Astrid – Chapter 3
A green and watery place
‘Back in Australia, I rode to school on a kangaroo.’ – Astrid Hansen (1987)
Per and Lene were good people, and in time they won Astrid round with patience and abundant kindness. Their daughter Lottie, ten, was delighted to have a younger sister to take under her wing; an exotic relative from distant Australia at that, to show off to her friends at school. The two girls developed a repertoire of tall tales about the Aussie life, the better to amaze their schoolmates.
Per was a shipwright, building and renovating traditional craft for the local fishermen and yachtsmen. Lolland was a green and watery place, so different from the rugged Victorian bush and the wild ocean shore of Victoria’s Shipwreck Coast.
There were black-and-white dairy herds, just like the ones back home, but the lush meadows ran all the way to the sea’s edge, hemmed only with a thin ribbon of powdery sand or a low, crumbling cliff.
The Baltic Sea itself smelled not salty and brisk but instead had the soft, earthy smell of a freshwater lake. The Nordic sun was not harsh and blistering but gentle and wan, could be borne without a hat even in the midst of summer. Autumn brought drizzle and a low, grey sky for weeks at a time – followed by winter blizzards, high snowdrifts and the magical sight of a frozen sea! The ice stretched to the horizon and beyond, where distant Germany lay. Ferry services were cancelled and the island was all but cut off.
It was on Lolland that Astrid’s love affair with the sea and wooden boats began. She was allowed to watch her uncle at work in the boatyard after school, savouring the sound of steel on wood, the aroma of fresh shavings and the feel of sleek, sanded boards. When her Danish became more fluent than Per’s halting English, she would ask endless questions: to whom the boat belonged, what work it required, why this boat’s shape differed from that one’s, what the names meant, what this tool was for and that, which of the boats in the harbour were Per’s handiwork and which his father’s – her grandfather’s.
At other times, she and Lottie would go down to the harbour and watch the fishing fleet come and go, calling out and waving to the skippers and crew, most of whom they knew by name.
The traditional sailors of the yacht club were proud to display their skill before this young audience: dropping sails at the harbour entrance, maintaining the way on their slim, motorless wooden vessels just long enough to arrive at their pile moorings and tie up. They made this perfect timing and effortless grace seem the most natural, matter-of-fact thing in the world.
Occasionally West German yachts came in and caused merriment with the red-faced bellowing of the skippers and the clumsy scurrying of the crew across the decks of their big, showy craft. One time a tiny, East German river cruiser arrived in harbour, packed with a haggard, sodden, exhausted family of five, having run the gauntlet of patrol boats, machine guns and searchlights to escape the buckling Iron Curtain.
One year turned to two, then five. It was decided that Astrid should complete school in Denmark. Lottie had become a sister to her, Per and Lene surrogate parents.
When her brothers came over for summer holidays, she revelled in her greater fluency in their father’s language. She and Lottie took them out in their seventeen-foot wooden dinghy, tacking and gybing boldly, hiking out to keep the boat level in the teeth of a brisk westerly, while the brawny, tanned young men hunkered grey-faced in the cockpit and prayed silently to be delivered safely back to terra firma.
Sven Hansen made repeated efforts to get his life together. He finally succeeded after a fashion. He gave up the booze for ever, married a woman called Rainbow and found Buddhism. They set up home in an intentional community near Nimbin.
One cool Danish summer when Astrid was 12, Sven came out to visit. He was friendly but detached; she was cautious, even frosty. There was no talk of fetching Astrid over to live with him and Rainbow, to Lene’s and Per’s relief. He drifted off vaguely after ten days, leaving everyone puzzled and dissatisfied with the encounter. Was that really Sven, or just a stranger inhabiting his shell?
Back in Victoria, Pat and Izzie Bullen had to sell the farm, as his heart became weak and she battled skin cancer. The Hansen boys made it clear that a farmer’s life was not for them. Lars was in IT, Pat was a civil engineer and Eric was having far too much fun gadding about the world as a ski instructor, short-order cook and tour guide – whatever turned up. The farm was bought up by a dairy conglomerate, which installed a manager to run it.
The old folks moved to the Sunshine Coast to nurse their failing health. The Port Fairy cottage was retained as a pied-à-terre on the Victorian coast for the younger family members, should they wish to make use of it.
Next week in Astrid:
At university in Copenhagen, Astrid meets a young Aussie busker …