Anna Belfrage

Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time. Welcome to my world!

The things that make us human…

lupinerSome people would argue that humanity’s defining characteristic is our intelligence. Hmm. Given our predilection for constantly endangering the future of our species through war, pollution and excessive exploitation of this our very precious, very small, green planet, I am not so sure about all that intelligence.

Others will say it is our communication skills that set us apart Definitely a good argument. People talk – a lot. However, communication is a two way street, and how good are we at listening? Especially to someone who doesn’t agree with us? (And I must immediately raise my hand in the air on this one and admit I have a teensy-weensy tendency of being so carried away in the heat of a discussion that my ears close. Literally. Working on it – which may make my friends choke on laughter, as I’ve been working on this  – and on learning how to keep a low profile – for like four decades…)

I would say that there are some emotions that are very specific to humans – like insecurity. We fret about a lot of things, us oh so intelligent bipeds. Does he/she like me? Will they give me the job despite my deficiencies? How can anyone love me when I have a HUGE pimple on m nose? Who am I to think I can do this? Will my children turn out alright given my lousy parenting skills?

The-Hunted-Roe-Deer-on-the-Alert-Spring-by-Gustave-CourbetNow, consider instead Mrs Bambi, who lives out in the forest somewhere. Does Mrs Bambi ever struggle with insecurity? Does she nudge her fawn and wonder what on earth he’ll grow up to be, what with her not spending enough time with him? Does she ever look at her reflection in a forest tarn and sigh, thinking that who can possibly love her, with those huge eyes of hers? Nope. Mrs Bambi simply IS, all the way from her beautiful, dewy eyes and twitching ears to those long, fragile legs of hers. And the same thing applies to Mrs Crocodile (except she has neither dewy eyes, twitching ears nor fragile legs. She is mostly tail and teeth).

Another very human emotion is love. Sorry to tell you this, but Mrs Bambi doesn’t love her kid – she nurtures it. That utterly stressed pair of swallows that flies back and forth, back and forth, to feed their voracious young don’t love them either – in fact, one can suspect they will sigh with relief once their nestlings take flight.

I’ve had a pair of gulls nesting on a ledge outside my office window for some weeks, and after sitting on their egg for ages, out came a speckled fluffy chick. A most demanding chick, that grew at an impressive speed as its parents flew out, flew back in, hawked up what they’d swallowed so that their baby could eat it. Now and then, Mama and Papa gull had to defend their chick against others – which they did – but despite all this care, one day the chick was gone, having plummeted six floors to its death. (This due to some very determined magpies. Now, I happen to like magpies much, much more than I like gulls, horrible raucous things that they are, but in this instance I was a bit upset – if impressed by the intelligence the magpies gave proof of as they herded the chick towards the edge…) Just like that, all those caring instincts disappeared in Mama and Papa gull. They did not swoop down to sit by their dead chick and weep, nor did they expend much time looking for it. Proof, I’d argue, that they felt no love for their offspring – it was merely biology taking over.

Just as animals can’t feel love, neither can they feel hate. Deer do not band together, sharpen their antlers and hooves, and set out to punish those nasty, hateful foxes. Even more to the point, animals don’t hate us, despite humans being by far the most dangerous and cruel of predators.

Deer huntingAnimals, it would seem, are advocates of Determinism – what will pass, will pass, and there is little we can do about it. Some humans belong to religious groups that also advocate Determinism – Islam comes to mind, as does the Greek-Orthodox Church, and Calvinism – but this concept sits uncomfortably with most of us, seeing as it can be perceived as being in conflict with our very precious Free Will. So as not to go entirely wild and crazy while attempting to penetrate this very difficult issue (Determinism vs Free Will), let us just conclude that here we have yet another thing that separates us from animals: many of us believe in God – and those of us that don’t, still remain fascinated by the existential issues. Let me tell you that Mrs Bambi rarely raises her head from her grazing, looks at her sister and asks, “What do you think happens after death?” If she did, chances are her sister would say, “Death? What is death?”

a002175501-001And here, I believe, lies the most defining differences between humans and animals. We are aware of our mortality, of the ridiculous brevity of our time on Earth, while they are not. They live unencumbered by the gnawing disquiet that most of us humans fall prey to, those eternal questions ringing in our minds: Is there life after death? Does God exist? And what if He does exist and I’ve been laughing my head off at the concept of God throughout my life, will He punish me for that? And what if there is no life after death? What if it is just over, the moment my heart stops beating?
“Aaaaaagh!” wails this particular human, “I don’t want it to be over!”

I once heard this very depressing philosopher expound on the brevity of human life. “Our lives are as inconsequential in the overall context of things as a soap-bubble,” he said. But guess what? You look at that soap bubble and it shimmers with colour, it twirls and it dances as it soars upwards, ever upwards. Pretty wonderful, all in all, even if it pops into non-existence far too soon.

Mrs Bambi doesn’t care about soap bubbles – nor does Mrs Crocodile. They take each day as it comes, and worry little about a tomorrow as intangible as the wind. That, dear people, is something we should learn from them, the ability to live in the here and now, the only moments of time that are truly ours to fully enjoy. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow may never come. But we always have today. Always. Which is why I will now turn off my computer and wander down to the lake and go for a swim. Halfway out, I will flip over onto my back and float, my eyes lost in the blue of the summer sky, and wonder, as I always wonder, what lies beyond.

 

The saucy consequences of a naval battle

Yesterday, I treated my family to one of my favourite summer dishes – salt-fried prawns with aioli. I make the aioli myself, and what is not consumed with the prawns is eaten with chunks of bread, dipped in this delicious Spanish sauce that tastes of garlic and oregano.

The first time I ever had aioli was on Menorca. This is one of the Balearic Islands, and as its name implies it is smaller than Mallorca – but bigger than Ibiza, even if that is neither here nor there. Menorca is famous for an absolutely fantastic lobster soup/stew called caldereta, for its aioli – and for being the birthplace of mayonnaise.

Mayenne-charlesWhat? I can see some of you straightening up from your summer slouch. Mayonnaise is a French sauce, you say – derived from Mayenne. Hmm. I am less than convinced, even if I do find the French version of this sauce’s pedigree historically interesting. As per some, one of the more capable (and likeable) generals in the religious civil war that plagued France in the 16th century was addicted to this thick, creamy sauce. I am talking, of course, about Charles de Mayenne, a son of the House of Guise and leader of the Catholic League. So fond was he of this sauce that it was given his name, and all that mayonnaise consumption is supposedly why our Charles grew stout with age.

Now, if we take a step back and study the ingredients of mayonnaise, one can but conclude that they are very, very similar to those of ailoi – bar the garlic. Okay, so to combine egg yolks, oil, salt and other seasoning and whip it all up into a sauce is not exactly rocket science, but all the same: aioli and mayonnaise are sister-sauces. For all those who prefer to view mayonnaise as a French sauce, I offer the comfort that even in the Menorca based mayonnaise myth, the French play a central role. But let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

Minorca_by_Piri_ReisMenorca is an island with a fascinating history. Prehistoric inhabitants have left the island littered with strange neolithic buildings, the Romans have left their imprint on the island, it was a haven for early pirates, it has been raided by Turks and by Barbary pirates – in brief, Menorca has suffered a long string of wannabe owners. In the early 18th century, the British took possession of Menorca (this in the aftermath of the Spanish War of Succession).

At this point in time, the British Empire was still in expansion mode. Backing the right horse in the Spanish War of Succession gave the British not only Menorca but also the far more strategically important Rock of Gibraltar. Suddenly, the British Empire was a force to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean, and Menorca with its excellent  natural harbour at Mahon (Aha! Mahon-aise…) became an important British outpost. The French were not pleased. The Spanish were not pleased. The Ottoman Empire was probably not pleased, but who cared about their opinion anyway? Consensus among the French and the Spanish was that the British were intruders in the Mediterranean, and for some decades they gnashed their teeth and whetted their claws, waiting for an opportune moment in which to strike.

In 1754, the Seven Years’ War exploded, involving more or less all major European countries and their colonies. The Mediterranean became one of the war zones. The Mediterranean probably sighed and grumbled, shifting its waters in restless waves, but through the ages it has become quite accustomed to being contested waters so I guess it groaned dramatically and went “here we go again” while feeling somewhat flattered by the fact that people were STILL fighting over it.

duc de richelieuIt is time to introduce one of the central character in this our history of mayonnaise, namely the French Duc de Richelieu, Louis Francois Armand de Vignerot du Plessis – Armand to his intimates, among which he counted the king of France, Louis XV. In 1756, this gentleman was sixty, and per the standards of the time he should have been either dead or ailing, but our Armand was a vigorous man, and so he was put in charge of the French force that was to oust the British from Menorca.

Our French dandy set to with enthusiasm, besieging the British garrison of the Fort St Philip which looms over the Mahon harbour. 15 000 French soldiers were landed on Menorca in April of 1756, five times the number the British had. Severely outnumbered, the British garrison set their hopes to the relief forces commanded by Admiral Byng.

John_ByngAdmiral Byng was an experienced naval officer, who at the time was serving in the Channel. He was ordered to immediately set off for Menorca, his protests along the lines that he needed more men and more money so as to repair his ships ignored. Byng had no choice but to follow his orders, despite serious misgivings. His ships leaked, he was seriously undermanned, and further to this he had been forced to replace his experienced marines with boatloads of soldiers to be landed on Menorca.

Byng made a brief stop in Gibraltar to provision. He begged the governor for more men to augment his numbers, but the governor refused. From Byng’s correspondence, it is pretty clear he knew his chances of success were slim. He was more than aware that his ten ship of the line would be no match against a determined French squadron.

On May 19, Admiral Byng and his ships made contact with the French. Outnumbered and outgunned, reluctant to attempt any heroics and constrained by his standard approach to sea battles plus the doubtful sea-worthiness of some of his ships, Byng had no choice but to retire. His intention was to return to Gibraltar, repair his ships and try again. That was not to be.

Prise_Port_Mahon_Minorque_20_mai_1756After three months, the British garrison in Mahon gave up. Always the gentleman, the Duc de Richelieu treated his vanquished foes honourably, and they were allowed to depart the island, leaving the French in charge. And this, dear people, is when the French decided to party – and as we all know, when French people party, they do so with excellent food.

The Duc de Richelieu was fond of his palate. He enjoyed his food and sauces, and therefore where Armand went, there went a cook or two. In this case, the cook was put in charge of a massive banquet in which a sauce made of eggs and cream was to figure prominently. Gah! No cream! The cook cursed, he gnawed at his apron, he threw a wooden spoon or two at his kitchen boys, wondering what sort of uncivilised place this was that there was no cream. Which is when a local may have suggested he use the “salsa mahonesa” instead (like aioli but without the garlic). Or maybe the cook  himself had the brilliant idea of replacing cream with olive oil. We will, I fear, never know.

What remains undisputed is that it was a very good party, with very good food, and ever since mayonnaise has been one of the staple sauces any chef worth his salt must learn to make. Personally, I don’t like it much.

Ultimately, the French dominion over Menorca was to be short-lived. The British won the Seven Years’ War and Menorca was returned to them in 1763, only to be wrested from them again in 1782. And as to Admiral Byng, he was to bear the full opprobium for the loss of Menorca. Upon reaching Gibraltar, he immediately began preparing for a second campaign, but before he could sail, ship from England arrived, relieving Byng of his command and placing him in custody.

What was to follow is one of the worst legal scandals in British history. To save its own hide, the Admirality hung Byng out to dry, and his honour and reputation were torn to shreds by the broadsheets of the time.  As a result of the furore that swept the country, Byng was court-martialed for his failure to relieve Menorca, and found guilty of not having done his utmost to win. Under the new Articles of War, there was only one punishment for this: death.

The_Shooting_of_Admiral_Byng'_(John_Byng)_from_NPGDespite repeated attempts by Parliament, by the Prime Minister William Pitt the elder, to urge the king to show clemency, George II refused. And so, on a March day in 1757, Admiral Byng was led out on the quarterdeck of HMS Monarque, knelt on a cushion and was shot dead by a platoon of Royal Marines.

These days, Menorca is a sun-drenched island that welcomes thousands of tourists to its beautiful coves and beaches each year. Very few of those tourists have any interest in history – whether of Menorca or of mayonnaise. But for those of us that do, maybe this post will serve to make us recall Admiral Byng whenever we open a jar of mayonnaise. Or maybe we should remember Louis Francois Armand de Vignerot du Plessis – but seriously, who can possibly remember all those names?

 

 

Of loaves and love

Judith-Leyster-childrenWhen I was a child, now and then I’d pick up a handful of gravel and throw it up in the air, catching it with the back of my hand as it rained down. All of this was accompanied by a little rhyme along the lines “How many kids will I have when I grow up?” and the answer, obviously, came in the number of pebbles that had landed on your hand. At times it was thirteen (major shudder). At other times it was one.

I must admit to doing this gravel thing out of rote. Where other girls played with dolls, I mainly used mine to attempt various versions of decapitation, and give me a choice between a heated rugby game and a make-believe tea party, and I was all for the rugby.
“A tom-boy,” my mother would sigh, giving my dirty skirt and dishevelled hair a despairing look.
“A tom-boy,” my father would grin, helping me to make yet another bow – or sword.

442px-Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_159I was thirteen when my gender caught up with me. One moment, I was as fast, as lithe and as rough as the boys. The next, I had these very tender bumps on my chest, and the boys would look much more at them than at me. My figure developed proportionally to my loss of speed and agility, and where once I was a much respected (and quite brutal) sweep, I was now no longer on the team. Major re-set of my self-image, let me tell you.
“Grow up,” my mother told me and handed me some relevant coming-of-age book to read.
“Grow up,” my father sighed and put away the wooden sword and shield, the helmet and the bow.

At fifteen, I discovered the benefits of my gender. Falling in love was a terrible, frightening experience that left me on a constant high – for the three weeks this passionate but innocent relationship lasted. He went his way, I went mine, but thanks to Tony my eyes had definitely opened to the possibilities offered by the opposite sex, and in my book they were all good – very good.
“Don’t grow up that fast,” my mother said, giving me an admonishing look. (Confusing. Teenagers have that effect on their parents, that they start contradicting themselves)
“Yeah,” my father agreed. “Not that fast.” He threw a longing look at the sword and the shield.

At twenty, I met the love of my life (and no, details of the interesting, chaotic, emotionally quite dramatic years between fifteen and twenty are not forthcoming. Use your imagination – or think about your own teenage years). It took me some time to make him realise I was his number one – seriously, men (and especially young men) can be quite dense at times. But once he did – well, we’re still together on that very heady journey we began all those years ago. My parents didn’t say all that much – they mostly beamed.

files-SalzburgResidenzgalerieStrozzischlafendeskindLargeThe love of my life, I said. And he was – is – until baby number one made her appearance. Can anyone prepare you for the rush of protective adoration that sweeps you when you see your baby? I think not, but the feeling is such that I would be fully capable to tear someone’s arms off if they threatened my child. Baby number one was perfect (and yes, I know we all think our babies are perfect, but just so you know, my babies are perfect – objectively speaking) all the way from the reddish hair that decorated her head to her itty, bitty toes. I fell utterly and irrevocably in love – again.
“Totally normal,” my mother said, counting the baby’s toes. “You were absolutely perfect too.”
“Totally normal,” my father agreed. “But this one is more perfect than you.” Huh.

DROTTN~2When I discovered I was expecting yet another child I was torn between joy and anguish. How could one possibly love two people with the devoted, fierce love I felt for our daughter? How was my heart to cope with all these emotions? My mother laughed. “The heart isn’t a loaf of bread, honey.”
“Nope,” my father said. “Not at all a loaf of bread.”
Well, thanks very much, but I knew that already.
My mother took my hand. “A loaf of bread can only be sliced into so many slices. But your heart can accommodate as many people as you choose to love. Trust me, I know.”

Turns out she was right (Phew!) These days my heart hold very many people, first and foremost my husband and our four children. Given that the kids by now are tall and strapping, the boys all young men, our daughter a woman, it is something of a miracle that they fit as well as they do inside my chest. But then I guess that’s what love is – a miracle. And maybe that’s why five loaves could feed so many at the Sermon of the Mount: Jesus wasn’t distributing bread, he was giving out love. And as to those two fish Jesus handed out – I have no idea. But give me some time and I may come up with a plausible explanation for them as well.

 

A footnote in history

pommern1000In a recent post, I wrote about Margareta of Denmark, a rather impressive woman who ended up as the de facto ruler of Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

When Margareta died in 1412, her adopted son Erik of Pommerania took over the reins of government, and I suspect this thirty-year-old man was more than thrilled to be calling the shots on his own. After all, living under the thumb of someone as competent as Margareta must have been a chore.

By all accounts, Erik was a handsome man. Close to 190 cm tall, he had an impressive physique that helped when he needed to display his royal attributes. He also seems to have been an intelligent man, and in many ways he held ideas well before his time – not something that endeared him to his contemporaries, rather the reverse.

Erik’s reign is a turbulent and messy part of Scandinavian history. His kingdom(s) was beleaguered by the Hanseatic League and the Teutonic Knights. His reforms were met with grumblings by the privileged classes, and his attempts to centralise the government of his three kingdoms in one place caused loud complaints. Without going into detail, let’s just say that while Erik began as a king he would end as an embittered pirate, exacting his revenge on every Hansa ship he could find.

Whatever one might think of Erik, he most certainly does not qualify as a footnote in history. His wife, however, does.

Philippa of England was the daughter of Henry IV of England, born some years before her father was forced into exile by his royal cousin, Richard II. As we all know, Henry returned in July of 1399, officially to reclaim his ancestral lands. As we also know, Henry didn’t stop until he had deposed his cousin and made himself king instead.

In difference to Richard II, Henry had a nursery full of children he could use to advance his interests. He seems to have been a devoted father – something he inherited from his own impressive father, John of Gaunt – but ultimately royal children had an obligation to marry as was best for the kingdom, which is why little Philippa was betrothed to Erik. She was a child, he was a young man – not an unusual situation in the Middle Ages. At the age of 12, little Philippa was dispatched to her new kingdom. It is said her father was grieved to see her leave, and I suppose the child-bride herself would have suffered major qualms upon boarding the ship that was to take her away from her home. Being a good daughter of England, I imagine Philippa may have wept in privacy – but never in public.

Eric_of_Pomerania

A very handsome man…

A young girl arrived in Copenhagen in the autumn of 1406, and some weeks later the child was married to her much older bridegroom in the city of Lund (these days a Swedish city. Back then very Danish…) That royal wedding actually set a future trend: little Philippa was all dressed in white, and while it would be centuries before other women cottoned on, these days a white wedding dress is de rigeur.

Royal brides were expected to give their husbands heirs. With a bride as young as Philippa, the marriage was not consummated immediately, but at some point the English princess must have been deemed old enough to take her husband to bed. And as there seems to have been some affection between the spouses, maybe Erik took to visiting his young wife often, but whatever the level of activity, initially Philippa did not conceive – or at least not to the point of it ever becoming public information.

We don’t know much about Philippa, but from what little we can glean, she was mostly situated in Sweden (all her dower lands were in Sweden) which she ruled more or less on her own. At times, she acted as her husband’s regent in the other Scandinavian kingdoms as well, and general opinion seems to be she did a good job of it. The queen was well liked, she was handsome and kind, and all that was truly missing was that elusive heir.

Due to the political turbulence of the time, King Erik was often away on one mission or the other. Being at loggerheads with the powerful Hanseatic League, made it politic to now and then sort of go AWOL. Every time he was out of town, he surrendered the royal seals to his wife. Given that Philippa mostly lived in Sweden, and Erik was on a constant perambulation from one kingdom to the other, now and then with an excursion into other foreign countries, I get the impression the royal couple was not exactly welded at the hip – but that was not particularly unusual in a world where heiresses married heirs with huge landholdings to manage between them.

After years of no babies, Philippa was suddenly confirmed as being pregnant. She was almost 35 years old at the time, and for a first time mother in the 14th century, she was considered quite old. People worried about her health and that of the child – fears that proved correct when the queen was delivered of a stillborn son. In January 1430, Philippa died. She’d been queen of the joint Scandinavian kingdoms for more than 23 years – years in which we must assume her Englishness was submerged under the culture and language of her new homeland. She lies buried in the convent of Vadstena – yet another great reason to visit this picturesque little Swedish town, once the seat of so much royal and spiritual power – and no one really knows who she was anymore.

So lived and died a woman very long ago, leaving little trace in history. Except, of course, for that incident in Copenhagen. The Danes have a  special place in their hearts for Queen Philippa. Why so, you may ask, and it all comes back to the events of 1428, when the Hanseatic League attacked Copenhagen in full force. At the time, King Erik wasn’t in residence – some of his less than impressed subjects insinuate this was very much on purpose, the king had simply fled. I’m not so sure I believe that, seeing as Erik had a long-standing ongoing powerstruggle with the Hansa people. Whatever the case, Erik wasn’t at home. His wife, however, came to the rescue. As described in one of H.C. Andersen’s stories, Queen Philippa rallied the Danes, showing her “royal heart and royal courage” as she stood on the barricades and cheered the defenders on. With her blond hair whipping about her face (artistic licence, people. The lady may have been brown haired or bald – we simply don’t know) she helped her subjects hold fast against the wannabe invaders. And once the Hansa ships has been adequately trounced, the fair lady went among the sick and wounded, tending them with her own hands.

In conclusion, I suppose Philippa proves that no one is ever a foot note, because all of have done something that affects other people and therefore history – in one way or the other. Philippa helped inflict defeat on the previously so powerful Hanseatic League. A turning point – one of many, to be sure – that would result in the eventual demise of this merchant oligarchy. Not bad, for a woman relegated to the fringes of history.

 

Fear of Dying

Marc_Chagall_L_180Ange_BleuSeveral years ago, when I was still a child, my single greatest fear wasn’t that I was going to die – it was that my mother would. At the time, I was young enough to consider myself more or less immortal – life extended before me as an endless sea. But I was old enough to have grasped that at some point in time, that endless sea would sort of shrink into a puddle, a most finite expanse of water.

My mother mostly laughed when I padded into her bedroom, crying that I didn’t want her to die. “I’m not planning on dying yet, honey,” she would say, and comforted by her presence I’d fall asleep in her bed, secure in the knowledge that she’d be here tomorrow too.

Tomorrows pass quickly. It is no longer quite as certain that my mother will be here tomorrow. It raises issue – topics that are difficult to discuss when one is in the best of health, are touchy, toothy things when the “if” of dying has converted into a fast approaching “when”.

I suppose this is when having strong faith bolsters the fragile human soul. The concept of a hereafter, a reassurance that all will not end when we suck in that last gasping breath, is a lifeline to those among us who simply cannot get their heads around the “not existing” part.

800px-Starry_Night_Over_the_RhoneSince man first began walking upright, the questions of where we come from and where we go to have been rebounding in our brains. Primitive man stood outside his cave and gawked at the stars overhead, wondering if perhaps that was where we came from. Some not so primitive men still hold to the rather odd notion that we are the offspring of an alien race, sent down from a distant galaxy to colonise Earth. Hmm…

As our Stone Age ancestors followed the herds of big game from one location to another, they told each other stories. I bet already back then many of the stories were girl-boy stories, I bet quite a few featured handsome broody young man in a loincloth who has problems expressing his feelings (he’s vulnerable within his shell, you see) until SHE comes along, all tight mammoth skin and dreadlocks decorated with knucklebones. Misunderstandings, heartbreak, separations and reunions follow…. Yes, yes. You get it, right? Besides this particular story is most hale and hearty even now, several millennia later, except that these days broody and handsome is an unhappy millionaire with a dark background and she has lost the mammoth skin in favour of lacy underwear and designer heels.

But apart from the light entertainment offered by timeless rom-com, these flint wielding ancestors of ours also spoke of existential issues. How do we know? Because of the way they buried their dead, preparing them for a journey to the hereafter. All over the planet, our very distant ancestors seem to have found it necessary to bury tools and clothes with their loved ones. At times a faithful dog or horse is included as well, at more gruesome times the companions include other humans, seemingly killed for the express purpose of accompanying Mr Number One to the afterlife.

These days, we have a predilection for cremation, which might make things difficult should Resurrection Day ever come – assuming you subscribe to the version where the dead rise from their graves. These days, we rarely send along a dog or a bagel. Should there be a life after death, we assume dear departed will fix the sustenance thing by themselves.  But even in these days, we still wonder; what comes after death?

Personally, I believe humans are more than their flesh and blood. The thoughts we have, the experiences and memories, our dreams and ambitions – surely they add to the total mass of who we are. Does all that disappear? Is there a whispered “poof” as everything intangible that made a person into a specific person is erased – for ever? Or is it this cognisance, this collection of half-formed thoughts, of remembrances and hopes that constitute our soul, and if so, does it float off to a HEA moment? Deep shit, isn’t it?

My mother and I have rarely spoken about faith. I know that once my mother believed very deeply in God, but that she never quite forgave Him for allowing her mother (my grandmother) to lie abed for years, slowly shrinking into nothing, before she died. I also know that for years my mother kept radio silence vis-à-vis God – until the day when I hovered so close to death that she clasped her hands and prayed for my life. That time, it seemed God listened – or maybe it was the doctors who saved me. I wouldn’t know, being too young at the time to have anything more than the haziest recollections of lying in a tent filled with ice. Whether this event led to a reopened conversation with the God of her youth, I don’t know. The issue of faith is far too personal for me to pry.

Now and then, my mother will make the odd sarcastic comment about the hereafter. “I’m not so thrilled at the thought of wafting about as an amorphous spirit,” she said once. “I mean, what’s the point of an afterlife if I can’t hug and kiss the people I love?” Which is when I realised that my mother and I have a great deal in common, starting with a romantic streak that hopes that there will be opportunity to love – in the full sense of the world – on the other side as well.

dance-1962

Like souls, rising towards the sky

I think the problem with dying is not the actual dying part, it is the not knowing part. Us modern humans don’t like it when we’re not in control of our destination – and this is definitely one of those occasions, isn’t it? I suspect it was easier to die some centuries ago. First of all, because everyone had at some point or another seen somebody else die, while to us this is mostly a process draped in the shrouds of hospitalised care. Secondly, because at the time no one had as yet begun to question the existence of an afterlife – at least not openly. Going to heaven (or hell, gulp) was a truism, sort off.

All of us will die – someday. But until we do, let’s make sure our tomorrows count. Life is a gift, and whether finite or not, the one thing we know for certain is that THIS life, THIS moment will never return. A wasted minute can never be recouped and used again later, a day spent bemoaning the downsides of things is one day less to praise the joy of living.

When I die, I want there to be someone I love beside me. Someone who holds my hand and croons me gently out of life and into the unknown. And when I am truly gone, I want that someone to open a window so as to allow my soul to soar into the never-ending deep blue of the star-strewn skies.

450px-Campanula_rotondifolia (1)As to what comes after, well as one formidable lady in my acquaintance once said, “I have no idea what will happen after death. The only thing I know is that I will be taken care of – somehow.” Not a bad thought, hey? I mean, either there is God and his angels, and rolling green meadows and gambolling lambs (I have a very traditional view of heaven) and it will be happy days ever after. Or there is nothing, in which case it won’t matter. We will simply sink into universal oblivion and if we’re lucky our body (or our ashes) may one day be reborn – as harebells in the sun!

 

Who is real? Me or them?

Descartes

Descartes, by Frans Hals

Back in the 17th century, the French philosopher Descartes wrote “Cogito, ergo sum”, which is Latin for “I think, therefore I am.” He did a lot of thinking, this French man – and in particular, I suspect, as he lay on his deathbed in a freezing and unwelcoming Stockholm. His thoughts at the time would probably have been “why was I such an idiot as to come here?” Even in his extremis, however, Descartes would have known he existed – after all, he was still thinking, no matter how rambling his thoughts.

These days, our thoughts are not sufficient confirmation of our existence. We require other people – even total strangers – to verify that we’re around. We post on FB and hope someone will like our post. We tweet just to make sure people know we are there. The fact that we’re tweeting about totally mundane things such as “I just had coffee” is neither here nor there. We write posts on our blogs and hope someone will stop by, maybe even leave a comment (Yes please: remember, you’re dealing with a frail 21st century soul who has existential angst. Or not ;)) Likes, tweets, comments – indications that we do exist.

Ahem. I am pretty sure I exist anyway. If I pinch my calf it hurts, should I pass by a mirror, I can catch my reflection. Having said that, I am pretty sure my invented characters exist as well – I mean I have long, fulfilling conversations with all of them in my head. So maybe I don’t exist – at least not to a larger extent than Matthew Graham and his wife Alex does. Such thoughts make my head ache.

One day, we will all die. Hopefully we will leave a larger legacy behind than posts on FB and thousands of tweets. Hopefully, we will have left our mark on flesh-and-blood people because we have interacted with them in real time. We have hopefully hugged them, laughed with them, walked through summer twilights with them, lain on our back and studied the stars with them. You can’t do any of those things on FB – or on a blog. You can merely attempt to describe the experience. Weirdly enough, I can definitely do all of those things with my invented characters. There I am, peeking over the shoulder as Matthew cradles his new-born child. Or standing very still in the shadows, not knowing quite how to comfort a weeping Alex as she strokes her husband over his head. Which begs the question: do they exist?

R&R webstampAt times, my invented characters have the same sense of disorientation – like when Alex is plagued by far too vivid dreams

Alex struggled back into the light, and the man holding her was solid under her hands, his concerned eyes a gold-flecked green in the light of the candle he had lit.
“Matthew?”
“Aye, Matthew, that’s me, lass.”
Alex struggled to sit, her sweat-drenched shift sticking to her skin. Matthew handed her a mug of cider, helping her to hold it steady. She blinked, trying to clear her mind of the fragmented images of Isaac. Jesus, I’m going insane, she thought. She drained the mug and with trembling hands began to undo the laces of her chemise.
“Let me,” Matthew said. He got her out of the sopping garment, and found a towel to pat her dry with, sitting with her shivering, naked body on his lap. She curled into him, her arms tight around his neck, and he ran his warm hands up and down her bare skin, crooning her name in a hoarse, breaking voice.
“I’m not sure,” she groaned. “Are you for real? Or are you the dream?”
“I’m no dream,” he whispered back, “nor am I a ghost. I’m here, now, and so are you. It’s the others that don’t exist, Alex. It is them that are the dream.”
“A nightmare,” she said against his chest, “not a dream, never a dream. A black hole of loneliness. An absolute freezing emptiness.”
“Ah, lass.” Matthew kissed the top of her head and gathered her to him. Alex needed him even closer, pulling at his shirt, his breeches in a frenzied attempt to get at his skin, his warmth.

When we die, the legacy we leave behind are the memories we created in other people. Once the people who remember us are gone, we become one in thousands upon thousands of previous existences, one grey shade in a silent crowd. But we did exist, right? We believed, we loved, we struggled to make sense of our lives.

“So do we,” Alex tells me. “Every day, we go on with the task of living.” She gives me a smile. “Feeling maudlin today?”
“Somewhat.” I smile back at this my imaginary (or not) friend, complete in skirts and bodice, a neat white collar and a cap. Alex sits down beside me and takes my hand. Yup, I can feel her taking my hand. I obviously am delusional – or gifted with a very vivid imagination.
“When you die, we will still be around,” she tells me.
“And that is supposed to make me feel better?” I ask her, feeling a spurt of jealousy that my characters will know immortal life (well…) while my life-span is restricted by the biological events of birth and death.
“It makes me feel better.” Alex grins. “Seems sort of fair, given all the stuff you put me and Matthew through.”
“I don’t put you through anything! Your lives just sort of happen.”
“Really?” Alex doesn’t even try to keep the sarcasm out of her voice. Okay, okay. I like my books to be packed full of action and love and adventure and emotional drama and historical events and… I clasp Alex’s hand, and she squeezes back. We sit like that for some time. “If you kill him, I will drive you crazy,” she says. “Literally.” Alex gnaws at her lip.
“I can’t…” I break off. I was about to add ‘promise anything’, but the look in Alex’s dark blue eyes has me swallowing them back.
“My Matthew doesn’t die,” she hisses. “Ever!” She throws a look to her right, and we both sort of shiver as we catch sight of the huddled shape that is Matthew. Poor, poor Matthew. The things he goes through in Revenge and Retribution… “I swear. I will haunt you every moment of your life if you let him die.” The expression on Alex’s face makes me realise this is no empty threat.
“I’ll do what I can,” I say with a sigh. No need to tell her killing Matthew would be the equivalent of breaking my heart in two. No need for her to know just how much I love this tall man with hazel eyes and dark eyes, this man who loves her (AAAGH!) so completely, who holds to convictions and integrity no matter the cost. Alex laughs softly beside me.
“Silly,” she murmurs. “I can hear all your thoughts just as well as you can hear mine.”
“Oh.” I blush.
“He’s mine,” she tells me. As if in response, the huddled shape in the periphery of my mental eye raises his head. Matthew may be bloodied and bruised, he may look like a train or two ran him over, but when he smiles at his wife, it’s like seeing the sun break through a dark thunder cloud. And just like that, Alex is no longer by my side. She is running like the wind towards her man.

On July 1, the next instalment of The Graham Saga, Revenge and Retribution becomes available. I have done my best to keep Matthew safe and sound – but sometimes my best is not enough.

Find my books on Amazon US or Amazon UK

For a brief, visual introduction to The Graham Saga, why not watch my trailer?

Should you by now be salivating with need to READ my books, do not fear: I am offering a giveaway – one paperback, one Kindle. All you have to do is leave a comment and let me know if you are one hundred percent certain you exist!

UPDATE JULY 1: GIVEAWAY WINNERS – AS DRAWN BY MY SON – ARE MSGENERALLEE AND SABRINA

The kick-ass lady is back!

AM bildI have developed something of an addiction for Alison Morton’s books. If you haven’t read them yet, I can assure you you’re in for a great read, even if my adrenaline levels still have to drop after my recent read of the third book in the series.

Anyway; today, Ms Morton – as kick-ass in her own way as her heroine, Carina Mitela – visits my blog to discuss trilogies – and I am rather happy to read she is expanding her trilogy into a series. As a writer of a series myself, I can only agree with most of what Alison shares below. Just like Alison, I strive to make my books stand-alone while retaining the continuity of a series, and for me Alison’s first point – to know the entire plot in advance (or think you do; as Alison points out, sometimes things happen as you write) is fundamental.

The one thing I would add to Alison’s excellent post is that as a writer of a series one had an obligation to the readers to keep the books coming at a reasonably regular pace. Waiting years for the next instalment is somewhat of a downer – at least for me.

Now, that is enough from me. Instead, I turn you over into Alison’s very capable hands!

The strangeness, and freedom, of writing a trilogy

This month, the third book in my Roma Nova thriller series, SUCCESSIO, is out in the world. But as I raise a glass of bubbly with friends, fans and fellow writers to celebrate, I can’t help but smile.

AM INCEPTIO_front cover_300dpi_520x802When I started my first novel, INCEPTIO, I had no idea what I was doing – it was an impulse after seeing a dire film and thinking I could write something better. Not even halfway through the first draft, I realized I had a far bigger story than I’d anticipated. So I decided to do the classic thing – it was going to be a trilogy.

While I was scribbling book 1, my focus shifted to planning book 2, which was going to be the pivot for 1 and 3. Some trilogies develop from book 1 and the original story widens out into an almost impossible sprawl in order to make each book more exciting than the previous. I wasn’t having any of that!

Although I saw it differently at the time, the eighteen months of rejections of book 1 gave me an invaluable period in which to plan, draft and hone the whole trilogy. I blush at what INCEPTIO would have been like without that maturation.

So what did I learn and what would I pass on to other writers?

1. Work out the entire plot in advance.

All three of my books are set in an imaginary country, Roma Nova, and follow the same heroine, from when she (and the reader!) discovers Roma Nova to sixteen years later. And, of course, she will save the world and hopefully herself. But that’s too vague. Each book needs its own story, but one which contributes to the overall plot arc of the trilogy.

Crudely speaking, book 1 sets the scene, introduces the world, the ‘rules’ of that world and the main characters. Book 2 consolidates, widens and sets the ground for the final reckoning in book 3.

It’s a good exercise to jot down a few notes about the first and last scenes of each book as beginnings and endings set up/resolve/link points in the bigger story and keep from wandering off the overall story arc. But don’t be surprised if the larger story does change with the telling of the first instalment…

However, each book must stand on its own as a complete story. A reader may pick up book 2 first and while they may become eager to find out what went before and what happened afterwards, they must have a satisfying read from the book they bought. So you have to drip in enough backstory to bring the new reader up to speed without boring the established fan.

2. Know your characters in advance.

Adding a whole load of new characters in each book is tempting. I confess to a lot of characters, but my excuse is that Roma Nova operates on collectivities like families, military, even criminal organisations. One of the core themes running through all the books is the conflict between actions of the individual and the requirements of the collective.

Recycling characters in each book not only helps eliminate ‘additional character creep’, but is a pleasure for both writer and reader as we see each individual develop their own story.  However, you do need to introduce new people now and again and however reluctantly, you should kill off one or two or you risk making your world too much like Shangri-La or Pleasantville.

AM Perfiditas - Front Cover_520x8003. Work out big secrets in advance and scatter little ones throughout all the books.

As a reader, I like a good surprise or heavy drama at the end of books, or at least a ‘twist in the tale’. And writers should give little hints about this throughout the book – that’s good writing craft. But as a writer, I love laying little ‘Easter eggs’ in one book that hatch in another. I was lucky that I was able to do this with INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO as I had all first drafts done before INCEPTIO finally went to print.

I use a timeline grid for all my books and jot down a few notes about what happened in each chapter/scene and the timing. Not only do I then have an index of events for each book, but I can see when and where to lay these ‘eggs.’

4. Intrigue by revelation over a longer stretch

With a trilogy, you have the advantage, and fun, of being able to reveal backstory and other facets of your characters over a longer span than one book. This needs to be done carefully and not be an excuse for padding. In an epic, saga or high concept story, this adds and rounds out. We all love ‘deep lore from the past’, hidden family secrets or a forbidden passion. Revelations at the proper time strengthens the bonds between the books as well as giving the reader an insight into a character or event.

5. Practicalities

Your head may be completely stuffed with information about your setting, you may have notebooks or files full of research or you may just live in your books’ world. But there’s no escaping the need to have consistent information to hand on the internal values and culture, governmental, societal and economic structures, geography, including agriculture, history, sources of income, education, food, religion and, of course language.

I don’t have a map, but I do know where Roma Nova is and that Castra Lucilla in to the south of the city and Aquae Caesaris and Brancadorum are to the west and east.

I maintain a list of characters – you find a ‘dramatis personae’ in each book. You have to remember, though, that characters change job, get promoted and move on. And something I’ve found indispensable is a spreadsheet of ages, i.e. who is what age when something happens. This is essential, especially if you are writing a trilogy or saga that spans time and refers to past events. You can’t really have somebody leading a charge in a battle if they are only three years old!

The very worst thing? I’m speaking as a reader here. I nearly throw the book on the floor when something pops up like a deus ex machina (‘alien space bats’ in science fiction speak) in a sequel or directly contradicts something in a previous book and there has not been the least hint about it. Even if you as a writer think up the cleverest idea in the world for your current book after the first has gone to print, don’t do it! Star Trek fans will cringe at the memory of the controversy over the changed Klingon physical appearance. One character told the humans not to ask – it was a Klingon-only secret – and another said it was due to a terrible disease in the past. Hm.

The trilogy in evolution?

Well, SUCCESSIO, the third Roma Nova thriller, sets off into the world this month and I think Roma Nova fans will enjoy it. But it doesn’t end here – readers are clamouring for further Roma Nova stories and I have plenty more to tell. So now I’ve turned the trilogy into the start of a series. I have at least three more planned around a significant secondary character and then, who knows?

AM SUCCESSIO cover300dpi_520x800 So what’s the third book, SUCCESSIO, about?

Roma Nova – the last remnant of the Roman Empire that has survived into the 21st century – is at peace. Carina Mitela, the heir of a leading family, but choosing the life of an officer in the Praetorian Guard Special Forces, is not so sure.

She senses danger crawling towards her when she encounters a strangely self-possessed member of the unit hosting their exchange exercise in Britain. When a blackmailing letter arrives from a woman claiming to be her husband Conrad’s lost daughter and Conrad tries to shut Carina out, she knows the threat is real.

Trying to resolve a young man’s indiscretion twenty-five years before turns into a nightmare that not only threatens to destroy all the Mitelae but also attacks the core of the imperial family itself. With her enemy holding a gun to the head of the heir to the imperial throne, Carina has to make the hardest decision of her life…

LINKS

Connect with Alison on her blog http://alison-morton.com/blog/

Facebook author page  https://www.facebook.com/AlisonMortonAuthor

Twitter https://twitter.com/alison_morton @alison-morton

Goodreads  https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5783095.Alison_Morton

 

Buying links (multiple retailers):

INCEPTIO: http://alison-morton.com/inceptio/where-to-buy-inceptio/

PERFIDITAS: http://alison-morton.com/perfiditas/where-to-buy-perfiditas/

SUCCESSIO: http://alison-morton.com/successio/where-to-buy-successio/

The Funerals of a Prince

Last year for Midsummer, I wrote a little post describing just how we celebrate this the shortest night of the year up here in Scandinavia. Tonight, I am sitting in the late twilight watching the antics of the swifts, and I am preoccupied with the ghost of a long-gone man – or rather his death. You see, tomorrow on June 20 it is 204 years since the death of Axel von Fersen.

Axel von Fersen, porträtt av Peter Dreuillon. Bild: Lars Ekelund/Östergötlands museum“Axel who?” some of you may ask. Other will shrug and think I should get over it – the dude’s been dead two centuries. I suppose it is the manner of his death that preys on me – such an undeserved ending to a magnificent life. I’m not sure Axel would have used the adjective magnificent to describe his life; after all, he never married, he never had children. It seems his heart died with Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, and while the man did not remain celibate for the rest of his life, he never expressed an interest for a long-term relationship.

We will never know how intimate Axel and Marie Antoinette truly were. I hope, for their sake, that there were days and moments of joy and utter bliss.

I am not the only one sending a thought or two Axel’s way today, and should you want to read more about this reputedly extremely handsome, vibrantly intelligent and generally very swoon-worthy man, why not visit Mme Gilfurt’s salon?

But now, without any further ado I give you my short story, The Funerals of a Prince. Requisceat in Pace, Axel von Fersen!

Axel von Fersen thanked the barber and dried his face before going over to select his waistcoat for the day. Not the red one, nor the one in pale yellow silk embroidered with rosebuds, but maybe the French one, grey with peonies in black and silver? His valet extended a black, simple waistcoat.
“I’m not in mourning,” Axel said, shaking his head.
“The country is,” the valet said with an edge to his voice.
The man should be reprimanded for his effrontery, but Axel chose not to – after all, Henrik had been with him for decades.

He fingered the grey waistcoat, thrown back to 1784 and a magnificent evening in Versailles. “Pour mon beau Suedois” the label had said on the package containing the garment. He raised the cloth to his nose and sniffed, imagining he could feel the scent of the peonies in her basket – large, heavy flowers in white and pink. Fool, he chided himself, if anything this smelled of dust and dry wood. But he had made his choice, and a few moments later he was standing before the mirror admiring his appearance.
“You’re a vain old goat,” he told his mirrored image as he tugged the embroidered sleeves of his black coat into place. He twirled and threw a look out the window, concluding that while the day had dawned bright, there would be rain later on – the cloud banks to the east promised as much.

Some moments later he entered the dining room. The polished walnut table, the silverware and fine French crystal threw sparkling reflections to dance on the light wallpaper, patterned with a discreet fleur-de-lis. As always, he stopped at the portrait that hung opposite his customary seat. Her blue eyes smiled at him and he smiled back, touched his fingers to her painted lips and turned to greet his sister.
“You should marry,” Sofia said, giving the portrait an irritated look.
“I don’t want to.” This topic was most tedious, with Sofia harping on about the joys of married life. He had his own conceptions of domestic bliss, a heady couple of months at the Petit Trianon back in the seventeen-eighties.
“What about children?”
He shrugged; the only woman he had wanted to have children with had been unattainable. Sofia exhaled but seemed to recognise the futility of further discussing this subject. Instead she sat back and inspected him.
“Most elegant,” she said.
Axel raised a brow. When was he not elegant?
“And sober,” she added, eyeing the grey waistcoat with a slight frown.
“Of course sober, this is a day of great sorrow for the nation.” But not for him or for the others who like him had protested at the election of a foreigner – and a Danish prince, no less – as heir to the Swedish throne. He grinned.
“It’s not funny! For days, men have been roaming Stockholm’s streets, screaming that you poisoned him.”
“But I didn’t, he died of a seizure.” Axel shoved away his plate. He no longer felt hungry.
“Maybe you shouldn’t go,” Sofia said, looking worried.
“I have no choice. As Marshal of the Realm it is I that must receive the Crown Prince’s body and lead the funerary procession.”
Sofia pursed her lips. “I don’t like it.”
He leaned forward to clasp her hand. “It will blow over. And maybe this time the king will do what is right and name his grandnephew as heir.”
“Axel…” Sofia sighed. “You know I agree with you – of course Prince Gustav should be heir – but to broach the subject again …”
“I must,” he said.
She rolled her eyes, making him laugh.
As he made to leave she rose and came over to kiss his cheek. “Be careful,” she said.
“I always am,” he replied before kissing her in return.

“This is not wise,” General Isaac Silfversparre said. “You would do best to return home – or ride south.”
“I can’t. It’s my duty to escort the body.” But Axel wasn’t looking forward to it, not when even in this secluded yard he could hear the mob baying his name.
“But …”
Axel waved him silent. “A rabble, Isaac.” He studied the six white horses that were to draw his gilded carriage and nodded his approval. The dark red harnesses were spotless, the horses had been groomed to a shine, and the lackeys that were to walk three to a side by the carriage were as resplendent in their white outfits as were the horses.
“A drunk, dangerous rabble,” Isaac protested. “A rabble that screams their prince has been murdered – by you.”
Axel shook his head. “To hide would be tantamount to admitting there’s truth in these ludicrous accusations. Besides, you and your men will see me safe.”
With Isaac at his heels he inspected the procession, starting with the simple cart on which rested the prince’s coffin. Dirty and mud spattered after the long haul from southern Sweden, it made Axel frown.
“Why hasn’t it been properly cleaned?” he asked. The contrast to his carriage was glaring, even more so given the winded appearance of the eight black horses that were to pull it.
“No time,” one of the officers said. “We got in very late last night.”
For some moments Axel considered whether to delay the proceedings and give the hearse an overhaul. He settled for yelling for some grooms and setting them to work on the horses.
“I still think it’s unwise,” Isaac said once the whole procession was lined up. He nodded at the ceremonial staff Axel was carrying. “At least go armed.”
“Not part of the protocol,” Axel said. He undid the ribbon that tied back his grey hair and arranged it to lie loose around his head. “I hate wearing it like this – it makes me look old.”
“Protocol,” Isaac said with a crooked smile before opening the door of the carriage for him.

He should have stayed at home – or at least gone armed. His carriage jerked forward one foot at the time, and all around were screaming, angry people that called him murderer and worse. This must have been what it had been like for her, that October day in 1793 when she was carted through the Parisian crowds. In a simple white dress, her hair hacked off, she had still retained her dignity, sitting immobile while people hurled eggs and rotten foodstuffs, screamed obscenities at her. He shook himself; not at all the same. Any moment now they’d reach the church and the soldiers would disperse the rabble.

They were well into the older parts of town, the street made narrower by the tall houses that lined it on both sides. Shops had been closed, most of the windows at the lower levels were shuttered and the teeming mass of people closed like a sea around the procession. The gilded carriage lurched to a stop. Axel cringed when yet another windowpane was broken by a flying stone. A hailstorm of stones, and with some surprise he registered he’d been hit, was bleeding from the head.
“My lord!” The door was yanked open, and a man Axel recognised as Sergeant Bartholin took hold of him. “This way, my lord.”
“I can’t, I must …”
“They’ll kill you!” the sergeant roared, pulling at him. They tumbled out of the carriage, and there was Isaac Silfversparre.
“Run!” Isaac screamed. Run? How, when surrounded by so many people with fingers tearing at his coat, his adornments? A doorway and Axel rushed for it, with Isaac on one side and the sergeant on the other.

Axel winced when he cracked his forehead against the door lintel. They were in a stuffy taproom, the dark beamed ceiling so low the whole space was suffused in permanent dusk, no matter the small windows that gave on the street. The room was full of men, most of them merchants given their well-cut if somewhat sober garments.

Pipe smoke stung Axel’s eyes, there was a smell of overcooked cabbage, and the table in front of him was sticky with spilled beer. At present, Axel didn’t care, sliding down to sit on the offered stool. He gulped air and leaned back against the wall. He was too old for this. His pulse raced through his head, his breathing loud and irregular.
Axel wiped at his face and stared down at his bloodied hand. “The body, the prince …”
“It’s you they want,” Isaac said, handing him a glass of schnapps. In general, Axel disliked the burning, oily taste of this liquor, but today it sent welcome warmth through his system.
“More,” he croaked, holding out the empty glass.

Axel closed his eyes, trying to regain some sort of control. From the street came angry howls, and to Axel’s dismay he couldn’t stop himself from flinching at the sound.
Courage,” he whispered. But he was having problems finding it, incapable of suppressing the tremors that rushed through him as the rabble outside chanted his name. He groped for the locket he always carried on his person and lifted it to his lips. “Give me strength, ma reine.” She swam before him, young and carefree, and he smiled at this faded image from his youth. It helped; he squared his shoulders and adjusted his clothes as well as he could what with the damage done to them.

“That’s him!”
The bellow had Isaac leaping to his feet, dragging Axel to stand behind him.
“Murderer!” someone yelled, and a bottle came flying through the room.
“I’m no …” Axel began, but Isaac was already shoving him towards the door, while the sergeant took up position before them, sword drawn. Instinctively, Axel dropped his hand to where his sword should have been. He gave Isaac a faint smile.
“I should have listened to your advice.”
“You should,” Isaac nodded. “But we can talk about that later.”
Axel hung back at the door. From behind came the grating sound of steel on steel, irate voices screaming his name. Outside, the crowd heaved and surged.
“No choice,” Isaac said. “If we stay here…” As if on cue, the sergeant shrieked.

Out through the door and into the press of men, with Isaac dragging Axel along in his wake.
“Don’t let go,” Isaac yelled over his shoulder. “Hold on to me.”
Easy to say, very difficult to do. Hands closed on Axel’s arms, they pulled and tugged.
“Unhand me!” Axel bellowed, and for some seconds the crowd complied, enough that Axel should be able to keep his grip on Isaac. A blow to his head made him reel, there was a ripping sound when his coat was torn off, and still Axel held on, one hand raised to shield his head, the other welded to Isaac’s belt.
He howled when the stout stick came down on his forearm. Again, and he could no longer hold on.
“Axel!” Isaac screamed.
Axel couldn’t reply, air driven out of him by a savage blow to his side.
“Make for the square,” Axel heard Isaac yell. “The troops there will help you.”
The square. A mere hundred yards away, an interminable distance filled with men that kicked and hit him, spat him in the face. Axel fought back, he bit and scratched. When he punched a lout in the gut he created a gap, enough for him to break free and run for the far end of the square where the Royal Lifeguards were standing in formation.
“To me!” he yelled, and one of the soldiers moved towards him but a sharp command had him shuffling back in line. What? No, this was not right, this was … Axel elbowed one of his assailants and screamed for help.

Axel v F dödHe yelled himself hoarse, yet the soldiers stood like rocks as the rabble attacked him, scourged him, yanked off tufts of his hair. Die like this? How was a man to meet his end with dignity and courage while being torn apart by a raging horde? God in heaven, but it hurt when cudgels rained blows on his back and unprotected head. He screamed. Hands lifted him high, carrying him like a trophy. Had she been as frightened, that last day? Had it been fear, not courage, that had his beloved sitting like a statue while the dancing, singing crowd jeered, chanting that soon the Austrian bitch would die?

He was thrown to the ground, grunting with the impact. A booted heel on his hand, and he called for his mother when the bones in his fingers were pulverised. He crawled, the crowd cheered.
Here at last came help. Two officers shouldered their way through the crowd and helped him up. He couldn’t quite stand, one leg folding beneath him for a couple of paces. His precious waistcoat was in tatters and there was a rip down his breeches that revealed too much of his thigh.
“Thank you,” he said, clinging to an arm. His head was ringing, so he didn’t fully follow what was being said, catching no more than the odd word. Accuse him of murder?
“What?” he said, blinking his eyes clear of blood and tears.
“A ruse,” the officer holding him mumbled. “We will see you safe, my lord. Just walk with us to the court house.”
Axel relaxed. It was over, he wouldn’t die, not today, not like this. And next time he saw that dratted Carl – pardon, His Majesty the King – he’d demand an explanation. No man but the king himself could have stopped the troops from interceding.

They were almost at the court house when someone yelled that why wait for a trial, why not kill the murderer now? A responding howl rose from the mob, shrivelling Axel’s guts. He gripped the officer’s arm and held on for dear life, but to no avail. He lost his hold, fell face first onto the cobbles. They dragged him backwards, the skin on his face tore on the uneven ground. Up, get up! He regained his feet, ducked a blow and retaliated with such force the man collapsed like a pricked pig’s bladder.
“Death to the murderer!” someone yelled.
“Death! Death!” the crowd cheered.
“No! Please, I …” The punch filled his mouth with blood and teeth. He couldn’t see properly. Mon Dieu! He fell to his knees. The gold chain round his neck broke. His locket … He groped, closed his whole hand around it, curling together as booted feet struck his back, his head.
“Marie Antoinette,” he whispered when they flipped him over. Her smiling face hovered above him. A savage kick to his genitals brought him back to the brutal present. He jerked with pain. How long had this gone on? There was a sickening crunch, an unbearable weight on his chest. I die… the thought fluttered through his brain. With a rattle the air from his crushed ribcage was expelled through his bloodied mouth. His hand flew open and the locket rolled away. 

This story was first written for the HNS Short Story competition in 2012 and I was very honoured when it won third place. It has been published together with the other shortlisted stories in The Beggar at the Gate and other stories, published by HNS. For those of you who enjoy a good short story in various historical settings, this may be just the book for you!

 

Of innocence

adam-eve5When I was a child, we’d sit and play with pine cones and twigs and… Nah; just kidding. (But we did occasionally play with pine cones – pelting each other with them – and sticks make excellent swords) Never mind what we played with, I think the crucial word here is the verb. We played. Summer evenings, the street was full of children that laughed and argued and ran like crazy from tree to tree as we played one game after the other.

Our mothers called us in when it was too dark to see more than the blur of each other’s t-shirts, and we’d wash our dirty feet and drink a glass of milk before going to bed, our heads already full of plans for the games we’d play tomorrow.
I remember my childhood as precisely that; a childhood, a period of wide-eyed wonder, of innocence. Once lost, that innocence can never be regained – it’s a bit like tasting the forbidden fruit. Once you crunch your teeth into that beautiful red apple, it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to forget the taste or the texture, you’ll never be able to revert to a “pre-apple” existence. Ask Adam and Eve…

Some people go through their entire live as innocents. They see miracles where we see cobwebs, they greet every new acquaintance as a potential future friend. The more jaded among us conclude we already have the friends we want or need, and we don’t have time with miraculous cobwebs, we use the vacuum cleaner to keep our corners nice and clean.

Innocence is closely related to hope. When Orphan Annie sings “Tomorrow”, she epitomizes innocence. Her life is harsh and brutal, adults in her life have consistently failed her, and yes she still believes that somewhere down the line a bright future awaits her. Typical melodrama, the type Victor Hugo so disliked, which is why in Les Miserables, hope deserts most of his characters, starting with Fantine (you know; “I had a dream”). However, even Victor Hugo couldn’t quite resist the tug of a Happily Ever After ending – at least for some of his characters – so I guess he still held on to some shredded remains of his childhood innocence.

pomegranateInnocence is a state in which reality has as yet not reared its ugly head – at least not to its full extent. There are things our children don’t need to know – heck, there are things most of us don’t need or want to know – not if we want them to chase their dreams like soap-bubbles in the wind. And we do want our children to believe in dreams, don’t we? We want them to believe in love, in kindness. We want them to meet new people under the assumption that the person whose hand they’re shaking is a good person, not someone who potentially could drag them off and abuse them.

Fear enters all our lives at some point. Dreams are tarnished and torn apart, our fellowman will at times disappoint and leave us gasping with betrayal and loss.

Some of will give up all hope and become cynical and cold, regarding life as game at which one must excel to keep Number One on top – a very lonely existence, all in all.

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_Daisies_(1894)Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to cast our minds back to our days of innocence, to evenings running with our friends with the warmth of the setting sun on our shoulders. We will recall days of carefree joy, years when life stretched out before us as a tantalizing promise, a hope of brighter and better tomorrows. And because we do remember, we will be capable of meeting life with hope and expectations, clasping the hand of an unknown someone under the premise that this one will not disappoint, this one will be true. After all, we’re still clinging to the dream that deep inside, all of us are good.

So here’s to innocence; to the years when all of us were young, when the world remained our oyster, a place to be explored and enjoyed. May we all be granted the possibility of passing that particular experience forward, because seriously, is there anything more beautiful than the sight of a young child, eyes alight with eagerness at the thought of all their endless tomorrows? I think not.

The lady with the trousers

Nobody ever called Margareta “the lady with the trousers” to her face. One of her contemporaries was fool enough to call her the “King without breeches” – and she made him bitterly regret doing so. And given that this was back in the 14th century when the general order of things was that men ruled and women had babies and shut up, Margareta was an anomaly.

Valdemar_Atterdag_brandskattar_Visby_(1882)

Valdemar holding Visby to ransom

If we start right at the beginning (which, as Julie Andrews sang so beautifully, is such a very good place to start), Margareta was born in 1353, as the youngest daughter to Valdemar Atterdag, famed king of Denmark. Well, to us Swedes, Valdemar is the brute who ransacked the city of Visby and held it to ransom (Visby was part of the Hanseatic league, and Valdemar and the Hanseatic league never had any fond feelings for each other). But according to most others, Valdemar was a capable king – just goes to show that history is often most subjective…

Anyway: tradition has it that Valdemar was dead tired of his wife and was hoping to replace her with something younger and easier on the eyes when an old crone told him that if he took his wife back into his affections, Sweden and Norway would fall under Denmark’s rule. Now, Valdemar was a man who created his own destiny, but he probably felt that an extra boost or two from Fate wasn’t a bad thing – and he salivated at the idea of controlling Norway and Sweden. Said and done; he wooed his wife back and nine month later little Margareta was born.

Margareta was raised as a princess, educated as a king and taught early on that she was expected to marry as her father saw fit. I have no idea how close Valdemar was to his daughter, but maybe it is an indication that he cared for her when he insisted she remain at home with him even after ten-year-old Margareta had married the 23 year old king of Norway and heir to the Swedish throne, Håkan.

Waldemar4DenmarkCrop

Valdemar

Whatever Valdemar’s desires, the young girlwife was dispatched to join her husband relatively soon after her nuptials, and ended up as a very young chatelaine at the very large but also decidedly un-cozy Akershus, the premiere castle of the time in Oslo. Clearly, Margareta was used to higher standards than this draughty place with mended sheets and chipped crockery. So ashamed was Margareta of the interiors and furnishings within the royal Norwegian palace that she never arranged any major parties. However, things were soon to change for the better, starting with the auspicious birth of her son, Olof, in 1370.

Håkan and Margareta seem to have had a happy marriage. He was entranced by his knowledgeable young wife and included her as a matter of course in his discussions about politics. Given that Margareta was the kind of woman one did not put in a corner – unless one toyed with the idea of suicide by proxy – this was a smart move on behalf of Håkan.

However content, the couple were not blessed with more children than the one precious heir, and when Håkan died in 1380, he left a 27 year old widow and a ten year old boy. Little Olof was since some years back king of Denmark – Margareta had seized upon the opportunity offered by her father’s death and outmaneouvered all other claimants, probably with the help of her husband who did some adequate sabre-rattling in the background. (Figuratively speaking: no sabres around in 14th century Scandinavia)

Anyway, upon the death of Håkan, Olof now also became king of Norway, but given his tender age, his mother ruled on his behalf.  Margreta thrived in the role of Queen Regent. Not a big fan of bureaucracy, she quickly started merging and streamlining the administration of her – oops, her son’s – kingdoms. While there was the expected grumbling from men who did not relish having a female ruler, it is interesting to note that in general contemporary chronicles express admiration for their “learned and gracious lady queen”.

Possessed of a diplomatic streak very absent in her father, Margareta succeeded in establishing cordial relations with the Hanseatic League, and in general things were relatively peachy-pie in Margareta’s life. Well, with the exception of that irritating usurper in Sweden, Albrekt of Mecklenburg. I mean, everyone knew that Olof’s claim to the Swedish crown was much, much stronger. (It was)

Albert_of_Mecklenburg_with_his_father

Albrekt (right) with his father, yet another Albrekt

Albrekt became king as a consequence of repeated internal strife in Sweden. After years of seeing their country torn apart between royal brothers, royal fathers and sons, royal what-have-you, the Swedish nobles decided enough was enough and invited Albrekt of Mecklenburg to pop over the Baltic sea and become their king. Sweden at the time subscribed to some sort of restricted democratic ideals in that the king was elected – by a selected few.

Anyway, Albrekt was very pleased to upgrade himself to king, but very quickly the Swedes realised that choosing Albrekt as king was the equivalent of diving from the frying pan straight into the fire. In brief, Albrekt was very unpopular. He was also German, and the Swedes resented him for bringing over boatloads of Germans to fill all the important administrative positions in his new kingdom. As per the monks in Vadstena “The birds of carrion settled themselves over the land, as the Germans ruled our lands with violence”.

Oluf_2_of_Denmark_(Kronborg_tapestries)

Purportedly Olof, king of Denmark and Norway

While the Swedes grumbled and groaned under the yoke of their German king, Denmark and Norway thrived. Until the day when young, dashing Olof was carried away in a sudden illness, leaving his mother – and his kingdoms – devastated. Without Olof, Margareta’s claim to the thrones was tenuous at best. Plus there was the teensy-weensy little detail that she was getting a bit long in the tooth (at 34!) to marry and beget more children. No marriage, no heirs of her body…. Tsk, tsk. Somehow, Margareta overcame this storm, claiming both thrones in her own name. I guess it is indicative of just how good a job she did that her ascensions were relatively peaceful – her subjects led good, stable lives and knew that this was to a large extent due to their diplomatic and wise queen.

Over in Sweden, things were deteriorating at a surprising speed. the Swedes were utterly fed up with their imported king, and some disgruntled noblemen and bishops contacted Margareta, begging her to come to their aid. She gladly complied, needing some sort of distraction to cope with her grief.

Albrekt seems to have been somewhat dense. Not only did he fail to pick up on his subjects’ growing disenchantment with him, but he also made fun of Margareta whenever he could, jeeringly referring to her as – yup – “the king without breeches”. When he decided to show his contempt for this weak female ruler by sending her a whetstone, accompanied by a note in which he recommended that she use his gift to sharpen her needles and revert to that most feminine of pastimes, embroidery, very few found this amusing, Margareta least of all. Which is probably one of the reasons why she so enthusiastically took up the cause of claiming Sweden as her own.

Margareta

Margareta

In 1388, Margareta and the Swedish noblemen pledged to her initiated their rebellion. In 1389, Albrekt and his army was defeated at the battle of Åsle, and Albrekt was taken prisoner. Margareta had him dressed in motley, with a fool’s cap decorated with a six metre point that dragged behind him as he moved (and bells; I bet she’d added bells to the motley and the point, so that the humiliated king tinkled as he walked towards her). With her usual expediency, Margareta had Albrekt tried and imprisoned. Six years later, she released him to return to Mecklenburg and his somewhat lowlier life as a duke, rather than a king.

By 1390, Margareta had achieved what no other regent had managed before: the union of the Scandinavian crowns. Suddenly, the power balance in the Baltic region keeled over  in Margareta’s favour, and the representatives of the Hanseatic League had cause for concern – after all, royals have long memories, and Margareta was very aware of just how much the League had plagued her father.  She never openly challenged the League – she simply undermined it, bit by bit, paving the way to a future without the League.

Instead, Margareta turned her impressive skills and energy to governing her new lands. Somewhat autocratic, she chose to do most of the ruling herself, dispensing with such unnecessaries as councils and advisors. Not that she sat in solitude and governed, but she was no fan of group decisions – Margareta preferred to have the last word herself.

Erik’s coronation

One issue that kept on popping up was the question of her heir, and while Margareta may have found it difficult to formally replace her beloved – but very dead – Olof with another son, she did precisely that, adopting her sister’s teenage grandson, Boguslav. Obviously, a Scandinavian king had to have a Scandinavian name, and so the boy was renamed Erik, and in 1397 this pimply youth was formally invested with the crowns of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Not that anyone doubted who would do the actual ruling; she stood beaming behind the boy throughout the ceremony.

The last fifteen years of her life, Margareta was recognised as one of Europe’s most powerful people. So impressed were her contemporaries by this magnificent woman, that they offered one potential marital prize after the other for her consideration. Not for her, but for young Erik. After some thought, Margareta chose Philippa of England as Erik’s consort, and in 1406 the little English princess arrived in Copenhagen to wed a man who was formally the most powerful regent in Northern Europe, albeit that all major decisions were taken by the person in skirts at his side.

In 1412, Margareta Valdemarsdotter died of the plague. After some uncharacteristic dithering as to where she should be buried, the bishop of Roskilde took possession of her remains and interred her in Roskilde’s Cathedral, where she still lies. Like any other high-born and wealthy person of her time, Margareta left plenty of money and lands to the church in return for eternal masses for her soul. After the Reformation, masses were out, but to this day a special bell is rung twice a day to commemorate the woman who for more than two decades ruled Sweden, Denmark ad Norway as one.

And as to that whetstone Albrekt sent Margaret back in 1388, it still exists, part of the loot victorious Swedish soldiers carried with them back to Sweden when they sacked Roskilde in 1658. I find it amusing that she kept it. Maybe it reminded her of the existence she was meant for, that of wife and mother, hovering in the background of her successful men. Or maybe the stone made her grin, recalling the sight of the humbled Albrekt in his motley.

Leucojum vernumTo find a woman like Margareta, a man must scour the world. The wisdom she showed when she, a mere woman, united Sweden, Norway and Denmark, stands unsurpassed throughout the ages.” So writes the Karlskrönika, a medieval chronicle about Margareta. Somehow, I thinks she would have been quite displeased with the “mere woman” part, but as stated already in the beginning,whether she liked it or not, Margareta was an anomaly. She wielded enormous powers in a world generally dominated by men. But it came at a price; had not her husband and then her son died, Margareta would never have become the architect of the Scandinavian union. I think there were days when she felt the price was too high.

 

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