I strayed into the church on an impulse. It was a mistake to get off the bus in the village here. I should have waited until we reached the summer cabins, but all of a sudden I wasn’t sure where we were. I got off without asking. It turned out to be eighteen kilometres too soon. The next bus isn’t until three, which is another four hours yet. It’s like that on Saturdays, in the outlying areas.
Now I’m sitting in the church with my holdall, surrounded by people in their best clothes. I might as well be doing something while I’m here. The main door is still open and the sun is shining outside. The church is on top of a hill. When I turn round and look out, I can see the view of fields and the sky. Many of the others keep turning round too, twisting their heads this way and that. After a bit there’s some muffled activity in the porch. The organ begins to play and the bride steps into the church on her father’s arm. Everyone stands up, nodding and smiling.
I look into the bride’s eyes as she comes past. Her hair is blonde and arranged in an updo. Her father nods. An elderly woman next to me leans across.
‘Ooh,’ she says softly.
Her voice is a tremble. She smells of camphor.
‘Yes,’ I whisper back.
‘Isn’t she just!’ the woman says, still a tremble.
We sit down and the ceremony begins.
After it starts I nearly leave. I ought to. But on the other hand it’s anyone’s right to sit and gape. And if I leave now I’ll only draw attention. So I stay put and join in the hymns when it’s time to sing, and leaf on to the next one in plenty of time.
It takes a while, but then it’s over and the happy couple kiss. The door is opened and the organ plays. They walk back up the aisle, holding hands and smiling.
Once they’ve left the church the guests follow them out. I wait until last. A woman stands in the porch shaking everyone’s hand; she must be the mother of the bride. I put my hand out.
‘Congratulations,’ I say.
She keeps hold of my hand and studies my face.
‘I’m Regitze,’ I say.
Her features brighten.
‘Nice to see you, Regitze,’ she says. ‘Did you have a good trip?’
‘You can go with Britta and Sten. They’ve got lots of room.’
She steers me out of the porch and puts me in front of a middle-aged couple.
‘Britta and Sten. Regitze’s going with you,’ she says, letting go of my hand.
‘Right,’ says Britta.
‘No bother,’ says Sten.
I don’t know what to say. We shake hands. Then we turn to the happy couple, who are having their photograph taken on the step. Britta produces a little pouch and throws rice on them.
‘Not yet, Britta!’ a woman exclaims.
Sten steps towards me.
‘You’ll be the sister, then?’ he says.
‘No,’ I say.
After that I find myself in a green BMW with Sten and Britta. He says nothing, she can’t stop chattering. She goes on about the dress and the hymns and the wedding cake she helped glue together yesterday. They arrived the day before and are staying in a B & B at a place not far from the village.
I’m sitting in the back. My holdall’s on my knee. Britta twists round and jabs a finger at it.
‘Is that your present?’ she says.
I shake my head.
‘A change of clothes, then,’ she says with a nod that makes me nod, too.
‘Tell you what,’ she says, turning back to Sten. ‘We’ll pop back to the B & B. Regitze can get changed there. It’ll be much easier. What do you say, Regitze?’
‘I suppose,’ I say.
The ladies smells of scouring powder. I rummage in my holdall. Luckily, I’ve got a dress and a pair of sandals with me. But the dress is all crumpled. I dab water on the worst bits, then smooth the material and hold it stretched under the hand drier.The result isn’t bad. For lack of anything better, I rub some sunscreen on my arms. I tidy my hair and put it up with a hair tie I pick up off the floor. Painting my toenails is out, but I wash my feet in the sink.
I look at myself in the mirror. I don’t know what I look like. I stuff my jeans and sweatshirt and my shoes into the holdall and make the sign of the cross. That’s not like me either.
Britta’s waiting just outside the door. She tilts her head and frowns.
‘Not bad,’ she says. ‘It’s a pretty dress.’
‘It’s from Israel,’ I say.
‘Of course. That’s where you live, Israel.’
‘No,’ I say.
‘No. I live in Randers.’
‘Oh. Well, one place is as good as another, I suppose,’ she says.
In the car she hands me a little bottle of perfume.
‘Use as much as you like,’ she says.
I sniff the nozzle and shake my head.
‘I don’t think it’s me.’
She looks at my holdall. I look at it, too. Then I look out. You couldn’t wish for better weather for a wedding. The only clouds in the sky are some fleecy little puffs.
‘Now I’ve got it,’ says Britta. ‘You’re in on the big present.’
I don’t say anything.
‘I thought as much,’ she says.
The reception’s taking place in a community hall out in the middle of a field. There must be at least forty cars parked outside. Sten pulls in, Britta gets out and opens the door for me.
‘Thanks for the lift,’ I say.
‘Don’t mention it,’ says Britta.
We go inside. I leave my holdall in the cloakroom.
The function room has been done out with flowers and candles. In the centre is a buffet, and in the centre of the buffet is the wedding cake. A couple of young people in black and red waiter’s uniforms are carrying bread and bottles of wine in. I go up to the cake and look at the plastic figure on top; a smiling couple sprinkled with stars.
‘You’d like that,’ says an old man behind me.
I nod. He walks with a stick. He comes up to me slowly and puts out his arm.
‘May I accompany the lady into the garden?’ he says, and I nod again.
We cross the room arm in arm and go out through the open patio door. Outside, an aperitif is being served. The old man keeps hold of my arm; with his other hand he holds his glass. He has leaned his stick against a fence. ‘Found yourself a lady friend, Mads?’ a man says in a loud voice and a singsong accent, and some of the other guests laugh.
‘Chance would be a fine thing, eh?’ the old man whispers to me.
The happy couple mingle and greet everyone who has come. The bride really is a picture. Her eyes are dark and perfectly round, and then with her blonde hair as well. The groom is very tall, head and shoulders at least above the bride. They hold hands as they move among the guests. I get the feeling she’s pregnant; it’s something about the way she approaches people. She passes her free hand over her midriff and I’m almost certain then.
‘Jutta in her lovely dress,’ the old man says to himself.
The happy couple are coming our way.
‘Is she expecting?’ I whisper in his ear.
His grip tightens on my arm and he leans closer.
‘What’s that, my dear?’
‘Oh, I see.’
‘Let me get your stick for you, Mads,’ I say. ‘I need to go to the loo.’
I reach for the walking stick, put it to his arm and make myself scarce.
A woman is standing at the patio door with a notepad in her hand. She’s in a kind of blue sailor suit with gold buttons. She looks at me with no particular expression on her face.
‘Speech to make?’ she says.
‘Did someone take your present for you?’
I look down at her feet. She’s got yellow sandals on, fat bulging between the straps.
‘You could say,’ I reply.
She looks at me enquiringly and raises an eyebrow.
‘I’m in on the big one,’ I say with a smile.
‘Ah, now I’m with you.’
She jots something down on her pad.
‘And you’re …?’
‘Well that’s a name you don’t forget in a hurry,’ she says, and jots again. I cross through the function room and out into the corridor, where I poke my head round a door that turns out to lead into the kitchen. A woman is standing with her back to me, vigorously rinsing glasses. Two young men in waiter’s uniforms are sitting at a table smoking.
‘Are you looking for something?’ one of them says, getting to his feet.
‘Yes,’ I say.
He comes towards me.
‘How can I help you?’
‘I think I’m lost,’ I say, only then Britta comes through the kitchen hardly a few metres away and I draw back in the doorway. She turns her head and looks at me.
‘Lost?’ says the young man.
‘I can’t find the loo,’ I say, sending Britta a nod. She’s got a green pepper in her hand.
He says he’ll show me, and I follow him as he cuts through the cloakroom to the other side. He’s got a good build, and fair hair trimmed short. Unfortunately, he smells too much of soap or something like that. He stops at a door and sweeps his arm out.
‘The loo,’ he says. ‘Anything else I can do?’
‘Have you got a bike I can borrow?’ I say.
He looks surprised.
‘What do you want it for? Is it for a turn?’
‘No. I just need some fresh air, that’s all,’ I say. He looks like he’s impressed, and I can tell he thinks I’m a bit eccentric and not half bad at the same time. I can’t help trying to confirm it to him. I undo the tie in my hair and shake my head exaggeratedly, and my hair tumbles down around my ears.
‘Well,’ he says without taking his eyes off me. ‘As a matter of fact, I have.’
After a moment, he goes off and I go into the loo, stand at the sink for almost a minute, then go out again. He’s waiting for me outside the community hall with a silver-coloured men’s bike.
‘It might be a bit on the big side,’ he says.
‘It doesn’t matter. I can pedal standing up.’
He stays on the step and watches me set off. He was right, my feet won’t reach sitting down.
‘What’s your name?’ I call out to him as I cross the gravel.
‘René,’ he calls back.
I pedal down the road until I see him go in. Then I turn round and pedal back, lean the bike against a signpost a short way off and nip inside to get my holdall from the cloakroom. I can hear a man’s voice saying some words to all the guests. I hurry back out, secure the holdall as best I can on the pannier rack and cycle off down the road again. After a few kilometres I meet a man out jogging. I stop and ask the way to the village where I got off the bus by mistake. He points in the opposite direction while running on the spot. I turn the bike round.
I have to stop four times to get the holdall properly on the rack. As soon as I see the village up ahead I get off and wheel the bike, keeping the holdall in place with my free hand. The skylarks are singing above the fields.
I go into a petrol station and park the bike in front of the window. The man behind the counter looks at me. I smile at him. He comes out with a lottery ticket in his hand.
‘I’ve got this bike, it’s lost property,’ I say. ‘It belongs to a young waiter called René.’
‘René Aeroplane?’ says the man.
‘It could be. He’s in the kitchen at the community hall.’
The man nods.
‘Can you make sure he gets it back? I’m not from round here.’
‘You don’t say. Yes, I reckon we can do that for you.’
I thank him and wish him luck with his lottery ticket. After that I leave the petrol station and start off up the main street with my holdall in my hand. I head towards the church tower. Once I reach the church the bus stop isn’t far. It’s a quarter past two; I’ve still got loads of time. I’m sweating. It’s a good thing I changed into a dress.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Helle Helle(born 1965) published her first book in 1993. Since then, her work has garnered critical and popular acclaim in her home country Denmark, as well as abroad. She is the recipient of countless literary accolades, among them the Danish Critics’ Prize, the Danish booksellers’ Golden Laurels, the P.O. Enquist Award and the prestigious Lifetime Award of the Danish Arts Foundation. Her latest novel in Danish, Hvis det er (If You Want), has just been nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize 2015. Her first novel in English, This Should Be Written in the Present Tense, was recently published by Harvill Secker.
Martin Aitken (born 1961) is an acclaimed translator of Danish literature, most recently of Helle Helle’s This Should Be Written in the Present Tense (Harvill Secker). Forthcoming titles include novels by Kim Leine, Martin Kongstad, Simon Pasternak, Josefine Klougart and Peter Høeg.