The steam from the two mugs of coffee adds to the condensation on the already misty window. I wipe my coat sleeve across the pane, exposing a small portal to the outside world. The rain sounds like tiny footsteps against the glass, the intensity ebbing a little as the wind drops. Two women trudge along the cobbles with heads touching. A shared umbrella is held before them like a shield, the fabric trembling. There is no one else in sight.
Café Tradkojan had been easier to find than I’d expected. Though I’d not visited Gamla Stan since I’d arrived in Stockholm several moths before, the streets had proven simple to navigate. The graphite sky and hand-stiffening wind left me grateful for my early arrival at first, but as I waited, the squirming in my stomach made me wish the walk from the station had taken longer.
I shrug off my coat. Though it makes up in warmth what it lacks in glamour, the coat makes me feel alien, touristy. It was a last minute purchase. Preparing for a Nordic winter had been exciting at the time. Now I can’t afford to replace it.
I wrap my cold-mottled hands around the white ceramic mug. The heat pulses against my palms, numbness retreating in a tingling wave as my swollen joints find movement again. I take a deep breath. An unwelcome nostalgia accompanies the bitter scent of the coffee, and a not-so-sudden ache for home.
I push the second cup across the table, turning the handle a little and framing the mug with a teaspoon. Between the two cups sits a toy sized jug of milk and pot of sugar. In a world of Starbucks, the individual jugs and bowls on the tables seemed antiquated.
Finns det mjölk och socker? No one likes listening to a recording of their voice. You never sound how you imagine. Just like listening back to our spoken practice in Swedish class, I could hear the words scampering through my brain, playing on repeat. Finns det mjölk och socker?
Though the café was busy when I arrived, there was no queue at the counter. I was served by a square woman whose features appeared blurred through my steamy lenses.
Två. I held up two fingers. My tongue felt thick between my teeth, my lips too rubbery to form the syllables properly. They sounded distorted, exaggerated beyond recognition. Once, twice, three times: Två kaffe.
Clinking ceramic against metal. A whoosh of steam. The wet, earthy aroma of coffee grinds. A glass counter curved protectively over unlabelled sweet treats. Key lime pie? Some local equivalent perhaps?
Ett tårta. My mouth was too dry. Each letter stuck for a moment before being released. I swallowed down a foul tasting bile that choked its way up my throat.
Ett? Chipped maroon nails clicked out their irritation against the glass.
Ett tårta. I held up a solitary, undecorated digit. Embarrassed, I turned to the man who had come in behind me, intending to apologise. The words formed a lump of unspeakable letters in my throat. It didn’t matter. He was looking at the menu boards. Even in the bright light of indoors, he looked as if he had been printed in sepia. Smooth skin clung to the remnants of summer sunshine, cocooned in a camel coat and chocolate scarf. Even his hat was rich caramel.
The tray rattled to an abrupt halt before me. I was unable to find the words to explain that chocolate cake wasn’t what I wanted. Resignation formed a layer on top of shame. A thick finger elongated by acrylic tapped angrily at the till display. I counted out krona to huffs and sighs.
Needing to say something as I fished for unfamiliar coins in my purse, I stammered a question I knew the answer to.
Finns det mjölk och socker? I barely heard the response as I handed over the money. Only two words had been familiar. På bordet. The mjölk och socker were på bordet. With hot cheeks, I scurried away to join them.
The steam from my mug is a lazy curl. The coffee will be drinking temperature soon. Through the window, the cobbled street is desolate. It is lined with narrow buildings, their earthy toned facades draped in an almost tangible self-pity. Interspersed along the street are blocks of brighter colours, slightly muddy as if the paint came from a child’s palette.
It isn’t at all the charming first impression of Gamla Stan I’ve longed for. I can’t help but feel a smudge of regret as I’ve been saving the pavement cafes and indie craft shops for a day in spring. It’s been in the back of my mind that I would meander with a friend, our backs warmed by the sun as, arm in arm, we explore at our leisure.
It disappointed me to discover that the tunnelbana station was not in the least bit iconic, particularly because Gamla Stan was well known for it’s quirkiness. As with many who are foreign to the streets of Stockholm, documenting my visits to its decorated stations has become something of a hobby.
My first exposure to one such station made me feel like a time traveller, as if I’d returned to the right date but the wrong timeline. Stepping from the top of the escalator at T-Centralen, my sense of certainty twisted: whitewashed bedrock domes encased me; cobalt cave paintings of miners dominated one ceiling; on a another, floral motifs put me in mind of milkmaids with blonde braids and neat aprons. Laptop -carrying commuters flowed around me, a water-worn stone inconsequential in their journey.
I’d snapped selfies that would surprise my children, capturing the moment with enhanced colour and careful cropping. I’d made the bewilderment of the discovery look like magic. Inside my chest, a little ball of tension burst at the deception, releasing a flood of excitement that I didn’t realise was in reserve.
I’d learned the pleasure of the underground stations during the weeks following my arrival. Though opinions varied on which station was the most remarkable, I saw nothing that rivalled Rådhuset. The russet walls of the cavernous station made me feel swallowed whole. It was as if I were inside some fire-breathing beast as the rumbling of trains and hissing of breaks, made Rådhuset living flesh around me.
So, on arrival at Gamla Stan station, I felt underwhelmed by subdued 1980’s tiling. I pulled my scarf up over my mouth as I stepped into the stinging wind of winter. The rain was so fine it was like cobwebs brushing my skin, cobwebs whose gossamer threads soaked me just as surely as a torrent. My gloves weren’t in my pockets as I’d expected them to be; a rookie error that I was too old to make.
I take a mouthful of coffee. Through the wool of my dress, I can feel the chill from the window. The painted frame around the glazing is starting to peel. It’s a nice café. A little quaint, perhaps, with its wooden panelling and red gingham cushions, and certainly not somewhere Stockholm-me would have chosen. Grimsby-me, on the other hand, well it is right up her street.
I can’t help but wonder if the choice of venue is for my benefit. Is this the sort of place he sees me whiling away the hours? I take another mouthful of coffee, this time more appreciative. A lot of places burn the coffee, if that is the right term, leaving it with too much bite.
Listening to the muddle of voices around me, I can’t avoid the thought that Swedish isn’t a particularly beautiful language. It doesn’t have the same evocative qualities as Spanish or Italian or French. The Romance languages. Swedish is too singsong and childlike, and when I form the sounds, my mouth becomes grotesque, elastic.
There are no longer spare tables in Café Tradkojan. Every glossy white chair is taken except the one opposite me. Fika is a Swedish custom after all, and something Sissela has encouraged us all to do. A family of three are closest to me. The baby on the woman’s knee is dribbling milk on the mother’s black jumper. Without breaking the rhythm of her conversation, the woman dabs distractedly at the stain, then at the irritated skin around the baby’s mouth. There is no way to tell if the child is a girl or boy. The child’s doughy body is wrapped in androgynous clothing that seems to be in style now. I can’t see the problem of pink or blue.
I try to listen, to make sense of what I am hearing. Sissela said she used to get trains and buses to English towns she’d never heard of, just to listen to conversations so she could learn how the words were used. The problem with that is remembering what the words mean in the first place. Sissela seems to forget I’m not multi-lingual like the others in our class.
Chatter rises in the steam-filled air from two young women at the table in front. They seem barely old enough to be called women. Their phones look executive, expensive. Not the phones of teenagers or parents. They don’t look Swedish. No one really does. My teenage self recorded it quite differently, though that memory has spent years being polluted by movies and books, conditioned to expect blonde, athletic deities or punk, pierced runaways. It has been a little disappointing to realise Stockholm is as much a melting pot as Manchester.
I let my gaze wander back to the window. The patch I cleared is misty once more. I trail my fingers through the condensation, mindlessly sketching out a pattern like a skater in a rink. Then, drifting past the pane, shrouded in a wind-worried swirl of rain, is a black-clad figure I think I recognise.
Oskar. My stomach clenches almost painfully. Has he arrived? I touch the side of his mug. It is almost too cool to drink. My fingers curl around the edges of the table. My lungs seem to fold in on themselves, reducing the available surface area for respiration. All those cauliflower air sacks squish up together with no room to expand.
I’d arrived a little late the first time I went to one of Sissela’s classes. I made the mistake of choosing a seat at the back, but once committed to my trajectory, there was no way to turn around. Scooting sideways between the desks, shame sprouted inside me like a stubborn weed I thought I’d killed. Hips and stomach and bum. It felt like stepping into a fat suit; all the extra flesh had taken me by surprise. Surrounded by tanned legs and short-shorts, my long summer skirt felt frumpy instead of sexy-hippy.
Even as I took my seat, I made up my mind to take a class elsewhere. Then in he came. Later than me. As old as me. With hair as silver as mine. Sensibly, he chose a seat at the front rather than the one next to me. Still, he may have made it through the gauntlet of teenagers unscathed as he’d avoided the middle age spread. As we dove into Swedish for beginners, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was fleeing divorce. He wore the jeans and shirt combo associated with business casual, clothes that I often wished my husband had worn. Sissela wasn’t one for icebreakers so it was several classes later when I finally learned his name.
The café door swings open. Oskar steps in, damp and accompanied by cleansing cold air. The interior of the café is stuffy, humid by contrast. With a half wave, I catch Oskar’s eye.
“Hej. I got you a coffee.”
Oskar doesn’t speak as he removes his black tailored coat. He arranges it on the back of the chair before taking a seat. For a change, he is wearing a sweater instead of a shirt. It suits him.
“I left you waiting.” Oskar is German. He speaks Italian and English. His English is clipped, direct. It gives me a thrill with a twist of discomfort.
“Sorry if it’s cold.” I nod towards the coffee. I wrap my hands around my mug to give them something to do. Too often they simply squirm in my lap when Oskar is close. The skin on the back of my hands has a paper like quality, a little looseness. They are starting to look like my mother’s.
As Oskar lifts his own mug, I roll my shoulders to release some of the tension. He is very handsome, with the exception of his nose. It is wine-swollen, purplish with thin red lines running through it like some bulbous marble. The skin on his cheeks hasn’t entirely escaped the effect of what must be a significant drinking habit. Although, it has never looked so severe in class, so perhaps the cold has exacerbated it.
“My daughter kept me talking this morning.” Oskar settles the mug carefully onto the table top.
“You have a daughter? How old is she?”
“Nine,” he says, after a pause. “My son is thirteen, but it’s Marlena that’s the chatterbox.”
“My girls are both in their twenties now. I’ll be a grandma before I know it.” I wait for a crinkling of displeasure around Oskar’s eyes. It doesn’t come. It is a thought that weighs on me though. I can’t imagine being a grandmother with grandchildren in another country.
“It doesn’t seem long since mine were born. Barely any time, really.” Oskar sits back in his chair, mug between his hands. His nails are clean and neatly trimmed.
“And it’s so hard to leave them.” My chest aches when I think about my girls. “I’m afraid they weren’t very happy with me when I relocated.”
“I left their father rather unexpectedly. Well, unexpectedly to them.”
“I can see it might be upsetting for them.”
It has been more than upsetting. Alice and Grace think I’m having a midlife crisis. Perhaps I am. They don’t understand that I have so many regrets and resentments built up inside me, that if I hadn’t left I would have cracked and shattered.
“Anyway, that was more than a year ago, and I’ve loved Sweden since I came as a girl with my parents.”
“It is pleasant enough.”
“And your children? Milena and?”
“I’ve always travelled with work. A year here, another two there.” He takes a sip from his mug. My own coffee is almost cold. “Will you eat the kladdkaka?” I must look blank. “The tårta.”
“I thought we could share it.”
“Good.” He picks up a fork and separates a piece of the cake. “This cake is the reason I suggested here.”
I help myself to a mouthful. It is gooey on the inside, baked to a crust on the outside. Dark chocolate and powdered sugar congeal into a hard-to-swallow paste. I wash it away with cold coffee, running my tongue over my teeth as Oskar takes another bite.
“I was surprised you agreed to come.”
“The girl you sit with in class. I’ve seen you leave together.” I try to keep my voice casual. Maybe I succeed. Oskar doesn’t look taken aback.
“She lives near me. I could be her father.” He shrugs the thought away as though it is nothing. “How are you finding the class?”
“Sissela’s great. Swedish, not so much.”
“It’s hard to learn another language.”
“It’s lonely.” I take another forkful of cake.
“Have you explored much?”
I shake my head, then hold a hand up to cover my mouth. “Waiting for spring.” In my mind, I can once again see the sun shining on the streets of Gamla Stan, the colourful buildings no longer veiled behind drizzle. The fantasy of stopping for a glass of wine at a pavement café, my daughters opposite me, a male hand holding mine under the table – a little shy as we gather for the first time as a family – it could be a reality. I let go of my mug and allow my arm to rest along the length of the table.
“The winter can be just as charming. Have you been to Gröna Lund?”
“The fair ground? Don’t be daft.” I roll my eyes, but a warmth is spreading through me.
Oskar stretches his own arm out. It is close, but not hand-holding close.
“Why not?” Oskar’s eyes are wide with excitement. Is it a dare, a challenge, a test even? “You think you’re too old?”
“I haven’t been on a rollercoaster since the girls were, well, girls.” Am I really entertaining this idea? I can picture the girls’ faces as they open their newsfeed. They wouldn’t believe what their mother was up to: selfies on rollercoasters, eating hotdogs in the dark with blurred strings of multi-coloured lights overhead, and getting the midnight ferry back to the city. Do Swedes have hotdogs? Ikea has hotdogs.
“Then we’ll go. The weather is better this week.”
“Just like that?” Bubbles of anticipation make me feel light inside. So many years ago, I’d loved bonfire night with the chilly air and jacket potatoes and amazing firework displays. There was something almost spiritual about raising your face heavenward and oohing and aahing as brilliant colour exploded above you. The fair could be like that, too.
“Just like that.” Oskar’s arm edges closer to mine. The bubbles are getting bigger, quivering with tension.
“Behöver ni den här stolen?”
Standing beside the table is a woman, a toddler with a golden halo of curls balancing on her hip. She’s looking down at me expectantly. The women with mobiles on the table in front have gone, to be replaced by a man and a young boy who are watching our exchange with interest.
“Sorry?” I don’t have time think of the Swedish word.
“Engelska? The chair. Can we take it?”
“Oh.” Caught in my day dream, I am momentarily confused. Hurriedly, I look for the man in the black coat, the man who could be Oskar. He has passed. He is halfway down the street. “Yes. Please take it.”
Once the woman has gone, I let out a sigh that has been building in my chest. My coffee cup is empty. The coffee in the other mug has started to go a little shiny on top as the limescale coalesces into a film. Two thirds of the cake remain on the plate, the fork jabbed into the top of it.
I stand. The chair scrapes along the floor. Eyes flick towards me and then away again, barely pausing in their assessment. I wipe at the sweat that has gathered on my upper lip, then shrug into my coat. I can’t look at the empty space where the vacant chair has been.
The chatter seems to be getting louder, swelling as I flee the table. Laughter is played in stereo, the happiness of other people pricking at me from all corners of the room. The steam rising from cups of tea and coffee is a spectre of the hope I’d had.
Clumsily, I shuffle between the tables, my handbag bumping into the arms of other customers as I go. “Sorry. Excuse me. So sorry.” I don’t know if they hear or understand. I can feel waves of dizziness lapping against the shores of my consciousness. My ears buzz in time with the fuzziness that fizzles at the edges of my vision. My lungs feel flat and tight.
When I make it to the door, I burst onto the street like a seed from a pod. Cold air covers my face with sharp, tingling kisses that chase away the encroaching panic. The rain has stopped, though there is still no sign of the sun. Against my thigh, my handbag is vibrating.
I fish out my phone from among the debris at the bottom of bag. It has started looking a little worse for wear. The cornflower blue back is scratched, the plastic around the edges worn white and rough in places. I tap the screen, saying hello before I can think better of it.
‘Grace! How lovely to hear your voice.’
“You sound upset.”
I screw my eyes shut for a moment, then give myself a mental shake.
“Just a bit breathless from my walk.” I force myself to grin. I’d learned that working in a call centre. Smile, and the person on the end of the phone will hear it. “If you and Alice aren’t planning a visit, I thought I might pop home for Christmas. What do you think?”
I start to retrace my steps to the tunnelbana station.
Katie Bennett lives in Lincolnshire with her partner and her dog, Sherlock. She always intended to be a writer, so got herself a BA in English and is working towards an MA in Creative Writing. While finding her ‘voice’ Katie tried her hand as a bookseller, an English teacher, and a copywriter. Fika is Katie’s first published short story, and she is rather excited that it will be featured in Storgy.
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