from Night Express
by Karin Erlandsson, illustrated by Peter Bergting
translated by Annie Prime
Dania’s grandma lives in an old station building next to a disused railway. Every year Dania, her big sister Nanda and their parents move to their grandmother’s for December in the run-up to Christmas. Grandma has become older and more forgetful during the past years, and sometimes she says things that make no sense.
One evening Granny seems exceptionally absent-minded, then disappears from her room during a Christmas party at the old station house. Later that night, when Dania hears a strange noise, she sneaks outside to find an express train pulling up at the station. It is the Night Express, a magical train summoned by special lanterns, and it reunites passengers with the people who they miss.
Awarded Finland's Runeberg Junior Prize in 2021, Night Express is a charming middle-grade Christmas tale told in 24 chapters. We are delighted to present one of these chapters in translation. In this extract, Dania has just taken her first trip on the Night Express, which brings her to a station house that feels strikingly familiar.
from Night Express
The Station with a Thousand Candles
The Night Express slowed down as it pulled into Station Six. The conductor Ulf had already opened the door and was waiting for Dania to get off.
“How do I get home? Won’t I need another lantern?”
“The train will come back,” he said. “It does a circuit all night so you can get off next time it comes back around. At this station, the lanterns are in the kitchen, you can take one from the corner cabinet.”
When the train stopped, it became quiet. The only thing Dania could hear was a rustling sound, like a swarm of thousands of beetles.
“There isn’t anything dangerous here, is there?”
Ulf shook his head.
“No, this station is perfectly peaceful. You have nothing to fear.”
Dania looked around doubtfully. Next to the platform was a station house identical to the one she had just left. A large bell hung above the door and a stone staircase led up to the gate.
But at the same time, this station wasn’t anything like Grandma’s station house.
There were hundreds of candles all over the platform. Some were as tall as Dania, others were around knee height. There were just ordinary white candles, but she had never seen so many at once before.
The sound she had heard was coming from them, not beetles. Dania felt better at once.
Ulf nudged Dania forward onto the platform.
“Remember the souvenir,” he shouted before blowing his whistle and closing the door.
The train rattled away again and soon Dania was left standing alone on the platform. She wriggled her toes in Grandma’s slippers. Ulf had said that they worked as souvenirs, but how could a pair of old slippers attract Grandma?
She took them off and put them on the stairs. It would be cold walking in the snow without them, but she was doing as she was told. What would she do now?
She looked at the dark windows of the station.
“Hello?” said Dania. “Is anyone there?”
She wasn’t expecting an answer, so she gave a start when she heard a voice behind her.
“Yes,” said the voice. “I’m here.”
Grandma was standing among the candles with her arms outstretched. Dania ran straight into her arms and buried her face in her stomach.
“What are you doing here? How did you get here? Everyone is looking for you back at home!”
Grandma hugged her tight and Dania recognised her familiar scents of freshly baked buns and wool.
Dania leaned her cheek against Grandma’s shoulder.
“This isn’t a dream, is it? You really are my Grandmother, aren’t you? Do you remember me?”
“You’re Dania. You’re eleven years old and you like to look at the stars before you fall asleep. You love chocolate and run up stairs five steps at a time. Why wouldn’t I remember you?”
Dania laughed and hugged Grandma again.
“You have to come home, everyone is so worried! How did you get here? Did you take the Night Express too?”
“Soon,” Grandma said. “I’ll tell you everything I know soon. I just want to hug you first.”
After a long hug, Grandma took Dania by the hand and led her up the stairs to the station house. Dania had so many questions to ask that she didn’t know where to begin.
They went into the kitchen, exactly where the kitchen was in her own station house. She went straight to a cupboard door, opened it and took out flour and sugar.
“Let’s bake some sunshine buns.”
“You want to bake? Now?”
“It’s been so long – I would love to bake with you again. The best conversations happen when kneading dough, don’t you think?”
Grandma crumbled yeast into milk and handed Dania a measuring cup and a bag of flour.
“Sometimes people disappear from themselves even though they don’t really want to. You know how forgetful I’ve become lately. My body is there but my mind is not.”
“Mum says it’s because you’re so old,” Dania said, measuring out the last of the flour.
“It can be because you’re old, or because you get so sad that you forget who you are, or because you just can’t cope with who you have become. Some disappear because they are alone. Do you understand?”
“Maybe. I’m not sure. Are you… dead?”
Grandma shook her head.
“No, I’m not dead. We wouldn’t be able to see each other if I were. But you might say that time has left me behind.”
Grandma carried the bowl to the kitchen table by the window, just like the kitchen in her normal station house.
“What is this place? Why does it look like your station house?”
Grandma smiled and pointed to a chair. She covered the dough and sat down opposite Dania.
“It’s really not that strange that we are sitting here. You see, the Night Express has a lot to do with you and me, and our whole family. It started when your grandfather was little. His father had had so many bad things happen to him that he got so sad that he didn’t want to live any more. He was so unhappy that he disappeared from his family. Grandad grew up and became an engineer, but he could never get over what happened to his father.”
“I don’t think I could have either, if I were him,” said Dania.
Grandma squeezed Dania’s hand and continued.
“One night when he was staying up repairing watches, he came up with the idea of building a train that could take him back to the time when his father was happy. That way they could meet again.”
What did Grandma just say? That Grandad, her Grandad, had found a way to travel back in time?
“What do you mean back in time?” Dania stared at Grandma, who was smiling back at her.
“Grandad built the Night Express?”
“How clever he was! A whole train!”
“What about Ulf? And the Chronometer?”
“Grandad had contacts all over the railroads and he got a few people together who he knew were interested in his project. They built a total of 24 stations, and there may only be 22 that work, but the project was certainly a success. It’s thanks to the Night Express that we can see each other again!”
“How could Grandad build something like that? I mean… how does it work?”
“I don’t know how the Night Express works. He tried to explain it to me, but he wasn’t too good at explaining things. As I understood it, it was a lot about loving and missing someone. How he managed to transform feelings into mechanics, I have no idea. But here we are.”
Grandma pulled the bowl closer and took the dough out. Dania opened her mouth but Grandma shook her head.
“Let’s knead first, so you can have some time to think about it.”
Grandma kneaded and Dania split the dough into pieces, which Grandma took and rolled into round buns, then Dania poked a hole in each bun with her thumb and Grandma spooned a large dollop of custard into each hole. It was just like the old times and they didn’t need to talk to know what the other would do.
Grandma’s words were buzzing in Dania’s head. That Grandad had built the Night Express, and that she and Grandma could see each other.
Grandma made one giant bun from the last pieces of dough, like she always used to.
“Do Mum and Dad know about the Night Express?”
“I tried to tell your mother about it when she was little, but she looked at me like I was crazy. Maybe you have to be missing someone very much to believe in it. Or maybe she doesn’t want to believe in things, she wants to know things for certain.”
Dania understood what she meant. She and Grandma could play together all day without either of them knowing in advance what they would do. Mum and Dad preferred to play games with complicated rules.
“And what about everyone else? I mean, the whole world should know about the Night Express!”
“Your Grandad thought so too, but he died before he could finish it. It happened so fast.”
Grandad had died in his sleep, just like that. It was weeks before Dania really understood that he wasn’t coming back. Mum had said it was hard to come to terms with someone dying if you didn’t get a proper chance to say goodbye.
“The Chronometer does its best to put everything in the right place, even though the mechanism isn’t complete, but you know how Grandad was. He came up with things that no one else had ever though of, so it’s hard to know what he intended.”
While the buns were rising for the second time, Grandma poured a glass of juice for Dania and leaned against the kitchen counter.
Grandma smiled when their eyes met. She wasn’t acting forgetful at all; she was herself. She ever remembered the recipe for sunshine buns. She was happy here.
Dania felt her stomach clench. Grandma was happy here. She hadn’t been happy at home.
“Did you want to disappear, Grandma?”
Grandma sighed and stroked Dania’s cheek.
“Maybe I did want to disappear. A little bit. It’s no fun being so forgetful that you can’t even remember bun recipes and your own grandchildren and everything that used to be important to you.”
The drink that previously tasted just like Grandma’s classic blackcurrant cordial suddenly didn’t taste so good any more.
“And I was just a burden,” Grandma continued. “I was in the way and couldn’t help with anything at all any more. I just sat there trying to remember who everyone was.”
Dania put the glass on the sink and wrapped her arms around Grandma.
“You could never ever be a burden! You’re the best grandma in the world, I don’t want you to disappear!”
Grandma blew her nose.
“I know, it’s silly… but that’s how most people who disappear feel. We’re just in the way, we might as well disappear. The time we travel to is a kind of break, the people who are sad and lonely and confused can be themselves again for a while.”
“The slippers,” Dania said. “Ulf said you’d only come if I have something that belongs to you. He called them souvenirs. How does that work?”
“I don’t really know much about it. It seems that certain things that hold memories attract the people who have gone missing. They are supposed to serve as a kind of reminder of the good old days. Like my slippers that you used to borrow when we played together.”
“Well it worked because I found you! Mum and Dad are going to be so happy when you come back.”
“The problem is…”
Grandma peeked under the towel that lay over the dough.
“What?” said Dania. “Tell me! What is it?”
“The problem is I can’t come back. Grandfather worked all his life to make the Night Express work, but he didn’t finish it.”
Dania felt her stomach harden.
“Can’t you come back?”
“Only the Trackers can travel on the Night Express, and those of us who have chosen to disappear can’t come back until the Night Express is finished. Then anyone may take it.”
It didn’t take long for Grandma’s words to sink in. Dania put her glass down on the counter with a bang.
“Then we have to finish it so that you can come home again! Did Grandad ever say what needed to be done?”
“Grandad was secretive, but he was always talking about a key. With the key the Night Express could switch onto its proper track and everyone could get on and off as they please.”
“So I’ll find the key before I do anything else! Is it at one of the stations?”
“There was a key in the dresser where Grandad kept his tools. I think that must be the one. Nils might have given it to someone he trusted, maybe someone worked with him.”
Grandma took out the tray of buns.
“Well if that’s the case, we’ll need to find that person first,” said Dania.
“I will ask everyone I meet, but it is difficult because I am being pulled forward all the time. Could you ask the people you meet on the Night Express?”
“Of course,” said Dania. “Someone must know something. I’ll ask everyone.”
“If you find the key, you have to turn it twice, don’t forget.”
“What is the key for?”
“I don’t actually know.”
Grandma was interrupted by the howl of the train. She quickly took the largest bun from the tray and gave it to Dania.
“For the journey,” she said. “Quick, you’ll need to hurry to light the lantern.”
Grandma pulled a lantern out from the corner cabinet and together they went out onto the platform. Dania put the lantern in the middle of all the other candles and lit it.
Immediately they heard the Night Express slow down.
“When will I see you again?”
She didn’t want to let Grandma go.
“I’ll try to come as often as I can, but no one can control the passage of time.”
The brakes screeched and Ulf opened the door. Dania gave Grandma a hug.
“Last journey before dawn. All aboard!”
As soon as Dania stepped aboard, Ulf closed the door and blew the whistle.
Schildts & Söderströms, 2020
Rights: Urpu Strellman, Helsinki Literary Agency
Winner of the Runeberg Junior Prize 2021, and also nominated for the Nordic Council Children and Young People's Literature Prize 2021.
We are grateful to Helskinki Literary Agency, Karin Erlandsson, Peter Bergting and Annie Prime for granting permission to publish this translated extract.
Nattexpressen was reviewed in SBR 2021:1.
Karin Erlandsson is a journalist and writer based in Åland. Her book Pärlfiskaren was reviewed in SBR 2019:1-2. Peter Bergting is one of Sweden's most established illustrators. Annie Prime is an award-winning Swedish literary translator with a passion for magical, mystical tales.