When They Came No More

I have seen generations come and go. They have all had their own, individual stories. From afar I have waited and watched and loved them all. This story is hers.

She looked at the family surrounding her bed, all those faces and worried eyes, and drew a shallow, raspy breath.

I am going to tell you about a time and place of my youth”, she said. “The times are gone since long, but the place still exists.

If you drive along the winding roads of the Valasian side of the Swiss Furka Pass you will find, three kilometers below the mountain’s ridge, a hotel. It just sits there quietly, four storeys of grey brick walls lovingly supporting a crown-like silver roof, as if just waiting for the season guests to arrive.

The tall windows of the Hotel Belvédère opened their green blinds for the first time in 1882, and when they did it was to the sight of sparkling ice and heavy sheets of snow as far as the eye could see. Placed right above the then majestic Rhône glacier, in those days the hotel was flooded by beautiful people wanting to experience the fabulous view from its balconies.

I had already heard many stories about it when as a young woman I was taken in as staff. It was the late fifties, but I remember the breath-taking drive through the mountains as if it was yesterday. Mr. Paul Schroder, the pleasant but quiet hotel cook, had picked me up at the train station in his red little car and then not spoken much throughout the winding drive.

When I close my eyes I can still dream vividly of that first spring evening when, after Mr. Schroder had parked the car, I stood there in front of the hotel doors with all my worldly belongings in a small suitcase and my mind filled with thrilled expectations. I was to work in the kitchen and as a waitress. It was my first real employment and I was far from home. Then Mr. Schroder opened the doors, and I was let into a brand new world.

I was given a small room to call my own and a short tour of the premises. I was then introduced to my new colleagues – a wonderful group of people who had all left everything behind to become the life-blood of the hotel. I fell in love with all of it – and with all of them – right away. With the silent cook, the inspired but absent-minded hotel manager Mr. Hans Wolfgang Adler, Mrs. Lisa Maur – the enigmatic head of staff and self-proclaimed psychic, and the many young people who, like me, had come there with high hopes and stars in their eyes.

The days, weeks and months flew by. Spring turned into early summer, and when the snow melted from the roads the visitors started to arrive. The work was hard, the mornings early and the evenings late, but I learned many things and grew into my role as a part of the hotel’s blood stream.

The visitors came in the hundreds during summer. They ate, drank, mingled and went for spiritual walks in the breath-taking surroundings. One of the most popular attractions was the ice-cave cut into the bottom of the glacier, far below the ancient, glistening ice. And when they were done for the day, they returned to the hotel to eat and drink some more and enjoy their evening on the balcony, in the bar or in their rustic private chambers.

When the guests had retreated for the night and there were no more late sandwiches or beers to be served, I used to walk out onto one of the balconies alone to enjoy the view and the night air myself. It was during one of those silent, solitary moments that Jean Mahler found me.

She was new at the hotel, had started working there only the week before. We had not exchanged more than a few polite words during that week, but I for my part had secretly admired her from a distance ever since she stepped out of Mr. Schroder’s car on the evening of her arrival. Now she suddenly stood right next to me at the railing, her short dark hair dancing in the mountain wind, and I had no idea what to say.

I remember how I laughed nervously and said something about one of the new guests, a tall gentleman who had insisted on being allowed to wash his own dishes earlier that day. She laughed as well, and told me a story of her own. It was as if her voice broke a spell, and I suddenly found myself talking freely to her in a way that I had talked to no one before in my life. Then we stood there, watching the deep mountain pass in silence, and the starlit night and the stillness around us made me feel like this was our own secret world where we were alone and free.

The night turned into day and I was deadly tired when my shift began again. I struggled through that day in a confused haze, and every time I passed Jean in the corridor we both smiled shyly. But I lived through that day, and the shyness did not last for long. The balcony became out nightly meeting place, our secret starlit world where we could talk about anything. I remember those nights fondly even now.

Nights and days turned into months, and with autumn the guests became fewer and fewer. When the snow came the hotel closed down for the winter, and most of the staff went away to work elsewhere for the off-season. Some of us stayed, however, to keep the hotel warm and clean and take care of the few special bookings that were still being made despite the roads being mostly closed off during winter.

That first winter Jean stayed as well, and during those isolated months we grew even closer to one another. When spring finally came, it would have taken a large amount of ignorance to avoid seeing that we had grown into much more than friends.

Summer returned, and with it the guests. I started feeling like the hotel really was my home, and I would even say that I was happy. More new faces arrived to replace colleagues who hadn’t returned after winter, and together with the rest of the old staff I and Jean taught them what they needed to know.

Seasons turned into years and the hotel saw many prominent guests come and go. I remember the spectacle when Pope John XXIII once came to call, and the fuss every time we were graced by a visit from a certain Mr. Sean Connery. In 1964 the excitement was at its highest when – perhaps prompted by that very frequenter – the hotel was featured in the new James Bond movie Goldfinger.

The year I was to turn thirty two, Mr. Schroder tragically passed away. I was appointed the new cook and head of kitchen, and life in the hotel slowly moved on. When winter came that year Jean told me that she would not be coming back the next spring. She was done with the hotel and wanted to do something else. She asked me to come away with her, to make a life together somewhere else. After many sleepless nights, however, I decided to stay. My new position and responsibilities simply were not things that I could easily cast aside.

Oh, how I have regretted that decision many times since.

Life at the hotel did not become bad without her, but it became lonely. The young people came and went, and although I still viewed the older members of the staff as my closest friends, I lacked someone to talk to the way I had been able to talk with Jean.

Then came a guest who changed all that; Patrick, your father and grandfather. I remember the day as clearly as yesterday. It had been snowing the night before, even though it was in the middle of summer. He arrived together with a bachelor party of maybe ten or thirteen other young men, and at first I was not in the least interested. Later that night, however, I heard him quoting Jane Austen during dinner and was irrevocably lost.

I found myself on the balcony after the end of my shift, talking literature with him well into the morning hours. The next night was not any different, and when the party was preparing to leave on the third afternoon he promised to write me. And he did.

Life was at once exciting again, with letters to wait for and replies to write. He remembered that I lacked easy access to new reading, and thus he started sending me books as well. I eagerly read them all and sent him my reviews and analyses in the returning mail.

Winter came and went, and when spring returned, so did he. He was alone this time, and carried a ring and a proposal. This time I was older and wiser and did not repeat my previous mistake. We were married by a visiting German priest at the very entrance of the ice-cave below the hotel, before the eyes and to the cheers of all my beloved colleagues.

And so I left the hotel finally, after many years of loving service. Not a year thereafter my daughter was born. Life went on, and sometimes I was happy and sometimes I was sad. I have loved Patrick dearly, and I have loved you, my children and grandchildren.

I do have one regret, however, and that is the loss of Jean Mahler. I used to write her a letter every Christmas eve for years – but never had the courage to actually send them. They all ended up in a cardboard box beneath my bed. After my husband passed away eight years ago, though, I finally mustered up my courage and actually sent a letter to Jean. The late reply came from her sister, telling me that my old friend had already been dead for six years.

I am old now, and the times have changed. I told you that the hotel still exists, and that is true. The famous Rhône glacier, however, has melted and receded since its glory days. Today the sides of the pass glow like a vast, creased sheet of soft emerald, and only in the far distance would you be able to divine anything even resembling a cover of snow.

When the famed ice-cave finally melted away as well, the guests stopped coming altogether. My beloved hotel was closed indefinitely three years ago, and now it just stands there as a silent monument of greater times, before mankind’s brand on the world was as fierce as it is today.”

She cleared her throat and in turn met all of their gazes. There were tears there, and worry and fear. They could not fathom a world without this old woman, who had been such an important and fundamental part of all their lives for as long as they could remember. She knew this, and wished that there was something that she could say to make the pain of loss less terrible for them – but she also knew that thus is not the way of grief.

And now my days, too, have finally come to an end”, she said instead. “Even though I know that all my beloved friends have long since gone before me, I want to picture them as still being there, busying around inside the boarded up hotel as if just waiting for the season guests to arrive. Good bye, my loves”, she breathed. “I think I am going to sleep and dream of them now.”

And with this she finally closed her eyes for the very last time, leaving her children and grandchildren to the tears and fears and grief that are all inevitable parts of life.

She herself saw and heard nothing of this, however. Because when she opened her eyes again it was other eyes that looked down on her. Smiling eyes, the well known eyes of old friends. They were all there: the pleasant but quiet hotel cook Mr. Paul Schroder, the inspired but absent-minded hotel manager Mr. Hans Wolfgang Adler, the enigmatic and psychic head of staff Mrs. Lisa Maur and many, many others. Jean Mahler, her short dark hair just as unruly and her brown eyes just as bright as all those years ago, smiled wider than all the rest. “Welcome home”, she whispered.

And with that they were all gathered, finally; all the souls and faces and voices who once lived and loved here. Now they can live and love here again, irrespective of the workings of the world outside. I have called the final drop of my life-blood back.

I am the Hotel Belvédère, and I will always stand here as a silent monument of greater times, as if just waiting for the season guests to arrive. I have seen generations and eras come and go within my grey brick walls, and I have known and loved them all. I have closed my green shutters to the world, but behind them life goes on.

Please come and visit us. You are most warmly welcome.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-01-29

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

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The Missing Limb

When John put his mother’s ring on my finger we both knew it was not a promise of a future together. I harbored no illusions of that kind – I knew he only dared do it because we were both aware, deep down, that we were never going home. We were going to die out there in the cold trenches, together or separated, and did not have to worry about conventions, laws and consequences.

I wish I still had that ring.

The war had been going on for ages, or so it felt. When I was first sent to the front I was young and stupid with my head full of star-spangled dreams and lies. When I met John what felt like a lifetime later, we had both seen, felt and heard enough to have learned that this was not our war – that it was no-one’s. And still we fought in it; I because I was afraid of the alternative, John because he had nothing to go back to.

I wish I could say that we gave each other hope, that us being together made the terror we lived more bearable, but that would be a lie. We suffered and we wept and despaired, and when there was pain that pain was not to be dulled by anything except sleep or death or the poisons we drank to attain one or both of them.

But John sang to me when I was drowning in panic, and I told him stories from my childhood when he hurt too badly. And we grew to love each other in a way reserved for the mad, the desperate and the dying.

I have never loved anyone since like I loved him.

It had been raining heavily that night, and when dawn came the world was drenched in mud and blood. This was the morning of long dreaded advance, of finally pushing desperately forward. The secret solace from the night before seemed like a long ago dream, and not even the ring hidden by my left glove could fully convince me that I had not in fact imagined it all.

It did not matter, however, because everything was to end very soon. I just did not know it at the time.

We left the relative but treacherous safety of the dug trenches and moved forth. I tried to keep close to John in the stealthy turmoil, but repeatedly kept losing sight of him. The sun rose behind the clouds and suddenly there was fire and explosions everywhere. We had been sighted. Our numbers scattered without any real semblance of order, and despite my best attempts to keep calm and sharp I found myself lost and terrified. I panicked.

That is how John found me. He screamed through the clamour that our unit was falling back and regrouping, that we had been ordered to take shelter in the ruins of a nearby church. He grabbed my left hand and started running, leading me towards safety.

It was then that the ground around us detonated, and everything turned into panic, pain and blackness.

I awoke to blindness in a world of horror and agony. There was not a part of me that did not hurt, and I could not see at all. Half convinced that I was in fact dead I lay there on my back, listening to the moaning, hurting voices of my compatriots all around me. Part of my mind realized that it must have been a bombshell or a hidden mine – the rest of me did not think at all.

Until I felt John’s firm grip on my hand again, that is. The pain in my entire body was excruciating when he helped me to my feet, but his warmth was so relieving that I almost did not acknowledge it.

“I can’t see”, I said. “Please don’t let go.”

“I will never let go”, he replied.

And then he led me slowly, carefully through the nightmare that I could not see, but the sounds of which will haunt me to the end of days. People were dying everywhere around us, screaming for help or relief or for people long gone. If someone had told me at that time that we were in fact walking through the fires of Purgatory, I would have readily believed it. Sound becomes a merciless paintbrush when employed on the canvas of the unseeing.

At long last we must have left the battlefield behind us, as the voices of the dying slowly faded into the distance. I was growing weaker with every step, and the steady flow of warmth down the side of my torso told me that I was bleeding badly from the explosion. Without John’s hand I mine I would have been terrified of fainting, falling or getting lost, but he never let go. Instead he firmly and calmly guided me across the uneven landscape on the other side of my personal darkness, stopping when I needed to but never for too long.

Then, suddenly, I began hearing voices again – but not those of the dying. I recognized those voices, and the relief I felt at hearing them is not to be described in words. I realized that we must have found the church that John had talked about in those final moments before the world ended. Someone called my name, another called for assistance and now, finally, my legs would not carry me any longer. I collapsed there in the mud and felt consciousness drifting away, even as running steps approached along with voices shouting medical commands.

I did not die that day, but was later told that it had been very close. I remained unconscious for a very long time, floating in an endless blackness only occasionally interrupted by brief spells of blurry, partial wakefulness. The only thing that kept me sane and calm during those short, confused moments was John’s reassuring and safe grip on my hand as he kept faithful vigil beside my sickbed.

Then, finally, I awoke one day and the darkness was gone. I blinked in confusion, and everything was made of sharp, searing light. At least almost everything; however intensely I tried to open my left eye, it simply would not obey me. A silhouette was standing in front of me, and at first I thought that it was John. But then the man spoke, and I realized that he was a doctor.

He told me that I had been lucky, that the shrapnel had only punctuated one of my eyes and that they had thankfully been able to save the right one. He then told me about several surgical operations and a long, long time of insecurity as to whether I would have the strength to wake up again. He told me that us even having this very conversation was a miracle in its own right. It was a riddle to all how I had managed, bleeding, blind and dying, to find and trudge my way back to safety.

“It was John”, I said in a voice rough from disuse. “He led me by the hand the entire way.”

I tried to squeeze John’s hand in mine, but I could not move my fingers. I wanted so badly to look at him, to see that he was alright, but my left eye was blind and my neck hurt too much to move.

“John Curtis?”, the doctor said, and even though I could only see him diffusely the tone of his voice betrayed his concern.

“Yes”, I said and even managed a defiant smile. Then and there I did not care what he knew or thought about us. In that moment I could have bravely and foolishly made John all those promises we had been too afraid to make before, and more. I hoped that he could hear this in my voice – that they both could.

The doctor was silent for a long time, and when again he spoke his voice was grave and worried.

“You must be mistaken”, he said. “You came alone. I saw it myself.”

At this I laughed and shook my head, actions both of which sent pain shooting through my body once more. But I did not care, this was all too absurd. Still smiling broadly, I turned finally to my left to meet John’s gaze. But he was gone. I stared in confusion, knowing that he had been there, holding my hand, just a moment ago.

The doctor, mistaking my sudden silence for something else, hurried to my side and put his hand on my right shoulder. “I am sorry, son, I should have told you sooner. You must have lost it in the explosion, and when we found it the day after it was too late to do anything. But everything has healed beautifully, and with some training you should be able to–”

But I was not listening to him anymore. I had let my gaze wander downwards to where my left arm should have been, and was now staring in shocked disbelief at the bandaged stump that had now taken its place.

“But… But John, he was… Right now, I…” I realized that I was rambling, but my thoughts simply would not come together. He had been sitting there, right beside me, holding my left hand. And now they were both gone.

“I am terribly sorry, but John Curtis is dead”, the doctor interrupted me. “He was killed in the explosion that took your arm. In fact, that was how we found it. Even in death he was holding on to your left hand.”

***

They sent me home after that. I do not think that they would have reinstated me into service even if my body had been intact, since it must have been so painfully apparent that my mind was not. I do not know what happened to the ring, and have only presumed that someone must have stolen it. It was never returned to me, at the very least.

I went to John’s funeral and met his estranged parents and siblings. I told them that I was a friend, and saying those words hurt more than I had thought it would. I exchanged a few polite stories with the grieving family, but left soon after when it became painfully clear to me that we were not even talking about the same person.

This was all a long time ago now. I eventually learned to live with one arm and one eye, and nowadays I barely reflect upon the loss at all. The only reason, however, that I am able to live with a heart irrevocably split by sorrow, is that I know that the other half of it is never far away – just as despite all I still know that John Curtis saved my life on that cursed day.

Because every day and every night since then, however far I walk and wherever I may go, as soon as I close my eye I feel it; John’s strong fingers lacing together with those of my missing, left hand, as he walks beside me to the end of days.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-01-18

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

Grängesberg Ghost Town

This gallery is part of my journalistic project “Grängesberg Ghost Town”, which explores the history of a small Swedish town that changed forever when the iron mine closed in 1990. The description of the project reads: “Welcome to the town of Grängesberg, once the home of Bergslagen’s largest orefield and Sweden’s most lucrative company – today an echoing ghost town.” The Flickr album in its entirety can be found here.


huset hela

This old giant is only one of many structures to have been left to the elements after fissures in the ground forced central Grängesberg to be moved in the 1970s.


rum ror

The inside of the building is not in any better shape than its exterior.


door ruin


spiraltrappa2

This old staircase has certainly seen better days.


spiraltrappa

The basement was too dark to be photographed. This was as far as the camera got.


fagel bla

However, the destruction has also given birth to beautiful art…


window

…and even in darkness there is light.


kulle hus

Now nature is doing its best to take it all back.


logg


rift2

In Sweden we have a beloved children’s tale called “Ronja Rövardotter” by author Astrid Lindgren. The fissures surrounding these ruins remind me of a chasm called “The Hell Gap” from that story.


Fordelningcentral1

This old electricity distribution central from the old mining era will probably fall into “The Hell Gap” before very long.


Fordelningcentral3

It is in very bad shape…


tegel rasat

…and seems to be waiting to fall apart completely.


tegelsal1

Walking inside it feels like a stupid death trap, and still entering is irresistible.


Fordelningcentral2

Here, as well, nature is making its claim on the old structures.


tegelsal2

The markings of the fissures can be seen everywhere…


scrap1

…and in many places only scraps remain where once was industrial glory.


tegelsal3

The second floor has more the feel of an art gallery than a factory building.


byggnad2

In the surrounding woods many more forgotten buildings can be found.


tegel splatt

Soon, however, only bricks will remain.


rift1

Once again we see how the hollow ground is taking its toll.


tunnor view

In the distance, past the quarry, some of the more fortunate mining buildings can be seen.


utkik bg

This beautiful place was once one of the richest industrial loci in Sweden.


utkik 3

Now not much remain but eerie memories.


fordelning bygg2


tegelpelare


Utsikt Jonny


utkik jonny2


utkik 2


heart torn


Svamptrad

This odd witch-tree grows on almost the exact spot where once a wooden church towered proudly. The church was moved to the town of Orsa at the same time as the entire Grängesberg town center was moved 500 yards to the east in the 70s. If the tree is a sign of something, I leave to the more superstitious to decide.


stol


kalfallet1

The street of Källfallet was built as worker dwellings 1896, but since the mine closed down 1990 they have stood empty. Squatters have occupied them in periods, but have always been driven out by the police.


kalfallet2

Recently an organization was founded in order to save the old houses from being torn down, and each house has been granted the equivalent of approximately 100 000 USD for renovation…


kalfallet3

…but the smell of mould on the air along the entire street, together with the state of the buildings, make me suspect that sum will be insufficient.


Lav

Some of the old structures have been preserved and still stand in good shape, however.


Cassels

This old mansion like building is the culture- and concert hall of Grängesberg, named after the town’s past benefactor Ernest Cassel who brought the railroad here in the 1870s.


Cassels2


hjulet

The Lomberg Wheel still stands as a reminder of how the mine got its power before electricity came to Grängesberg in 1893.


Mojsen

In the museum Mojsen’s Mining Centre, driven enthusiasts help people take a huge step back in history to the glory days of Grängesberg and its mining industry. It is really worth a visit if you’re ever in town.


granges centrum4

Other than this, today’s Grängesberg is a very average small town.


granges centrum3

It has a totally okay restaurant called Stopet, a go cart track and one of the Swedish brewery giant Spendrup’s factories.


granges centrum2

An uninformed driver wouldn’t probably raise their eyebrows between the signs for ‘welcome’ and ‘welcome back’.


granges centrum1

But in the forests around Grängesberg, the town’s iron weighed history still looms amongst the never forgetting trees.