A Short Story

Guardian Angel

It was almost midnight and Klara and her grandmother, Ava, were sitting on the veranda overlooking the lake. The midsummer light kept them up later than usual.  The cousins had gone back to Stockholm and they were having a glass of wine from the remnants of the bottle they had opened earlier at dinner. There were some plates and empty glasses on the table.  The clearing up could wait until the morning. The smell of the citronella hung in the air and was coming from a large yellow candle that had begun to flicker.  Klara found the scent of citronella comforting. The mosquitoes always seemed to go for her and she figured  it was the English blood they were after. The heat of the day had dissipated, and it was cooler now.  A light breeze was causing a rustling in the trees and the reeds at the edge of the water were swaying back and forth. The small rowing boat was rocking gently and occasionally hitting against the wooden jetty. Klara always loved the sound of the night birds calling to each other in the darkness. Klara’s grandfather on her father’s side, Farfar, had taught her the names and cries of the birds that visited the lake in the summer. When she was younger, she could recite all their names in both Swedish and English. 

image; farmstaysweden.com

Her grandparents’ summer house was Klara’s favourite place in the world. It was a traditional Swedish wooden house painted a deep red with white surrounds around the windows. Klara’s great grandfather built the original house and Farfar renovated it over the years. He installed the indoor toilet and shower when Klara was around twelve years old.  She remembered how herself and her sister Emily were afraid of the dark and how they used to stand guard for each other when they had to go out to the old compost toilet at night. Klara loved the interior of the house, filled with art and Farmor’s coloured glass ornaments. There were typical Swedish textile rugs on the wooden floors.  The old blue sofa in the lounge, with a big tapestry throw, was the place where Klara and Emily spent their evenings with Farmor, who read them all their favourite Swedish fairy stories when they were little. 

Klara’s father was the only one in the family who had left Sweden, but the family returned each year to celebrate Midsommar.  It was important for Klara’s parents that she and Emily kept their strong Swedish roots and each year they left the girls in Sweden, with Farmor and Farfar, for almost two whole glorious months. At the lake house they had a freedom they couldn’t have in London. Klara and Emily learned to swim fearlessly and rowed from island to island on the lake. Farfar used to call the girls his little Pippi Longstockings.  

Midsommar was special. They decorated the place with lanterns and flowers. Farmor made floral garlands for Klara and Emily to wear in their hair and there was lots of music and dancing. The food was the best part, -the crayfish, fresh salmon, and pickled herrings. And dill. Lots of dill with sour cream and hard bread.  Unfortunately, this year Emily couldn’t make it, but their parents came. Klara had dropped them back to Arlanda airport that morning and she relished the thoughts of the extra few days on her own with Farmor. 

Ava broke the silence. “Did I ever tell you I had a guardian angel?” 

“Like from the Bible or something?” Klara replied, half paying attention. She was used to her grandmother’s stories. She had heard them over and over and she never minded when Ava repeated them.  

“No. A human guardian angel. …..But he died last week.” 

“Really? Oh. Sorry to hear that Farmor.  What did he die from?” Klara wasn’t sure if her grandmother was being serious or not. 

“He had cancer. But old age I suppose.  I often wondered who would go first.” 

Klara wondered if Ava was a bit confused. When Farfar died five years ago, everyone thought Ava would move back to the old apartment in Stockholm with uncle Karl and aunt Astrid; that she wouldn’t want to be on her own. But Ava had insisted on staying on in the Summer house. There was no persuading her and besides, she still was very able to look after herself. She had good neighbours too and uncle Karl was only forty minutes’ drive away in Stockholm. He had fitted the house with every conceivable alarm and Ava had allowed him to. A small sacrifice for her independence. 

The tone of her grandmother’s voice concerned Klara and it struck her that Ava was uncharacteristically emotional. Over the years Klara had never heard any mention of a guardian angel, of all things. She looked over at Ava who was leaning forward and pressing a napkin to her eyes. 

“Are you ok, Farmor?” 

“Yes. Yes Klara. I’m just a bit sad. That’s all.” 

Klara thought about Farmor and Farfar. They always seemed to have a good marraige.

“Who was he, Farmor? Were you and Farfar not happy together?”

“His name was Richard. I met him in London many years ago. And yes Farfar and I had the best life together. We were very happy. But Richard was a glimpse of another good life I could have had.”

“Did you have an affair Farmor?” Klara could always speak freely with Ava. She was her first grandchild. Everyone in the family always said she was a younger version of Ava. 

“No. But maybe my heart did a little bit. It was my honeymoon.”

“Your honeymoon? How could you meet anyone on your honeymoon, Farmor? Surely you were too busy.” Klara was teasing her grandmother. 

“It was 1961 and after the wedding we went to London for five days. The day before we left your grandfather decided he had seen enough art galleries and museums, but you know how much I love art.”

Klara knew alright. She remembered, when she was a child, Farmor dragging her and her sister around art galleries in London and Stockholm. She also thought about the day when she was about sixteen. They stopped at the Anders Zorn Museum in Mora and she refused to get out of the car.  Klara figured she was more like Farfar when it came to art 

“Well, Farfar went to meet his friend Peter who was living in London at the time.  I got a big black taxi to the National Art Gallery.  I remember that day so clearly. I was wearing a beautiful, tailored lemon-yellow suit and I had my hair up. It was the height of fashion at the time. Of course, my hair was as blonde as yours is now. Not this old grey, frizzy hair. Well, I was standing staring at a painting by Piero Della Francesca and this young man was beside me. I didn’t pay him any attention.” 

“Isn’t that the print you have hanging in the dining room? “

“Yes. The Baptism of Christ. As you know there are three angels in the painting. I was puzzled by so much in this painting and he must have noticed because he turned to me and said ‘If you pardon my interrupting, but that angel in the middle reminds me of you. You have the same perplexed expression on your face.’”

“That was a bit cheeky of him Farmor. He was definitely trying to chat you up.”

“Yes. I think he was. I was a bit shocked. But then I looked at him. I cannot say that he was very handsome, in the traditional sense, but he had a smile that lit up his whole face.  He was very tall also.  I said I would not take his comment as a compliment, as that angel looked quite cross, and she doesn’t seem to approve of the baptism going on. He laughed of course.”

“I remember you talked about that painting to me before Farmor.” Klara reminded her grandmother. “The Italian countryside in the background. The walnut tree. The river that stops suddenly. The three funny looking merchants. You gave out to me when I laughed at the man in his underpants in the background.” 

Ava laughed and Klara was glad her mood seemed to improve a little. 

“He joked about that too. Richard did. And how the three angels looked like good friends. His description of the painting was very humorous. In fact, he made me laugh a lot.” 

Klara could see, from her expression, that Ava was back in the National Gallery in London. “We spent hours together looking at all of the main painters. Caravaggio, Rubens, Da Vinci, Michelangelo. So many great paintings. He had a wonderful insight. He was lecturing in one of the universities in London and doing a doctorate on, I think it was Piero Della Francesca and Paolo Uccello.  I remember him telling me that they were both mathematicians.”

“Your own personal guide in the National Gallery. Not bad Farmor.”

“Yes, I suppose it was quite something. When I told him I should get back, he persuaded me to join him for tea in the gallery café. I told him that I was on my honeymoon, and I could see he was upset. He smiled and said it was such bad luck that he should meet me too late.”

“That’s sad Farmor”

“Yes it is, but it’s life Klara.  Well, he wanted to send me a copy of the book he was writing and I wrote the address of the summer house on a piece of paper.  When I finally got up to leave, we shook hands. He held my hand and squeezed it gently. I squeezed his hand too. It was not easy to say goodbye. He looked into my eyes and said “Ava, I will always look out for you in this world.”

“And what did you say, Farmor?”

“Would you believe I said ‘That’s nice. It’s like having a guardian angel’ and he smiled and said ‘Yes. I suppose it is. Think of me as your earthly guardian angel’.” 

Ava was looking out over the lake. “Klara, there was so much I wanted to say but I walked away. I had to. I went back to your grandfather.” 

“But, how do you know he died?” 

“I got a letter last week. From his grandson.” 

Ava pressed the napkin against her eyes again. “I’ve said too much now. It must be the wine. I miss sharing the earth with him, that’s all.  Do you know? There wasn’t one day that went by where I didn’t think about him.”

Klara was moved by what her grandmother had told her. She thought about how you never knew what was going on in other people’s heads and that life can be so messy. It reminded her of the quote she read from Gabriel García Marquez, ‘Everyone has three lives, a public life, a private life and a secret life.’ She knew Ava had loved Farfar and wondered if it had been enough for her. Her thoughts turned to herself and James and how she never brought James to the summer house during their four years. That said a lot.  They had moved out of the flat they shared in Camden only last month and Klara was back living in Greenwich with her parents. For the short term that is.  Until things settle down.

They sat in silence. It was a cloudless night and Klara loved how the stars glistened in the dark sky.  When she was younger, she was convinced that Sweden was much closer to heaven than London because the stars were so clear. The light from the moon was reflecting on the water and the cool breeze was splitting the reflection into hundreds and thousands of shimmering lights dancing on the surface of the water.  Klara could see the silhouettes of the Spruce trees on the two little archipelago islands in the middle of the lake and noticed that the lights were still on in the Nilssons’ house.  

Ava got up to go. “I think I’d better go to bed Klara.”

Klara stood up and gave Ava a hug. “Night Farmor. Sleep well. I’m sure your guardian angel is still doing his job, wherever he is.”

…………

It was a month after Klara returned from Sweden.  She was sitting in her old bedroom in Greenwich surrounded by her collection of posters and books. It had been a long week in work. It always took a few weeks to get back into her London pace of life. Klara was staring at the screen of her lap-top and willing herself to press send on the message. Before she left Sweden, she had asked Ava about the letter. Ava showed it to her. It was short and polite. It just said that Richard had died peacefully. He had cancer and that he’d asked his grandson (the writer) to let Ava know. It was signed by a Richard Davis. Obviously named after his grandfather, Klara thought. It seemed that the original Richard Davis had been big in the art world. When Klara googled him, various publications came up. He had written in the Arts sections of the national newspapers from time to time also. Klara also found the book Richard sent Ava. It was on top of the bookshelf, wrapped in old tissue paper. It was a beautiful book full of rich images but obviously very academic too. Klara felt a wave of emotion on reading the dedication, ‘For Piero’s Angel.’ But Klara found herself now feeling curious about the other Richard Davis. The grandson. Ava’s story had stuck with her, and she wondered if the younger Richard Davis knew anything more than Ava had told her. She found it fascinating that Ava and Richard had only met once, and that the connection lasted their lifetime. 

As soon as Klara got back to London she had checked out Richard Davis’s social media profile, feeling a bit guilty for creeping on him. There were lots of photos of trips abroad. He seemed to be very into the outdoors, hiking, windsurfing. You name it. He had lots of friends and it was clear that he certainly knew how to enjoy himself. Klara figured that he looked like a nice guy.  Over the last few days she had debated whether he would think it was weird to message him, finally concluding that she had nothing to lose. She read through the message for the last time.  

Hi Richard. I hope I have the right Richard. I think you might have sent a letter to my grandmother in Sweden last month. She told me about meeting your grandfather.   I would love to know more if you have any information.  I live in London.  Thanks Klara Lundgren. 

She hit send and much to her shock, a reply came back within a couple of minutes. Her heart was racing as she read his reply.

Hi Klara, yes, you got the right Richard! Seems like my grandfather had a thing for your grandmother…Happy to meet up. Where abouts are you?”

……..

Klara was happy to be back in Sweden again. It was a hot summer evening, and she couldn’t believe how quickly the last year had gone. So much change. So much to tell Farmor. She was so excited to see her. She always worried every time she left Farmor that it might be the last time. As a result, she regarded every year as a bonus.  Farmor was getting on in age. The flight landed in Arlanda airport at 4.30 and getting the rental car had been a smooth process for a change. They were driving along roads flanked by thick green forests. The windows were down. Klara wanted to fill her lungs with the Swedish air. She especially loved the Elk signs on the roadside and the fact that they saw cross country skiers on wheels on more than one occasion. I’m home, she thought to herself. 

It was past seven when they pulled into the driveway of the summer house. The lake was sparkling behind the house and Klara had an urge to run down the jetty and jump straight into the cool water.  There were great smells coming from the kitchen which were a combination of fish and the sweet smell of cinnamon. The sound of classical music was drifting out of the open windows. Klara recognised the piece immediately. Wedding Day at Troldhaugen. Farmor loved Grieg.

Ava heard the car pull in and came out onto the veranda wearing her old white apron with the traditional orange Dala horse print. Klara noticed that she moved a bit slower than last year, but still with grace.  They got out of the car and Klara ran up to Ava and threw her arms around her. 

“Farmor. Oh my God. It’s so good to be back”.

“Welcome home Klara dear. You look wonderful.”

You look great Farmor. It’s so good to see you. Oh my God I missed you.” Klara turned towards the car. “I brought a friend with me this time. Dad did tell you that my boyfriend was coming?”  

“Yes. Yes he did. He told me you were bringing someone special with you this year.”

Richard had taken the bags out of the car and was walking towards the veranda. Ava was standing watching him. She placed her hand on her heart. She knew that face from long, long ago. 

“Farmor. I would like to introduce you to Richard.” 

Ava smiled, “You are very welcome to Sweden, Richard.” 

“Thank you Mrs Lundgren. It’s lovely to finally meet you. Klara has told me all about you.”

Klara beamed on seeing Ava’s reaction. “Richard has a present for you Farmor.”

“Oh how sweet of you Richard. Please, call me Ava. Come inside. I’m sure you must be thirsty in this heat”

Inside the summer house it was cooler. Richard was looking at the Piero Della Francesca print on the wall above the sideboard. He remembered when he was young his grandfather told him that he’d met the angel in the middle. He believed him of course.  

Ava arrived in from the kitchen with a large glass jug filled with a ruby red liquid that was clinking with ice cubes. She set it down on the table and Klara poured out three large tumblers. 

Klara savoured the bitterness of the juice, “Berry saft. Just what I needed. Richard, give Farmor your gift” 

Richard handed Ava the parcel that was still tucked under his arm. 

“Open it Farmor.”

Klara was watching closely as Ava slowly opened the box and peeled off the many layers of tissue paper. When Ava saw what was inside, tears started to flow down her cheeks. It was a replica of the angel in the Piero Della Francesca. 

“Thank you, Richard. I’m not sad. I promise you. You’ve made an old lady very happy. You are very kind.”

Richard looked over at Klara. He leaned forward and squeezed her hand. He could clearly see the close bond that Klara had with her grandmother. “It was on a shelf above my grandfather’s bed for as long as I can remember. He called it his guardian angel.  I believe it belongs with you Ava.”

End

Baptism of Christ – Piero della Francesca

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