Mind the Gap
by Bertil Falk
My second litter of children forced me to listen to The Jackson Five at the same time as Elsa and Arne married, and a string of grandchildren appeared above the horizon of my life. And when they were eight and ten years old, Madonna and hip-hop in the guise of Notorius Big reached my ears.
It was then that I understood how much we are in the grip of the present, the just now. And when I talk about the present, I mean the present as we all perceive it. We are victims of the Zeitgeist. When you’re born in the 1990’s, you don’t know who Charlie Parker was, who the Beatles were, and not even who 2Pac Thakur was.
Judy Garland belongs to the past, Alfred Bester is dead. Gustaf — yes, my second husband is also dead, of pneumonia — never had the opportunity to see the restored version of his favorite filmmaker Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. It is seen only by cinephiles, while the general public couldn’t care less about it. Orson Welles is dead, too, for that matter. It seems as if I’m complaining, doesn’t it? I’m not, only observing facts and establishing them.
During all these years I had hardly thought of my teenage days. They had relapsed into a dim haze of mixed blessings. There had been no time for looking back. Professionally, I had been occupied with forming opinions of the stage productions of Ibsen, Strindberg, O’Neill, Shakespare, Pirandello, Sartre, Chekhov, Williams... You name them and you can be sure I formed opinions about them.
Unprofessionally, I had raised children. And when I used some spare time to go to London, there was no reason to look back in either anger or enthusiasm to the days that had been both formative and trying.
However, one day I ran into Eva outside the City Theatre. Eva had been one of the regular frequenters of The Flame half a century before. She had been easygoing and swayed by Anna only to a small degree. She had shown interest in Freud, but she never went to analysis.
“Augusta,” she screamed and hugged me. “How many years can it be? Fifty ... forty ... I used to read your reviews, but haven’t seen them for some years.”
Slightly embarrassed by my scrapped name rising from the dead, I had to repress a negative reaction. “Oh,” I said. “I’m retired and I call myself Margareta nowadays.”
“Of course you do,” she repeated. “I’ve seen your byline for so many years, but I haven’t seen it for some years now.”
“I’m retired,” I repeated.
“Of course. You see, when I spotted you now, it was Augusta that came to my mind. Good old Augusta! You look swell. Years have treated you gently. Look at me. If they’ll do a remake of The Wizard of Oz, I could audition for the part as the Wicked Witch of the West. I don’t even need a mask and no ... How nice seeing you after all these years. Have you met any of the others?”
No, I had not seen any of them.
“We must have a family reunion, if you know what I mean.”
I knew what she meant.
The following week, I thought of that sudden meeting with Eva several times, but after a while I forgot the whole thing until half a year later. Eva called me. She had been in touch with Anna and Lars. Anna didn’t want to come, but Lars was delighted at the prospect of a reunion.
Eva lived on the sixth floor at Kungsholmen, not far from City Hall and with a magnificent view over the waters of Lake Mälar. White sails of yachts and sailboats moved in all directions, mixed with speedboats and a small cargo boat with an old-fashioned, puffing and blowing tändkule-motor.
Lars was already there when I arrived. It was a warm reunion. Eva had put an appetizing smörgåsbord on the table with three kinds of pickled herrings, liver paste, meatballs and Jansson’s temptation with sliced herring, potatoes and onions baked in cream. We enjoyed her preparations with an appetite and afterwards sat talking over a cup of coffee. Together over coffee, it had been more than fifty years. Lars looked very much the same as in the past. Some people hardly age.
“Why didn’t Anna come?” I asked.
“She didn’t give any reason,” Eva said. “Perhaps she still envies you. Have another biscuit, Lars?”
I was totally puzzled. “What are you talking about? Envied me?”
“She always envied you. You must have known.”
“Wait a minute,” I said with a forced laugh. “I looked up to her. She was a model for me. And for some time I even bought her ridiculous ideas that all people have problems and depressions, are neurotic and should go through analysis. She could not possibly have envied me.”
“I think Eva is right,” Lars said. “She always imitated you. When you changed your hairstyle, Anna was not slow to follow suit. When you bought that ridiculous hat, she was ready to buy a similar one the next day. I don’t know exactly if she envied you, but she certainly imitated you.”
When he said that, I remembered it. How strange, for I had never before thought of it, but it was true. When I went to Uppsala to study drama, she came after me — to study drama. When I had that intense relationship with George, she took him away from me and they married. When I became a theatre critic, who took up the same job but Anna.
How blind I had been. Not that it mattered any more. When she took George, it was a betrayal, and that I recognized immediately, for it was so obvious. But all the other things? I had always looked upon her as my model. The thought that I had been her model had never occurred to me. And even now, seeing what always had been obvious to others, it appeared to be a bizarre idea, totally incomprehensible. Even so she had always followed suit.
“I think that the last time we saw each other was at Billy’s funeral,” Lars said.
“After his death we spread like chaff before the wind. I went to The Flame once or twice, but no one was there that I knew and then I turned to other people and places. You were in Uppsala, of course. And Anna came after you. Yes, you see, she came after you.”
“I always wondered where Billy got his dope,” I said.
“Didn’t you know that either?” Eva asked.
“There were dealers every day at The Flame. That’s how he got it.”
The conversation had taken a sinister turn, but before we broke up, we were back on a nicer track. Inside the lift, when we left Eva, Lars turned to me, saying: “I understand that you didn’t know that one of us was the drug dealer responsible for Billy’s narcotics abuse. I didn’t tell you, for the simple reason that Anna told me not to tell you about it. ‘Don’t tell Augusta,’ she said. And I didn’t tell you. Was that wrong? Yes, it probably was.”
We walked in the sunshine towards the City Hall.
In a flash, I remembered that last meeting with Billy, when I tried to tell him that things could change. He had raised his eyes and looked at the door, got to his feet and left me without saying goodbye. He had exchanged a few words with Anna at the doorway. And I remembered that Anna had played down Billy’s addiction.
“Billy once said to me that life isn’t worth living,” I said. “I always thought he committed suicide.”
“Maybe he did, but one of us—”
“Anna!” I interrupted.
“Supplied him with the means,” Lars finished. “Perhaps it was an accident. We’ll never know.”
“Whatever, hers is the responsibility. According to the law, when it comes to murder or manslaughter the period for prosecution expired long ago.”
“They’re talking about changing the law,” he said. “Most other countries in Europe don’t have that kind of law.”
“Mind the gap,” I said.
He looked at me, astounded.
“What was that?”
“Billy told me that life is a gap, an awesome gap between the train and the platform. Mind the gap between birth and death.”
Lars shook his head. “I don’t get you.”
“Never mind. I was thinking of a ride on the Piccadilly Line some years ago. I heard something then that made some sense of what Billy said even longer ago. Mind the gap. Mind your life.”
This would have been the end of it, had I not two years later caught sight of an old lady inside the galleria I used to go to. She looked familiar, but I didn’t recognize her until I saw George. I didn’t know they still were together.
Time had taken its toll. They were well dressed, but their faces showed that they had problems of all the kinds we old people ultimately face, even though pensioners nowadays are said to be an unusually healthy breed as compared to fifty years ago. But Anna and George didn’t look vigorous and I doubt that George played golf any more.
They walked at a slow pace through the galleria and stopped outside the display window of a shoe shop. I stayed behind them. When Anna turned around, I caught her eyes, but I saw she didn’t recognize me. Her face had taken on an unhealthy color, her eyes were hollow and had lost that demanding sight I remembered. Her once so raven-black hair was now a gray blur. I walked up to her and accused her straight to her face:
“You didn’t turn up at Billy’s funeral?”
She stared at me.
“Säljer du fortfarande knark?” I threw into her face.
My question if she still sold dope didn’t get an answer either.
And at that moment George turned his back to the shoes and he recognized me. “Margareta!” he exclaimed in a voice that still was strong.
“Augusta?” Anna echoed in a rasping voice.
They both looked unbelieving.
“I just wonder who sold Billy the dope that caused his death.”
“What the...?” George began, but I had already turned my back on them and was walking as fast I could out of the galleria.
“Mind the gap!” I murmured while I stumbled out into the fresh air. “For heaven’s sake! Mind the gap!”
Copyright © 2012 by Bertil Falk