Vi er dem de andre ikke må lege med,
Vi er det dårlige selskab.
Vi har en svag karakter
Og en billig fantasi...
-- Kim Larsen
“We should get up,” Jenny said. Iben grumbled, her head pounding, and kicked Jenny’s calf. Jenny poked her in the side. “He’ll be home soon.”
“Mmm,” Iben said. “You should get a divorce.” She pushed her face into the pillow and shuffled backwards until her back was pressed against Jenny’s chest. For a few seconds, she lay there, breathing quietly. Her hangover was less painful when she was still. Jenny wrapped an arm around her and squeezed.
“I know, dearest,” she said, pressing a kiss behind Iben’s ear. “But unlike some people, I can’t just pass mine off to a handy spinster.” Iben pressed a hand against her eyes, as Jenny stroked a hand up her thigh. “Hey, Iben.” She lay still. “I’m sorry, I didn’t –“
“We should get up,” Iben said. Jenny’s arm wrapped around her, keeping her in place. She leant into it almost involuntarily.
“I’m sorry,” Jenny said again. “That was cruel. I just – it’s not as easy for me.”
“It wasn’t easy,” Iben said, hating the exhaustion in her voice. At night, with alcohol and the men around her, she could joke and make fun of Kristen, but exhaustion made it hard to get the facade up. “I didn’t stop loving him.” She could feel Jenny stiffen against her. She kept her face turned away, but rested her arm against Jenny’s.
“What if I love Jens?” Jenny asked.
“You don’t.” This wasn’t a barb; Jenny had admitted it when they’d first fallen into bed together, a year or so ago, the drunken night when she’d first told Iben that she preferred women.
“No.” There was a pause; Iben stretched her legs a little. “He keeps people from talking.”
“What do you mean?”
“He keeps it safe. Two women and a man, that’s gossip. Us on our own – Iben, I don’t know what that would be.”
“Two divorced friends keeping each other company?” Iben wanted to turn, but didn’t. Jenny raised herself up on her elbows and stroked a hand along Iben’s side, resting it on her shoulder. “If it gets bad, we can always move to København.”
”You wouldn’t leave your parents now,” Jenny said. Iben didn’t respond, but she was right. Not with her dad the way he was.“Anyway, I like Korsbæk. I like the riding school. And we need the business at the school, which means no scandal.”
Iben laughed a little, disbelieving. “The drinking, the gadding about town, that causes gossip and scandal. Mogens, have you forgotten about that?”
“I know,” Jenny said. “That’s why there can’t be more. Not just yet.”
“So I should go,” Iben said. She moved away from the warmth of Jenny’s body, curving away from Jenny’s restraining hand. “Do you know,” she said as she swung her legs out of the bed, “I drank cognac with Elizabeth Friis when I left Kristen.”
“Don’t,” Jenny said. Iben didn’t look at her, finding her trousers and slipping them on.
“Maybe Jens will be home. We could have coffee together.” She looked at Jenny, who was getting out of bed, still naked. “Maybe it’s not too early for alcohol.” And then Jenny had her pinned against the wardrobe by her shoulders. “Aren’t you worried what he might think if he saw you like this?” she asked when she got her breath back.
“I’m not saying never,” Jenny said. “God, you idiot, I love you, you know I do.”
“So how long am I supposed to wait?” Jenny’s hands were warm on her shoulders, and her body was giving off heat, even though it was cold in the room. Iben clenched her hands at her side.
“Not long,” Jenny said. “Until the school’s paid off on. Until I can make it without regular classes.” Iben blinked rapidly.
“What if I can’t wait?”
“Then I don’t know,” Jenny said. She leaned forward a little, dropping her hands. “Please, Iben. Don’t you love me?”
“Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I should find someone else.” She wanted to move, but she didn’t. Jenny dropped her eyes.
“Please,” she said. “I’ll divorce him. It’ll be the right time to ask soon.” She leant forward and kissed Iben and Iben couldn’t keep from leaning in, opening her mouth to Jenny’s. Jenny’s cheeks were damp.
“I won’t wait,” she said. “I won’t wait for long.”
Iben opened her mouth to call out and then realised she had no idea what to call her. They weren’t dus and she wasn’t Frøken Friis anymore. Then she turned and caught Iben’s eye. They looked at each other for a few moments, and then Iben smiled.
“I was hoping I would run in to you,” she said, although she hadn’t known that...frøken Friis would be in town that afternoon.
“Were you?” She didn’t sound displeased; in fact, she smiled a little at Iben. “I’m sorry – I’m not sure what to call you now?” Her eyes stayed on Iben, and Iben met her gaze.
“I think Iben will be fine,” she said. “May I call you Elizabeth?” At Elizabeth’s nod, she continued, “I wanted to thank you.”
“Oh? For what?” Iben had expected Elizabeth to deny it, but Elizabeth had a small smile on her face, as if she wasn’t completely confused. Iben liked that – there was something more honest about Elizabeth than most people in this town.
“Helle told on you,” she said, and Elizabeth nodded and smiled.
“Yes, I suspected she might.” Elizabeth looked around them; Hovedgaden wasn’t busy, but when Iben looked, she could see a few familiar faces, looking at them. She didn’t need to hear their voices to know that her and Elizabeth were inviting gossip. Well, she was used to it and she tossed her head.
“Are you rushing somewhere?” she asked.
“I’m meeting Kristen at the station in two hours – he’s meeting with hr. Skjern,” Elizabeth said. Her voice was cautious.
“Then won’t you let me offer you a cup of coffee to pass the time?” Iben said, pleased at how her voice held.
They went to her flat in town, rather than Postgaarden. There was coffee, the instant sort that Iben drank and Jenny refused to have in the house. There was no milk.
“Sorry,” she said. “It’s been a while since I’ve had guests.” Elizabeth looked at her.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” she said, adding, when Iben looked at her, “No, the coffee is fine – I’ve had instant before, I’m unlikely to die from having it again.” She smiled a little at Iben, and Iben poured her a cup. “I was going to ask – my impression was that you had moved in with Jenny? At the riding school.”
Iben did’t flinch; she’d had practice now (three years) and of course, she had known that Elizabeth had heard. “Yes,” she said, sitting down and looking at Elizabeth. “But I like having the flat.” She didn’t say that it was useful for when they argued or point out that the flat afforded her plausible deniability or mention the time that she’d brought Mogens back here, when Jenny and Jens were still married. Elizabeth nodded.
“I miss mine occasionally,” she said. Iben looked up, surprised. Elizabeth smiled, ruefully. “It would cause people to talk, if I kept one. And it wears on you.” The as you know was unspoken, but Iben quirked her lip to show she understood. “How is the riding school faring?” Elizabeth asked, taking a sip of her coffee. Iben grimaced.
“Better now,” she said. “Once Helle returned and fru Varnæs was seen picking her up – most of the mothers seem to think riding is still an important part of raising a child, so.” Elizabeth nodded, and Iben refrained from thanking her again. She wondered how Elizabeth had managed to persuade her sister to allow it, but couldn’t think of a sensible way to ask.
“And how do you find Helle? Quite the little terror, isn’t she?” Elizabeth’s voice was even and Iben nodded, and changed the topic.
The door closed behind Jenny. Iben looked up as she came over and let herself be kissed. Jenny smelled of the stables, warm, horsey and a little sweaty. When Jenny straightened up, Iben let her head rest against her stomach, breathing the smell in.
“Hey,” Jenny said softly. “How are you?”
“Mmm,” Iben said. “I should make you tea, you’ve been working hard.” She didn’t move her head, listening to Jenny’s stomach rumbling.
“I’ll let you off this once,” Jenny said. “Do you want tea or something stronger?”
“Oh,” Iben said, opening her eyes and looking up. “Is that really a question?” Jenny laughed, stroked a hand over her head. She got two glasses from the sideboard and the open bottle of whisky from the cabinet. Iben watched her. “We should get an ice bucket.”
Jenny snorted. “Who are we, the Varnæs family?” She poured the drinks. “Though we do seem to be stumbling into respectability. Ten years ago, this would be the start of the evening.”
“The stupid energy of the young,” Iben said as Jenny settled in the chair across from her.
“What are you writing?” Jenny asked, taking a sip of her drink. She relaxed further into her chair and Iben watched her, enjoying the lazy sprawl of her body.
“Letters to the editor,” she replied. She looked down. “Two for Politiken. One for Berlingske.”
“Optimistic,” Jenny said. “Should I prepare myself for another round of angry parents?” She was smiling now, but Iben knew she had hated it at the time, the way people had presumed to know now, to have confirmation of their gossip.
“Two are on the abortion issue,” Iben said. “The younger parents weren’t that shocked last time. And some of the mothers are in the activist group with me.” Her own mother didn’t understand, of course, but since her father’s death, they’d given off talking about politics.
“It helps that Agnes and Maja are involved in it as well,” Jenny said. “Which reminds me, are they coming along for the march next week?” There was another demonstration in favour of legalising abortion and changing the rules for selling contraception. As the leader of the local feminist group, Iben was responsible for organising their journey to København.
“Mm, Maja is, yes. Ulrik’s been made to babysit.” Iben grinned, a little meanly. She’d never liked Ulrik.
“That leaves a letter,” Jenny said, taking another sip. Iben smiled a little ruefully.
“A letter of support for Erik Jensen,” she said, keeping her voice steady. “Supporting the campaign for homosexuality to be removed from the list of mental illness.” Jenny didn’t say anything for a while. Iben sipped her whisky.
“It’s a good campaign,” she said finally. Iben nodded. “People will talk.”
“People have always talked about me,” Iben said, trying to act more confident than she felt. “When we were young?”
“People were sure you were sleeping with Mogens. And Jørgen. Probably Ulrik too, if they thought about it too much.” Jenny’s voice was light, even though there had been an incident with Mogens, that one time. Iben hoped that had faded from memory.
“At least now they’re talking about something I’m proud of,” Iben said. She kept her voice light as well. Jenny looked at her oddly.
“Me or your work?”
Iben got up, and came to settle on the armrest of Jenny’s chair. “Both,” she said. “You know that.” Jenny rested her head against Iben’s thigh. They sat there for a few moments together.
“Send the letters tomorrow,” Jenny said. Iben stroked her hair, ignoring a sudden stab of fear. “And you’d better still be proud of me when I need to get drunk to deal with the stares.” Iben laughed and leant down to kiss Jenny properly.
”Do you ever think you were born too early?” Iben asked Elizabeth. It was a sunny day, and they were sitting on the terrace of Kristen and Elizabeth’s apartment in Østerbro. The radio was on in the background, the calming voice of the newsreader making the announcement of legalised abortions seem less radical, less world changing. Elizabeth poured another cup of tea.
“Not really, no,” she said, as Iben sipped – the tea was still too hot, but the cup kept her hands from fidgeting. “Why should I?” She looked at Iben curiously; her eyes were still bright and alert, even in her seventies.
“Life is easier now. You wouldn’t have been seen as such a radical in Korsbæk, there wouldn’t have been so much malicious gossip about your politics, your job.” Iben looked at the tablecloth. “About you and Kristen. Maybe you wouldn’t have had to wait as long.” There was a pause, where she wondered why she’d felt it was necessary to bring it up. When she looked up again, Elizabeth was watching her with a small frown. Elizabeth looked away first.
“Perhaps,” she allowed. “But can you imagine Maude as a feminist today?” They both laughed and some of the tension dissipated.
“No, she’d be one of those women who periodically pop up on television clutching their pearls and despairing of the state of youth today,” Iben said. Maude was a stronger woman than she’d been when Iben was a young women, but she’d never been radical. Or even properly progressive.
“As a serious answer, though,” Elizabeth said, sobering, “no. I don’t think there’s any point to wishing life were easier. I can’t complain, I have been mostly happy. And more happy than most.” She took a biscuit and bit into it. Swallowing, she asked, “Why? Do you?”
“Sometimes,” Iben admitted. “Sometimes I think if I were young today, it’d be easier; I could run away, join one of those free love communes.” She laughed a little, then frowned. “Maybe I’d have felt less trapped in Korsbæk.”
“Maybe,” Elizabeth said. “But what about Jenny? And the stable? I thought you’d sold the apartment now.”
“I know,” Iben said and she smiled a little, to show that she wasn’t too serious. “It’s an idle thought. And I suppose if there’s anything you’ve shown, it’s that it’s never too late to escape to København.”
“I imagine that’s a compliment,” Elizabeth said dryly. “Any way, things wouldn’t be easier now, if we hadn’t fought for them then.” Iben wanted to roll her eyes - a childish impulse. Elizabeth smiled at her. “If you hadn’t fought for them.” A door slammed in the front hall; Kristen arriving home.
“Leave it to you to be far too sensible,” she said. Elizabeth smiled.
“An advantage of age,” she said as Kristen appeared on the terrace. Kristen had aged less elegantly than Elizabeth, bald and short-sighted.
“What age?” Kristen said. “You still look as young as when I first met you.” He kissed Elizabeth’s forehead and Iben ignored a slight stab of decades-old jealousy, more habit than actual emotion.
“Liar,” Elizabeth said as Kristen greeted Iben. “Tea? You’ll have to get you own tea cup.”
“I should be going as well,” Iben said. “I promised I’d meet Jenny at Magasin at five.”
“Going anywhere enjoyable?” Kristen said. His disapproval of Jenny had all but disappeared over the years.
“Dinner at Nyhavn, I think.” She grinned at him. ”And then maybe dancing, if we’re feeling young enough.”
“Do you think you’ll marry?” Teresa asked. Iben looked at her in surprise. Teresa blushed and returned to the horse’s flank. She made vigorous circles with her brush and for a moment, Iben envied her energy and youth. Sometimes, she couldn’t remember how she got so old.
“What did you say?” she asked, mostly to see if Teresa would repeat the question. The girl’s blush intensified, but she met Iben’s eyes. Her direct gaze reminded Iben of Elizabeth, and she felt another wave of sorrow. It had been a few years, but she still missed Elizabeth.
“Marry,” Teresa said. “You’ve won now.” She smiled. Iben smiled back.
“Tell me, Teresa, did you ever go to dance lessons at fru Violet’s?” she asked. Teresa shot her an odd look.
“I think that was before my time,” she said. “I went with Signe Olsen. She taught us the twist.” Iben laughed.
“I don’t think Violet’s hips ever worked that way,” she said. “I can remember when there was only one Skjern’s in town.”
Teresa made her eyes comically big. “Was that before the printing press, madam?”
“Remind me again why we hired you?” Iben said, stroking Thor’s nose.
“Probably because you’re old enough to remember when there was only one Skjern’s in town.” Teresa had been with them for three years and, in Iben’s opinion, was getting a little too sure of herself.
“Or because Jenny thinks you’re sexy,” she said. Teresa’s ears blazed red.
“Uncalled for,” she said. “And you’re avoiding my question.” Iben groaned a little. Thor nudged her shoulder, looking for a carrot. “You won, so when are you getting married?”
Iben fed Thor an apple. “We won.” She smiled. “Does that mean I have to get married?” A stable door opened behind them. Jenny appeared, leaning a little on her walking stick. Iben called to her, “Do you want to get married, darling?”
“Married? Again?” Jenny asked. She smiled at Iben and the look in her eyes was a little like the way Kristen used to look at Elizabeth. Iben reached out a hand to touch Jenny’s wrist.
“To me, this time,” Iben clarified. Teresa looked from one to another, a small smile on her face. She’d abandoned her brushing.
“What do you think, Iben?” Jenny asked. Iben recognised the laugh that was threatening to break out.
“I think I’m too old and too ugly for respectability,” Iben said. Jenny pretended to consider it.
“I think I’m too drunk and too lazy to be marriage material,” Jenny said. They looked at each other and laughed, leaving Teresa looking at them both, bemused.
“Old people,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I am employed by crazy old people.”
“Thoroughly disreputable,” Iben agreed, putting her arm around Jenny’s waist.