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Contents

Cover

About the Author

Also by Henning Mankell

Title Page

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Afterword

Copyright

About the Author

Henning Mankell has become a worldwide phenomenon with his crime writing, gripping thrillers and atmospheric novels set in Africa. His prizewinning and critically acclaimed Inspector Wallander Mysteries are currently dominating bestseller lists all over the globe. His books have been translated into forty-five languages and made into numerous international film and television adaptations: most recently the BAFTA-award-winning BBC television series Wallander, starring Kenneth Branagh. Mankell devotes much of his free time to working with Aids charities in Africa, where he is also director of the Teatro Avenida in Maputo. In 2008, the University of St Andrews conferred Henning Mankell with an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in recognition of his major contribution to literature and to the practical exercise of conscience.

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Also by Henning Mankell

Kurt Wallander Series

Faceless Killers

The Dogs of Riga

The White Lioness

The Man Who Smiled

Sidetracked

The Fifth Woman

One Step Behind

Firewall

Before the Frost

The Pyramid

The Troubled Man

 

Fiction

The Return of the Dancing Master

Chronicler of the Winds

Depths

Kennedy’s Brain

The Eye of the Leopard

Italian Shoes

The Man from Beijing

Daniel

 

Non-fiction

I Die, but the Memory Lives on

 

Young Adult Fiction

A Bridge to the Stars

Shadows in the Twilight

When the Snow Fell

The Journey to the End of the World

 

Children’s Fiction

The Cat Who Liked Rain

The Shadow Girls

Translated from the Swedish by
Ebba Segerberg

Henning Mankell

 
 

1

IT WAS ONE of the last days of the twentieth century.

The girl with the big smile was awakened by the sound of raindrops hitting the tent cover above her head. As long as she kept her eyes closed she could imagine that she was still back in the village by the cold, clear river that spilled down the side of the mountain. But as soon as she opened her eyes she was thrown out into an empty and unfathomable world, one in which nothing of her past remained except disjointed images of her escape. She lay still and slowly let herself float up into consciousness, trying not to leave her dreams without preparing herself. These first few minutes of the morning often determined the way her day would turn out.

During the three months in the refugee camp she had developed a morning ritual that helped her avoid being overcome with sudden panic. The most important thing was not to rush up from her uncomfortable cot with the misguided notion that something momentous was about to occur. By now she knew that nothing ever happened here. This was the first lesson she learned after she had dragged herself onto the rocky European beach and been greeted by guard dogs and armed Spanish border guards.

Being a refugee meant being lonely. This was something that was true for them all, regardless of what country they had come from or what circumstances had forced them to flee. She didn’t expect her loneliness to leave her soon, in fact she had prepared herself to live with it for a long time.

As she lay with her eyes closed she searched for a foothold in the confusion of all that had happened since her arrival. She was being held in a refugee camp in southern Spain, lucky to be one of the few survivors from that mouldering ship from Africa. She could still remember the air of expectation aboard. Freedom has a scent, she thought, which only grew more overpowering as land approached. Freedom, security, these were what they wanted. A life where fear, hunger, and hopelessness were not the only reality.

It had been a cargo-hold of hope, she thought; although it was perhaps more correct to call it a cargo-hold of illusions. Everyone who had been waiting on the Moroccan beach that night and who had placed their lives in the hands of the ruthless human smugglers had been ferried over to the waiting ship. Sailors who were little more than shadows had forced them down into the cargo area, as if they were modern-day slaves.

But there had been no iron chains around their ankles. What had ensnared them were their dreams, their desperation, all the fear that had driven them to break up from various hells-on-earth in order to make their way to freedom. They had been so close to their goal when the ship hit a reef and the Greek sailors had left in lifeboats, leaving the people in the cargo hold to save themselves.

Europe let us down before we even arrived, she thought. I will never forget that, whatever happens to me in the future. She didn’t know how many people had drowned, nor would she ever find out. The cries for help still pulsated like a pain in her head. At first she had been surrounded by these cries, then one by one they had fallen silent. When she hit land she had praised her luck. She had survived; she had arrived. But for what? She had quickly tried to forget her dreams. Nothing had turned out as she had imagined.

A harsh spotlight had picked her out as she lay on the cold and wet Spanish beach. The dogs had run up to her and then the soldiers surrounded her with their shiny weapons. She had survived. But that was all. Afterwards she had been placed in the refugee camp with its barracks and tents, leaky showers and dirty toilets. On the other side of the wire fence she could see the ocean that had released her, but nothing else, none of the future she had imagined.

The people in the refugee camp, so varied in their language, dress and terrible experiences – imparted through a look or sometimes words – had only this in common: nothing to look forward to. Some had been there for many years. No country was willing to admit them and all of their energies were devoted to avoiding being sent back. One day, as she had been waiting in line for her daily rations, she spoke with a young man from Iran – or was it Iraq? It was often hard to know where people came from since they invariably lied about it in the hope that it would make their applications for asylum more attractive. He said that the camp was simply a large death chamber, a holding place where the clock ticked on relentlessly towards death. She had immediately understood what he meant but tried to ignore the thought.

His eyes had been full of sorrow. They surprised her. Since she had grown to be a woman all she had seen in men’s eyes was a kind of hunger. But this thin man seemed not to have noticed her beauty nor her smile. This had frightened her. She could not stand the thought that men did not immediately desire her, nor that the long and desperate flight had been for nothing. She, like all the others who had been caught, lived in the hope that her ordeal would one day be over. Through some miracle someone would one day appear before her with a paper in his hand and a smile on his lips and say: Welcome.

In order not to drive herself insane she had to be very patient. She understood that. And patience could only arise if she did not allow herself any expectations. Sometimes people in the camp committed suicide, or at least made serious attempts. They were the ones who were not strong enough to stifle their own expectations and the burden of thinking that their dreams would one day be realised finally overcame them.

Therefore, every morning when she woke up, she told herself that the best she could do was to rid herself of hope. That and never mentioning her true country of origin. The camp was always a hotbed of rumours about which countries offered the best chances for asylum applicants. It was as if the camp were a marketplace of countries where the possibilities for entry were recorded on a kind of stock market. No investments were ever long-lasting or secure.

A short while after she arrived, Bangladesh had been highest on the list. For some reason that they never understood, Germany was granting immediate asylum to all people who could prove that they came from Bangladesh. During an intense few days people of all complexions and appearances waited in line in front of the exhausted Spanish bureaucrats and argued with great fervour that they had suddenly realised they were from Bangladesh. In this way at least fourteen Chinese refugees from the Hunan province made their way to Germany. A few days later Germany ‘closed’ Bangladesh, as they said in the camp. After three days of uncertainty a rumour was started that France was prepared to take a certain quota of Kurds.

She had been unsuccessful in her attempts to research where the Kurds actually came from or what they looked like. Nonetheless she stood in line with the others and when she at last stood in front of a red-eyed clerk with the name tag ‘Fernando’ she smiled her sweetest smile. Fernando simply shook his head.

‘Tell me what colour you are,’ he said.

She immediately sensed danger, but she had to say something. The Spanish didn’t like people who didn’t answer their questions. A lie was better than silence.

‘You are black,’ Fernando said in reply to his own question. ‘There are no black Kurds. Kurds look like me, not you.’

‘There are always exceptions. My father was not a Kurd, but my mother was.’

Fernando’s eyes seemed only to redden. She continued to smile. It was her strongest weapon, it always had been.

‘And what was your father doing in Kurdistan?’

‘Working.’

Fernando threw his pen down in triumph.

‘Ha! There is no Kurdistan. At least not in any official capacity. That is exactly the reason that Kurds are fleeing their country.’

‘How can they leave a country that doesn’t exist?’

But Fernando lost patience with her. He waved her away.

‘I should report the fact that you have been lying,’ he said.

‘I’m not lying.’

She thought she could suddenly see a spark of interest in his eyes.

‘You are speaking the truth?’

‘Kurds don’t lie.’

The spark in Fernando’s eyes died away.

‘Go,’ he said. ‘It is the best thing you can do. What is your name?’

She decided in that moment to give herself an entirely new name. She looked quickly around the room and her gaze fell on the teacup on Fernando’s table.

‘Tea-Bag,’ she replied.

‘Tea-Bag?’

‘Tea-Bag.’

‘Is that a Kurdish name?’

‘My mother liked English names.’

‘Is Tea-Bag even a name?’

‘It must be since that is what she called me.’

Fernando sighed and dismissed her with a tired wave. She left the room and did not let the smile leave her face until she was out in the yard and had found a place by the fence where she could be alone.

*

The rain continued to fall on the roof of the tent. She pushed away all thoughts of Fernando and her failure to impersonate a Kurd. Instead she tried to recall the uneasy and wild dreams that had rushed through her head all night. But the only impressions still left were like the ruins of a burned house, the blurry shadows that had surrounded her as she slept, shadows that seemed to creep out of her head, put on strange plays and then disappear again into the depths of her brain. She had seen her father curled up on the rooftop in their village. He had been cursing his imaginary enemies, threatening to kill the living and raise the dead, and he had stayed up there until he fainted from exhaustion and rolled off, landing in the dry sand where Tea-Bag’s distressed mother had tearily pleaded with him to return to his senses.

But little of this remained when Tea-Bag awoke. There was only the fading impression of her father on the roof. There was nothing left of her other dreams, only the fleeting faces of people she wasn’t sure she recognised.

Tea-Bag pulled the dirty blanket up to her face. Was the dream trying to tell her that perhaps she was the one who was now on that rooftop, sharing the pain that her father had suffered? She didn’t know, didn’t find any answers. The rain fell steadily against the sailcloth of the tent and the thin light that came in through her eyelids told her it was seven or seven-thirty in the morning. She fumbled for the watch that she had stolen from that Italian engineer. But it had disappeared after the shipwreck. She still had very few memories from that night. There were no precise details, she could remember only their desperate attempts to survive, not to be pulled down and die a few metres from the land that meant freedom.

*

Tea-Bag opened her eyes and looked up at the tent. Outside she could hear people cough, sometimes saying words in a language she didn’t understand. They moved around slowly, just as she would do when she got up, the movements of a person without hope. A heavy, reluctant gait, since they had no goal. In the beginning she had kept track of the days with small white stones that she gathered down by the fence. But then they had lost meaning for her. During that time she had been sharing her tent with two other women, one from Iran and the other from Ghana. They had not got along well, had chafed in the limited space inside the tent. Refugees were loners; their fear meant they couldn’t stand to have people come too close to them, as if the sorrows and despair of others were a contagious disease.

The woman from Iran was pregnant when she first arrived. She had cried all night long because her husband had disappeared somewhere along the way during their long journey. When her contractions started the Spanish guards put her on a stretcher and Tea-Bag never saw her again after that. The girl from Ghana was an impatient type, someone who couldn’t see a fence without immediately plotting to climb over it. One night she and a couple of boys from Togo, who had sailed to Europe on a raft made of empty oil barrels that they had stolen from a Shell depot, had tried to climb the fence. But the dogs and the spotlights caught her and she never returned to the tent. Tea-Bag assumed she was now in the part of the camp where those labelled ‘difficult’ were held under stricter supervision.

Tea-Bag sat up in bed. Loneliness, she whispered, is my greatest source of suffering. I can walk out of this tent and immediately be surrounded by people. I eat with them, I walk along the fence and look at the sea with them, I speak with them, but still I am alone. All refugees are alone, all are surrounded by invisible walls. I have to get rid of all hope if I am to survive.

She put her feet on the ground and shivered from the cold. At the same moment she was again reminded of her father. He would always plant his feet firmly on the ground when confronted with an unexpected difficulty or anything he was not prepared for. This gesture was among her earliest memories, and connected with her understanding of the potential for mysterious action that even the people closest to her were capable of. Later, when she was six or seven, her father had explained to her that a person needed to have a secure foothold when facing unexpected troubles. If she remembered this rule she would also be able to remain in control.

She pressed her feet firmly into the ground and told herself that nothing special was going to happen this day. If something did occur, it would be a surprise, nothing she had been waiting for.

Tea-Bag sat up and waited for her strength to return, the strength to carry on another day in this camp in which people were forced to renounce their identities and were constantly searching for signs of where they might be welcome.

When she felt strong enough she got up, pulled the old nightgown over her head and put on a T-shirt that the girl from Ghana had given her. It had a Nescafé logo on the front. The logo obscured her identity in the same way that the camouflage uniforms had hidden the soldiers who took her father away.

She shook her head to rid herself of these thoughts. She could allow herself to dream about him sitting on the roof until he fell to the ground of exhaustion. She could think about the way in which he used to press his feet into the ground. But she could not allow herself to think about his disappearance, except sometimes in the evening. She felt strongest right before sunset, filled with supernatural powers for a few short minutes. Then it was as if she slowly started to sink, her pulse grew slower and her heart tried to mask its stubborn beat deep inside the hidden recesses of her body.

Tea-Bag folded back the flap of the tent door. It had stopped raining. A damp mist clung to the camp, over the long row of barracks and the tents that looked like dirty fettered animals. People were slowly wandering around as if towards a goal that only existed inside of them. Guards were patrolling the fence with gleaming weapons and dogs that seemed relentlessly intent on picking out danger from the sea. Danger in the form of leaky ships with cargo holds filled to the brim with desperate people, or curiously crafted rafts and rowboats, even doors that some people used as floatation devices.

I am here, Tea-Bag thought. I am in the centre of things here, in the centre of my life. There is nothing behind me: there may not be anything ahead. I am here, that is all. I am here and I am not waiting for anything.

*

Another day had begun. Tea-Bag walked over to one of the barracks where the women’s showers were located. As usual there was a long line. She had to wait for about an hour until it was her turn. She closed the door behind her, took off her clothes and stepped into the spray of water. She was reminded of the night she almost drowned. The difference, she thought to herself as she soaped her body, the difference is something I’ll never understand. I survived without knowing why, but I also don’t know what it is like to be dead. Once she had dried herself off and put her clothes back on she stepped outside to let the next woman in line take her place, a fat girl with a black scarf wrapped over her head so that only two eyes looked out like dark holes. Tea-Bag wondered absently if the girl took off the scarf when she washed herself.

She walked on between the rows of barracks and tents. Whenever she met someone’s eye she smiled. In an open area under a hastily erected iron roof she received some food, doled out by two heavyset and sweaty Spanish women who maintained a ceaseless conversation with each other. Tea-Bag sat down at a plastic table, wiped away a few breadcrumbs and started to eat. Every morning she was afraid that she would lose the will to eat. Sometimes it seemed as if the ability to feel hunger was what kept her alive.

She ate slowly as a way to make the time go by. She thought about the watch that lay on the bottom of the sea. She wondered if it still worked or if it had stopped at that moment when she herself ought rightfully to have died alongside the others. She searched for the name of the Italian engineer whom she stole the watch from that lonely night when she had sold her body in order to get the money together for the trip. Cartini? Cavanini? She didn’t know if it was his first or last name. Not that it mattered.

She got up from the table and walked over to the women who were still doling out portions from their huge pots while they continued their endless conversation. Tea-Bag put her dish with the other dirty dishes on a trolley and walked down to the fence to look out at the sea. There was a ship far out towards the horizon.

‘Tea-Bag,’ she heard someone say.

She turned around. Fernando was looking at her with his red eyes.

‘There’s someone who wants to speak to you,’ he said.

She was immediately on guard.

‘Who?’

Fernando shrugged.

‘Someone who wants to talk to someone. Anyone. It might as well be you.’

‘No one wants to talk to me.’

She was even more suspicious now, using her big smile as a way to keep Fernando at bay.

‘If you don’t want to talk to him I’ll find someone else.’

‘Why would he want to speak to me?’

Tea-Bag sensed danger; she hoped an opening in the fence would suddenly appear so she could jump through. To ward off the threat she made her smile even wider.

‘A reporter. Someone who has taken it into his head to write a story on refugees.’

‘What kind of a story?’

‘I’m assuming he’s writing an article for the paper.’

‘And he’s going to write about me?’

Fernando made a face.

‘I’ll ask someone else if you don’t want to do it.’

He turned and started to walk away. Tea-Bag had the feeling she was about to make one of the most important decisions of her life.

‘I’ll talk to him, if he wants to talk to me.’

‘Just remember that it won’t be to your advantage if you criticise the camp.’

Tea-Bag tried to understand what he was getting at. The Spanish guards always spoke a language where the most important message lay beneath the surface.

‘What would be to my advantage?’

Fernando stopped and took out a piece of paper from his pocket.

‘I am pleased to say that the Spanish authorities treat us with the utmost compassion and humanity,’ he read aloud.

‘What is that, exactly?’

‘That’s what you should say. Everyone who works here has a copy of it. Someone in the Ministry of the Interior wrote it. That’s what you should say to the journalist. It could be to your advantage.’

‘My advantage? How?’

‘So you will continue to be treated with compassion.’

‘What exactly do you mean by “compassion”?’

‘To help you reach your goal.’

‘What goal?’

‘The goal you have set for yourself.’

Tea-Bag had the feeling she was walking around in a circle.

‘Does that mean I can leave the camp?’

‘Actually it will mean the reverse. You can stay on.’

‘But that’s what would happen anyway.’

‘Don’t be too sure. You could be deported to your homeland. Wherever that really is.’

‘I don’t have a homeland.’

‘You will be deported to the country of last domicile.’

‘They won’t accept me.’

‘Of course not. You will be sent back whereupon we deport you again. You will find yourself in what we call the circular route.’

‘And what is that?’

‘A route in which you circulate.’

‘Around what?’

‘Around yourself.’

Tea-Bag shook her head. She didn’t understand. There was nothing that could make her as frustrated as when she didn’t understand.

‘I’ve heard of a man who claimed to be from a central African republic,’ Fernando continued. ‘He has now lived in an Italian airport for twelve years. No one wants him. Since no one will pay his airfare it has turned out to be cheapest simply to let him remain at the airport.’

Tea-Bag pointed to the note Fernando held in his hand.

‘That’s what you want me to say?’

‘Just this. Nothing else.’

Fernando gave her the note.

‘He’s waiting in my office. He also has a photographer with him.’

‘Why?’

Fernando sighed.

‘They always do.’

*

Two men were waiting outside Fernando’s office. One was short with red hair and a raincoat that flapped in the wind. He was carrying a camera. Next to him was a tall and thin man. Tea-Bag thought he looked like a palm tree. His back was slightly bent and he had bushy hair that stood out like palm fronds. Fernando pointed to Tea-Bag then left them alone. Tea-Bag smiled and the man who looked like a palm tree smiled back at her. He had bad teeth. The other man picked up his camera. His raincoat rustled.

‘My name is Per,’ said the palm-tree man. ‘We’re doing a series on refugees. We’re calling it “People without a face”. We want to tell your story.’

Something about the way he spoke rubbed her up the wrong way. She sent him a blinding smile. She was furious.

‘But I have a face.’

Per looked puzzled.

‘We mean it in a symbolic way. “People without a face”. People like you who are trying to come to Europe without being welcome.’

For the first time since she had been here, Tea-Bag suddenly felt an urge to defend the camp, the red-eyed guards, their dogs, the fat women who doled out the meals, the men who emptied the latrines. All this she wanted to defend, just as she wanted to defend the other refugees in the camp and those who never made it that far, who drowned or committed suicide in their despair.

‘I won’t speak to you,’ she said, ‘until you have apologised for saying that I have no face.’

Then she turned to the man in the raincoat who was constantly moving about and snapping pictures of her.

‘I don’t want you to take any more pictures of me.’

The photographer flinched as if she had slapped him and put his camera down. Tea-Bag wondered if she had made a mistake. Both of the men in front of her seemed friendly and their eyes were not red from exhaustion. Tea-Bag quickly decided to retreat.

‘You may speak to me,’ she said. ‘And you may take your pictures.’

The photographer immediately started working again. Some children who were drifting around the camp stopped and looked at them. I’m speaking for them, Tea-Bag thought. Not only for me but for them.

‘So how are things here?’ the reporter asked.

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘What it sounds like. Life here in the camp.’

‘I am treated with compassion and humanity, I am happy to say.’

‘It must be terrible to be in the camp. How long have you been here?’

‘A few months. A thousand years.’

‘What is your name?’

‘Tea-Bag.’

The man asking the questions had still not said anything that could provide a door for her, a door through which she could escape.

‘Excuse me?’

‘My name is Tea-Bag. Just as yours is Paul.’

‘Per. Where do you come from?’

Careful now, she thought. I don’t know what he wants from me. He may have a door somewhere but he could also be someone who wants to send me back, someone who wants to reveal my secrets.

‘I almost drowned. Something hit me in the head. I have lost my memory.’

‘Have you been examined by a doctor?’

Tea-Bag shook her head. Why was he asking all these questions? What did he want? She became suspicious again and tried to retreat.

‘I am treated with compassion and humanity by the Spanish authorities.’

‘How can you say that? You’re a prisoner here!’

He has a door, Tea-Bag decided. He is simply trying to determine if I am worthy of it. She had to restrain herself so she would not throw herself into his arms and embrace him.

‘Where do you come from?’ Now she was the one asking the questions.

‘Sweden,’ he said.

What kind of place was that? A town, a country, the sign on a door? She didn’t know. The names of so many cities and countries were constantly circulating around the camp like swarms of bees. But had she heard the name ‘Sweden’ before? Maybe, she couldn’t be sure.

‘Sweden?’

‘That’s in Scandinavia, in northern Europe. That’s where we come from. We are writing a series on people without faces, refugees who are desperately trying to enter Europe. We want to tell your story. We want to give you back your face.’

‘I already have a face. What is he taking pictures of if I have no face? Can you smile without teeth, without a mouth? I don’t need a face, I need a door.’

‘A door? You mean somewhere to go where you will be welcome? But that’s just why we came down here. We want you to find somewhere to go.’

Tea-Bag strained to understand the words that reached her ears. Someone was trying to help her? This tall man who was still gently swaying must have access to a secret door that he was not showing her.

‘We want to tell your story,’ he said. ‘Your whole story. As much as you remember.’

‘Why?’

‘Because we will print it in our newspaper.’

‘I want a door. I want to get out of here.’

‘That’s exactly what this is about.’

*

Afterwards Tea-Bag never understood what had made her trust him. But somehow she sensed that door was actually opening for her. Perhaps she had been able to follow her intuition because her feet were firmly planted on the ground, just as her father had taught her, the only thing he had been able to give her. Or perhaps it was because the man asking the questions had seemed genuinely interested in her answers. Or perhaps it was because he didn’t look tired. In any case she needed to make a decision and she decided to say yes.

They went into Fernando’s office where the dirty teacup that had given her her name still sat on the desk. But she said nothing of that. She started by telling them about her village, somewhere in a land whose name she had forgotten, about her father whom she had not forgotten and who was one morning led away by soldiers, never to return. Her mother had been harassed, they belonged to the wrong kind of people, the kind of people who were not in power. Her mother had urged her to escape, which she had done. She skipped parts of her story and said nothing of the Italian engineer and how she had sold her body to him in order to get the money for passage on the ship. She kept as many secrets as she told. But she was still swept up by the emotion of her story and she saw that the man in front of her who had turned on his tape recorder was also moved by it. When she came to the part about the terrible night in the cargo-hold when the ship began to sink she started to cry.

She had been speaking for four hours when she reached the end. Fernando had appeared in the doorway from time to time and she always weaved in words about ‘compassion and humanity’ when he appeared. The reporter seemed to accept this as a kind of secret code.

Then it was over.

The reporter who packed away his tape recorder had not in fact provided her with a way out of the camp. But she had still found her door. She had the name of a country far away where people actually wanted to see her face and were interested in hearing her story: Sweden. She decided that that was where she was headed, nowhere else. Sweden. There were people there who had sent out someone to watch out for her.

She walked them to the front gates of the camp.

‘Is your name just Tea-Bag?’ he asked. ‘Nothing else? What about a surname?’

‘I don’t have one yet.’

He looked at her curiously but smiled. The photographer asked one of the guards to take a picture of the three of them.

*

It was one of the last days of the twentieth century.

It started raining again in the afternoon. That evening Tea-Bag sat on her bed and pressed her feet against the cold floor for a long time. Sweden, she thought. That’s where I’m going. That’s where I have to go. That’s my goal.

2

JESPER HUMLIN, ONE of the most successful writers of his generation, was worried about losing his tan. This fear easily surpassed his other anxieties, such as the fate of the impenetrable collections of poetry he published every year on the sixth of October, which happened to coincide with his mother’s birthday. This morning, a few months after his latest book had come out, he was looking at his face in the mirror and noted to his satisfaction that his tan had an unparalleled evenness of tone. A few days earlier he had returned to a chilly Sweden from a month-long sojourn on the South Seas, first in the Solomon Islands and then on Rarotonga.

Since he liked to travel in comfort and stay in the most expensive hotels he would not have been able to undertake this trip if he had not received the Nylander grant of 80,000 kronor. It was a newly established grant, the donor a shirt manufacturer from Borås who had long nourished the dream of becoming a poet. He had been bitterly disappointed to see his dreams of poetry disappear in a lifelong battle with arrogant shirt designers, suspicious labour unions and unhelpful tax authorities. His time had been spent on button-down collars, colours and fabric swatches. In an attempt to come to terms with his own disappointment he had established the fund that would go to ‘Swedish writers in need of peace and quiet for completion of their work’. The first grant had gone to Jesper Humlin.

*

The phone rang.

‘I want a child.’

‘Right now?’

‘I’m thirty-one years old. We either have a child or it’s over.’

It was Andrea. She was a nurse anaesthetist and never knocked on doors. Humlin had met her at a poetry reading he had done a couple of years earlier when he had just sworn off the bachelor lifestyle and decided to settle down with one woman. With her slim face and dark hair he had immediately been attracted to Andrea. He had also fallen for her enthusiastic response to his poems. When she was angry at him, which was a fairly common occurrence, she liked to accuse him of having picked her in order to have constant access to someone in the medical profession, since due to his hypochondria he was always convinced that he was suffering from a fatal illness.

This time she was furious. Humlin wanted children, many children. But not right away and possibly not with Andrea. Naturally this was not something he was prepared to discuss with her, at least not by phone.

‘Of course we’ll have children,’ he said. ‘Many children.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘Why not?’

‘You’re always changing your mind about everything. Except, apparently, about waiting to have children. But I’m thirty-one.’

‘That’s no age at all.’

‘For me it is.’

‘Maybe we could talk about this a little later? I have an important meeting coming up.’

‘What kind of meeting?’

‘With my publisher.’

‘If you think your meeting is more important than this conversation then I want to break up with you right now. There are other men.’

Humlin felt a pang of jealousy arise in him and escalate to painful proportions.

‘What other men?’

‘Men. Any men.’

‘You mean you are prepared to leave me for some man, any man out there?’

‘I don’t want to wait any longer.’

Humlin sensed that the conversation was spiralling out of his control.

‘You know, it’s not good for me to have these kinds of discussions so early in the morning.’

‘And you know I can’t talk about these things at night. I need my sleep because I have a job that starts early in the morning.’

The silence travelled back and forth between them.

‘What did you do in the South Pacific anyway?’

‘I rested.’

‘You don’t seem to do anything else. Were you unfaithful again?’

‘I haven’t been unfaithful. Why would you think that?’

‘Why not? You’ve done it before.’

‘You think I have. That’s not the same thing. I went to rest.’

‘To rest from what exactly?’

‘I happen to write books, as you well know.’

‘One book a year. With about forty poems. What’s that – less than one poem a week?’

‘I also write a wine-tasting column.’

‘Once a month, yes. In a trade paper for tailors that no one else reads. Now, I could have really used a trip to the South Pacific to rest.’

‘I invited you to come with me.’

‘Since you knew I couldn’t get away. But I’m about to take some time off. There’s something I want to get started on.’

‘And what’s that?’

‘I’m going to write my book.’

‘About what exactly?’

‘About us.’

Humlin felt an unpleasant pain in his stomach. Of all the things he had to worry about, the thought that Andrea might prove the more talented writer seemed to him to be the worst. Every time she brought this up he felt as if his very existence was threatened. He sometimes lay awake at night and imagined the sensational reviews of her new book, how the critics embraced her as a new talent and wrote him off as a has-been. For this reason he always devoted an extraordinary amount of time to her whenever her authorial ambitions kicked in. He cooked her dinners, talked about the inordinate amount of suffering and hard work it took to complete a book and had, up until now, always been able to talk her out of her plans.

‘I don’t want you to write a book about us.’

‘Why not?’

‘I want my private life to remain private.’

‘Who said anything about your private life?’

‘If this book is about us, it involves my private life.’

‘I can call you Anders.’

‘What difference would that possibly make?’

Humlin tried to take the conversation in a different direction.

‘I’ve thought about what you said.’

‘About being unfaithful?’

‘I haven’t been unfaithful. How many times do I have to tell you that?’

‘Until I believe you.’

‘And when are you going to believe me?’

‘Never.’

Humlin decided to retreat from this topic.

‘I’ve been thinking.’

‘What about?’

‘That you’re right. We should have a child.’

‘Are you sick?’ Her voice was sceptical.

‘Why would I be sick?’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘I’m not sick. I meant it. I’m a very serious person.’

‘You’re childish and vain. Are you serious?’

‘I’m neither childish nor particularly vain.’

‘Are you serious? You don’t think we should wait?’

‘I’m at least prepared to take it into serious consideration.’

‘Now you sound like a politician.’

‘I’m a poet, not a politician.’

‘If we’re going to have a baby, we can’t talk about it over the phone. I’m coming over.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘What do you think? If we’re going to have a baby we have to go to bed first.’

‘I can’t. I have a meeting with my publisher.’

Andrea hung up. Humlin returned to the bathroom and looked at his face, looking past his suntan to the warm long nights on the Solomon Islands and Rarotonga. I don’t want to have any children, he thought. At least not with Andrea.

He sighed, left the bathroom and poured himself a cup of coffee in the kitchen. In his study he leafed through the latest reviews of his book that the PR department had forwarded. Humlin had given them careful instructions as to what kind of reviews he wanted to read. He only wanted to see the good ones and had an old-fashioned ledger where he noted which papers and critics continued to praise his work as ‘the primary representative of mature poetry at the end of the twentieth century’.

Humlin read the latest reviews, made some notes in his ledger, and noted that the Eskilstuna Courier had once again given his work too little notice. Then he walked over to the window and looked out. Andrea’s latest outburst worried him. There was a chance he would soon face the prospect of either making her pregnant or accepting the fact that she might finally write her book.

At seven he called a taxi service, giving the receptionist plenty of time to recognise his name. He got in the taxi and gave the driver the address. The driver was African and spoke poor Swedish. Humlin wondered grumpily if he would actually be able to find his way to the little restaurant in the Old Town where he was going. It was not, as he had told Andrea, his publisher he was going to meet. That meeting was tomorrow. But this was something equally important.

Once a month he met fellow writer Viktor Leander. They had met when they were still young and unpublished and had taken to meeting regularly to compare notes and pick each other’s brains. They had never liked each other very much. They were competing for the same market and were always afraid that the other was going to have a brilliant idea and leave his rival in the dust.

The driver had no trouble finding his way among the narrow alleys of the Old Town. Humlin took a few deep breaths before getting out. Viktor Leander was waiting for him at their usual table in the corner. He was wearing a new suit and had let his hair grow somewhat longer than normal. Viktor Leander was also tanned. A few years earlier he had managed to purchase his own solarium bed with a couple of well-paid articles about ‘new horizons’ in a magazine for data consultants.

Humlin sat down.

‘Welcome back.’

‘Thanks.’

‘I got your postcard. Nice stamps.’

‘It was a good trip.’

‘I look forward to hearing about it.’

He knew the man on the other side of the table had no interest in hearing about either the Solomon Islands or Rarotonga, just as Humlin had no real interest in hearing about Leander’s experiences.

They ordered their food. Now came the delicate task of interrogating the other.

‘I had a whole bunch of debut novels and poetry with me on the trip. That was hardly relaxing.’

‘But educational. I know exactly what you mean.’

It was part of their ritual to speak badly of the latest batch of new writers, especially if any of the debuting authors had been particularly praised.

Humlin lifted his glass and toasted his colleague.

‘What are you working on these days?’

‘A crime novel.’

Humlin almost choked on his wine.

‘A crime novel?’

‘I want to show up all these upstart bestseller types who can’t write. I’m going to give this genre a literary treatment. I’ve been reading Dostoevsky for inspiration.’

‘What is the book about?’

‘Oh, I haven’t come that far yet.’

Humlin sensed a door being shut. Of course Leander knew what he was planning to write. But he didn’t want to give Humlin a chance to steal his ideas.

‘Sounds like a great idea.’

Humlin was irritated. He should have thought of this himself. A crime novel from one of the country’s greatest poetic talents would gain a great deal of attention. It could be a bestseller, as opposed to the small editions of his poetry books. His trip to the South Pacific had been a mistake. If he had stayed here he would no doubt have had the same thoughts as Leander. He hastily tried to find a counter-blow.

‘I’ve been thinking of writing for TV myself.’

Now it was Leander’s turn to choke on his wine. When they last met, a few days before Humlin was leaving on his trip, they had spent most of the dinner talking disdainfully about the quality of programming on TV. Humlin had not had any thoughts then of writing plays or series. When he was younger he had tried, of course. But after two rejections, one from the City Theatre and one from the Royal Dramatic Theatre, he had decided not to keep writing dramas. But television was the only thing he could think of to counter Leander’s idea of a crime novel.

‘And what are you writing about?’

‘Reality.’

‘How interesting. Which reality is this?’

‘The unbearable tristesse of everyday life.’

Humlin sat up. He sensed that Leander had taken a blow.

‘There will also be an element of crime.’

‘You’re going to write a crime series for television?’

‘Not at all. The crime will remain in the background. I think viewers are tired of the conventional police drama. I’m envisioning something completely different.’

‘Such as?’

‘I haven’t decided yet. There are various possibilities.’

Humlin raised his glass. A certain equilibrium had been restored.

‘Reality and the tristesse of everyday life, he said. ‘An underexamined subject in our time.’

‘What in the world is there to say on the matter except that it is boring?’

‘Quite a lot, actually.’

‘I can’t wait to hear it.’

‘It’s too early for me to tell you any of this in greater detail. If I say too much now I might lose all inspiration.’

They ordered dessert and dove into a neutral topic as if by silent agreement. Both of them enjoyed this part of the evening – gossip.

‘What’s happened since I left?’

‘Not much.’

‘Something always happens.’

‘An editor at one of the major publishing houses hanged himself.’

‘Who?’

‘Carlman.’

Jesper Humlin nodded thoughtfully. Carlman had once almost refused to publish one of his earliest books of poetry.

‘Anything else?’

‘The stock market is wavering.’

Humlin poured them both more wine.

‘I hope you haven’t been silly enough to put any money in the new tech companies.’

‘I have always had a soft spot for the two pillars of the Swedish economy: timber and iron. But everything is tumbling.’

‘I know. That’s why I switched to bonds some time ago. Boring, but safe.’

The economic competition between them was also ongoing. Both of them had checked the other’s figures in the public tax records and confirmed that the other was not expecting a significant inheritance.

*

After precisely three hours, when all gossip had been divulged and discussed, they split the bill and left the restaurant. They walked as far as the Munkbro bridge.

‘Good luck with your thriller.’

‘Crime novel, not thriller. It’s not the same thing.’

Viktor Leander’s voice took on a stern note. Jesper Humlin was left with the feeling that he still had the upper hand.

‘It’s been a pleasure, as always. See you next month.’

‘Until then.’

They hailed taxis and left in different directions. Humlin gave the driver an address in Östermalm, the upper-class part of town, then leaned back and closed his eyes. He was happy with the evening since he felt that he had succeeded in giving Leander a real jab. This infused him with energy, despite the task that awaited him.

Three evenings a week Humlin visited his elderly mother. At eighty-seven, she was still full of vitality but was also stubborn and suspicious. He could never predict what turn their conversations would take, although he always planned out a couple of harmless topics beforehand. Whenever they had an argument he always left hoping she would die soon. But when they occasionally spent a pleasant time together he would get sentimental and wonder if he should write a book of poetry for her.

It was a quarter to eleven when he rang the doorbell. His mother Märta was a night owl. She rarely got up before noon and didn’t go to bed until dawn. Her best time was right around midnight. While Humlin was waiting for her to open the door he thought about all the evenings he had spent fighting exhaustion while she grew more and more animated.

When she opened the door it was with the expectant yet suspicious energy that was typical of her. This evening Märta Humlin was wearing a trouser suit that resembled a uniform and which reminded him vaguely of the kind of clothes people wore in films from the thirties.

‘I thought you said you were coming at eleven?’

‘It is eleven.’

‘No, it’s a quarter to eleven.’

Humlin started to get angry.

‘If you like I can wait in the hall.’

‘If you don’t keep better track of the time you will never get anywhere in this life.’

‘I already have got somewhere. I’m forty-two years old and I’m a successful writer.’

‘Your last book of poetry is worse than anything else you’ve written.’

Humlin decided to leave.

‘I’ll come back another time.’

‘Why would that make any difference?’

‘Do you want me to come in or not?’

‘Why would I want us to keep talking out in the hall?’

He followed her into the apartment and almost tripped on a large cardboard box.

‘Watch your step.’

‘Why is this box here? Are you moving?’

‘Where would I move?’

‘What is in this box?’

‘That’s none of your business.’

‘Does it have to be right here so people trip over it when they come to visit?’

‘If you’re going to be like this all evening perhaps it would be better for you to come back another time.’

Humlin sighed, took off his coat and followed her into the rest of the apartment, which reminded him of an overstocked antique store. Here his mother had squirrelled away everything that she had ever come across. Humlin could still remember fights his parents had had about things Märta had refused to get rid of. His father had been a quiet man, an accountant who had treated his children with a mixture of surprise and general goodwill. For the most part he had been a silent partner to his energetic wife, apart from those times when he found his desk or his side of the bed covered with newspapers that his wife refused to throw away. Then he would have a violent outburst of temper that could last for days. But it always ended the same way, the newspapers or the knick-knacks remained in the apartment and he fled back into silence. In contrast, Humlin could not remember a single occasion when his mother had been silent. She was possessed by a deep-seated need to always make herself heard. If she was in the kitchen she banged her pots, if she was on the balcony cleaning the rugs she beat them so the blows echoed in the courtyard.

Humlin had often thought that the unwritten book closest to his heart was the one about his parents. His father, Justus Humlin, had devoted his youth to the hammer throw. He had grown up in Blekinge, in a village close to Ronneby. He had trained with his homemade hammer behind the family farmhouse. Once he had thrown it so far that it would have set a Nordic record under controlled circumstances. Unfortunately, he was only accompanied by his two younger sisters. They measured his throw with an old tape measure. The Nordic record at that time was held by Ossian Skiöld and measured 53.77. Justus Humlin measured his throw four times and came up with 56.44, 56.40, 56.42 and 56.41. He beat the Nordic record by over two metres. Later, when he started competing regionally, he never managed to throw the hammer past fifty metres. But he insisted until he died that he had once thrown it further than anyone else in Scandinavia.

Märta Humlin had never been interested in sport. Her world had been that of culture. She had grown up in Stockholm, the only child of a successful and well-to-do surgeon. Her dream had been to become an artist, but she had not been talented enough. Furious, she had turned to the dramatic arts and started a theatre with the financial help of her father. There she created some scandalous performances which involved her dragging herself across the stage in an almost completely transparent nightdress. Later she had owned a gallery, then she turned to music. Lastly she had been involved in the film business.