A Boat on the Side

Danish Pastry

It was over 30 years ago, I was fourteen years old and on my way to Denmark with my parents, my younger brother, and a new blue blazer, brass buttons aglow.

The vast hotel Europa in central Copenhagen swallowed us up with an efficient and polite murmur and in not time at all the younger members of the family were flying experimental paper planes with a hotel crest on each fuselage. The best flew beyond the road to the waterside, fragile white birds from the 9th floor, escaping from the ignominy of ‘wish you were here’ and ‘having a lovely time.’

My brother and I thoroughly explored the hotel room – cupboards, draws, showers, bathroom and bidet. ‘What are these for Mum?’ Then widened our searches to include corridors, reception areas, dining rooms and car park My parents were content to explore the bar with their friends.

The next few days were pivotal in my growing consciousness. It started with a breakfast like no other. England in 1960 was still rather insular, parochial and rooted in the Victorian way. So breakfast of warm bread rolls, iced butter, hot pastries, chilled fresh orange juice, fruit and strong coffee was a revelation to one reared on cornflakes, porridge, bacon and eggs. The backdrop to this gastronomic delight was equally impressive, I have never forgotten it, white wrought iron tables, masses of palms, ferns and a small lake with a fountain making morning music for us. The huge glass roof was partly open and beams of  clear morning light filtered in and, delighted, danced with the water. Our waitress was a vision of Nordic charm – slim and lovely, her smile spoke eloquently of welcome, her blue eyes spoke of love undreamed, to me, just to me, I was sure. I fell instantly in love, suddenly I knew instinctively what all the fuss was about. I was a gentleman and I preferred blonde waitresses.

They dragged me out of that enchanted place, but its spell was engraved, immortal, in my soul. We walked out into the bright sunny day and, waiting by the bridge at the traffic lights, I was bewitched, transfixed, by the sight of a bevy of blonde goddesses on bicycles. The blustery fresh summer breeze billowing skirts and petticoats – lithe brown limbs and flaxen hair, azure eyes and azure sky, laughter and longing (mine) – I was in love with Denmark. I pondered on what, to me, seemed to be one of the great enigmas of history – why on earth did the Vikings go off marauding and pillaging all over the place when their wives and girlfriends look like this? My mother, intuitively sensing my future downfall, hurried me along ‘Do stop staring Derek, come along!’

We saw sights. We lunched alfresco in one of the delightful city squares, drinking in the atmosphere of this vibrant, summer bright city. We enjoyed the beautiful Tivoli gardens, the flowers and shrubs, anxious to show the world their best in the brief northern summer. The atmosphere was light and carnival, warm colours, smiles, everyone here seemed to have shaken off the horrors of post war depression and realised that life was good indeed.

Nyhavn – Everything a Fourteen Year Old Sailor Could Wish For . . .

Our guide was a family friend, Ky Lindcarson, a debonair rogue about town who, that evening, took my father and I to Nyhavn. The very old ‘New Harbour,’ cobbles, narrow streets, the ancient brick and stone buildings leaning towards each other as if to embrace. Huge iron bollards, bars and Baltic schooners, tourists mingled with unsteady sailors, clubs and naughty bookshops. Ky, bless him, took Dad and I inside one, none of us showing the slightest trace of reluctance. After England’s prudish, raincoated attitude to sex, here was a carnal cornucopia (or should I day pornucopia) of nude ladies (and men) of all shapes and persuasions in all sorts of positions. I was amazed. At that age half an hour in a Copenhagen bookshop was to put me light years ahead of my contemporaries. Ky bought me a matchbox with a swim-suited girl on the cover – the costume miraculously disappeared as the box was opened. Later, back in my British school yard I was eagerly sought after for a glimpse of this treasure, my popularity at an all time high.

My education in this Paris of the North continued in a club call To Kan Ten. Inspired by Hawaii, the place reeked of tropical nights, grass skirts and lurid colours. Hanging from the ceiling and occupying most of the air space was a huge outrigger canoe. How did they get it through the door? Hot jazz and cold beer were the order of the night, and my father’s efforts to get me a shandy were thwarted by Ky. ‘Let the boy have a beer or two,’ he said extravagantly. The boy, of course, readily agreed and so we all sat back, three cool and sophisticated men, ready to take on all that Nyhavn could offer. After a while I needed to use the toilet. Inside, on the wall, was a mural of dancing girls with, of course, the obligatory grass skirts and coconut palms. Having attended to my bladder’s request, I proceeded to examine the evidence more closely – one of the girls’ skirts was painted on a wooden panel, clearly hinged. Carlsberg beer, bravado, and  14-year old curiosity said ‘no contest’ and I started to lift the panel. An alarm buzzer sounded so suddenly that I dropped the wooden flap like a hot potato and, flushed, walked out into the bar. Hoots of derisive laughter, shouts of Danish encouragement, and a ripple of applause accompanied me, scarlet and a little unsteady, as I walked back to my seat.

Languid Landau

Next day, much to my mother’s delight, we drove around one of Copenhagen’s beautiful parks in a horse-drawn carriage. Sentinel pines, manicured landscapes, rhododendron aflame, lakes – it was all very regal in our shiny black lacquered landau with its gold coach lining and brassware polished to a golden lustre. The chinking harness as our two-horsepower engine trotted along, the soft leather and soft suspension added their touches to a delightful journey. Then it was on to Hamlet’s castle at Elsinore – dreaming turrets reaching up into the vibrant northern air. I could see myself pacing the battlements, gazing wistfully out to see, wandering, pondering, about the grounds. I could see myself as the Daneophile (if that is the right word) that I was rapidly becoming – living in a Nyhavn attic studio, painting or writing, thinking about my pretty waitress who would rush in from work with leftover pastries and shower me with kisses and crumbs . . . My parents would understand my need to reluctantly leave England’s drab grey schools and study in Copenhagen’s more exotic quarter.

Elsinore, Hamlet’s Castle

Later that evening I went out for a stroll, ostensibly for fresh air but in reality I hoped for a chance meeting with my waitress, who I am sure would have been delighted to share a quiet café table with that rather dashing, albeit very young Englishman. It was not to be however, my romantic reveries were rudely interrupted by a huge lurching American car whose driver jerked the vehicle to a halt at about forty-five degrees to the kerbside, right beside me. He staggered out ashen faced, clutching his chest. Uttering no sound he fell foetally and, I think fatally, to the ground. I stood and stared as others rushed to his aid. I never learned of his fate for I am ashamed to say I walked on, chastened by life’s fragility. After one or two brushes with death myself in later years I often think back to that day, and wonder what became of the middle-aged Dane – he was probably about my age now. And so began my adulthood – in two days I had become, I thought, a man. I had known love, life, and death in Copenhagen.

© Derek Ellard 1992

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