Translated by Linda Schenck
This article appeared in the 2011:1 issue.
George Brandes once disparagingly described Victoria Benedictsson’s novel Fru Marianne as ‘nothing but a ladies’ novel’. In giving this subtitle to her new novel, Sigrid Combüchen prepares the reader for many of the aspects of the reading journey upon which he or she is about to embark. Spill (Waste) is a story within a story, a narrative with many layers and multiple time sequences, full of empathy, humor, irony, social criticism and literary finesse.
It begins in the present with a chapter entitled ‘The First Letter,’ in which a fictional author by the name of Sigrid Combüchen receives a letter from Hedwig Langmark, a fictitious reader of a more or less fictitious novel by Combüchen. Langmark is not familiar with Combüchen’s writing, but does not hesitate to remark that she found the book she read, at times ‘intentionally inaccessible’. Her letter is not fan mail. It was provoked by a description in the novel of a photograph from the 1930s. Although Hedwig’s husband has assured her that ‘…people posed for family photos in such a standard way in those days it could be “the just-about-anybodies,”’ she feels quite certain Combüchen has in her possession an old photo of her own family, and she would very much like to have it. Her guess is correct, and she receives the photo, along with others, and a number of questions from Combüchen about her past.
Waste goes on to contain both several years’ worth of correspondence between ‘Combüchen’ and ‘Hedwig’, at the same time as it looks back and begins to reconstruct a fictional version of a character Combüchen calls ‘Hedda’, primarily in 1936 and ’37, a year she spends learning dressmaking in Stockholm and exploring young adult life. Hedda is the real Combüchen’s invention, her namesake’s fiction-writing imagination having been sparked by the photograph and fed by her correspondence with Hedwig. Past and present, fact and fiction merge. In the extract below Hedda, who has completed high school, is spending a year in Stockholm studying dressmaking at Mrs. Borg-White’s studio, the only alternative for getting away from home her parents were able to accept. She lodges with a distant relative, Blondie, in whom her parents have misplaced confidence. Her brother Tom lives in Stockholm, too, but has been conspicuous in his utter absence since she arrived, not even having met her at the station as he had promised. But one Saturday afternoon at the public baths…
There was hair on his chest. A mat starting at his Adam’s apple, making little groves around his nipples. He hadn’t seen her yet. Or hadn’t recognized her in her bathing cap, not expecting to see her there. She hadn’t realized it was him right away either. It was several years since they had swum together in the lake; at home she had seen him in his bathrobe. She had seen Christian’s hairless chest when he sunbathed or cut the grass in the back yard, but Tom was more bashful.
Hedda was sitting on the edge; after twelve laps she would be doing twelve more. Warmly dressed people were walking in the park outside. It wasn’t much more than a couple of flowerbeds, a pergola and fountains in a courtyard but people called it a park. Now the trees were bare, the leathery leaves of the ivy didn’t provide much of a sense of life and therefore not much of a sense of park. The men had on hats and dark overcoats, the women foxfur collars and overshoes; it was wet after the rain. The children had mittens that hung out of their sleeves on strings when they were off. They liked to remove them and wave their arms, do a mittenflap. So easily amused, they all found the same thing funny. All’s right with the world. Some of the people were on their way in and would fill up the pool even more, it was going to be crowded, but she needed her twenty-four times twenty-five yards. She could assert herself in a swimming pool.
It was Saturday afternoon. From eight to twelve Hedda had been at the dressmaking studio, carefully cutting the fabric for an evening gown. The bodice wasn’t too difficult. Three-quarter length sleeves and a bateau neckline. The skirt, on the other hand, was rounded, sectioned, narrowing at the waist, with chiffon panels cut on the diagonal in shades of autumn ranging from the same rust-red as the bodice to moss green, dark green, brown, ochre, maroon, vermillion, and one orange one. The pointed ends of some of the lengths continued up into the bodice where they merged, lower at the back and higher in front, to give an effect of the tips of leaves. The sketch Mrs. Borg-White, head of the studio, had made gave the impression of an elegant autumn storm whirling up falling leaves. The pattern was called ‘New England,’ and the dress was an order from one of her friends, who lived further south, where she raised bulls for breeding and cultivated colza. She’d come all the way to Stockholm in person to enquire whether it would be possible to have just such a frock made for the Hubertus ball. She wore a crested ring on her little finger. Hedda had been told in no uncertain terms, though she understood perfectly herself, that she would have to be extremely careful right from the cutting stage and see to it that the various diagonal widths of cloth fit together perfectly, and swing some of them up just so, if the less than perfect symmetry sketched by Mrs. Borg-White were to come out as planned. She’d have to cut them exactly to the millimeter correctly; otherwise they’d pull when sewn. Petticoats made of yard after yard of chiffon would hold it up, ‘it mustn’t sag. A craftsman’s test for an apprentice,’ Mrs. Borg-White said, ‘but Miss Carlsson, you have an eye for it, and good hands. I have complete confidence in you.’ After which she picked up her little white calfskin vanity case with its brass corners and went down to the taxi she had ordered to take her to the North Station where she was going to catch a train and spend the weekend in the countryside.
Perspiration crept from her forehead up into her hair in spite of the fact that she was leaning forward. She felt her nervousness in her underarms, where she had pads that absorbed the sweat; and she wore cotton gloves to protect the fabric. They always wore gloves for cutting. When they were sewing or embroidering frequent hand washing sufficed, plus keeping their nails short and smoothly filed. They were supposed to use a thimble, but Hedda had never mastered the use of the little silver hat with its carnelian top that had been assigned to her. She’d never used a thimble before, had always simply licked away any drop of blood that might appear if the eye end of a needle pierced her skin. So she went on pushing the needle through with her bare index or ring finger and bleeding, just holding her middle finger out of the way. By eleven she was done with the diagonal panels, and the sweat was dripping down her back, too. It had been like running to catch a bus. Then she had pinned the pieces together, inside out, on the mannequin, with its 64 centimeter waistline and basted it very carefully together to see how it was coming along. At one point she flushed hot, until she realized she had happened to put one of the panels back to front.
She had her things in a rucksack. It didn’t look very nice to walk in the city with, so she would carry it along the streets stuffed under one arm, with a look of ‘what’s your problem?’ on her face. It was the only bag she owned that was big enough to hold her bathing suit, bathrobe, bathing cap and clean underwear, stockings and a blouse without being too cumbersome. The first time, she had taken her own soap and shampoo, but it was included in the price, even if you only bought a ticket to the third class baths. Nothing at Blondie’s had changed. The man who ‘might’ be moving to Finland was still there two months later. Hedda did not have hot and cold running water in her room, and in fact in the sink in the bathroom there was mostly only cold. Blondie took a bath every second evening, emptying the entire contents of the hot water heater into the tub. It took ages to heat up again. It was a gas heater, and after Blondie’s bath you often found it turned off. When you only had cold water, you couldn’t really rinse off the soap, no matter how hard you scrubbed and rinsed with your washcloth – and even if you stood in the empty bathtub and showered yourself with the watering can you still went around with a scent from the soap that quickly turned rancid.
On Saturday afternoons Hedda went to the bathhouse on Drottninggatan and enjoyed getting clean. She soaped herself up and rinsed herself off in the bathtub, sat in the sauna, and then soaped herself again in a shower cubicle, washed her hair twice and stood in her bathrobe brushing it back and forth and from side to side and shaking her head until it was dry enough to twist up and under her bathing cap. Then she went out to the pool and dived in with pointed toes, as she had been taught.
That autumn they were renovating the ladies’ side, which was upstairs and had bay windows overlooking the park and ladylike decorations but only a ten-yard pool. So women, too, were allowed to swim in the twenty-five yard gentlemen’s pool, which was quite like a drawing room with a pool in it, with dark wooden paneling and potted palms and aspidistras. Hedda’s grandma had described a hotel pool in Budapest with chandeliers and faucets that were golden lions’ heads. She and Jakob had taken the waters there the first time they had travelled as a couple, before they were married, when he was her lover. Hedda sent her a postcard of the Stockholm public baths.
She was new to Stockholm, with no sense of its ineradicable gentlemen’s culture, but she had read a couple of Letters to the Editor from the regulars, with headlines like ‘Our patience is wearing thin’ and ‘Our only remaining oasis,’ in which they pointed out that: ‘…there are, in fact, other bathing establishments that accept such nymphs’ and ‘the healthful nude swims we men have been able to enjoy unter uns in the 25-yard pool have had a stamp of shame imposed upon them owing to the company of the female sex. The boldest response to such a change for the worse would be to revert to our tradition even under the current circumstances, which would not bother the holders of these rights, but certainly the interfering ladies.’ Hedda laughed as she swam, at the thought of little hairy marsupials. In any case, not many women had dared to come along, there weren’t more than four or five of them in the place.
Most of the Saturday bathers stepped or let themselves down into the water, which felt colder when you knew it was cold outside. It looked clean, green, and smelled of chlorine. She swam twelve laps at a go, rested for a while at the edge of the pool, holding herself up by her arms, and then swam another twelve. She had started doing two times six, and increased by a couple every week.
Today, after the ninth of her first set of laps, she had seen a group of three adults and a little girl come in. The men had bathrobes on, the woman and the girl were in black bathing suits. When she turned at the end of lap ten, the adults had formed a triangle in her corner of the pool and the child was swimming between them. When one of the men sent her along to the other, laughing, right when she wanted to have a little rest, she opened her mouth as if she were about to cry, but then she went on swimming eagerly instead, although her feet had begun to sink. Afraid she wasn’t going to make it, she then sank almost to her nose and began thrashing about. The other man had to reach out and pull her to safety. Hedda heard her cough, followed by an accusatory tone of voice, though she couldn’t make out the words. Neither could she hear what the adults were saying in three-part harmony as they tried to explain how you had to try to swim a bit farther every time. Hedda saw the three faces as good fairies surrounding the angry little girl, who couldn’t see any of them because of the tears in her eyes, but who then clearly sought the gaze of a sympathetic outsider when her eyes locked briefly with Hedda’s. The woman was in the water with her spectacles on, they were black and round. Holding her head high, she swam, with the majesty of a swan, away from the whole to-do.
One of the men was Tom, the other more or less the same type, but with a thinner head.
With the image of his thin head and bluish temples behind her eyelids, Hedda began her eleventh lap underwater with a chuckle. She was anticipating her opportunity to give Tom a taste of his own medicine, the guilty conscience he deserved. For two months she had been waiting to see him on the street, not for him to stop by or telephone, or rescue her as it were. Just a chance encounter, so he would have the opportunity to be struck by how poorly he had kept his promise.
She stopped laughing and indulged in a few tears, also underwater. Maybe she didn’t really want to make herself known at all. He was a pig. She was glad to know whom she would never trust again. In her break after the twelfth lap, she watched him and the other man pursue the swimming lesson with the little girl. Soon Tom grew bored, of course, and got out of the pool. He stood leaning against the rail watching the other two swimming together, the father (?) with his short, pedagogical strokes, the girl with her disjointed ones. Hedda sank down into the water so no one would notice her. She did two laps of breaststroke. On the third she started doing the crawl again, thinking about the ten weeks she had been sharing a room with a ‘Christian man’ she had never seen, how she had been afraid to use the hotplates because she might bump into him. The cookies and sandwiches she had lived on to start with, and the awful dinner arrangements she had accepted when one of the other girls at the studio, Bodil, had said they could ‘have her for board.’
Bodil and her mother, who did seamstress work from home, lived in a room at the back of a courtyard not far from the studio. Bodil had been a switchboard operator until she and her mother had been able to save up enough to send her to learn dressmaking. Once she had her diploma they were going to open up a shop together as dressmakers for finer folk. Until then, every bit of income they could bring in was much needed, and Hedda’s contribution to their food budget was a welcome (though unacknowledged) addition.