“An Excursion”

Ida Jessen (trans. by Martin Aitken)

June 10, 2022 
The following is a story from Ida Jessen's A Postcard for Annie, translated by Martin Aitken. Jessen is widely considered to be the master of psychological realism in contemporary Danish fiction. She is a recipient of the Lifetime Award from the Danish Arts Foundation and a member of The Danish Academy, and also translates the works of Alice Munro and Marilynne Robinson, amongst others.

In her coat, standing at the counter, Tove wrote:

“I’ve gone out.” She then crumpled the note in her hand and wrote instead: “Since you clearly weren’t interested in herring—” Here she ran out of words for a moment, before adding simply: “I am not your fucking housewife.” She read it back to herself. Was it clear enough? Yes, she believed it was. She looked at her watch. It was a quarter past six, the car would be coming up the drive any minute now. She took the packet of raw herring fillets from the fridge and placed it on top of her note. The telephone rang. She went into the living room to answer it, but on seeing that it was Max she didn’t, and left it to the answering machine. She heard the recording of her own tinny voice, and at the same moment her mobile started ringing in her bag.

She hurried down to her bike in the shed. The back tire was ’at. Pumping it, she thought about her note, and it occurred to her how superfluous it was. She would be gone. He would come home to an empty house. It would give him something to think about. She went back inside and threw it away. Some juice from the herring had already seeped into the paper. But she left the fillets where they were on the counter.

As she came out again she noticed the neighbor on the other side of the hedge. He waved and came towards her purposefully in a way that suggested he had something to say. “Hello,” she chimed, waving back. And with that she was on her way.

It was the third of April. The spring had been cold, four or five degrees Celsius most days, but now, cycling through the woods, she discovered it was too warm to be wearing gloves. She removed them and stuffed them into her pocket, then swiped off her knitted cap too. She’d been so busy these past months that she’d barely been out at all, and now it became apparent to her that nature had not been idle either. Among spruces and pines, wild apple trees were in bud, and the sour cherry trees were already blossoming. Somewhere among the trees a woodpecker drummed, and immediately another responded in the distance, a hollow-sounding echo, as if connected to the first via some subterranean channel. The anthills, which for months had appeared so dull and dead, now teemed with shining ants, and the air was fresh and redolent with the foresty smells of earth, wood, and moist rock.

She imagined the big blue car coming along the coast road at any moment, turning off and passing the scout hut, gliding through the new residential area, slowing down as it reached the long front garden, then finally pulling up in the drive. He would get out, stand for a moment and gaze absently in the direction of the woods, walk up to the front door and find it locked. What would he do then? Well, presumably he would unlock it. Go inside. Without calling out he would put his jacket away meticulously on a hanger; he would bend down and untie his shoelaces, place his shoes on the shelf and put on the pair he wore at home. He would go to her workshop to see if she was there. Inside was the sofa she had almost wept with rage over that morning and which was now nearly finished; there were her storage shelves with their rolls of fabric, her desk with its scissors, tape measures and two sewing machines, and on the floor a tall yellow vase full of sprigs. Realizing that she wasn’t there, he would then go and see if she was in the living room or the kitchen. Without deliberation he would throw the herring fillets in the bin. Perhaps he would emit some expression of annoyance at the mess they’d left on the counter, before going back into the living room, taking the newspaper from his briefcase, sitting down, opening it, and then very quickly dozing off.

No. He would call her first.

As soon as the thought occurred to her, she stopped and dismounted, took out her phone and switched it off, realizing only then that she couldn’t remember her PIN – the SIM card was new and for the time being she’d noted the codes down on a sheet of paper in the kitchen drawer. The thought made her feel good in a rather bitter sort of way.

She cycled past the little home bakery whose door had just been painted and the sign hung out. Its tiny front garden had been dug up ready for planting, as it was at this time every year. By the gate, pots of roses and sage stood waiting to be put in the soil so that everything would be ready when the summer-house owners soon began to appear on  the  weekends,  ebbing  and  flowing for a couple of months until hopefully the summer kicked in properly; eager to fill in their time, they would come and buy the baker’s stodgy cinnamon rolls, which were edible only when still warm and would surely be impossible to sell under any other circumstance than that of the mild and doggedly unacknowledged tedium belonging to the summer visitor. Across the road was the photographer’s place. She too had put out her sign, though this one advertised pashmina shawls brought home from India. The rhus typhina in her front garden was still draped with Christmas lights and long festoons of dyed feathers that told of Easters long  gone.  They  were  never  taken  down.  Last  year’s flowerpots sprouted grass, while old tin cans with wire handles made receptacles for bird feed. At the moment, it wasn’t apparent at all how delightfully it would all come together in the month ahead, how the roses would engulf the garden path and almost hide the little studio from view, blocking out its light, the photographer herself sitting outside on hot summer days waiting for customers. Cycling on, she passed an old lady who was carefully weeding her bare soil, and then a farmhouse where she noticed that the old wooden sign with the homemade lettering had now been replaced by a shiny new one made of glass: Farm Shop. Even in the crippling economic crisis, optimism prevailed, or perhaps more accurately stubborness, indomitableness. She knew most of the people who tried to earn a living here along the gravel road and all seemed to be making the best of a bad situation, adapting to meet the demands of potential customers blind to the underlying financial precarity such endeavors involved. There was a certain freedom in running one’s own business, of course, but it was a freedom that tied the baker to the baker’s oven and the photographer to her light-starved studio, just as it tied Tove to her workshop. On any other day, if she’d had the time, she might have stopped at either one, or visited Kristian’s farm. They were her friends, in the same boat. But today she was too restless.


They were married on a day in April when the fog lay so thick upon the town that the pigeons were huddled together on the steps when they emerged. Larna and Max’s best friend were the only witnesses, and everything was entirely the way they wanted it.

So theirs was a weekend relationship. Usually he would go up to her place, where there was more room and because she worked later than he did and still had to keep the shop open on weekends for arranged visits. He was not a difficult guest. In fact, he was quite the opposite. He never complained when she was wrestling with a reupholstering job until the early hours or was compelled to cancel a trip they’d planned to accommodate a last-minute carload of customers. “You must attend to your work, of course,” he’d say. And then, if she looked in on him while taking a break at some late hour, he’d be sitting with a cup of tea, laughing at something on the television, his laptop open on his knees, a book splayed on the sofa beside him. Or else he’d be studying one of her cook books, his eyebrows crumpled in a frown, his reading glasses balanced halfway down the bridge of his nose. He loved ceramics and cookery, and perhaps even her, in the same simultaneously comprehensive and distracted manner. He had an idea that he wanted not the best, but the next best. She didn’t understand what he meant. The best, he explained, was what other people would give anything for; the next best wasn’t nearly as expensive and so in relative terms more valuable than what everyone else pursued with such mindless vigor. “And what about me? she asked. “Am I the next best too?” “No,” he said, when it came to choosing a wife it was different.

He studied websites, catalogues and books, so as not to be caught off guard. Unlike her, when they went out bargain hunting together he never bought anything he hadn’t decided on beforehand. His notebook was full of long lists he made of wants and priorities and prices, so that all he had to do was wait for the items to become available. And even then, when something he’d waited months or even years to find suddenly materialized and Tove could barely contain her excitement on his behalf, he could still pass it over with indifference if he considered it too expensive or even the slightest bit ’awed. She almost couldn’t conceal her disapproval then, for she took such things so much harder than he. Having listened to him go on about a particular piece for months, and having felt like it was all building up towards a climax, it would drive her to distraction to see him simply walk on as casual as you like, as if to torment her, as if he knew exactly how much of a disappointment it was to her.

For she loved doing business and would gladly discard her wrong buys without a thought, ready to go out and do the same thing again at the very next opportunity. She tried to explain to him that it was the very sense of being caught off guard that was exciting to her. Getting carried away. He told her she was pandering to a throwaway culture, that it was bad taste and he expected her to learn from his example. With a swagger she told him not to count on it.

Her cooking followed the same principle. He could spend the week mulling over ideas for what they would have over the weekend, even discussing his thoughts with her over the phone. He would go to the speciality stores, preferably taking her with him, but she didn’t have the patience and they would end up arguing if she asked whether the cheese they sold in the local supermarket wouldn’t be just as good as the one from the cheesemonger’s across town. He found it sad that her sense of quality was so lacking that they could no longer buy the groceries together, whereas she couldn’t have been more pleased.

The day they got married, Larna had said to Tove as they neatened their hair in the ladies room before the ceremony: “I can’t feel you.” Afterwards, Tove couldn’t remember what she’d said in reply. If she even said anything. But when it came back to her a few hours later on the flight to Rome, where she and Max were to spend their honeymoon, she started to cry, prompted by a sense of injustice and the fear that she would now gradually have to draw away from Larna. Crying, it seemed, was her only defense against it. Max took her hand. He didn’t ask what the matter was, and she considered that he didn’t need to know, but then she told him anyway.

“Hm,” he said, and stroked the back of her hand with his thumb. No more than that. But she was comforted by it, for it was as if he were saying to her that true love comes not from what is familiar to us, but from what changes us and makes us strangers to everyone except ourselves and that one other person. And that henceforth there would be things they would need to defend against a world that didn’t understand. Changes of habit, changes in points of view. A certain restraint. A laugh quieter than before, because all of a sudden the way she was used to laughing sounded false.


From “An Excursion” from A Postcard for Annie by Ida Jessen. Used with permission of the publisher, Archipelago Books. Translated from Danish by Martin Aitken. Copyright 2022 by Ida Jessen. Translation copyright 2022 by Martin Aitken.

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