Nancy: Lost Hearts in Copenhagen – A Christmas Vignette

Danish Christmas Hearts

Danish Christmas Hearts

Happy holidays, all! This is my contribution to the Eight Ladies 2015 Christmas canon featuring words from Elizabeth’s writing sprints holiday edition. I’m picking up Nicky O’s story, the day after his arrest in Copenhagen Blues, which you can read here. It just so happens that this day is Christmas Eve, the main day of celebration in Denmark, and things are looking up for Nick. Or are they? (And sorry about the dead body, Elizabeth.)

The sun was setting over a misty Copenhagen on Christmas Eve. Smoldering streetlamps and twinkling Christmas lights cast equally eerie glows over the deserted streets on this high holy day of family celebrations. The rhythmic rocking of the nearly-empty mass transit bus made Nick Olesen’s eyes drift shut.

He’d spent a long, sleepless night in a police station cell and had only been released two hours earlier, after the seemingly airtight case against him for murder had fallen apart. The lead detective, who also happened to be Nick’s married lover, had whispered to him on the way out the door that she’d explain it all later. He hated himself for hanging not on her promise to explain how he’d just beaten a murder rap, but on her word that she’d sneak away from her husband to meet with him sometime over the holiday.

The bus driver announced the end of the line and Nick opened his eyes to see he’d slept right through his stop. He asked the driver for instructions about which bus would get him to Amagerbro, then stepped out onto the street in front of the four white marble mansions that made up Amalienborg. There was no Danish flag flying above Queen Margrethe’s castle, which meant the royal family wasn’t in residence for the holiday.

“I can hardly blame the old girl.” Nick adjusted his backpack full of gifts on his shoulder, turned up his collar, and shivered as he turned to walk the two blocks to the next bus stop. “I can think of better places to celebrate Christmas.”

He stopped in front of the statue of Frederik V on horseback, which someone had festooned with garland. In the statue, the 18th-century king wore a Roman toga, a nod to the man’s well-known penchant for orgies. Frederik V had been one of the country’s weakest leaders, but under his reign, the sciences had flourished, making him a great historical figure in Jens Olesen’s – Nick’s father’s – eyes. Then again, neither Jens nor Nick had ever been in much position to judge anyone else’s sexual proclivities.

Nick picked up his pace and arrived at the stop just in time to catch the bus that got him to his grandparents’ house ten minutes later. He had yet to stop thinking about his father, whose choice to be buried on Danish soil had brought Nick here. Jens Olesen had been a man of science, not faith, but he’d taken the Christmas holiday as seriously as any Dane, religious or otherwise. But Jens had never had an interest in going home to Copenhagen for the holidays.

So for the first time ever, Nick crossed the threshold into his grandmother’s kitchen on a Christmas Eve. His eyes misted as he was overcome with the sense of hyuggelit, with the smell of roast pork and duck, the crackle of the fire in the fireplace, the vision of the tree in the next room decked in Danish Christmas hearts and candles – electrified ones, thank god – and the embrace of relatives who looked so much like his late father, the heartbreak of missing him clogged Nick’s throat.

“Nicholai Jens is here!” his grandmother announced, and hugged him hard before turning back to the stove.

“Nicholai Jens!” his grandfather repeated in the adjoining living room.

“Nicho-Jens!” Two adorable little blonde girls of slightly different heights, wearing matching green velvet dresses, swarmed the kitchen for their hug from their favorite cousin whose long name they’d abbreviated years earlier.

His aunt shooed her grandchildren away from Nick so she could take his coat, then nudged him toward her two grown daughters, Nick’s older cousins who were the closest thing he’d ever had to siblings.

Mette, the younger and unmarried cousin, hugged him and whispered in English, “I’ve gotten us invited to an amazing party tomorrow night!”

Lisa, his older, married cousin and mother of the two young girls, wedged between them and spoke in Danish. “Ignore her. You need to behave yourself. You’ve made the news online. The rest of the family will know about it by morning.”

Mette nudged his ribs. “‘Son of Denmark’s Most Famous Physicist Since Tycho Brahe Arrested on Suspicion of Murder’.” She raised her eyebrows at him. “I think you can use that. I hear outlaws get a lot of action.”

Lisa took her sister’s elbow and pointed her toward the stove. “You, help Mormor with dinner.” She linked her arm in Nick’s. “And you, start thinking with your brain.”

“I’m not a villain. I wouldn’t hurt a woman, let alone-”

“Of course you wouldn’t.” Lisa tightened her grip on his arm. “But you are hurting yourself. Maybe try celibacy for a while.”

The melancholy Lisa’s words sparked was short-lived. The family enjoyed their Christmas feast with too many glasses of wine, followed by the rice and almond pudding dessert and its game of finding the one whole almond that would garner the winner the coveted almond gift. There were three whole almonds and three gifts, one for Nick and each of the girls, and despite his grandmother’s protests, no one believed it was a coincidence that the children and the prodigal grandson had won the Danish Christmas heart ornaments, which his grandmother had hand-woven out of foil wrapping paper. Then everyone held hands and circled the Christmas tree while singing Christmas carols. In his childhood, there had only been three of them, his parents and him, leaning into branches and stretching to reach around the tree. Now with his grandparents, aunt, two cousins, cousin’s husband, and children, their circle was so large, they were in no danger of being scratched by pine needles.

After the dancing, Mette arranged presents for each person into piles, and they let the children open their gifts, one at a time, first. The carved giraffes the girls got from their grandparents were the hit of the evening, until they opened their presents from Nick.

Lisa shook her head when she saw the matching musical jewelry boxes, each with a necklace – one with an American flag pendant, the other with a silver Statue of Liberty – tucked inside. “I see Nicho-Jens didn’t get the message about one gift per person.”

Nick winked at his young cousins. “An extra gift just this once. I thought the girls might like something that came all the way from New York.”

“New York!” the girls yelled in unison, although Nick was pretty sure they had no idea where that was.

Half an hour later, after Lisa and her husband had calmed the girls enough to get them to brush their teeth and be tucked into bed, the adults settled into sofas and chairs to open their gifts one by one, with Christmas cookies and beer helping them stretch the night into the wee hours of the morning.

Nick stumbled into bed – his father’s childhood bed in a small room on the third floor of the house – a little after 3 AM. Ten minutes later, his phone buzzed and startled him out of a deep, wine-enhanced sleep. It was a text from Pernilla, making good on her promise of a rendezvous.

A short, brisk walk later, Nick unlocked the door of the small pied-a-terre owned but rarely visited by Pernilla’s family. She had her arms around his neck by the time he’d pushed the door closed behind him. Her kiss was frantic and possessive. Not love. He wouldn’t kid himself. But jealousy. It was better than nothing, and the only thing she was offering. He’d take it.

“She didn’t mean anything to me,” he whispered into Pernilla’s hair. He pressed his eyes closed, realizing that made him sound like more of an asshole. “It’s awful, what happened.”

She cut him off with another kiss. “Your fingerprints were only on the handle of the umbrella, just where we’d expect to find them based on the way a witness saw you holding it over her while she buttoned up her coat.”

Nick remembered that moment outside the bar when the woman who would be his one night stand shivered against him and buttoned her coat with shaking hands. He’d been chilled to the bone by the time they’d reached his apartment, but her skin had been so warm and soft against his.

“That’s not where the killer held it when he used it to…”

A wave of nausea overwhelmed Nick. He gripped Pernilla’s shoulders and held her inches away from him. “I have to tell you something else.”

She pressed a finger over his lips. “I know you didn’t do it.”

He kissed her finger. “Not that. You just have to know…It wasn’t the fist time I was with her.”

“Well, aren’t you the Casanova?” Pernilla took a step backward, nearly stumbling. He reached out to catch her but she held up her hands in front of her.

“I told you there was a woman, a few days after I got here. The night of the burglary at the Black Diamond building.”

“The woman who was murdered was your alibi for the burglary?”

He rubbed his hand over his face. “And she told me last night the police hadn’t questioned her yet.”

Pernilla wrapped her arms around herself like she was suddenly cold. “Nicholai, this is bad. Do you know what this means?” She stepped toward him and laid her hand on his chest. “Her death was about you, after all.”

He was shaking when she leaned into him and held him tightly. When he was calmer, he took her face between both his hands and kissed her slowly, gently. She responded in kind, then pressed her body against his, pinning him between her and the door. She untucked his shirt and started unbuttoning it from the bottom. When she had only undone half the buttons, she reached for his belt.

“Do you remember our first night?” she asked.

Nick sucked in his breath through his teeth as she unzipped his jeans. “We had the whole night together. We sipped champagne and recited poetry.”

She nodded and slid her fingers across the bare skin of his belly. “This is not that night. I only have an hour.”

His own jealousy, always simmering just beneath the surface, flared. He turned her around and pressed her against the door, pulling her sweater over her head and kissing and nipping at her neck. He knew he was leaving his mark on her, hoped her husband would see it and know the truth.

He vaguely remembered his cousin’s whispered warning about thinking with his brain, but Pernilla kissed him again and pushed his jeans down over his hips and all logic fled. Somehow, somewhere, there would be hell to pay for this, but for the next hour, he just didn’t give a damn about the consequences.

16 thoughts on “Nancy: Lost Hearts in Copenhagen – A Christmas Vignette

  1. Whoo! You do such a good job of creating a sympathetic character here. And there is so much love in the Christmas scene! I’m hooked. Can’t wait to see more!

    I love the way you introduce the Christmas traditions, too. They are slightly alien, but understandable. I feel that I understand the universal meaning of the winter holidays while getting a firm footing in a Place That Is Not Here.

    I remember one Christmas (was it Christmas?) we were sitting around my grandparents’ table, eating walnuts, when my grandfather got a bowl of water and made little walnut boats with candles burning inside. So fascinating for a little kid! Fire on the table! This year, I was googling Czech Christmas traditions and found it. My grandfather was, practically speaking, a third-generation Czech. Almost all of our Czech heritage is lost in my family, except when something peeks out now and then. With your writing, your grandkids and great-grandkids will never forget the Danish roots of their grandfather. It’s kind of like a tiny Christmas miracle that glows through the years like the candle on the Danish Christmas tree.

    • I’m glad Nick reads as sympathetic, since you don’t have the context of the bigger story and he is sleeping with a married woman. But Pernilla was a childhood friend and first love, and when he returns to Copenhagen and they meet as adults, he realizes a part of him never got over her. So there are real emotional stakes for him that might not come across in these small chunks of story.

      Regarding immigrant traditions, it’s amazing how much gets lost so quickly. Here’s hoping that we capture some of that magic in our stories, and that our stories live long enough for our grandkids and great-grandkids to read them!

  2. Great job Nancy. You guys are raising the bar high for this Christmas challenge. Love how much you’ve packed into a short story.

    • Thanks Elizabeth! I realized after posting this story that I missed a word – just one word! – from your prompt. Firecracker. Of course, now I see there are about three different places I could have worked it into the story.

      • I went through and scratched off the words as I used them. Some, I’d have rather used in different ways (for example, “celebrate” instead of “celebration”), but oh well…it’s a short story using a fixed set of words! You have to be flexible!

        And I agree we’re ALL raising the bar high! Way to go, ladies!

  3. I really enjoyed this, Nancy, so much good stuff in one short story. I hope you do have serious plans for Nicky O, because he’s a charismatic guy, and I love the setting and community. “Somehow, somewhere, there would be hell to pay for this”…I hope it’s here, and soon 🙂 .

    • Yeah, that’s such a Nicky O line. At least, before he completes his character arc. Which could take a few books, as I’d love to write a mystery series around him :-).

  4. Pingback: Elizabeth: Friday Writing Sprints – Brand New Year! | Eight Ladies Writing

  5. Pingback: Nancy: Spring Cleaning and a Vignette – Eight Ladies Writing

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