Not too many hours of September 14 had passed before Helga got out of bed. There was a lot to see to, even though the previous several days had been occupied with preparations, and she had had plenty of help. Kristine, who had been househelp for them on the farm for so many years, was called in. And to Helga it felt almost like the old days, when some large event loomed.
Carefully she closed the bedroom door behind her. Even though Marius always slept like a rock, and he probably wouldn’t wake up too easily, there was no reason to risk it. It would just make everything more difficult to have him around, complaining or making suggestions. She looked up at the clock. He shouldn’t be woken up before seven, anyway.
After making the day’s first pot of coffee, she sat down at the kitchen table and considered the situation. Maybe she should have the deliveryman bring an extra case of beer. There seemed to be plenty of wine – for the people who preferred that.
Then there was the flag. Marius had bought a new flag. And on top that he had called the surveyor to find out how big it should be, when used with a regular-sized flagpole. He would really carry on if she forgot to put it up. She rose and got it out of the closet. Then she put on her clogs and went out into the yard in the still dark morning, and with quite a bit of trouble, she got the rope loosened and the ends tied on to the flag. Then she raised it into the night sky.
That was that. Good thing she remembered. She avoided both Marius’s reproaches and the neighbors’ joking remarks at seeing her fumbling in broad daylight with the flag, which was the biggest one the store had in stock. Looked like Marius had added a bit to whatever measurements the surveyor had given him.
She went back to her coffee cup and a half-eaten roll with marmalade.
And then there were the rooms. She had better dust and vacuum, so everything would be ready for Kristine’s arrival, when it would be time to put things out.
Marius sat as if on a throne, wearing his dark suit. His hair had been cut, he had had his beard trimmed a few days before, and now he sat there looking regal with his freshly scrubbed, pink face beneath his white hair. Time approached noon, and he sat entertaining himself with his two sons-in-law – a couple of middle-aged rascals, one of which was already talking about going on social security.
The mailman had been there with a couple of congratulatory letters, from members of the family who couldn’t be there that afternoon because of geography or illness, plus a bottle of port from the bank. Marius was not too impressed that they sent it. He would have to delete the bank manager from the list of congratulants he had formed in his head, and regrettably, also from the list of congratulants from which he had expected special tributes. He said, “Young people think they are so busy.”
A car approached. Was it slowing down? Marius paused in the middle of a sentence, listening. The car drove by, and Marius continued telling his sons-in-law what he had said during the general meeting of the slaughterhouse in ‘38.
Helga took one last look over the food. Herring, potato salad and small meatballs, smoked halibut, roast pork and red cabbage, liver paté and pickled beets, and five kinds of sausage from the butcher in the town center. She glanced at Marius, whose voice was becoming more and more distant as he spoke. She said – more or less referring to her sons-in-law: “You can start eating.” The older one, the engineer, the one who was looking forward to social security, started to get up, but was brought to his seat again by a look from Marius. “We’re in no rush,” he said. He got Helga to bring him the newspaper from the day before, so he could show his sons-in-law the article. “Prominent farmer turns 80,” it read, and his many activities were listed below. “But they were careless in more than a few places,” said Marius. “It says that I was on the board of the Cattle Association. Actually I was the vice-chairman.” He paused. “It’s strange that people like that never ask for help from the right sources.”
Then he went quiet. Everyone sat listening. When they had the chance, they glanced out the window. A scooter went by, and the blacksmith’s van. “I still think you should start eating,” said Helga. She looked appealingly at her daughters and sons-in-law. Not even the grandchildren had time to come by. They were going to wait until the evening.
The neighbor, who was Morten Andersen, was now busy with yardwork at the end of the afternoon. He had heard that it was a good time to start getting everything ready for winter, even though it was only the middle of September, and around noon he had launched into the hedgerow at the far end by the road, where there was a good view. He had said to his wife, “We’ve got to see what congratulants look like.”
Earlier in the day, he had seen the mailman come, carrying a package. And even earlier he had seen the young girl from the grocery store come riding her bicycle, with a beautifully wrapped bottle. “Probably Gammel Dansk,” Morten had thought, and now as he thought about it again, he felt a slight yearning for a stiff drink. Still he stayed at his raking, cleaning up under the hedge. Something was bound to happen soon.
Nothing was happening. Then it was noon. Still nothing happened. That is, a little happened, but nothing really. The grocer’s girl arrived again, this time with the grocer’s wife as driver, and there were more bottles carried in. And a big box, it looked like. Morten worked his way over to the car and exchanged a few words with Ellen, who told him that people were calling like crazy for bottles they wanted delivered, with cards and everything. From the slaughterhouse, from the feed store and all kinds of places.
Morten gave it some thought. His face brightened with a strange downward smile, but Ellen just looked impressed. “And chocolate,” she said. “the biggest one we had in the store. It was from the Severinsen’s,” she added. “They’re teetotalers, you know.”
The girl came out, chewing something, and sat down in the car. Ellen turned the car around and drove away. There were no other cars on the road. Morten felt so young inside; it was bubbling up in him. He’d better go in to Margareta, who was standing inside, watching from behind the houseplants. It was about time to have something to eat.
“They’re sending things,” he said in an expressionless voice, and no one except for Margareta would be able to sense the undertone of pleasure. “They’re sending things and not showing up.”
He stopped, struck by Margareta’s seriousness. He squirmed a bit. Margareta said, “He is your neighbor.”
Morten shook his head. He went into the kitchen. The table was conspicuously not set, even though it was late. “Despite everything, Marius is your neighbor,” she said again, remaining standing by the window, as if she had nothing else pressing. He protested a bit, but, as usual, it was no use.