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The Disaster by Tom Kristensen

Translated by Lydia Cranfield

Erland Erlandsen, the poet, remembered for the rest of his life the night when he saw Disaster in all its colourful meaninglessness, jagged like an explosion.

The evening had started up in Erik Hoff's studio, in genial company. There they were at midnight, four friends, their pipes drawing well. The table gleamed with its coffee cups and the full burgundy glasses throwing ruby-red blobs on the white cloth. The blue tobacco haze made their blear-eyed faces seem to float in a mist. There was a sculptor, a press-photographer, and the quiet Hoff himself, his pale blue eyes half closed, leaning back in his chair, enjoying his pipe and absorbing the intimate atmosphere; and there was Erland Erlandson relating a personal experience.

The serenity was broken suddenly by the sound of someone thundering up the stairs. It was Gering, tall and dark, who was also a poet. He burst into the room, but at once stood still as if thunder-struck. His eyes were dark and troubled.

"Are you sitting here drinking wine?" he gasped. "Haven't you heard anything then?"

"What should we have heard?" drawled Erlandsen.

"Don't you know anything about it at all? Is that really true?" Gering sank exhausted into a chair. He looked from one to the other, and his dark eyes narrowed as if accusing them of inhuman cynicism. "You don't know anything! And you are drinking burgundy! Give me a glass, I need it. But I still can't understand how you can sit here drinking when there has been a terrible railway smash near here—only twenty minutes away and a hundred people killed. The ambulance sirens are screaming through the streets——"

The smoke-laden atmosphere at once became a confusion of agitated figures. Hoff asked questions, the sculptor jumped up and wanted to rush out at once, the press-photographer stared like a lost soul at Gering, and Erlandsen began whistling as if wishing to play an accompaniment to his own disturbance, to play himself up above the event, above everything.

An express had overtaken a slow train, and the rear coaches had been smashed. One of the carriages had somersaulted down the embankment, and the engine had fallen on top of it, lying with its wheels in the air. A fantastic sight!

They listened uneasily, making as if to get up, unwilling to hear any more and wanting to go and see for themselves. They sat down again and went on drinking while listening to Gering's story; but they were unsettled. Cruelty, curiosity, and horror prompted them. They leant over the table, they dropped back in their chairs, they rose and sat down again and again.

"What the hell are you whistling for?" asked Gering, glowering across at Erlandsen, whose eyes were enamel bright and who whistled shrilly snatches of popular tunes, linking them into extraordinary symphonies.

"We must get off at once," said Erlandsen hoarsely, without answering Gering. Nervously gesturing, he grasped at the empty air as if to catch something invisible. "This is real life. Life is like that. I want to look it in the face. I want to come face to face with it!"

"You're damned ghoulish!"

Erlandsen laughed nervously.

In the meantime Hoff had fetched more hot coffee. The others gulped it down, put on their overcoats and ran downstairs.

Outside the night was cold and dark.

"Look at the stars! Why should they be so unaffected?" asked Gering, who remained standing with his head thrown back. The stars were shining in the dark, frosty night-sky. One particularly large blue star with red twinkling edges hung above a factory chimney.

"An accident wouldn't matter much if it made the stars fall! Of course they are unmoved. That's the devilish grandeur of it all!" said Erlandsen. He shuddered in his overcoat and again started whistling.

Gering shook his head and buttoned his close-fitting coat around him.

"Can't you realize that there has been a terrible smash?" he spluttered.

"How many were killed?" asked Hoff.

"Over a hundred."

Then they hurried off. They half walked, half ran. Sometimes in their hurry they would spread themselves out across the dark road where only a few street lamps lit up the night. They swarmed into the light and out again into darkness. Then they would move nearer together, walk unconsciously too close to one another, speak half sentences, catch half-uttered words.

"The silhouette of that factory with the long building and the four chimneys always reminds me of a battleship!" said Hoff, inconsequently, in a strange aside.

Gering stopped. "How right you are! Yes! That's exactly what it looks like! Quite!" And then he walked on again.

They passed by isolated groups of people. In among some trees a few vagrants were tramping along in time to a ribald song. Some fine figures hurried along in carpet slippers. Vesterbro emptied her dregs out towards the scene of the accident; all the night-life of Copenhagen was drawn out along its dark approaches. Men in evening dress, mysterious ladies twittering with curiosity! Blazing head-lamps of cars formed fan-shaped beams which flew across the stone paving. Motor cycles throbbed and roared past the dark, huddled houses. In one of these a lamp was being carried along through a row of rooms making it look as if it were the windows hurrying past a stationary light.

Further along the rows of lamp-posts took a sudden turn and stopped abruptly. A faint, icy wind from the open country wafted across the sombre crowds.

They crossed a field.

"Look, a child!" said the sculptor. There was a dark figure, pushing a perambulator, followed by another indistinct shape.

"Wasn't it terrible?" said a woman's voice.

"It certainly wasn't very nice!" replied a man.

They were returning from the scene of the accident.

"That's too bad! Bringing a child along," protested the sculptor.

"Yes, people are morbid," replied Hoff. "And so are we. What on earth are we doing here?"

"He's quite right!" exclaimed Gering; but no one stopped.

Quickly they passed through a small village with tall hedges. The inn was lit up. Through the open door a brilliant light streamed out from the inn garden. The small village was seething with whispers. People spoke excitedly but in lowered tones; everything—hedges trees, houses—seemed subdued, and over all was a faint murmur.

"Here it is, here!" said Gering.

They passed through an opening in a hedge, and a short distance away they could see masses of lights. A strong green light and some red lights were stationary, but myriads of yellow lights were moving ceaselessly up and down the railway embankment on which was strewn a confusion of long dark shapes with shining surfaces. Voices rang out sharply in the frost-clear night. There was clanging of iron and crunching of gravel. In the darkness the lonely spot, where all was movement and ceaseless activity, had the same magic drawing power as the excavation of a street at night.

They now felt compelled to run. The noise and shouting drew them on. Their pace quickened. The field and the dark, lumpy soil flew beneath them. What were they treading on? Plants? Had they broken into a nursery? Some leaves on the ground glinted with white rings of hoar frost. They looked like strawberry plants. Rows of trefoiled leaves with phosphorescent edges slid away under them.

They all five jumped across a wide ditch. Five heavy thuds! Then they set off at a trot alongside the same ditch, down towards the fitful flickering at the scene of the accident.

Black figures formed a many-headed silhouette against the red and green lights. In the middle the mass billowed up in the air forming a dark hillock. They were the people standing on the luggage which had been dumped from the coaches. Beyond the crowd was a glare rising from the ground—a bonfire, a gigantic blaze throwing its light up against a long black shape. An inverted letter and some figures gleamed; it was an upturned P and the number of the engine! The whole mass of the locomotive was lying upside down, and in between the light of the lamps some dark circles could be picked out: the wheels!

Erlandsen pushed forward in amongst the watchers. They all had expressionless, yellow faces on dark bodies, so intense was the light that shone on them, so spellbound were they at the sight.

A big, dark form stood in the centre of the glare, a huge soldier, swinging a pickaxe above his head. Every now and then this living shadow erupted into a ruddy face. Suddenly he whirled round, threw off his tunic, and when he started work again he made a vivid picture or red and white, working in his shirt-sleeves; his figure seemed to grow and grow. He became merged with the regular thudding of the pickaxe, the beat which gave rhythm to the whole work, the mad rhythm of the disaster: a man splintering open a door.

In between the thuds could be heard shouted orders, the clanging of pieces of iron which were being thrown aside, the breaking of glass, and the incessant shovelling of coal and gravel. These sounds came from higher up the embankment, by the wheels of the locomotive, where an arc lamp of an eerie green colour threw its light on a coach which lay pointing diagonally down from the spot where the collision had occurred. From the black sky high above on the top of the embankment, where some undamaged carriages still stood, the roof of the coach stretched in a broad surface down to the bottom of the slope. The compartments nearest the top were undamaged, those on the middle were half buried, and the bottom ones were match-wood. Erlandsen could follow distinctly the line of words: II Class, II Class, II Class, as they neared the foot of the slope and vanished, a slanting line of repetitions. Out of the leaning compartment windows some curtains fluttered; they looked like ships' cabins in heavy weather.

He absorbed it all. He took in immediately every detail in the harsh light against the sombre background of night and death. The disaster was like a blow in the eye; burning colours of red, blue and green swept into his mind which grasped at every gruesome detail; compassion, great compassion would later on gather all his impressions into a whole if only he could remember the details, remain cool and remember clearly.

Behind him he sensed the presence of the others, Gering's tall figure, his glasses shining in the light, Hoff's face with the narrowed eyes, the press-photographer with his pale face devoid of eyebrows, and the sculptor farthest behind. Erlandsen sensed it all; but when he let his thoughts desert the colours and the contours, the diagonal line of the coach, and the other jerky diagonal line of soldiers who with lamps in their belts were scrambling down the embankment, he had a choking feeling in his throat and was afraid of vomiting. If he were going to be sick it would spoil his aesthetic impression, his belief in being able to look life in its flaming face with all its features shattered. But he would not flinch, he would face it.

Clarity, coolness, colour, line, in the midst of all the horror!

The light attracted him like a magnet. He wanted to stand close to the disaster so that he could feel its heat upon his face! And now only a single row of spectators remained in front of him.

"What are they listening for?" asked someone.

Up by the green arc light some men in uniform stood peering into the smashed coach. They stood stiff and motionless with an expression of oriental calm on their faces, which had taken on an olive colour in the light of the lamp. They were listening.

"Look! They're bringing out a body."

Two soldiers came stumbling down the embankment carrying a stretcher. A tarpaulin was spread on it in heavy folds making it impossible to distinguish the outlines of what lay underneath. They set down the stretcher next to some others.

Erlandsen glanced across at the stretchers. There was death underneath those tarpaulins, but it was meeting with real life to see it. He looked again and had to hold on stubbornly to the thought that they were actually dead, those who lay there, otherwise the whole thing became unreal; colours, shapes, surfaces, shadows.

Suddenly he sensed a movement in the dark crowd. All those on his right were being pushed backwards as if by an invisible wave, and a gasp from hundreds of people catching their breath rose like a sound in nature: the soughing in a tree at twilight; the sudden rustle in a cornfield at night. He swayed to the right; in an instant hundreds of white terror-stricken faces flashed from the background of the darkness like willow leaves trembling in the wind, elusive and fluttering; a fitful light from the scene of the accident shot up into the air, a huge, dark wall began to tilt forward slightly, and some of the night broke loose.

"The engine is falling!" someone shouted.

"There's an arm, a white arm sticking out!" came a murmur from the dark crowd; and Erlandsen, who wanted to see better, moved to the right, felt nausea, but felt compelled to watch. The dark wall sank back again; in the midst of the confusion of lights it was as if some darkness had been shut out, a door closed.

"Shall we go over there?" asked Gering, with a strangely expressionless face. "I have two press cards."

"Yes, come on then."

But that was soon forgotten. There was fresh movement in part of the crowd. The police were pushing them down from the heap of luggage, and there were muttered protests.

"Hello, Erland!"

A man's broad figure had turned round and his face gleamed in the light. It was an old acquaintance.

"Are you here, too?"

"Always on the spot. But I heard you say that you wanted to go over there. Don't do it! Blood and all that. You keep slipping in it. Don't do it!"

Erlandsen knew that the big fellow was tough.

"Then I shan't," he said.

Gering too let the matter drop but talked instead of the cold.

Suddenly Hoff was there between them.

"We've seen enough. Come on, let's go."

But they still remained standing there. Then they started to walk backwards, their faces still turned towards the moving lights. The sound of the shovels digging under the coach, the thuds of the pick- axe which formed large arcs in the glow, made them hesitate. They succeeded, however, in edging slowly backwards and extricating themselves from the crowd. All the hats and heads merged together into a restless, undulating line of darkness against the glare. It was as if the whole scene had been lifted up into the night and was burning and flickering in the darkened air.

Now they were all five together again and slowly began to leave, but they still kept looking back. The shattered carriages and the lights seemed like a burned-out house where the embers are still smouldering among the ruins with isolated flames licking into the air. It was the atmosphere of the aftermath of a catastrophe, of light against darkness, of colour effects against destruction.

It was only when they reached the village and could no longer see the scene of the accident that it became possible for them to walk at a regular pace. They exchanged a few words. Erlandsen whistled and his hands were restless.

"What are you thinking about?" asked Gering.

"There was material there," he replied. "I'm going to use it!"

They stood for some time staring at the star which kept changing from blue to red, and they talked about it.

"I'm sure it's a planet," said Hoff.

With that they parted.

Erlandsen went home by himself. He was confused, and at the same time his mind was so clear that he could recall each detail.

He lay in bed for a long time tossing restlessly about. Strange that now he had already forgotten the number of the great P-locomotive lying with its funnel churned into the earth. His mind wrestled with colour fantasies, turned to the injured, but kept coming back to the vivid colours as if to harden itself. The material had to be hardened! The mind had to be hardened!

The first faint light of dawn broke through. The familiar furniture and bookshelves appeared from a dark veil. The curtains gleamed in a white mist.

Suddenly he heard a sound which startled him, a monotonous hopping from perch to perch, backwards and forwards. His canary was astir, it was something alive, warm and soft, a thing of flesh and blood and life, a being which had not been mangled and could continue its regular habits. It jumped to and fro, clip-clop, clip-clop.

In a moment the realities of life and death overwhelmed him, life with a hitherto unknown warmth, death with a hitherto unknown chill. Mentally he discarded all colours and shapes; they were like precious stones—rubies, emeralds, sapphires,—lying useless and cold on a table. In his imagination he swept them with a broad gesture off the table down to the floor. They were useless and more lifeless than death itself.

He rose, dressed and went out into the morning light, out amongst the trees, the factories, the shrubs, the houses, amongst all the familiar things which were just awakening.

 
 
 

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