فصل 14

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فصل 14

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14

A MAN WHO WAS OVE AND A WOMAN ON

A TRAIN

She had a golden brooch pinned to her dress, in which the sunlight reflected hypnotically through the train window. It was half past six in the morning, Ove had just clocked off his shift and was actually supposed to be taking the train home the other way. But then he saw her on the platform with all her rich auburn hair and her blue eyes and all her effervescent laughter. And he got back on the outbound train. Of course, he didn’t quite know himself why he was doing it. He had never been spontaneous before in his life. But when he saw her it was as if something malfunctioned.

He convinced one of the conductors to lend him his spare pair of trousers and shirt, so he didn’t have to look like a train cleaner, and then Ove went to sit by Sonja. It was the single best decision he would ever make.

He didn’t know what he was going to say. But he had hardly had time to sink into the seat before she turned to him cheerfully, smiled warmly, and said hello.

And he found he was able to say hello back to her without any significant complications. And when she saw that he was looking at the pile of books she had in her lap, she tilted them slightly so he could read their titles. Ove understood only about half the words.

“You like reading?” she asked him brightly.

Ove shook his head with some insecurity, but it didn’t seem to concern her very much. She just smiled, said that she loved books more than anything, andstarted telling him excitedly what each of the ones in her lap was about. And Ove realized that he wanted to hear her talking about the things she loved for the rest of his life.

He had never heard anything quite as amazing as that voice. She talked as if she were continuously on the verge of breaking into giggles. And when she giggled she sounded the way Ove imagined champagne bubbles would have sounded if they were capable of laughter. He didn’t quite know what he should say to avoid seeming uneducated and stupid, but it proved to be less of a problem than he had thought.

She liked talking and Ove liked keeping quiet. Retrospectively, Ove assumed that was what people meant when they said that people were compatible.

Many years later she told him that she had found him quite puzzling when he came to sit with her in that compartment. Abrupt and blunt in his whole being.

But his shoulders were broad and his arms so muscular that they stretched the fabric of his shirt. And he had kind eyes. He listened when she talked, and she liked making him smile. Anyway, the journey to school was so boring that it was pleasant just to have some company.

She was studying to be a teacher. Came on the train every day; after a couple miles she changed to another train, then a bus. All in all, it was a one-and-a-halfhour journey in the wrong direction for Ove. Only when they crossed the platform that first time, side by side, and stood by her bus stop, did she ask what he was doing there. And when Ove realized that he was only five or so kilometers from the military barracks where he would have been had it not been for that problem with his heart, the words slipped out of him before he understood why.

“I’m doing my military service over there,” he said, waving vaguely.

“So maybe we’ll see each other on the train going back as well. I go home at five. . . .”

Ove couldn’t think of anything to say. He knew, of course, that one does not go home from military installations at five o’clock, but she clearly did not. So he just shrugged. And then she got on her bus and was gone.

Ove decided that this was undoubtedly very impractical in many ways. But there was not a lot to be done about it. So he turned around, found a signpost pointing the way to the little center of the tiny student town where he now foundhimself, at least a two-hour journey from his home. And then he started walking.

After forty-five minutes he asked his way to the only tailor in the area, and, after eventually finding the shop, ponderously stepped inside to ask whether it would be possible to have a shirt ironed and a pair of trousers pressed and, if so, how long it would take. “Ten minutes, if you wait,” came his answer.

“Then I’ll be back at four,” said Ove and left. He wandered back down to the train station and lay down on a bench in the waiting hall. At quarter past three he went all the way back to the tailor’s, had his shirt and trousers pressed while he sat waiting in his underwear in the staff restroom, then walked back to the station and took the train with her for an hour and a half back to her station. And then traveled for another half hour to his own station. He repeated the whole thing the day after. And the day after that. On the following day the man from the ticket desk at the train station intervened and made it clear to Ove that he couldn’t sleep here like some loafer, surely he could understand that? Ove saw the point he was making, but explained that there was a woman at stake here. When he heard this, the man from the ticket desk gave him a little nod and from then on let him sleep in the left-luggage room. Even men at train station ticket desks have been in love.

Ove did the same thing every day for three months. In the end she grew tired of his never inviting her out for dinner. So she invited herself instead.

“I’ll be waiting here tomorrow evening at eight o’clock. I want you to be wearing a suit and I’d like you to invite me out for dinner,” she said succinctly as she stepped off the train one Friday evening.

And so it was.

Ove had never been asked how he lived before he met her. But if anyone had asked him, he would have answered that he didn’t.

On Saturday evening he put on his father’s old brown suit. It was tight around his shoulders. Then he ate two sausages and seven potatoes, which he prepared in the little kitchenette in his room, before doing his rounds of the house to put in a couple of screws, which the old lady had asked him to do.“Are you meeting someone?” she asked, pleased to see him coming down the stairs. She had never seen him wearing a suit. Ove nodded gruffly.

“Yeah,” he said in a way that could be described as either a word or an inhalation. The older woman nodded and probably tried to hide a little smile.

“It must be someone very special if you’ve dressed yourself up like that,” she said.

Ove inhaled again and nodded curtly. When he was at the door, she called out from the kitchen.

“Flowers, Ove!”

Perplexed, Ove stuck his head around the partition wall and stared at her.

“She’d probably like some flowers,” the old woman declared with some emphasis.

Ove cleared his throat and closed the front door.

For more than fifteen minutes he stood waiting for her at the station in his tight-fitting suit and his new-polished shoes. He was skeptical about people who came late. “If you can’t depend on someone being on time, you shouldn’t trust ’em with anything more important either,” he used to mutter when people came dribbling along with their time cards three or four minutes late, as if this didn’t matter. As if the railway line would just lie there waiting for them in the morning and not have something better to do.

So for each of those fifteen minutes that Ove stood waiting at the station he was slightly irritated. And then the irritation turned into a certain anxiety, and after that he decided that Sonja had only been ribbing him when she’d suggested they should meet. He had never felt so silly in his entire life. Of course she didn’t want to go out with him, how could he have got that into his head? His humiliation, when the insight dawned on him, welled up like a stream of lava, and he was tempted to toss the flowers in the nearest trash can and march off without turning around.

Looking back, he couldn’t quite explain why he stayed. Maybe because he felt, in spite of it all, that an agreement to meet was an agreement. And maybe there was some other reason. Something a little harder to put his finger on. He didn’t know it at that moment, of course, but he was destined to spend so many quarter hours of his life waiting for her that his old father would have gone cross-eyed if he’d found out. And when she did finally turn up, in a long floralprint skirt and a cardigan so red that it made Ove shift his weight from his right foot to his left, he decided that maybe her inability to be on time was not the most important thing.

The woman at the florist’s had asked him what he wanted. He informed her gruffly that this was a bit of a bloody question to ask. After all, she was the one who sold the greens and he the one who bought them, not the other way around.

The woman had looked a bit bothered about that, but then she asked if the recipient of the flowers had some favorite color, perhaps? “Pink,” Ove had said with great certainty, although he did not know.

And now she stood outside the station with his flowers pressed happily to her breast, in that red cardigan of hers, making the rest of the world look as if it were made in grayscale.

“They’re absolutely beautiful,” she said, smiling in that candid way that made Ove stare down at the ground and kick at the gravel.

Ove wasn’t much for restaurants. He had never understood why one would ever eat out for a lot of money when one could eat at home. He wasn’t so taken with show-off furniture and elaborate cooking, and he was very much aware of his conversational shortcomings as well. Whatever the case, he had eaten in advance so he could afford to let her order whatever she wanted from the menu, while opting for the cheapest dish for himself. And at least if she asked him something he wouldn’t have his mouth full of food. To him it seemed like a good plan.

While she was ordering, the waiter smiled ingratiatingly. Ove knew all too well what both he and the other diners in the restaurant had thought when they came in. She was too good for Ove, that’s what they’d thought. And Ove felt very silly about that. Mostly because he entirely agreed with their opinion.

She told him with great animation about her studies, about books she’d read or films she’d seen. And when she looked at Ove she made him feel, for the first time, that he was the only man in the world. And Ove had enough integrity to realize that this wasn’t right, that he couldn’t sit here lying any longer. So he cleared his throat, collected his faculties, and told her the whole truth. That he wasn’t doing his military service at all, that in fact he was just a simple cleaner on the trains who had a defective heart and who had lied for no other reason than that he enjoyed riding with her on the train so very much. He assumed thiswould be the only dinner he ever had with her, and he did not think she deserved having it with a fraudster. When he had finished his story he put his napkin on the table and got out his wallet to pay.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, shamefaced, and kicked his chair leg a little, before adding in such a low voice that it could hardly even be heard: “I just wanted to know what it felt like to be someone you look at.” As he was getting up she reached across the table and put her hand on his.

“I’ve never heard you say so many words before.” She smiled.

He mumbled something about how this didn’t change the facts. He was a liar.

When she asked him to sit down again, he obliged her and sank back into his chair. She wasn’t angry, the way he thought she’d be. She started laughing. In the end she said it hadn’t actually been so difficult working out that he wasn’t doing his military service, because he never wore a uniform.

“Anyway, everyone knows soldiers don’t go home at five o’clock on weekdays.”

Ove had hardly been as discreet as a Russian spy, she added. She’d come to the conclusion that he had his reasons for it. And she’d liked the way he listened to her. And made her laugh. And that, she said, had been more than enough for her.

And then she asked him what he really wanted to do with his life, if he could choose anything he wanted. And he answered, without even thinking about it, that he wanted to build houses. Construct them. Draw the plans. Calculate the best way to make them stand where they stood. And then she didn’t start laughing as he thought she would. She got angry.

“But why don’t you do it, then?” she demanded.

Ove did not have a particularly good answer to that one.

On the following Monday she came to his house with brochures for a correspondence course leading to an engineering qualification. The old landlady was quite overwhelmed when she looked at the beautiful young woman walking up the stairs with self-confident steps. Later she tapped Ove’s back and whispered that those flowers were probably a very good investment. Ove couldn’t help but agree.

When he came up to his room she was sitting on his bed. Ove stood sulkily in the doorway, with his hands in his pockets. She looked at him and laughed.“Are we an item now?” she asked.

“Well, yes,” he replied hesitantly, “I suppose it could be that way.” And then it was that way.

She handed him the brochures. It was a two-year course, and it proved that all the time Ove had spent learning about house building had not, after all, been wasted as he’d once believed. Maybe he did not have much of a head for studying in a conventional sense, but he understood numbers and he understood houses. That got him far. He took the examination after six months. Then another. And another. Then he got a job at the housing office and stayed there for more than a third of a century. Worked hard, was never ill, paid his mortgage, paid taxes, did his duty. Bought a little two-story row house in a recently constructed development in the forest. She wanted to get married, so Ove proposed. She wanted children, which was fine with him, said Ove. And their understanding was that children should live in row housing developments among other children.

And less than forty years later there was no forest around the house anymore.

Just other houses. And one day she was lying there in a hospital and holding his hand and telling him not to worry. Everything was going to be all right. Easy for her to say, thought Ove, his breast pulsating with anger and sorrow. But she just whispered, “Everything will be fine, darling Ove,” and leaned her arm against his arm. And then gently pushed her index finger into the palm of his hand. And then closed her eyes and died.

Ove stayed there with her hand in his for several hours. Until the hospital staff entered the room with warm voices and careful movements, explaining that they had to take her body away. Ove rose from his chair, nodded, and went to the undertakers to take care of the paperwork. On Sunday she was buried. On Monday he went to work.

But if anyone had asked, he would have told them that he never lived before he met her. And not after either.

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