The summer we met, Lillian had the age of eighteen summers and I was twenty-four. We were volunteers in a work camp in Pollock Castle, Newton Mearns, near Glasgow, under the auspices of the Christian movement “Oekoumene”. It had taken me a whole week to reach Scotland by hitchhiking. Read the story of Swedish Lillian of the Eighteen Summers.
Students from more than twenty countries were volunteering in that work-camp, and my duties were those of a joiner. Our project was the renovation of an old castle that would be turned into a residential home for the elderly. Our leader appointed Lillian as my assistant for some days. She was of such a fragile and gentle nature that I preferred, instead of her helping me to carry wood planks to the top floor, that she just handed them to me and “keep smiling”, as I told her.
Work continued at a fast pace, and when, after some days I got to the top of the roof of the castle and looked around, I thought I was the king of Scotland! My “Queen” was Lillian, of course, and she was waiting for me downstairs. So happy was I!
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We were all as busy as bees renovating the castle. No nightclubs, no parties, no dancing or any other entertainment. One Saturday, however, Lillian and I went to the nearby village stationery shop where, among other paperbacks, there was a copy of the novel Barabbas by the Swedish Nobel Prize winner Pär Lagerkvist. She praised it very much. I had also read in reviews back home that the book had been filmed starring Anthony Quinn. I bought a copy of the book which I still have. Reading the book made a deep impression on me, student of literature as I then was.
Some other weekends, when we were free, we would go for a walk in the countryside around the castle “to study Botany”, as Lillian used to say. Our feelings were pure, our love was Platonic. Only on the day of her departure did we exchange a tight hug and a goodbye kiss.
We had endless discussions that brought us both real pleasure. Her gentleness, intelligence, and fine sense of humour were something unique; but more unique was the chemistry between us. There I discovered also how true is that opposites attract each other. Here the elements were the North and the South. Plans were made and problems were solved. The only unsolved problem was the transportation of her grand piano.
“Where there is a will, there is a way,” I said. She agreed; that could be arranged later.
It was there, in Scotland where we learned to sing the folk song “Loch Lomond.
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But the happy days soon came to an end and we had to part. The idyll therefore entered another phase. Soon after she reached home, she sent me a letter:
Thousands of thanks for your letter and the beautiful postcard which I got this morning. You cannot imagine how happy I am to hear from you. The postcard reminded me very much of the wonderful day we spent at Loch Lomond. But did our love begin there? Not in the conference room? Well, let us say Loch Lomond, it is much more romantic…
I answered her letter including a poem I wrote for her but, alas, fortune dictated that she would read that poem after a delay of many, many years…
Fortune has been described as a wheel that turns and turns. Many years later I was working for the National Tourist Organization in Rhodes. It was the time that the Scandinavians had discovered the earthy paradise of the Dode-canese for their summer holidays. As our director used to say, the “blond angels from the North” were flying to the island from April to October continually.
One afternoon, a delicate, mature lady, wearing a straw hat and dark glasses, was standing in front of my desk. She needed a map of the Old City. I got up and, as I turned to reach the shelves where the maps were kept to hand one to her, she noticed my name on my desk.
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When I turned to face her again with a map in my hand, she uttered an exclamatory question in her mother tongue:
“Är det möjligt?
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Is it possible that you are the same person I met in Scotland many years ago?” I looked at her more carefully and, recognizing her, I answered:
“The same man, indeed!” Offering her a chair, I asked: “Well, what fair wind brings you to these parts of the world? Are you here on a holiday? A proverb says: “Only mountains do not meet.”
“Well, I work as a journalist for a leading newspaper of Stockholm. I am going to report on the ecological conference that was organized here in Rhodes. I arrived three days ago and covered the conference. I am leaving later tonight. However, I would like to see the Old Town before I go.”
“I am more than happy to see you here, after so many years! Visiting the Old Town, of course, is a must. If you don’t, it is like going to Athens and not seeing the Acropolis,” I said.
She smiled. In about ten minutes it would be six o’clock, and the office would close.
“I myself live in the direction of the Old Town, and with pleasure I can walk with you there,” I added.
She was pleased. We strolled down the picturesque Socrates Street, found a quiet bar at some corner, and sat down for a drink.
“Well, ‘Οnly the mountains do not meet’?” she asked.
“It seems that the proverb is right,” I said. “People do meet, even after many years, and unexpectedly, too.”
Over the drinks we recalled the work camp in Scotland, the other volunteers, the events of those days, our walks in the fields around the old castle.
Speaking of our walks, I recalled that it was there that she started singing for me a beautiful Swedish folksong:
Uti vår hage där växa blå bär.
Vill du mig något, så träffas vi där.
And, as I don’t want to puzzle my reader with the text, here is a translation:
Out in our meadow grow blue berries.
Come lemon balm!
If you need me for something, we will meet there.
The discussion then turned to our correspondence after leaving the work camp.
“You know, it is a pity that you never received the little poem I wrote for you. I kept sending it, two or three times, but the letters were sent back with ‘Unknown’ or ‘Moved to unknown address’ written on the envelopes. I have been wondering why.”
“Really? And I had thought that you did not want to write to me anymore.” As for the letters, she explained to me that in all probability it was her stepmother who had returned them while Lillian was absent at the University. And so, the mystery was solved.
“A poem for me? I would love to read it!”
“I’ll try to recall the text. It was a short one, a three-stanza poem.”
I took pencil and paper and tried to jot down the lines. First attempt: two lines missing; second attempt: the poem was on paper complete! Now I could read it to her and hand it to her in person, without the interference of her stepmother. And here is the poem:
The Northern Lily
In Scotland and in Newton Mearns
– my heart still aches and still burns –
’twas there I met a Lily,
a Lily planted in the North
that brought to my heart warmth,
though Comarach was chilly.
A Lily growing by a stream
was soon transformed into a dream,
to southern climes there to transplant
that marvellous and gentle plant.
The Lily took the highroad
and I the low, till now at last
I do regret I let the stream
– my fabulous and lovely dream –
roll smoothly on without a stop
letting me taste but one small drop!
“Tusen tack!” (A thousand thanks) she said and gave me a hug.
“I hope you like it; but I never thought that you would have to wait for so long time to read it.”
“Better late than never! The poem is allegorical and charming,” she said.
“The idea is that ‘Man proposes, God disposes’,” I said.
“It has been proved in our case, at least,” she said. She took the paper with the poem, folded it carefully, and inserted it into her blouse. “I’ll keep it here, close to my heart. It is the best souvenir,” she said.
Time was flying and she had to fly too. She should not miss the flight. I gladly accompanied her on a taxi to the Airport. Soon after that her departure was announced. I accompanied her to the pass control where a second big hug followed.
“See you again!” she said and, as she was entering the security gate, she pushed the piece of paper with the poem written on it deeper into her blouse and nearer to her heart…
Swedish Lillian of the Eighteen Summers, written exclusively for Daily Scandinavian in English by Panos Karos. Panos Karos was a Professor of English Language and Literature at the Ionian University, Corfu. He studied English and Greek Literature at the University of Thessaloniki and earned his Ph. D. from the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. He, inter alia, published four bilingual anthologies of Greek, English, German and Swedish poetry. His book No More War was published in Japan.
Feature image (on top): Swedish girl profile by Stefan Harris 2011 /useum