Len and Minna arrive at the cottage in Sejrøbugten – image scanned from a single frame of a 9.5mm movie
Sejrøbugten – the bay of Sejrø. The cottage stood, solitary, on the very cliff-edge. There was sunshine and the inviting sea lay cradled within the arms of the wide bay.
Inside, all was as we had hoped – clean, quite spacious and full of light from the wide glass-fronted doors at front and back. There was a little paved terrace behind the cottage, and it was here that we ate our first meal. Fourteen days stretched before us; we had never been alone together for so long. Our only visitor was the grocer, who came every other day in a little van. We could buy bread, milk, cheese, eggs, butter, vegetables and tinned goods. We had no refrigerator – only a kind of recess in the concrete below the floorboards. Here we stored a large Camembert cheese and hoped it would not begin walking! Minna cooked, and I discovered that she hated ‘skin’ on custard. I loved it – so that was all right.
If this isolation was a kind of test we survived triumphantly. When I returned to Streatham, I saw those days merging into a pattern of serenity where the aroma of coffee mingled with the scent of the sea. Our shared, simple meals were a foretaste of future, permanent, stability. We swam together, far out in the bay, Minna’s expert crawl alongside my breast-stroke. We were not in competition. Back in the cottage I towelled her down and the sight of her prompted me to take her. Then we walked down the steps to the bay. Halfway was a wooden seat set in a recess and here we sat by the hour, never at a loss for speech or un-eased by silence.
We loved to sit there in the evening. When the sun declined almost to the horizon Minna would say, ‘Now wait for it to sizzle!’ It was a kind of Adam-and-Eve existence with the serpent banished. No more misunderstandings. We knew – as we had always known – that such things were impossible when we were together. When we stood by the window, looking out upon the night-shrouded sea I remembered the little boy on that long-ago, long-distant seashore who had sensed the nearness of eternity. Minna raised her eyes to me with that look of transparent love and I felt that if we were suddenly snatched away from each other this timeless moment would survive, survive even death.
Last night, in another century, I dreamed of us. We stood at the top of a steep hill looking out over a vast countryside – a 180-degree view of fields, hedges, woods and coppices. Today I cannot see as far as the end of my garden, but in my Bredon-Hill-like dream the trees on the far-distant horizon were as sharp and clear as those nearest. We began to descend, but the slope was steep. I remembered something I loved to do when a child. ‘Let’s roll down!’ I said. And so we did, rolling, laughing in the old way to reach the bottom breathless, happy in our foolishness.
Within our cottage our life was a kind of dance. I was happy because… she existed! For a little while I could forget past tense, future tense. We wandered along Sejrø’s stony-sandy shore picking up strange stones and shells, each transfigured by time and place into jewels more precious than any fashioned gems. We caressed these sea-smoothed stones, admired the enwombed swirling patterns and brought them home. I still have them; still caress them. Our love for each other extended to all we touched or saw. I understood Traherne’s ecstasy amid a field of corn: ‘The corn was orient and immortal wheat which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting.’’
How all things had conspired together for our happiness! The ordinary daily acts – even washing-up – became a joyous ritual more potent than anything achieved by begowned priest in incensed sanctuary. We were immoderate, then, in everything as the young should be, with hours expended, caring nothing for what was to come or what had passed. We laughed so much – even at our bunk-beds which made sleeping together a delicious hazard, a fall to the floor no more than comedy; Minna’s cold-in-the-head dismissed by her as ‘Just like me!’ All physical things had been subsumed into this tremendous joy that, at last, we were free to explore each other’s endless vistas of imagination – meeting time and again to exchange mutual loves and hates. Pygmalia-Pygmalion. In these moments outside Time she did indeed become what I imagined her to be – and I for her.
These quiet days brought a third dimension to our relationship. The years before we met in Italy were unexplored territory, and now Minna told me something of her childhood and adolescence. Sofie, Minna’s mother was a member of the Bentzen family, which had farmed large tracts of land around Birkerød for many generations. The property was now owned by Sofie’s eldest brother Jens, unmarried, and a man of some influence in this small town, about twenty miles from Copenhagen. Sofie, who was born on 5 September, 1886, married Herman Georg Marius Tofte on 3 July, 1908. He was some two years older than his bride (1 March, 1884). His father, Johannes Peter Tofte, was a veterinary surgeon practising in Stubbekøbing on the island of Falster. Herman ran a business dealing in porcelain. The contrast between his commercial-based outlook and Sofie’s earthy realism could surface in an otherwise loving relationship which, in spite of a disastrous ‘middle-period’ lasted until death. Sometimes, in anger or jest, he would call her ‘You peasant!’
Sofie bore him twins, Ena and Mona, on 5 August, 1909. Mona was a ‘blue’ baby and died soon after birth. Minna appeared in 1911 on St. Valentine’s Day, 14 February. Many years later she recorded her memories of this childhood:
‘I was born in Copenhagen in the Frederiksberg district, Godthåbsvej No.10, and I was a very revolting baby, revolting because my mother couldn’t feed me so I was starved. Then my grandmother brought me a cup of milk and put it to my lips whereupon I grabbed the edge of it with both hands and swallowed as much as I could. Then came Grethe on 25 July 1914. I distinctly remember the birth of Herman. I was staying with my cousin Hans. My aunt was with my mother. Hans and I were told to take something over to her. Hans and I were six years old. We rang the doorbell at the flat and my aunt appeared. She took the package rather brusquely and said “You’ve got a little brother!” and slammed the door. We looked at each other and wondered where he had come from! That was on the 30th April 1917. When he was three he had never spoken and Mother thought he must be dumb. Then, suddenly, he said, ‘I can speak now.’ Apparently he had, very quietly, listened and learned but when other children mocked him because he spoke badly he decided to keep quiet.’
‘The family had grown more prosperous during the First World War, so Allan and Hans-Henrik reached this world in Dr. Muller’s private nursing home in Banegårds Alle. Allan was born on the 8th June 1919 and I didn’t see him until he came home. Hans-Henrik was born on 12 December 1920 and when he was “expected” Herman and I decided to visit mother at the clinic – Herman was only three and it was quite a long walk for a little boy. The clinic staff were surprised to see us, unaccompanied, but they took us to mother. In the room was a cot and in the cot a baby, a very red baby born the previous day. The nurse picked him out of the cot, placed him on her hand and said “Doesn’t he look like a little monkey?” He certainly did! Last came Finn (10 November, 1926).’
Minna shared a room with Grethe and they did not exactly ‘get on’. Once, while quarrelling, mother stormed in and settled matters forcibly. When she had gone Minna looked at Grethe. ‘Av for Satan, det var Mor!’ (Oh Satan! That was Mother that was!)’
Grethe liked to read in bed – a forbidden practice, so she read by torchlight under the bedclothes. Minna ‘told on her’ which produced another maternal storm. ‘What did Grethe do then?’ I asked. ‘She threw a chair at me!’
Ena, Minna and Grethe spent much of their childhood away from the family flat. Ena and Minna usually stayed at Birkerød when they were unwell, or when a new baby was expected. Grethe went to the Falster grandparents. The Bentzen farm at Birkerød evoked many memories for Minna to share with me during those long and lovely Sejrø evenings: ‘My maternal grandfather died before I was born, and I remember my grandmother only as a very old woman. She was the second wife of my grandfather Jorgen Bentzen, son of Bent Jorgensen. She bore him nine children. Jens, the eldest son, automatically inherited the farm – the others had to make their own careers. Mother was baptised in the church which adjoined the farm. My grandmother usually sat in the corner by the stove, looking awfully nice in her black dress with a high collar and her tight-fitting bonnet with white piping round the front, and which had a marvellous gold-embroidered back.
‘My Aunt Astrid ran the household and the dairy while Uncle Jens looked after the farm. Two younger brothers, Christian and Jørgen, were living there at that time. At mealtimes I often enjoyed soft-boiled eggs, but had to eat a whole round of black bread with each egg. Uncle Jørgen was very good at snatching the bread away from my plate so that I could have an extra egg.
‘The farm buildings were long, low and thatched, set in a square around a cobbled courtyard, with a large stack of wood in the middle. The threshing machine was worked by a horse harnessed to a pole and going round and round outside the barn. Near this threshing-floor was the laundry with an enormous old-fashioned mangle, the rollers filled with stones and hauled by hand from end to end. There was a pigsty at the other end of this building. I liked pigs. I climbed into it and was found sitting beside the sow, nursing two piglets. Sows can be dangerous. When Uncle Jens found me he hauled me out and gave me a thrashing. I got more than my share of thrashings at Birkerød.’
She was very small when she wandered into a cornfield and was nearly killed by the reaping-machine driven by her Uncle Jørgen who, terrified, stopped the horses just in time to avoid cutting off her feet. ‘He picked me up, swore at me, cuddled me and then gave me a thrashing,’ said Minna. Once, she was allowed to take some cows from the fields to the milking parlour. They were tethered. Holding them by the tethers she was stepping out as fast as the cows would allow her. But the cows began running and she ran too. The cows left half their milk on the road.
The farm stood hard by the ancient parish church whose interior was bright with mediaeval frescoes. Grandfather Bentzen earned a post-mortem rebuke from the parish priest when his coffin was carried in. ‘He lived next door to the church but was rarely seen within it!’ Uncle Jens, on the other hand, was churchwarden in later life and was often present at burials in the adjacent churchyard. The granary loft looked out upon this area and ‘we children used to watch the coffins going down. Uncle Jens was officiating at a funeral when, looking up, saw us there. He shook a fist at us.’
The same gruesome curiosity led Minna to a widow in the living room. She had been forbidden to come out but heard ‘things happening’ in the yard. She peeped through the curtains. ‘It was very interesting. A pig was strung up for slaughter and I watched it with great amazement. Then Aunt Astrid found me and she wasn’t pleased.’ Astrid fed the farm-workers and dealt with the dairy. ‘I was very impressed with her work. I never learned to milk a cow – but I did try. The pail Astrid used for milking was emptied into a large milk-can and taken into the dairy – a granite lined basement under the living-quarters. There were shelves along the sides with large pans for the milk to be left standing until the cream separated and rose to the top. The cream was put into a milk-churn which Astrid rotated vigorously to produce butter. The milk-cans and milk-pans were scrubbed and washed out in the yard – in all weathers – and I remember Astrid’s hands in winter… blue with cold and swollen with frost-bite.’
A piece of knitting always hung by the door leading to the yard. Anyone going out to feed the chickens or the pigs was obliged to take it along and add a few rows before returning. ‘We don’t waste time here!’ declared Astrid. A large midden stood at some distance from the farmhouse and one of the farm labourers managed to fall into this stinking heap. He extricated himself with a yell, ran straight to the duck-pond and plunged in.
In midwinter, with the snow deep around the village, Minna’s family travelled by horse-drawn sleigh. Wrapped in furs and with the sleigh-bells jingling ,they drove to the railway station at Holte. ‘It was wonderful, beautiful, exciting – not like the train which was unheated. I passed the time tracing patterns on the frosty windows.’
‘In 1933 the farm burned down. Uncle Jens and Aunt Astrid were looking after Astrid’s elder sister, who had been ill. They managed to carry her out of the blazing house – otherwise all that was saved was a umbrella snatched up by Astrid on the way out. An electrical fault had set the thatched roofs blazing from end to end.’
Minna and Grethe had happy memories of times spent with their grandparents in Stubbekøbing. ‘They lived in Grønnegade, a cobbled street. The house had a high red-tiled roof entered through a tall gate, tall enough to admit horses and carts – and my grandparents’ landau – which gave upon a cobbled courtyard. I used to be given a knife and told to weed between the cobbles. There was a pump in the yard – no water laid on in the house. There were stables and a coach-house. Bedstefar [grandfather] the vet intrigued me when he treated horses in this yard. I hated it when he examined a horse’s throat by putting a metal dustpan between their jaws. The grating sound made my hair stand on end, a sound I have never forgotten. Grandfather might be called out in the middle of the night to care for a sick animal. He never refused, no matter what the weather. Often he would be collected in a rowing boat to be taken to an adjacent island. He was also the district meat controller.
‘My names? Grandmother’s name was Chatrine and Minna was one of my aunts. My father had three brothers – Ludwig, the eldest, then Einar and Jens. There were three sisters – Betty, Minna and Jenny. Minna and Jenny died from tuberculosis at an early age… Minna was only fourteen. I was terrified of thunderstorms, but one of our maids took me out to see a farmhouse which had been struck by lightning and set ablaze. What terrified me was the screaming of the burning horses trapped in the stables.’ When older, Minna often swam in the harbour, a habit which, once, almost cost her her life. ‘I was practising my underwater skills – to see how long I could stay under. When I surfaced my head hit something hard. I had come up under the landing-stage and, dazed, barely remembered that if I were to reach open water again I must turn and swim under water again. I didn’t tell anyone about this. It was at Stubbekøbing that my father occasionally took me out in an open boat to catch eels. He used a trident but I don’t think he caught any. It was fun to be out with him. He was an expert oarsman and belonged to a rowing club in Nykøbing where he met Peter Freuchen, the Arctic explorer and author of My Eskimo Wife. Grandfather died about six years ago. He was already dying when the doctor asked him if there were anything he would like. “Yes. A dozen oysters and a big cigar.” He got them too!’
Around 1919 Minna’s father bought a lakeside cottage at Holte where the family spent long periods during summer, and where the children could play with a host of companions. Minna thought it an idyllic place, although all drinking water had to be carried from a well beside the forester’s cottage. ‘I had a shoulder-yoke with two pails – just like a milkmaid,’ she smiled. ‘Water for washing we took from the lake. We had a lovely rowing-boat and sooner or later everyone fell into the lake – except me.’ Lakeside games could be dangerous. Allan was pushed into the water – which was very deep – by a companion who then pulled him out again. They were both about three years old – ‘and I was supposed to be looking after Allan. I was reading a book instead. I enjoyed playing with the neighbours’ children around the lake. We all had boats and there were wonderful sea-battles. We spent about three months of each year at the cottage, so Ena and I had to commute to school in Copenhagen.’
For the first fourteen years of Minna’s life the family prospered. Her father was an importer of fine porcelain and travelled through Scandinavia establishing lucrative connections in many cities. The family rented a large flat in a fashionable quarter of Copenhagen attended by a ‘nanny’, two ‘living in’ maidservants and a St. Bernard dog named Ponto. The maidservants, said Minna, ‘were very good at making Ena and I do the work while they sat in my father’s study, smoking his cigars. A neighbour caught them at it and told my father. It may have been one of them whom my mother saw bending over Hans-Henrik’s cradle – with lice dropping out of her hair!’
‘Ena was very agile and a good gymnast. She trained for a brief spell with the Royal Ballet school and danced like an elf, but her feet were not strong enough. She concentrated on her piano studies. While Ena played the piano I wanted to be out and about. I loved football, played well, and organised a team with my brothers and their friends. This finished when the boys began to notice that I was a girl.’ When they were all much younger they joined a group of children playing on a beach. When Minna returned home and told her mother what fun they had had, Sofie asked: ‘Were there both girls and boys?’ ‘I don’t know,’ replied Minna, ‘we had no clothes on.’
In a later year there was an incident which she found hard to talk about: ‘One boy got me alone, unbuttoned his trousers and exposed himself. He wanted me to hold him there, rub him. I was disgusted; I hated it, hated him, did not understand why he wanted such a thing. I got away. I was so frightened that I wouldn’t tell anyone – until now.’
She transferred her energies to scouting and swimming. She must have been about thirteen when her mother presented her with a beautifully wrapped ‘very special’ birthday-gift… two sets of silken undergarments. Minna burst into tears. ‘I wanted a scout-knife!’ Then her mother cried also. Minna eventually became a cub-mistress and her certificates for swimming, diving and life-saving accumulated.
There were lavish family festivities, particularly at Christmas. The children were sent to bed in the afternoon of Christmas Eve while father made his preparations. In Denmark it is the Eve which is important rather than Christmas Day. The reception rooms were separated by large double doors and in one of these rooms the Christmas tree was placed (‘from floor to ceiling’). Father spent hours adorning the tree with the heart-shaped, latticed, coloured paper containers which the children had been fashioning for weeks. These were filled with sweets or small presents. The tree itself became a visitant from some timeless land, unknown to botanists, where gilded pine-cones grew alongside small sprays of so-red-berried holly. There were heart-shaped wooden plaques attached with bright red ribbons and a host of what Minna always described as ‘living candles’ The top of the tree bore a large glittering silver star which, in candlelight seemed to hover in space.
The presents were placed at the foot of the tree, protected by a number of tiny, elvish figures dressed in red coats and hoods. These, the nisse men, the little goblins whose origins lay far back in pagan days had to be propitiated. ‘Unless a glass of milk is left out for them on Christmas Eve they will turn the cream sour and twist the cows’ tails into knots!’ Now, reduced to porcelain, their red coats were often patchy evidence that the latest Tofte baby had been sucking them. The presents reflected the family’s prosperity. The flat was heated by an enormous coal-fired stove with brass doors set in a corner, its surface faced with ceramic tiles, almost too hot to touch.
The Christmas feast began with rice-pudding into which was placed a single almond. The lucky child in whose plate this treasure was found was rewarded with a marzipan pig. Roast goose with glazed, browned potatoes and red cabbage followed and then came the apple-cake topped with cream. Now the dining-room lights were dimmed, the double doors flung wide and the magical Christmas tree revealed in a blaze of candle-lit glory. The family, standing around the tree, sang Danish carols. Such was the texture of her happy childhood and while describing it, lying in my arms, she softly sang one of those singularly beautiful carols, so unfamiliar to an English ear.
‘In winter we skated on the canals in Frederiksberg Have. Ena was very good at figure-skating and dancing. I preferred racing with the boys. Once we had Herman with us and I was supposed to teach him to skate. But I grew impatient and left him – he could barely stand on the skates – and went racing off with the boys. When I came back I found him standing quite still, blue with cold. I have regretted that for the rest of my life. I was very fond of him.’
‘In Denmark we start school at seven – but I began at six at the Maria Kruses School. The first grade was on the ground floor with two classrooms – A and B. I was in A. We had each a desk which could be adjusted to our height with footstools and back-rests. The gym-mistress measured us twice yearly and adjusted the desks. The second form was on the second floor – you rose upwards in this school.
‘There was assembly each morning in the gymnasium. The headmistress Lara Jensen, a tall woman, always wore white dresses. She greeted every single child by name – we were 500 – as we entered for morning prayers. Once, my eyes downcast, I was commanded: “Look at me, Minna!” She knew the Christian name of every child. Late arrivals were locked out and punished by detention if the excuse seemed inadequate. Wearing jewellery was not allowed. There was no school uniform, but in the top form we wore little brown sailor-hats with a ribbon bearing the name of our school.
‘We began learning English in the fourth grade and I became interested. I didn’t learn much in that grade because I didn’t like the teacher, though she was a very good teacher. But I got on like a house-on-fire in the next grade where the teacher wasn’t so good… but I liked her! In the sixth grade we began German. This teacher was a disciplinarian and if a girl made a mistake she would rap the girl’s head with a thimble. I liked her immensely. In the eighth grade we started French with the same teacher I had originally had for English and I didn’t like her any better now. I refused to learn French. The women knew I could manage perfectly well if I cared to apply myself so the headmistress took me in hand. She gave me private lessons after school in her flat at the top of the building. This was very nice as I was served tea by her maid. The headmistress was extraordinarily kind to me and I didn’t deserve it.
‘The botany and nature study class was on the same floor as this flat and there hung a human skeleton. The story among the girls was that this was one of the headmistresses’ previous maids!’
‘I joined the Girl Guides with my best friend from school, Margareth (Ditte) daughter of Colonel Anning, head of the Military Academy at splendid and ancient Frederiksborg Castle. We thought the Guides were not adventurous enough so we arranged our own camping expeditions on Sundays – two young girls camping in the woods north of Copenhagen. I don’t know whether it was safe. We didn’t worry about that. We made our own uniforms – khaki shirts and shorts. At one of my birthday parties Ditte arrived accompanied by her father’s batman. He took her coat, placed her on a chair, removed her boots and put on patent leather shoes. She dismissed him and stood up, wearing a white silk dress looking very attractive and surrounded by little girls all astonished at this performance.
‘Once I disobeyed instructions and instead of going straight home from school I went with Ditte to the castle and she asked me to stay to tea. We thought we should ask her father to phone home to ask whether I might stay. When the Colonel spoke to my father he courteously asked permission. My father, anxious because I had not come home, replied curtly “Please send her home at once and I will deal with her.” This sounded very threatening, so Ditte, her two sisters and her twin brothers managed to scrape together 20 øre for my tram-fare so that I could get home as quickly as possible. I got the thrashing of my life.’ The Colonel, it seemed, was also a disciplinarian, using a whip upon his children when they disobeyed him by taking, without permission, an extraordinarily long walk, returning tired but triumphant. The little boys had found it hard to keep pace with their big sisters. No-one had known where the children had gone. After the punishment for disobedience, he congratulated them on their achievement.
It was on Christmas Eve, 1924 that happiness ended. Most of Herman’s capital was held by a bank with strong family connections. Just before Christmas of that year he became aware that all was not well. On Christmas Eve he realised that the bank was in default to its creditors and would not open for business after the holiday. His capital was gone. Appeals to his cousin, one of the directors, were rejected. Herman behaved like a man demented. The children lay wide-eyed and sobbing in their beds listening to their father’s rage and despair and to the vain words of comfort offered by Sofie. They never forgot that day and the events which followed. One maidservant was retained, the other and the ‘nanny’ dismissed. Ponto, the great St. Bernard, had been killed by a pack of street-dogs some time before.
The Christmas feast was eaten in a black silence and during the succeeding days the children saw their father alternating between fits of fury and depression. When Minna returned to school she was summoned by the headmistress. That lady, hardly knowing how to conceal her pity and embarrassment, broke the news that Minna and Ena would not be attending school that term. Indeed, they could return home at once. Minna, mystified and in tears, asked ‘Why?’ ‘You had best talk with your father.’ Minna never disclosed that conversation, but discovered that her younger sister, Grethe, would continue at school at no cost to the family. ‘You have removed two of the girls and that is enough!’ Herman was told. Perhaps a similar offer was made for Minna, but Herman Marius had other ideas.
Now, a few weeks before her fifteenth birthday, she was told that she would become her father’s assistant in rescuing what remained of his business. Herman had a well‑sited store in a street adjoining fashionable Strøget, Copenhagen’s Bond Street, and here Minna was initiated into the china and glassware trade. Herman managed to keep his shop open for more than a year, but lack of capital enforced its closure. He decided to travel in Norway with an array of stock samples. He would hire a show‑room, often in the hotel where he and Minna were to stay. Then, overnight, they arranged displays of his wares. Minna soon found herself responsible for dealing with the details. She was expected to tell buyers the wholesale price, estimate the cost of carriage and insurance, become familiar with rates of exchange, the varying customs and excise duties in a dozen countries and have percentages at her finger‑tips. I was amazed, even more so when she told me, with uncharacteristic pride, that after a couple of months she was able to give a customer a final figure ‘straight out of my head’.
An Italian buyer for an important firm in Milan wanted Minna to come and work for him. ‘He was rather old and I wasn’t sure whether he was in love with me or my skills! Anyway, I couldn’t leave father.’ I interrupted her story here: ‘Tell me, if you had been able to stay on at school and go to university, what did you want to do with your life?’ ‘Oh,’ she answered, gazing into the middle distance, ‘I would have become a civil engineer.’ Minna could always astonish me.
During these years she was a virtual prisoner, moving from hotel to hotel (‘How I came to hate boiled salmon – Norwegians seem to eat nothing else!’) seeing no-one apart from the hotel staff and the buyers, becoming aware that her father was drinking far too much. Nor was this all. Once, unusually, Minna and her father were invited to coffee by one of the hotel guests. Minna soon became aware that the lady and her father were something more than friendly. This discovery, combined with her isolation, was to have a profound effect in the years to come. The situation grew worse. Close upon a nervous breakdown Herman telegraphed Sofie: ‘I need you. Come now.’ She came and the three returned to Copenhagen. It was Sofie who saved the family. Somehow – she may have had to borrow money – she acquired a small dairy-business with accommodation above the shop.
The hours were long and, like all Danish retail businesses, hedged about with many regulations. I gathered that Herman, shamed, was of little help. Ena found a position in a Copenhagen bank. Herman, the eldest brother, went to sea as cabin-boy. Allan was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker. Hans-Henrik eventually became a clerk in the office of the municipality. Minna began to work as a clerk for the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Before going to the office she rose early and swam for half an hour. It was during one of these sessions that she met Vibeke, newly married to Otto Abrahamsen. Minna and ‘Vibe’ became fast friends. By the time Minna was eighteen her father’s fits of depression and occasional violence made Sofie wish that Minna might leave home. More than once her father had told her to ‘get out of the house’.
Minna confided in Vibe and was amazed when that girl declared: ‘You shall come and live with us! I will speak to Otto today.’ And so it was. This newly-married and generous couple befriended Minna and she was to stay with them for two years.
Minna was now studying English with all the concentration she had applied to her father’s business and to Singer’s bookkeeping. So much so that she stinted on necessities in order to buy books. One result was that, needing an expensive bilingual dictionary and a new pair of shoes she settled for the book. The result was a deformation of both feet which would plague her for the rest of her life.
In the Tofte household things were little better than in the days when Grethe, wheeling one of her brothers in his pushchair near a lake, stopped to admire the wildfowl. An old lady approached and offered Grethe a bag of stale bread ‘so that you and the little boy can feed the ducks.’ Grethe thanked her, waited until she was out of sight, and took the bread home. ‘I knew that the family needed it more than the ducks!’ Grethe told me, many years later. She was often sent out by Sofie ‘to look for father’. Both knew that he would be found in some bar. Grethe never dared enter such places, wandered about and returned, confessing failure. Once she went down to the lake, determined to drown herself, realised that she could not do it, and returned to that unhappy home. Soon she, like Minna, was told to ‘get out’. Grethe found herself a room and a poorly paid job – so poorly paid that she could afford decent meals for only a fortnight in each month. The fortnight until next pay-day found her eating bread and margarine. The only furniture in her room was that lent her by the landlord.
After two years with Vibe and Otto Minna left. She had left Singers, where her account books were being preserved by the management as an incentive and model for Minna’s successors. Her accuracy, neatness and remarkable handwriting would leave new recruits dumbfounded and resentful. The new job was as social secretary to the widow Carlsberg, Fru Xenia Vagn Jacobsen. Scouting, swimming and English studies had continued, as had her friendship with Vibe and Otto. They went camping together – once to Bornholm – and sometimes they were joined by a man Minna had known when she was a cub-leader. Hervey Hansen. At about this time a change in Vibe and Otto’s domestic arrangements made it necessary for Minna to seek rooms elsewhere.
When Hervey proposed marriage it may have been that security and accommodation (the impossibility of going back to her family) influenced Minna’s acceptance, or perhaps because her father disliked Hervey. ‘There’s something wrong with that man,’ he told Grethe. So, at twenty-one Minna married Hervey… ‘on All Fools’ Day’, as she remarked with uncharacteristic cynicism. I already knew much of the outcome – Minna’s abhorrence of Hervey’s once-only attempt at coition and the resulting ‘white’ marriage.’ Hervey became a kind of loving friend (for it became obvious that he accepted the situation without resentment) or, perhaps, more of a father than Herman had become. This, and three episodes told to me by Minna, made me realise that this woman whom I loved had been a kind of ‘sleeping princess’, awakened by a single kiss on that English hillside only nine months ago.
She must have been about seventeen when, walking with her father in a somewhat run-down part of the city, she saw an old school friend approaching. Minna ran to her, seized her hand and brought the girl to her father. ‘This is Anya, one of my old classmates.’ Herman was polite, coldly polite and broke off the encounter as soon as possible. Then he turned on Minna: ‘How dare you! Can’t you see what she is? Never speak to such a girl again!’ Minna was hurt, uncomprehending. Only later did she recall that the girl had been embarrassed, recalled that she had been heavily ‘made up’. Later still, with something approaching horror, she began to wonder if the pair already knew each other. Then she hated herself for harbouring such an idea.
The second episode occurred while she was still at Singers. She was invited to a party by another ex-school friend – this one the daughter of a wealthy businessman. When she reached the house she discovered that the party consisted of a dozen girls and youths. The parents were absent. Servants had prepared a lavish meal at a long table and a bottles of red and white wine had been placed between each pair of diners. It was a noisy party and towards the end of the meal Minna noticed that the guests were disappearing into the garden. ‘Where is everyone going?’ she asked her neighbour who grinned at her. ‘Out to sit in the cars, of course! What else? Coming?’ Minna went home.
She was concluding her English studies at the time of her marriage and had become the ‘star’ pupil of her professor. At one of his well-attended sessions he asked her to translate into Danish a passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses (though banned in England, it had been published in Germany a few years earlier). He indicated part of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of the book. ‘I didn’t understand a word of it, didn’t know the Danish for some of the words, but I did my best,’ she told me. Earlier the professor had organised a dramatic reading of R.C. Sheriff’s Journey’s End, the successful play about the Great War and gave Minna the leading role of the mind-tortured company commander. A film of the play had been released in 1930.
She must have produced her best at the final examination also, passing with honours. Minna was proud of her work and attended the diploma-awarding ceremony where her professor was to make the presentation. He did not appear. The ceremony was conducted by another academic but before the students dispersed the facts became known. Her professor had gone to his bathroom that morning and had cut his throat.
Soon after her marriage the effect of economising on her shoes became evident. The toes on both feet, unable to grow freely had become distorted and bent inwards. Hervey took her to a consultant who advised an immediate operation. This was only partially successful. Silver screws were inserted and she would have to wear specially designed supports in her shoes. Convalescence in a nursing home was lengthy and it was while she was lying there, on the morning of 1July, 1934, that she heard Adolf Hitler’s speech after his massacre of Ernst Rohm and his associates in what became known as ‘The Night of the Long Knives’. ‘He screamed and shouted like a maniac,’ she told me, ‘It was terrifying.’ As she spoke I remembered the day we walked to the harbour where the new German ‘pocket-battleship’ was at anchor. Germany was limited by treaty to a restriction on warship tonnage. Hitler’s new ship complied but had been equipped with the guns of a far larger class of warship. German sailors were swarming through the city, their cap-bands bearing the name Panzerschiff Deutschland.
When Minna left the nursing home and returned to the flat she was unable to walk for several weeks. Hervey had to carry her to the bathroom and toilet. Her walking holiday in the Dolomites a year later had been, in part, a test of the success of that surgery. So it was that day by day Minna became a three-dimensional figure for me, a woman with a childhood and adolescence. I marvelled at the way I had come crashing into her strange life. For better? For worse? I pushed the thought aside, pushed away the idea of Hervey, once a kind of unimportant shadow, but now becoming three-dimensional also… kindly, tolerant. A fool?
We took long walks along the coast and into the wooded hills surrounding the bay. It was on one of these excursions that she suddenly asked, ‘Would you like to meet the Earl of Bothwell?’ I had almost forgotten my school history, but knew that he, one of the several husbands of Mary, Queen of Scots, had fled to Scandinavia to save his skin from the Scottish nobles.
A little church stood just outside a village and here the sexton removed some planks from the centre aisle. There he lay, shrivelled and mummified, a few strands of ginger hair clinging to his scalp. Such a little fellow to cause so great a to-do. He had sought refuge in Sweden but had been passed on to Denmark where Frederik II imprisoned him in nearby Dragsholm Castle. There he remained for eight years and died, quite mad, aged 42. This was the man, I reminded Minna, who had murdered Darnley, Mary’s husband. ‘Mary,’ I said, ‘loved him so much that she vowed she would follow him to the ends of the earth in her petticoat. But she didn’t.’
And so the days passed, though we had little sense of that passing. After so long a separation we attempted to ignore time’s unwelcome reminders – or most of them. But at night, half-sleeping, half-waking, we clasped one another and, wordlessly, confronted the passing hours.
But, at last, I am standing at the window of the train. Minna is on the platform, not waving, numb… my camera locked in its case. The small figure recedes… recedes. My compartment is full of chattering people. If I had been alone I should have wept.
* * * *
Now, in Streatham, if I need to fold back time I screen my film. There is our arrival at the cottage; there Minna swimming, that expert crawl-stroke; there Minna and I coming to meet each other on the road; there the two of us, standing at the cottage window where, dearest of all these glimpses of time past, she suddenly looks up at me with that expression of love I already knew and would know again so many times. And the windmill, the great black-painted windmill which we passed daily. We stood close by as the sails swept down and past us… a kind of ‘hush-sh-sh….hush-sh-sh….hush-sh-sh’: every few seconds. The film is soundless but my mind recreates the sound… a reminder of time passing.