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Mind the Gap

by Bertil Falk

part 2 of 3

Until one day I realized that Billy was at it. Since Billy, like myself, was a follower of Anna and went to analysis, I had a long, serious conversation with her. She shrugged and said that it probably wasn’t that serious. She did not seem interested in the problem at all and played down the fact that Billy was in danger of losing his life if he continued. So many addicts overdosed. A well-known musician had recently been found dead in the bathroom of a public dance hall, his syringe smashed on the tiled floor.

Lars was probably the least attracted to Anna. He was always writing music. He did not listen only to jazz; Mozart and Bach were his idols, and he was in a steady process of composing a symphony. His music papers stained with spilt coffee were spread on the small café table like carelessly laid cloths, and we often had to place not only our coffee cups but also the ashtray on top of them. Who knows? Spilling coffee all over the sheets might create interesting musical effects.

The Flame consisted of a narrow room penetrating into the building. On both long sides ceiling-to-floor mirrors covered the walls. They made the long and slim room seem much bigger than it was. Innermost was the kitchen, where the friendly but firm waitresses never permitted you to enter. There were hard seats fixed along the walls under the mirrors on both sides of the room and in front of them stood small square tables.

If you wanted to hear Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker playing “Sho’ ’Nuff,” you had to quietly ask the waitress in charge to put on the 78-rpm record. If you behaved badly, the punishment was no music. When the place was filled with smokers, the atmosphere was more like the smog at the battle of Lützen on November 6, 1632 than the clear air of the Swedish capital. Yes, I was one of the smokers. In that period nobody knew about the hundreds of negative effects of smoking.

Was I really depressed in those days? I don’t know. To be sure, I had something that seemed to be a breakdown. The truth may have been that I believed that I was depressed and because of that I felt sorry for myself, which in its turn made me depressed. The analyst who turned me down suggested that I should take up my studies again, so I left my friends in the city and began my studies at Uppsala University.

That was very helpful. I studied drama history and met George, who studied theology when he didn’t play golf, a habit that took a lot of his time. We were soon entangled in an intense affair. He was very kind and very egotistic and he had, which I much later understood, a one-track mind.

I failed to realize that because we spent most of our time together in bed, making love. The hormones are demanding at that age. The intellectual exchange between us was zero. He was handsome and he knew it, and he was probably not faithful to me; not that I asked him to be, for I took for granted that he was.

I used to take the train to Stockholm when important things were happening there. Once Martha Graham was dancing at the Royal Opera House, and I rushed to the capital. During my visits, I always went to The Flame. My depression was gone and I was more clear-sighted.

Seeing Billy Boy was alarming. He looked so bad, and I understood that drug abuse had taken its toll. He talked about the pain of not having money to buy a vibraphone. He talked about the meaninglessness of life and living. “Life is just like a black hole,” he said, “an awesome gap, an abyss, a Ginnunga gap. One could as well be dead.”

I tried to tell him that things could change, that he was only at the beginning of his life and that wonderful things might well lie ahead of him, of us. I said that a vibraphone was not the same thing as a good life, but he was sure that a vibraphone would change everything. Then he raised his eyes and looked at the door. Anna had just entered.

Billy got to his feet and left me without saying goodbye. He exchanged a few words with Anna at the doorway and disappeared. I was appalled.

Anna came over to my table and shook her head. “He’s very neurotic,” she said.

I returned to Uppsala in December. I heard that Billy had disappeared. In March, his frozen body was discovered in a forest south of Stockholm. I went to Stockholm for the funeral. Lars, Elsa, Göran and Eva were there. Anna didn’t turn up. Billy’s frail mother, a poor working-class woman, sat by the simple, unpainted wooden coffin, silently weeping over her only son. Two days later she was found dead from an overdose of sleeping pills.

I wondered where Billy had gotten his dope. George said that there were many drug dealers around, even in Uppsala. How little I knew about life.

I had been in Uppsala for a few years and earned my Bachelor of Arts degree when, to my surprise, Anna came and took up studies at the Drama Institute. Not only that. After two months she had taken George from me.

It was somewhat disturbing. No, I was shaken and humiliated, but I had come a long way and I began to understand that this treacherous creature had been a bad influence in my life. With my academic credits secured, I left Uppsala and became a theatre critic.

The year 1953 was an eventful one. Joseph Stalin died behind his Iron Curtain. Eugene O’Neill died outside that same iron curtain. In his last will and testament he donated his play Long Days Journey Into Night to the Royal Dramatic Theatre. Three years later I had the pleasure of reviewing the world premiere.

O’Neill’s son-in-law — married to O’Neill’s daughter Oona — was accused of being a Communist. He left the United States for good and settled in Switzerland. East Berliners rose up against Communist rule, and their revolt was crushed by Russian tanks. Winston Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature — only God and the Royal Swedish Academy know why — and Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for “The Old Man and the Sea”. Ingmar Bergman directed The Naked City. And, more important, I began to call myself Margareta instead of Augusta.

I married Alf, who was an actor, and I gave birth to two daughters and a son. While married to Alf, we began to go to London for a week every year. Alf was easy to live with. He was very good at cleaning the house and in the kitchen he created culinary masterpieces.

He had a much better hand with the children than I. Not that I was a bad mother, but he was a better father. It was, as they said, too good to last forever. Alf died of cancer. His last days were horrifying. The morphine hardly helped. Being alone, the prospects seemed bleak. I had to call in my mother to get things going. Three children, you know, and only me earning money.

All of a sudden, Anna turned up as a drama critic in a competing newspaper. I found that amusing. Now and then I would run across her during an intermission at some theatre. Intermissions are short, and we used to exchange only a few words.

Anna’s face had beome more lined, and of course we were both advancing at express speed into middle age. When I looked into the mirror at home, I found that the freshness of the prime of youth belonged to the past. When I saw her I could not for my life understand why I had been so captivated by her miserable personality. As far as my relation to her was concerned, I had most certainly moved from one extreme to another.

Years went by. I met Gustaf, who was a Beatles fan and a cinéaste. He worked first at Ericsson’s and later became one of the earliest Swedish computer experts, working for a small company. We married and I gave birth to one girl and one boy. The music scene had changed. One after one, the children of my first marriage became teenagers and I had to listen to the Rolling Stones day in and day out.

I continued to go to London, as Alf and I had done, but now mostly alone. Gustaf hardly took time for recreational activities, but to me every London sojourn was much more than recreation. Going to musicals and ENO meant charging my batteries. I remember a day when, after landing at Heathrow, I took the underground to Hyde Park Corner.

The train was filled with people. Some were standing; some were reading newspapers; others, books. Nobody spoke. When the train slowed down and stopped at — I think it was Hounslow West or Boston Manor or whatever — a public-address voice in the train broke the silence saying: “Mind the gap between the train and the platform.”

And it was repeated at other stations along the Piccadilly Line: “Mind the gap between the train and the platform”. The sentence got branded on my memory. It reminded me of something, but I could not put my finger on what.

How different people are. How different siblings are. Maria, my eldest daughter, was full of vitality, had many friends and loved going out dancing. Surprise, surprise. One day she told me that she had decided to convert to the Catholic faith and become a Birgitta nun. And that is what she did.

Her sister Elsa, on the other hand, had always been very shy and reserved. All of a sudden she blossomed into an actress. Surprise, surprise. My son Arne turned out to be much more predictable. He loved tinkering about with cars, you always found him under our own or his friends’ cars. He is now doing repair work as a trade and plans to open his own repair shop.

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2012 by Bertil Falk

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