THE WOODEN TELESCOPE
“Jedermann an jeden Ort – jede Woche mehrmals Sport.”
In the dream he was always surrounded by the horses’ heads. They were nodding, nuzzling him, everything seemed wrapped in a soft, warm darkness, as if it were a summer evening. It was like the last time I saw him; then everything faded, Dad’s angular, American Indian face blurred and slipped away, and I was awake.
I’ll tell it like it was: I awoke with a sensation of complete weightlessness.
I got up, turned on the radio and listened to all the special bulletins on that extraordinary day. I made coffee. The news reports had been peculiar all that year, 1968, but now they seemed stranger than ever. Ever since last winter, it had all felt on the one hand irretrievably lost, on the other hopeful, but everything had still been possible. And now this. I turned off the radio and started on the papers. It didn’t help much, by God. The first sentence I read went: “The beautiful twenty-year-old hitchhiker got out of the car, said with a laugh, ‘Nothing happened to me,’ then gave a shake of her head and fell to the ground, dead. A dreadful ending to an everyday event.”
Well, what is there to say about that? I naturally felt a great sense of insecurity descend on me, did a couple of hours in the garden, had lunch and slept in the afternoon. That evening I stood for a long time looking out over the bay, the water, the woods. It was all the same as ever. I thought: autumn isn’t here yet.
I wrote a letter. I signed it with my full name: Johan Christian Lindner. Before bed I did ten sets of knee bends, twenty in each set, then went peacefully off to sleep. The dreams were much more peaceful now; Dad kept out of them and I dreamt mostly of animals, though not of horses. At about one in the morning I woke up and made a forced and sentimental attempt to cry, with fitful little sobs and choking noises, but it didn't work, so with some relief I went back to sleep. August was the loveliest of months, but once again I dreamt I was in the ice palace working on the puzzle. Suddenly and quite spontaneously, all the pieces fell into place to reveal the clearly discernible outline of a bird. Even in the dream I could feel my heart beating fast.
That’s why I’m beginning now. I mean: that was how it began; I shall tell you the story of Mattias Jonsson-Engnestam-Linder straight through, as best I can. I woke up that morning and knew my Dad’s biography would have to be written: not for his sake, but for mine. And I know where it’s going to begin and end: in among the horses, one evening, that time he raised his hand and patted me on the head as if I were a horse.
I know a good story that doesn’t really belong here. It’s the one about the telegraph office in the imperial toilet. At the time of the Bavarian Republic, the post of foreign minister in the young republic happened to be filled by an intriguingly eccentric individual. He set up his office in the conquered imperial toilet, filled the bathtub with confiscated imperial champagne, installed a telegraph machine, sat himself on the ornate john and in the weeks that followed sent telegrams around the world.
He sent them to the foreign ministers of the great nations, giving them detailed political advice on important subjects. He spent his time writing and sending out messages from the imperial toilet offering advice to the world. Unfortunately for him, and possibly also for the world, the other members of the provisional revolutionary government realized the cost of the telegrams would be prohibitive, and gave orders after only a few days for the telegraph wires to be cut, just beyond the walls of the imperial revolutionary toilet. So his words of advice were never delivered; they were sent and yet not sent, because they never reached any listener or receiver.
I don’t know why that story has always made such an impression on me, but now it's out of the way, we can begin: my Dad, who this whole thing is about, was called Mattias Jonsson-Engnestam-Lindner; in the 1940s he was well known as a hammer-thrower, a national team member and Swedish record holder; he was disqualified for cheating in 1947. That’s basically it. The whole story in brief.
If I squeeze my eyes tight shut, I can still see Dad rotating, swinging calmly round and round in the training ring behind the outbuildings, in his pale blue tracksuit with the star on, with the privy leaning slightly crookedly behind him, the privy that was now used as a toolshed and would one day form the background for the only oil painting in which Dad, as far as anyone knows, was ever immortalized. I can make out every detail, although my eyes are closed; it’s during the war, the spring of 1943. No, the story doesn’t begin there, but that was the spring I made the wooden telescope. An oblong box shape, tapering slightly towards one end, a bit of glass wedged inside, no magnification whatsoever. But through its square tube I watched Dad swinging round and round, becoming at one with the hammer and growing in balance and skill. From my position on the outhouse roof I could see, through the wooden telescope’s narrow field of vision, his sweeping movement and the hammer at last taking off and rising; but I kept Dad in my sights, saw him still standing there, arms hanging, tracking the hammer thoughtfully, critically, encouragingly and hopefully through the air, until it finally landed and it was all over.
Was that where it began? I often sat beside the training ring watching him on late spring evenings, the wooden telescope always under my arm, nearly always in silence. The wall of the shed in the background, the outhouse, the hammer ring, the meadows down to the water and the lake. The telescope sweeps round and everything looks equally significant; yet it seems to me now that nothing is of any significance except those short moments when the telescope stops on the man in the hammer ring: his ambitious, American Indian face; his heavy, squarish body; the stillness when he has let go of the hammer and, in a moment of complete repose, arms still partially raised, is following the hammer's trajectory. There he stands, neatly framed in the telescope lens; I hold him there and he’s a strong little statue, lithe and sturdily square: Mattias Engnestam, after the throw, spring 1943.
We had moved up from Stockholm, and I remember the lake and the log-driving vividly. The timber came from up-country, and for a few spring days the lake would suddenly fill with logs. I could see it from our window each May: the lake filling with logs, the timber gliding slowly south with a melancholy air until suddenly, one day in May, it had all vanished. But not quite all of it: some of the logs floated in to the shore, caught there and got left behind. They were first-rate logs, splendidly thick and buoyant, riding high in the water. We knew what would happen to them. After a week the log-drivers would come, prise the logs away from the shore, pull them all together in tow and send them off after the rest. The log-drivers walked along the shore, lithe, smoke-smelling, sinuously swaying, self-assured; they could clear the lake in a single day. Those logs were the stragglers. Once the stragglers had been sent on their way, the lake was empty.
I had a brother whose name was Peter.
I can’t help it: I’ve got to start with simple things like that. The wooden telescope I made, Dad in the hammer ring, and the raft. I had a brother, whose name was Peter, but however far round I sweep my telescope, I can't find him with my lens. I can find the lake and the logs, Dad busily training, the hammer rising from Dad’s well worn hammer ring of earth, wood and mud. I can catch no glimpse of Peter though, nor is he the subject of this biography; but I want him in it anyway. After all, it was he and I who built the raft.
The timber arrived, and that year we secreted three logs. A ditch ran into the lake just below where we lived, and we hauled the logs into it: twenty metres along it, carefully covered with grass, well pushed down and camouflaged. It took all day. We knew it wasn’t allowed, but Peter who was a year older than I said it didn't matter, the company bloody well had more than enough timber and could easily wait a year. It was a view Dad would not have liked. Not because he begrudged us the raft or felt any affection for the company, but the thought of dishonestly withholding timber from a big company, however unscrupulous, would have filled him with grave misgivings; his low brow with furrows of concern; and us with sober lectures on the need, even in a case like this, for utmost honesty, utmost honesty of the most rigourous kind.
Viewed through the non-magnifying, slightly grubby sights of the wooden telescope, Dad’s face is all too far away, too indistinct; are there furrows on his brow? Does he disapprove of me? Am I not as honest as I ought to be? He’s got his 1943 face on, a bit sweaty. No, he wouldn’t have liked us hiding the logs. But we still did it, lay on the edge of the forest the day the stragglers were being sent on their way, saw the log-drivers coming. They walked along the edge of the lake, and there was a rowing boat just out from the shore; we lay motionless, pressed low to the ground, and saw them calmly come abreast of the ditch where we’d hidden the logs. I could hear Peter’s breathing and the thudding of my own heart.
They went on by and had seen nothing.
The next day, the lake was empty of timber; the stragglers had gone and the lake was ours. We waited two days to be on the safe side, then hauled out the logs and set to work. We positioned the longest in the middle with the other two alongside, put a crosspiece of board at the front, three more in the middle, and at the back an ingeniously designed, irregularly shaped little platform, fixed in place with a couple of six-inch nails Peter had got hold of from somewhere.
Now I’m very close to being able to see him: I once had a brother. He had blonde hair and his name was Peter. We built a raft together in the spring of 1943. He’s knocking in six-inchers with steady, purposeful blows and I can almost hear him saying, in a muffled voice through a mouthful of nails:
“When we’ve finished with this, we’ll take off the cross pieces and pull out the nails. If we leave the nails in it’ll ruin the blade at the sawmill. And that messes up the blokes’ piecework rates.”
And then, after a pause: “You mustn’t forget the piecework rates.”
I had a brother; he was a year older than I but he knew a lot of things like that. Much more than I did. I was as tall as he was but he was a lot heavier. Fine hammer-thrower material, as Dad used to say with his kindly stone face. How much could we have weighed? He perhaps 46 kilos. As for me, 39-40. So about 85 kilos combined. Timber’s supposed to float high, it was a cold spring, and we did only weigh 85 kilos put together. Two bits of board for paddles, a pole for punting that was about three metres long, and in a little lunchbox at the back (fixed to the rear platform with a one-inch nail) we had our provisions. These consisted of: 1 bottle water, 1 piece sausage (10 cm long), 1 half loaf, 8 rusks, 1 knife, 100g margarine, 20 sugar lumps, 1 small tin treacle (which was a kind of extra-dark syrup Peter said tasted better than ordinary syrup; I think they fed it to the cows). The raft’s defences consisted of a wooden crossbow with six bolts, a slingshot made of bendy willow with fircones for ammunition (35 cones), plus Peter’s old catapult with a spare rubber band and 10 smallish stones.
I sit looking at what I’ve written down: provisions list, weapons, figures. I wonder what sort of security it is I'm trying to conjure up. Those were the years I was reading Robinson Crusoe, and in a somewhat obsessive attempt to transmit my enthusiasm to other people, I read aloud to Dad from the book one evening. He was lying on the settee and was too kind to tell me to shut up. Those lists of salvaged possessions. The cave, fully equipped, the securities, the furnished terror of lacking a focal point in your life. I read on until he started to snore. He had folded his hands on his chest, his face was serene, his chin hanging. Mattias Jonsson-Engnestam’s 1943 face, four years before the catastrophe. Is it in this tranquillity I am to open my biography? Or do I have to begin much further back?
That evening we went out at about six; Dad was home, had had time to change into his tracksuit and was standing there buried from the waist up in the depths of the tool-privy, presumably extracting his beloved hammer. We had said we were going out fishing. On the previous two days we had been experimenting with a sail on the raft: a sheet stretched between two sticks. It didn’t work particularly well; it was hard to fix the sticks in place, and it was laborious having to hold them upright all the time. Nothing worked particularly well; this evening there was a fair breeze and we were going to try out some new variations. The sun was sinking on the other side of the lake, we were slipping along quite nicely and the wind was blowing from the land. And I remember how it looked: the lake rather choppy, the sun going down, Peter up at the front, in the prow, busy lashing one of the masts. It was all rather beautiful.
I had my wooden telescope with me.
The telescope was perhaps thirty centimetres long and looked like a tapering oblong box, with window glass at each end. I sat in the stern watching the beach gradually recede. The sun went down; I sat with the telescope to my eyes and saw, far, far away, a tiny figure swinging round in a ring. It was Dad, way off in the distance. That’s how I remember him that spring, which is the time from which my first real memories of him date. For me, anything that happened earlier needs excavating in other ways, but from the wooden telescope onwards, I’m there in person. I was eleven. First in the story comes Granddad, then Dad, then I come in. I come in just here, with the boy in the stern of the raft, wooden telescope to his eyes, and the tiny figure at an enormous distance, swinging round in a ring.
It was dusk. Just then I heard a huge splash behind me and turned round: yes, sure enough, he’d overbalanced and fallen in. It wasn't the first time. I put the telescope aside and picked my way carefully to the front of the raft. I had everything silhouetted in front of me. The horizon, the waves, the rakish mast. And I have an equally clear recollection of Peter’s face in the water (scared because he wasn’t a good swimmer, embarrassed by his own clumsiness). The conditions were quite rough. I held out my hand to him. It was just as dusk descended: poor visibility, very cold water, a pale red streak where the sun had just set. His face down there in the water, smiling awkwardly as if he were thinking: what a clumsy, bloody idiot. And I held out my hand to him.
Much later I was to learn a word: agape. For me it’s come to mean: not needing to deserve mercy. Fresh start, the table swept clean, no priority for those good people who have been actively working for forgiveness. Everyone thinks its a theological term, but each time I think of Dad and me and all the other people in my strange family, I know it’s fundamentally political. In fact, no: I damn well refuse to label it. There’s no label, no pigeonhole. The word is ours, a family word; it’s no one's business how we use it. A little power cell that exists deep inside, and I’ve no intention of exposing it to the light of day just yet.
There’s a gap in what I can remember, a convenient little gap of, say, a couple of hours. Because the next thing I remember must have been a good time later. I was sitting astern, right at the back of the raft. Peter was sitting at the front, with his back to me; he was huddled up as if he was freezing cold. And when I surveyed the raft, I realized we must have lost a lot of our stuff in the confusion of Peter falling in. The sail was gone. The bits of wood we had as paddles were gone. The pole for punting with was gone. The whole raft was empty, apart from the nailed-down lunchbox with our stock of provisions, because I was sitting on that. Peter and I sat huddled at either end of the raft. Strangely enough, I have no memory of feeling cold.
But the strangest thing of all was that the wind had dropped. It was completely calm; the water was as smooth as glass. It was late evening, and the water was smooth and calm and the moon had risen. It must have looked very odd: in the middle of the trail of moonlight lay a silent, badly battered raft with two boys huddled on it; the water was black and yet like silver, it was peaceful and absolutely deathly silent.
I turned round and looked at the lights of home: little pricks of light in the darkness. The lake was set in a valley. I felt very calm, but could not move. I looked at the moon and at the water. I had the wooden telescope at my feet, but did not pick it up. The raft lay in the trail of light from the moon; the water was smooth, I was calm, and Peter sat with his back to me. We sat there like that, in silence, for a long, long time.
I once had a brother, but even today I find it hard to remember his face. I remember his back, however. I tried to work out what had happened. Why the wind had dropped, why he had fallen in, how he had got back onto the raft, why the moon was shining. And then I heard the sounds. It was the sound of oars. It wasn’t coming from the direction of home; it was coming from the east, but it was unmistakably oars. I stared into the darkness and heard the oar strokes coming closer and closer. He was rowing slowly. And then I saw a boat outlined against the reflection of the moon in the water; a boat, a skiff, came gliding quietly right into the trail of light. It was coming towards us; I could see the back of the man rowing.
I had got up, and could see that Peter was on his feet too. We stood quietly, gazing at the boat as it came gliding ever closer.
“Hello,” I shouted suddenly across the water, “come and help us.”
At that, the man in the boat turned round and looked at us. The skiff glided slowly towards the raft; in the moonlight I could see the water dripping from the oars; everything happened so slowly and it was like a dream. I could see how he was dressed. He had rather baggy trousers, while on his top half he wore a shabby blue and white tracksuit jacket with a white yoke. He was thin and dark-haired and I had never seen him before. He didn’t say anything; then he was alongside the raft.
He didn’t look at me, only at Peter. He wasn’t from our parts, but came rowing from the eastern end of the lake. He held out his hand to Peter, and Peter took the hand and stepped carefully down into the skiff. He took a seat in the stern. Neither of them said a word.
Then the rowing boat moved away a little, and it happened so imperceptibly that at first I didn’t realize what was happening. But the man sitting at the oars began to row. Peter sat in the stern and didn’t look back. And the boat vanished slowly into the darkness.
I couldn’t call out. I stood silent, as if paralysed. I must have stood there like that for a long time.