By Poul Struve Nielsen, Hus Forbi editor
When the sun hit the horizon over the North Sea on 1 November 1985, the alarm sounded on the fishing boat Inverness. The four-man crew had just finished eating breakfast together. The alarm meant that there was a second vessel nearby.
“We go to the lifeboat. It happens as the sun rises. There is fresh, little breeze. Nothing overwhelming, 10-12 metres per second,” says Jørgen Petersen, one of the fishermen on the boat that day.
Five minutes later the boat went down.
“An incredible number of thoughts fly around in my head during those minutes. I am particularly thinking that I can’t afford to die, because I am about to be a father.”
The boat, which sailed from Hirtshals [a seaport/town on the island of Vendsyssel-Thy, northern Denmark], had been hit by a much larger supply ship. The larger ship, gathered up the crew of the stricken vessel, and Jørgen is taken to a maritime inquiry in the Scottish town of Peterhead, before he can fly to Kastrup and then travel home to Vendsyssel-Thy.
When he came home, Jørgen’s sister told him that he is the father of a little girl.
“There were some communication issues with her mother,” he says.
The daughter was to be called Maria Louise. It took a while before he saw her for the first time and Jørgen didn’t manage to be there for her much while she grows up. Not only was he often out sailing, Jørgen also became an addict, and when he took drugs, he let Maria Louise down.
“It was like a rollercoaster until I put my foot down when I was about 15-16 years old because I couldn’t take it any more,” says Maria Louise. She simply broke contact with her father.
Jørgen continued the rollercoaster ride on his own, until he became a Hus Forbi vendor in Odense, the third largest city in Denmark. Jørgen appeared with his pet Milla in a special ‘vendors and their dogs’ edition of Hus Forbi’s 2014 annual homeless calendar.
“I recognised him immediately”
The calendar was published on Maria Louise’s 28th birthday – 1 November 2013. The next day, a friend bought the calendar and showed it to Maria Louise.
“I recognised him immediately,” says Maria Louise. “He has a tattoo with three dots on his hand, which means ‘faith, hope and love,’ and he looked the same, although he had become somewhat older.”
She felt ready to resume contact and got in touch with the street paper. Shortly after, she heard from Jørgen. The pair first reunited in Maria Louise’s home.
Several months later, the father and daughter met again at Grønttorvet, a restaurant in Odense, this time accompanied by a Hus Forbi journalist and photographer.
It is a cozy restaurant with a lot of visitors during the weekday lunch rush. On the walls there are pictures of Hans Christian Andersen and three generations of Danish royal couples – Queen Margrethe and Prince Henrik, King Frederik the ninth and Queen Ingrid, King Christian the 10th and Queen Alexandrine each have their own wall.
Two years after the first reunion dinner together, father and daughter meet again at the restaurant. They talk about then and now, about what went wrong and how they found each other again at Christmastime in 2013, after the homeless calendar brought them back together.
Several memories were exchanged, good and bad.
“I remember once, when Maria Louise was little, and I brought her on a fishing trip,” says Jørgen. “We fished with earthworms, and suddenly she sat with an earthworm around each ear like jewelry. She wasn’t squeamish.”
Maria Louise remembers the first time Jørgen yelled at her: “It was at [holiday park] Sæby Søbad. We had filled the bathtub with jellyfish we had gathered on the beach.”
Maria Louise also recalls the conflict between her father and mother: “Once he had spent all our money on getting an eagle tattooed on his back. It was not a popular idea. But he could not afford to also put the colours in the tattoo, so later I got permission to colour it in with markers.”
“I experienced a complete breakdown”
Finally, there is the serious side of the neglect Maria Louise and her siblings experienced during childhood. In 2005, at 18 years old, Maria Louise moved from Sindal to the next town over, Hjørring. She began training to be a teacher but dropped out after one year.
“I experienced a complete breakdown, when I was training in a kindergarten in Hirtshals, where all the sailors’ kids came,” she says. “It was children who reminded me too much of myself. So I got depression and was on sick leave for a year.
“I needed to process all the emotions that emerged from the neglect I experienced as a child. I went to therapy in TUBA [a Danish organisation that provides therapy and counselling for young people who have alcoholic parents] and worked with all the things and all the behaviours associated with addiction.
“I learned that it’s not me, as the daughter, that there is anything wrong with.”
Jørgen’s parents divorced when he was 15-16 years old. Shortly after, he dropped out of school in the middle of the eighth grade and started work making nets and other equipment for fishing boats. At that time it was said that fish smelled of money, so it was not long before Jørgen went to sea and became a fisherman.
By the time Jørgen split with Maria Louise’s mother, divorce was still uncommon. “When I started in the first grade, I was the only one who didn’t have a mother and a father who were together. As time went on that became more normal,” she says.
After a year on sick leave Maria Louise felt her dream to work with people was over. She trained as a clerk at the Danish furniture chain store Jysk, where she stayed until 2011. Then she changed course and started college again to become a teacher.
While she was training to become a teacher, Maria Louise had volunteered at Hjerterummet, a cafe for homeless people, in Aalborg [the fourth biggest city in Denmark]. In 2012 she visited Hus Forbi in connection with a course assignment. In that same year, Jørgen became a Hus Forbi vendor.
“No, it has nothing to do with my father. My time spent in Hjerterummet was purely professional. For me, the two things are separate. It has nothing to do with my education or my job that I had the father and the upbringing that I did,” says Maria Louise.
“The experience from the cafe together with my education as a teacher has helped me to gain a better understanding and insight into the life my father lived. I don’t take his life and connect it to my professional world. But it has helped me mature.”
After his relationship with his daughter broke down, Jørgen’s rollercoaster ride was mostly downhill in the early years.
“Before I started selling Hus Forbi, all my money went to my addiction. About 10 years ago, I stopped sailing. My legs and my health couldn’t do it anymore. I was in my mid-40s,” he says.
He had worked on the boats for many years, even though he was using drugs.
“At one point I had heroin with me out sailing to keep withdrawal symptoms away”
“At one point I had heroin with me out sailing to keep withdrawal symptoms away,” said Jørgen. “Later I brought methadone. From then on my captain knew what was happening, that I used something. I told him that I had a problem. He had no complaints about my work business-wise, he said. So he wanted me to keep my place in the crew. I did this for six years.”
But by 2012, Jørgen was sleeping rough on the streets of Odense.
“After I had gotten my [Hus Forbi] vendor license, I went to Copenhagen, where I was registered as a resident, so Odense council could not help me. My address was Kirkens Korshær’s shelter in Nørregade. Therefore I had to go to a doctor in Copenhagen to have my methadone stepped up. I wasn’t doing well back then,” says Jørgen.
While in Copenhagen, he frequented Hus Forbi’s vendor café in the fashionable district of Nørrebro. He could potentially have met Louise and her classmates when they were visiting.
“It helped to have Hus Forbi as a focal point and get out talking to people. The contact with other people and the opportunity to earn an extra penny helped me to get much better. Shortly after, I also found a place to stay. Well I am probably not allowed to live there, so I still keep an address at a friend’s place,” explains Jørgen.
He was doing much better late in the summer of 2013 when he met with Hus Forbi’s photographer Mette Kramer Kristensen and journalist Helle Horskjær in Kongens Have (King’s Garden) in Odense. It was so hot that the pictures of Jørgen and Milla had to be taken in the shade under one of the big trees.
“Since my daughter came back into my life I have been much better off than before,” says Jørgen about the time after the reunion with his daughter.
“She has always been in my thoughts”
“She has always been in my thoughts. But at one point I had given up on getting in touch. I did it when she said: I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Jørgen knows he has failed her in the past.
“The times in which I have been absent because of drugs, you repress them because deep down you know that it is wrong to betray your own flesh and blood. So I have felt terrible during those times I have probably had the propensity to take some drugs to forget. It is not very nice to be failing the ones you love the most,” he says.
Maria Louise thinks it’s hard to explain what it has meant to have had her father absent during her childhood.
“For me it has always been like this. He had good and clean times where we could see him. Then there was neglect, when he didn’t keep his appointments. When I broke contact, it was right after my little brother’s birthday. He had got a fishing rod, and we were supposed to go on a fishing trip the following week. But dad didn’t show. He had relapsed.
“That’s how it is with addiction. It is difficult if you are a child, you don’t understand it,” she says.
There is one thing that Maria Louise really respects Jørgen for: that he stayed away during his bad times and that he respected her decision.
“You have always accepted my decision. You haven’t turned up drunk in front of the school or something. If you had done that, I don’t think we would be sitting here together today,” she says.
It is evident when Jørgen and Maria Louise are talking to each other that they haven’t put the past behind them. They are living with it. It is a part of their stormy family history.
“There’s nothing to hide. Because it is not something we can change,” says Jørgen.
“It’s fun to read text messages. Now suddenly there’s both dad and mom in the inbox.”
He adds that today the pair may go three or four months between a text message or a call.
“But we know where we stand and if there is something important, then we can contact each other,” says Jørgen.
He still has a hard life. He suffers with his bad leg. He has been through an angioplasty due to a blood clot. Now he hopes to get surgery to replace the veins in his legs, and he hopes to get disability benefits.
Jørgen’s case manager working for the local public social services sympathises with Jorgen’s situation. The problem, however, is that Jorgen is still on temporary social benefits, meaning that he has to undergo the lengthy application process for job which he will ultimately never get because of his health. Jorgen hopes for early retirement and a pension.
“If I get disability pension, then maybe I can get a real apartment,” he says.
About the family ties that once linked them together, he adds, “I think as we get to know each other, we could get on well. And today I can also call up Louise’s mother and ask, ‘Want to grab a cup of coffee?’”
Maria Louise mentions one of the small, visible changes that has happened in her life as a result.
“It’s fun to read text messages. Now suddenly there’s both dad and mom in the inbox.”
Translated from Danish to English by Christian Jensen