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A Winter Beneath the Stars by Jo Thomas (1)

Fika?! You want fika?’ The voice makes me jump, catapulting me from my thoughts. I look up and see a tall, blonde young woman standing next to me with a stern look on her face. She’s brandishing a long pair of tongs and snapping them, punctuating the ‘f’ in fika.

She does it again

Snap, snap!

I swallow hard. I’m used to discovering new customs. I’m a seasoned traveller. Which also means I am very wary. I mean, not everything is always quite as it sounds, like the all-over body massage in a parlour in Paris, or the moreish cupcakes in the café in Amsterdam.

I lean back, pushing my shoulders and face away from the painful-looking tongs, wondering what fika could possibly entail. I’m wary, but that’s not to say I’m not up for new experiences. But this . . . those tongs make me think I may have misread the signs coming to sit down here. I look around at the green glass lampshades throwing soft light over the green and white tablecloths and red salt and pepper pots. I’m sitting on a soft green imitation-leather high-backed bench, looking out over the runway. It looks and smells like a restaurant. So what’s with the—

Fika!’ she interrupts my thoughts. Her stern face suddenly breaks into a wide smile as she proudly announces, ‘Coffee and cake!’ and snaps her long tongs at the lines of pastries and cakes behind her on a central island.

‘You can have coffee,’ she points at the coffee machine whirring and steaming away, ‘and cake!’ She turns back and points at the row of pastries again. ‘Fika!’ she repeats proudly. ‘A very Swedish tradition. Everyone makes time for fika. Workers and bosses alike. It’s where we take a minute to relax and reflect and share our thoughts.’

I glance up at the departures board and scan for my flight.

‘Delayed!’ I sigh.

‘Where are you going?’ she asks.

‘Kiruna,’ I tell her.

‘Ah,’ she nods, ‘they will have big snow there. Bound to be delayed. You have time for fika,’ she says seriously.

But I just want to get going. I only popped into this café to charge my phone, grab a bottle of water and update my journal. I like to do it as soon as I arrive somewhere new. I’m constantly on the move, and it helps me keep track of where I was and when. I look at the board again. I just want to get to Kiruna, as far north as you can fly in Sweden, find the town of Tallfors, even further north, and the hotel, and then get back here to Stockholm and the safety of the city as soon as possible. A bubble of frustration rises in me. I’m itching to be on the move. But delayed means delayed, even if it is only by forty-five minutes, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

‘Do you have any tea?’

‘Tea?’ She looks like she’s been asked if she serves chopped liver. ‘Um, let me see.’ She rummages in a basket of tea bags. ‘I have Earl Grey . . . or green tea, or camomile.’ She gazes at me expectantly. I consider the options. No ordinary breakfast tea. Looks like coffee it is.

‘In that case, fika would be lovely.’ I smile back at her, glad that at least it didn’t turn out to be some sort of Swedish massage involving tongs and hot rocks, and resigning myself to enforced grounding for the next three quarters of an hour. I’ll use the time to finish my travel log entry and catch up on work emails. It’s probably a useful window to do that before getting to the job in Tallfors.

I take out my travel log and place it on the table in front of me, checking for any spills on the surface first. I open it up and run my hand over the blank page near the back of the book, then I take my pen from the pen holder on the inside of the front pocket, unscrew the lid and start to write.

Date: 4 January 2018. Location: Stockholm. Destination: Lapland.

I write slowly, enjoying the feel of the nib moving over the thick cream paper. I rest my hand on the left-hand side of the open book. It’s nearly full – only two pages left. I flick through the notes and photos of the places I’ve been since I started this job delivering precious and unusual items all over Europe, and smile, reminded of all the trips I’ve made over the past two years – Sicily, Sardinia, south-west France – and the things I’ve hand-delivered. A wedding dress, an antique violin bought in an auction, and paperwork for a businessman, for which I was treated to a seven-course meal with family, friends and colleagues before I left.

I look at the remaining blank pages again and run my thumb over their edges. Just two pages and the book will be full. I wonder if I could add some more pages in, or find another travel journal exactly the same. Maybe I’ll look around the airport. It’s the perfect travel companion, I think, smoothing down the cool page.

Stockholm is minus two degrees. I adjust my writing so it’s smaller, using up less paper than the notes at the start of the book. And outside the window of the airport café I’m in, snowploughs are clearing the runways. Maybe twenty of them. It’s like watching ballet dancers performing a well-rehearsed routine. Snow is billowing up around them like icing sugar being dusted on mince pies. Who needs Swan Lake when I have this?! I draw a smiley face and some snowflakes, imagining my husband Griff’s face as I tell him every detail of my trip, wishing he could be here with me to see it.

I snap a picture of the snowploughs, check it and smile again. I’ll print it off and stick it in when I get home, if there’s room. I frown, looking at the last couple of blank pages, running my hand over the textured paper again and finding comfort in its familiarity. I love stationery, always have. My gold fountain pen was a thirtieth birthday present from my husband, with the message Now stop talking about wanting to do it and write! And this book – I caress the page again – this book has been my constant travelling companion for two years, since I started this job.

I put the pen to my lips and watch the snowploughs, letting the hubbub of the airport wrap itself around me like a great big hug. I love airports. The excitement, the chatter, the expectation. Everyone is going somewhere. There is such a buzz in that constant state of movement: places to go, people to see. I just love it. A contented smile spreads across my face as I watch the snowploughs swoop gracefully in circles and then file off the runway to make way for a departing aeroplane. Even the sight of the planes gives me a happy little feeling of hope, of new cities to be seen, new streets to lose myself in.

I look at the details of the town I’ve printed off. Tallfors, meaning ‘tall pines next to a fast-flowing river’; population 523. It’s about as far north as you can get before crossing over into Norway. It has a church, a grocery shop and outdoor-clothes store, a post office, a hotel and all sorts of winter activities. I give an involuntary shiver underneath my big-knit woollen scarf with pompoms around the edges, a Christmas present from my sister on hearing that this was my next assignment. No, Tallfors wouldn’t suit me for a holiday. I prefer a good selection of shops, along with restaurants and museums and people.

To be honest, it’s not a job I’d usually have accepted, but it was a favour for my boss, Mansel Knott, and well, let’s just say Sign-Off Sybil in the office told me that if I deliver the goods safe and sound, I’m next in line for the big jobs: New Zealand, Australia, the Far East. Just perfect! Her name is actually Bev, but we call her Sign-Off Sybil because she’s forever texting us with Remember to sign the job off! Like we’d forget. We don’t get paid until it’s signed off. And because she looks and sounds like Sybil in Fawlty Towers.

Big long-haul jobs . . . I sigh at the thought. I’ve been hoping for one of them since I started with Wings hand-to-hand courier service, specialists in bespoke, efficient and reliable deliveries around the world. I just had to bide my time and prove myself, and it looks as if that’s exactly what I’ve done. My track record is impeccable – well, apart from the time I let out a pedigree Papillon dog called Lady Gaga to relieve herself at a service station on the M4 and she ended up in a romantic encounter with a Basset hound. There was some explaining to do after that. I just wanted to let her stretch her legs. Instead, I had to prise the amorous couple apart, and she lashed out with all the bitchiness of a snubbed prima donna, unhappy about having her doggy equivalent of a Tinder date interrupted. I still have the scar to prove it. I run my thumb along my chin and the indentation there. I haven’t been near a dog since.

I just want to deliver the package safely, sign the job off and get back to Stockholm, where I’ve planned a week’s sightseeing in the city. And I’m still on track to do that. In fact, despite the early start and the delay, this trip is working out so far just as I’d hoped.

I look at my schedule, complete with contact names, addresses and phone numbers, which I’ve printed off and have tucked in a plastic wallet into the sleeve at the back of my travel log, as well as having all the details on my phone, of course. I like to have belt and braces. I glance around at the airport once again. I can’t think of a nicer, busier place to be stranded, surrounded by people making plans on their phones, dreaming of onward journeys. The hustle and bustle all around me once again fills me with contentment. Fika will be great. I smile and look back down at the page in front of me, and start to describe fika and what I thought it might entail before I discovered it was actually about gingerbread cookies and almond cake!

Kaffe,’ says my waitress, putting a steaming cup in front of me.

Tack,’ I say, having spent the flight from Heathrow studying the Swedish phrasebook I downloaded before I left home – just as I do with every new country I visit.

She smiles and hands me a plate, indicating that I should go and choose from the selection on the central island and snapping her tongs again with a naughty smile. I pick out a couple of cakes, which she puts on my plate almost ceremoniously with the tongs, and I carry them back to my table, where my small black hand-luggage case is waiting. All around me are other travellers with cases standing by their tables and chairs like obedient children joining the grown-ups at dinner.

I put down the tray, sit down and lean my case against the table leg. It feels like a trusty friend. We’ve been everywhere together over the past two years. My colleagues bought it for me when I left my old job in the sales office of Dionysus Travel, where I’d been working for nearly ten years.

I sip the coffee and grimace. It’s strong and bitter. I pick up one of the cakes and bite into the flaky pastry, letting
the sweetness sit on my tongue, reviving me from my silly o’clock start this morning. I brush off the loose crumbs that have landed in my book just as a smartly dressed man indicates to the table next to me, as if asking if it’s free. I nod, a mouthful of pastry stopping me from replying. He slides into the bench seat to my right. I look at my phone and my city guide and start to make a list of the places I plan to see in Stockholm, writing even smaller than before. I love city life, just like I love airports. I love the buzz of people all around me. You know what they say: you’re never alone in a crowd.

I look back out at the performing snowploughs. I know how lucky I am to have this job, seeing new places all the time. Not that I didn’t like my last one, but this is a long way from the office block I used to work in; a very long way from life back then. I like my life now; a new view every day from my hotel window. New people. Never the same place or face twice. All of them documented here in my journal. I smile and run my hand over the cover. I’ve been to so many places, but there are still so many I haven’t seen.

Just then, my phone buzzes into life. It’s Sign-Off Sybil in the office. A new job has just come in. Once you sign off on this one, I can assign you to it . . . it’s a biggie. Long haul!

I put the phone to my lips and smile, then press the book to my chest. I can’t wait to write about that in here. Then I think again about how few pages I have left and vow to make my writing really small. I slide the book off the table and into the front pocket of my case where it lives.

I open the case and triple-check on the package I’m delivering. It’s there safe and sound, packaged in a velvet-lined box with silver trim. I pull it out. I like to make sure that the goods entrusted to my care are in perfect condition. I open the stiff lid and peek in as if checking on a sleeping child. Not that I’ve ever had to do that other than when I’ve babysat for my nephews. Sara is my older sister. She thinks I need a minder, as do the rest of my family, my stepdad and brother-in-law included, but I don’t. I’m fine. I’m thirty-two, for God’s sake! I love them dearly but they can be a bit overprotective.

My family does everything together. And when I’m around, they have me organised too, though I’ve barely been there over the past two years, not since my change of career. But they understand how busy I am. I’m here, there and everywhere and very happy. We keep in touch with our family WhatsApp. Now, just for good measure, I send them all a photo of my coffee and cake and type You want fika?! with a smiley face. My nephews will love it!

Then I return my attention to the box. Opening the lid fully, I put it on the table and look at the two silver wedding rings, shiny and new. The work of a Swedish designer living in London, where I collected them yesterday, they have been hand-made and inscribed. Tentatively I pick one up. On the inside is written Love you forever, my dearest Pru. Remembering with a prickle in my eyes how it felt to make those vows and mean them, I feel an unexpected rush of joy for this couple who have found each other, just like Griff and I did.

I remember Griff proposing to me just six months after we met. He was going away on a tour of duty and took me to our favourite pizza place. After the pizzas and garlic bread, and before the ice cream and tiramisu, I heard our favourite song playing on the restaurant music system, at which point Griff dropped to one knee in between the tables and asked me to marry him. The entire restaurant cheered when I beamed and said I would. We went to see my mum on the way back from the restaurant. The whole family turned up to hear the news and share Prosecco. I loved that warm June night.

I sniff and smile and place the ring gently back in its rightful place in the box, next to its other half, then put the box in my case and zip it up.

‘If you are travelling alone, perhaps I buy you some more fika?’ the man to my right says in a thick accent, maybe south of France, leaning over towards me. ‘Or perhaps, when my lift arrives,’ he checks his phone, ‘a guided tour of the city?’ It happens sometimes, but still takes me by surprise. I must have single traveller tattooed on my forehead. But it’s not like I dress up for travelling, and certainly not on this trip, with my huge puffa coat and very sensible boots.

‘Married,’ I say with a forced smile and hold up my wedding finger to show him, just as my flight is called. ‘But thank you for asking,’ I add politely, though actually inside I feel flustered. But my wedding ring seems to have done the trick, and he nods, with regret and a gentle smile.

‘He is a very lucky man,’ he says politely.

Even more flustered, I run my hand over my shiny cropped hair and turn back to my case, knocking it into his. I don’t know why I can’t accept compliments, but they just make me blush. I grab at my case, trying not to tut at my own clumsiness, and bid an embarrassed goodbye to the smart Frenchman, who is still smiling as he watches me. I quickly turn and head towards Terminal 5 and security, pulling out my phone with my boarding card on it from my handbag. I always wear a little across-body bag with my phone, passport and purse in it, just in case, God forbid, I ever get separated from my case. But that’s never going to happen. I keep a sharp eye on it at all times. It’s what I do!

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