فصل 34

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فصل 34

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34 A MAN CALLED OVE AND A BOY IN THE

HOUSE NEXT DOOR

Ove has brought along a blue plastic deck chair to push into the snow and sit on. This could take a while, he knows. It always does when he has to tell Sonja something she doesn’t like. He carefully brushes away all the snow from the gravestone, so they can see each other properly.

In just short of forty years a lot of different kinds of people have had time to pass through their block of row houses. The house between Ove’s and Rune’s has been lived in by quiet, loud, peculiar, unbearable, and hardly noticeable kinds of people. Families have lived there whose teenage children pissed on the fence when they were drunk, or families who tried to plant nonapproved bushes in the garden, and families who got the idea that they wanted to paint their house pink. And if there was one single thing Ove and Rune agreed on, irrespective of how much they were feuding at the time, it was that whoever currently populated the neighbor’s house tended to be utter imbeciles.

At the end of the 1980s the house was bought by a man who was apparently some sort of bank manager—as “an investment,” Ove heard him boast to the real estate agent. He, in turn, rented the house to a series of tenants in the coming years. One summer, to three young men who made an audacious attempt to redefine it as a free zone for a veritable parade of drug addicts, prostitutes, and criminal elements. The parties went on around the clock, broken glass from beer bottles covered the little walkway between the houses like confetti, and themusic boomed out so loud that the pictures fell off the wall in Sonja and Ove’s living room.

Ove went over to put a stop to the nuisance, and the young men jeered at him.

When he refused to go, one of them threatened him with a knife. When Sonja tried to make them see sense the following day, they called her a “paralyzed old bag.” The evening after they played louder than ever, and when Anita in pure desperation stood outside and shouted at them, they threw a bottle that went right through her and Rune’s living room window.

And that was obviously quite a bad idea.

Ove immediately began working on his plans for revenge by examining the financial doings of their landlord. He called lawyers and the tax authorities to put a stop to the renting of the house, and he intended to persist with it even if he had to take the case “all the bloody way to the Supreme Court,” as he put it to Sonja. But he never had time to get that idea off the ground.

Late one night he saw Rune walking towards the parking area with his car keys in his hand. When he came back he had a plastic bag, the contents of which Ove could not determine, in his hand. And the following day the police came and took away the three young men in handcuffs and charged them with possession of a large amount of drugs, which, after an anonymous tip-off, had been found in their shed.

Ove and Rune were both standing in the street when it happened. Their eyes met. Ove scratched his chin.

“Me, I wouldn’t even know where to buy narcotics in this town,” said Ove thoughtfully.

“On the street behind the train station,” said Rune with his hands in his pockets. “At least, that’s what I’ve heard,” he added with a grin.

Ove nodded. They stood smiling there in the silence for a long time.

“Car running well?” asked Ove eventually.

“Like a Swiss watch.” Rune smiled.

They were on good terms for two months after that. Then, of course, they fell out again over the heating system. But it was nice while it lasted, as Anita said.The tenants came and went in the following years, most with a surprising amount of forbearance and acceptance from Ove and Rune. Perspective can make a great deal of difference to people’s reputations.

One summer halfway through the 1990s, a woman moved in with a chubby boy of about nine, whom Sonja and Anita immediately took to their hearts. The boy’s father had left them when the boy was newborn, Sonja and Anita were told. A bull-necked man of about forty who lived with them now, and whose breath the two women tried to ignore for as long as possible, was her new love.

He was rarely at home, and Anita and Sonja avoided asking too many questions.

They supposed that the girl saw qualities in him that they, perhaps, did not understand. “He has taken care of us, and you know how it is, it’s not easy being a single mother,” she said with a brave smile at some point, and the women from the neighboring houses left it at that.

The first time they heard the bull-necked man shouting through the walls they decided that each and every one must be allowed to mind their own business in their home. The second time they thought that all families fight sometimes, and maybe this was nothing more serious than that.

When the bull-necked man was away the next time, Sonja invited in the woman and the boy for coffee. The woman explained with a strained laugh that the bruises were because she had thrown open a kitchen cabinet too quickly. In the evening Rune met the bull-necked man in the parking area. He got out of his car in a clear state of intoxication.

In the two nights that followed, the neighboring houses on either side overheard how the man was shouting in there and things were being thrown on the floor. They heard the woman giving a short cry of pain, and when the sound of the weeping nine-year-old boy pleading with the man to stop came through the wall, Ove went outside and stood in front of his house. Rune was already waiting.

They were in the midst of one of their worst-ever power struggles in the steering group of the Residents’ Association. Had not even spoken to each other for almost a year. Now they just briefly glanced at one another, and then went back into their houses without a word. Two minutes later they met fully dressed at the front. They rang the bell; the thug lashed out at them as soon as he opened the door, but Ove’s fist struck the bridge of his nose. The man lost his footing,got up, grabbed a kitchen knife, and ran at Ove. He never got there. Rune’s massive fist slugged him like a mallet. In his heyday he was quite a piece, that Rune. Highly unwise to get involved in fisticuffs with him.

The next day the man left the house and never came back. The young woman slept with Anita and Rune for two weeks before she dared go home again with her boy. Then Rune and Ove went into town and went to the bank, and in the evening Sonja and Anita explained to the young woman that she could see it as a gift or a loan, whichever she preferred. But it wasn’t open for discussion. And so it was that the young woman stayed on in the house with her son, a chubby, computer-loving little boy whose name was Jimmy.

Now Ove leans forward and looks with great seriousness at the gravestone.

“I just thought I’d have more time, somehow. To do . . . everything.” She doesn’t answer.

“I know how you feel about causing trouble, Sonja. But this time you have to understand. One can’t reason with these people.”

He pokes his thumbnail into the palm of his hand. The gravestone stays where it is without saying anything, but Ove doesn’t need words to know what she would have thought. The silent approach has always been her preferred trick when there are disputes with him. Whether she’s alive or dead.

In the morning, Ove had called that Social Services Authority or whatever the hell it was called. He’d called from Parvaneh’s house because he no longer had a telephone line. Parvaneh had advised him to be “friendly and approachable.” It hadn’t started so well, because before long Ove had been connected to the “responsible officer.” Which was the smoking man in the white shirt. He directly demonstrated a significant level of agitation about the little white Škoda, which was still parked at the end of the road outside Rune and Anita’s house. And, yes, Ove could have established a better negotiating position if he’d immediately apologized about it and maybe even agreed that it was regrettable that he’d intentionally put the man in the white shirt in this nonvehicular predicament. It would certainly have been better than the alternative, which was to hiss: “So maybe you’ve learned to read signs now! Illiterate bastard!”Ove’s next move involved trying to convince the man that Rune should not be put in a home. The man informed Ove that “Illiterate bastard!” was a very bad choice of words for bringing up that subject. After this, there was a long series of impolite phrases on both ends of the telephone line, before Ove declared in clear terms that things could not be allowed to work like this. One couldn’t just come along and remove people from their homes and transport them to institutions any old way one liked, just because their memory was getting a bit defective. The man at the other end answered coldly that it didn’t matter very much where they put Rune now “in the state he was in” because for him it “would probably make a very marginal difference where he was.” Ove roared a series of invectives back. And then the man in the white shirt said something very stupid.

“The decision has been made. The investigation has been going on for two years. There’s nothing you can do, Ove. Nothing. At all.” And then he hung up.

Ove looked at Parvaneh. Looked at Patrick. Slammed Parvaneh’s cell phone into their kitchen table and boomed that they needed a “New plan!

Immediately!” Parvaneh looked deeply unhappy but Patrick nodded at once, grabbed his crutches, and hobbled quickly out the door. As if he’d just been waiting for Ove to say that. Five minutes later, to Ove’s deep dissatisfaction, he came back with that silly fop Anders from the neighboring house. With Jimmy cheerfully tagging along.

“What’s he doing here?” said Ove, pointing at the fop.

“I thought you needed a plan?” said Patrick, nodding at the fop and looking very pleased with himself.

“Anders is our plan!” Jimmy threw in.

Anders looked around the hall a little awkwardly, apparently slightly dissuaded by Ove’s expression. But Patrick and Jimmy insistently pushed him into the living room.

“Go on, tell him,” Patrick prompted.

“Tell me what?”

“Okay, so I heard you had some problems with the owner of that Škoda, yeah?” began Anders, giving Patrick a nervous glance. Ove nodded impatiently for him to continue.“Well, I don’t think I’ve ever told you what sort of company I have, have I?” Anders went on tentatively.

Ove put his hands in his pockets. Adopted a slightly more relaxed position.

And then Anders told him. And even Ove had to admit that it sounded almost more than decently opportune.

“Where are you keeping that blond bimbo—” he started saying once Anders had finished, but he stopped himself when Parvaneh kicked his leg. “Your girlfriend,” he corrected himself.

“Oh. We split up. She moved out,” said Anders and looked at his shoes.

Whereupon he had to explain that apparently she’d become a bit upset about Ove feuding so much with her and the dog. But her annoyance had been small beer compared to her agitation when Anders found out that Ove called her dog “Mutt” and had not quite been able to stop himself smiling about it.

And so it came to pass that when the chain-smoking man in the white shirt turned up on their road that afternoon accompanied by a police officer to demand that Ove release the white Škoda from its captivity, both the trailer and the white Škoda were already gone. Ove stood outside his house with his hands calmly tucked into his pockets, while his adversary finally lost his composure altogether and started roaring expletives at him. Ove maintained that he had no idea how this had happened, but pointed out in a friendly manner that none of this would have happened in the first place if he’d just respected the sign that made it clear that cars were prohibited in the area. He obviously left out the detail that Anders owned a car towing company, and that one of his tow trucks had picked up the Škoda at lunchtime and then placed it in a large gravel pit twenty-five miles outside town. And when the police officer tactfully asked if he had really not seen anything, Ove looked right into the eyes of the man in the white shirt and answered:

“I don’t know. I may have forgotten. You start losing your memory at my age.”

When the policeman looked around and then wondered why Ove was standing about here in the street if he had nothing to do with the disappearance of the Škoda, Ove just innocently shrugged his shoulders and peered at the man in the white shirt.

“There’s still nothing good on TV.”Anger drained the man’s face of color until, if possible, his face was even whiter than his shirt. He stormed off, raging that this was “far from over.” And of course it wasn’t. Only an hour or so later, Anita opened the door to a courier, who gave her a certified letter from the council. Signed, confirmed, with the time and date of the “transfer into care.”

And now Ove stands by Sonja’s gravestone and manages to say something about how sorry he is.

“You get so damned worked up when I fight with people, I know that. But the reality of it is this. You’ll just have to wait a bit longer for me up there. I don’t have time to die right now.”

Then he digs up the old, frozen pink flowers out of the ground, plants the new ones, straightens up, folds up his deck chair, and walks towards the parking area while muttering something that sounds suspiciously like “because there’s a bloody war on.”

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