveniently there was an elderly female dental mechanic in the same building, and she just as quickly attended to the supply of artificial dentures as the strong-wristed doctor lugged out the real ones, like staves from a barrel. She herself had a tremendous denture, almost as if it were an advertisement, and it seemed to Martin that at times it bore a horse-like grin of triumph on its own account, without any cooperation on the part of the owner's face.

A few yards from this tough old nut, in a cellar, was Thamsen, the greengrocer, who, truth to tell, had not got much of a business. One saw him, round as one of his own potatoes, slip down a side street in his slippers of a morning to one of the big greengrocery shops and return with a few greens and radishes. He realised on these in the course of the day, with just a little something added for his trouble, to neighbouring housewives of unthrifty disposition or too harassed to care; and he managed to exist, Heaven knows how, without expending any noticeable energy, which was just what he intended.

On a higher floor in the same house one saw the sea-captain take his seat in the window at nine o'clock each morning, light his long pipe, and unfold his newspaper. His day had begun its pre-determined course. When anything happened in the square he lowered his paper and craned forward with his egg shell of a head. Although he was not at all old, his mild pleasure in merely sitting and watching gave him an irritating air of senility. Now and again he had an infant on his lap, and he seemed to be bringing it up to the same form of amusement, smilingly pointing out anything worthy of attention. The child had come into the household through a daughter who had no clear knowledge of how it came about, but, as she said, "He insisted"—a reply that was well known on the square and in the surrounding district.

But Gerda would never get herself into such a deplorable position. While her father, the brisk and always grimy smith moved about among his machinery and never lifted his cap unless some sudden problem demanded a little cooling air on his head, Gerda sat in the window above, sewing with porcelain fingers that did not know what wagon grease was. Over her sewing she followed what went on in the square, like the captain. Naturally, she was on nodding terms with the two young men opposite. She was the square's Gretchen, a remote beauty, who was seldom seen with a hat on her brown hair, for she went out as little as possible. She was her father's joy and treasure, and she must wait. But was she not in danger of waiting too long? Frederik, who had many irons in the fire knew her a little, and he would often turn his shining eyes over to her first floor from the shop window— but, after a nod of recognition, she would bend over her needle again, ignoring his attempts to carry things farther.

Only once could Martin remember her coming over to them for something, in a hurry and without her hat, as startling as a picture that had walked out of its frame. And what was such beauty like at close quarters? Overwhelmed by surprise, it was difficult to take in the whole, but Martin's impression fell into three parts. Her eyes were dark and dangerous, for Martin had no belief in the existence of beauty that was not at the same time dangerous. But she was beginning to get lines on the cheeks and chin, an increase in their roundness that was not all to the good; it was only behind a window that she looked fresh from the cocoon. Lastly, it was equally clear that she had no more intelligence than that of the sex in general. "There's no intellect there," said Frederik expertly. Frederik always talked as though he had sampled all the girls at close quarters.

Next door to Gerda's was a public house frequented by seamen and the unemployed and useless greybeards of the district. "The Zealand" was not a genuine dive, only a sort of restaurant on the seamy side of bourgeois respectability. Frederik and Martin had ventured across a few times when things seemed quiet. It was a riskier undertaking than the merchant's back shop, but how piquant sweet the feeling in the diaphragm to sit behind the tobacco-yellow net curtains, looking out on the scene of one's own proper activities, where, indeed, one was probably already missed. All excursions into milieux to which one does not rightly belong were stimulating, Martin felt, and here one was certainly on forbidden ground. So much the better. If one could not go upwards—and everyone could not—there was always elbow room on the way down. And, truly, there was something alluring about sitting in such a glass case, watching others work and go through the antics of living. Indeed, was that not precisely the role of the gods?

Life in the square was utterly bourgeoisie in the changes that were possible within its bounds. People could look tired out and totter along like marionettes; in their Sunday best they could look as if they had all suddenly raised themselves to a slightly higher but more uncomfortable position on the social ladder; and, when the evening sun was behind them and their clothes were flapping in a stiff breeze, they could look like complete strangers on some dramatic errand in some colour-enchanted existence. But it was certainly no colour- enchanted existence; that was only a bit of Nature's phantom-filled buffoonery; it was quite the opposite. A gasp went up in the square, the captain almost threw down his paper and Gerda her sewing, when the town's most eccentric doctor and his donna came sauntering by on an ordinary evening stroll. He was reputed to be a morphia addict, and his walk was characteristic. He wore check trousers, an artist's jacket, and on his dark, demonic head an old tall hat. She was in a silk dress of heart-arresting brevity, a Parisian, apparently, in every detail, and made-up so that one might guess any age between 30 and 60.

Life in the square came to a standstill as these two strolled along, casually as seaweed washed by incoming waves, either unconscious of the attention they aroused or indifferent to it. People might criticise them, but criticism could not reach them; they did not ask for any opinion. They belonged to a different stratum of society and they had possibly gone to the dogs in every way, but there was an air about them as of ghosts, and their patent leather shoes had surely carried them to dances and to drawing-room dramas such as nobody in these parts knew.

Martin remembered well that in those days it was, after all, on girls that all things turned, the bewitching other half of mankind. How important they were could be seen from the conscientious criticism devoted to every girl who came within visual orbit. Frederik and Martin reported to one another in a dog-Latin incomprehensible to others whenever there was something worthy of attention to be seen outside or inside the shop, and if the other was not present, they found an excuse of some kind to bring him within eye-shot, contriving the while to present an air of absorption in his work. But Martin knew in himself that the whole question was confoundedly difficult. It all seemed easy enough in books, where everything just happened inevitably, and in the newspapers one was always reading of girls who were so mad about a man that they gave him their bank book, although they, too, were quite capable of reading the newspapers...Or think of the captain's daughter opposite...He remembered one of his early days in the town. He had gone for a trot round the villa quarter and had felt himself a complete outsider, utterly irrelevant to his innermost being. The only other person who was out for a walk and equipped against the shower that suddenly teemed down was a rosy-cheeked girl— a domestic servant, perhaps. She shared her umbrella with him in friendly equality, and he found something or other to say. When they parted she had still rosier cheeks, from embarrassment, no doubt, because he was not more successful as a cavalier, more amusing or gallant or enterprising. Perhaps she, too, was lonely. And why was he none of these things? Because he thought himself ineffective, an ingrained doubting of himself, instilled into him throughout his childhood. Whenever something could and ought to happen, an invisible, sniggering ape would jump out at him on the very pavement with "Hi, hi, you can't. You can't do it. You can't do anything." Even when he was happily confident and all seemed plain sailing with nothing to hinder him, the consciousness was there, gripping him cold as ice underneath his nervous system, so that in the very moment when he wanted to do something demanding the least effort of self-assertion, that ape appeared immediately. If he said to himself "I am", there rose from his innermost depth an inconquerable "I am not".

A minor experience in those days that were curiously compounded of monotony, foolery, and half-conscious melancholy, was furnished by Marie, his employer's maid. She would come up the kitchen stairs for various little things, and, on her free evening, she was very smart in velvet with transparent sleeves. She was out to please, but Martin was fascinated by a black tooth that showed when she laughed, and it worked against her interests. Still, she always set out to get a little flirtation going between herself and the two young men, and she paid no more attention to the one than the other. Martin gradually came to know her contours nearly as well as her way of pressing her thigh and her knee against him, as though in all innocence, but somewhat frequently. One morning Frederik had extraordinarily sparkling eyes, a something tom-cattish about him, and he was heard singing sotto-voce a few lines from a popular song that glorified those who knew how to make the most of their chances. To Martin's surprise there sprang up in his mind a feeling rather like hate for the unsuspecting Marie.

There was also the mild diversion of being sent out for change or on urgent messages when the errand boy was unable to go. One spring day of the kind that makes everyone light-hearted, he was entrusted with something or other ordered by Pastor Sorensen a few streets away. He did not hurry. He delighted in the fresh, young leaves that floated like light green smoke against the old red brick of the church walls. He rang the bell at the pastor's house. He was let in, and, as he had some special instructions to give, he had to wait a few moments for the pastor to come.

He stood near the window in the study. Pastors always know a host of people outside their own usually large family, and this particular man of God was undoubtedly very popular, judging by the great array of photographs on his desk, loosely ranged in serried rows. Let's see if he has a nice niece, thought Martin, true to the dominant motive in his life in those days, and he reached out to one of the photographs which bore the gilt imprint of a local photographer. It was a girl sitting in a hospital bed with pillows behind her. As he looked at it more closely, something seemed to happen to him. It was as if he met humanity in a more wonderful edition than ever before. The girl was quite young, with long black curls falling over her cheeks, her neck, and the white-clad shoulders. She seemed to him beautiful beyond description. Her eyes were full of a convalescent's courage and joyous expectation; but one could detect in their dark depths that they had not long before expressed concern and affliction. She looked out eagerly at the photographer as though moved by a reawakened desire to dance. Her smiling lips showed just a little of her lovely teeth, sweet, gentle, and yet—how terrible, how cruel, it would be if she were to ask him among a laughing crowd of girls to repeat some clumsy remark or other. For Martin it was as if a door had just opened on to the light of spring. "When such a one—such a one is found," he meditated, "life is then worth while." He had thoughtfully turned over the photograph, and he read "Esther Magda Tranekaer Nielsen" written in ink, then someone suddenly turned the door handle and in panic haste he pushed the photograph back among the others. A permanent bad conscience was so general among young people in those days.

The pastor did not notice Martin's confusion. He roamed around in uneasy semi-circles, hunted for something in his pockets, said "Well, well" and "Thank you for the instructions" and then "Good-bye." With this Martin left that most enviable man who knew Esther; but he felt that he was no longer alone. It was as if he had just left some exalted company in which a marvellous and unexpected secret had been revealed to him. He talked softly to himself and gazed at the passers- by with bright eyes. He noticed for the first time how truly caressing the air was, how soft and invigorating, after the hardness of winter. To think that—that such a being lived somewhere around here; with only a little luck one might meet her and follow her just a little way on the same pavement.

A golden velvet light hung over the roofs and chimneys of the little square. He threw himself back into the waiting work, whistling as he went up the steps in a few leaps, and when he saw Marie or Gerda he laughed inwardly, strangely, as if he were a country gentleman's son who had taken a job in this vale of shadows for the fun of the thing. The more he noticed them, the more distinctly real grew that country estate in his mind, the turreted wings almost visible among great woods filled with birdsong.

That evening a slender new moon floated over the railway, and here, walking along the side, he often took a breath of fresh air. At a certain point one passed through a cloud of perfume from a group of balsam poplars. It was all no longer irrelevant; it had all been seen by those wonderful dark eyes. He thought of Frederik now sitting at "The Zealand", fortifying his manhood with beer and tobacco before he went to knock at Marie's door. He also wondered if it was now the time for the morphinated doctor's dizzy indulgences. How lamentable such things were when one thought of what this world had to offer: a little walk with Esther and her smile on parting and on meeting again. That is—if one knew her—if...

One could not just go and question the pastor. Still, he thought he might investigate a little himself, which was really as inevitable as the growth of a tree. Jemini, how different the world was from anything he had ever thought! Today dawn had broken and a gleam of light showed in the darkness. In the telephone directory there was a positive mob of Nielsens, yielding nothing of value except the joy of letting the finger glide over the rubric and knowing that he must surely have at least touched the right Nielsen. Print is in many ways full of secrets; if you look at a calendar you can even see your own death date without its disturbing you.

Many days went by—perhaps a fortnight—but although every injection after a time loses its strength, Martin still had his head in the clouds. When he said to himself "You are", he did not melt away promptly into flabby doubt. He was happy at his work, and never alone in his thoughts when work was over. And he was quick to respond on the day when the call fell on his ear: "Something urgent for Pastor Sorensen".

"Right?" he shouted, thankful that Frederik was standing just out side the back door, inhaling health from cigarette smoke.

The weather was more enchanting than it was before, much warmer and the green diaphanous clouds of the birch trees in front of the church were beginning to take a firmer outline. He sensed an approaching meeting in which joy and fleeting nervousness and a mild indisposition were all inextricably mixed. For Heaven's sake he must be alone in the study for a few moments; he would go mad if his eyes did not meet again that pure, clear face when he was so near to it once more.

The pastor was not there. He pushed past the maid, saying that he had a lot of things in his pocket and could he put them on the desk. She knew him well, opened the study door, and went off to the kitchen. He rushed in and snatched up the photograph which revealed itself standing carelessly just where he had put it down. His nerves flickered again like little flames; yes, oh yes, she was the only woman in the world worth looking at, beauty of body and soul in one. But was there not more fear in her eyes than he had first noticed? There had been some healthy people in the room—the photographer and her parents. Did she feel different from them in her white nightgown— apart from them? He turned the photograph over just as he heard a footstep in the hall, and he read, at last, the writing underneath the name: "Died 9th April. To Pastor Sorensen from her Parents". The pastor's wife did not understand why this otherwise well brought-up young man just stared at her as though she had no right there and his lips moved without a sound.

Somehow or another Martin got back to his starting point. The legs have own wisdom and made for the place he had left half-an-hour before. His world had turned into weekdays again after a long Sunday. He thought Gerda gave him a significant nod in welcome from her seat in the window and that Marie stayed a particularly long time when she came on one of her visits to the room behind the shop. She noticed his changed mood, said something or other about it, and pressed her knees against him. It was as though a padlock had closed around him with a little click; he was safe here where he belonged, but all was gloomy and all voices were hollow as in Hades.

And in the morning he awoke without a spark of desire to do anything as the whole affair crept into his consciousness again—a little heavier every day, because it was still a little longer since she had been interested in the surroundings they had in common—a little longer since his world was also hers. He felt sick at the smell of coffee and at the sight of the little square where the young folk from the country reeled confusedly along after an extraction. He imagined a grave in a churchyard full of the things that man, in his feebleness, finds to erect there. He remembered a frightening, sweetish smell at some family funeral, when November rain had forced the mourners to shelter in a room with a number of labelled coffins—and whatever he was doing, he stopped with a gasp. He turned Esther's face into an angel's. But angels were not for him, and she had become one too early. What delights had been in store for that mouth—and those arms! None had ever looked so queenly as she or had so obvious a mission in life. She broke like some lovely piece of porcelain—and the echo rang through the world.

The town was seething with people in the balmy evening hours and seemed to have doubled its population. They were kindly and cheerful folk, who had neither the look nor the habits of traitors, yet he felt that was what they were. Perhaps one of the passing youngsters with their elegant canes was her former cavalier, but she had one more in the eyes of those who saw things as a whole, not only in the past—a late-comer, he, Martin, belonged to her full story. And because men do not live like animals wholly in the present moment, he must continue to search. He found in a murky, muggy newspaper office the newspaper in which the death notice had appeared. That told him who she was, and one Saturday night, when all the shops cast golden beams into the streets, he saw her father in one of them—a tall man, just turning grey, in the white overall of the proprietor. He did not look at all like her.

The following Sunday, with his heart thumping like that of a burglar making his debut, he paid a visit to the stairs which led to the home of the Tranekaer Nielsen family and the homes of a whole host of other people. He got no closer than to read the nameplate on the door. The sound of many voices inside reached him and, immediately, a peel of laughter. Yet, in there, it was Esther's home hardly two months before.

Out walking that evening, because it was impossible to sit still, he passed his square. A net curtain on brass rings was pulled to one side and a hand waved to him urgently. Behind it he saw Frederik's lowered head with a sly glint in his eyes.

It was "The Zealand's" quiet day, and even Marie had allowed herself to be enticed inside. Those two were alone in the comfortable room that faced the street, and they seemed to be enjoying that Elysian and comprehensive view of the workaday scene. Marie giggled. Frederik rapped the table and called for beer with the amplitudinous air of a coming big businessman. He was on cigars that evening—"Beer and cigars", he kept chanting as if he were naming the formula for all earthly bliss.

He radiated contentment. Martin and he clinked glasses. Marie sipped carefully at a liqueur. Martin hardly knew how the first hour passed; but the vocal chords have their own wisdom, and suddenly he heard someone say: "But to die—just as spring came. No." It was his own voice.

Frederik had for some time had a notion that Martin had lost a relative. He expressed sympathy and dismissed the matter hurriedly. Just now he did not want to have the happy atmosphere of the moment wrecked whatever happened.

"She was something to herself—something—something peculiar," Martin mumbled on, and it seemed that uninvited he must in one way or another pay homage to her image—an image that was already beginning to fade. Disintegration—even that disintegrated.

"Was she a bit cracked?" asked Marie merrily.

"But when you're dead, you're dead. It's all over—bang." Frederik hit the table hard. "S'welp me, it's useless to—oh, can't you understand? You must drop it." He got to his feet and hinted to Martin that they should have a break. Out in the "gents." he told Martin it was his turn to look after Marie. She was keen on him—that was no secret—and he, Frederik, could not for all eternity—didn't Martin see what he meant? There were plenty of girls and one must have a change even if they were all pretty much the same. "It's just exactly the same comedy with all of them, don't you understand?"

"The curse of it is, I don't. I don't understand."

Frederik took his time. He shook himself, looking at Martin inquiringly.

"It'll come. Be practical. Come on in. All things come right in the end, here on the square."

He nudged Martin in the stomach sympathetically. "Come on in. Beer and cigars."

Martin was drunk. He went into the doorway and looked out on the mild June night. Something rigid in him relaxed a little, a step towards release. If only one could tamper with Time's eternal clock, as they had done once with the clock in the shop over the way to escape a little earlier—if one could do that and make Time move ten times as quickly, people would die like flies, and the fact—oh, it applied to everything and he could not find the words for it—the fact that the self was nothing, something evanescent, would become absolutely clear. If he were to return to the square in thirty years' time, all would be like a cleaned and scoured kitchen table; gone the doctor's patients from the country, reeling round like the mourning burghers of Calais; gone the captain and the greengrocer and Frederik; and Gerda would have waited for sourness or death. We were all in Esther's boat—all of us alike.

But just as it seemed to him that the universe began to expand and reconciliation's warm wool to wrap itself round his heart, he remembered the laughter he heard on the stairs at Esther's home, he thought of the treachery of life, and without knowing what he meant by it, as he took a few confused steps out into the empty square, he said: "Never."

 
 
 

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